Coach Hays’s journey of becoming a black belt (black sash)

The journey to becoming a black belt in martial arts is no small feat. It signifies competence and mastery of a particular martial arts system. For me, this journey spanned over 35 years, but for the 11 years between 1998 & 2009 it was a journey that truly defined my path to success.

I trained in the Dragon Fist Freestyle system under instructors Shane Molanus & Mick Spinks in 1998. Freestyle is a modern martial art that combines different styles and is heavily influenced by Boxing, Kickboxing, Muay Thai, MMA, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), Kung Fu and martial arts weaponry. I was a confident 16-year-old with a goal of achieving a black belt in 6 years. But life had other plans, and I encountered numerous obstacles and challenges.

By 2004 I wasn’t near my goal. Although I kept attending training, I was frustrated; my corporate career was taking off, I was travelling for work, I met a girl, and my priorities changed. Injuries became more frequent, and my diet went downhill, causing me to gain much weight. I felt the goal was beyond my reach.

In 2008, my weight was a staggering 104 kilograms. This unhealthy gain had taken a toll on my body, resulting in sleep apnea, severe and frequent heartburn, and high cholesterol levels.

However, during a trip to Melbourne for business, my uncle George, who inspired me to start martial arts, gave me some advice that changed my perspective. He said, “Never be in a hurry; it will only slow you down. Take your time, take small steps, and enjoy the experience.” This advice was a defining moment, and I decided to begin the journey again.

Prioritising my health became my main goal, and I started by shedding some weight. I began training with a strength & conditioning coach to rebuild my body. I also began practising discipline in all aspects of my life, including eating, sleeping, and staying focused on my goals. This discipline was applicable not only to my martial arts training but also to my life in general.

In early 2009, I was invited to grade for my black sash in December. So with 11 months to prepare for the black sash grading, I put a plan together that consisted of high-intensity fitness training, weight training, weapons training, full-contact sparring, self-defence, and lots of technique work in breathing and visualisation. I underwent private training in the areas I considered my weak points: kung fu and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Most of the preparation was on my own, which required me to be self-motivated and super-aware of my movements and ability to self-correct. But, as with anything in life, obstacles arose. One such obstacle occurred a few weeks before the grading when I accidentally stabbed myself above the eyebrow just m while practising my weapons routine using a Sai, just missing my eye. The Sai is made out of steel with a pointed tip. (see image).

As blood trickled down my face, disappointment, self-doubt, and fear overwhelmed me. Despite my relief that my eye was spared, the next day, the nagging self-doubt persisted. I decided to switch to a weapon I was already proficient in – the nunchaku.

At training the following day, I shared my decision with my instructor, Mick. His response, “Are you giving up that easily, Hays?” This jolted me out of my complacency. I realised that choosing the nunchaku was the easy way out and that I needed to confront my mistake and continue practising with the sai. This experience was another reminder that the path to success is rarely smooth.
Though disappointed and fearful, I overcame my doubts and continued practising the Sai, realising that choosing the nunchaku was the easy option.

Despite all the challenges and setbacks, I made it to the grading day in December 2009. It was a festive season, but I stayed strong and focused, avoiding all the Christmas parties, drinks, and dinners. The three-hour grading was my best display of martial arts skills, and I was awarded the first-ever black sash in the Dragon Fist Freestyle system.

Looking back, my journey to becoming a black belt was about achieving a specific goal and embracing discipline, patience, and perseverance in all aspects of my life. It was a journey that transformed me both physically and mentally, and it is one that I will never forget.