Since 1976

When You Fell Below Average

“Last week he hid his uniform so he wouldn’t have to come to class,” the mother of one of my students confided in me. “I told him he had to come because he had made the commitment,” she concluded.

What would make an eight-year-old orange belt not want to come to Tae Kwon Do class so bad? Well, it wasn’t what you might think. He hadn’t gotten beat up in class the week before. It wasn’t because I was too mean.

This little boy is the youngest of three brothers who are all taking lessons from me at the YMCA. He and his 10-year-old brother started at the very same time and now his brother is one rank level past him. Just recently his 13-year-old brother started and now that kid has caught up to the littlest boy and is also an orange belt.

So the eight-year-old doesn’t want to come to class any more. His brothers are better than him and it makes him feel inadequate.

I can relate—kind of. I was a brown belt when my little brother started Tae Kwon Do. By the time I made black belt my brother had made brown himself and was actually pretty good at it. But because he was my little brother everyone would say to him, “Gee, you’re Mr. Yates’s brother, you must be good.” He said he finally got tired of the pressure to perform and he quit before he ever made black belt.

That is what this little boy in my class is beginning to feel. The pressure of keeping up with his brothers. Unfortunately both of his brothers are not only older but they have more aggressive natures and this boy just isn’t going to be able to keep up with their progress, at least not initially.

What should be my response as an instructor? Well, I told the mother that I would make sure to encourage the child every chance I got in class. I also told her to reinforce the idea that martial arts is an individual activity and that it doesn’t matter how fast you progress, just that you keep trying hard to learn.

But that is easier said than done. Especially when an eight-year-old sees his brothers pass him up in rank. You know, this is a common problem with all students, not just kids. I have often seen two teenagers or adults start at the same time and if one progresses a little faster than the other it is discouraging to the one who is taking a little longer to grasp the skills of the martial arts.

Sometimes it is because one student comes to class every week and the other misses several times. That’s easier for the absentee student to accept. But sometimes one person is just more skilled than the other. He is more coordinated or quicker to memorize the requirements.

Martial arts, like life, is a challenge. You are competing against yourself to be sure, but you are also competing against the other green belts, or brown belts in your class.

Although I pride myself on having set standards in class and during promotional exams I have to admit that if an average student tests alongside three exceptional students he will look, well, “average” in comparison. Better probably for him to test when other average students are testing also.

Now I am not saying that all martial artist shouldn’t try to become better than average. In fact, one of my favorite sayings is “Average means you are as close to the bottom as you are to the top.” No, I firmly believe that we should all strive for excellence. I won’t pass someone to black belt that is just “average.”

But black belt comes only after years of hard work. At that point the students who put out only average effort have largely dropped out. Notice that I didn’t say “average student” but those who demonstrate “average effort.” That’s because I believe that all students are unique. There is no average child in my classes, just some kids who need to be encouraged to bring their efforts up to an “above average” level.

How can I do that as a teacher? How can you do that as a student? Listen to the advice of your instructor. Try to understand what he or she is saying. Ask if you don’t. Then incorporate those tips into your training. Realize that you are not in direct competition with your friends or even with your brothers and sisters who might be taking the class with you. You want to be working out and learning because it is good for YOU.

Of course, there is a delicate balance here because, in reality, competition with others is good. It makes you try harder. For kids it teaches them that whatever they do in the future, from science exams to job applications, competition is a fact of life.

But I don’t want that little boy to quit Tae Kwon Do because he can’t keep up with his brothers and I don’t want you to quit because your friend won that trophy when you got beat in sixty seconds. The advantage that I think martial arts has over team sports is that the smaller kid or the child that is just a step slower than the others doesn’t “let the team down.” You really can go at you own pace.

If your brother makes black belt first, congratulate him and just keep trying as hard as you can. You’ll make it too as long as you put out “above average” effort.

And if you are the one who passes up your friends in class remember that you now have a responsibility to help them achieve their best. In fact, that is what I told the other brothers of the little boy in my class. I told them that it will be their job to help him practice at home and to see to it that he is encouraged, not made to feel like he is slower than them. It will be interesting to see how they respond to the challenge.