Will belt for a dollar

The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively. –Bob Marley

Integrity is a word that gets kicked around quite a bit, especially in the martial arts community. In fact, I think it’s one of the four words embroidered on many TKD black belts I’ve seen in my travels. But embroidering it on your belt and living it are two completely different things.

Recently, I’ve begun to wonder if we all start out on a path of integrity and somehow get swallowed up by a life that demands something less. And I’m just young enough to believe I won’t be swallowed.

When I got my black belt in Krav Maga, I belonged to an organization that had awarded just 8 black belts in 3 years. As it should be, we worked our asses off for that belt. Literal blood, sweat and tears got us there. Plus a few broken bones. And we took pride in the fact that we were part of a small community with integrity. It was hard to get to that level because the bar was set high and remained there. For a while.

In the 3 years since I earned that black belt, that same organization has awarded 9 more black belts and has begun 12-months-or-less-to-black-belt training for at least 20 more. Some of these are people who started Krav Maga 12 months prior to their (scheduled) black belt test date.

Why the shift?

Well, it’s simple: $$$. If you developed a plan where someone who wanted to achieve a certain goal, could do so by attending 3 mandatory trainings (for which they pay $300+ per training) and arrive at that goal in 12 months, regardless of their prior experience or current talent, wouldn’t you put as many people through that plan as possible?

Well, yea. If the greed monster had sucked your integrity out your ass.

This is a beef that many people have with youth martial arts programs, and I think we’re seeing it pervade the adult schools as well. Belt tests are seen as a revenue generator, and the “pay to play” mentality overrides any hint of integrity that once existed in the system. School owners would rather advance someone who is not really ready, than miss out on a belt test fee. What they’re left with is inflated numbers of under-qualified members, and eventually, a severely tarnished reputation for their organization.

So now, I feel obligated to explain that I got one of those first 8 black belts, and not one of the new 30.

I recently distributed black belt invitations to 5 people in my school. I think 3 of them have what it takes to make it this year, and I hope the other two will kick it into high gear and surprise me. Probably next year. Do all of them (and more people in my school) understand the technical curriculum requirements of advancing? Yes. Do they all deserve black belts right this minute? No way in hell.

To me, earning a black belt is about more than demonstrating that you’ve learned some specific curriculum. It’s about your character. It’s about what you bring to the table in my community. It’s about the effort you put in, the attitude you bring to your training, and whether or not I watch what you do (both on and off the mat) and say “s/he gets it!”

Pay to play doesn’t fly here.

When I got my black belt, I was young enough (31) to believe that the people who awarded mine believed that was the case. And jaded as I may now be, I am young enough (34) to believe that will always be the case for my organization.

Some people embroider a word on their belt. That’s not me. Some tattoo it on their skin. Yea, that’s me. And some live the very essence of that word, no matter the cost. Check in with me in 10 years…that’ll still be me.

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All or nothing

I’ve had a few experiences in the past couple weeks that have prompted me to wonder, when did we become so obsessed with perfection that the only answer to anything is “all or nothing?”

As an ardent type-A, I’ve always been a bit of an all-or-nothinger myself. But really, to me that just meant it was all…all…all. What I never really noticed was that we appear to be developing this culture of all-or-nothing that, in my limited experience, appears to be killing our progress.

A few examples…

CrossFit. Ugh. The mere utterance of the word spurs hotly-contested conversations that rival those of religious and political origins. Maybe it’s bad for you. Maybe it’s the best thing since sliced bread. Maybe it’s just an excuse to see hot people in matchy-matchy outfits doing things you never knew the human body could do. Circumstantially, it’s probably all of those things and more. Regardless, as a CrossFit coach, gym owner and athlete, I find myself at the start of each year, trying to convince my members and friends to sign up for this incredible worldwide experience called The Open. And predictably, the answer I get is “oh, I’m not ready for that…I’ll set a goal for next year.”

So let me explain a bit about The Open. It’s designed to be just that: OPEN. Tens of thousands of people register to participate in it every year (and pay $20 to do so, but that’s a rant for another time) and they are everyone from elite athletes to housewives to dudes working out in their garage. Can they all clean and jerk 265 lbs? No. Do they all even know what the hell a clean and jerk is? NO! But if you see an Open workout with a 265-lb c&j in it, chances are it starts out with something far simpler, like 200 burpees.

A movement nearly EVERYONE can do.

That workout also has some seemingly impossible time cap on it, like 5 minutes. And normal humans, even pretty-damn-fit humans, will get nowhere near the 265-lb c&j part of that workout in just 5 minutes. News flash: the super-human c&j is there as a carrot for the dudes who can probably do 245 lbs and need to challenge themselves, or as a tie-breaking factor for the very small percentage of dudes who will make it through 200 burpees in 5 minutes and will duke it out for single c&j reps at 265 lbs. For the rest of us, the workout may as well have been written: “as many burpees as you can do in 5 minutes” because that’s exactly what our score will reflect.

And that’s the point.

It’s a movement almost everyone can do. So we’ll all do it. And in 5 minutes, we’ll record scores all over the world that range from one to 100+. Who cares. The point is that you came together with a worldwide community of like-minded people. You tried something not knowing how far you’d actually get. And maybe you challenged yourself by seeing a slight glimmer of hope that at least you’d finish the burpees and be able to walk up to the barbell, even if you knew you couldn’t pick it up. The point is, you did SOMETHING.

But instead, I talk to guys and gals every day who can do damn near 100 burpees in 5 minutes, who refuse to sign up for The Open because they think they could never clean and jerk 265lb.

That’s like saying you’re not going to go for a walk because you could never complete an Ironman.

Forget CrossFit. How about the ubiquitous Youth Martial Arts Program. The coming week at my school is a review and stripe test week for all of our students under 18, which will cover material they’ve been learning since the beginning of December. They are responsible for knowing a 9-10 strike Muay Thai combination, 2-3 variations on a Krav Maga defense, and a defense against an attack on the ground. The students span ages 5 to 16. They span experience levels of 1 week to several years. And yet, they’ll all be tested on the same material.

So, does a 10-year-old girl who is confident and athletic set the bar for a 6-year-old boy who is dyslexic and overweight? Absolutely not. Am I running a belt factory where every kid gets a new colored belt based on the length of their commitment or the depth of their parents’ wallets? Absolutely fucking not. (Also a rant for another time.)  But do I understand the difference between what those two kids’ performances will look like on test day? You bet your bootie. (Wow…my mom says that.)

I don’t think kids should get a trophy for everything they half-ass. (There’s a George Carlin bit about this that I wish I could post on our school’s Web site.) But I also don’t think 100% understanding, execution and effort looks the same for every kid that walks in the door.

So when a parent says to me, “you don’t understand…there’s his ADD, and the fact that he’s left-handed, and really he’s only 6. Why do you expect perfection? Why are you threatening to not promote his belt rank?” I want to shake them and say, “he’ll have distractions his whole life, be left handed his whole life. I’m not expecting perfection. I’m expecting improvement over December 1. And I think he could learn something from staying Green when his more-focused, more adaptable 6 year old friend who also has ADD and is left handed advances to Blue.”

“But can’t I just buy some private lessons so he can keep up with his friends?”

NO.

I’m not asking for all or nothing. I’m asking for all you’ve got at any given moment. You might just surprise yourself. And my reaction as a coach or a teacher might just surprise you (or your mom).

It clicked with one guy who I’m proud to say is a friend, a member, and a parent of a child member…he said that there’s a stage of your journey that is learning the alphabet. Then there’s a stage where you understand how to make words, and another where you formulate sentences. If there’s someone in the room who can write books, it’s not a reason to give up on learning the alphabet.

Exactly.

You can’t skip out on learning to ride a bike because the Tour de France looks hard. Just like you can’t skip out on getting up off the couch because the CrossFit Games looks hard.

I won’t ask your kid to understand a 10-strike sequence of left-right-left-right if they haven’t learned their left from their right yet. But I’ll ask them to cover their head when I swing at them. If the kid next to her knows that what your kid just did is a “left cover,” good for the kid next door. It’s not a fail for your kid as long as your kid didn’t get smacked in the face.

Crawl before walk. Alphabet before dissertation. It’s not all or nothing. It’s all-I-have-right-now.

Get home safe.

Get home safe…that’s the endgame. You can come to a class and learn what look like techniques. But if you’re not walking away with the general idea that is “do whatever the hell it takes to get out of that awful situation alive,” then you might not be hearing the right message.

As Krav Maga instructors, we’ve got lists of curriculum line items we’ll teach you and on which we’ll eventually probably test you. But as proponents of personal safety, we’d be lying if at the end of the day, we didn’t just say, “if it comes out of you, and you get home safe, then you did the right thing.”

The classes my colleagues and I teach include techniques that were designed to inform someone with no fighting experience, and take them from zero to hero in the shortest path possible. If someone comes to those classes with a fighting background, or a lifetime of martial arts experience, their mind and their muscles are already prepared to do something if faced with a threat. I’m not here to re-program that response. I’m here to help you develop a response if you’ve never considered you might need one. Hopefully I’m here to help you do that before you’ve discovered you need one.

In any case, the take-home message is the same: get home safe. I don’t care how you do it. Just do.