The #1 Secret to Keep Improving as a Black Belt

Take my black belt.

I don’t want it anymore.beginner_karate_kbj

Yesterday we had a new beginner enroll in our dojo. As she stepped inside, I could sense her vibe – she was as scared as she was excited.

SWOOSH!

A wave of nostalgia flooded over me.

How beautiful to be a beginner again!

When a punch was just a punch…

It’s funny – we spend years striving to achieve a high level in Karate. We want more knowledge, improved skills and advanced techniques.

Until we reach a point where we get fed up.

Stop it – it’s too much!

We just want to puke out our years of “knowledge” and start over.

Yesterday I had that exact feeling.

When I saw that beginner, I wanted to BE her.

It sounds crazy, but I really wanted to be her!

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was surreal.

For one moment, I would’ve traded my arm and leg to be in her position.

Imagine being a complete beginner again; uninfluenced by politics, competition, “styles” bullshit, organizations and dojo dogma.

Honest, pure & free!

Like they say in Japan: “shiranu ga hotoke”.

The best English equivalent is “ignorance is bliss”.

In the beginner’s mind, Karate is full of amazing opportunities and unique questions. In the experts mind, it’s full of absolute solutions and definitive answers.

(Often disguised as “tradition”.)

Imagine NOT having to “know it all” anymore!

What a relief.

The legendary Pablo Picasso once said:

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

This applies to martial artists as well.

That’s why every black belt should teach beginners and kids.

Let me repeat that:

Every black belt should teach beginners and kids.

Not because you’re forced by your sensei.

But because it’s the #1 way to reach next level in your journey as black belt.

This is especially true if it feels like you “know it all” and aren’t motivated or challenged by your regular training anymore.

You see, when you teach a beginner you’re forced to think like a beginner.

You have to remove every stupid detail that interferes with the VERY ESSENCE of what you’re trying to teach, and every word you say has to be 110% relevant to the situation.

It’s mindfulness on crack.

  • Make it simple.
  • Simpler than that.
  • Even simpler!

Simpler, simpler, simpler.

To teach a beginner is to think like a beginner.

(Click to tweet)

Gradually, you come to a realization:

The journey of Karate isn’t so much about becoming anything.

It’s about unbecoming everything that isn’t you.

So you can be who you were meant to be.

Until one day…

…a punch becomes just a punch again.

And the circle is complete.

How beautiful.

62 Comments

  • François
    Wow...beautiful. ...bow...
    • Thanks for reading François-san!
      • Praujul
        Will u giv it to me????*-*
  • Paul
    Wow what a really cool and very thoughtful article Jesse-san. “…a punch becomes just a punch again!” and I guess the hope that the sheer wonderment of everything karate will return, huh? Thanks for a really thought provoking piece, Jesse-san, yet another article that I can tell comes straight from the heart. Keep up the good work :)
    • Exactly, Paul-san! Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. Keep training & reading!
    • Lesley kerr
      Beautifully written. Thanks for the heartfelt article!
  • Thank you, Jesse-san, it is exactly my thoughts. The next "logical" step after graduating was opening my own Dojo and start giving what I learned to the next generation. Never have I learned that much as in the beginner's classes.
  • i like your style of writing..could feel the energy, and the message gets delivered very clearly!
  • Pleiades
    You have a great way with words Enkamp-san: succinct, coherent and to-the-point. And not afraid to challenge and question the orthodoxy that pervades (and stifles IMHO) Karate...
  • Richard Lubkowski
    Wonderful Jesse-san! 'Unless you become as a little child again, (Beginner's Mind)you cannot enter the true Way of Karate.' I needed to be reminded of this. Body now slowing down at the age of a retired 64 and training in a tiny dojo once a week with 'lower' grades, I felt like giving up and just doing home practice. Needed to be challenged by words like these! Thank you Jesse!
  • Marc
    Although I am just blue belt, I can feel your pain. The more you move up, the more you put everything in question. Why do we do this instead of that? What's the logic behind this particular move...? And so it goes. Fortunately, I've got a long way to go. I'm what you could call a slow learner... and you know what, I like it. I prefer to spend 2 years to pass a belt than ranking up the ladder and always have a feel I've left important details behind, unfixed.Lately, I've been given the opportunity to teach to young white and yellow belts. This is the best thing you can do indeed to improve. If you can teach it, you understand it. For instance, I was trying to get those 8 to 10 years old kids to understand (to grasp the concept) how to move while keeping a low stance (avoiding the bouncing head syndrome for example). Little details such as "imagine we are entering a small play room where the ceiling is 5 foot high" goes a long way... First thing I notice, they all move with their head steady and low, doing perfect zenkutsu dachi transitions. The most amazing thing was seeing them look at me as they did it, with that look in their face "is that the correct way?". And me confirming it was ok. You should have seen the glow in their eyes. I could remotely feel their sense of proud and satisfaction.Yet another anecdote. To pass my blue belt, I needed a tori to attack me but no blue or higher belt was available, I asked an orange belt to be my tori. He had no idea of what my defenses would be. This proven to be the hardest and most revealing belt exam I ever did. Getting attacked by this "pure and innocent" tori forced me to be even closer to perfection as he could not "help me out” of my bad moves. I had to be in full control. It made all my errors come out instantly. You cannot know if your technique is good until you try it on someone who doesn’t know it.So yes, forget your belts and teach and work with lower ranked karatekas and you will see how much left you need to perfect!My respect Sensei Jesse for such humility. Oss!
  • After a couple of years of training, my Sensei insisted that I should start training sometimes in the main dojo of our school, where some of his Sempais and Kohais, and If you are lucky enough, even his Sensei teach sometimes. I admit that, since then, It helped me a lot to open my mind to the different points of view and interpretation you could do about a same technique and that help me to open my eyes to what Karate really mean, that it ´s not a straight and simple path you walk, It has its detours you can transit and all can take you to the same destination. I´m very grateful with the all experience but I admit that, like you write in this article, some days I miss that feeling of simplicity of my first days in the karate world.Thankfully, when I return to train with my Sensei, I feel a bit more calm, as when I started practicing and my Sensei used to tell me "Don´t talk, just do; then You´ll understand". And I have to say, I did!
    • Dont Talk-Just Do!....the number of times I have said this?!?! love it.
    • I'm imsdspeer. You've really raised the bar with that.
    • Great insight. Relieved I'm on the same side as you.
    • Have you ever thought about writing an ebook or guest authoring on other blogs? I have a blog based on the same subjects you discuss and would really like to have you share some stories/information. I know my visitors would value your work. If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to send me an email.
    • You've impressed us all with that posting!
  • Ossu! This really resonates with me. Thank you for this wonderful reminder to always keep a beginner's mindset! I learn from every single person I teach. Yes, I learn even if I'm teaching unenthusiastic kids whose parents just dumped them into Karate for whatever reason (usually because the kids outgrew the child care room). The challenge for me is to get them engaged. So I learn what works and what doesn't work, and I also learn that sometimes it doesn't matter what you do, they'll still disappear next payment cycle :-)
  • Kao
    Excellent article Jesse-san, one of the "mantra" in our dojo is Shoshin-beginners mind. We always try and keep this mindset in our dojo! all the seniors help out in our dojo! Arigatou gozaimasu Jesse-san, keep up the great work look forward to seeing you in Cambridge Canada again soon!Kao
  • Eduardo
    Amazing and beautiful article. We at my dojo have something like this: we use white belts as a tradition every 1st week of class in the year, every year. This is a tradition passed by Taishihan Hiramatsu through our Renshi, and it is to get again a grasp of that same feeling: to remember how it was to not know it all. It's a beautiful feeling and a great approach to beginners to see us all the same. You put in words what I feel this time of the year. Thank you.
  • Mario Leon
    My mind is clear after reading your article. It was what I needed at this particular moment in my life. Thank you Jesse san!
  • Chantal Denise
    I'm a beginner as well and I don't really like it that much. When I went to a dojo for the very first time, I wasn't able to sleep the night before. When I got there, I was pretty intimidated by the number of black belts in this collective holiday session, where the focus was more on cardio. Last Monday, I got the gi on again. I felt dizzy, I was bristling like a Rhino and oh gosh, my body still hurts. Every. part. of. it. During training, I also thought about you, Jesse, how strong and dedicated you are and that I'd love to be more like you.So be proud of where you are in your Karate journey. So many people are looking at you in admiration!
    • Sean
      Chantal,its a bit of a case of "the grass is always greener". As much as I am proud of the knowledge and achievements I have in martial arts, the wide eyed wonder and enthusiasm of a novice is also enviable
    • Francis
      Hi Chantal,I think I know how you feel. In fact I think a lot of us here do.At some point, we are all beginners. From the moment you pass a test, you are back a beginner, ready to start to learn something new. When you think you can punch, your sensei explains: ok, very good but now start learning to get this or that into your punch(hip movement, whatever...). This is our everlasting journey.Everything is difficult before it becomes easy. These are not my words but I have them always in my mind.And about those black belts. I found out that when they notice that you train with your heart and soul, they will help you along the journey since they are as passionate about karate as you. That's my experience.Keep on training, never give up :-)
      • Chantal Denise
        Dear Sean, dear Francis,thank you for your kind words. Don't get me wrong, I found the people in the dojo very welcoming and helpful. I'm coming straight from classical ballet where this is usually the exception ;)So being around so many kind people is something I have to get used to.(Well, one kid asked me if I had the permission for participating in the holiday training because she saw I was a white belt and she had her blue one already...being a white belt makes you feel a bit 'naked'.) It is just, that you think you'll never get it. Of course it is all about practice but still, so many things are just so hard... Right now, I am in training for the first belt exam but I am not sure if I'll be in shape until early February. However, I am not so much into exams and belt colours, I just want to learn and be able to defend myself (due to an incident couple of months ago).Again, I am very happy having the courage to start with something totally new. And yes, maybe that's a very nice state to be in.
        • Richard Lubkowski
          Dear Chantal, Do take heart and keep training. If you experienced ballet, then the movements in karate should also suit you. I did not start karate until I was 51. I never found it easy, although in recent years it has begun to become more 'natural' and spontaneous. I still train happily enough (I am now 64)and have managed to get to 2nd Dan. My warmest wishes to you on your journey!
          • Senthil Sundaram
            Richard-Sensei, you are a true inspiration! Salute you. Br, Senthil
  • Fredrik Södergren
    Jesse-san, when confronting you with my hikite-theory, or mind blowing revelation I thought, you looked at me and said: ok that's good, but I just try to keep it simple. That had me thinking, just coming back from a 10 year break, was I just wrong? Overthinking stuff? Or.. Or... Was that a little smile on your face???Training a few more times with the painful realisation I truly DID suck and was nowhere near where I pictured myself, I went back to that discussion and realized a few words of a famous physician: I like to keep an open mind but not open enough for my brain to fall out.Weird story, but your words where more accurat than you probably realized. A punch is just a punch. Sure there are different levels of understanding this but sometimes you just need to let go. Call it mindfulness if you like. I call it liberating. Being a nobody white belt again was truly great.For whatever those thoughts are worth... Maybe just walking over to another school for a while does the trick? It's all the same, right?
  • Salima
    Another fantastic article, Jesse-San! I learn so much by teaching beginners...hard to understand until you do it.
  • Sean
    A great point. As is often the case, the lessons learned from martial arts ring true through life. In order to really understand something, explain it to someone who doesn't understand.
  • Antoine-François
    So true. Make me think about ?? ;)
    • Antoine-François
      Makes me think about "Shoshin" (looks like kanji are not accepted)
  • ElMagoo
    Like the two circles of the Shotokan badge, you come back to where you start from... Excellent article!
  • Great article Jesse-San! Really in line with what I tell the instructors at our dojo: KISSKeep It Simple Sempai/Shidoin/Sensei.The simple solutions are often the best ones IMO.Arigatou gozaimashita!
    • That's a slick answer to a changenlilg question
  • António Marques
    Excellente article. It reminds me my first Sensei, thirty years ago... Thanks Jesse-san.
  • Patrice
    great article Jesse-san, thanks for sharing this great tip. But sometimes it makes me sad to see all thoses "master" having answer to everything and only thinking one way, like a block its only a block.Can't wait to see you in Canada in May :)
  • Kamu
    Beautiful!
  • Maria
    That pain of knowing "too much"! When respected high ranks emerge as assholes (actually just as humans but you know what I mean); when wisdoms you thought were truths are revealed as myths and when your belief in your own amazingness is shattered by exposure to the big world outside the dojo.I shall try your solution. I will teach only punching to beginners until I feel the magic again :(
  • Sat
    Absolutely correct. I also believe this and regularly become the student again by allowing my students to teach me. This is how I believe the circle of karate and or in this case simplicity of the punch becomes enjoyable and pure. Your arcticles always make fantastic reading, and your seminars equally superb as told by our student and Sensei Jeremy! Please keep the articles alive. Look forward to the next one. Sat
  • Ah the old dilemma and great expose for the simple fact, bravo. I stopped wearing a belt in 2006, haven't looked back since... And it only improved my art by removing it and its implications, weight and chains.
  • Joseph
    I have had the pleasure of being a white belt twice! Having trained in Tae Kwon Do in my twenties and achieving black belt rank, I had life pull me away from the dojo. After too many years away, I was thrilled to begin training in Goju Ryu at a fantastic dojo. Once again I donned a white belt despite my sensei telling me that I may wear my black belt with a white stripe. I respectfully declined and insisted that I need to learn this style from the beginning. As a white belt. I have now once again achieved black belt rank and am once again deeply involved with teaching our young students. Nothing is more satisfying than the look of a young child as he or she proudly performs what you have shown them with enthusiasm. Thank you Jesse-San for a wonderful article. Osu!
  • Mike Stilgoe
    Hi Jesse, I have been training irregularly for forty years now, am 65 years old and got my shodan last year only because I wanted to teach what I think I know. There is no right or wrong in karate since the only time we ever find out if it is effective is in reality, the rest is practice. My point is, don't beat yourself up with nostalgia. All the luggage you acquire along the way is by choice and to keep yourself free of it is the prime mover. In the world of survival we have a saying " the more you know the less you have to carry". I enjoy your writing and dedication, so just a word to the wise "keep doing what you do"
  • ???????
    Shoshin shogai, Jesse-san, shoshin shogai. :)
  • John M.
    Hi Jesse, you know what,you can easily become white belt again, just not many people swallow the pride and ego to swap their black belt for a white one and stand up somewhere in an unknown dojo for a month training, where you will be corrected from people with red, purple or green Belts, and kids with 2dan black belt ;) Would you do it? Every real black belt should try that challenge as this is the ego test,please share your experience afterwards,it would be interesting maybe as another article? Don't pick up the dojo where everyone knows you and respect you,that would not make the point ;) After that you can find your real karate :D ...Belt is just holding your trousers no matter of colour ;) your real karate is inside you.Oss!
  • Lonnie
    I agree fully with your aspiration of beginner again Jesse. I have have always believed that one should branch out to other forms of martial arts drastically different from their main art of study. If you have " mastered" a particular style like traditional karate then start learning and training in Aikaido, Judo, or Kobudo. Something completely different to what you are already familiar. If you study sport karate or mma take up escrima or Silat. Something that fresh and different would surely get the old juices flowing again
  • talprofs
    Short, sharp and insightful, Jesse-san!At my last training session there were also two beginners, one for whom it was the first lesson.While they put under the watchful eye of our club captain and assistant instructor, an experienced sandan for the whole lesson, after about 20 minutes, my senior instructor called me out to assist and train in the line beside the novice whose first class it was.Of course, I jumped to it -- but not without thinking to myself why had my senior instructor called ME out to help? After all, there plenty of class members who out-ranked me ...Only in the second half of the class did it dawn on me, when my senior instructor took it upon himself to try and correct some of my many basic faults: the point of my helping the novice was as much about me having to consider whether I had learned the basic techniques I was expected to help him with as it was to 'teach' him!I had to make a conscious effort to be precise, clear and slow-down in the execution of my techniques so that the novice member of the class could follow...My senior instructor knew this would be a challenge for me -- which is precisely why he did it. I never fail to be amazed at his ability to gauge my character and training requirements.So, I agree with you completely: teach as you taught; the circle returns and you will get to discover exactly where you are in that process.talprofs
  • Matt
    A few things that have always helped me keep this perspective, is teaching kids and beginners a lot, but also remembering that cho dan means beginning level. so once you get your "black belt" all it means is that you now have enough of a foundation to actually start learning your art.
  • Great article Jesse-san, thank you, it's what I needed to hear today. When I opened my dojo, I said that I didn't want to teach kids, but quickly changed my mind, not because someone said "the kids will pay your bills", but because as you said, you really do reach the next level. They teach us more that we could ever imagine, the purity, the innocence, non-judgement, and so much more. We get stuck in all the "traditions", we get stubborn and slowly start missing and forgetting the essence of Budo. The kids remind us of the "Student's mind", once we loose that, there's no reason for us to continue. After 36 years of training I found the kids to be my greatest teachers, after all "The aim of Karate-Do is not the victory or defeat, but the perfection of character of it's participants", not that we ever reach it.
  • Senthil Sundaram
    Jesse-Sensei, couldn't agree with you more about teaching kids & beginners! I do that pretty often in my Dojo, and it is so refreshing & unwinding. It certainly helps you to peel off all the complex thinking in my mind and just focus on the real Karate. Thank you for throwing light on this! BR, Senthil
  • I love this! Keep studying and practicing until a punch becomes just a punch again. My Sensei often has me work with the kids and beginners. If I'm at the dojo, but not actually in the class, he will call me onto the mat to help out. I totally understand about teaching beginners and kids.Thank you again Jesse-san!
  • What a lovely sentiment, and I agree 100%. I got my first degree black belt in taekwondo last year, and it's only heightened my desire to learn and teach. Teaching and coaching pulls me out of my head and my own hangups about my performance and helps me focus on helping other people. I am delighted when I see the kids improve, and it's a joy to work with them.
  • Mas
    Nice article Jesse Sensei. I am also a beginner at Karate, I hope I stay like that my entire journey. Learning and never thinking I know it all. Good read
  • I was a third dan in karate with 20 years in the dojo when I joined a judo school. I loved putting on the white obi and being awkward as I learned the throws. Best thing I ever did. Beginners mind is a beautiful thing.
  • Alsa
    Why when I click on "articles" It doesn't load all articles, so I never saw list of all articles that you wrote. It stops loading when I click a couple of times.
  • Gareth
    I'm in a bit of a transition at the moment so your words resonate with me. I now am 2nd kyu and heading towards 1st kyu and eventually that coveted black belt and the more I train on my own in front of the mirrors I can see all my flaws so clearly that it's disheartening. I'm finding it difficult to train because all of the knowledge I have gained makes that next step seem insurmountable. My body doesn't want to do what it needs to do because I'm not flexible, yet no matter how much stretching and cross training I do, there's no progress. Couple that with my sensei(s) repeatedly telling me I need to stretch more and improve in areas I am already aware of week after week , it feels like a battle that has already been lost.I wish I could go back to the days where I didn't have so much pressure to improve and to be able to start again and learn things in a better way but alas, what do we do when we fall off the horse? We get back on.
  • Kattie
    I think i know what you mean. sometimes my sensei showing some move says: and this is how u drink beer...
  • Dave Francis
    So true! The class I enjoy most in the week is reaching white belt adults that come to learn while their kids learn with another teacher. This class forces me to return to basics, and rediscover rhe art once again with these parents! No style, no competition, no pressure- just the pure fun of learning a new art taught with the heart and spirit.
  • This is so true! I ended up inheriting the responsibility of teaching the beginner and early level students in my dojo because a long-time friend and fellow Sensei went to college and eventually moved away. That was over 8 years ago and what a blessing in disguise that was! At first I was assigned the students and was really hesitant. But the first time one of the kid's faces lit up, it had me hooked on teaching the newbies. It's particularly satisfying when one of my oldest students, who has an immense, learning does so well against her peers. Teaching karate is like learning all over again.
  • Kenneth Moore
    I've learned (re-learned) so much technical dynamics from teaching kids, especially the little ninja's (4 - 7 year olds). I didn't realise it until I started teaching the kids that changing direction in a Kata is sooooo complicated, clockwise or anti-clockwise? 1/4-turn, 1/2-turn, 3/4-turn? Trying to explain it in a way they understand. Put yourself in their minds and you'll see what I mean. The best tip I learned was from a 5-yr-old who always got it right. On asking how she remembered, she said that she puts her arm up for the block (kihon-kata) and turns by following the direction of her elbow. That's rotation sorted, now need to figure out by a way to explain by how much ????

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