The blue belt blues.

In the martial arts students often stall in their progress, they feel frustrated and often struggle with motivation, this frequently happens at blue belt, but it can happen to any students of any grade.

Why do we stall?

Typically when we start karate our learning curve is very steep- we feel challenged, we feel great as we grow and improve, we have fun learning new things. As a white belt we have to get a grip of all the basic techniques, we are also introduced to a range of self-defence techniques to escape various situations. Then as we approach yellow belt training shifts towards more partner drills and we must learn how to put the basics into context and also time our blocks against opponents. When we finally get to yellow belt we are introduced to sparring which introduces whole new sets of variables we must contend with. Not mention we must twist our hips, time our strikes with our feet. To get to orange belt we have to learn the challenging skill of counter-attacking as well as learn kata. Then around green belt katas double in length and grade self-defences get a lot more challenging.

Generally, when we get to blue our learning curve begins to taper off. There are some new skills to master but equally, we are now expected to gain a deeper understanding of the skills we already know. Our instructors demand our techniques are sharper and stronger. We need to be more decisive in sparring and adopt a much wider range of both offensive and defensive strategies. Especially at blue belt, we demand more and more that you get better at skills you already know, this is where many students start to feel frustrated as they struggle to grasp how to get better at what they already know how to do. Karate is about refinement. It is an art which demands self-mastery, it is this attention to detail that will avail a student to whole new levels speed, power, timing and effectiveness.

This phenomenon is doesn’t only happen to blue belts though. Often students will struggle with getting their orange stripes because they need to refine their sidekicks- they must learn that just chucking their leg up to the side is not enough- in order to drive away an advancing attacker you have to twist the hips and supporting foot at the exact right time. More students again will struggle with achieving an orange belt because of problems with twisting their hips with reverse punches.

If you fail to make the changes necessary to perform these skills you will not grade no matter how long you train. And as a result, you risk frustration as you stagnate, having to repeat the same training over and over and over.

Generally, we stall because of a lack of improvement. For lower grades, the lack of improvement usually stems from these two sources

  • Not knowing or understanding what they need to change to improve. Sometimes students can’t grasp what they need to do or they don’t understand how to make their body do it. This usually only applies to small children as karate is not rocket science, and through demonstrations and exercises like hitting pad and shield most students can grasp what they need to do with a little time but most of all by applying themselves. Which leads to the next point.
  • Being resistant to change. Some students are told over and over again what they need to do to improve but they resist or ignore instruction. Many don’t realise that the correction their instructors are giving them over and over is what is causing them to be held back or the primary reason behind their lack of improvement. Instead, they choose to repeat the same errors over and over and wonder why they are feeling frustrated with the lack of progress.

For higher grades, the lack of improvement can come a lack of a new project. Our grading syllabus has been carefully engineered to keep on challenging students with new skills to master, but as explained above karate is also about constantly improving and refining things you already know too. This is where the frustration often sets in.

The Cure

The most important thing to understand about training is that you never feel frustrated or lack motivation when you are learning, growing and improving. In fact, probably the most addictive thing about martial arts training is the feeling of improving. When we feel we are getting better we are motivated and we want to do more.

So the cure to the blue belt blues, or any frustration or just about any lack of motivation is improvement. When you are growing and improving you’re motivated and excited.

So you must do the things that will make you improve.

You are not bored with training.

The big trap is thinking that you’re feeling frustrated or demotivated must mean that you are bored with training. In the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of cases, you’re only feeling bored because you are not improving. As a result, your instructors are making you go through the same things over and over because of your lack of improvement and now you think training is boring and repetitious. But if when you are training you constantly seek improvements big and small repetitious training is rewarding, not boring and more importantly the quicker you improve the faster your instructor will move you on to new and exciting skills sets.

Making an improvement in your technique and punching or kicking faster or stronger than you could before is fun.

Sparring is fun, especially when you improve and start winning more and more encounters.

Mastering movements and katas is rewarding, as you feel good about yourself having developed self-mastery and you are looking and feeling sharp.

The fact is training is intrinsically enjoyable and rewarding. If you have reached orange belt the probability is that you enjoyed doing those things. The fact that they are fun has not changed! It is your own lack of improvement which has led to your frustration or feeling you are bored.

Another way of thinking about this is imagining you are a black belt constantly learning new techniques- sweeping and throwing opponents on the floor, slipping and dodging opponents attacks and counter-attacking them with fast punches and kicks. Does that sound boring? It is as exciting as it sounds. So it is not that karate is boring, it is your lack of progress which is frustrating you.

What must you do.

You must do the things that help you improve. If you do these things consistently it won’t be long before training becomes rewarding and exciting again.

  1. Adopt changes quickly. We have all been guilty of our instructor having to give us the same correction twice because we didn’t fix things the first time they told us. How quickly you can adopt corrections and changes is probably the number one skill in maintaining a strong learning curve and therefore staying motivated. In contrast to that, most students that complain of being bored are also the ones that have been told to fix the same thing over and over and over again. That is literally a recipe for frustration for you and your instructor. In order to adopt changes quickly, you must maintain your focus on what you have been told. Concentrate hard on fixing what is wrong and ask for help if you are struggling to make the changes asked of you. You must also maintain your changes by continuing to focus on them for weeks until they become second nature.

  2. Train with improvement in mind. Definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If you keep on doing things the same way you are not going to improve. Improvement must always be at the forefront of your mind. So every time you have to do ten punches, your goal is not to do ten punches it is to do them slightly better, slightly faster, slightly stronger than you have done them before. Small improvements, trying to be that little bit better than you were before will lead to a big improvement over time. The second big way to improve is to listen to your instructor, they are constantly giving away tips and hints to improve your technique. Pay attention and implement these tips as diligently as you can.

  3. Train more. Here is a really important tip, when you are frustrated or unmotivated you naturally feel like training less. However, the only cure is to improve! So training less is like trying to go faster by taking your foot off the accelerator. You are stacking the odds against yourself considerably by training less or not training hard. Especially be wary when you start making excuses like your leg hurts, your tummy aches or you’re too tired or busy.  The number one sign you have the blues is  you take every opportunity to miss a class. You need to do the opposite- train every opportunity you get, push through your frustration and discipline yourself to train hard especially when you do not feel like it.

  4. Train with different people and instructors- Especially attend combat classes and advanced classes. Training with new people, new instructors or a different class format, will not just keep things fresh but it will most likely challenge and motivate you and also expose you to new insights that will help you improve.

  5. New project. Rather than just showing up to training and hoping your instructor will share something new and amazing with you,  you should work on personal projects all the time. This might be learning a new skill set like new kata or a new technique like throwing or sidestepping. In the case of learning a new skill set ask your instructors at the start of the class whether they can spend some time teaching you. In karate classes, they may not have the time but in combat classes, they are far more likely to take your requests. A new project is not necessarily a new skills set it may be improving or implementing a skill set you already know. Here are some examples- You could work on your speed, so everything you do in class you work on getting your techniques faster. It could be you work on using your hip twists so every technique in basics, combinations, kata, self-defence or sparring you are thinking about how your hips can add more speed or power to this technique. Or it may be a simple as working on adopting a new sparring strategy like focusing on counter-attacking. Another great project to take on is entering tournament and ideally setting your goal to win a medal or at least make it through to the second or third round.