The following article is the story of a student I had for many years. To respect her privacy, I am going to refer to her as TJ in lieu of her real name. The main reason I am sharing her story is that it is an inspirational one. Many people over 40 years old will say they are too old to start training in martial arts. TJ’s story will show how you can not only start something in your 40s, but excel at it, reaching the highest level.
A secondary reason for writing this story is a bit of reflection. With so much changing in my life and martial arts career lately, I have been doing a lot of this. TJ trained under me for over 15 years, much of which was when I was in my 20s and 30s. Even though I was a qualified, experienced instructor, I was young and lacked wisdom. Now that I am older and wiser, there are things I wish I would have done differently.
TJ’s tale starts off like many other adults’ in martial arts. Her son was one of my first students when I started my studio in Seattle. After a year or so of watching him do class, she saw other adults start taking class and decided to join in as well. It didn’t take long for her to get hooked.
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I will say TJ had some advantages that others her age did not. She was a dancer, even getting a degree in it at university. She also was working in wellness at a health club. She ate extremely healthily and probably had 1 ounce of body fat. These attributes were advantageous at the start but came to be a disadvantage as well in the future. More on that later.
To say TJ was all in from the get-go is an understatement. Just a few months into training, while still a white belt, there was a tournament several hundred miles away. I was trying to get students to attend which proved to be challenging since no one had even been to a tournament before. TJ was instrumental in getting many students to take a chance and spend a lot of time, effort, and money in attending that first year. She didn’t miss a tournament after that and recruited anyone she could to go with her.
I owe a lot of my initial studio success to TJ. She was a cheerleader for the studio. People were just naturally attracted to her and wanted to be around her. I remember talking to an instructor from another studio and telling him “Every studio needs a TJ, I’m glad we found ours.”
She was the first person to offer to host an out-of-town guest at her home. She went to the same coffee shop next to the studio after class every Saturday and it eventually became a ritual that nearly every Saturday class participant joined her. Being a fitness and wellness expert, TJ offered to run a black belt boot camp for black belt candidates. Despite no longer training, she still runs a Sunday morning boot camp for anyone who wishes to attend. Most participants are current or former students.
A good martial arts studio is more than just a place to kick, punch, sweat, and spar. It is a community. It is a family. TJ helped create that community. Lifelong friendships were created.
Tournament success came natural to TJ. Perhaps it was her previous experience as a dancer, her athletic ability, or her flair for dramatics. Even with consistent success, her thirst for learning never ceased. I remember countless days training where she would run to write something down before she forgot it, which was usually on a piece of paper she found in the trash.
Over the course of 12 or so years, she would compete in numerous regional, international, and world championships. She traveled all over the US and Europe competing. She had more 1st place finishes than I can count. She even had 4 world championship grand champion titles, two as a color belt and two as a black belt. Keep in mind she was in her 40s and 50s at the time.
I’d like to think my teaching had something to do with her great success but I’m sure she would have excelled with anyone leading her.
Despite her success as a competitor, TJ had an extreme loathing for testing. She would not allow friends and family to come and watch. I remember a test when she was an orange belt that she freaked out and ran out of the room crying. Another instructor had to go into the hallway to calm her down and get her back to the test.
When it came to black belt testing, that loathing just intensified. Especially after her 1st dan test. At the time, our black belt tests were done regionally with several studios participating. I had little say as to how the test was conducted as we were part of a large organization. A combination of doing things she was unprepared for (not her fault, they were just bizarre things), being tossed around repeatedly by larger people, and the sheer intensity and duration of the test took its toll on her body.
When it came to test for 2nd and 3rd dan, I had a hard time convincing her to test. She was better able to prepare her body for the tests having gone through one and helping countless others do so, but it still wore her down more than it should have.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, I was an instructor in my 20s and 30s during TJ’s time with me. I had, and still have, high standards and expectations, especially when it comes to those seemingly little things that non-martial artists don’t understand. My biggest pet peeve is being on time. TJ was a thorn in my side when it came to punctuality.
TJ would routinely be 5-10 minutes late to class. We had class at 7pm for years and she would regularly stroll in at 7:10pm. At one point I made some schedule changes and the 7pm class shifted to 7:15pm. Guess what? She now came in at 7:20pm. Anyone being late for class was now asked if they were on “TJ time”.
For a few years TJ taught a Sunday morning class. That one special spring day every year she would show up an hour late because of day lights savings time.
She would also consistently wear her uniform to the grocery story after class, to lunch after class, or even going to a garage sale.
TJ also had numerous times when she had to remove her foot from her mouth for saying something inappropriate to a senior master.
I guess all of this was kind of an um/yang thing. The opposing but complementary forces that made up TJ were opposites but somehow in balance.
I often think that her many world championships and overall ability are among my finest achievements as an instructor. However, I also consider how I handled the other aspects of her training among my greatest failures. My desire for perfection clouded my vision of a near perfect student in front of me.
After many years of tough, intense training 5-6 days a week, her body told her enough was enough. Persistent injuries and other health issues forced her to stop training. If not for my lack of wisdom and excess of youthful enthusiasm, she would probably have had greater longevity as a martial artist.
So, while I hope this tale is inspirational to those who think they are too old to start something like martial arts, I also hope that any younger instructors reading this take this tale to heart. We instructors have a difficult job of shaping people into great technical students as well as great overall people. The little things are important and must be preserved but let’s also not forget the big picture as that is even more important.