I’m a Black Belt! Now What?



Saturday, February 10, 2018, I earned my solid black belt in Shotokan Karate. It was exactly one year since I earned my probationary black belt. It’s a major personal accomplishment and something that I’ve been working toward for many years.

I’ve been wanting to write about my karate experiences for a few years now, but didn’t want to put anything out there until I reached Shodan ranking. By no means am I a master of the martial arts, but I feel that being a black belt and having trained for quite a few years, I’m proficient enough to blog intelligently and objectively about my karate experiences.

This article is going to talk about my karate journey up to this point and what happens next. Parts of this story will be a bit of self introspection and my own personal psychological analysis, some parts will be dark, but don’t worry – I turned out ok. I share these sentiments not to whine or to have a pity party, but for context. My hope is that it will resonate with some of you reading this. A bit of a warning though, there will be some tangents, but I promise to get back on track.

The Early Years – An Abused Past

I originally started practicing karate as a kid, but also quit numerous times. I quit for one simple reason – my parents let me. My parents didn’t encourage me. In fact, they were quite discouraging. On the other hand, my brother was in karate and excelling. He was indeed quite good. I’ve seen better, but he was good. I was told that my brother was much better at karate than I was, that he had natural ability, and that I just wasn’t going to be as good.

Unfortunately, I was training to be able to defend myself physically against my father and brother.  My father was an abusive alcoholic, my brother got the brunt of his abuse, but then my brother turned around and gave it to me. To put that in perspective, my brother whom was six years older, and quite good at karate, was physically and emotionally abusive to me. Terrible right?

There’s a quote my mother is quite fond of, “learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” It’s something that she has ingrained in me, and how I choose to live my life. Nowadays, I’m a father and husband, I try to be a role model to our children. That is to say the exact opposite of my father and brother. My father was in terrible shape, fat, overweight, he drank, he was mean, unsupportive, and abusive, never involved with the family, and treated my mother and us kids horribly. Regarding my brother, I have shared with our girls my upbringing, and they can see that my brother and I have a very strained long distance relationship. They understand the importance of being nice to one another. Fortunately, they love each other and get along wonderfully the majority of the time. I realize that we’re quite lucky in this regard, and do not take it for granted. I do tell them just how lucky they are to have the relationship with each other that they do.

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Middle School and High School – Let the Bullying Begin

During middle school and high school, I was a socially awkward kid. My parents really didn’t teach me any social skills, didn’t provide any guidance to navigating adolescence, and my father and brother continued to be abusive. Because of my social awkwardness, I was bullied – a lot! I wasn’t able to fight, and the teachers and my parents were less than helpful in providing for my physical and emotional well being. I tried karate again in high school, but it wasn’t enough to help me from being beaten up – multiple attackers, and I wasn’t good enough. Again, I quit.


When I was in college, I started training more frequently. Finally, I was away from the social awkwardness of the K-12 school system. I was free from being bullied, and I started to mature as a person. Now I did karate for fun, for a hobby, for the physical and emotional benefits, and to be able to defend myself should the need ever arise. I “lettered” in karate during college, and earned my brown belt in Kyokushin Karate. College ended, we moved across the state, and I began “adulting.” After college, it took a few years for me to find a good career, and get to a stable place in life that I was able to start training again.

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The college years. Me on the left (during college years), my brother on the right. I can kick  higher now.

A Gun vs. Karate

Shortly after college, I was managing the Arby’s down on 4th Avenue in Seattle. My second day there, I was going out to my car in the parking lot around 9:00 a.m. with the deposit from the night before. I had some food and a drink in one hand and the deposit in the other. I placed my drink on top of the car and was attempting to unlock my car when some guy pushed me backwards, grabbed the money, and ran. Without a second of thought (I was 21 and could take this guy), I ran after him. We got no more than ten feet when he turned around, pointed a gun at my head and said “back off mother*#!%&er, or I’ll shoot!” All the karate that I had ever learned was gone! No cool disarming techniques, no beat down, fight or flight kicked in, and I fled! I remember throwing my arms up in the air, saying “oh s@%t!” Then, I ducked and ran the other way. Even though I lived to tell the tale, I really wish I would have been able to disarm him and beat him down. Maybe next time (I really don’t want to ever find out).


Back At It – This Time TaeKwonDo

It took a few years and a career change before I was able to resume training. There was no karate school in town, but there was TaeKwonDo. So, in my mid twenties, I signed up. It was fun, and I really enjoyed all the cool kicks that we were learning. I was able to do moves like jumping spinning back kicks, butterfly kicks, axe kicks, etc. We sparred a lot, and I was constantly bruised, but it was fun. I trained for a couple of years until the instructor sold the school. He ended up starting a paintball store! I really didn’t miss the constant feeling of being bruised though.

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I Know Kung Fu

There was a long gap after I quit TaeKwonDo until I resumed my martial art training. We had our first daughter, moved a couple of times, I focused on work, and family. Then one day, I watched the movie Ip Man with Donnie Yen, and my desire to train came back – full force! I didn’t realize that there was something missing in my life. I wanted to do the Kung Fu he was doing in the movie. That’s when I started practicing Wing Chun. The closest Wing Chun school was an hour away, but I wanted to learn. Fortunately, my wife was very supportive. During my training in TaeKwonDo, we were having some marital issues, and being away from the home during my training didn’t help. However, we had both matured a lot since then, and Vanessa understood that I was happiest when training. This time, and ever since, she has been supportive of my training time.

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Seattle Wing Chun

Time progressed and we had our second daughter. I was still practicing Wing Chun in Seattle and really enjoyed the martial art, but it was after all, an hour drive (one way) plus parking time (not an easy feat in Capitol Hill, Seattle). I would have to leave for class around 4:30 p.m. and wouldn’t arrive home until 10 or 10:30 p.m. Sometimes, I would also have a private lesson on Friday afternoons and that also took many hours in traveling. Training more than once a week (due to the time outside of the house) was something that I wasn’t willing to do because we had two little ones.

Back to Karate – Shotokan

One afternoon, during my day job, I met Sensei Tony Bennest and Steve Whitaker at a Fife, Milton, Edgewood Chamber of Commerce “after hours” event. It was being held at a local Les Schwab Tire Center for a grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony. Steve and I were talking with Sensei Tony when the subject turned to parenting. I mentioned our discipline problem with our oldest daughter, Nadia whom was four at the time. She was starting to act up at home, and time-outs weren’t working any more. Tony suggested we bring Nadia to a karate class, and we did. That’s also when Steve’s kids joined karate as well. Not too long after, both Steve and I started our own training. He’s now a great friend and has been there with me the whole time throughout my karate journey.

During Nadia’s first karate class, the instructors discussed with the children and parents the importance of doing push-ups at home – if the kids were misbehaving. In fact, rule number one of the dojo is “obey your parents.” They also informed the parents, that if our kids didn’t do their push-ups at home when they were in trouble, that we should let the Senseis know and that they would make the kids do double the push-ups in class. Incidentally, in the last 6 years, we have only needed to do that twice with Nadia and once with Anya. Let me tell you from our own personal parenting experience, push-ups are a better solution than time-outs and spankings! Regarding push-ups, proper form is important – no half hearted push-ups allowed. Once our girls reached the age of about five or six years old, we only count push-ups done with good form.

After watching a week or so of Nadia’s karate classes, it looked like fun. Even though I was doing Wing Chun, the moves of the kung-fu style were still foreign to me in comparison to the karate and TaeKwonDo of my early training. The name of the dojo was Edgewood Karate (now Karate Edge). They teach Shotokan – which looked quite similar to the Kyokushin that I did in college. Also, the karate school was just down the street from home. I did the math and realized that I could do three classes a week, and it will still less time away from home than going to one class at the Wing Chun studio in Seattle. As much as I enjoyed Wing Chun, switching styles and schools made the best sense. So began my training in Shotokan karate.

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Nadia was 4 1/2 in this photo. She’s 10 1/2 as of the time of this writing.

It’s important that our girls know how to do defend themselves. Currently, both of them are in karate, and they have our full support and encouragement – just the opposite of my upbringing. Quitting karate in our house, just isn’t an option. It’s important for them to learn how to defend themselves. Nadia asked me once about quitting. I explained to her that “she can quit, when she can fight off a full grown man.” Having to explain to your daughter the dangers of being female is a hard conversation to have, but an important one. We’ve had to discuss this a few times – in fact there was a horrible story in the news recently that showed a barista being abducted on camera. She didn’t even put up a fight! Not our girls!!!

Nadia and I at the Yakima Karate Tournament in 2017
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Anya getting ready to spar at an in-house tournament.

Even though I’m grown up now, my alcoholic father is dead, my brother hasn’t hit me in decades (nor has he trained in over 20 years), and I’m no longer bullied by the kids of my youth, those scars are still with me. Initially, those scars motivated me to train (and still do).  I want to get better, be stronger, move faster, be more powerful, become a better fighter, etc. In fact, I still want to fight my brother, stand up to my father, and beat down those bullies of my youth. I realize that those aren’t the most healthy of thoughts, but they still persist. That being said, the main reasons I train now are multifold – I feel better physically and emotionally when I train. My friends and family train there. It’s my social life. I can be a role model to my daughters and help out with their classes. It makes me a better person. I’m more confident. I don’t feel afraid when I’m walking down the street – especially at night with my family. I have less stress from work and life. I also feel more alert to my surroundings. It makes me a better father, better husband, better colleague, better friend, and all around more pleasant to be around. In short, it’s my therapy.

Selfie taken by our Senseis in the bottom corners of the photo.
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Steve, Sensei Tony, and me.

The Karate Edge is my extended family – a nuclear, well adjusted, and functional family. The teachers and fellow students of Karate Edge are supportive and encouraging, and it has been an environment which has helped me advance in the martial arts. At no other time in my martial arts training have I had that kind of support and encouragement!

Their training methodology is unlike any other school that I have attended. There is a clear curriculum, lessons are planned, instructors are accountable, everyone is on the same page as to what’s expected, and the school is growing – over 250 students and counting! In an upcoming posting, I’ll go more in-depth about what makes Karate Edge different from the other schools I have attended, and why I believe it’s been so successful and continues to grow. My goal with that upcoming article will be to help give you some ideas as far as what to look for in a school for yourself or your family.

Now I’m a Black Belt – Now What?

Getting back to the point of this article. I’m a black belt now. Unfortunately, I still don’t have “the Glow” like in the movie The Last Dragon. I can’t do half of the things that Jean Claude Van Damme does in Bloodsport. I’ve never beaten Johnny at the All-Valley Karate Tournament. I still have no idea what the “Drum Technique” really is. I’ve never learned the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique.” I can’t heal my wounds in record time by focusing my inner chi. I’ve never been in a full contact fighting match. I’m a terrible ground fighter. There are quite a few people in the school where I train that I wouldn’t want to fight in real life. Furthermore, I’ve never even been in a real fight. So now what? Easy, keep training! Set new goals, keep growing as a person, keep growing as a martial artist, get better. You never know when you’ll need those skills.

The funny thing is, I always thought that after I earned my black belt, I would take a small break from karate – just a week to relax. However, the very next day after earning my belt, I was at the dojo for a 7:00 a.m. class, then there the next week, and the next, and still to this day. Why? Karate and training is a good habit with lots of benefits. Why stop? At that 7:00 class the next morning, a newer student asked how I felt now that I was a black belt. Honestly, no different. I was still the same person as the day before – not perfect. I was still training, still trying to improve, and get better. Most importantly, to not go backwards.

My Sensei recently asked the Black Belt Class – “are you a black belt, or were you a black belt?” What he meant was, are we still training as hard as we were when we earned our belt? The answer for me is “yes.” Actually, I train even more now. Nowadays, I train on average, six days a week. Karate classes on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday. Cardio kickboxing classes on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Also, Steve, Sensei, and I try to practice at least three or more times a month on Friday afternoons. Karate adds a dimension to my life that makes it better. Without karate, there would be a empty hole.

What are my next karate goals? Lose weight, work on my flexibility, become a better fighter, work on my self defense techniques, help my children earn their black belts,  motivate others, and share my experiences.

What’s next? Keep training!

Noah Bershatsky

Noah Bershatsky

I was a nerd before hipsters were cool.


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