I recently had a conversation with someone who was testing for their brown belt in Karate. While Karate may bring up images of people breaking boards and shouting “hiyah!” the style of Karate we practice is very much old-school, filled with intense sparring and little room for error when it comes to receiving corrections. And while we like to mess around and occasionally play the well-timed practical joke, the fact of the matter is that testing for brown belt in our school is not like testing for brown belt at any other place. The risk is very high that you can get hurt, or most likely, that you are going to get hurt and have to react accordingly to minimize further damage.
I’ve spoken to many people in the past about their Karate promotions, and a common thread that I see is fear. Some people aren’t willing to admit that they are afraid; others fear that they aren’t deserving or worthy of the rank that they are about to receive. The other common thread I see is ego. Some go into the promotion looking forward to the benefits that they will receive in the higher rank and assume that it is all about them; they forget that rank is meaningless without the people above and below you who you are supposed to support and learn from.
And while I don’t think my idea is particularly unique, I would say that my reaction to all of this is to remind each of them, including myself, that rank is something that you grow into, not something that you earn. By this I mean that each new rank comes with new experiences, adversity, and practice time required for that person to mature into that new stature. One thing I hear a lot of is that new blue belts are always afraid of being “caught” or “submitted” shortly after being promoted in jiu jitsu; as an intermediate/advanced rank in Karate I know the feeling too of not wanting to appear weak or vulnerable, particularly in sparring scenarios. But part of becoming a new higher rank is accepting that your ego can be a corrupting influence if not managed correctly, and that you still have a lot of growing into the rank to do.
In this way, it helps if there are still gaps or holes in my knowledge to work on, because I’m still growing and learning. I don’t like the saying of a beginner’s mindset very much because I think that is too attached to the old identity of who you once were (a true beginner), I more prefer the thought of growing into rank so that you do acknowledge that there is a certain foundation that you are working off of, balanced against the need to grow and thrive and continually improve. A true beginner really doesn’t know what is going on; a mature beginner knows what she or he needs to work on. “Beginner’s mindset” is too often used as a cop-out excuse by some when they don’t understand something fully or to downplay their skill level in a way that doesn’t make sense and frankly feels invalidating in some way to me. And I love that, for it causes me to think critically about what it means to me how to define success and advancement in a way that can incorporate all people I’m training with into my existence, as opposed to a made-up fictional story about returning to an “old self” that probably never existed in the first place.
Not all jiu jitsu schools have belt promotion tests and I’ve certainly never been a part of one. I’ve been through plenty of shark tank promotions in Karate and it’s been slightly different every time. There’s the expected stress that you can never quite shake and the sinking feeling that comes right before sparring, but every time I’ve managed to make it out having grown a little better and stronger because of it. Confronting one’s fears over a prolonged period of time makes for better comfort in one’s own abilities than any about of listening to motivational speaking or reading will ever be. It certainly beats scrolling through Instagram.
If I were to notice one thing that has changed through all these promotion tests, it’s that it feels less and less like it is about me. Sure when I was testing it made sense to focus on myself, but I’ve also been part of promotion tests too when I wasn’t receiving a rank (it’s a weird, masochistic mindset I have that if I’m going to spar with the other people, I should be at least as tired as them, and I love it). Earlier on I felt like I needed some sort of recognition for going through what they did as well, which was silly, but I definitely feel like it came from a place of wanting to be loved and to feel like I belonged. That validation never did come; it made me resentful in a way.
I don’t know what happened, but this promotion feels different. It doesn’t feel like that anymore that I need to be the person who is the center of the attention and to be receiving some or all of the credit. My old self would like that of course and even now I feel a part of me grasping for it, but it’s now more about the service that I am providing to others when I’ll be there on the ground. It’s less about “look at me” and more about “look at them”–to actually see people for who they are, to accept people for who they are, to meet them at their skill and comfort level and to challenge them to understand that they are better than who they think they are.