Getting towards the end of my story, but it isn’t over yet!
Having recovered from my knee injury (to a degree) and scored some trophy loot, I could see the next big challenge looming on the horizon – the legendary Black Belt.
Even though I had been training since my teenage years, I actually had never had the opportunity to attain it. There was always something that got in the way, such as my school shutting down, me moving to another city, and so on. Even though my Capoeira blue belt could be seen as the equivalent of a black belt (as it marks you as a graduado, a graduate) it was still not a black belt. But now the time had come.
While I was working my way through the last couple of belts before the Big Hurdle, I knew that I would need to prepare myself thoroughly and so I had a close look at my current state and what I would need to improve in order to pass all the tests that are part of the grading. Mapping out these challenges helped me focus and kept my motivation up, but it also made it quite obvious what my biggest shortcoming was. Stamina.
This was no surprise to me, as endurance training was by far the most frustrating aspect of my martial arts training. Apart from being just plain boring, the fact that I had asthma as a kid and smoked like a chimney in my teens didn’t help either. But regardless of reasons and excuses, there was no getting around it – I was now facing a major challenge that I was certain to fail if I didn’t have the stamina to carry me through it. And I didn’t want to ‘just pass’ either, I was determined to give it my all. One of the perks of having an obsessive nature is that when you decide to go for something, you tend to do it right.
But the problem was that my knee was still relatively fragile which prevented me from any extensive running, skipping rope or kicking exercises. Still, I needed to get into peak physical shape and be able to carry my own weight somehow. Then I remembered a saying I had heard long ago; ‘To get something you have never had before, you must do what you have never done’. And so I reluctantly looked at another aspect of my lifestyle that had a lot of room for improvement – my diet and eating habits.
Having no talent nor lust for cooking, a lot of my meals came either from the freezer or the nearby Chinese takeaway restaurant. But as I started to read up on how to eat healthy and shed unnecessary weight, I came to realise just how much I would benefit from cutting unnecessary carbs and avoiding processed foods. And so I changed my diet (training schedule stayed the same), and over the next few months I watched as my physique got tighter and more responsive. The endurance improved significantly from this, and coupled with numerous intervals on the punching bag – with only light load on the legs – I was finally getting ready.
Now, the process of grading for the black belt varies wildly between styles and schools, sometimes even between students. For my school, the prospective student must re-grade everything that had been learnt between the white belt and black belts as well as showcase his technical and fighting proficiency through a number of sparring rounds. You’re also required to run a certain distance within a set time, to prove you’re at an adequate fitness level. This all needs to be completed within three months time, something that sounds easy enough but becomes challenging as there is a lot to go through – in particular with the forms, that must be polished so that they shine!
When I told my Sifu that I was ready I found out that I wasn’t alone; three other brown belts had had the same idea. Of the three others, only one of them was around my age – the other two consisted of one senior student and one junior so it was good spread. Everyone faced their own personal challenges in this grading, but we all respected and supported each other. What followed next was three months of intensive training, with a daily dose of Kung Fu and a strong dedication to my new diet. When I couldn’t train at night, I’d hit the gym at lunch or do the ‘phonebooth form’ where you miniaturise the movements so that it’s almost completely a mental exercise.
At the end of each month there would be a grading event, where the four of us would take turns and each demonstrate up to five forms in one day. Between forms we would gather at the back of the school, to maintain the necessary focus and prepare for the next form. Knowing what the others were going through and supporting each other at crunch time became a bit of a bonding experience, and I appreciated their company. For my own part, the biggest issue I had was the running test as making the run on time would need me to go faster than what my knee would allow. Thankfully my Sifu was understanding in that regard and allowed me to replace the run with additional sparring rounds instead.
During these months, I developed a sort of love-hate relationship with my training. Having the constant pressure on me to perform at the highest level eventually became frustrating, as it’s not like the rest of life slows down while you go through these things. There were times when I felt I couldn’t breathe from all the expectations from training, work, parenting and so on. But on the other hand I loved every day, as I was continuously immersed in my passion and felt more at home than anywhere else (I even started up this blog). And you need to struggle for the black belt, to make sacrifices and fight for it, as nothing in life worth having comes easy. Ya gotta want it, kid.
And then came the day when the dust had settled and the four of us had all proven ourselves through the sparring and showing our skills in empty-hand forms, staffs, swords, daggers and halberds. You’d think that we were preparing to go full-on medieval on a neighbouring country. I don’t think any of the receivers of their belts were as happy as yours truly, since the journey to this belt had taken a long time with many side roads and hurdles. But there I was, finally a proud owner of a black belt that I felt that I could live up to.
Obviously I celebrated this achievement with a small mountain of junk food and some well-earned rest before I would even think about what would come next. Because no matter the belt, no matter the level of success, the journey should always go on.