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  • Writer's pictureChanel Grenaway

Starting the year with "black belt excellence"…and other tales from the dojo

I did it! I am now a black belt in karate. Five years in the making, six months of intensive classes in preparation for the tests, met the pre-evaluation requirements, survived the internal full curriculum exam and passed the final external test. After achieving this momentous goal I must admit that it all feels very surreal. How many times have I pictured the graduation ceremony? How many times have I envisioned celebrating this moment with my family? Well, it all turned out better than I imagined it.

Choose the front row

Although the internal curriculum exam and final external test were very different, my experiences were similar. The internal exam was more nerve wracking because it was the first time that I would perform the entire curriculum with instructors watching my every move. Getting though the two exams would be challenging both mentally and physically.

During both exams I ended up in the front row, directly in front of the examiners. I didn’t select the front row, but I didn’t shy away from it either. My attitude going into both exams was, “I got this.” However, in both instances I messed up the very first testing element – basic drills. I’m not sure if it was nerves, if it was not being able to see the full view of the person demonstrating the drill, or if I just had not figured out the right method to process, remember and perform the drills quickly enough. Whatever the case may be, in both instances, I messed up and had to mentally push through and bounce back. To make matters worse, during the final external exam, after fumbling on the drill, I was moved from the front row to the back row. While the instructor thought it would help to calm my nerves, the voice in my head was, “Are you kidding me? You are demoting me because I messed up a drill!” Then I took a breath and performed the next drill, with ease.

Reflecting on this now, I must admit that I questioned whether I belonged in the back row: “Maybe I’m not good enough for the front, maybe my nerves can’t handle it,” I wondered. But from the first time that I stepped onto the dojo floor, it’s been about pushing myself: pushing myself to get comfortable in front of the mirrors, pushing myself to complete all 3 sets of 10 push-ups or to do proper burpees, pushing myself with my punching and kicking techniques, showing up so that I can get to the next belt level. And looking at where I started and where I am today, I know that significant progress has been made and that I have to keep pushing myself. This journey has really been about showing up, learning, making mistakes, and relearning, not to mention practice, practice and more practice. So I am not going to default to the back row, but continue to push forward. Hence my next goal: Choose the front row and keep making mistakes.

Embrace the learning

My black belt exams also reminded me that that martial arts is just that: an art, not a science. As a student there is always something for me to learn and I should be willing to learn from anyone at every stage. Being corrected during the test was a trigger for those negative voices in my head which immediately woke up and screamed, “See, I was right, you don’t belong here; what are you doing here?” I wish the instructors would have waited until the end to correct me, or better yet, I wish whatever they were pointing out could have been shared much earlier in the process. For me, changing techniques and moves comes with a lot of practice and generally it is hard to do it on the spot. Flipping this on its head, I realize that it is also my duty as a student to not only listen and apply the advice of my teachers, but also to ask for help, clarification, and correction so that I know what I have to do to improve. In retrospect, I know that I didn’t do this enough during practice. Hence my next goal: Embrace the learning and ask for help.

See the beauty at every stage

The other day I was remembering when I was a blue belt but I couldn’t wait to learn the purple belt katas. The moves looked very cool, very different to what we had learned up to that point. Then when I got my purple belt I couldn’t wait to learn the brown belt katas because again the moves looked more interesting and complex and included a cool “superwoman ending.” It’s funny how that happens: as soon as you achieve a goal, you are on to the next.

At some points during this journey I don’t think I stopped to enjoy where I was, and the progress that was made. In that same vein, I didn’t always recognize that I had a cheering squad. During this journey I had a lot of people rooting for me, admiring me, and wishing me well. I remember one mom coming up to me and telling me I was her hero because I was brave enough to take classes and survive them! When I had to take a year off due to an injury, my cheering squad really kicked in and asked me how I was doing, reminded me that there is no set schedule on this journey and that they would be there to help me get back on track when I was ready.

Black Belt Graduation, December 2019

When I returned to the dojo, I was blessed with the generosity of teachers and students who were patient with me as I recalled the curriculum, blessed with my kids who encouraged me time and time again, and blessed with my team of “karate moms” aka my accountability partners who got me to the dojo when I didn’t feel like going. I hope that I said enough thank yous along the way and more importantly supported others on their journey.

The dojo has become my “Cheers” – a place where everybody knows my name. — Remember that show, where Norm walks into the bar and everyone in unison yells, “Hi Norm!” At the dojo I’ve come to know incredible friends, supporters, instructors who really love their jobs, like-minded parents, and some really cool, talented kids who are full of potential. My heart is full when I think about all the people who have been on this journey with me. Hence my next goal: Stop, see the beauty at every stage, and continue to count my blessings.


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