A Coming of Age Story

2nd Dan paper by Duncan Ziegler

I started Tae Kwon Do in the winter of 2002. I was seven years old and just entering second grade. My good friend, Adam Van Wert, invited me to my first class. I enjoyed it enough to come a second time, and a third, and by then I was hooked. Adam was always a rank ahead of me and so I was constantly striving to catch up and improve myself. Knowing that he had attained the next rank, I knew that if I put my mind to it, I could as well. I tested for my black belt in the winter of 2007, half way through my seventh grade year.

In short, it took me a little less than five years to go from white belt to black belt. At the tender age of 13, I had attained the highest rank among the colored belts. The black belt symbolized that I had mastered the basics and was now ready to help impart that knowledge to others.

I spent the next seven years attending classes when I could. But Tae Kwon Do took a back seat in my life because I had other commitments that took up a majority of my time, and so I was unable to attend class often and was absent altogether for months at a time.

After my senior year in high school, many of my commitments receded and I was able to once again commit more time to Tae Kwon Do. I was lucky that Miss Miranda Theriot was attending the same college as I, Colorado State University, and we were able to keep up with practicing over the next nine months.

This summer, in preparation for my second degree, I have gone to every class that I could. As I hopped from school to school, I noticed a subtle difference in the way that adult black belts and young black belts are treated. Adult black belts are almost unanimously given respect and authority by the class as a whole, which is good. The younger black belts, on the other hand, have the black belt but must still prove that they deserve the respect and authority that comes with the rank.

This is a new problem for the Mountain Academy of Martial Arts. When I first started studying Tae Kwon Do, the school was churning out a fair number of black belts, but few of them were sticking around. This was especially true of the younger black belts, those being under the age of 18. These young students would achieve their goal of becoming a black belt through a combination of determination, parental motivation, and peer pressure. But the next goal, second degree, seemed so far away that it was almost impossible to attain. This, combined with life suddenly becoming significantly more complicated in the early teen years, be it with band, or Boy Scouts, or baseball, meant that Tae Kwon Do became less of a priority. Almost all younger black belts stopped coming as other commitments took the place of Tae Kwon Do in their lives. This nearly happened to me, and it did happen to my friend Adam and many others over the years.

There are several reasons why our school had a hard time holding onto younger black belts. The first and most obvious reason is, as stated above, a lack of either push factors in the form of motivation by the student or their parents, and/or lack of pull factors in the form of an attainable goal.

The second reason is almost as simple – there was no peer group for younger black belts to identify with, and become part of. In my own experience, once I reached black belt, I felt ostracized and separated from the lower belts. I felt that I could no longer associate with them because I was a higher rank and had duties and responsibilities above the colored belts. It seemed that my old peer group of younger colored belts suddenly realized that I had new authority, and was no longer one of them. This sudden, dramatic change in perception of rank and authority, led to a sense of isolation. Where there once had been a connection to the lower belts, there was now a rift.

This leads right into the last and most difficult point to describe– young black belts face a unique challenge in living up to the new responsibility of being an instructor. They must actively cultivate the respect and authority that a black belt quintessentially entails but that is given more freely to an adult black belt. This is an unparalleled situation, because the young black belt has all of the rights and responsibilities of an adult black belt, but they do not yet have the same level of respect and therefore have a diminished level of authority. This is especially true when a younger black belt is trying to teach an adult student. It is, not incorrectly, assumed by most people that a child has less experience or wisdom than an adult, which makes it hard for an adult to take a child seriously as a teacher. Therefore, the child must constantly work to show that they have both the knowledge of the martial art, as well as the authority to teach it.

Sometimes respect is given automatically and other times it must be worked for and earned. It is my experience that adults are often given this respect much more readily than those that are younger, who must constantly work to build this respect with their students. Even if a young instructor has had their belt longer than an adult instructor, the adult is still given deference, while the young instructor has to work for it with each class, simply because of age.

Having only recently become an adult, I have a unique insight into both the adult and the child side of being a black belt. Looking back, there are two large differences between being an adult and being a child. The first and most obvious is that adults are more mature and can control themselves and those around them better. Directly related to this is that adults have a larger reservoir of life experience to draw upon. This give them the wisdom and knowledge to understand and cope with a variety of situations. But within the confines of our school, we have agreed to a set of requirements for black belt, both in knowledge of the martial arts as well as maturity of the student gaining the rank. We have set these standards for black belt regardless of age. But there is a distinct double standard based on age for black belts after they have reached this prestigious rank. As the number of black belt adults and children alike increases, so will this double standard.

It is apparent that the school has improved its retention of younger black belts. This is partly a cumulative effect of having other younger black belts continue, which gives the new black belts a peer group to which to attach themselves. But I am unsure if this new generation of black belts is getting the respect that they deserve from either the students below them or the other black belts in our community.

There is no easy remedy for this problem. All that the adult portion of our community can do is to be more cognizant of the problem, while the younger black belts must strive to prove to themselves and to the class that they are worthy of the trust, respect, and responsibility that the class and the black belt community as a whole bestows upon them. Finally, we, as a black belt community, must treat the younger generation as equal and just as valued, because if we do not respect our younger members, why should our students?

  • Imy Rich

    Nice paper, Duncan! You have given me so much to think about here.