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The Blue Belt Slump

One of my black belt students commented the other day about a nemesis which surfaces from time to time. It was an old conversation revisited and it goes like this; If you practice a martial art long enough you will hit a plateau and cannot seem to improve. George Leonard contributed a whole chapter to it in his book entitled:”Mastery,” however this is not a critique of his beautifully written book. I’ve both seen and experienced this plateau. No only in Aikido but I also noticed it in Ji Do Kwan. I’ve always called it the “blue belt slump.”

A student may learn very well for about a year obtaining 4th kyu or 3rd kyu and suddenly seems frozen in that position and can’t seem to progress. The harder they try the more stagnant they seem to become. They may even seem to regress. It is at this point that the instructor must be the delicate and insightful leader necessary to guide him or her through the rapids and onto solid ground. How exactly is this done?

My teacher, the late Grandmaster C. K. Kim once told me that when students are doing “well” to critique them hard and when they are doing poorly, praise them. In today’s environment many people apply the “good job,” phrase anytime someone performs anything even remotely adequate. I have never subscribed to that philosophy. Continuous praising can lead to a dulling of said praise so that when a significantly effective performance occurs there may be no way to acknowledge it. Plus, at some point I believe one must learn to develop self-confidence which causes self-satisfaction to grow from within. That said, I think Master Kim was talking about getting students to reach above and beyond their normal capabilities at a time when their positive performance enhanced enthusiasm could sustain the critique necessary for their advancement.

As a student progresses, my job is to create a continuously subtle stress and at times, a very large amount of it. This is akin to planting a seed and allowing the subtle pressure of the dirt covering it to cause enough resistance for the seed to erupt into growth. A new plant is born, much as we effect change as the fire of stress forges us. Too soft, no growth, too hard and the student loses his way, breaks down or quits. Poised between too much pressure and too little pressure, that is the level at which the insightful sensei must operate, right on the edge.

The typical student does not know that his sensei may hit a plateau himself where he cannot set the correct altitude for his student to work.