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  • Writer's pictureMatt Powell

Belts DON’T shrink!!

I was training on a course somewhere and we were outside the dojo during the break.

During this break I wasn’t having to organise, coordinate or deal with randomness. Instead, I was re-hydrating, stretching, and taking on some fuel (probably from a banana). That is the joy of being a guest.

While I stretched, I overheard a bunch of my Seniors talking. They were discussing how they were going to ache tomorrow, and they wondered what the Sensei had in-store for us all in the next class.

I smiled inside. I knew they were tired. I felt great. I knew I could crank up the effort a few notches if I needed to. In-fact, I hoped that Sensei would demand more from us!

I had been working hard.

I was ready.

I wanted to be challenged!

As I stretched, I heard one of the Black Belts make a quip in reference to his personal fitness. As one colleague talked to him about his own training he remarked.

‘Yeah, I am not sure what’s happened? But my belt seems to have shrunk!’.

The four middle aged men laughed, and the conversation moved on, but I kept replaying the comment in my mind.

I knew they were being sarcastic. Nobody washes a precious Silk belt. But….. why did they find it so funny? It made me feel uncomfortable. I could not understand how they could be at ease with their own malaise!

When I was eighteen years old, I took a part-time job driving Transit Vans for the Local Newspaper in Portsmouth. I used to deliver the papers and leaflets in their thousands to Newsagents and the homes of the Paper Girls and Boys. It was a convenient way to earn money while at college as the deliveries took place either early in the morning or in the evening. I managed to fit shifts in around my studies.

This was around 1996/97 and long before Mobile phones became commonplace. Back then if a van broke down you needed to either locate a phone box or knock the door of the address you were delivering to so that you could ask to borrow the phone.

As the deliveries took place at unsociable hours the door knocking option was often not a viable choice.

Consequently, the van you were given by the distribution manager became a big deal. As I was one of the youngest drivers, I had to earn the trust of the hierarchy and often had to drive the old ‘Sheds’ that often didn’t have a radio or working heater. In some vans you would have to leave a window wide open regardless of the weather just so that you didn’t choke on the diesel fumes.

There was one van in-particular that no driver wanted. It was an old E-Reg long wheel-based Transit that didn’t like changing gear and the handbrake was temperamental. In my early days I remember getting this van a few times until I proved I wouldn’t crash or smash up the vehicles and was eventually trusted with the newer Transit’s in the fleet.

Regardless, I had a couple of break-downs. Most often a flat battery from all the starting and stopping. But I was lucky in that they happened when I could knock a door and politely ask to borrow the phone. I even managed to charm a cup of tea on more than one occasion. 😊

But I didn’t like the uncertainty. The risk of breakdown was always there. I remember appraising the situation and considering the plans I would need to have in place on various rounds.

After a year or so, I quit my other part-time job and took on more rounds that I could fit around College.

On a Thursday morning I used to have to be at the loading bay for a 4.30am depart. I would then buzz off to West Sussex, deliver my papers and if I was really slick I could be home by 6.30 am, shower and then at college for 9am.

If things didn’t go to plan however the day could easily be thrown on it’s head!

This early morning round had some treacherous hills and country lanes on route so you couldn’t drive too fast. This was back in the day when I used to see Electric milk floats out and about. If you timed it wrong you could get stuck behind one without a hope of overtaking for a couple of miles.

As this round was rural, phone boxes were very sparce.

This made me nervous!

I remember memorising their location on my round and I tracked the mileage between them. The furthest distance between two of the phone boxes was three miles. And these miles were hilly, in the woods devoid of street-lights or any civilisation. I realised that this stretch of my round played on my mind. It sat heavily on me, and I couldn’t relax when working until I had passed this section.

I was young, but in some ways still a deep thinker. I decided that I didn’t want to fear this round or this section of the route. I needed to take control.

I never have been a natural runner. I had knock-knees as a kid and I am no natural sportsman. For me cardiovascular work does not come naturally and never has. But I was resolute, and I didn’t want to accept the diss-ease I was feeling driving every Thursday.

So, I went to work!

I modified my gym regime and gradually increased my treadmill work.

Over a period, I cranked up the distance, speed and incline until I could simulate the hilly three miles of my round and run it with ease.

I wouldn’t listen to music as I knew if a van broke down I wouldn’t have that luxury as I would need all of my senses as I ran to a phonebox in the pitch-black woods.

The only thing I couldn’t simulate in the gym was the darkness and the weather. But I relied on my visualisation for that.

I used my Fear as my Fuel.

After a while I realised I needed to be able to run to the phone box and then back to my van. So, the distance was in-fact six miles. I was never the fastest over the distance, but I could do it!

Once I knew that I had the running nailed Thursday mornings became a much more enjoyable experience.

I drove these rounds for a period of three years and ran weekly the whole time. I visualised the reason I was running and used that as my motivation if I didn’t want to do it.

In my experience the first five minutes in the hardest of any run.

You just have to get going!

Throughout lockdown I have gradually increased my Internet presence and have uploaded more and more content to keep my students engaged and excited about karate.

In some ways this is daunting. I’m a creative person so I am used to taking a few risks. But uploading videos etc leaves you open for praise and criticism in equal measure. After all, not everyone is going to be a fan! Working in this way can make you feel pretty-vulnerable.

The other day I was trolled by a couple of people. One German fellow didn’t like one of my kicks, an Italian thought my footwork drill was embarrassing and someone else rattled my cage.

It all started to bother me. I began to over think it!

Suddenly the one thousand plus views of a video wasn’t enough. Nor was the hundreds of likes and eighty plus shares. I was bogged down by the one negative comment!

I reached out to a couple of my peers who I respect and talked it though and they helped me make sense of it. The best advice came from a good friend of mine who is a Police officer who specialises in violent confrontation. He simply said to me;

‘Matt….. this is gooooooooood. It gives you Fuel! Fuel to train!!!’

So, I went down my home dojo, re-read the comments. Processed how I felt about them and any uncertainty I felt in myself. Then I trained like a mad-man for an hour.

It worked, I was a sweaty mess but I felt great.

Just like my work on the treadmill I had reassured myself of my abilities. On some level I knew what I as capable of.

Somehow this experience encouraged me to reflect on the four black belts who accepted that their belts had shrunk. At the time they seemed old to me. The reality is they were probably not much older than I am now.

Quick, I best check….. phew…. My belt is the same length it always has been.

In-fact the knot is probably tying a little higher now thanks to hours on zoom. 😊

Without uncertainty we lack fuel, without fuel we are complacent.

Complacency robs us of motivation and encourages laziness.

Find your Fuel……




Belts don’t Shrink!

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