A few days ago, Openhand wrote a little something wherein he mentioned something that he's mentioned before: that most students quit somewhere before shodan (first-degree black belt, for those not in the know about these things) and very few indeed continue for long after having attained shodan. This is something I've heard of or read about from more than one instructor and indeed, having watched people fade in and out, first, from taekwon-do, all those many years ago, and (small as our little class is) from RyuTe, I have no doubt it is absolutely and utterly true.
The question is always, "Why?" Why do people drop out? Or, phrased the other way 'round, why do some people stay?
I remember when I was in the Marine Corps Reserve. Toward the end of my enlistment, it had gradually begun to dawn on me that there were members of our unit more enraptured with the idea and status of being a Marine than they were with doing Marine Corps things. I don't mean to imply that they were shirkers; they weren't. But I knew, even at that age, that having been a Marine carries something of a cachet; for the rest of your life, you can mention that you were in the Marine Corps, and people automatically ascribe a degree of toughness to you, even if you're middle-aged and carry fifteen pounds too much around your middle. And I had begun to pick up on the fact that, really, that was what some people joined the Marine Corps for: for the privilege of having people assume that they were tough, for the rest of their lives.
I don't begrudge them that. You have to work pretty darn hard to earn the title "Marine," and if that's what they wanted it for, more power to 'em.
It seems to me that there's a little of that at work with some (and note that I am emphasizing "some") of the people who drop out after making shodan. They've got what they really wanted: for the rest of their lives, they have only to note that, yes, they are a "black belt," and a remarkable number of people will automatically grant them "tough guy" status.
I think that others--maybe a lot of the folks who drop out before making shodan--drop out because it turns out that the martial arts--or maybe the martial art they've been training in--wasn't really what they wanted. Maybe they wanted to learn self-defense, and figured out two years into it that taekwon-do wasn't really going to give it to them. Or maybe they just wanted to try it for fun, and realized after a while they'd rather do ballroom dancing.
And I remember a thought that I had just about the time I left for boot camp (at the time, I was just a few months away from my black belt test in taekwon-do): I realized that I was about to test for black belt, but I hadn't really learned anything since yellow belt. Oh, I knew more kata, and they had grown more complex, but I had no idea what any of the movements meant (the bullsqueeze interpretations offered by my instructors, I discounted). But the techniques? I had learned no new techniques. I had merely gotten better at them. Much better, yes, but the bottom line is that I hadn't learned anything new in quite a while.
And I remember my own instructor telling me that he'd achieved shodan in Japanese Goju Ryu, and then realized that there wasn't that much more, in terms of material, for him to learn. Eventually, he made it all the way to sandan (third degree black belt), but it is an open question whether he would've continued much further had he not run into Taika Seiyu Oyata and RyuTe.
So it seems to me that some folks might drop out when they realize that they've seen the bulk of their system's material and realize that they're never going to find what it is that they thought they were looking for.
What about the people who stay? Some of them forever?
Well, again, there's probably more than one thing at work. There are a couple of the local martial arts groups that really seem to have a "family" feel to them; you can tell that the people at the top of the organization have known each other for years and years, and quitting their martial arts training would feel, to these folks, like they were abandoning friends and family.
I'm sure some people stay forever because they like the feeling of being the "senior."
I'm sure some stay because the martial arts are an inherently challenging activity. These people like having to push themselves to achieve, over and over again, every day.
I'm sure some stay because they are caught up in the cultural aspects of it all.
Others, for one reason or another, feel incomplete without the martial arts, as though a part of their "personhood," if you will, is missing. And I think, truthfully, that this group is related to the last group I'm going to mention.
This is the group that I belong to. I'm not saying that there aren't other aspects to why I stick around--I enjoy the cultural aspects and the "family" feel of our little group, too, for example--but this is the number one reason I keep training. It is the reason that a co-worker of mine announced her intention to study with me when I start--hopefully--teaching a group of my own in a couple of years. It is a reason I can often see in people's eyes when the subject of martial arts comes up. There is something feral about them.
Some people know, down deep, bone deep, that they have to be able to protect themselves--themselves, and maybe others. They may not always be able to articulate a reason why, but it is not really an option for those people, given a reasonable opportunity to learn what they need to know. They have to be able to protect themselves.. What's more, they are usually the people who can make their martial art--whatever it is--work. Maybe not necessarily in a sporting context, but when put in extreme situations, they manage to come up with something from their curriculum and make it work. And those people, once they've found something that they think they can make work for them, will never leave. They will learn everything they can, and, having learned all the curriculum of their art, will strive to make it work better and better--or add a second art to their repertoire.
There's something different about those people. For some reason, they have to be able to protect themselves.
Wondering what it was that I "made work" from the taekwon-do curriculum? That's easy: the reverse punch, specifically, in most cases, to the solar plexus. I could knock the snot out of people with that. In the small number of conflicts that I had years ago, that was my "go-to" technique. And with a modified version of it driving the butt end of a pugil stick, I hit a guy in boot camp--Private Heckner, who was a full head taller than I was, and correspondingly heavier--so hard that his heels actually came up off the ground and he was out cold.
Just in case you were wondering.