Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Happy Birthday Black Belt

This is JP, and he's one of my long-time students. He’s not a black belt, but he plays one on TV. (Kidding.) We have a tradition at Tao of Texas MAI that if a kid trains on his birthday, he gets to wear the Happy Birthday Black Belt, lead the class in warm-ups, assist in the teaching plan, and, time permitting, pick a fun, end-of-class game.
Some old-school martial artists will likely grumble, judging this tradition as sacrilege.

“You’re cheapening the black belt!” they’ll cry.

In this age of McDojos, their reaction would be appropriate. If you don’t train under me, you don’t know that it takes an average, no-talent, poorly coordinated kid six to eight years to reach black belt—that because I’m an editor by day-trade, I’m equally a stickler for technical details on the mat.

Because I’m traditional-minded, meaning that my students attain black belts when they’re ready, not when some contract is expiring, I wanted to find a way to plant black belt seeds in my young students.

Solution? I got a one-size-fits-all black belt and had my mother-in-law embroider “Happy” on one tail and “Birthday” on the other. Once a year for one hour—if they make time to train during their busy and exciting celebration-filled day—they get to wear this two-inch-wide piece of black cloth. For one hour, these students get to see and feel what it’s like to be a black belt—not just the fanfare, but also the responsibility. Suddenly, whirling ADHD boys turn into calm, focused, and mature leaders. Shy girls become strong and confident teachers. When kids wear the Happy Birthday Black Belt, amazing transformations occur.

Of course, when class is over, they have to trade in the black belt for their own typically dirty belt. But I always leave them with this plant-the-seed reminder:

“Happy Birthday! Remember what it feels like to wear this, especially on the days when you're tired and don't want to give 100% effort. If you always give your best, there'll come a day when I'll wrap this sucker around your waist, and you won't have to give it back. So keep working hard.”

This tradition allows students to test drive a black belt. It represents a taste that then creates a hunger for the real thing. It’s the inspiration to punch harder, kick higher, focus sharper, eat better, drink more water and fewer sodas, study harder, and help out around the house without parents asking—to do the day-to-day; practice, practice, practice; less-glamorous work toward wholeness and self-improvement.

So, Happy Birthday, JP. I can’t wait for the day when I wrap that belt around you for good.

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