Round Two

I know you.  I’ve fought you before.  I know every way you’re going to attack me.  I’ve been beaten down by you before.  You’ve brought me so low I wanted to quit.  You kept kicking me when I was down.  You showed no mercy.  At long last the fight ended, but you kept hounding me – picking at me in small, petty ways.  I was free of you for awhile then unexpectedly I found myself in Round Two.

This time I will not undermine myself with worry.  Worry crippled me the last time I fought you.  I will remain calm no matter what you throw at me.  Screaming, ranting, and giving in to despair did me no good.  Crying… Yes I will cry, but only as a healthy release not as part of a self-destructive cycle of self pity that leaves me wide open for the worst of your attacks.

I will listen for the voices of my coaches during this fight.  I will listen for my friends cheering me on.  I didn’t listen last time around and you took full advantage.  No more.  There are a few who say to my face that you will win.  There are some who don’t believe that I am capable of fighting you.  I’m not listening to them anymore.  If I happen to hear them in the clamoring voices of the ringside crowd I will listen again for those who are encouraging me to keep fighting.

Every time you throw something at me, I will take action.  I will go on the offensive every opportunity I get.  I am looking for those opportunities so watch out.  I didn’t look for opportunities last time around; I just reacted and my reactions were ineffective.  I acknowledge that maybe my best might still not be good enough.  You almost crushed me utterly the first round and you might win this round.  But if you win, know that I will hound you until the next fight just like you hounded me between rounds.

Most importantly I refuse to do your work for you.  I will not undermine myself.  That stops now.

I will stay positive and look for and hope for better things.  I will be grateful for everything that helps me beat you.  Maybe I will defeat you utterly.  I know I will learn more no matter what happens, and when I am learning more I am gaining strength.  In a way, I will win no matter what – no matter how many times I have to fight you, no matter how many times I fall to the mats I will win.  I will get back up again even if I feel defeated.  I will fight until there’s nothing left in me.

Dear reader, this is not a human opponent.  But I have learned to fight this enemy because of the lessons I’ve learned in Karate.  My husband unexpectedly lost his job.  We’ve been in this place before.  I spent a weekend grieving, then I took up the fight.  Every day I strive to do as many positive things that I can do to help the situation.  My eyes are wide open for creative ways of saving and earning money.  Even if the worst happens I have plans for that too.  We will persevere.

To all who have encouraged me, taught me, and worked with me both in and out of the dojo – thank you.  You mean the world to me.



“Ladies, you need to perform a second kata this round,” announced the head judge of the tournament ring.

My eyes bugged out and I gulped.  I had not prepared a second kata (form) for this competition.  I had spent most of my kata practice time prior to the tournament polishing my best kata and working a little on the vexing new kata that I need to perform for my next belt test.  I squashed a panic attack.  I realized I had a choice and I made it in an instant.  I decided not to contest the judge’s announcement even though I had every right to raise my hand to signal I wanted to confer with the judge.

There aren’t many ladies my age who compete in Karate, so tournament officials combine the intermediate ladies with the advanced ladies.  There were four of us competing in kata last Sunday (2/12/17).  Two of us ladies were advanced, and another lady and I were intermediate.  I won against the other intermediate lady and went on to the next round to compete against the advanced lady who had won her first round.

When an intermediate karateka (one who studies Karate) is competing in a mixed division against an advanced karateka, the rules for intermediate competition apply.  I was not required to present a second kata.  I could repeat the kata I’d performed in the first round.  I had won my first round with a kata that I’ve been working on for well over a year (its name is Bassai Dai).  I know my performance of that kata just keeps getting better as I refine it and discover more about it.  Obviously the judges thought I performed that kata well.  I might have won the gold medal performing that kata again for the second round.

But in the instant that I had to make the decision something stopped me from raising my hand to confer with the judge.  I realized I was going to earn at least a silver medal even if I tripped over my feet and splatted myself on the mats.  I began to feel almost mischievous.  I decided to throw all caution to the wind and perform a kata that requires one to balance on one leg not once but three times (the kata’s name is Rohai Shodan).  Even a little wobble would count against my technical performance score.  It’s pretty daring for someone my rank to attempt to perform it in tournament.  I was challenging myself.

In a heartbeat the moment of decision was gone.  I was committed to my choice.  I made the formal entrance into the ring, bowed one last time, announced the name of my kata, and began my performance.  To my left, my fellow competitor began her kata.  The judges were watching, the spectators were watching, and the big glassy eye of a camera’s telephoto lens was pointed my way.  All that faded away – it was just me and my imaginary opponents who I was systematically destroying one by one.

Kata is a lot of things.  It’s part moving meditation.  It can be a textbook on how to fight.  Kata contains all sorts of lessons as one puzzles out applications for the movements.  One’s body gets used to moving in new and different ways.  Weather permitting, I like exploring how terrain affects the movements.  And let’s face it, kata is part war dance.  I have a tiny smattering of instruction and experience in the art of acting.  When I am in a tournament or belt test I draw on my acting abilities and capitalize on the war dance aspect of kata.  “And now I shatter your elbow,” I silently snarl to my imaginary opponent, and my face reflects that sentiment.  I was totally in that zone for Bassai Dai and even more so for Rohai Shodan.

For me the hardest part of kata is standing at attention at the end.  I have to control my breathing after a rather vigorous athletic activity.  Sometimes my opponent is performing a longer kata.  I can’t watch – I must remain at attention while she finishes.  It usually takes only a few seconds for the judges to show their votes for who won and for the winner to be announced, but sometimes it feels like an eternity.  I can’t see the judges behind me nor may I turn to look, so I must wait for the head judge’s announcement.  I knew I’d done a good job technically, and I knew I had injected some panache into my performance.  I felt fantastic while I was pretending to block punches and shatter joints.  But my heart raced while I stood at attention.  Which medal would I be taking home?

When the head judge announced I was the winner, I was stunned.  I couldn’t believe I had really pulled it off.  I knew I had been gambling.  Taking the risk had paid off.

The universe has a way of keeping one humble.  After the victory in kata, I got a silver in kumite (sparring).  Um… There were only two of us for kumite, so…  Yeah.  Sheepish grin here.  I think I have a lot of work to do.

A Little Bit of Authority

Jackie Bradbury, in her recent blog post, “The Question of Authority” asked,

“Are you an authority?  How did you get recognized as such?  What are some of the downsides of how authority works in your neck of the woods?  Upsides?  Join in the conversation and let us know what you think!”

I found myself writing more than a Facebook comment could handle.  Thank you, Jackie for the inspiration!

I help out at College Dojo, and I guess that makes me a junior authority.  College Dojo is, at its core, a college class that students take for credit.  Two quarters are offered, and both PE 116 and 216 meet at the same time, same place.  Most students take only one quarter, so it is possible for an intermediate-ranked person to assist such a class.  That said, College Sensei wants me to work my butt off in my own training so that hopefully sometime in late 2017 my belt rank will finally match my function at his dojo.

I originally came to College Dojo as a very low-ranked student seeking to really solidify my foundation by practicing the most basic skills of Karate alongside new beginners.  I stayed on by the indulgence of College Sensei and I have no doubt the extra training has given me a great boost in my progress.  Suddenly a year ago I found myself to be the second-highest ranked karateka in the dojo.  A black belt had already retired and a brown belt moved away.  The class is during the business day so it’s hard for most brown and black belts to come help.  Logically, my role changed.  That said, I’m not so sure that my belt rank automatically entitled me to the authority that comes with the role I play now.

I think College Sensei could probably run PE 116 and PE 216 without an assistant.  It would be tough for him and the students, but I think he could pull it off.  He could also insist that only paying students are allowed into the class, which would leave me out.  He must have seen something in me that prompted him to let me grow into the role that I found myself in.  So really the vast majority of my authority comes from College Sensei allowing me to assist with the class.

A tiny bit of my authority stems from where I am now and where I have been in life.  I’m old enough to be the mother of almost every student in College Dojo.  I am in fact a parent of a college student.  I was once a college student myself.  I work on campus and deal with college students every day.  I know how they roll.  So part of the authority I have stems naturally from how a middle-aged matron relates to her kiddos’ peers.  I’ve been affectionately called “Mama Senpai.”

An even smaller piece of my authority in College Dojo comes from the mystique of my abilities in the eyes of newbies.  I look OK when I do Karate – not the best but just right for my rank.  But to someone new to the martial arts world I look amazing.  Advanced kata?  Boo yeah.  Light free-sparring with College Sensei?  OMG.  Sure any given black belt smiles indulgently at me and can pick everything I do apart, but let’s face it…  New students don’t know my green belt with a stripe represents an intermediate rank. They don’t know my abilities don’t even come close to what more highly ranked karateka can do.  New students see a middle-aged lady doing something athletic that looks like it would hurt someone pretty badly, and that does give me a little bit of a mystique in their eyes.

“I think you’ll be giving me a run for the money,” I told a big guy once before sparring with him.  He’d trained a bit here and there in boxing and a couple of other martial arts arts.

“Yeah, but you have skills,” he offered, emphasizing the word, “skills” in a slightly awed tone.

I grinned, “For this fight only, don’t limit yourself to what you’ve learned here.  I want to learn from you.  Stay within the tournament rules, though.”

We had a good fight.  I hope he learned not to underestimate his abilities and his potential.  I know I learned a thing or two about my own fighting style.

College Sensei has on many occasions given students a chance to see me as a work in progress.  He’s sparred with, uh, played cat-and-mouse with me while everyone else watched.  He’s called on me to perform kata that I’ve barely memorized in front of the entire class, then a month later he’ll have me perform it again.  On any given day before or after class anyone can watch if College Sensei decides to work with me, so I don’t mind it when he wants everyone to pay attention.  They learn what’s expected from a student of my rank.  So my authority is put into context.  I am a senior student, not a fully accredited instructor.

The disadvantages of me being in any sort of position of authority are slight, but are, nonetheless, “out there.”  I’m not sure but I probably am not “supposed to” have this much authority until I’m at least one rank higher than I am now.  The role landed in my lap when I was two ranks lower than I am now.  Maybe some consider the mismatch between my role and my rank to be acceptable, maybe some don’t.  That’s OK, I totally understand.  That said, the sooner I achieve my next rank, the better; then that point will be moot.  Another disadvantage is I’m still adjusting from one-on-one teaching with no deadlines to group teaching with deadlines (the end of each quarter).  I do not have decades of experience practicing and/or teaching Karate, so I’m not exactly a superstar expert. I am what I am, and I am growing.

The advantage of me helping out is College Dojo runs smoothly and the students get the benefit of two completely different teachers.  Yes, I feel free to be myself and to teach in my own manner (and College Sensei does give me feedback).  Both as a student and as a teacher I can tell you that sometimes having input from more than one person can make the difference between struggling and understanding.  I am quite comfortable leading either PE 116 or 216, giving feedback to individual students while both classes drill together under Sensei’s direction, leading warm-up exercises, serving as a role model, or any other job a senior student has (like being Sensei’s uke for throws, LOL).  I’d leave a big hole if I couldn’t continue.

I am trying hard to make sure that those students are getting their money’s worth.  And no, I don’t get paid.  I’m volunteering.  Willingly.  The college already pays me for something I’m very good at and have extensive experience in – namely, secretarial work.  I’m good at teaching beginning  karate students too (I started when I was a teenager), but I’m still learning the ropes of running the college classes and I’m not nearly as good at this as I will be in six years, ten years, or twenty years.  The students sometimes hear Sensei giving me my marching orders for the day’s lesson, and sometimes they observe that I’m getting feedback from him after class.  That’s OK – the beginners will see that even though I have a bit of authority, I’m still learning and growing.

Most importantly, I’m having fun being in this position.  I truly enjoy helping to introduce young adults to Karate even if I never see them again after 22 classes.  This is my favorite age group to work with.  Yes, the responsibility that goes along with even this little bit of authority sometimes is daunting, but I’m handling it and I’m growing.  Being in this position has definitely led to growth in my own skills – leadership, patience, innovation in teaching methods, and self confidence.  Being something of an authority figure at College Dojo is very rewarding, and I am very thankful for the opportunity to serve in this capacity.

Hey, here’s some related reading by my Australian counterpart whose journey parallels mine in lots of ways:  Back to Basics – Teaching is the New Learning

Taking Notes

Last week I posted about what I’d learned from watching a belt test.  I didn’t know then if I’d be too tired in the aftermath of the flu to drive three hours in order to watch another belt test in the state next door.  As it turned out, I was well enough and yes, I brought a notebook and pen.  Now I get to blog about what I learned from the exercise of writing down what the candidates were tested on and my observations about the candidates.

It should have come as no surprise to me that if I observed something either positive or negative in an individual or in a group I’d see it over and over again.  I don’t know why I was so surprised at the number of times I wrote things like “see prev. note” [see previous note] or “heiko d. (again!).”   Obviously if someone’s upper block is mediocre while he or she is just standing in shoulder stance, that person’s block is still going to be mediocre if he or she is doing it as part of a combination of basics while moving in a stance, and yes, you’ll see it again in kata (forms).  Guess what?  In kumite (sparring) that same person will get popped in the face.  I think the act of writing down the same observations over and over reinforced my awareness that there are connections among kihon (basics), kata (forms), and kumite (sparring).

Until I took notes I took for granted that one can build off of the combinations of basics given to lower ranks in order to challenge the higher ranks.  This is often done during regular classes as well.  The act of writing down each rank’s “assignment” solidified this concept for me.  It’s a good way to alert the higher ranks to the primary technique the graders want to see, as the white belts (testing for their first rank) are generally given instructions first, then the orange belts, etc.  This progression also makes things easier for whoever is in charge of formulating and calling out the combinations of movements.

I was in a dojo in another state, so this was a good opportunity for me to compare and contrast familiar students with students I didn’t know at all (with the exception of one of my friends from my home state).  I was secretly delighted these candidates were having trouble with something too.  My fellow dojo-mates and I had drilled that particular thing during the prior week in response to what the Chief Instructor for our state saw in the latest belt test.  I was very impressed with a couple of things that, in our state, are not expected until slightly higher ranks.  It’s good for me to see that each dojo has its reasons for doing things, and none of those reasons are necessarily wrong or better.  Just different.

Next belt test it will be interesting to see if my observations of, for instance, low purple belts will be the same or different.  I wonder if there will be new positive and negative trends.  I do have an idea of what’s expected for the first two ranks due to my observation of seven tests held for the college class.  But I need to increase my knowledge beyond that.  Some day I will have students of my own.  I will need to prepare them for their tests.  Some day I might be called on to be in charge of what the candidates do for a test.  By taking notes and thinking about what I’ve written, I’m taking a step forward to prepare myself for that “some day.”

I am slowly transitioning out of the comfort zone of one-on-one teaching (home school and helping lower-ranked karate students) and into the increasingly more familiar territory of group learning.  One-on-one teaching has been my groove ever since I helped out in the dojo I used to train in when I was a teenager.  I’m challenging myself to stretch and grow beyond that comfort zone.  I don’t have to learn how to run a belt test until later in my karate career; I just want to do something more than help stack chairs and congratulate my pals when I’m not actually being tested for my next rank.  I’ve learned a lot from thinking about the nuts and bolts of a belt test, and even more from taking notes and analyzing those notes.

Growth Via Observation

Last Saturday I watched some of my fellow students test for their next belts.  I myself will have to take all the rest of my belt tests at the Hombu Dojo (our Karate organization’s headquarters) from here on out, so I didn’t go to this test in order to see what the next test holds for me.  I was there to support my friends.  It didn’t take long for me to decide that I should look for lessons I could learn.

My brain was a little bit foggy from cough medicine and fatigue, so it didn’t occur to me until after the moving basics part of the test that I should take a notebook to future belt tests and write down the combinations of blocks, strikes, kicks, and stances that were called for.  If I keep a record of which things were assigned to each belt level, it will give me a better idea of what to teach in the future.  If I ever actually run a belt test, I will know what kind of things I can call for.

It just so happened that I was sitting near the long table where the black belts were clustered.  Some of them were grading the students.  Some were there to watch.  I was able to hear some of their talk from time to time.

“Graders,” the Chief Instructor asked, “Do you need to see the students do that again?”

Communication is key –  each grader had roughly three students to look at.  From time to time while doing combinations of moving basics, the students would only get three repetitions in before running out of room to move forward.  Sometimes there wasn’t enough time to analyze each student.

Maybe I’m giving myself more importance than I have, but I’m going to go out on a limb anyway.  I couldn’t help but feel I was responsible for one good thing I saw students doing and for one mistake that I saw one particular student doing.  I  know, it sounds egotistical, but hear me out on the evidence.  The positive thing was something I actually pulled off when sparring against someone who outranks me – and a bunch of the lower ranked students were watching.  A couple of these students used the technique during their own sparring matches for their belt tests, and one succeeded.  The negative thing I saw one student doing while performing his kata is a direct result of me tutoring him – and I didn’t even know he’d picked it up from me until I saw him.  It was subtle, he passed his test, but I’m going to have to point it out to him and apologize.  I need to get used to the fact that as I advance in rank and skill I’m going to have more and more influence on what students do.  They’re looking up to me.

After the test, the Chief Instructor had a bit of feedback to give the Sensei who was in charge of calling out what the students needed to do.  As I listened it hit me that in order to pull off a belt test there’s a lot of details that need to be thought about and planned ahead of time.  I told myself I should bring a notebook next time and write notes about the nuts and bolts of the belt tests.  As it gets close to the time for the next belt test, Sensei-s like to run the classes through simulations of the tests.  If I write things down now, I can better plan such classes and the tests themselves in the future when it’s my task to do so.

College Dojo has a belt test every quarter (according to the college’s schedule) – three out of the four quarters.  Our organization has tests for regular students every three months.  So far I’ve been pretending that I’m grading students.  I’ve got a good handle on what’s expected for the first two belt levels because that’s all that’s usually tested at College Dojo.  I need to pay more attention to the next few levels.

For the first time, I looked for general trends – positive and negative things that were universal to all the students who were being tested.  I know the Chief Instructor gives all the Sensei-s feedback on what, overall, needs to be tightened up a bit and on what went well.  I did spot four or five trends – some positive, some negative.  These things could go in my notebook as well.  The next week, we worked on one of the trends I’d spotted.

Near the end of the test I started to think holistically.  All throughout the test I remembered bits and snatches of my own journey. I could look down the lines from the lowest position to the highest and find something I could relate to at any given moment.  Often, good memories were triggered.  The formal rituals of awarding new ranks are an awesome way to acknowledge the milestones each student has reached along his or her Karate journey.  It’s good to see students who are lower ranked than I am meet the challenges of their tests.  When I see them, I remember my own milestones.  I saw a good segment of the journey, as five ranks were represented among the students, from the first rank (10th kyu) to just a couple levels below my own (I am 4th kyu, the highest earned that test was 6th kyu).  When I realized I was seeing a good segment of the first part of the Karate journey, I looked at those who are further along in their  journeys than I am.  I realized that from the act of observing and analyzing the belt test itself I had caught glimpses of some of the things that will be my future milestones.  Someday I will prepare and grade students and maybe even call out instructions during a belt test.  It must be a great feeling to see one’s own students pass a belt test.

I think I reached a couple of milestones myself that test – and all while sitting in a chair observing and thinking.  Next time, I will be writing in a notebook.  I think I will grow a little more each time I watch a belt test.