Dear Adult Beginners: It Gets Better

For whatever reason, you’ve decided to join a dojo. Maybe your kid trains there, or a friend does. Maybe this is the year you get stronger. Maybe there’s a sadder reason that you’d rather not talk about. For whatever reason you joined, there will hopefully be many reasons to stay.

It is difficult to find exact figures for how many people get from white to black belt. A quick google search churns out mostly forum discussions, and it seems to be between 1 and 5%. Probably less than a third make it to their second dan. Some styles have a lot of belts between white and black, and some have very few, but with longer waiting periods. Overall though, the attrition rate for martial arts is ridiculous, but I can understand why so few people stay. I am hoping, though, that I can maybe convince you to stay.

David Wong wrote an amazing article titled How The Karate Kid Ruined The Modern World, and he sums up one of the major reasons why people don’t stick with something:

The world demands more. So, so much more. How have we gotten to adulthood and failed to realize this? Why would our expectations of the world be so off? I blame the montages. Five breezy minutes, from sucking at karate to being great at karate, from morbid obesity to trim, from geeky girl to prom queen, from terrible garage band to awesome rock band.

In the real world, the winners of the All Valley Karate Championship in The Karate Kid would be the kids who had been at it since they were in elementary school. The kids who act like douchebags because their parents made them skip video games and days out with their friends and birthday parties so they could practice, practice, practice. And that’s just what it takes to get “pretty good” at it.

Nothing in this image has anything to do with karate.

Nothing in this image has anything to do with karate.

Everyone thinks they’re a training montage away from being good at something, but getting a black belt within a good federation is a years-long process. (You can get one in 6 weeks at a terrible McDojo, but that’s a whole different blog post.) It takes anything between five and ten years. In my case, it took eight whole years, and that’s with regular, consistent training and the work of several teachers.

But that work is invisible to someone has just joined.

The adult beginner sees other adults with senior rankings, and it looks attainable. And the seniors, we sometimes look so graceful. (Well, I don’t, but there are those that do.) We do these advanced kata, and we move like Sensei does, and we know the terms. It isn’t great to ever be the junior, especially when in other areas of your life, you’re senior in every respect. Being shown how to do basic stepping by someone ten years younger – that stings a bit.

I want you to read two articles. I want you to read this one by Jesse at KaratebyJesse.com, called How to Feel Good About Sucking at Karate. If you read the comments, there are fifth dans and higher admitting that they feel that way all the time. I see instructors getting corrected, people who have been training longer than twenty or thirty years. The learning never stops. Unlike corporate, for example, there’s never really a plateau where you’ve learned everything there is to know at your level. There’s a hundred years of research, ideas and history that informs your training. Of course no one expects you to scratch the surface for a few years. And remember: there’s no rush.

There are no deadlines in karate that you have to chase.

It seems like shameless self-promotion, but I’d also like you to read this piece I wrote about Impostor Syndrome. It was after a really pathetic night of training, when I honestly wondered if I had been given my black belt out of pity. I want you to know that that feeling comes, and it will go. And that there will also be days when some things fall into place, and you will hear the angels sing, and you will deserve those precious, bright moments.

But as an adult beginner, the constant corrections are overwhelming, and sometimes humiliating. It’s hard not to feel like a failure, and to think that no one else has ever been this bad at karate, or aikido, or judo, or whatever you choose to do. But you know what? There isn’t a senior who wasn’t a junior, and who doesn’t learn every day from the junior students they teach. You’re not slowing anyone down by asking for help. 

There are a lot of good reasons to do martial arts, and I hope that you will stick with it. When it is hard, push through. On the other side of frustration lies progress. You will be amazed how many people really do care that you stay. No senior worth their belt will refuse to help you, and if the seniors in the dojo are offish or rude, then get out and try another dojo.

In a year’s time, you will be glad you stuck with it, and in five years’ time, you will wonder why you ever thought of quitting. I promise. So don’t be scared to ask for help, and always train with someone more senior than you. You’ll learn a great deal, you’ll progress quicker than you expect, and you’ll find out more about yourself than you ever imagined.

Remember:

Credit: Karate by Jesse.com

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