Full Circle

Tonight’s a big deal in the dojo. Dignitaries coming in to celebrate a new crop of black belts. They will each receive their official certification as a black belt – exciting stuff for a martial artist. I remember being handed the frame with my certificate in it. A heady experience I’ll cherish as a special memory for the rest of my life.

It meant I’d done it. Yeah, so did putting on the black belt, which happened after the actual test. But there’s something different about receiving the piece of paper. Maybe its because there’s been some time to absorb what it means to have stepped into the Black Belt Club.

As I thought about the students each about to receive theirs tonight, I remembered them as new students. Eager white and yellow belts in my class trying to master the basic skills.  And then reality nudged me back into the tasks at hand. I needed to finish the poster for the celebration tonight and the centerpiece. Those were my duties. Work to be done, no more daydreaming about karate.

Smack. It hit me. My daydreams had inspired what would sit on the table. A container of different colors, each a belt they’d climbed on their way towards Shodan or Shodan ho. Starting with white, then traipsing past yellow, orange, blue, green, purple, brown and red until we ended at black. Almost. The very top layer would have to be white. After all, that’s what getting your black belt means. Now, its really time to learn. Back to the basics. As you move forward.


The First Time

Lately, I’ve been paying more attention to the new students in class. The ones trying out karate for the very first time. And the students getting their very first belt. The white belts. I love the joy in their eyes as they experience their initial lesson, getting to kick and punch and there’s nothing like the expression on their faces when you tie on the belt.

I still remember my first class. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. That feeling of newness, of unwrapping a fabulous gift. Something sparked in me and even all the sore muscles and aching joints couldn’t keep me from the class. Martial arts gets in your blood. It becomes a part of who you are. Yeah, even when you’re ‘only’ a white belt. It’s kind of funny, I had that very same feeling when I put on my black belt for the very first time. Of being ‘only’ a black belt with so much to absorb.

I knew that the best was yet to be and the learning had just begun. Never stop learning. Never lose the joy that the first lesson gives. I can’t wait to get to the dojo today, put on my gi and see what new thing I’ll learn today.

The Benefits of Teamwork

Karate is by and large an individual sport. Each student strives to attain their personal best while working within a class. When you think of teamwork your mind instantly conjures up baseball or basketball games, where a group of players is working together. Think back to the recent Super Bowl – it wouldn’t have been possible if each team hadn’t focused on the same goal, working together for success. But that’s not true with karate.

So, what happens when you introduce the team concept into a martial arts class? Something quite interesting. I’ve used this technique to pull up a weaker student and it works. Kids understand being part of a team and love the idea of fitting with others. I let them know we’re doing the class as a team, encouraging them to rise up the to same level. The kid who is normally lazy isn’t. The kid who struggles to focus, suddenly fixes his attention on himself. Nobody wants to be the weakest link. I don’t. Do you?

Taking it to the next level I create teams for kata, making sure to mix up my levels at this point. I don’t want one team dominating the rest. The strongest and the weakest can end up in the same group, with the least vocal leading the team. It is amazing to see what happens.

Teamwork. If you’re an instructor, give it a try. Heck, even a parent can borrow this system to get the chores done. Think about it as a clever way to get what you want while the student grows. I’d call that a win-win situation.


Exam Time

Last Friday night it was kyu exam time at the dojo. The last Friday of every month, as regular as clockwork, we run an exam for our students. Even though the routine of the exam seldom changes, what I learn from it always does.

A black belt never quits learning and each student provides an interesting lesson. Friday night I realized how little I’d worked side thrust kick with my students. Some looked lost and unsure as to how to perform the technique. I’d spent so much time on kata and the rest of the basics I’d overlooked the kick.

Personally, I love side thrust kick and can’t wait to put it back into my teaching schedule. I think it will provide a nice change of pace for my students as well. And to add more fun, I’m coming up with new drills to teach it. And I’m going to start today.

Exam time – its a time for us all to learn. The teacher included.



When I was first learning karate, way back when I was a white belt, I was thrilled to do one big reverse punch. Huge punch with an even bigger draw hand. It was a big deal to master the skill. There were days I was sure that was all I’d ever be able to do.

I remember watching the more advanced students working on their combinations and thinking, “I’ll never be able to do that.” Feet going one direction, hands going another. Coordination is not my strength. I decided to be happy with what I could do, and leave it at that.

A funny thing happened, though. The longer I trained the simpler the combinations became. It’s a kick and then a punch. It’s two kicks and then a block. Taking the time to learn the basics is the key. Then, whatever combination an instructor wants to put them into you’ve already got a solid foundation. I try to explain that to my students now. There are times I see the same look in their eyes that I must have have in mine.

Have faith. One punch. One block. Do one thing at a time and do it well. That’s a lesson for both karate and for life. Now, I love roundhouse – same leg side thrust – step in punch. Not putting the foot down and following the two kicks (yeah, I can still kick high!) by a very solid punch makes me feel good. Heck, I’m even able to do five consecutive kicks of various kinds with the same leg – not putting my leg down. If anyone had ever told me I’d be doing that I’d have told them they were crazy. All I had to do was learn my kicks. Lots of repetitions until I could put them all together.

Never give up. Be persistent. Always believe you can. And take it one thing at a time.


Even when you don’t want to

Go and train. Even when you don’t want. Get your lazy butt off the chair, put your gi on and go to the dojo. Just get it done.

Yeah, I’ve told myself this more than once. Like everyone, sometimes I don’t want to train. Life’s pressures make it hard, but I’ve found out something pretty interesting. If I just do it anyway, the every day stress melts away. I’ve never ever, in all the years I’ve been training, been sorry that I went to class. Never.

Not once have I walked out thinking, “I should have stayed home.” Okay, yeah, so I have Shotokan blood coursing through my veins (I wonder if its green like Spock’s? Oh, wait, I digress.) Karate is as much a part of me as my blue eyes and my flat feet. And even I have tough days. Putting on the gi changes it all.

So when you’re lagging, feeling your self drag and just don’t think you can  – do it anyway. In the long run you’ll be so glad you did. Attitude and perseverance. They’re the keys to success.


Walking the Walk

Lately I’ve been spending even more hours in the dojo as I add another job title to my list of titles. Some days it feels like I practically live within those walls. And that’s okay – it is my home away from home and has been for twenty-five years. My new position requires me to talk to the parents and students more and I’m starting to feel more comfortable with the duties. Actually, if I were being honest, I’m having a blast. I get to be the ‘fun’ person making sure everyone is taken care of. Almost like the dojo room mom….but not quite.

As I perform my new duties, along with my teaching, I have become much more aware of how important it is to not only walk the walk, but to teach the kids early on, how to do it as well. For me, one of the most important aspects of karate and being a black belt is humility. Ego has no place inside your gi. None.

Now, I’m not saying students should’t take pride in their accomplishments. Of course they should! Its hard work learning complicated skills and progressing along the path towards Shodan and Shodan Ho. Bragging and showing off aren’t the signs of a black belt. Not a true black belt. I know some who have to make sure everyone knows what they know, prancing about the floor doing kata so parents and students alike watch. It makes me sad to see it.

I’ll keep trying to lead by example, sharing my passion and enthusiasm with the kids. I’m walking the walk, and lately, talking the talk, too. Being a martial artist is truly a way of life.


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