Be Careful Fighting a White Belt and Other Things I Learned in the Martial Arts

Experienced martial artists share a common fear – the dreaded white belt. This is the person who has had just a few months of martial arts training and is not yet capable of controlling punches, kicks, or throws. The inevitable result of practice sparring with this padawan is series of aches and bruises for senior belts while the new practitioners struggle to learn the basics of their lifelong craft.

The learning process is even worse if the white belt is already a strong athlete. The punches and kicks hurt a lot more coming from them. The new learner’s kicks intending for a light touch to the opponent’s stomach often end up hitting with full force on the shins or groin. All the while the junior learner revels in a new feeling of power; almost certainly clueless to the fact that the senior belts could defeat them in seconds, but instead teach at the cost of black and purple shins and forearms.

There are many other lessons I have learned studying martial arts. Perhaps most noteworthy is the understanding that anything worthwhile takes work. For most schools there is always a drop in student numbers around green belt. At this point – around nine months – the student understands enough to realize that muscle memory and perfection of technique take years to acquire. The punches, kicks, and throws they have been executing on a daily basis are slow and sloppy compared to their seniors. And they will soon be joining the ranks of more advanced belts who suffer at the hands of novice fighters.

Another truth we learn from martial arts is that perfection is the goal. Many people live by the code “perfect is the enemy of good enough”. That may be true, but the goal of one’s life should never be “good enough”. Striving for perfection is the means by which we learn the true limits of our species. This is perhaps best illustrated in the Olympics where records of achievement have been shattered and shattered again over the decades. It is true that part of this advancement is due to new training and performance equipment, and better nutrition. But overall, athletes have advanced to greater levels of physical abilities over the centuries.

Commitment is a practiced behavior of those who stay in the martial arts past their first few years. They have adhere to the concepts of anything worthwhile takes work and perfection is the goal. Commitment tends to become stronger as the years progress. The martial artist who actively (several times per week) practices for five years will probably stay in the arts for most of his or her life. They have learned that the journey is more important than the end state. This is true in martial arts as much as it is true in life. 

Live by a code. In the martial arts strict philosophical and behavioral codes have existed in one form of another from Shaolin monks to the Samurai. For example, Martial Code (Wu Ma or Wu De) is the philosophy of Chinese martial arts. There are five points in Wu De: Respect, Honor, Humility, Trust, and Virtue. 

Every samurai lived and died by the Code of Bushido. It is a code of behavior similar to that of the Shaolin monks which is no great surprise considering martial arts spread from China to Japan. In fact, Japan’s samurai were not only warriors but were required to be scholars studying ancient Chinese texts. The basic tenet of Bushido was service to the samurai’s lord. In fact, the Samurai were able to achieve all sorts of atrocities under the rationale that they were acting in service to their lord. Behavioral elements of Bushido included: Compassion, Justice, Honor, Loyalty, Sincerity, Courage, and Courtesy.

Knowledge of the martial arts has always been seen as internal enlightenment and power. And Spider man’s Uncle Ben had it right – with great power comes great responsibility. And that power must result in personal development and also must be used in service to others. In olden times that service was to the state. In modern times service to others is very much a philosophy to be a positive force in society. Other principles espoused by just about all martial arts schools include some combination of Respect, Humility, Courage, Virtue, and Honor.  How we live our lives is more important than what we have attained during the journey.

Keep your ego in check. Not long after one begins martial arts comes a unique sense of power. One is able to kick, punch, and throw with devastating force. Then comes the realization – so can everybody else. And it doesn’t matter how fast, strong, tough, or lethal you are. There is always, always, always going to be somebody faster, stronger, and tougher. Now your ego is in its proper place. This fact becomes particularly evident if you participate in competitions. Even if you do crawl your way to the top; your time there will be brief compared to your career in martial arts. Once the realization sets in you cease to compare yourself to others. Your greatest challenge is conquering your own challenges and meeting your own goals.

Martial Arts is not street fighting. For centuries Martial Artists and onlookers have debated the effectiveness of various arts in combat circumstances. The never ending comparisons are so common that the discussion itself has blurred the distinction between martial arts and street fighting. The former is a state of mental, physical, and spiritual health, discipline, and martial skills acquired by experience and study. The latter is exactly what it says – skill in street fighting.

Nurture your body, mind, and spirit. Fairly early on in one’s lifelong martial arts journey comes the realization that mind, body, and spirit are one. There is a very direct and perhaps even proportional relationship between these critical components of one’s life. Nurturing one builds all; and neglecting one, degrades all. Building these forces and keeping the correct balance is perhaps the greatest challenge in the complex world of modern day society. In fact, I would venture to say that at one point or another every martial artist falls from the grace of enlightenment. It is only commitment and self discipline that lets us make a slow painful climb back to our former selves. I am making that very painful climb right now, faced every day with the clear recognition of just how far I have fallen.

So I offer a tribute to all the world’s martial artists. Though separated by great distances our journeys are all the same. May yours be an enriching and enlightening as has mine

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5 thoughts on “Be Careful Fighting a White Belt and Other Things I Learned in the Martial Arts

  1. Hmm…very nice post, very refreshing read to come home to after nine hours working at my own dojo. For the most part, I loved this–the philosophy toward perfection is so integral, I think, in setting apart lesser-quality martial arts schools from the better. Note: SCHOOLS, not STYLES.

    The one thing I’d like to have a bit of a dialogue about, though, is the opening scenario, with the white belt posing a threat and hurting other, more experienced artists. I don’t know whether or not this is warranted, but in all honesty that strikes a bit of a negative chord with me. Just speaking for myself and the other people at my dojo, application of the martial arts on the training floor itself is, essentially, playtime. By that, I mean that it’s a time to try new things and jam on concepts with one’s opponent, just as much as it is to practice the strong application. So I wonder, I guess, why exactly senior students are opening themselves to the abuse, taking it, and not making an attempt to strive for their own self-improvement as well. In the past, I’ve dealt with the Proverbial Dangerous White Belt by turning the exercise into more of a dance on my part, finding ways around the punches and in and out and guiding the other person into my own techniques, or else kind of just letting them burn themselves out and then going in. While I realize that may sound harsh at first glance, I’ve always been taught that the opportunity to work with someone needs to be an opportunity for both parties. Just because someone operates at a “lower” level than we do doesn’t mean that it’s our job to pander to them. Rather, it is a chance for us to inspire, as well as practice our own techniques on a more realistic opponent than we would find among our peers in the ranking system.

    But that’s just my two cents. Apologies if it came off as reproachful or pompous–that really isn’t the intent. Any dialogue would be appreciated, should you so desire.

    Gambati Masho,

    Evan
    Shodan/Instructor
    Uechi-Ryu Karate

    1. Evan, I understand your approach about “turning the exercise into more of a dance on my part, finding ways around the punches and in and out and guiding the other person into my own techniques, or else kind of just letting them burn themselves out and then going in.” I think everyone does some version of that. But the fact you have to do that is the point. And of course, as you infer, a black belt instructor should not have any problem avoiding (perhaps finessing is a better word?) the junior belt’s inexperience.

    2. I really like how and what you wrote about a beginner white belt and the ethics of martial arts. It is true that white belts do not know their potential and their control ability on most techniques especially a person has very aggressive personality. I always tell my students of high rank, the best group of people to spar is the beginner because they are NOT programmed yet according to how they suppose to move. Expect the unexpected and this is how it is going to be in the streets. You learn the most at times from sparring with the white belts. but then again, if fear sets in, they are frozen in time.
      As for your ethical thoughts on martial arts moral value. It is spot on. I wish there are more people who understand the 5 Martial Arts Code and actually live by it. Young people today, whose parents are not in the picture of their daily lives, our society has changed so much.
      I am blessed mentoring children 6 days a week at http://www.tamamartialarts.com
      Thank you for your article it is awesome
      MT

  2. Excellent post on Martial Arts! I have followed “The Code of the Samurai” for many years and it has changed my life. I also have studied Martial Arts for over a decade and concur with your white belt and street fighter assessments. The beautiful thing about these training opportunities is that they are closer to what a martial artist would be facing if confronted outside of the dojo.

    In all my years of training I believe the best attribute which Martial Arts has ingrained in me is the taming of the ego. The more proficient I became in my discipline the less I cared to argue or take a fighting stance outside of training.

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