Tag Archives: Aikido

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.

Switching Arts

The training and study of several different martial arts just to be able to say I know them is not my style. I believe in being practical. Multi-tasking is not conducive to my wellbeing. Multi-tasking leads to many problems.

After encouragement from my brother-in-law from whom I borrowed several black belt magazines, I stepped on the martial arts path. What I read about people like Gogen ‘the cat” Yamaguchi, Mas Oyama and Tsutomu Ohshima was impressive. Their many accomplishments were inspirational. All of the stories and articles published in those magazines were fascinating and made me want to train in karate. Back then the mystique of karate was bigger than life. To think that a man could shatter bricks and wooden boards with his bare hands was almost unbelievable.

I joined an Okinawan dojo which taught Shorin ryu Karate. After six months I switched to the Korean Tae Kwon Do system called Ji Do Kwan in which I spent eighteen years of intensive development.

I trained constantly, in the dojo and in my back yard. However, as the months passed into years I noticed something strange happening. Little by little a feeling slowly began to develop and it gnawed at the edge of my consciousness. Something was missing.

I began to research deeper but it wasn’t easy. Books on the arts were not easy to come by and magazines was non-existent except for Black Belt Magazine. Later other magazines began to appear. What was missing was the spiritual dimension. No one seemed to be teaching it. Not even my teacher who was a seminary student at the time. He was also a little younger that me. To his credit, he did insist that we run if possible rather than stand and fight. And that if we could not run, win. Philosophically that principle can be carried to a spiritual level if you are an evolved being. Being older, I had already been through the military, was more disciplined and got the message, but most of my dojo-mates were in their late teens and early twenties. They most likely missed it.

In my belief, the omission of philosophical and/or spiritual discussion [and practice] is what led to the almost total lack of humility, discipline and respect demonstrated at karate tournaments in the late seventies and early eighties. That lack of development was what pushed me out of the tournament environment and encouraged me to pursue the change taking place within me. Disliking what they had produced, I wanted nothing more to do with competitions. An inner tranquility was taking place and I wanted my art to reflect it. Karate and Ji Do Kwan have that element but the students in my dojo environment did not, they just wanted to fight(free sparring). I wanted internal energy development and to guarantee the elimination of competition I considered the sword but could not find a school. I then considered Chi gung but the schools I visited wanted to teach me to the entire spectrum of gung fu and I already knew how to fight. Looking back I remembered those black belt magazine articles on Uyeshiba and Aikido and began a search in Philly which led me to the Arch Street dojo. Ki development was what I was looking for.

But even in Aikido I encountered a problem. Ki development was taught, however I was told that in order to get to more classes for that training I would need rank to enter advance classes. Rank was something I was not seeking so I had to make a choice. As you can see for yourself I made a positive choice.

Now some of you may be thinking that I did not teach my Ji Do Kwan students spiritually which may be the reason they just wanted to spar all the time. Well, consider this: I pushed and pushed relentlessly and lost some students. One of my students left for a period and when he returned commented regarding my loss of students. He had entered a seminary, to gain insight as he put it. He said I was losing students because I was like a 220 volt circuit and they were 110 volt toasters burning out as they could not handle the voltage I was generating.

Comments please.