Jane Davenport: The Qualities of a Black Belt

The Qualities of a Black Belt

Jane Davenport

I think that there are a number of eminently positive qualities common to Black Belts, this essay will focus on a single quality, and it may well be one that many Black Belts may not realise they possess. I believe that many of the Black Belt instructors are Attachment Figures for their students, particularly those students who are under the age of about 10 years old. This essay will explore both the qualities seen in Attachment Figures and the role they fulfil. 

My professional career has been dedicated to supporting children who haven’t had an ideal start to life. In order for me to see a child, their start to life has been so difficult that our NSW statutory child protection department has deemed their circumstances serious enough to allocate a Case Worker to work with the family to support change. In many cases, the young people have not only had that start to life, but they have also had the Children’s Court determine that at this stage, no further capacity for change is possible within the family unit, and the child must reside somewhere else. Sometimes this is with extended family, sometimes this is foster care, and tragically sometimes this has meant a home staffed by rotating youth workers.  

My career has been guided by many evidence based frameworks and theories and it is one of these theories that has had the largest resonance while I train with my fellow students at the Dojo.

Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 1968) grew out of John Bowlby’s early training and career where he had the opportunity, as a student of psychiatry working in London, to observe the young people in a service that worked with “maladjusted children” and subsequently he worked with children who had been evacuated from London during the Second World War and separated from their families. He went on to work at the prestigious Tavistock Clinic and in the 1950s he became a Mental Health Consultant to the World Health Organisation. His theory says that there is a deep an enduring emotional bond between children and their primary care giver(s) that connects one person to another across time and space. It is within this relationship that young people first learn how to experience and respond to the world.  Attachment Theory provides us with a framework to understand how the parent-child bond supports the emotional, psychological, behavioural and physical development of a child. Bowlby later extended this to include the notion that a child simply needed one adult in their life who was consistent, responsive and nurturing to make a difference in that young person’s trajectory through life. This is the point that resonates most with me when I am training on the mat. 

Over the past 27 years working within the same government department, I will sometimes see young people who had adults in their lives who were filling the role of primary attachment figures, and couldn’t quite get the balance right of warm positive regard with boundaries; and, cold disconnectedness with punitive reinforcement. In these situations the psychologist’s role to support and promote change is always a clinically tricky dance. For this small subset of young people I would sometimes hear from their caregivers that what I was doing wasn’t working and they were going to “put the young person in to Karate”. At the time I reflected that it was an interesting choice, as many of these young people had significant problems seeing their triggers for angry emotions and fewer skills at managing the experience of such intense feelings. Prior to starting my own Karate journey, I mused that it appeared a counterintuitive choice to teach a young person to punch when they were already fairly skilled at resolving their difficulties through angry and aggressive behaviours. 

This small subset of young people had developed responses to the difficulties that they faced by using anger and aggression to keep people at a distance; to get their needs met; and/or, to avoid unpleasant activities or memories. These young people have developed highly effective ways to manage difficulties, however, their strategies have an unintended consequence – their angry aggressive behaivour further alienates them from society and support, and additionally, it gets in the way of learning more adaptive and less harmful ways to resolve, contain, and manage extreme emotions.

I would come across such instances of young people being channeled towards Karate every year or two. And for some of these children our paths would cross again. This is where things started becoming interesting. More often than not, these children had made quite significant behavioural changes during the course of their involvement with Karate. These children were described as more settled at school, less explosive when frustrated and generally calmer in their day to day lives. 

The scientist practitioner in me didn’t understand what I was hearing. I was intrigued, but the information was anecdotal, fleeting and mixed in with a much larger data set about the young person. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to start my own Karate journey that I had both the first hand experiences, and reflective space to contemplate and analyse what I had been hearing about from the families of young people I had worked with.

The dojo mat is an interesting space, children’s responses and behaviours help to quickly identify their personalities, strengths, and vulnerabilities. My clinical skills are routinely turned on in the work place, however often lie dormant outside of my professional time. Every now and again though, a young person’s behaviour or comments on the mat draw my clinical skills out and I would watch these young people as the weeks and months rolled by. As the young people travelled their own Karate journeys it was possible to see changes in behaviour, the introvert developing a voice, the dreamer attending to instruction, the noncompliant following instructions, and the wriggler standing still. 

My psychological mind was now very much paying attention. What was happening? This is when the work of John Bowlby started superimposing its ideas on the data that I had, and I started thinking about those young people I’d had contact with in the past who had changed after Karate was introduced to their lives.  If I go back to Bowlby’s work, he identified that the one thing that made a difference in the life of a child it is a warm, compassionate, adult who can provide a consistent and attuned relationship. Once I’d gone back to this cornerstone of Attachment Theory I then had a target for my gaze.

Senior instructors at the dojo where I train have been the models for how a Black Belt conducts themselves and they became my focus while I contemplated all of the information that the Attachment Theory model has to offer. On the surface of things, karate teaches people (both children and adults) to punch and kick. However, there is a much deeper and more important lesson being taught. Black Belts are attuned to their students, are clear in their boundaries and not punitive, they provide clear supportive instruction, they praise effort rather than perfection of technique, they are consistently present physically and emotionally, they make time for fun and provide an environment of warm positive regard.  I have seen young people on the mat who have tried my patience to a wafer thin strand, however my behaviour has not varied. I will speak to them during class with labeled praise; I will stand beside them when the wriggle and jiggle and I will demonstrate still, focused behaviour; I will invite them to find their spot again; when I stripe their belt I will find one positive thing they have done in class and praise them for it; and, when they arrive again for their next class I will welcome them in. My actions have been to copy the behaviour of the senior instructors, and model what I have been exposed to in both the Leadership and Senior Leadership curriculums. What is fascinating from the perspective of my Clinical Psychology background, is that the Black Belts are universally embodying the cornerstones of Attachment Theory. 

The behaviour, attributes and qualities that are demonstrated by the Black Belts teach young people that they are worthwhile, respected, important and valued. Regular exposure to such an environment changes the core beliefs that person has about themselves and therefore the way that they view the world and the way they behave in it. This is what a Black Belt does, it is the gift that they give each student every time they step on the mat together. 

Time and time again I have seen the difficult to like, or dysregulated young person become focused, responsive and happy. This speaks to the heart of Attachment Theory, it takes only one engaged adult in a child’s life to make a difference. This is what I repeatedly see Karate, as delivered by the Black Belts I have the good fortune to train with regularly. Karate is punching and kicking, but it is so much more as well. The skeptical psychologist who thought that teaching an angry young person to kick and punch has her answer about what was going on for those young people I met through my role at work. They are being taught, patience tolerance, focus, and self control, along with the deep belief that they are valued by others – all through the medium of Martial Arts.