I love teaching taekwondo. Almost every day, without fail, a moment happens that is truly great. Every now and then though, something happens that makes you realize you could never be this happy doing anything else. Yesterday I was lucky enough to have one of those moments.
Our first class back at the end of each testing cycle is our advanced juniors class. Yesterday they were standing around talking to each other like they always do. One of our Senior Brown belt boys walked up to everyone who came in without a new belt (whether they didn’t pass or just hadn’t picked up their belt at the award ceremony) and asked, “Did you fail? It’s ok if you did. I did too and so did this other student. It’s not too bad. I’ve failed before”. He wanted to make sure that everyone that didn’t pass knew they weren’t alone. He’s only 8 years-old, but he completely gets it.
Testings are always slightly bittersweet as an instructor. If it were just the no changes, then it really wouldn’t be that big of a deal, because I know if the students keep trying they will eventually succeed. The hardest part of testing every time is that e-mail (or two) I know is coming. “So-and-so is having a really tough time, so we’ve decided to let him/her take a break for now”. There is a reason we call it a no change. It may take two tries, or it may take ten, but if you keep working hard eventually that change will happen and you will pass. By giving up and walking away that no change turns into a failure, and why would you ever choose failure when success is an option?
A no change stinks. Trust me, I get it. Each testing we ask our Senior Red belts to write an essay on what being a black belt means to them. This testing cycle I took some time to think about what being a black belt really means to me. Here is what I came up with:
The most important thing my parents ever taught me is that some days your best is not good enough, and that’s ok. This testing was one of those days for you. It doesn’t mean you didn’t try hard, it doesn’t mean you’re not awesome, and it doesn’t make your parents or your instructors any less proud of you.
I know exactly how you feel right now. I have an 8th Degree for a dad and a 7th Degree for a mom. That means unlimited private lessons and always having someone to stay late or get up early and hold boards for you. That still wasn’t enough to save me from two no changes at Brown belt, two at Red belt, and two at 2nd Degree Decided Black Belt.
This past May I was lucky enough to get to test with my two brothers at the Black Belt Conference in Fort Lauderdale. My brother Luke stayed up late and got up early to hold boards for me in the hotel room. I didn’t pass then either. I tried my best, but on that day it wasn’t enough, and that was ok. My parents were just as proud of me as they were of both Mr. Lacys, who did pass, and I was proud of all the hard work I put into testing and getting ready for it.
Taekwondo is not easy. If it were, being a black belt would not be anything special. After all, a black belt is the same as the white belt you got your first day of class – it’s just been dyed and sewn with some gold thread. This may not be your first no change and it almost certainly won’t be your last. I should know – I’ve had seven and am still counting on a few more along the way.
Over 10 years ago when I got my first no change I had a very important choice to make. Your first no change more than anything shows you how tough Taekwondo truly is. It is tough to work hard for something and not get it on the first try. It’s tough to come back to your first class and have someone ask why you’re not getting a new belt. It’s tough to be happy for other people who succeeded when you didn’t. All these things may be tough, but I promise you they are not impossible.
When I got that first no change and realized how tough Taekwondo really is, I decided to be even tougher. Six no changes later, I would not change my decision for anything in the world. I love coming to work each day, I love teaching, and I love being able to watch students finally succeed and earn their new rank. Now it is your turn to make a choice. This is the moment that defines what it means to be a black belt.
Not everyone is meant to be a black belt. Less than 3% of people who ever start a martial art actually end up getting their black belt, but I know you can do it. Mrs. Lacy and I have watched you in class for a long time now, and I’ve seen for myself that you’re tough too. A no change is not the end of the world, and it’s certainly not the end of your taekwondo career. Take a minute to celebrate how hard you worked to get ready for this testing and how hard you’re going to work to get ready for the next one. Then, come back to class. If you aren’t here, we can’t help you prepare to test again, and the next testing is only two short months away.
All of the Lacys have been in your shoes. In fact, the eldest, handsomest Mr. Lacy no changed four testings in a row at one point. He later went on to open his own school, co-found a taekwondo organization, and be the highest rank in Taekwondo America. This no change is not the end of your taekwondo journey – it is the start of a new journey to make your best even better.