Red Belt Syndrome Alert, Part 1

We call it red belt syndrome, because that’s the rank at which it usually strikes. If you’re just climbing the ladder, it will infect you sooner or later. It most often strikes after three years of intense training, so if you’ve been in a martial art longer than that, you’ve gone through it. If you’re still practicing, it means….

Do you know what I’m talking about? It comes after you’ve realized that the occasional boot to the head or strike to the solar plexus-or broken nose, even-is not the end of the world. It comes after you’re able to break boards consistently. It comes when you know so many different patterns/forms that you should be mixing them up-but you don’t, you remember each and every one. It comes when you’re regularly assisting in class and you start getting groupies: junior students who think you’re the man (or woman). It’s exacerbated by good tournament performance.

It’s basically a case of an overdeveloped ego. And hey, I’m not condemning you. My brother had it bad; I had it worse. I once had seven red belts in my club all going through it at the same time. A fellow instructor had to deal with 12 cases simultaneously a couple of years ago. We survived, so did most of the students. Red belt syndrome is rarely fatal, but three in 10 cases usually end in termination of training. After all, why should you bother coming to class when you already know it all?

Red belt syndrome strikes the most talented and the most hardworking students first — lazy, unmotivated students usually don’t last long enough to be in danger. And its causes are obvious. Your first years of martial arts training have the highest learning curve. In a very short period of time, you go from ground zero to performing jumping piercing kicks and throws worthy of the silver screen. You remember how little you knew, and so you are sure that now you know a lot… pretty much all there is to know.

At this level, you also have enough knowledge to start being more critical of your own instructor. As a beginner and a white belt, you simply don’t know any better.

As a red belt (or equivalent), you start to question. You also start to notice more things, like, for example, the fact that your jumping reverse hook kick is just as good, if not better, than the jumping reverse hook kick of the black belts. God, you’re good! Wasn’t that last class really boring? If you were teaching it, it’d be a lot more fun.

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