Black belt

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…

― Theodore Roosevelt

I started my Hapkido journey to black belt with my sons Andrew and Stephen. For 5 years we trained for several nights a week with each lesson lasting for 2 hours. We also attended almost all the seminars that were available to us during this period and trained at open sessions held in our local martial arts club. On top of this we would practice at home. In short it was much more than a hobby it was a way of life. 

When we were close to our black belt gradings I decided for various reasons that I was not happy with the association we were in. I shopped around for someone to grade us for black belt and was horrified at some of the offers I received. Some were willing to award black belts without even meeting us provided I paid the fee. I even had an offer to be upgraded to 2nd dan 6 months after receiving my 1st dan if I wrote an essay on what I liked about Hapkido. All this without any physical testing.

I eventually heard that Grand Master He Young Kimm was visiting Norwich and enquired about the possibility of grading with him. I was told that he was willing to grade me and my two sons.

I was nervous about the grading as there were people from all over Europe attending and I didn’t know what to expect. For several months before our black belt grading the first thing I did on waking was to run through all the techniques in the syllabus at least once in my head. Last thing at night I would do the same before I went to sleep though admittedly sometimes I’d be asleep before I got to the end. During the day whenever I had some spare time I would mentally repeat them again. Another thing I did when training on my own was to train on a kick bag using a pulse meter. I would get my pulse rate up to 180bpm and keep it there for an hour. I had decided that I couldn’t forecast what was going to happen but I would not be let down by a lack of fitness, practice or mental preparation.

On the day of the grading we attended an all day seminar in Norwich in which we did a lot of techniques while being observed by Grand Master Kimm. In the evening our grading was held. As well as other things this involved performing every technique that we had learned in our 5 years of training from 12th keup to 1st keup. At the end we had to move up and down the dojang performing various kicks and combinations for what seemed an incredible amount of time. I remember thinking that we were being tested to see whether we would break. I was pleased by this because rightly or wrongly I thought that if we’d already failed the grading would have been stopped before this. I didn’t care at all about how tired I felt because hopefully 5 years of dedication and hard work were about to pay off. The technical part was over and all we could do now was to keep going and do our best. If we’d done enough then later that night we would be rewarded with our black belts. I genuinely feel that at this stage I would have collapsed before I gave in.

After the grading Grand Master Kimm stood up and walked out without saying a word. We waited nervously for 30 minutes until he eventually reappeared holding our certificates.

After many years I can still remember driving back to our motel and thinking “That’s it we’re black belts and no matter what happens in the future no one can ever take that away from us.”

The value of it wasn’t all about the belts or certificates (although these were obviously very important to us). It also came from knowing what we’d done and overcome to achieve them. There is no way that you can go through five years of hard work and dedication and not be changed by it.

A couple of years ago I was approached by a parent whose child attended 1 session a week and had been training for about a year. She was unhappy that our club grading’s weren’t held more frequently. She told me that her son’s friend had been training in another club for 2 years and was going for his black belt next. Some people say that this kind of thing devalues a black belt. I personally think that if you’ve truly earned your black belt then anything other people do to gain theirs should be of no significance to you. I believe that the value you personally place on your black belt will be directly proportional to the time, effort and sacrifice you put in to achieve it.

I don’t think there has ever been a time when it was easier to get a black belt. There are instances of “genuine black belt certificates” being sold on eBay. I’ve heard of Taekwondo black belts gaining a Hapkido black belt by attending a weekend seminar.

Fortunately many students and their parents realise the value of the traditional martial arts system. They know that martial arts isn’t all about collecting techniques . They know it’s about learning and ingraining a technique until it is second nature before moving on to the next one. Even then it will be revisited time and time again. This all takes time and the patience developed along the way is all a part of the process. They also realise that gaining a black belt is not just about reaching a destination, it’s also about the journey. It’s not all about the status of having a black belt it’s about enjoying the training and camaraderie of like minded people along the way. It’s about having discipline, creating a positive healthy lifestyle, learning humility, respect, tolerance, patience and self control. It’s about the confidence that comes from repeatedly doing things that you previously never thought yourself capable of. It’s about overcoming adversity and realising that you’re a much stronger person than you ever dreamed you could be.