In May 1994, I reached the goal of 1st degree black belt that all of you are striving for even as I write this. I tested alongside my younger brother in front of a panel of judges that consisted of my father, Master Cabrera, and his first instructor, Master Robert Sparks (at that testing, my mom tested for her 2nd degree black belt—we were a black belt family!).
Even though I had known my dad all of my life, and Master Sparks for a good portion as well, I still felt nervous about taking that next step. Being a black belt is pinnacle of our martial arts system and nationally the industry-wide average is that only 3% of all students who ever take martial arts classes actually continue training until they reach black belt. I wasn’t worried about my abilities, I knew I was ready. No, the reason I was nervous had to do with the responsibility that comes with being a black belt.
I’ve been a black belt now, for a longer period of my life than I was not. Looking back I still feel the responsibility of being a black belt as much as I did when I first tied that belt with one gold bar around my waist. In 1994, I was ten years old, so much of my felt responsibility had to do with performance and behavior. Today, at 31, the responsibility I feel as a black belt comes from somewhere else.
As black belts, we still have to be the example for which the juniors should aspire to. We have to be very careful about what we say and how we say it so that we demonstrate respect towards everyone. Respect must first be given to others before it can be received. In class, our technical proficiency is what students look at as the way Taekwon-Do is supposed to be and when I demonstrate, I still give my best effort because each and everyone of our students deserve the best.
Beyond just those two basic things black belts have a responsibility to make a positive impact in the world around them. Early on, maybe influenced by the fact that both my parents ran a martial arts school, I felt that I would have the biggest impact in people’s lives by teaching them the tools they need to be safe and successful in life. I hope that the team here at Sidekicks successful in that respect to each and everyone one of you. However, not everyone aspires to be a martial arts instructor and when you reach black belt and don’t teach that doesn’t relinquish you from your responsibility to be a positive impact in the lives of others.
Through the application of the tenets of Taekwon-Do, you should influence everyone in a positive way, from your children, your friends, your parents, to the bag boy at the supermarket.
I have said this to many of you before, it’s one of my favorite things to say, each and every person has the potential to be a black belt. Some schools pride themselves on the fact that few achieve the rank of black belt, I think that is a serious error in judgment on their part. My usual thoughts on them are that they must not be a very good martial arts instructor because they can’t get people to black belt in their own program.
A martial arts program should be difficult, rigorous, and tough and the bar for black belt should be held high, just like it is here, but I feel that everyone can reach that bar and as an instructor it’s my job to help them get there and not let them give up. In my opinion the benefits of the martial arts are too great to quit after 6 months or a year.
As a martial arts instructor I have now overseen the instruction of a new generation of black belts. Since 2003, I’ve promoted more than 120 of my students to black belt. They’re proficient martial artists, but more importantly, they’re quality people.
Of the youth that have earned their black belts, I take great pride in watching them (usually on Facebook) go to college, earn degrees, and take their place as highly productive citizens in their communities. All of that would usually not be possible if the people that invested in their lives hadn’t taken their responsibilities seriously.
The greatest compliment that a student can give his or her instructor is to surpass their instructor’s abilities. As martial artists and black belts the greatest positive influence we’ll have is not through how high we can kick or how well we can defend ourselves, but in the depth and strength of the relationships we develop. And the greatest thing that can ever happen is that because of our genuine caring for others and our willingness to accept responsibility for the job of improving the world around us that someone we influence surpasses us, even higher than in our wildest dreams is certainly the ultimate measure and legacy we should want to leave.
So here’s to each and every one of you becoming the martial artist I’ve only dreamed about and to the black belt I know we all can become.