What Earning a Blue Belt Means to Me

Family

I am not what one would call traditionally athletic. As a kid, any sport involving a ball, whether you were supposed to hit it, catch it, kick it, or throw it, seemed to be the bane of my existence. It’s not that I didn’t try—oh, I did—but despite my best efforts no one was voting for me as “most athletic” in the yearbook. As a result, most of the hobbies I cultivated were what I refer to as being of the “indoor human” variety. This may also explain why so many geek interests appealed to me. Let’s be honest, a lot of what we think of as typical geek hobbies lean towards the indoor human. 

A few things have happened since then. First off, I got diagnosed with borderline PCOS, and keeping up with a certain amount of physical activity level is recommended for maintaining my health in that regard. I also then managed, before I acquired good stretching habits, to end up with hip bursitis trying to pick up those activity levels.

To add to that, I found out about eye therapy and learned that there was a reason sports were such a nightmare for me. My eyes basically did not work as a team, and this created a certain blind spot right along the center of my vision line. That had a definite impact on things like coordination and reflexes when it came to sport-like activities. My eye therapy journey which involved teaching my eyes to do what they should be doing lined up with the beginnings of a new challenge I took on in May of 2021 when I joined the Taekwon-Do school my kids had been attending.

A year and a half later and 6 belt advancement tests have rewarded me with my blue belt, which has some very special significance. Since belt colors and ranks differ between martial arts—and even schools within the same martial art—I am now at the 4th Gup, which means four more advancement tests before I test for a black belt. While a black belt is recognized as a huge achievement, and rightfully so, there’s also a special significance to gaining a blue belt, which my head Instructor, Master L, calls the Blue Wall.

First off, there are the odds of getting to the Blue Wall. Statistically, out of 100 students that attend a Taekwon-Do class, between 87 and 88 of those students will drop out before earning a blue belt. (Typically only one percent will make it to a coveted black belt.)

Non-traditional students, one of which we have certainly established I am, are more likely to drop out by blue belt. When you’re not traditionally athletic, you aren’t just learning Taekwon-Do; you’re also learning balance and coordination at the same time, and I started this journey a few months shy of my 38th birthday. That learning curve can be extremely discouraging for some, and it takes a lot of perseverance and the drive to put in the time and work knowing that students who are more traditionally athletic will have an easier learning curve than you.

Honestly, when you add in the fact I had to start off a little slower to make sure I wasn’t reinjuring my hip in a sport that involves high kicking, also add in that in the early stages of my eye therapy I still had to make a concentrated effort to get my punches aimed at the center, it would have been easy to look at all of that and assume I would be in the group that didn’t make it to blue belt.

But I did. I did that year’s worth of eye therapy while still attending Taekwon-Do. I took my time to build up that strength in my hip even when it meant that I didn’t get to jump straight from 10th Gup to 8th Gup like many of the other adult students that started around the same time I did. I put in the time and the hours practicing at home. The side kicks that were so hard for me became easier, the strength and flexibility of my hip went up, and my balance and coordination improved. Was I at the top of my class? No. But could I look back at what was hard three months, six months, and twelve months ago and realize how much more I could do now? Yes, yes I could.

That’s why I believe I can take on the Blue Wall, so named because the requirements for promotion once one reaches a blue belt go up a lot more. It’s not uncommon for students to need more testing cycles to master their skills before being able to test for the next level. Students who are not traditionally athletic have already adjusted to the idea of needing to keep putting in a lot of hard work and effort so undergoing the Blue Wall feels less intimidating and more of an extension of the fact it’s taken a lot of work to get to this point.

The irony is that Master L has noticed he loses more traditionally athletic students at the Blue Wall. Those students got to effectively be the gifted kids of the class because they started off coordinated and with good balance so just mastering the Taekwon-Do part was easier. When the demands suddenly go up and more work is required, those gifted kids split into the ones who quit when it’s no longer easy and those who find the work ethic to keep going.

So what was the thing that got me to a blue belt when so many others drop out? Honestly, two things. One of the things, as Master L told us, is people who make friends tend to stay involved in Taekwon-Do. About the time I started, we had not only an unusually large group of adults that also joined but also a high number of women, and the women in our school are very supportive of each other. It’s so nice to hear “that part of a pattern is hard for me too” or that other people have their weaker spots as well.

The second thing is that over time I gained real confidence in my ability to learn and improve. I’m not perfect, but the philosophy of Taekwon-Do includes the concept that you are always learning and striving to improve (and even grand masters argue about the correct way to do things). Once I learned to focus on the journey of learning and improving, my confidence kicked in. Am I perfect in everything I do? Nope. Am I improving in a way where I can tell there are differences over the months and promotions? Oh yeah, and looking over my collection of belts and the little stripes that mark a history of things I’ve learned, and I get excited to see myself earn the next set. I’m not going to lie, the fact I am now allowed to attend the advanced class and start breaking boards is certainly contributing to that excitement.  

As this year winds down and a new one begins, a lot of you will naturally look towards making resolutions about new goals or trying new things, and I’m here to say go for it. Sometimes you have to give yourself the chance to take on that thing that you’re not naturally gifted at and be willing to put in the work and effort to grow. If you don’t push yourself a little you have no idea what you’re actually capable of, and sometimes that thing you’re actually capable of is pretty awesome.

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