Being the good parent that I am, I recently made my children watch all of the Karate Kid movies (except the one I dub as Kung Fu kid for reasons I might reveal in the future). I hadn’t seen some of them in their entirety in many years. As we watched, it occurred to me that there are numerous incredible sayings in the films. Mr. Miyagi embodies the perfect teacher of both a martial art and how it applies to life.
I never thought much of the fourth film, The Next Karate Kid, with Hilary Swank playing Julie-san alongside Pat Morita as Mr. Myagi. That was until now. My 8-year-old daughter trains with me and I hope I am teaching her in a similar fashion to Mr. Miyagi. Hopefully, she will not be as impetuous as Julie-san.
During one of the exchanges between the two, Julie-san overcomes an obstacle in her training. Here is the dialogue from the scene:
Mr. Miyagi: Congratulations, Julie-san.
Julie: Congratulations? That’s all you’re gonna say is congratulations? Don’t I get a belt or something?
Mr. Miyagi: Buy belt more.
Julie: No, I mean a karate belt. Brown belt, black belt.
Mr. Miyagi: Why need belt?
Julie: So everyone knows I’m good!
Mr. Miyagi: You know you good. That important thing.
Julie: Oh come on, even Elvis Presley got a black belt.
Mr. Miyagi: Borrow from Elvis next time see him.
I’ve witnessed many instances where a student gets a black belt and quits an art entirely, particularly if the rank is awarded to a youth or adolescent. I think that is because the reason the person trained was to get an award, a trophy, or a belt rank, or it could be that her parents made her do it. To generalize this issue to our broader world, where participation trophies are the norm and everyone wants a reward for doing even the slightest of tasks, how can we overcome the idea that we must have justification for our effort?
To answer my question, let’s look at what attaining the coveted black belt means in a couple of styles. In Judo, the first level of black belt is called shodan. It means, “beginning step.” As a practitioner, you have learned enough to display decent technique and you can demonstrate some of it to another practitioner. Nic Gregoriades, a great thinker and applier of martial arts to life, wrote that being a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gives a person a “fresh set of eyes” to see that although he knows many techniques, there is always room for improvement. He also wrote that the path to black belt should have made you a better person.
If these definitions hold true, then it seems that striving for a piece of colored cloth is a poor goal indeed. Why train so hard and for so long at something if it will not change your life and your mentality? Often in class, I remind everyone to ever be the student. Attaining black belt should be just that, a reminder to ever be the student. It should open our eyes to how little we know and how much more there is to learn. Lastly, we should be at a point in our martial art journey where the principles we learn in practicing our arts permeate our daily lives. Mr. Miyagi was a prime example of this philosophy.
As a caveat, having a black belt does not automatically imply that you are good at your art, as Julie-san thought it would do. If you have not dedicated time and effort to improving your technique, it will not serve you well when that belt is put to the test. Please do not think that having a black belt in any art is instant protection from a willing attacker or opponent. We train to fight so that we can be ready, not so we can be rewarded. Royce Gracie said it best, “A black belt only covers two inches of you’re a** – you have to cover the rest.”