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Building Black Belts in Life!

mentor motivation Mar 06, 2019

By Joshua Page


Being a Black Belt Inside and Outside the School

As instructors, we spend a great deal of time trying to develop our students into black belts. We equip them to deal with all types of dangerous situations and attacks. We arm them with kicks, punches, throws and submissions.

Even the mental side of self-defense is addressed, like how to keep calm under pressure and dealing with overwhelming odds. All this takes place while developing humility and learning the importance of constant improvement. These lessons are powerful and life-changing, and prepare our students for adversity on the practice mat and in the arena of sport.

We spend thousands of hours redefining techniques, perfecting form, and forging the absolute best martial artists we can. The results can be truly amazing. The transformation from a day-one student to a black belt is, at times, awe-inspiring.

When you see those students on the mats training and teaching, they seem to have a certain air about them. They are leaders in every sense of the word, and embody all those black belt principles we’ve been trying so hard to pass down.

However, we see so many students mastering these lessons on the mat, yet having difficulty applying them to their lives outside of the school. In other words, the application of life skills is lacking. However challenging this is, it does give us the unique opportunity to figure out how to help our students become black belts in life, and how to strive for and achieve “Black Belt Excellence” in every endeavor.

Here’s how I approach it at my school, Hickory Academy of Martial Arts in Hickory, North Carolina.


What Is a Black Belt in Life?

Let’s start with a clear definition. A black belt in life is a student who has been equipped to bridge the gap between the academy, dojo or gym, and is able to bring all those solid foundations with them into every aspect of his or her life. They are able to be leaders not just for those few hours each week that he/she is training, but in their day-to-day lives. They are able to apply the same focus they would use to, say, win first place at a tournament to make good grades; to being respectful, courteous and kind at home; or to being an involved, positive leader in the community.

In other words, student that are able to benefit from their training 24/7 in all areas of their lives.


“Is That Your Student I Saw on TV?”

I got an excited call from my instructor one day, who asked, “Are you watching the news?”

I quickly turned on the news to see a martial artist I had seen in the competition circuit for years and years. This individual was an amazing athlete, winning multiple events, grand championships and titles. He was a fierce and respected competitor.

But he didn’t just go to events to win. You could find him taking time to coach the other competitors on the team. He took the time to give advice to upcoming competitors, and just to talk and laugh and be a part of the travelling family that is the martial arts tournament scene.

Which is why it was so shocking to see him appear on the news for such a terrible reason: he was accused of doing some very bad things and was being led by law enforcement in handcuffs to be detained. The accused was apparently facing some major time behind bars.

The news report made a point of talking about his martial arts training, and even the name of the school he trained at. The accused even had the school’s logo as a tattoo.

It was so sad to see this, especially on such a large public platform. But, it does serve as a good reminder that we have the opportunity to do just the opposite. To help our students become the kind of people you would be happy to see on the news with your school t-shirt on!

Imagine the opposite of this story. Imagine seeing one of your students on the local or even national news being highlighted for some truly black belt-level impact outside of the dojo! Maybe they used what they learned from you on the mats to become a successful, driven leader. Perhaps they gained recognition as a person of positive influence and impact because of their martial arts training.

So, how do we accomplish this goal? How do we build black belts in life?

The answer, as my jiu-jitsu instructor, Master Pedro Sauer, is fond of saying, is, “Simple, but not easy.”

In this article, I’ll proceed, step by step, to explain the building blocks to accomplish this worthy goal. I’ll propose some simple ideas and concepts that will not only improve the lives of your students and families training with you, but enrich your life and your families’ lives as well.


Success Off the Mat with Solid Foundations

We already know that, statistically speaking, most students who walk through our academy’s doors will not achieve the rank of black belt. And that’s okay. We are nevertheless grateful for the time we do get with them to impart some solid foundations, basic self-defense and, hopefully, the groundwork for success off the mat.

We can also help them build solid foundations on the mat during this time. Chances are that bowing on and off the mat — and using polite manners when speaking to instructors and classmates — are habits that are being reinforced in each and every class.

You can also use success charts for your young students to take home and use each day to help build solid foundations and habits for success outside of class: like making their bed, eating for health, and reading each day. Simple tasks have a way of making room for bigger successes down the road.

When students turn in their completed sheets, it leads to a great opportunity to highlight them in front of the class. This kind of public acknowledgement not only reinforces their best behavior, but inspires other students to start participating and benefiting from this project as well.


Taking Five Minutes to “Bridge the Gap”

At my school, we spend the first 40 to 55 minutes of class training hard, sweating and smiling and working to become the best martial artists we can be. The last five minutes of each class are dedicated to “bridging the gap” between the dojo and the world outside. We talk about how to apply all those life skills we learned today to the “three things more important than martial arts:” family, education and faith.

Make sure parents are in on this conversation, too. Remind them that this last part of class is a great conversation they can continue with their child on the way home.

To make the biggest impact, be prepared. Know what life skill you want to talk about each day. Closely review it and bring in a visual to help drive home the lesson. Present technology makes it easy to have slides on your TV, iPad or other device to help out, too!


Projects That Bridge the Gap

In addition to taking five at the end of every class, you can also encourage students to engage in projects that transport their skills, as Coach Tom Callos would say, “out of the dojo and into the world.”

The scope and purpose of the challenges you can choose are endless. Use your imagination to come up with projects that encourage your students and families to engage with their communities in a positive way, and let them practice all the life and leadership skills they are learning on the mats with you. This is, after all, what separates our industry from — if not elevates it above — other common sports and athletic activities.

Below is one of our projects, which has transformed the lives of our students, our community, and the culture and atmosphere at our dojo. Feel free to use it, or simply let it inspire you to come up with some ideas for your own project.


Changing Lives with Acts of Kindness

Our “Acts of Kindness Campaign” started with a sheet of notebook paper listing 50 random acts of kindness. It eventually developed into a program adopted by martial arts schools, churches, preschool fitness programs and daycares as far away as Canada and Ireland! We estimate that we inspired well over 10,000 acts of kindness! In the process, we completely transformed the culture of our academy.

It redefined the focus of our students, and equipped them with the tools to do more than just defend against obstacles and challenges on the mat. It created networks, friendships and opportunities far beyond the walls of the dojo. It even helped me develop a few women and men who I wasn’t able to promote to karate black belt, but who I will proudly refer to as “black belts in life.” 


Today Is the Day

So, who will be your next black belt in life? What are you doing to lead the way and inspire our next generation of leaders?

Today is a great day to get started, if you haven’t already. Hopefully, you are dedicated to being a black belt in life, before you ask anyone else to do so. Get involved with your community. Find ways to be a part of the organizations making a difference in your hometown. Volunteer as much as you can.

Complete the projects and challenges you have designed for your students. It’s far easier to inspire someone when you are working alongside them, and have made the same sacrifices and put in the same work that you’re asking them to do.

It seems obvious, but make sure you are still engaging in physical training, too. Keep pushing and developing your skills, so you can ask the same of your students. Your personal journey will speak louder than your words, and will inspire your team more than you know. You’ll be amazed the effect it has not just on you, but to everyone in your vast sphere of influence!


Joshua Page of Hickory, NC is a 7th-degree black belt in American Freestyle Karate, and a brown belt in Pedro Sauer Gracie Jiu-jitsu, with over 30 years of training and teaching experience. A former competitor and 2013 NBL Sparring Champion, Page loves training black belts on the mat, in the ring, and in life! He can be reached at [email protected]

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