person straightening their blackbelt

Earning Your Black Belt After 50 Can Be The Most Rewarding Experience

My legs still tingle and feel tense from the exertion. My lower back, once in the running for L4,L5, S1 surgery, knows it had a workout. My body is totally spent, despite getting a good nights sleep. But it’s not often that I put myself through a 6 hour workout. Yet, my head is flying HIGH. Why? Because I’ve succeeded in accomplishing one of the most challenging personal goals I’ve ever set out to do. I’ve earned a Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do.

Furthermore, I did it at the age of 63.

Prior to this, all I’d know about martial arts was from movie images I’d had of Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Lee, and Steven Seagal. I didn’t understand the significance of colored belts, know what 2nd, 3rd and higher degree black belts represented, or understood the differences between one martial art and another.

I’m still uncertain about the later.

I started martial arts because of the desire to challenge myself and try something new. A friend of mine––a very even-tempered, centered, and confident individual––when asked how he liked the martial art he was involved in, invited me to his “dojang”  to try it out. I accepted.

I was hooked from that first day. One of the things that immediately “snagged” my interest was the fact that I was not only getting a good work-out, but I was also learning self-defensive skills at the same time.

Two great things for the price of one.

I’d been somewhat a life-time exerciser and was looking for something that could be another “tool” in my toolbox––something that would add some spice and variety to the sometimes world of mundane and repetitious workouts. Something beyond swimming, running, or biking. Something that would push me beyond my normal comfort zone. Tae Kwon Do, the Korean art of kicking and punching, provided that. Though the first few times attending class was exhausting, particularly because of the kicking, I began noticing in short time that my mid-section was tightening up from the class exercises.

Starting something as daunting and intimidating as martial arts at the age of 59 seemed crazy. But I like crazy. I soon discovered that I was the oldest in my class, if not the entire school. I also quickly learned that I would never be the next Bruce Lee or Steven Seagal. My flexibility, form, and technique would offer barriers that are common for any beginner, let alone an “old-guy” with a lifetime of habit, limited range of motion, and muscle memory behind him.

But I kept plugging along…

I kept going to class 2-3 times per week even when I didn’t want to. I kicked when asked to kick and punched when asked to punch. I tried my damnedest to improve my balance and flexibility. As silly looking and uncoordinated as I was, I still tried the jumping, turning, and twisting kicks. I practiced and practiced my forms until they became habitual. I stretched in ways I never had before, and sparred with advanced opponents who humbled me and made me aware of how far I still had to go. Many times I wanted to quit, not show up, and use the excuse that I was too old to be doing such a thing. But I still went, forcibly at times…but I still showed up to class.

It took four years, but it finally paid off.

Afterwards, I became curious. I wondered how many people who start in martial arts actually succeed in reaching black-belt status? There are no strong statistics but the best guess is that 3-5% of people who start in the martial arts go on to achieve their goal. In the early 1970’s Black Belt Magazine published a survey. They said that of all martial arts styles practiced in America less than 3% of the students ever make it to Black belt. Of the few that did, less than 50% of those make it to second degree black belt status.

The reasons for dropping out are many: unrealistic expectations, lack of dedication, injuries, or fear of injury, giving up, or the time commitment needed to make it happen. The mental/emotional fitness factor also plays a huge role in whether one succeeds or not. If you view yourself as incapable of ever attaining the physical fitness level that is necessary to succeed, you’ll quit.

I’d love to find out the number of people of black-belt status who actually started such a formidable task in their fifties or beyond.

The Lessons I Learned

As with all experiences in life, there are always lessons learned that may be utilized, learned, and shared. Here are 7 that may deliver some insight and growth opportunities:

  1. You’re never too old to take on new challenges. Getting a black-belt in Tae Kwon Do may not be on your bucket-list, but what is? Many of us get drawn into the limiting, faulty thinking that our best years are behind us, that it’s too late to start anew, and that having dreams and challenging ourselves is for the young. That’s pure rubbish!  As creators of our own lives, we decide what’s possible and feasible in our lives and what isn’t. Take a deep look at your thoughts and beliefs. Challenge them. Risk challenging yourself. It may seem like you’re an old-dog trying to do new tricks. Do it anyway. Apply yourself and muster the determination and courage to follow through. Whether it be taking on the challenge of a black-belt, learning a new language, or  going back to college to get your degree, it’s never too late. 
  2. Dreams do not die. It is we, who lose faith in ourselves and the world, that let them die. Don’t let this happen to you.
  3. Incorporate the belief that your best years in life are still yet to come. You may need to adjust and accept certain restraints that exist today, but don’t let these handicaps be your excuses to not give it your all. Regret in later life is a deep pain that will continually gnaw away at your soul.
  4. Success builds upon itself, breeding the desire and confidence to tackle other new challenges. Push yourself. Don’t give up. Do it.
  5. You don’t need to be an expert. You just need to apply yourself fully, work hard, and do the best you can. What you do needs only to be important to you. Don’t concern yourself with what others may think or their judgements. Be you. Always be the best you than you can.
  6. Pause when the going gets tough. Take time to honor yourself for any and all progress you’ve made, no matter how small. Learn to embrace, accept, and be patient with yourself. As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in one day.
  7. Be proud. Do not apologize or feel embarrassed for struggling when attempting your best. You’ve already won the battle for having the courage and fortitude to step into the arena. Persevere. Stand tall for having the courage to take on new challenges.

Having the mindset and the belief that you can accomplish any given task is essential to stepping forwards. Without this belief, the likelihood of success lessens. Embrace the virtues of patience, perseverance, and your years of wisdom that comes from experience. Challenging oneself should push you beyond your comfort zone. Without pushing that comfort zone, the chance of becoming mentally and physically stagnant increases. It becomes increasingly easy to lose energy, momentum, and determination.

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.

The second best time is now.

You’re not too old.

You’re never too old.

Remember that.