How Martial Arts Can Build Moral Character

by Marco DiScipio

Note. We tend to think that martial arts training is about learning how to beat an opponent. Perhaps — but it’s more. If it’s done right, it’s about cultivating character and values to live by.  In this story, Grandmaster Marco DiScipio, President of the American Tang Soo Do Association, writes about an incident in which a young karate student was forced to face the challenge of confronting his fear of displeasing his parents during an public assessment that would determine if he would rise to a higher rank (belt).  For me, this story is about how Grandmaster DiScipio shows loving support that helps his student rise not simply to a higher belt — but to a higher level of character.  The martial arts are not about learning how to beat up an opponent.  At best, they are about learning to become a better person by cultivating discipline, excellence and character. — MFM. 

One of my favorite moments as a Tang Soo Do instructor came during a belt ranking test, an exam to determine if a student has developed enough to go onto the next belt rank.  Candidates are tested in the knowledge they have acquired in the prior months and years.  This knowledge includes the physical part of their training, the mental part of their training, and the spiritual aspect of their training.  The physical and mental parts of this training are fairly easy to judge.  You can see how a student performs the defensive and offensive techniques learned over the course of their training. It’s easy to spot whether a student has acquired and retained an understanding of what has been taught to them.  More difficult to judge is what a student has learned about themselves, their emotional growth, and the sometimes imperceptible shifts in how they handle adversity.

This brings me to a particular student, Brian, who was testing for his next belt rank.  The rank he was testing for, had he succeeded in passing, would put him a step closer to testing for his black belt.  He was eleven years old at the time.  His parents had gone through a contentious divorce and those feelings had stayed with them long after the divorce was finalized.  One or the other of the two parents had attended Brian’s past belt tests.  This was the first time both of Brian’s parents had attended one of his events since Brian had first started his Tang Soo Do training.

Students are always naturally nervous before a test.  They have trained for a long time leading up to a belt test.  They have put in the time, the sweat and sometimes blood and tears.  They now arrive at the moment where they would be in front of an Examination Board.  This Board consists of Masters, who at a minimum, are 4th degree Black Belts and have a minimum of 15 years training and teaching. This Board judges whether the candidates’ performance warrants being promoted to the next belt rank. There are many individual reasons to be nervous.  One common reason is the thought of possibly failing. Candidates have seen their fellow students fail their tests or they themselves have failed a test. The candidates know well that passing the exam is not a given.

Brian’s parents both being in attendance added another layer to the reasons for Brian to be nervous.  For many, having their parents in attendance would be a joyous occasion.  But too many times Brian had been at the center of his parent’s public clashes. His parents sat apart but the tension between them was palpable.  As I surveyed the room, I could see Brian anxiously looking from one parent to the other.

The exam started and went along well with students performing as the Exam Board expected.  There were the usual moments of greatness, moments of “what was that!?”, and everything in between.  Brian was performing better than everyone else throughout the exam.  All of us sitting on the Exam Board could sense the passion he put into everything he was doing.  We could see coming to fruition the time and effort he had put into his training prior to the exam.  He showed both the physical and mental understanding of Tang Soo Do.  He performed his techniques with a sharpness, power and speed not usually seen at his age and belt level. Then came the moment that epitomized his spiritual growth.

Brian had been showing that he was physically and mentally prepared for the difficult task of the belt ranking test.  He had shown that when anyone pairs talent with hard work there is a good outcome.  He had shown that with perseverance comes success.  I have seen many talented students of all ages whose talent carries them through the early learning stages of Tang Soo Do.  But many of them quit when their talent isn’t enough to get them through the latter stages of Tang Soo Do training.  Throughout the test Brian was performing within a group of candidates who were all performing simultaneously.  The test reached the point where the candidates had to present their HyungsHyungs are formalized patterns of defensive and offensive techniques which are done by a lone individual.  Hyungs training begins with simple patterns with only a few techniques within those patterns.  As students progress in their training, the Hyungs they learn become more complex in the defensive and offensive techniques applied within them and in the movements and angles within the patterns.

The Hyung part of the test starts with everyone performing together the beginner Hyungs and progressing through the more complex ones.  After candidates reach the last Hyung they know, they sit down off to the side leaving room for the higher-ranking students to continue.  This process eventually leads to the highest-ranking student(s) out on the floor all by themselves. Brian was the highest-ranking student at this particular exam.

This led to him eventually being the only student to perform.  All eyes were on Brian and there was nowhere to hide.  He had been in this position before either in class or at other belt ranking exams.  But he had never had both his parents together at one of his tests.

I watched Brian set himself into the ready position and prepare to start.  So far, so good.  Then I saw him look back and forth from each of his parents.  Seemingly out of nowhere Brian’s eyes started to moisten.  He bent over and the tears started flooding down his cheeks.  He collapsed to the floor into a kneeling position with his head down and loud sobs came from deep within.  As the tears continued to pour, he started gasping for air and looking to his parents.  I followed his gaze over to his parents.  Brian’s father had a look of disgust, as if to say “I can’t believe he’s doing this”.  This moment was confirmation for Brian’s father.  I had often heard him blame his ex-wife for his son being soft.  Brian’s mother had a look of shear panic.  I saw her start to rise to go over and save her son from his torment.  She caught my eye as she started to rise from her seat.  I gave her a hand signal signifying to sit back down and let her son get through this moment.  Over the years of teaching Brian, I had seen him through several of these emotional tailspins.  I made sure to always be there to support him but not to interfere with his process. He always managed to get through them. Each successive breakdown was less intense and became easier for him to recover.  This time was more extreme for Brian than I’d ever seen.

I was so grateful that Brian’s mother heeded my unspoken request to sit and not jump in and rescue him because Brian was able to show us all the spiritual and emotional strength he had developed through his Tang Soo Do training.  He slowly rose to his feet and took several deep relaxing breaths.  I could see him steeling himself to continue his exam.  He closed his eyes while continuing to take deep cleansing breaths.  When he opened his eyes gone was the child who we had watched as he melted under the pressure.  That child was replaced by the look of a warrior ready to do what was needed.  Brian got himself into the ready position and nodded to the Exam Board as if to say, “Let’s go. I’m ready”.  When the command was given for him to start his next Hyung, Brian performed with even more power, speed, and command of techniques than he had prior to his emotional breakdown.

I was so proud of Brian.  I knew that he had the strength of spirit and will to get past any barriers to his growth as a martial artist, as a leader and as a human being.  I was so glad that his mother followed my direction to sit and give her son the dignity of falling to the depths of despair and then getting himself back up.  Brian showed what we all have in us but are often hampered in letting it rise to the surface.  Young and old we are all capable of doing what I watched Brian do by facing challenges and not running away from them.  In a universal dichotomy we are better able to face our challenges with the appropriate support, but we must go through those same challenges alone. Just like Brian.

Grandmaster Marco DiScipio is President of the American Tang Soo Do Associations (ATA). He began training with the late Grandmaster Richard Byrne in 1982, and opened his first school in 1991. Now an 8th Dan Black Belt, he teaches traditional Tang Soo Do Korean martial arts in Medford, Massachusetts.  Tang Soo Do is effective in practical self-defense, and which has been used by Boston area Law Enforcement agents. Grandmaster DiScipio also holds Women’s Personal Protection workshops. He has had a positive impact on thousands of children, working with Medford, Malden, Somerville and Boston Public Schools, YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs. This includes an innovative after school program. In addition to his martial arts education, he holds a Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Grandmaster DiScipio carries on the legacy of the ATA Founder Richard Byrne to promote Tang Soo Do as a premier martial art.

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