Jul 19

What I've Learned on my Journey to Black Belt


I remember the night clearly.


My wife and I were done up to the nines, and enjoying a glamorous ‘date night’ in central London. During an interval we went outside for some fresh air. Suddenly the doors flung open behind us and another couple followed us out. But they were different. They clearly weren’t enjoying the lovely night as we were. They were arguing and as we watched them walk away their argument got more and more heated. I told my wife that I ‘didn’t like the look of this’ and we agreed to stay outside and keep an eye on developments.


Their argument worsened. There was a push or a hit and the woman was now on the ground with her partner standing over her shouting in an alcohol infused rage.


Without thinking I sprinted towards them. They were a good 50 meters away but I seemed to cover the ground quickly. As I neared I could see the fear on her face and the rage in his eyes.

And at that very moment my own fear kicked in and I thought “what the hell do I do now?”


Thankfully the man responded well to my calming words. There was no further violence and a few minutes later I was able to hand the situation over to the police who had been called by my wife.


Reflecting on the unsavory incident afterwards I realized how quickly such unfortunate and unpredictable events can arise.


No one expects to be suddenly thrust into a fearful or dangerous situation. They are entirely random. They can happen to anyone, in any place and at any time. And if it happened to me once, at an expensive event with black ties and ball gowns, it could happen again, but next time the danger might develop into something much worse.


It was then that decided I should learn to defend myself. I should learn techniques that would prevent me getting hurt or injured. I should know how to hold off an attacker for enough time to get help or make an escape.


And so I decided to learn a martial art.


1. The Journey Begins

Learning martial arts was a huge step for me. I had no previous interest in Karate, Judo or anything else from the East. Unlike my childhood friends I’d never seen The Karate Kid or a Bruce Lee movie. I didn’t have his scarred torso emblazoned on posters pinned to my bedroom wall. And I was now in my forties, inflexible and unfit.


But I was determined to give it a go.


Through Google I found a local club offering two taster classes free of charge and so my journey into the world of martial arts began.


Fast forward six years and I am now a Second Dan Black Belt, Head Instructor and Examiner in Choi Kwang Do, a Korean Martial Art that combines extremely practical self defense with Yoga, Mindfulness, Health and Fitness.


The media portrays martial arts and martial artists in different ways.


At one end of the scale is the sheer cage fight brutality of Mixed Martial Arts, glamourized by the highly successful UFC events, and Hollywood ultra-action movies.


At the other end is the ancient wisdom, teaching and holistic self improvement exampled in the TV Series Kung-FU where the old Master teaches the young Grasshopper the secrets of the ancient art.


I much prefer the latter portrayal and, in my experience, this is the culture you will find in most UK martial arts schools.


The new student soon realizes exactly why these fighting techniques are called an art. The intricacies of the potentially lethal techniques and sequences are more like dance choreography than a method of fighting.


The culture of learning martial arts I have been fortunate enough to enjoy leads to wide ranging benefits that transcend beyond the floor of the Dojang.


Whilst I now feel well equipped to deal with an attacker, the techniques I have learned also equip me with the skills to live a better, happier and more productive life.


Let me explain…


2. Goal Setting

All traditional martial arts utilize a belt system to show the progress and skill level of every student and instructor.


Everyone starts at white belt and works their way up to the coveted Black Belt and beyond, learning and practicing at every step in between.


Each time a student achieves a new belt they automatically set the goal to achieve the next. It is a cycle of learning, practicing, perfecting and achieving that keeps us focused on our continuous improvement.


Following a successful grading, we are shown the techniques, sequences and drills we need to master to achieve our next belt and given the date of the next grading event.


With our teachers we develop an action plan to learn and practice and we identify instructors and students of a more senior rank to model and help us get there. SMART goals exemplified.


Actively practicing this in my martial arts world encourages me to take the same approach to my work and other personal goals.


It’s odd because I was taught about SMART goals many years ago, but it is only since I have been applying them in my martial arts that I have seriously and consistently applied them in a broader span of life areas.


And it has accelerated my achievements and increased my confidence in all areas of life.


3. Focus

Every martial arts class begins with a period of mindfulness.


It’s a moment to sit, breath, quiet the mind and let go of all the stresses and events of the day. We call it ‘emptying our cup’ and it allows us to focus our minds on the present and everything that’s going on around us right here, right now.


Focusing on the here and now is important in all areas of life.


How many of us kick the proverbial cat when we arrive home because we bring with us the baggage of a bad day at work? I know I used to.


Bringing our work problems home or our home problems to work has a huge impact on our ability to perform in that area of our life. We can’t be the friend, husband, father, wife or mother we want to be if we’re carrying a huge cargo of negative thinking and worry in our heads. We can’t be the leaders we aspire to be at work if thoughts of problems at home distract us and affect our judgment and performance.


We need to be mentally present where and when we are physically present.


In martial arts ‘emptying our cup’ helps us focus our minds on the now of training. This is most obviously vital when sparring with an opponent. A wondering mind could easily lead to us loosing focus and taking a painful hit and possible injury.


But the hits in life can be just as painful, and often more consequential.


By learning to ‘empty your cup’ you can learn to focus on the present, be the best you possibly can be in that moment and increase your performance, results and overall success and happiness.


It’s easy to do but requires discipline to do it.


Just pause for two minutes to allow you to clear your mind before opening the front door. Relax your limbs, breath deeply and listen to all the sounds that surround you. Focus on the ones with the most appeal. Birdsong, the gentle hum of traffic, whatever works for you. Slowly open your eyes and tell yourself, “I’m ready’. Then smile, open the door and walk through.


You can reverse this process as you exit for work to help you to temporarily forget about problems at home and prepare yourself for the workday ahead.


Either way ‘emptying your cup’ is a proven way of ensuring you are focused on the things you need to focus on in that part of your life for that part of your day.


4. Overcoming Fear

When I first walked through the doors of my martial arts school I took a good look around. I wanted to see what type of person attended. Everyone seemed pretty normal to me and I was somewhat relieved and reassured.


But then someone arrived a little late. He was huge, imposing and looked pretty mean. He was wearing a Brown belt, which I quickly learned is one step away from Black Belt. I made a mental note to avoid him at all costs.


For a few months I was terrified of being partnered with him for a sparring session. Frankly I wasn’t sure I’d get out alive.


And then, after some time learning and practicing some basic white belt techniques we were paired together. My face turned as pale as my belt, my heart quickened and my breath shortened.


But I faced my fear head on. I bowed to it, raised my guard and prepared for the fight.


I survived.


But not only did I survive I gained a new found confidence.


It turns out I was better at blocking, moving and dodging than I thought. I was better and quicker at countering and he was a great teaching partner.


Since then I have made it my goal to always train with people more advanced than me. It can lead to frustration, and the occasional blow to the head and pride, but it always accelerates my learning and improves my confidence.


‘Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway’ is a best selling book for very good reasons; It’s true and it works. We can’t grow if we stay in our comfort zones. We just carry on within the limitations our minds have imposed on us.


My martial art training has taught me to confront fears head on. It doesn’t mean I’m not scared. It just means I do it anyway and every time I feel better for it and improve my ability.

If you’re afraid of something, just do it, firstly in a safe environment and perhaps without an audience. Then do it again.

And again.

And again.


The more you do something the more accustomed you become to it. The more comfortable you become with it and the better you become at it.


5. The Importance of Support

In my corporate life I was very used to going it alone. Colleagues were great, but asking for advice could easily be seen as a sign of weakness in a highly competitive jungle. I even limited the information I gave to my various bosses because I didn’t want him or her to worry that I wasn’t up to the job. If I had fears or concerns I was on my own.


In stark contrast most martial arts classes are incredibly supportive environments.


It’s not just instructors that help and teach, students help other students too. Everyone wants everyone to succeed. It’s a brilliant culture of collective challenge and self-improvement.

Even during sparring we will stop the action and explain why something worked well or how something can be improved.


This was a million miles from any organisational culture I had previously experienced.


But why is that?


Surely organizational leaders would want to see their teams collectively improve performance and productivity and increase their value?


It seems the best leaders do create this safe culture for their team.


As Google put it when commenting on their 10 year study in to effective workplace cultures:

“In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea”.


I now apply this safe, collective improvement approach to all areas of life.


It works in the family, among friends, at work and in any other organization of which you may be part.


It requires you to not only be constructive and genuine, but also confident that the improvement of others will not adversely affect other’s perception of your performance or ability or restrict your career progression.


It also means you can safely ask for help.


You now have a network of people you can trust because they trust you. They will help you because you will and have helped them.


6. Dealing with Stress

I can’t think of many more stressful environments than having one or maybe two or more people attacking you with flying fists and feet, but it’s a great way to learn the debilitating effect stress can have on our own performance.


Fight or flight is a concept most of us will recognize, but this ignores the third and arguably the most common response: Freeze. The rabbit in the headlights response is arguably the most common human response to stress.


Your boss asks you a difficult or searching question. You stammer and splutter, sweat as your face reddens. Your eyes dart around as the answer remains hidden and your brain has frozen. Solid. Been there? I have!


These responses are actually designed to help us, originating from the days when we were under the real threat of being eaten by a saber-toothed-tiger or similar.


In small doses they are fine and can even be good for us, causing adrenalin to kick in and our performance to peak. But when they happen regularly it has an adverse effect that can lead to long-term health problems and prolonged periods of time off work.


We can easily recognize the symptoms of stress. Our hearts quicken and our stomachs churn. Our minds are difficult to focus and our bodies are tense.


Through learning, practice and experience the sparring martial artist learns techniques to manage these involuntary responses.


We learn that tension slows us down. The more tense we are the less likely we are able to block or dodge to avoid a blow. So we deliberately relax our bodies, which means we also relax our minds, giving us much more control over ourselves, the situation and our opponent.


We learn to regulate our breathing so that oxygen flows through our bodies to stop us tiring and keep us mentally and physically alert.


We learn to focus on the opponent, even learning exactly where to focus our eyes so that our peripheral vision can warn us of movement from the opponent’s legs or hands whilst also being aware of our surroundings so we don’t end up being hit or tripping or being cornered. We learn to mentally plan our evasion and counter movements before executing them with success.

Try these techniques if you ever feel the symptoms of stress.


Relax your body. Release any tension you feel. Take deep breaths. Breath in for four seconds, hold for two and breath out for another four. Repeat until a sense of calm returns.

Change your mind’s focus. Stop thinking of the problem and instead focus on how you can prevent or solve it. Smile as you picture your success.


These techniques can work in all kinds of work situations.


Try them before an important or difficult meeting or when you’re about to take the stage to deliver a speech or presentation to a large group.


Use them when you’re fretting about a project that’s going wrong. You’re much more likely to get things back on track if your calm and collected than if you’re tense and worried.


7. A Black Belt in Life

“All power must come from the inside out. First, learn to control your own power. Second learn to control your opponent’s power. Third, learn not to be controlled”.

Chow Hung –Yuen

Master Wing Chun Kung Fu


The martial arts teach skills that could one day keep you from harm or worse. Learning them builds confidence and self esteem and enables you to master techniques that equip you well beyond the walls of the Dojang.


The benefits of these techniques are numerous and far reaching. The examples here are just a few of the ones I have personally experienced.


Of course you don’t need to be a Black Belt martial artist to apply these skills in your life or to learn how to master and control your emotions and your power.


A Black Belt in Life is pretty damn cool.


And incredibly valuable.



Black BeltBlack Belt
You don't need to be a Black Belt martial artist to be a Black Belt in Life


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