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Journey to Black belt

how long does it take to get a black belt

While searching for evening activities for my young daughters, I came across an advert for childrens classes run by an Aikido club in a local community centre.

I had seen an Aikikai Aikido demo in Trinity College Dublin quite a few years before and had been impressed with the movement and grace of the practitioners and thought this might be interesting for them and useful to learn.

However what I saw going on in this dojo did not resemble the Aikido I had seen before...  people were being pushed in the face and thrown down fairly hard. I had thought Aikido was a soft and flowing art... what was going on here!.... I had inadvertently stumbled into Tallaght Tomiki Aikido Ryu, a somewhat different Aikido school.

To encourage my young girls, I promised to join up with them if they committed to a month, so we started. Joining the adult class the following week, I looked around and everyone on the mats seemed bigger and younger (although maybe not as good looking) and looking very serious in their white judo suits waiting for class to begin.

I was older, married, with two young daughters, a small business to run and little enough spare time. Was I crazy? My heart rate was certainly up a bit and I hoped I was not showing any outward anxiety. 

I had taken my first step on a new budo journey. 

Despite a reasonable level of fitness walking in, I was not used to ukemi and had lost a lot of flexibility over the years. In truth there were many nights I drove home in those early months barely able to move.

For the first couple of months, I attended beginners class twice a week, trying to ignore how badly I moved and how little I understood.

martial arts dublin grading examinationI remember my first formal grading clearly. I was very nervous. I had forgotten the feeling of performance anxiety that can occur under close scrutiny.

Sheer determination, carried me through that first year; the frustrations, feelings of ineptitude, the regular physical discomfort and grindingly slow progress until I had somehow become accepted from time-to-time into the later higer-grades class, no longer having to endure the sounds of training while I showered early downstairs silently swearing to myself. (Thank you Joe Cheevers sensei)

Now I could make a real nuisance of myself, as I was determined to attend all classes, beginner, higher grade and any other classes I could wangle a place into, including training with the youth members. It may very well have been, had I not had two talented juniors enrolled, I might not have been looked upon with such tolerance.

However, slowly, and with resignation Keith sensei started to realise, "this guy is not going away, I think I'll start using him as an uke, that might soften him up a bit".

martial arts competition dublinNot too long after that, it was announced that our club would be competing in it's very first competition and that additional training sessions would be scheduled for those competing. I really liked the idea of additional coaching and so, signed up to compete. (ETAN European Championships (Antwerp) in Junnahon, Goshin-no-kata and individual randori). Looking back on it now, it was an optimistic endeavour as a 4th kyu with no skills or experience, but I was on a mission.

What I did not completely appreciate at the time was that I had joined at a key turning point in the development of the club as our Chief Instructor Keith was also on a mission to transform the clubs direction in his own hunger for improvement and knowledge. As it happened I found myself to be a member of the very first Irish competitive squad as a small club team was assembled and prepared. Again, apprehension and doubts crept in, to be swept aside in the buzz of intense preparation.  And what a great feeling! ...bringing back memories of college days, competing in Karate tournaments and the excitement of heading out to battle. Although I brought back no medals and won no randori bouts, my win was immense in personal development, building new confidence, the fun I had and the bond I started to build with team mates.

On returning after that first competition, it felt to me that the atmosphere in the dojo had somehow changed, club history had been made, I had been part of it, I had faced a significant personal challenge, pushed through and now felt a new confidence in training. I liked that feeling.

Not long thereafter I attended my first Aikido Seminar and external grading under the watchful eye of Vanda Fairchild sensei and Satoru Tsuchiya sensei in Queens University, Belfast. When I look back now on the video of my demonstrations I cringe, however, at the time it was another special moment, as Vanda sensei called me out for a special mention when results were announced. This single, kind and encouraging remark from a highly regarded sensei has remained with me from that day, and I use it to push aside self-doubt and focus on the rewards that can come from making your best effort.

There are important people you meet along your journey (in addition to your chief instructors), that provide guidance and more importantly take time to notice the things you do well, and communicate them to you. These are golden moments, unexpected, but very important milestones in the development of every student.

Having completed Garda vetting and child protection training this also afforded new opportunity for practice, as instead of sitting outside while my daughters trained, there was an uneven number on the youth mat and I was more than happy to partner-up. Additionally and importantly, training and helping out with our younger members forced me to put aside physicality and focus more on softer technique. I had to admire the youth members talent and skills which often exceeded my own and their exuberance and energy movitated me to keep-up and train smarter.

It is often during classes, being on the mat with my daughters, that I feel lucky to be able to share this budo experience with them (even if sometimes they have been embarrassed at their old man's efforts)

Aikido for Children

Training regularly, now three and sometimes four times a week, I begin to make slow but steady progress and further competitions even delivered some medal wins.

One of the next key moments on my journey was attending a BAA Summer School during which, due to a scheduling clash, I was "volunteered" to uke  for one of the main seminar sessions by a new and unknown Shinkendo instructor. I distinctly remembering as I stepped onto the mat... This guy looks dangerous.... am I going to get killed here?.  In the end, facing the challenge and performing well as uke made the event very memorable, pushed confidence and uke ability forward another notch.

And so, slowly, in small steps over time, I had somehow made it to 1st kyu. 1st kyu is an important milestone and one that should be enjoyed on the road to 1st Dan. I was no longer in such a rush. I was determined now to take whatever time I needed to build a solid foundation on which to walk out with confidence at my next examination.

after successful 4th Dan examination with Vanda Fairchild Sensei, Pam and JerYet again, opportunity for a higher level of training became available as Keith sensei began preparing for his 4th dan examination.  I was eager to get stuck in and learn new syllabus and improve ukeing skills above my paygrade. Training intensified as additional sessions were scheduled before and after regular practice to assist Keith sensei in his preparations. Not only did he have to coach himself, he also had to up-skill his ukes to perform more advanced ukemi in order to receive stronger application. I was loving it.

And what a great event!  Keith sensei's 4th Dan grading was a key milestone for the club as well as a culmination of twenty years of unbroken training for him. 

On the day of grading, when I stepped onto the mat to uke, I felt a huge responsibility to perform well and not to mess-up. But it was also a proud moment and one I enjoyed immensely.

It took sixteen months of consistent training at 1st kyu, another comp and couple of seminars before I felt I was deemed capable enough to present for shodan examination; but was it enough?  

I had learned along the way that your evaluation as a shodan candidate in the eyes of the examination panel as well as your sensei is influenced by observations not just of your general technical progress but also your attitude to training, your mat ettiquette, your character and behaviour at seminars and comps over the preceeding years of your journey. It's therefore very necessary and important to start building these important foundations and relationships as early as possible.

The journey to black-belt in any art, is dependent above all upon the support of family, classmates, coaches and instructors. It's not possible to train and advance on your own and all club members contribute to your advancement over time. 


So what did I learn along the way:-

  • After each grading, revisiting old skills is as important as learning new skills. There is no place for a “been-there-done-that” attitude.
  • Progress is dictated by not allowing yourself to get bored. It means doing the basics mindfully each time and always trying to do them better than the time before.
  • Identify and acknowledge weak areas and then work on them incessantly until they become a strength.
  • Each small understanding gained is a scaffold on which you can build higher understanding. Holding your posture a bit better. Centring your arms a bit more. Moving your hips around your hands. None of these accomplishments are an end in themselves, but a means to an even greater understanding.
  • In everything you do, especially being uke, be present. Everything you do defines your level as a martial artist.
  • Improvement comes quickest when you operate outside your comfort zone. Push yourself and embrace challenges whenever you can.
  • By working hard and opening your eyes to the excellence in others, you establish relationships on and off the mat that impact your world for the better.
  • Stop worrying about all the things you don't know and start wondering about all the things you have yet to learn and accomplish.
  • Practice smarter. Focus on technique over strength.
  • Increase flexibility, balance and core strength through conditioning training outside of the dojo.
  • I have only scratched the surface of this amazing martial art


The Immediate Aftermath

Yes it was a great feeling to have achieved shodan and a great moment to celebrate with my pals and sensei. However as each day moved closer to the shodan examination, it becomes very apparent that the level of understanding at 1st dan is in fact only the most basic grasp of the fundamentals of Aikido and that I was facing forward now into the challenge of actually earning the right to wear a black belt.

Fortunately for me.. the next challenge was only a few weeks away and training acelerated again in preparation for WSAF Aikido World Championships where I could test myself competitively at World Level as a Dan grade for the very first time .....  


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