Why does a physical education school like ours have goals such as curriculum or minimum class requirements? After all, sometimes students come in who are quite gifted physically. They have innate balance and control or they are workhorses or sometimes they have skills gleaned from gymnastics and they already move like black belts.
Is the curriculum and the minimum class requirement artificial? Is it designed to draw out and extract monthly enrollment fees from parents? We often worry that this is what parents are thinking when they ask, “Why isn’t my kid moving up?” They don’t necessarily see what we see. It’s not just about the material.
Becoming a black belt isn’t simply about obtaining knowledge of martial art techniques. If you wanted to learn all the black belt techniques and forms you could read the text book and get it all. Becoming a black belt is a process that requires sweat. The analogy SBN likes to use is “forging steel” repeatedly hammering and refining the student in fire. It’s a slow process.
Our graduates who have stayed in touch over the years often reflect on the stories SBN Lee told…stories of moral challenges, stories of hard decisions to be made, stories about how to approach life determined to make the right choices to live right and find enjoyment in simple pleasures.
These belts and these requirements are like brakes. They slow the student down long enough to allow their mental knowledge of the material to sink in on a deep level to where it sticks, to where it grows into muscular memory and deep into the bone. A serious student should be able to feel their movements arise organically, not mechanically. Falling correctly should be second nature.
As a black belt who has been training for ten years, I still have moments where I have to “think” how to fall. I started my training late, but I see it in children too…that moment of, “uh, which way do I fall again?” Then, to my dismay, I see them throw themselves some which way just to be ‘done’, probably the worst thing to do…setting themselves up for injury.
And isn’t that the whole point? Building a strong body (and mind and spirit) free from injury? That takes time and patience.
Our policy is simple. It is based on a minimum number of classes. In the case from white to yellow, that number is thirty. (Every other belt is forty.) If you child comes to class twice a week, it will take at LEAST four months to be simply meet the minimum. Six months is not unusual. They still must be able to perform “ki cho hyung” or “white belt form.”
If your child comes three times a week they will meet the requirement faster, but it doesn’t mean they will know the material. Parents must emphasize to their children that everyone is different and if their classmates are moving up, they do not need to worry. As long as they show up and try they will get it. Everyone is different. There is a VAST difference between six year olds and eight year olds and often because these groups are mixed, parents start to think their child is ‘falling behind.’
Additionally there is the issue of when SBN Lee teaches material. We both firmly believe that the reason SBN Lee is such a great and engaging teacher is precisely because his classes are not “rote”. He reads the energy of the room, he assesses who is in attendance and what they “need.” Yes, we could have a student black belt teach JUST a forms class. But we are fairly certain that if you told your child he was going to class JUST to study and learn the form, he/she would not want to come. That part of the class is hard and slow.
We have found that the best way is to provide students with variation. We teach them skills in a way that engages their imagination and makes them excited to show up. If you ask what part they love most, we believe most kids will say, “sword tag” or “falling” skills that are incredibly valuable without being tedious. Of course sometimes white belts make the mistake of thinking they “know it all” since we do not get into advanced material.
This is also why we offer our sparring classes. They allow students something extra to work on while the curriculum sinks in. We always recommend that students come three times a week. After all, the first form requires a lot from children. Like a dance routine, there are shifts, pivots, balance, and a lot of memorization. From the outside looking in, it seems simple, until you try to learn it yourself.
Finally, there is the issue of age. Yes, a student could start at four years of age and theoretically get a black belt by the time he or she is ten. We have amazing ten year old black belts. But then what? Now there is a new set of challenges, basically a new body is forming. The skeleton elongates leaving the natural flexibility behind. A new brain forms with new hormones, new desires. A decision must be made…continue to forge, continue to mold?
If we’ve done our job, this challenge can be met. We have some amazing high school students who exemplify this new adaptation. But it’s a hard switch over and it takes determination and the willingness to essentially start over. That’s why martial arts, like yoga, is a life long pursuit. Just when you think you’ve got it, your life circumstances change requiring your art to change.