Martial Arts


About The Author

Dr. Marc I. Oster, Psy.D. is a Clinical and Health Psychologist who maintains a practice in Highland Park, Illinois. He is also a 3rd Dan in Tang Soo Do who currently trains with Master Dan Jansa at the Eagle Academy of Martial Arts in Warrenville, Illinois.

What I Needed to Know About Being a Psychologist
I Learned at Karate School

In the past, as a psychologist, I've written papers and conducted seminars on the process of "living successfully" with a chronic illness as compared to "just coping;" although there is nothing insignificant about "just" coping with a serious life challenge.  I've taught doctoral students about the process of becoming a psychologist and the process of becoming competent.  What these experiences share in common is that old adage, "life is a journey, not a destination." 

While we often speak of life as being a journey and not a destination, I feel we tend to forget just how accurate that description is.  We get lost in our desires for instant gratification and lose sight of the lessons to be learned along the journey.  The process of martial arts education and psychologist education is a cyclical, developmental one.  As one progresses to differing stages of skill and competence, they come to learn that the height of one level of skill or knowledge is actually the beginning level of the next higher level of growth.  The more one learns, the more they know what they don't know and have yet to learn.  The more complex and sophisticated one's skills become the simpler they can be.  For example...

One of the psychology associations I belong to sponsors a conference every five years. At this meeting many living pioneers in the field as well as many second and third generation leaders in our field come together. At this meeting there are seminars in which two, three or four of these master therapists discuss a common case or do a demonstration of their work. When I first attended this meeting I was excited to observe master therapists demonstrating and discussing their styles, and in particular demonstrating their advanced level of expertise. What I found, as was often the case, was the explanation of the master therapist and their demonstration was often quite simple. By this point in their development they have come full circle from a simple novice to an advanced practitioner to a master therapist.  The master therapist appeared to have more in common with the novice in what they demonstrated. However, their ease and efficiency of technique and understanding of the patient were clearly at a level far beyond most of the audience. 

This phenomenon has a parallel in the martial arts.  Early on in my experience I was teaching at my instructor's Kenpo school.  I had been training in Tang Soo do at the same time and was used to some of their teaching methods.  At the Kenpo school I arranged for our Master Instructor to attend a beginning/intermediate class and to participate in self-defense and one-step practice.  I had two purposes in mind when making this request.  First, I wanted our students to have a comparison of skill between them, myself, and the most senior instructor.  Second, I wanted to observe what techniques he did.  What happened was the same experience that I had at the psychology conference.  Our Master Instructor demonstrated, extremely skillfully, very basic techniques.  He performed with ease, efficiency, and understanding of the skill clearly at a level far beyond those of us in the class.

The journey of the evolving psychologist, as noted above and the martial artist is reflected in this repetitive circle of development.  As one learns more and more, they also cycle back to the most basic of their skills, refining them and relearning them at a more advanced level.  We see this in the various hyung requirements for advanced black belts.  For example, in addition to all the various requirements for their rank, First Dan candidates must demonstrate all five Pyong-ahn forms.  Third Dans, in addition to all the required material and the 3rd Dan advanced hyung requirements; demonstrate Pyong-ahn Sam Dan at the level of 3rd Dan competency.  Sixth Dans have all their rank and advanced form requirements as well as 6th Dan competency of Bassai hyung.  The Seventh Dan meets all their requirements including their advanced hyungs and Pyong-ahn Cho Dan at the 7th Dan level of competency.  The advanced black belt will demonstrate a level of skill and understanding of the more basic form at a level and in a way much different than the First Dan.  As one advances in rank, their ease, efficiency, and understanding of the skill will be different than those of a lower rank.

In this essay I will share some thoughts on the journey toward becoming a psychologist, toward becoming a black belt, and toward becoming competent; further showing how one's learning and competency goes beyond just the physical and is a repetitive and cyclical developmental process. 

A person can receive a black belt just as a person can earn a doctoral degree.  They satisfy all the requirements leading up to the awarding of the rank or the degree.  This alone is a significant accomplishment.  There is, however, a difference in the process or experience of acquiring a designation and of "being" a psychologist, "being" a black belt, or "being" competent.  Both involve coming to think and experience the world through the new filter - the filter of martial arts or psychology training and education. 

Recently, I was at a psychology meeting.  Along with several colleagues, I conducted a workshop on the preparation for board certification examination in our specialty - our version of the Tang Soo Do Master Instructor's credential.  Most candidates take the exam after about 8-10 years post-doctoral experience.  We discussed the philosophy and psychology of preparation and examination.  The underlying message to our students was that passing this exam is a developmental process.  When I was preparing for my board certification exam, I was told by one of my mentors that you cannot rush or cram development.  She told me that I will take and pass the exam when I'm ready to do so - when I've grown to that level; and it will become clear to me when I got to that point in my development.  That's exactly how it happened.   Perhaps one of the learning objectives of any developmental journey is patience.

Can a psychologist ever not think like a psychologist?  Can a black belt ever not think like a black belt or martial artist?  I've come to believe the answer to these two questions is "no".   Imagine for a moment after having spent 30 years viewing the world through the perspective of a psychologist, through the perspective of a martial artist, that one could ever "shut off" that perspective and not think or view the world, at least in part, through that filter.  Not likely.  At the same time it can take a very long time to integrate into our thinking, into our identity, a martial or warrior's view or a psychological view, such that it becomes who we are. 

Below I will share some stories that I hope will make my point.  I also hope to demonstrate how, after more than 30 years as a black belt and as a psychologist, the two ways of being have commingled with one another - whether I choose to integrate them or not, whether I chose to practice or not, the lessons learned are always there.

While I began my formal martial arts training in 1973, at age 18, the end of my freshman year in college I began my education as a psychologist. I had my first lessons in becoming a black belt, and in becoming a psychologist, some five years earlier, around age 13, at the hands of my uncle. 

Lesson 1: "use your head, there's always someone bigger, stronger, and faster than you."

My uncle was a black belt in judo in the 1960s.  One day while I was in my basement working out with weights and a heavy bag, my uncle stopped by to visit.  We were talking and he was teasing me about something I can't recall.  In response I shoved him.  He warned me not to do that.  I believe he said, "Don't ever touch me like that again."  One thing led to another, he said something, I said something, and I went to shove him again.  I have no recollection of what happened next.  All I knew was that I seemed to have traveled upward, over his back or shoulder - in a basement with a relatively low ceiling - and ended up on my back on the floor with my uncle on top of me smiling at me, telling me, "I told you not to do that!"  WOW! What was that all about?  I never felt a thing, not him touching me, not the ceiling, not the floor - nothing!  Then my uncle said to me, "Always remember, no matter how big, how strong, or fast you become, there will always be someone bigger, stronger, and faster than you."  So, my uncle concluded, even with all your tools, you still have to be smarter and more efficient at what you do.  

I'm reminded of watching a tennis match between then old-timer Poncho Gonzales and, I believe, the then young kid, Jimmy Connors.  Connors was racing back and forth running for shots while Gonzales was moving much slower, sometimes giving up shots he couldn't reach.  Gonzales moved as if every movement was well thought out and intentional.  Gonzales beat Connors horribly, embarrassingly so.  When asked how this could have happened, Gonzales said Connors out-classed him in speed, strength, youth, and so forth.  Thus he, Gonzales, had to play and move more efficiently, smarter, in order to prevail.  As we age we have to play much smarter and efficiently than when we were younger.  While we might be able to do some things we couldn't do in our youth, there are also things we cannot do or do in the same manner as physically mature adults that we could easily do in our youth.

Bob was one of my instructor's early black belts (about 1970) and, for us, an old guy.  "We" were college students at the local Tang Soo Do club, making us about 18-21 years of age.  Bob was returning to college for his graduate degree and also returning to the club to continue his training.  Bob was "old".  Bob was 29 years of age.  Bob was also much slower and less flexible than the rest of us.  Some of my classmates overlooked the fact that, in spite of Bob's advanced age and slowed, stiffer physical movements; he had some 10 years experience as a black belt.  I'm pleased to say I was not so foolish as to invite Bob to spar, unlike some of my classmates.  He accepted their invitations and repeatedly 'scored' numerous points off my fellow red belts (1st-3rd gups).  He saw their frustration and offered the following:  "How about I tell you when I'm about to kick you so you can be ready and block my kick?"  I understood what was coming next.  If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  Well, Bob proceeded to announce each kick he was to execute and the target, did the kick, scored the point, and further frustrated my classmates.  They asked Bob how he was able to do this, being "old", slow, and less flexible.  Bob asked each of them to give a rough estimate how many times, over the years they've been training; they might have done a particular kick.  They couldn't really tell, but estimated in the previous three to four or so years, maybe 1,000 times.  Bob estimated that he must have done that same kick some 15,000 times.  He added that they were technically "throwing" the kick very well, but doing so with conscious thought and intent.  He, on the other hand, was the kick.  The kick was a part of him.  He did the kick unconsciously, without intent.  For the students their kicks were a series of separate, although good quality and correct, movements.  For Bob the kick was one movement, one unconscious thought.  The same explanation has been used by basketball wizard, Michael Jordan when he was asked how he seems to fly toward the basket and seemingly always makes his shot.  Jordan explains that he is one with the ball; he is the shot.  The other players are simply minor distractions in route to his objective.  Although neither man was "old", Michael Jordan and Bob understood how to play their game smarter than most others, and to play more efficiently and thus, more effectively.

Lesson 2: "once a black belt, always a black belt..."

Upon receiving my black belt, and years later my doctorate, my uncle explained to me that once you earn your black belt, and similarly your doctoral degree, no one can ever take that away from you.  You will be a doctor or you will be a black belt until the day you die.  While you may choose not to make use of that accomplishment in a formal way, it will always be a part of you. 

Some years after my uncle retired from judo competition and training, he returned to the dojo.   He was approached by a 20-something black belt who inquired if this man was my uncle.  Acknowledging it was he, the young black belt invited my uncle to spar with him.  Being in his judo-gi and belt, but also feeling a bit rusty, my uncle reluctantly accepted the invitation.  The young black belt proceeded to work over my uncle pretty well.  This young man was previously one of my uncle's training partners and often on the receiving end of uncle's throws.  Like he told me, "once you are a black belt you are forever a black belt.  If you step onto the mat, there are no excuses.  While no one can take your achievement away from you, you still have to live up to and respect the achievement."  Years later, as a red belt, I was teaching a sparring class.  While sparring with another student, I tripped over my own feet and fell.  A young student observing from the edge of the mat laughed at my clumsiness.  Without thinking, I backhanded the student in the face and he stopped laughing.  While that student never said a word about this, someone else reported my inappropriate behavior to the head instructor and I got quite a talking-to. Several years later, I was visiting the school and observing class.  After class, a very big 20-something black belt approached me and asked if I was Marc Oster.  I said I was.  He reminded me of the incident I just described; he was the person I had backhanded. I then had a flash of my uncle's experience. The young man told me he understood I got in a lot of trouble for hitting him. He went on to say that from that point onward he has never laughed at anyone struggling to learn a technique.  He said that my lesson to him was one of the most important ones he learned. I thanked him and said it appeared the trouble I got into was well worth it. 

Integrating two passions 

For several years, I have been looking for a way to integrate my two passions, psychology and martial arts.  I was doing some research on the Internet and came to Master Terrigno's website,  As I wandered the site, I came across links to one of my first Master Instructors, Michael March (Kalamazoo, MI) and the sites of a number of my former classmates, some of them now Master Instructors themselves.  The experience of seeing and reading about some of my former classmates and teachers was rather touching.  It was if I had found my way home, perhaps something I didn't know I was looking for.   But why was I looking to connect these two passions? 

A few years previously I was beginning to recover from some serious health issues.  Although still not "healthy," I was becoming more active and improving.  My friend Kateri said to me one day, "I think you need to go back to karate."  I had been away from the martial arts for a number of years.  I reminded her of this and framed my absence as having retired from the martial arts.  Kateri said I had not retired, I simply stopped training.  She tells me retirement is a thoughtful, conscious choice and process; a moving toward something - not running away from something.  I didn't make that choice; I just stopped training.  She advised that I needed to do some research, find a school or club, talk with the instructor(s) about my situation and return to training for a period of time.  Then I could make an informed decision if I wished to retire or continue my journey.  Interestingly, the decision making process Kateri described has now been integrated into my work with terminally ill patients.  Kateri went on to explain to me that I never really stopped my involvement with the martial arts.  She added that although I wasn't going to class or formally training, I still read magazines and some books, watched documentaries or movies, watched fights on TV, and even attended a couple of tournaments during my leave of absence.  Further, she added, the martial arts philosophy and to some degree technique was an integral part of my psychology; not only how I think and perceive things, but also how I treat and care for my patients and how I teach my psychology students.  Kateri told me that although I think I left the martial arts, I never really did.  Kateri is a good friend, quite willing to tell me things I don't want to hear, but need to.  So, I spent a couple of months doing some research.  I accepted an invitation to meet with Master Dan Jansa of the Eagle Academy of Martial Arts in Warrenville, IL.  I didn't realize Warrenville was about an hour's drive from my home.  We discussed my situation and he invited me to come to class and "see what happens".  While there have been a few bumps in the road, I'm still there, enjoying the experience tremendously, and the drive doesn't seem quite so long.

The above stories showed how psychology and martial arts are developmental, cyclical, and a journey. The following stories describe how I integrated these two aspects of my life in quite different ways and at vastly different times in my own development. 

Peggy and I were training at the MSU Tae Kwon Do club.  I was sparring with Peggy.  I was the senior and the instructor at that time.   When we finished, I sat down on a bench while Peggy talked with a classmate. A visitor sat next to me and we had the following conversation.  He says to me, "So, you're a black belt huh?"  Yes, I am. "How long have you been training?"  I'm a 2nd Dan, training about 10 years.  "She's a brown belt?"  Yes, training about three years. "Looks like she beat you pretty good?"  Looks like it.  Peggy now wanders over to listen.  The guy asks, "Could you and I spar?" Sure, if you wish, adding as I stand up, 'now?'  He explains he doesn't have his gear with him, so I offer to meet him on Thursday and he agrees. As he gets up to leave, I say the following, "before we meet to fight on Thursday, you might think about something. You yourself observed that I am much bigger than Peggy, I'm a 2nd Dan with 10 years experience to her brown belt with three years experience, and you pointed out that it looks as though she's giving me a pretty good beating."  He agreed with that summary.  Then I suggested that he think about that and ask himself if his conclusion, in light of the data, makes sense to him. With that he left. Peggy was quite concerned about his challenge and my safety, wondering what the outcome on Thursday will be. I assured her that she and our classmates will have a good workout and my opponent will not show up.  We did and he didn't. I made good use of my psychology and martial arts skills without needing to be physical and, at the same time, gave him a way out of the situation without losing face. 

Adam was nine years old, small for his age, and very smart.  Adam recently had surgery on his colon because of Crohn's Disease.  A part of his colon was removed.  By all accounts the surgery was successful and the condition now under control.  However, he continued to report abdominal pain for which his doctors can find no explanation.  This is not unusual in such cases.  Adam's father brings him to me to see if I can help him with his pain.  Over the course of several sessions I used hypnosis and taught him how to do it himself.  Adam reported the pain his was gone and he uses what he learned to improve his basketball performance.  I ask him, as I do most of my patients, "so Adam, how did you make the pain go away?"  Sometimes patients have explanations for what they did and sometimes they do not.  It really doesn't matter.  The point of my question is to remind them that the power of the cure resides within them and not within me.  My job was to help Adam find his own cure, to utilize his own resources for change.  This is true of the martial arts instructor.  They too help the student find their own path or journey.  While many of us might attend class together, we are not all on the same journey.  I then pointed out to Adam that by using his mind, his imagination, in this way he was able to change his body's response to something in a way we usually think is not possible.  I add, "let me show you how you can do the impossible."  With that, I demonstrate to Adam and his father how I can punch through a board.  I then show Adam how to break a board which he did successfully.  I said to Adam, "if you can break a board, you can do most anything."  Months later Adam's father reported he continued to improve in basketball and remains pain free.

During the time I was on hiatus from training, but working as a psychologist, utilizing, as Kateri said, my martial arts training in my psychology practice, I had a confrontation with a violent patient.  I'll call her Joan.  Joan was a woman I had treated a number of times in the hospital.  She was now an out-patient, but needed to be re-hospitalized.   She was suicidal and homicidal.  I evaluated her in the office and determined she needed to be taken to a hospital.  I called the ambulance service and Joan and I waited for their arrival.  Joan grew progressively more distraught and angry.  She decided she wasn't going to go to the hospital and was going to leave the office.  As she moved toward the door, I stepped between the door and Joan. (i.e. I stepped onto the mat.)  I stood with my back against the door with Joan facing me nose-to-nose.  She was a very large and very angry woman who was terribly frightened.  She was close enough to me that I could feel her breathing on my face and I could see the pupils of her eyes changing as she spoke.  I knew it was vital for both our safety that, regardless of how I felt inside, I had to appear calm and in control.  This calm in the face of adversity comes from both my psychology experience and from martial arts training.  If Joan sensed I was feeling out of control or too fearful, it would have escalated her feeling out of control and she would have acted violently.  I explained to her that I was sorry for her loss of dignity in all this.  I suggested she should decide how she wanted to get to the hospital.  She could suffer a further loss of her already diminished dignity and have the paramedics restrain her and carry her on the gurney out of the building and into the ambulance.   Or, she could retain what dignity she had left and calmly walk out of the building without drawing any attention to herself and get into the ambulance.  After some thought she chose the dignified option.  Under the circumstances, this woman could have seriously hurt herself and me in the confrontation.   She was bigger, stronger, and angrier than I, so I had to use my verbal skills to our advantage.  I was "on the mat" with Joan and I was responsible for the care and safety of both of us.   Later Joan told me that she chose the dignified option because she experienced me as in control and confident in what I was doing - she felt that I was able to care for her at that moment when she couldn't care for herself.  Thus she felt safe in taking my suggestion.

Lesson 3:  The journey never ends: Karate and the practice/teaching of psychology

When I had been teaching doctoral psychology students for about 10 years, a student asked me, "When did you actually come to know what you were doing?"  I though for a moment and replied, "Last Wednesday, about noon.  I was crossing the street at lunch and thinking about what I do as a psychologist and how I felt about my work, and I concluded that I was doing exactly what I hoped to be doing when I went away to college many years before, and I thought I was pretty good at what I was doing."  Had I mastered my craft?  I had just received the equivalent of a Master Instructor's credential in my specialty, so I must have mastered my discipline, right?  No, not really.  I came to appreciate and understand that there is always more to know and do beyond where I am at any point in time.  I was at a point on a developmental continuum.  At one end of the continuum was the novice.  I wasn't a novice any longer.  At the other end of the continuum, well, there really isn't another end of the continuum.  The closer you get to that "other" end, the further back that other end moves.  After all these years of teaching, studying, and practicing [psychology], I've fielded a vast array of questions from students and patients.  I probably thought I'd heard most of them; until this one.  A new patient asked me, "So, how good are you?"  Suddenly, I didn't feel so masterful.  How I answered his question could solidify our therapeutic relationship so we could move forward and I could help him, or it could bring to an end any chances of our working together.   Thus, my answer to him had to draw from my experience across my developmental continuum while being reminded of my uncle's caution, "use your head, there's always someone bigger, stronger, and faster than you."

Erik Erikson taught us (psychologists) that human development doesn't end at age 18, as we long thought, but it continues throughout life.  Even into our 70s and older, we negotiate developmental changes.  Thus it makes sense that there really is no endpoint to that continuum.  This, of course, wasn't good news for my students.  After having spent close to 10 years in college pursuing their bachelor, master, and now doctoral degrees, and understanding there would be a post-doctoral period of further training and development, they were kind of hoping to see the light at the end of the tunnel in the next couple of years or so.  The American Psychological Association tells us that that the doctoral degree is the "minimum entry level" credential for psychologists.  What did most of our instructors tell us as we received our black belts?  "Now the real training begins."  Now the journey begins...and the journey never ends...

Finally, we see this cyclical process, this unending journey, manifest in the appearance of one's black belt.  As the wearer acquired more knowledge, skill, and experience the appearance of their belt changes.  As one's experience and knowledge increases, the black color begins to fade and eventually the underlying basic structure of the black belt emerges.  After many years journey, the black belt becomes white as the wearer approaches full circle in their development. 


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