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My Black Belt Story by Stephen Clair

Being bullied when I was in high school really affected my self-confidence, obviously I couldn’t stand up to a group of older peers. Also, being disconnected from my sports team and friends, after coping with alcohol and drugs for several years made the situation worse. Eventually, after suffering the consequences of addiction on my mental health and with the help of Buddhist meditation, I managed to quit and stay sober for a number of years. I worked on myself to the point of wanting to get back into a social activity in the community. I wanted to overcome my fears of social anxiety, gain confidence, make friends and also learn to defend myself in case of physical altercations or threats in my life.

Previously in my life I had a few incidents with people, often a lot bigger and stronger than me. I was mugged when I was 19 by a group of people in a dark street near my home after coming home from the Valley one evening. They distracted me at the front, hit me over the back of my head from behind and kicked my knee out so I couldn’t sprint away. I felt helpless and totally vulnerable.

I began ringing around a few different Taekwondo places and getting prices, until I spoke to Master Instructor Margaret one day and I said I was keen to come along. We talked about which club would be able to help me especially with whatever circumstances I mentioned. I still remember the conversation. I said “okay I’ll head on down one of the nights within the next couple of weeks, I’m not sure when, as I was a bit afraid to start, like everyone is. And Master Instructor Margaret encouraged me to come down sooner than later saying, …”Why not tonight?” I hesitated and she said  “If not now, when?”. I think she sensed I really needed some sort of  support at that time. So, I went in that evening and never stopped showing up.

Initially I was very shy and unsure of myself. My first white belt grading, I almost passed out, it was probably the hardest grading of them all, relatively. I put my heart into it and showed some real character strength. I’m sure. Grand Master says, and it’s been passed down through all of the instructors, he says…” if you’re nervous, that’s okay, it means that you care”.

After the grading you get some really good feedback from your instructor and start learning more as you go. Each belt level has new challenges and techniques to learn. Some people can get the techniques naturally and others struggle with every movement. But what I’ve realised over the course of going through the belts is that the techniques that you struggle to get, are the best teachers. Trying, trying, and trying again, not only helps you learn to do the techniques, but you’re at a real advantage to work on your mindset, especially when you’re having a hard time with a technique.

After gaining new skills in kicking, punching, jumping techniques, patterns, sparring, and everything else, soon, you realise, the mind gets sculpted by your efforts and instructors feedback as you go. It’s hard to fathom before you start, and even to talk about it now. But little by little you overcome mental hurdles and build character and mental fortitude. Each person will have a different experience as they continually turn up for class. Class after class, some good, some bad, some great, some not so great.

I remember my Master Instructor, wouldn’t need to say anything, I just knew from his look, I could do better. In many aspects, this strong look kept me trying harder and harder to do the right thing always and improve. That’s actually one of the really good things about this club, they are friendly and caring but they’ll want to get the best out of you, in terms of proper discipline and, it sounds bad, but being quite tough on you at times, to ensure you ‘get’ the traditional martial art Taekwondo way. Trust me, it may be hard at the time, but it’s the best way.

As life goes on with Taekwondo classes and consistently running in the evenings and Saturday trainings, I felt my life change and my personality change. We naturally have ups and down and hit plateaus within Taekwondo. Sometimes we aren’t eating right or having enough water, or something else. Training gets hard and sometimes we want to rest or stay home and sleep to rest. Rest is important but going to Taekwondo through the thick and thin really generates something. It’s different for everyone.

I always thought I was resilient and strong overcoming my past and childhood adversity. But traditional Taekwondo takes you to your limit and asks you to go even further. Sometimes it seems as if you’re being knocked down, but you’re really being built up. Having general flare ups with adrenaline in sparring is normal for myself, so having this ‘headbutting’ feeling with other practitioners is a part of the process, and even with your instructors sometimes (haha). Overcoming that and turning up the next session is all a part of it. Whether you can or can’t do much at every class shouldn’t stop you attending, If you’re feeling tired or lacking motivation, or whatever, instructors will take care to make sure you feel okay to train at a pace that suits you, whatever level. Plus, you can always speak directly one on one with your instructors to let them know if you have any concerns, or want to get more out of training. Self-improvement may not be your goal, but it will happen by itself.

New 1st Dan Black Belt presentation
Grand Master Trevor Dicks presenting Stephen Clair with 1st Dan Black Belt

It doesn’t matter what ability a person has, everything adapts, and you discover your own lessons to learn. Usually around 1st Kup, brown belt black tip, everyone has their own obstacles or issues. For me it was consistently breaking with a punch through 2 timber boards, one of the requirements for the male 1st Dan black belt grading. Also, I struggled with my fitness and shortness of breath, and I still do. I really enjoy attending training sessions with different instructors especially, Grand Master and Master Instructor Margaret, listening to what different teaching they have to offer, to put some extra reality into fighting techniques. One thing Grand Master has said is when you don’t want to turn up for Taekwondo and you do, that develops Indomitable Spirit, which you need for the gradings.

I spent three years on 1st Kup after a knee dislocation, something I had done in the past as well, when I was 17 at Karate, in my 2nd month of Kyokushin. Oh, and I can’t forget COVID, I remember we trained one on one in the park, when we could, after the restrictions lifted a bit. Relaxation is something I struggle with, but at the part 1 of the black belt grading on a Thursday night, I remember I was exhausted near the start after a pretty moderate warm up. I got the point where I was so tired that I had to mentally address my tightness and fatigue by telling myself to relax, it was the only way I would get through the grading. I dropped my shoulders and I didn’t care how I looked, it was a bit of a relief, relaxing whenever I could through my body with my mind. Part 1 was very hard, but I had prepared for a long time and I knew I was ready. Having done part one I was still nervous going into part 2, but only just before on the day. Just before the other 1st Kup members and I went on the day, a Senior Instructor prepped me of what to do after the grading before receiving the black belt. So, I was suddenly filled with a confidence that I was going to do it and pass even before doing it. I think that really helped me, I knew I wasn’t going to give up or stop.

Now onto Part 3 of the black belt grading, or part 4, is when I go back to the club and get started on all the things I need to learn over the next 5 or more years to able to be ready for the next Dan in Taekwondo. It feels great achieving black belt, especially with my history of issues haha! It hasn’t sunk in and probably won’t for a while, I guess it’s just the beginning of learning the art of Taekwondo.

Black Belts
2nd from right, 1st Dan Stephen Clair, with Insts, Grand Master and MI Margaret

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