Small Successes...and one really big one.

The martial arts road is long. You start off with the best of intentions. You have good shoes, a comfortable backpack and a lot of snacks. You think you have thought of everything. A few good friends know where you are headed, just in case. You set off, excited, envisioning the Emerald City that is at the end. (You will lose weight. You will learn to defend yourself. You will kick everyone's ass!)

Somewhere along the journey unexpected things begin to pop up. You trip over a rock and injure your foot. You are not progressing as fast as you had hoped. You get bored with the scenery, the same damn trees over and over again.

But other things happen too. You start to learn more about these strangers you are traveling with. You survive a particularly long night together. You help each other over obstacles in the road. You start to notice subtleties in the landscape that weren't there before. You start to enjoy the tiredness in your feet. Suddenly, it does not matter so much where you are headed, it is the going that excites you. For awhile. Then you hit the wall.

Karate training is front loaded. You train for 4 months and you get a brand new colored belt. Another 4-6 months and you get another one. Then another. It is easy to stay motivated when the rewards are so obvious and tangible. And then there are the fringe benefits. Your muscles get stronger, your stamina improves, you can fit into your skinny jeans. You walk down the street with the confidence of a prize fighter. (No one better mess with me, I know KARATE.)

After a few years the time between promotions gets longer and the stuff you need to know gets harder. If you are committed enough to make it to black belt then there are many years between ranks. (I haven't taken a promotion test in over 4 years, nor do I think there will be one any time in the near future) By then you have hopefully found something else to motivate you, something more profound than a new belt color.

My jiu-jitsu journey has been even more arduous. It has been a little over a year and I am still a white belt. Ninety five percent of my classmates are bigger than me. Most of them are men. I get x-choked and arm barred and submitted by moves with sexy Portuguese names.  (Come on over here baby and let me gogoplata you)  I often question my sanity. If I was looking for a "big win" I would have quit a long time ago. Instead my training is a series of small successes. I sweep a dude and end up on top. I get my guard back. I don't limp home.

Today I took a white belt class and had the rare experience of not being outclassed by everyone in the room. I pulled off the guard pass we had been working on in drills all week. I successfully defended an Americana (for those of you who are not up on your BJJ terms, picture your arm bent backwards like a crooked tree limb). I even submitted the "new girl" with a cross collar choke. (Yes you heard right, I actually made someone else tap. I am a superstar.) The nice thing about having low expectations is that it feels so very good when things go well. Hooray for small successes!

All that being said, we had a kids promotion yesterday and Maya got her blue belt. All afternoon she was a huge bundle of excited, joyful energy. (Although to be fair, my mom did buy her a box of cake pops as a congratulatory treat)  The little successes are great. But nothing beats a brand new belt. Especially when you are a four year old. Or when you are her very, very proud mother.


  1. This was amusingly timed, as we had a promotion at our dojo today, the vast majority of whom were, of course, lower belts. It's true, it's a lot easier to keep up the enthusiasm at the lower levels. In the adult classes, we lose more people at blue and yellow......

    1. Thanks Senpai! Yes we promoted 13 kids to blue belt this weekend and then a smattering of higher belts. I think there is definitely a yellow/green belt rut. And then, if they make it to black belt, there is often the sense of being "done". Thankfully our style does not seem to lose many students at shodan. I think it used to be a problem at Honbu (back in Seido days) when there were 30 people going for black belt each promotion.

  2. As a lower belt, I haven't got to the boring part yet - not really. The hardest part for me is not progressing as fast as I could progress if I could only make it to the dojo more often. I'm so envious of the teenagers who can turn up every day! For me, the Mummy part has to come first - it just has to - and that means the "Martial Artist" is suffering....What with one kid's 6th birthday on Monday and the other's school fundraiser on Friday, I could only go on Tuesday - and that blows. Next week I'm traveling for work. Again. And it's hard to keep coming when you know that each session is going to be an exercise in mortification. All the guys promoted with me are doing so much better with the new material, all the lower belts are nipping at my heels - oh dear, oh dear. But you're right, just when you least expect it, you have a good class - you figure out a sequence, you get through Yon-ji go-do without weeping inside, you land one good punch in sparring. Keep up the blog, Sensei, it reminds us that others face challenges - even black belts! And those moments drive us forward. Osu!

    1. Leigh, how nice to wake up this morning and see this response. I completely understand your frustration. When I first joined my BJJ school Maya was still at home. Between the dojo and taking care of her I was lucky if I could attend class once a week and I got nowhere.
      You are doing fine. In fact, in my mind you are doing better than fine. It is much easier to be a martial artist when you are fifteen. Your successes (juggling two kids, a full time job, a commute from NJ and Pinan 2) are much more impressive. Just keep plodding along.
      For what its worth, I ended sparring this past Friday in tears. It was a frustrating class where everyone was a bigger, stronger super fighter. And while I can usually hold my own (as in I don't die), it is mentally exhausting when every fight in the room is stressful. I don't know if that makes you feel better or if it horrifies you that after 23 years it is still hard. :-) Either way, I am with you!


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