I started my martial arts journey in September 1999. Okay, technically I started when I was six, but that lasted only a few months. For all intents and purposes I started on September, and it changed my life. It’s almost ridiculous how much everything has changed, both within the martial arts and outside of it as well.
When I started I was a shy introvert, never raising my hand at school. Now I’m … still shy and introverted, but much less so. I can look people in the eye without feeling self-conscious. I can engage in light conversation and banter without clamming up. I can stand in front of 30 people and teach martial arts, asking and answering questions along the way. That was unthinkable back in September 1999.
The reason I stayed in martial arts changed as well. I originally got into the sport because I got beat up at school. I never want to feel that way again. It wasn’t so much the physical hurt as it was the mental anguish. I knew the bullies were coming at me but I also knew I could do nothing to stop them. That knowing weighed heavy on me, and that’s why I flung myself so eagerly into the martial arts.
I tried harder and focused better than most other students. Many saw it as a fun activity, something to do with friends, whereas I saw it as survival, something I must do. It’s no surprise then that I improved much faster. In less than a year I greatly increased my skill level and physical fitness, and right then I could have quit.
I thought about it, I really did. It was awfully tempting to simply go home after school and play video games instead of staying in town, especially in the winter. If my only goal was self defence, then I had largely succeeded. I knew how to defend myself and I now walked with more confidence, making me a less likely target. I could’ve escaped right then, leaving and never going back.
It’s amazing how common this is, by the way. So many good martial artists have either quit halfway or been tempted to quit. Many students open up after getting black belt. I will congratulate them on their accomplishment, and then they will say something like, “I almost quit at greenbelt, but then I kept going.” I’m left thinking, really, you?! You were so good at greenbelt, but temptation is always there, I guess.
What kept me in the martial arts was the dual factors of competition and self-improvement. I went to my first tournament at just the right time and left with a feeling of exhilaration. I saw people my age and my experience but who were nonetheless much better than I was. If I worked harder, I could match them, maybe even beat them. That was my motivation. I also saw black belts in action, black belts competing as hard as they could. They moved with such grace and ferocity, like a jungle cat, that I simply stood in awe. I didn’t know the body could move that way. I wanted to do that. Oh yes, I wanted to do that. That is my inspiration.
Those two elements powered me from orange belt all the way to black belt. I desire to be the best I could be, and to test that I went to various tournaments and competitions. This worked remarkably well, and it skyrocketed my skill. At orange belt I was likely considered one of the more enthusiastic students but not a serious contender for best in the club. By green belt I was in the conversation, and by blue belt I had distinguish myself. I simply never stopped improving.
Everything changed at black belt. I had achieved my goal. I now moved like those black belts I first saw all those years ago. Mission accomplished. Again, it’s amazing how many people quit the martial arts here. They achieve black belt and then just stop going. At the time this seems strange to me. It would be like learning guitar, getting good at it and then just giving it up. I now understand. People simply accomplish their goal and then have nothing new to replace it with. Without that motivation you have no reason to go, and that’s why people stop.
I found new motivation with teaching. I had already done some teaching, but at black belt it really accelerated. It became the thing I did, the thing I looked forward to the most. I still liked learning, I still like competing, but teaching feels even better. There is a moment where a student’s eyes will suddenly click, when you can see that they have figured something out, and that is just the most rewarding feeling in the world. They certainly get really excited, and their excitement powers you, and together you both push each other forwards.
Teaching also made me a far better martial artist. To teach something you need to know it, and I started realizing just how little I knew. For instance, someone would asked a question and I did not have an instant answer. I had theories and ideas, but I did not have that answer. I would have to go ask Sensei and he would tell me without a second’s pause. That right there is the difference between 20 years of martial arts experience and four years.
More importantly, I started teaching people who were really good. It is the nature of teaching for the student to continually approach and eventually surpass the teacher. Not every student will do this, but that’s the general trajectory. I worked with students who approached my skill level, and in some areas they may even have surpassed me. What do I do in this situation? How can I help them?
By working with the students I began to get a better eye, so to speak. It’s easy to see the mistakes in the rank beginner; they are obvious. Seeing the mistakes in the advanced practitioners takes much more careful observation. I developed my eye so I could start seeing these mistakes. Once I saw them in others I could check to see if I myself did them. In this way working with these advanced students help push me even further; the students taught their own teacher.
That takes us to the present, where I maintain my teaching duties. I teach roughly 30 hours a week, more when we have special events like tournaments or demonstrations. It has become my job, my passion. It doesn’t feel like work, though sometimes it does. It’s a childhood activity that turned into a career, and I’m all the better for it.
In all honesty, it’s one of the better jobs out there. I don’t have to sit in a cubicle all day. I essentially get to play around with both kids and adults. Half of all martial arts drills can be turned into a very fun games, and believe me, I like playing them just as much as the kids. Just about every day my students leave with a smile on their faces, and there’s a smile on my face, too, because I know I’m making a difference. Martial arts changed my life, and I’m now allowing that same change to occur in all the students.
At the same time, part of me wonders. Can I do this forever? Am I to be a teacher until I retire? I don’t know. In fact, I leaned the other way. I have intellectual gifts, and I’m the first person in my family to attend post-secondary education. In some ways teaching martial arts is wasting these gifts, as I don’t need to use my mind to teach a five-year-old how to kick. I should do something that uses my mind as well, that uses all of my gifts, not just my passion for teaching.
That, though, is a question for the future. In the present, right now, I’m a martial arts teacher, and I love just about every second of it.