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.

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.

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.

You Never Quit Learning

Far too often karate students think achieving black belt means they’ve reached the pinnacle of their craft and there’s nothing left to learn. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve had my belt for quite a few years now – I can’t believe how many actually – and I’m still learning.

Sometimes lessons come when I’m in a class and sometimes they come when I’m teaching. Last night was one of those teaching moments. I can remember my instructor explaining to me, when I was in the last months before my Shodan test, that I’d stretched him to a new level as he’d had to reevaluate something he was teaching. I wasn’t getting it and he couldn’t teach it the same ole way.

He actually thanked me for being a ‘difficult’ student. It makes me laugh now because I totally understand now what he meant. Last night I found a way to explain something simply and the student got it. It took their karate from okay to really good. The student got it. Seeing the problem was the first part of the battle but understanding how to explain and get the change I wanted wasn’t as simple.

It stretched me as an instructor and gave me a greater, deeper understanding of the technique. You never quit learning, no matter what rank you are. Last night proved it. Thanks to my student for helping me gain a greater insight. Nothing beats teaching the martial arts.

Hit By Your Friends

We have a saying in the dojo. “It’s better to be hit by your friends than your enemies.” Learning how to take a punch when the strike is thrown by someone who doesn’t want to hurt you is an invaluable aid in training. Let’s face it, if nobody ever hit you, you’d be totally unprepared the first time it happens. The bad guy – the guy on the street that’s confrontational – he wants to hurt you. Your friends don’t.

Relationships grow quickly when you’re training together. You tend to remember who was at a test with you, as you rank up. The higher the ranking, the fewer people who seem to be along for the ride with you.

And the guys who stand with you at your black belt test – they’re tied to you for life. You can’t remember the test without thinking of them. Or so I’ve heard. I tested alone. Just me and a table full of examiners all studying my every move. I’d equate it to what a specimen under a microscope would be thinking…if they could think of course.

Even though I was alone at my dan exam, it didn’t matter. I’d been surrounded by a dojo full of students most of whom at punched or kicked me at some point. The camaraderie that comes from karate is priceless. You become family with those you train with.

But that’s a story for another day.

 

It’s all about the little things

Learning karate seems overwhelming when you begin. Body parts moving in opposite directions at the same time can be intimidating. I can remember being a white belt and watching the more advanced students thinking “I’ll never be able to do that”.  When I quit worrying about what was coming and focused on what I needed to do, it got a lot easier.

Yeah, like every other student I wanted to learn it all at once. I was chomping huge bites and trying to swallow them whole. It doesn’t work that way, as I found out. First, I learned how to keep my feet under me and make a good stance so I couldn’t be knocked over. After that, keeping my hands up became important. Now that I had a stance, I needed to worry about my foot position – was it wide enough? Mastering that meant my next concern was toe position for optimum balance.

Tiny little things that all mattered but didn’t have to be conquered all at once. Each one manageable when I took them one at a time.

Shotokan karate is tough. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. But if you follow the katas, learn each new skill in the order it’s presented it becomes much easier. Sensei Funikoshi knew what he was doing. Putting my trust in his teachings had a huge impact on me. (Hey, he and I share a birthday so I knew he had to be okay!)

You know the little things, like hip forward as you’re in back stance or ripping your draw hand when you punch – they aren’t too hard to get the hang of if you study them one at a time. But they make all the difference to your karate. I think most things in life are like that. Take it one step at a time. Master a skill and then move on to the next. You’ll be a black belt before you know.

A Day of Rest

Yesterday was a day of rest – a much needed day off from work. The dojo was closed offering an opportunity to have a nice quiet dinner with the family. That doesn’t seem to happen often enough with our hectic schedules.

Martial arts isn’t an occasional thing. Not if you want to get good. It demands persistence. It means putting on the gi and training regularly. The sense of commitment and fulfillment is huge, but I’m not going to lie – it’s a lot of hard work. I certainly understand when I hear that some of our younger students suffer from not wanting to put their uniforms on. Hey, we all think that once in a while, however, it comes back to attitude. If you want to be a black belt, train like a black belt. Don’t wait until you’re there.

And let’s face it – martial arts knows no season. It requires you keep it up even after summer changes to fall and through winter and on to spring until you meet up with summer again. A day of rest is a good thing. It brings me back to the dojo brimming over with determination and excitement.

Let those things fuel you today as well. Strive to be a little better than you were yesterday. Punch harder. Have better focus. Remember, doing karate isn’t about being the best  – it’s about doing your personal best and growing a little each day.

Why Train?

We all come to karate from different places. Some as children because their parents understand it helps with focus and respect. Others want to try a new sport and some of us wander into it as adults. That’s how I ended up on the training mat. If I hadn’t finally relented and quit saying, “Karate’s not for girls,” I probably wouldn’t be writing this today. In hindsight, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Karate gave my little family something we never expected. When our world changed, the dojo became our extended family. We fostered friendships 24 years ago that we still have. We shared the training, the ups and downs and wonderful successes along the way. For us, it was about more than the focus and the dedication. It truly was a family affair. Part of that was wrapped in competitions. Yeah, I travelled across the country so my four kids could compete. I was that parent. And I’m proud to brag any time you want to listen about their multiple national championships. They earned them through hard work, sweat, sore muscles and dedicated focus.

It was the massive array of trophies and ‘war stories’ that led Christopher to want to train. There’s no doubt about that. Kid number five wasn’t around during the traveling competition years and he yearned for a piece of that history to call his own. I’m not going to lie, at first I tried to dissuade him. Coming to karate just for the trophies and the glory was the wrong reason. I knew all too well about the hard work, and hours upon hours of training necessary. Competitions needed to be secondary. The training itself, for defense and the pure love of karate needed to be first. How could I explain that to a four-year-old? A quick trip into the dojo to let him watch proved he wasn’t ready. It took three years before we, as parents, were sure that he was ready.

I’m glad we waited. A miraculous thing happened. He no longer talked about the trophies, instead immersing himself into the training. He proved himself and worked as hard as a seven-year-old can. That means he had his good days and his bad days. But when the good outnumbered the bad, I knew he was ready to reach for a dream. And he started competing. And winning. I’m proud of my State Champion. He earned the trophies but more importantly he kept focused on the true reason to train. He’s no longer that little orange belt with a trophy almost as big as him. He’s a black belt and a karate instructor. It’s about being strong, being focused and taking care of himself. Training for all the right reasons. More

Intimidation

I had the oddest moment last night in class. We were doing partner work and I had one of my old students as my partner. That’s all good. It’s happened before. This student is still fairly young and I could tell he was struggling to work with me. Every time he had to punch, he’d pull back. I intimidated him. Once the teacher  – always the teacher.

The drill was to tap your partner’s chin with a short punch. A valuable skill if you need to defend yourself. Of course, then you don’t hold back and you give them all you’ve got. He, however, wanted nothing to do with actually touching my chin. He stopped way too short every time. I coaxed him a little closer each time until eureka, he was doing it.

Ahhh…then he kept doing it, only he was rocking my head with some solid contact. All it took was a glimmer of a smile and one little sentence. “Don’t rock my head – remember, I’m punching you next.” He knew I wouldn’t hurt him. I could tell by the smile that slid across his face. But he did work on his control. It felt pretty cool to watch the growth and progress he’s making.

We had the best time working together. What fun it was for me to see my former student  becoming stronger. I definitely see a black belt in his future. He’s focused on his lessons, has a fabulous attitude and shows great respect.

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