Black belt, to me, means failure.
The adult karate beginner belongs to a fascinating genus of mammals. Within this genus, the species representing the “karate-mom pursuing a black belt” might possibly be the most formidable group of humans on the planet. The pursuit of a karate black belt is an intentional choice made by an individual already possessing the substrate for excellence. This is not a single, one-time decision to achieve an endpoint; it is an ongoing series of conscious elections to engage in adaptations and mitigate obstacles. In short, this species is forged from its response to failure with the development of profound, indelible resilience.
First, the substrate: the individual making the choice.
I am an unremarkable person with an unremarkable story. What I have done and what I aim to do have already been done before by many other dedicated, talented people. Even more specifically, many are women, who, like me, began karate because of their children. Many of these women are working moms, some of whom have 75-80 hour high-stress work weeks like me. Plenty of these women have incredibly busy (or nonexistent) husbands or partners and “go it alone” for some or all of the time. Some might even be physicians who run departments and chair hospital committees. I’m certain that many of these women have pursued karate as an alternate or complement to other fitness endeavors. I am not the first multiple marathoner, open water distance swimmer or half-ironman finisher to submit my candidacy for black belt. In this context, I am humbled by my lack of uniqueness.
Women like us have a different starting line than other people. We come to karate with lives full of life. Our hearts, our minds and our calendars are jammed with families, children, school, homes, kids’ activities, careers. Who we are is largely predicated on two driving forces: getting it all done well, and assuring happiness in our families. Our lives are not just about us; they are about many people around us. For me, and many like me, this responsibility is innate, programmed, inborn. I could not dismiss this fundamental feeling of obligation even if I willed it, which I don’t. In short, working moms are multitasking problem-solvers whose emotional glue facilitates achieving objectives of varying priorities, and doing so within the constraints of the first four dimensions.
Which makes us ideal black belt candidates.
Second: the choice, and the choices.
The decision to try karate is one thing; the decision to pursue a black belt is an entirely different endeavor.
The choice to start karate. It’s not hard to conjure up a list of “whys” our group of high-achievers starts karate: empowerment, stress relief, learning self-defense, development of strength and power, pursuing a controlled form of aggression in a safe environment. For me, I tried it because it was on sale. (I know I’m making my grandmothers proud. )It was the Mother’s Day special in 2015, to be exact. Witnessing my 7 year old twin boys begin as white belts a few months before was a powerful motivator to try something new.
The choice to continue karate. This is where it gets complicated. It becomes clear early on that continuing to train will require more choices – namely, how to continue meaningful training and not drop the other flaming swords in our juggling acts. The first limiter is time. The Red Sea does not part for us to train. I typically slate my endurance training for times when they do not interfere with family time. Because it’s scheduled, karate is different. In this regard, my children are commonly present at the studio during my training. We have to make decision after decision to show up and do the work. Even when we are tired, stressed, sleep deprived and laundry-deficient. We consciously add it to the calendar, even when there seems to be no room. Usually the room comes from giving up personal time. The second limiter is the “why.” The long game demands a more permanent motivation than a Mother’s Day sale. For me, being a visible example to my kids of someone who is willing to try new things, set goals and work hard to accomplish them seemed like a good reason. After all, my boys are still sleeping when I’m out the door at 4 am for my endurance training, and they are not there to watch me claw my way through intense sessions that I would rather quit. They rarely attend my races. So this seemed like the perfect ongoing way for us to be involved together. As time went on, I accumulated more “whys,” not the least of which was the community I experienced with the other families, especially the other karate moms (Meghan Laster and Sue Brenneisen) and my mentor, Sensei Amy Swift. The third, more elusive limiter is mindset. Believing ourselves to be capable of accomplishment and worthy of challenge.
And this is where we, as species, have the right stuff to shine. But sometimes it gets ugly first.
Third: the stress (failure) and the adaptation (resilience)
It is downright awkward to be an adult beginner, especially when one is as old and uncoordinated as I. (Translation: I felt like an idiot.) It’s no surprise that it takes me longer to grasp patterns, execute techniques properly and recall defenses than it does for my kids. My aging orthopedic system, predisposition to injury, chronic sleep deprivation and limited time to train are not in my favor. And for me, sparring is like learning a foreign language in a different alphabet. So imagine a high achiever, who is used to getting it done at all costs, really not getting it done in karate. In kata and defense, I think I look like the one who never learned it the first time – stepping the wrong way, forgetting moves. In sparring, this looks like a big fat straight punch to the face for failing to keep my hands up, or a side kick that I walked into because my mature knees have stolen my agility.
One of my lowest moments in karate came on a Saturday morning sparring session, on the heels of a busy workweek, and a previous night of call that left me with about 45 minutes of sleep in 30 hours. I was unwilling to admit weakness (sleep deprivation) prior to starting, but a hard hit quickly schooled me that my reaction time was badly impaired. Sparring is my perceived weakness at baseline; watching myself get hit in the face felt like an abysmal failure. I literally cried on the mat in front of my kids. Big, ugly, dramatic, “what is wrong with her?” crying. My mind told me that I was never going to get it. I felt like a failure. If I went out to spar another round, I was going to be leveled again – in front of my sons. If I stayed on the sidelines, I was wimping out – in front of my sons. I felt the gravity of that moment. How I responded here was an opportunity to define myself as a karate student. But I was quite stuck. I was lucky that my mentor, Sensei Amy Swift, was supervising the session. She took me aside, gave me space, and assured me that it would be ok. She was sensitive to the adult karate experience and the stress that life/work/family can place on our training. This was a revelation to me. Sensei Amy is a tough Sensei. After all, she rose to her first and second degrees (with high marks) with the same working mom constraints I describe here, minus mom peers that I am lucky to have. Rightfully, her expectations are high of her students. I have always been intent on meeting these expectations and acutely realized I was falling short. Sensei Amy means business. So when she excused me from the mat, and gave me that encouragement, it really got in my head in a good way. Her interest in my long-term success has continued to be a huge positive motivator for me. That day, I accepted that I was not at my best. I acknowledged that my will to succeed at training was outstripping my physical ability to perform that morning. I saw the failure in my own immediate self-awareness – not recognizing that I was too tired to spar effectively. But I also took heart in that my willingness to train with what very little time I had meant something bigger. It meant I could use this experience to get better. Ultimately, I got back out on the mat that morning and I kept at it. I am certain I got hit a lot more, but I don’t remember. I remember feeling strong that I completed the training sessions and encouraged by Sensei Amy’s faith in me.
Undoubtedly, every person pursuing a black belt has experienced moments like I did that Saturday. I know I’ve had many other times like it. The variety of failures grow and change with each belt level. Whether it’s an accumulation of doubt, a sudden blow (literal or figurative), or even an offhand comment by an insensitive person, the temptation to give up is real. How much simpler and less time constrained our lives would be if we just stopped. Our lives are already beyond full. Our sleep is inadequate, the demands on our time are infinite and our propensity for shouldering stress is enormous. And yet we have not stopped.
For the karate mom, failures become catalysts. These ugly times are where the hardest work has been done. But not always overnight.
Moms do not tolerate failure. We just don’t. We also take it personally, because our worlds depend on us. To our great discredit, we don’t often distinguish between our own shortcomings and karmic misfortune. For simplicity’s sake, we blame ourselves when we can’t do it all. The failed logic comes with the flawed corollary: assuming that we can fix it all. So as a group, we are highly poised for success, and yet, simultaneously, we are incredibly vulnerable to being derailed by our own feelings of shortcoming.
Handling failure is tricky. It requires us to admit that something didn’t work. Doing this without feeling like we’ve let someone down is not easily mastered. Sensei Amy’s Saturday morning pep talk sparked an effort on my part to change my perspective, and I have since witnessed this in my colleagues.
There are things we cannot control.
It is our response to failure, rather than the failure itself, that is the true referendum on character. This we can control.
Failure is not an endpoint unless we allow it to be.
Failure is not personal.
Failure is an opportunity, a teacher, a road map for progress.
We are not alone.
Karate has taught us, in a sense, to become good at failure. We have become resilient.
Will these perspectives make us execute perfectly? Will I now be able to score with a spin back kick to the head? No. In the end, that’s not really the point. And in the case of the latter, I would probably end up in an ambulance. What these perspectives have done, however, is teach me to observe less-than-perfect outcomes dispassionately and to try something different the next time. I am learning how not to get hung up on mistakes.
At moments like this, when one is challenged to take stock of a process that approaches a milestone, a swell of platitudes seems like an obvious theme. Success, victory, winning, achievement, determination, perseverance, and triumph wave their banners above the black belt finish line. Is that really what this is about? For me, no. What pursuing a black belt means to me is failure. More specifically, mindfully undergoing a series of progressively more complex failures in order to achieve growth. I humbly represent Team Delran, and I am proud to share this challenge with the other “karate moms,” Meghan Laster and Sue Brenneisen, with the guidance of Sensei Amy Swift. I believe that, together, we have come to know the heart of being a Sensei: the resilience of the indomitable spirit.