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.

The Last Kyu

Tomorrow (12/1/18) I will test for my next rank – what we call “high brown” (otherwise known as i-kyu).  I won’t get a new belt – in our system, one wears the same belt through what is, for us, the last three ranks before black belt. No stripes adorn our brown belts – we have to talk to one another and keep track of every brown belt’s progress in order to figure out who stands where in line and who is senpai (senior) to whom.

My sensei (instructors) tell me that I am ready to test even though I’ve been ni-kyu (middle brown) for only six months. I have to admit I balked when I was nudged to test in October. I didn’t learn the two new kata (forms) that I will perform for my test until after I’d competed at Nationals in July. Annanko (kata) was no problem, but Kanku Dai (kata) is another animal altogether. For Kanku Dai I felt I needed more time than just three months. By mid-November I felt far more confident. My Kanku Dai isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t have to be. I have years ahead of me to polish it further.

The three ranks of brown in our system are meant to be a time of transition, particularly during the final kyu (colored belt) rank. I don’t know when I will test for Shodan (first degree black belt), but I do know that if I pass tomorrow’s test I’m in for a boatload of hard work. For my Shodan test, whenever that will be, there will be two new kata to present and a couple of significant format changes in the test itself. I will have to train just as hard if not harder than I did for Nationals. At least I have already shouldered a boatload of teaching, so I’ve already had significant preparation for the responsibilities that I will  have as a yudansha (black belt). In just a few days I actually will need to scale back the responsibilities I currently hold.

So far I have been balancing my own personal training with my dojo (school) responsibilities. But if I pass my test tomorrow I will need to give up one significant responsibility. OK, truth be told, I will need to give up helping with the college’s physical education class anyway because for next quarter the college has changed the class time and days. But even if the Winter Quarter Karate PE class was still going to work nicely with the rest of my schedule, I would still have to let go. Since the beginning of Fall Quarter I have been getting up at five in the morning to get personal practice time.   I admit I’ve been feeling a little ragged around the edges.  Pass or fail, I will need more time (and more intensive time at that) after tomorrow’s test to practice, to polish, to toughen my body further.

I am a little sad about not being part of the college class next quarter. It’s been a significant part of my journey and a tremendous boost to my growth for most of my training now. I will miss working alongside the dojo sensei and occasionally getting help with my own material after class. It’s been an honor to serve at the same place where the head of our organization got his start. But I understand it’s time for me to let go. It’s time to move on to my future. I’m excited about what’s next for me.  This time of transition is bittersweet.

Whether or not I pass my test tomorrow the coming months or years will most definitely see me intensively preparing to tie on a black belt. And yes, when that happens, I will still be a beginner. I will always be beginning something new.  I’ve been told that Shodan is the new beginning, the first step, and the true beginning of my own journey.  It’s gonna be a helluva ride.

My deepest thanks to all the karateka who have helped me get to this point.

Update:  I passed the test!

Training with Children

“Do I have to train with the little kids?  Don’t you have an adult class?”

Rumor has it that someone asked this question sometime in the past few months.  Honestly, I can sympathize a little.  All martial artists above the age of, oh, say, fourteen know that feeling.  But there’s something that any prospective teen and adult student should know:  You.  Are.  Needed.  And, quite frankly, a beginner is a beginner is a beginner, so you might as well begin your journey alongside the kiddos.

I’m not a sensei (instructor) yet, but I have a good solid history of assisting and teaching starting from when I was a teenager.  I’ve probably covered my background in previous posts, so I won’t go into detail about my exact qualifications.  But rest assured, I’ve seen enough to where I’m confident in my authority in writing this post.

As a teenager I often taught new adult students.  As an adult student, I have had and still have youngsters who are senior in rank (senpai) to me.  I know from my own experience and from watching my  young senpai(s) that teaching and having authority over an adult gives a youngster a huge boost in morale and confidence.  You never know -maybe at school that young senpai feels isolated and disrespected.  That certainly was my experience.  So, older beginning student, you could be water in the desert for your young senpai.  Of course young senpai(s) can and do enjoy teaching children, but being liked and respected by an adult student – oh I can’t even begin to describe the good it does for a young heart and soul!

A lack of teen and adult presence exacerbates the public’s perception that the class is just for children.  All too often martial arts are treated like just another glorified babysitter.  Of course, parents who just want their kids out of their hair for an hour can make the difference between a school paying its bills or being evicted, so I’m not bashing owners who allow such kids in their class.  I also acknowledge that it’s possible for the goofiest kid in class to become your best student even though it originally wasn’t her idea to study a martial art.  All that said, a dojo needs serious students because the presence of serious students (especially teens and adults) sets the tone for the class.  The younger students will look up to their big peers and will make better progress simply because they see what hard work and good manners look like.  The public will notice people of all ages learning together.  This unusual sight will hopefully attract a wider variety of potential students.

OK, so much for the mental and social stuff – now let’s look at the physical side.  Height and age are the only differences I’ll see while watching the performance of new beginners at the college class and at my “home” dojo.   If I teach two days in a row at both places I will see a college student making the same mistakes as an elementary-school child.  I guarantee it.  I will be giving the same feedback to  students in both classes.  Yes, prospective teen or adult student, you need to swallow your pride because you absolutely cannot assume that you will learn any faster than any given child.  Everyone is on their own timetable when it comes to learning a martial art.

I acknowledge that most days an adult or teen student will have to learn in a class that is, to some extent, pitched to the younger set.  I have to admit I enjoy teaching the college class because of how I can present the material.  I confess that I feel a tiny bit sorry for teens or adults who are thrown in with a bunch of goofy children.  Accordingly, I take every opportunity to give those older beginners nuggets of information that the younger ones can’t grasp.  If the host facility allows, I am more than happy to spend a little time before or after class with any serious student, regardless of age.  Most martial arts instructors feel the same.  This is an opportunity for adults to be taught as adults, even if it’s just for ten minutes!

Bottom line is we (your instructors and your senpai) want you to succeed.  You’re not going to be treated like a two-year-old unless you act like one.  If you feel like you’re ready for new material before the children in your new beginners’ class are ready, I encourage you to talk to your instructor.  Be forewarned that instead of getting new material your instructor might instead show you ways to improve what you are currently working on and/or the instructor will give you a deeper understanding of the techniques.  In other words, you probably won’t be given new material.  That’s OK, we all go through those stages.  Just start your journey – you’ll find that training with children is either OK or maybe even fun.