What My Blackbelt Journey Means to Me
By Kat Preftes
Earning a blackbelt and becoming a Sensei has been one of the most significant accomplishments of my life. It is a decade-long journey where I have grown stronger and smarter and gained the kinds of skills that I never anticipated I would possess. In my past black belt essays two key themes emerged, specifically, the journey I was on and the power and strength I gained through my martial arts practice. These themes still resonate with me, and both are inherent to how I currently view both my practice and the rewards martial arts, and kickboxing in particular, have brought to my life.
When I became a Shodan six years ago, I wrote about how my journey was just beginning and how with a black belt new doors would open and greater challenges would await. When I envisioned challenges, I was thinking about learning new skills and becoming a better martial artist. What I didn’t expect were the outside forces that would affect my progression. Whereas in the past I was able to focus singularly on my personal goal of becoming a Sensei, this time around my progress was shaped and/or stalled by a pandemic, new job, family needs, and injuries. My focus wasn’t and couldn’t always be on my personal needs, satisfaction, or timeline. Some days I had to accept that I had no control at all and be grateful for the smallest of victories.
But if life threw unexpected curveballs, it also reinforced my commitment to my martial arts journey and my dojo community. Martial arts became a place of refuge and community during the most isolating of times. I think back to the days we were finally (and happily) able to return to class, albeit outdoors, during the pandemic. Teaching and attending kickboxing classes in Cashman Park aftera long break, always at an appropriately safe distance, was both fun and challenging. Class became a refuge from extremely sobering, real-world concerns. The symphony of our “kiais,” helped release some of the burdens of the stress we were all under and reaffirmed our strength and power during the most harrowing and helpless of times. I personally felt better equipped to navigate the fear of the unknown, including separation from aging family members and homeschooling my kids. I learned to be creative when I taught, coming up with new ways to challenge myself and students in a contactless world.
If anything stands out about the past four years, since the last time I went up for a black belt, it is that martial arts has been my constant companion in the face of life’s most unexpected tests. I have also learned that my martial arts journey is not linear, it not a prescribed and time-specific progression through ranks. It is, in fact, an accessory to my life’s journey, complete with pitfalls, trials, and happy surprises. My practice of martial arts is intrinsically fused with my identity. It is far more than a pastime (i.e., something I love and habitually do to stay fit), it has become part of my identity, a source of strength, solace, and pride, and is rooted in my deepest sense of self.