Why now?  Why not sooner?

Lately I’ve been made aware of many little not-quite-ideal habits that have either crept into my Karate or that have been there all along. Of the former, that’s on me. I know better. I’ve taught better. So what about the little not-quite-ideal that have been there all along? Part of me is sometimes tempted to ask, “Why wasn’t I taught the proper way to do this right from the beginning?” Please note I have no desire to make an implication that there’s been a deficiency in my training. Right off the bat, I can think of three answers to that question. There are probably more answers and I’ll probably discover those answers as time goes by.

1) I wasn’t developmentally ready until now.

I have a long history of teaching both in karate and in home school. Some would argue that because I don’t have a master’s degree in education and have never taught in an academic institution, I can’t make any claim to teaching. OK, I admit I can’t just walk into a fifth-grade classroom, get them focused(!) and teach them how to solve story problems without using algebra. But one thing I do know both from home schooling my daughters and from teaching beginning karate students is this. You can’t force growth – your students will be ready when they are ready. Most fifth graders aren’t developmentally ready for algebra. Even though using algebra is a fantastic way to solve story problems, details about solving story problems using algebra will only confuse fifth-graders. The kiddos must slog through rote memorization for another three or four years. Not unlike new beginners in Karate.

2) There are too many details for anyone to absorb all at once.

Computers can store huge amounts of data nearly instantly. An entire college-level textbook on, for example, quantum physics can be loaded into a computer in a matter of seconds. Human minds do not have that capability. Knowledge and skill need to be built over time, through study and practice. It’s true that new adult beginners can understand and remember more details than their child counterparts. But even though an adult can intellectually grasp concepts that a child cannot, adults and children alike must build muscle memory and refine techniques over time.

3) Muscle memory must be built gradually

Now that I’m getting to the point where I have to be more aware of all the little details, I appreciate the foundation that I have. Pianists build their foundations with finger exercises, scales, etc. A beginning piano student fumbles through these drills and can play only simple melodies. But it takes time to develop the coordination necessary to play more complex music. So it is with karate. If a student wobbles her way through Kihon Kata Ichi (Basic Form #1), there is no way she can handle the more complex and refined movements of Bassai Dai (one of the advanced, “black belt level” forms). If my piano skills were at the same level as my karate I’d be playing recognizable, maybe even enjoyable tunes. But I’d still be a long way from playing at Carnegie Hall, or even with the local city orchestra. I’d know my scales and arpeggios, and my friends wouldn’t be cringing if I played for them. It’s time to build on and refine what I know.

Details.  Details.

If I tried to bombard a class full of new beginners with all the details I’m getting now, they’d probably run screaming out the door. Yes, even the adults.  But what happens over time? Students become more confident in what they know. They’re physically and mentally capable of learning just a little more. Time goes on, and they start to figure out what questions to ask. They start making connections between this technique and that technique. They start comparing kata (forms). This is a fun stage of development. But even still, intermediate students don’t need to be bombarded with everything there is to know about Karate. And what about myself? I probably would have gone to the locker room and wept if, on my first day of Karate I was bombarded with thousands of minutae. I would have thought, correctly, that it was too much to live up to, too much to remember, much less execute with muscles that hadn’t moved that way in a little over a quarter century. What about a little later, after I’d earned a few belts? No, I wasn’t ready even then. I was still working on my foundation. I still am, to be honest.

It’s time to tighten up those little things that have slipped. Time to refine. Time to start performing more and more like the yudansha (“black belt”) that I will some day be. Even the smallest of improvements make a difference. Little by little, I’ll get better at karate if I pay attention to all the little details. It will be a lifetime study, I’m sure.

Time Outside of Class

How should I manage time I spend exercising outside of Karate class?  What should I do, and what order should I follow?  What’s the optimal time of day?  How much should I do?  I have re-visited these questions multiple times ever since I started Karate.  My life changes, my family’s schedules change, my goals change, sometimes a sensei (instructor) will change what is emphasized in class, and sometimes new opportunities arise.   I have to adapt the time I spend exercising outside of class accordingly.

When I first started karate four and a half years ago, I didn’t know much about exercise.  Interval vs. circuit was beyond my ken.  I’m not sure I even knew the meaning of  “cardio.”  I had no idea of what to do, how to schedule.  I didn’t practice karate outside of class at first.  All that changed gradually over time.

Years ago, my “home” dojo (school) was in a rec center.  I took advantage of classes and activities beyond Karate.  I started learning about exercise, and eventually was “on call” as a substitute water fitness instructor.  Best of all, the rec center used to allow people to use studios whenever there wasn’t a scheduled group exercise class.  Gradually, as I learned more karate, I started taking advantage of those studios more often.  Other activities took a back seat and then faded away.  Eventually, due to changes beyond my control, I had to create a space in my own home for exercising.  This made the “when” slightly easier.

Eventually I had so much karate material to work on that I needed to have paper charts.  My week started to become full, so I needed a chart of not only what, but when.   I figured out that I really enjoy circuit workouts.  After some experimentation, I started using a spreadsheet.  Changes can be made quickly and easily.

I’ve had to adapt to quite a lot.  It seems like changes in my life are happening more and more frequently.  Either I’m perceiving time differently or I’m growing.  Or both.  Sometimes I need a season to scale back.  After such a season or in preparation for something big, I need to ramp up.  I don’t know how many revisions my exercise chart has gone through.  In fact, I made a revision just a couple of days ago.

I don’t know why, but sometimes a little voice inside me scolds me for changing my charts so often.  For some odd reason, a bunch of my old charts are still clogging up my cloud drive, so I can see that major changes don’t come often.  Mostly I do minor adjustments.  But still – is it so bad to make major changes in my charts?  Some part of me wants to believe that I should be disciplined enough to keep the same routine going no matter what.

Balderdash.  A quick search of the Internet reveals that there is no one right way for me to manage my extra-curricular exercise.  And let’s face it, life happens.  If I don’t adjust, I stagnate.  If I were a slave to an unchanging exercise routine, I’d probably give up out of sheer frustration in trying to keep up with everything.  Learning to adapt is also a lesson in perseverance.  This is a lesson I hope to pass along.

Now I’m making charts for someone else.  My daughter does well with lists.  Because of where she is in life, she accepts only a modicum of input from me.  I’m glad that I can provide her with a chart that reflects where she is in her karate journey.  Whenever I give her a new chart, I point out that if I’ve increased the number of reps it means she’s getting stronger.  I was proud to add two new kata (forms) to her chart last month after she passed her first belt test.  Recently I asked her if she’s OK with the circuit-workout format and listed some other options.  The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree – she likes circuit.

I hope this encourages you, dear reader, to build your own routine.  My best advice is to be flexible.  When it comes to scheduling and charting exercise, there’s loads of options.  Don’t fret about which website, which book, which guru.  Find something you like and talk with your doctor (yeah, you knew that).  Look at how the rest of your life is scheduled, find your time slots, and just go for it.   If something isn’t working, change it.  Change, learn, grow, but most of all – enjoy.  Don’t beat yourself up for backsliding.  Instead, set realistic goals.  Focus on the fact that you’re doing something positive for yourself.  Success will come, I guarantee it.

Making a Difference

Last week a few of my fellow karateka (people who study karate) and I helped out with a womens’ self-defense seminar taught by one of or organization’s sensei (instructor). With seven assistants among twenty four women, not everyone got to have a karateka as a partner. I very deliberately chose someone in particular to work with. “Judy” (not her real name) was my senior in age, not old enough to be particularly fragile, but I wanted to be sure that she was paired with someone who would be able to instantly modify the material if need be. I was very confident that I could do that, and that it would be a great experience for me. I was right.

I’m familiar with the era Judy grew up in. She would have come of age sometime in between my parents and me. Sometimes I hear the echoes of society’s messages from that era (for further reading, click here and here). It was pretty obvious that Judy hears those echoes too. I admired her willingness to explore what she is capable of. Yes, Judy can indeed execute those wicked awesome moves we taught her. But more importantly, Judy learned she is capable of being strong mentally.

Judy admitted to me that she was crossing into unfamiliar territory. She told me that she hadn’t really thought about or learned much about the power of being assertive in a potentially dangerous situation. Of course I was gratified when Judy said I was a good role model for her and that she admired my inner strength. But truth be told, I was in awe of Judy. She was growing and learning. Judy became more and more comfortable with the physical exercises and started to see possibilities for adding more to the material. I do so love it when a student starts thinking on that level! That manifestation of engagement indicated a significant mental shift for Judy. Right before my eyes, she became empowered. Judy owned what we were teaching.

Judy said I was a good role model, but really, she is an excellent role model herself. It takes grit and determination to step beyond what women were told in the era Judy and I grew up in. More so for Judy because she spent a longer time than me in that era. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone takes guts, and it’s obvious Judy is brave. Most of all, Judy wanted to learn. A strong desire to learn helps a student overcome many obstacles, and Judy overcame a lot that day. I admire her for that, and I am honored to have been a part of that process for her.

Making a difference and helping students to be better than they were before they walked in the door should be my focus every single class that I help teach or actually teach. I admit, some days I’m grumpy, I’m unfocused, I’m not in that zone. Maybe on those “off” days I should ground myself by remembering Judy. Hmm – it looks like Judy is making a difference to me and, by extension, the karate students I help! What goes around comes around.

Looking Back at Looking Forward

As 2018 draws to a close, I, like many Americans, reflect back on the past year and set goals for the next. Some martial arts bloggers post an end-of-the-year recap. I prefer to do my annual review not at the end of the calendar year, but sometime around my “Karateversary.” My collection of end-of-the-year posts are a potpourri. I’ve written accounts of holiday banquets, some autobiography, and, of course, more generalized martial arts lessons. While looking at what I’ve written at the ends of previous years, I found a series of posts I wrote at the beginning of 2016.

Sometime around the end of 2015 a couple of my online acquaintances were mulling over what it means to be a black belt. I contributed one sentence to the discussion and was challenged to look deeper and figure out what black belt is going to mean to me personally. I sat down at the computer and typed and typed and typed. I called my series of blog posts “More Betterer,” Parts I, II, III, and IV. I had no idea that three years later, I’d be on my last kyu rank and, accordingly, training for Shodan (first degree black belt).

A few things I wrote about have already come to pass. I’ll hit the highlights.  From Part II: I have done a good bit of substitute teaching over the last three years, not just assistant teaching but leading classes start to finish. From Part III: I am better at dealing with imposter syndrome. From Part IV: I’ve made great progress on the physical goals I set out for myself three years ago (but I still can’t do 30 push ups).  That’s progress!

I thought it would take more time to reach where I am now. That said, for all I know, maybe I will have more time before I’m expected to test for the next level. At this point in my training the only control I have over whether or not I test for Shodan is if I goof off. If I goof off I most definitely won’t be invited to test. You see, black belt testing is held once per year in October. Sometime in late January or early February, our organization’s yudansha (black belts) decide who gets invited to test for Shodan and above. I-kyu(s) like me are expected to train hard whether or not they were told to test. I could have nearly two years (or longer) to prepare or, perhaps, only ten months.

The course I laid out for myself in my early 2016 blog posts is daunting. However, much to my surprise, I’m mostly where I wanted to be.  Do I hope for a beautiful new black belt in 2019? Of course I do, right? Well… Honestly I go back and forth on that one. Most non-karate people focus on the status and sheer bad-assery of having a black belt. I look at the responsibilities, the change in test format, and at the physical requirements…  Yeah, sometimes I  find myself daunted. And yes, that’s an indication of imposter syndrome. I have to remind myself it’s not about the belt, it’s about the journey.  Not because I’m arrogant enough to think I’m entitled to a nice new belt, but because I’m a little bit scared of failure.

These words I wrote three years ago are still true for me today, as I contemplate what 2019 might bring:

The exact number of years [that I will take to reach Shodan] is not important – what’s more important is Bruce Lee’s maxim about being a little bit better today than I was yesterday.
And being a little bit better today than I was yesterday is something that must not stop at Shodan. In other words, I should always strive to be more betterer.

In 2019 I hope I will rise up to the challenges and learn from the mistakes. I hope I will grow mentally and become even more physically fit. I hope I will continue to look for opportunities to expand my knowledge and improve myself. I hope to help others do the same. And that, dear reader, will happen regardless of the color of the belt I will have a year from now.

The Posts I Have Not Written

In this blog I open up my Karate life to public scrutiny. Or do I? Am I really presenting a true and accurate account of my journey? I’m sorry, but the answer is no. I remember very vividly the first lecture in my first college class in my major – Introduction to Mass Media. We were taught that every single time we point a TV or film camera at something, we are excluding everything else. We were taught that, in a way, we lie to people without intending to. I must admit that I do leave some things out of my blog.

Most of the time when I write an autobiographical post I set a lighthearted and sunny tone. Maybe I make my journey sound like it’s always a walk in the park. Sometimes I wonder if my breezy writing is a dis-service to my target audience (working adults who can’t imagine themselves starting a martial art). My audience does need to know there are tough things to deal with while one is studying a martial art. But on the other hand, who wants to wallow in the mire?  A good many of the things I don’t want to reveal are dark things I generated myself. Usually I’ll write about them only after I’ve already overcome them. But some of these things involve other people and are nobody’s dang business except for the people who are directly involved.

When it comes to writing about other karateka who are a part of my journey, I am cautious. I respect people’s privacy. If I have a conflict with them I don’t bring it up on my blog. If I am writing an anecdote, I try to make sure that I don’t interject anything negative into my portrayal of that other person or people. As I get more and more involved in the functioning of the Karate organization that I belong to, I must be even more careful. I must not overstep my bounds – I do not hold any authority to speak for my dojo or organization. There are things that are best left with those who are in leadership. Every once in a blue moon I will tackle an underlying social issue that my dojo or organization happens to be dealing with. But the vast majority of posts about broader issues have not had anything to do with anything specifically related to my dojo or organization. Most of the time with such posts, I simply had a flash of insight into a general issue or common situation.

Sometimes I’ll test the waters before I write about a social issue that either affects martial arts or is endemic to martial arts. I’ll private message a friend or two. Maybe I’ll post to more friends on Facebook. Other times I’ll leave a comment on someone else’s post and read the responses. I rarely post on forums, but that can be a good way to generate ideas and get a feel for where the topic might lead. This strategy has yielded gold in the past. But one time, it bombed. Even though I was able to express myself a lot better in six paragraphs than in six sentences, I’m not sure I’ll ever re-visit the draft I wrote while I was watching the responses appear. Oh well, I’ve got plenty more material.

Discarding material, omitting things, and shying away from some topics is a part and parcel of writing in general. To be honest, having more material than one could or should use is preferable to writer’s block! Yet leaving things out does affect my blog.  Sometimes I feel like I’m presenting a “Disney” version of Karate. I know huge chunks missing from the account of my journey. And yeah, I get the occasional rotten tomato lobbed my way, so I leave some things alone afterwards. Yes, I admit to using smoke and mirrors. But on the other hand, I think my blog is better off for all the posts I have not written. Who wants to read negative stuff? People who don’t respect others’ privacy are generally not popular. Not to mention I dislike rotten tomatoes, deserved or not, so I do my best to avoid them. All in all, I think I prefer the consequences of trying to do the right thing over the potential consequences for all the posts I’ve never written.