I got a new black belt when I received my 4th dan a few months ago, almost 15 years to the day after receiving my 3rd dan. Testing with me on that day were several 1st dan candidates who were not even born when I received my 3rd dan. Of greater note, though, was who the Taekwondo master testing me was.

“Do” is the way. In as much as several martial arts are also sports, at their best they extend far beyond that. The path to every black belt degree is path unique to each student and the context of their lives at that particular moment in time.

Earning my 4th degree black belt was less about learning new techniques as it was about the unfolding an understanding of the impact I have had as a martial artist. Simply by being competitive in the sport at a time when there were not many women role models around, and seeking technical excellence and mental toughness from all those I taught – be they boys or girls – created new possibilities.

Sparring is just one component of Taekwondo, and not many enter into it regardless of rank. Often, getting kicked back by an opponent leads many to have second thoughts about stepping into the ring again; but for a proportional few, getting kicked back is a motivator to become better.

Twenty years ago, I sparred with some of the colour belts at the club where I was training. This was something I rarely did at the time because I was focused on my own training. During that session, I landed a back kick on a colour belt teenage girl as she moved straight in on me. She then stopped and requested a time out. I knew the kick had winded her. I also knew it was a moment of becoming for her, but I didn’t know just how much.

Twenty years later, now my Taekwondo master not just in name but because she knows more about Taekwondo than I ever did, she told me that time sitting out on the side, mentally absorbing the impact of my kick, made her want to become as good as me.

In the decades since, in seeking to become the person she aspired to be, she trained around the world, competed and coached at an international level and now has students who are international medalists. She long ago far surpassed my achievements in the martial art.

The way to 4th dan for me has been coming to understand that being disciplined on achieving excellence – whatever excellence is for you at any given moment – is a choice that not only helps you, but one that also changes the playing field around you and creates new possibilities for others.

Receiving my 4th dan from a Taekwondo master whom I coached as a teenaged colour belt, was an experience of success more meaningful than any medal I earned in the ring. Unfolded, my new black belt shows my name and my rank, and her club name.