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.


That Feeling

Tonight there’s another dan exam in the dojo. These are a special time for all of us to not only test the new candidates but to take a moment and reflect up on where we came from. Once upon a time, each of us sitting on the board was in the same position as those testing tonight.

No matter how long ago it was we remember the butterflies in our stomachs, the confidence we had to muster and the energy of the room. We will never forget which katas we had to do – in fact they became inherently ‘our’ kata. The one we formed a long term attachment to, just like the people we tested with. Each black belt can tell you who else was there on the floor with them.

I was alone. A solitary student with a board of examiners watching my every move. There were no moments when the black belts were looking at someone else. Their attention was glued on me – and only me. Testing by myself also meant no breaks while the others did their katas. It was just me. All me.

And I did not test as a young, energetic student. I’d had one of those milestone birthdays- you know the ones that end with a zero. Not to say I didn’t have energy, because I did. The passion lighting my fire to succeed burned long and bright within my core. I was determined to do this and to do the very best that I could.

I did my requisite two heian katas and my black belt kata confident that I’d done them to the best of my ability. Then my instructor asked for another heian kata. And another. He didn’t stop until I’d demonstrated them all. I remember thinking, “Hey, you’re changing the rules on me,” but I didn’t show it in my face or my body language. If that’s what he wanted, to test me on everything I knew, then I’d give him what he wanted. Instinctively, I knew it was about throwing me a curve ball to see how I’d react and to test my endurance.

I ended that test knowing I’d done my best and I can still remember the feeling of my hands trembling as I put on the black belt for the first time. My test was on an Friday night early in April. When we got home that night, snow brushed the ground. In Southern California – snow in April, in the desert. You know that old expression – “When hell freezes over”. That’s the other thing I’ll never forget about that night.

To this day it makes me chuckle. Maybe that’s what some people thought. I’d never earn my belt. By working long and hard, I proved them wrong.

I can’t wait to watch the young men testing tonight. I wonder what they’ll remember most from this experience?

Shadow of a Legend

Yesterday I had the distinct honor to have lunch with an eighth degree Shotokan black belt. We talked about his life, his teaching career and how he fell into the martial arts. He shared ideas and let me grill him with questions.

Days like yesterday don’t happen often. I was particularly honored since this man sat on the board of my second degree dan exam. He’s pretty much a living legend in the martial arts world. And we had lunch together discussing a project we’ll be working on together.

Yes, I got up this morning and pinched myself. And no, I’m not going to say anything more about him. You’ll have to read the book. Yes. It really is going to happen. An amazing life that will inspire you – and totally worthy of a book. Stay tuned.

Humbled and Excited

Oh my goodness, what a plethora of emotions charging through me today. Tonight there’s a Dan exam with five students each standing to take their Shodan or Shodan-Ho test. And I’ll be sitting on the panel, watching and commenting on them. That, in itself, is quite the humbling experience. I remember so vividly my Dan exam filled with butterflies and nerves.

Even more exciting to me today, though, is the fact that I’ve watched each of these children from the time they first walked into the dojo as white belts until now. They have each been in my classes. The have listened and grown both figuratively and literally. Last night one of the parents called me over after class to show me a picture on his phone. There I was presenting a yellow belt to his son. His son, who tonight tests for his black belt. What changes there have been in this young man! He’s always been studious, serious about his karate, but now he has more confidence and experience. He’s grown into the black belt he’ll earn tonight. Plus, now he towers over me. It’s an odd feeling, watching kids that I’ve helped to train walk the same path I’ve traveled. I’m honored to have been a part of their lives.

The best of luck to all five black belt candidates. You walk in the footsteps of others, on a path few dare take to the end. You’ve got this. May you be as humbled and excited as I am.

Thank You

Thank you. Two little words that just don’t say enough. They certainly don’t explain the feeling in my heart for each and every person who has coached, encouraged, nudged, prodded, pushed, pulled, cheered, goaded, inspired, and just been there for me as I have made my journey on the path to black belt. Thank you to each of you who beat me up, making me stronger, who challenged me, and helped me focus.

I have been so fortunate, so lucky, to have each and everyone of you in my life – I certainly couldn’t have done it without you.

So, thank you. I hope that I can give back as much to each of you and karate as it has given me. It’s been a wonderful adventure even when it got hard. The bumps in the road are what helped to strengthen me into the person that I hope I am today. Never give up. You might find a detour takes your journey in a different direction for a little while, I know that I certainly did – it was called the responsiblities of life – but that was a temporary diversion, nothing could keep me from reaching my goal. I have a wonderful karate family of which you are all a part. How amazing that is!

I am deeply indebted especially to Shihan Taylor who has worked with a very difficult student, never giving up on me, pushing me to new heights and helping me to do things that sometimes I wasn’t sure I could. I also owe an amazing thank you to Senseis Taylor, Young and Logan for their help, words of encouragement and helping to make me believe I could really do this. Last, and definitely not least my amazing family who has put up with very long hours training, never grumbling when I said “I’m going to the dojo,” and being the best cheerleaders that anyone could ask for.

Thank you. Thank you one and all. To quote Shihan Taylor, “maybe I should say it in Japanese.” THANK YOU! (Arigato!)

The Morning After

It’s all so very surreal. Yesterday was such a stressful day anticipating the exam and the exam itself went so quickly that today it just doesn’t feel real. Okay, the fact that I really did sleep with my belt last night – I wasn’t letting it go – holding it clutched tight in my hand and seeing it first thing this morning did help to solidify that the whole thing wasn’t a dream. But it still doesn’t feel quite real. I don’t feel any different today than I did yesterday, or a week ago. It really is very odd. And not odd at all. I believe it all goes back to my original premise that reaching black belt is just the beginning of the journey.

I am so excited to take my first few steps on that path now. The magnitude of what I have to learn is just amazing. I can’t believe that anyone looks to me to teach when I realize how much I have to learn, but I am very happy to impart what I have learned so far.

What I was most unprepared for last night were the emotions that coursed through me, not during the exam but afterwards. I was so focused on what I could have done better, what I would change if I could do it again and the disbelief that I had finally attained my goal. I was really unprepared for the amount of tears that I shed. I shed them before I got my belt, standing waiting for the presentation, while I was shaking Shihan’s hand and while I fumbled with tying my new belt. I really shed them when I got home. I think it was probably fifteen years ago that I first put my gi on – I took a long break to work and have my son and returned – but to want something for that long and finally get it, I suppose I should have expected to feel emotional.

It was amazingly awesome to receive such support from those around me. Family and friends have been a wonderful part of my journey, always encouraging me each step along the way. I owe a very very special debt of gratitude and thanks to my extraordinary husband and son who never complained about the long hours away spent in the dojo as I trained and to my instructors, especially Shihan Taylor who nudged, prodded, and beat me up along the way to make myself a better student. There are no words to express how I feel this morning or to really thank them for what an amazing gift they have given me.

I’ve watched numerous black belts through the years get their belt and quit training. I must admit, this morning I’m even more puzzled by that than I ever have been before. I absolutely cannot wait to get in the dojo and train again. Wearing the belt makes me want to train even more. If I can get to this point, what can I do if I train even harder? Maybe I just have karate coursing through my veins, I don’t know. But what I do know is one day – in the very distant future – if I my vision of the future is true I’m going to be that old woman out on the mats that can still kick up to her head, do an impressive spinning back kick and hold my own against the young kids in the dojo. And I hope that I’ll be able to give back to karate as much as its given me so far.

I still can’t believe I did it.

Today is the day…

I didn’t need to rip the page off of my calendar to realize what today was. I knew the second I woke up. I hadn’t even opened my eyes yet and I was already reciting my answer to how do you defend/protect yourself. The words rolled over and over again in my mind. “You recognize the situation. You evaluate what is going on, checking your distance and looking for escape routes. Then you react by increasing your distance and using your voice. After that you defend yourself by making a preemptive strike or a defense strike.” Those words have been repeated in my mind so often, I hope that they roll off my tongue easily tonight.

I’m doing kata in my mind, repeating moves, developing strategies about sparring. My brain is in karate overload. I just can’t believe that the day I’ve dreamed about, fantasized about has finally arrived. Its surreal. I’m strangely calm on the inside as I run through everything over and over again. I think part of it might be years and years of training, knowing that some of this will just be second nature and come to me. Not over thinking it, perhaps some of it not thinking much at all, just letting the muscle memory take over and letting my body do what it knows to do. The other reason I think I’m calm is that I still don’t truly believe that its real. It can’t be. I have so much more to learn.

When I have my hand on that belt tonight, tears streaming down my face I think I’ll be looking ahead to my next training session, to improve on what I did tonight and to reach a new rung on the ladder. There might be a new black belt standing in our dojo tonight but she is definitely going to feel like a novice student, eager to crack open the books and learn all that there is to learn. Tonight I plan to take my first real step along the shodan path.

Reality is starting to set in

One of the little girls in the dojo asked me today if after my test I will be a Sensei. That was such a weird feeling – to hear that question. My first thought of course was no, that title belongs to someone else and has for as long as I have known him. I am now and will forever be a student of karate. And I’m happy to be that. So many things all jumbled around in my head that I’ve never thought about it that way.

Yes, I’ve been in training to teach for quite some time now but to be a real instructor, that’s just so hard to fathom. I have so much to learn and learning is a lifelong task. I watch myself in the mirror when I train and see things to work on, things to improve, things I want to do better.

And you know what? I am so glad that I do. Becoming lazy and complacent, not growing as a karate student, those are the things that would make me sad. I am proud of what I’ve accomplished so far. Just staying on the path towards a goal can be hard enough but I realize how hard I’ve had to work (hey, let’s face it I’m not 16 or 21 anymore) and the changes that karate has made in me and I’m even happier. I didn’t give up when it got tough. I had to quit for a long while due to work and family but I never gave up – I always knew I’d go back and become a black belt.

That moment when I finally ring the bell after my dan exam is going to be one of the sweetest moments. I just know that I’m going to ring it with tears streaming down my face. Not sure I even care right now if I don’t look ‘tough’. Is it okay for a black belt to cry? I hope so because I know one that is going to be shedding some real tears of joy as she thanks her family for always supporting her and her instructors for pushing her to become someone she only dreamed that she could be one day.

I plan on making sure that this Friday is the day that a certain tear-stained mom of five is ringing that bell like it has never been rung before.

Right Around the Corner

Yeah, I’ve been pretty bad about posting lately but for a very good reason. I have been working out morning, noon and night. For various reasons my test didn’t happen in February and then March slid by without a date set, well most of March anyway. Right at the end of the month I got the official word as to when I would step on the mat and test for my black belt.

I got the date and its right around the corner. I’m thinking less time to dwell on the date is best since it will give me less time to get nervous. And I’m nervous enough already. A week from tonight, April 8th, by this time I should know if I’ve passed my exam. Next Friday will be here before I know it. The time will fly by, I’m sure of it. I must admit that I am really glad that I didn’t test in February. Sometime around the tenth of last month (March) I had this sudden realization about just how much I didn’t know. Following that I trained even harder, applying myself physically and mentally to the task at hand. I honestly think it was mental readjustment that made the biggest difference. I literally decided that I was going to change a few things and did.

For the past week or so I have been feeling awesome about my karate. I’ve been really happy with the progress that I’ve been making. That was until about Wednesday of last week. Suddenly I felt like I was getting worse – like I was back to my old self. I talked to my instructor about it, asking if that should happen and he told me yes. That’s all he said. And he told me that I was doing great and he was really happy with what I was doing. That confused me – not at all what my perception of the situation was. I thought about it for a while and maybe I’ve figured it out.

Perhaps it is like I’ve said all along. The more I know, the more I realize I have to learn. My huge breakthrough in moving forward just showed me how much more there is that should be done – that can be done.

I’m training harder now. I don’t ever intend to quit learning.

‘The Talk’

I was chatting casually with my instructor about some marketing initiatives that we were working on, some upcoming events and he was sharing some teaching tidbits and ideas with me when he ever so casually said, “I need to see you before you get out of here.” Just like that. And then he was gone.

Why all of a sudden did I feel like a teenager in trouble? “Whatever it was I didn’t do it unless I was supposed to do it, then I did it for sure”, I thought to myself. Instead that feeling of dread grew in my gut, like a tiny knot that grows and festers into a huge boulder, weighing you down and making you sweat internally overcome with emotion, just waiting until ‘The Talk’.

I taught my class and tried to remain cheery and smiling, upbeat and positive while beads of perspiration covered my brain. Inside, I was a turning into a jello person. I pretty much knew what was coming. I wasn’t ready to test. “But I have to test,” I screamed until my own ears hurt. On the outside what everyone else heard was “great job, let’s do it again. One – two – three.”

I found myself wondering if I could wimp out and escape without facing the music. Maybe if I faced it later it wouldn’t seem so bad. But no such luck. I gamely hoisted my workout bag across my shoulder and smiled, saying “goodnight” in my most pleasant, I-don’t-want-to-face-the-firing-squad voice and prepared to leave.

That’s when I saw the finger beckoning me. “Come here for just a minute. Let’s talk.”

Let’s talk. That sounded so ominous. I carefully dropped my bag on the counter, sauntering off as casually as I could to the back mat. “Okay,” I thought. “I can take this. Toughen up. Black belts don’t cry.”

After a few minutes of conversation about my teaching skills and where I was at and how I’d improved he gently said, “So, now let’s talk about your test.” I didn’t know it was possible to really feel your heart lurch and drop to your feet. It is. Mine did. The only good thing was so far I wasn’t feeling the sting of tears fluttering against my eyelashes. “Toughen up,” I reminded myself. “Black belt’s DON’T cry.”

I must have been thinking so hard about holding it together because I didn’t hear him right. “I’m thinking your test will be at the end of February. Now, here’s what we need to do, here’s what you need to work on…”

Testing? The end of February? Really?

Now, I haven’t done a somersault in a long time but tonight I think I could have. I wanted to grin uncontrollably but figured that didn’t look very sophisticated. Did black belts grin? Yeah…when they tie that belt on for the first time I think.

I slammed my brain back to reality and listened intently to what he had to say. Time to really step it up. I’d be testing on my own, no breaks, no one else to distract the Board. All me. And it would be a Shotokan test, “That’s what you want to test isn’t it?” he asked. I nodded my head almost unable to speak. I’m testing! I’m really, really testing!

How come that feeling of exhilaration when I heard those words only lasted a short while? How come the nerves kicked into high gear and anxiety took over? I didn’t really have to wonder about that. I’d seen other dan exams. Over-confidence is a bad thing. A desire to train twice as hard, that’s what helps to take you to the next level.

I have to be honest, I won’t believe it until it happens. I won’t be confident of passing until I hear those words. “Let me present our newest black belt.” Only then will I believe it. And that’s when one black belt will definitely be grinning ear-to-ear.