Another Beginner


She shudders, grimaces, and hugs herself as her sister spars during a belt test.  She flinches at every punch and kick and does not understand her mother’s assurance that the fighting isn’t real, that most of the techniques are controlled.  She isn’t convinced that her sister is unharmed.

Due to unforeseen circumstances she is dragged to a tournament.  She buries herself in a book and tries to ignore what is going on around her.  But when a parent starts yelling, she feels compelled to look up.  She is frightened by the loud parent and anxious about the girls who are sparring.  She has to step away for a few minutes.  She eventually buries herself in her book again.

She grows and matures.  At the library she finds a book about superheroes.  She gets hooked.  Soon she memorizes which heroes belong to which publishers, she knows every power and every limitation.    Her tastes in movies change from “My Little Pony” to the PG-13 superhero movies (and she learns cuss words from Wolverine).  She learns there are times when one has to use force in order to protect oneself or others.  She learns there are things worth fighting for.

She wants to be a superhero.  Her mother tells her that being a martial artist will be the closest she’ll get to being a superhero.  She’s been listening to her mother’s karate stories at the dinner table.  Sometimes she imitates what she sees when her mother practices at home.

She watches her mother undergo a tough belt test.  Immediately after her mother’s belt test she puts on some fist pads and imitates what she saw.  Her tired, sweaty, hungry mother teaches her a little bit of Karate right then and there under the casual supervision of several yudansha (black belts).  She is warned that she will, from time to time, sustain minor injuries.  She is finally mature enough to realize that most of the time her mother comes home from class unharmed and injuries heal over time.

Her mother asks if she would like to begin Karate lessons.  She says yes.  She graduates from high school – a mix of special ed and mainstream classes.  As a graduation present her mother enrolls her in the new beginner class.  She has fun the first day of class.

This is my daughter.  She is autistic and she is brave.

Long-time readers of this blog will recall that I joined my first daughter after she started training.  My first daughter decided to stop training and I continued.  I never expected my second daughter, who used to be fearful at the merest hint of violence, to develop an interest in Karate.  In the opening paragraphs of this post you can see how autism has affected her perception of Karate.  You can also see that she grew past it.  I waited about a year to see if my daughter really was serious and if she really did understand what training involves.  I discussed my training injuries thoroughly with her and made sure she understood real life consequences versus  movie consequences.  After my ni-kyu test I had no more doubts:  she was ready to begin Karate.  She had a blast her first week.

I have to admit I do have some anxieties about my daughter’s autism getting in the way of her karate.  But according to her high school special-ed teacher, my daughter made some quantum leaps in her personal development.  We saw this at home too.  I have to trust that.  I also trust the sensei (instructor) who teaches the new beginner class.  Not only that, I trust Karate itself.

In general, autistic people crave structure in their activities and they appreciate specific guidelines for social interactions.  Karate has that.  Autistic people, like everyone else, want respect.  The dojo is a place where everyone is expected to treat everyone else with respect.  My daughter loves ceremony and ritual, so she’ll do well with that aspect of Karate.  In the dojo my daughter and I will be adults together – my role as mother will be diminished.  This will help us both, I’m sure.  I know that Karate aids personal growth on several different levels – and yes, autism has delayed my daughter’s development so she needs the boost that karate can give her.  It is likely she will thrive in Karate.  I know she’ll have good guidance from the very people who are helping me on my journey.

I didn’t expect this at all from the girl who used to shudder at violence.  I’m looking forward to seeing my beautiful, special daughter become Wonder Woman.  But even if she decides to stop training at the end of the three months that new beginners commit to, I will be proud of her for trying.


“Wow, that was so awesome when those blue belts went like this,” a little white-belt (no rank) boy enthused, imitating the movement in the intermediate kata (form) that had most impressed him.

I chuckled, smiled, and agreed, “Yes, it was. Someday you’ll learn that kata too.”

Of course the blue belts (a low rank in our system) were not performing that movement at black belt level, not by a long shot. I’ve seen that kata performed by patient yudansha (black belts) as they were teaching me and others. It is definitely so awesome when those yudansha go like this… But in that moment when the little boy praised the other kids, I agreed wholeheartedly that it was awesome when those blue belts went like this… Of course there are several reasons for me to agree with the boy, but I really don’t want to go off on a tangent right now. Let’s look at the little boy who loved what he saw.

That little boy’s “Sense of Wonder” (a term coined by Rachel Carson) is fully operational. I’ve seen his sense of wonder kick in at other times too. I have to admit it’s flattering when he’s in awe of what this slightly-lumpy middle-aged matron can do. But it’s even more gratifying when he compels me to take a closer look at something, to see it through his eyes, and to feel my own heart swell with the joy of witnessing something amazing.

Karate, with its endless drills, its plethora of kata to be memorized, and its demands for more and more repetitions of each and every movement, would seem to be a murderer of the sense of wonder. However, Karate’s demands won’t kill anyone’s sense of wonder if the leaders in the dojo (school) are constantly cultivating their own sense of wonder, letting their joy spill out for everyone to see. Nurturing a sense of wonder is the job of everyone in the dojo, of course, but there’s an extra burden on the sensei(s) (instructors) and the senior students. Wonder is a powerful motivator.

The dojo should be a place where people are tuned in to the amazing things that they can do and to the amazing things that everyone around them can do (no matter what their rank). Yes, improving in the art of Karate takes a lot of repetition, gallons of sweat, and a smattering of pain and tears. Students will start to value the tough process of growth if those in leadership are constantly pointing out specific ways in which each person is improving, if the leaders exult in those “aha” moments, and, most importantly, if they are constantly feeding their students’ sense of wonder.

I’m sure there are many teachers – and not just martial arts teachers – who have loads of practical ideas for maintaining that curiosity, that thirst to learn, that constant recognition of everyday miracles. Some of their ideas might work for your dojo and for your teaching style, some may not. Research what’s out there. Bounce ideas off your peers. Experiment on your students (I’ve been a lab rat loads of times).

Most of all, cultivate your own sense of wonder. Watch videos of karateka who you admire. Think back on how far you yourself have come. Remember when your own sensei showed you something and you were amazed. Here’s a hint: you’re not limited to Karate when it comes to nurturing your own sense of wonder! Take the time to do these things and your students will reap the rewards.  We are awesome – all of us – from first-day beginner to seasoned master.


For the last ten months I’ve been cruising along, assuming I’d be testing maybe in October, maybe December, maybe even later.  In our organization, at this stage (brown belt) us students usually “marinate” for awhile.  Out of the blue, I found out my sensei(s) wanted me to test for 2nd kyu (“middle brown” in our system).


But that’s not the surprise I’ll be blogging about.

I reserved a motel room post haste. I go to Oregon a lot for Karate and had promised each of my family members a trip with me. It was my younger daughter’s turn. We spent three hours in the car, ate dinner at a favorite restaurant, relaxed in the motel room, then both of us fell into a deep, long sleep. We had a leisurely morning before I had to report for testing. I parked my daughter in one of the few remaining seats and handed her my camera. Alas, my daughter was too far away and too far back in the audience to get good videos of me. When I reviewed the video, I saw that the audience was not expecting to see what they saw during my sparring matches.

The moms and dads who were there to watch their kiddos test were surprised by what was expected of me and by my ability to meet the challenge. My age is pretty obvious – I have a bit of a tummy, a few silver hairs, and crow’s feet crinkle the skin near my eyes when I smile. I was also being very motherly towards a young adult who looks a lot like me. Yes, it’s reasonable for anyone to conclude I’m in my midlife.

All of us who were testing that day were put through our paces. Jiyu kumite (sparring) is always last. By that time I was quite literally dripping with sweat and I always get beet red during a workout. I was probably a rather alarming sight to those who don’t know that I usually look like that when I work out.

Here’s my observations of the audience’s reactions as seen on the video my daughter took while I was sparring…

There was some surprised chatter as I bowed in. Yes, us old ladies are expected to fight. Yes, I’m old enough to be a young auntie to my first opponent. Yes, my opponent was a yudansha (black belt). The match began and there were murmurs of appreciation for each flurry of fists and feet. My first opponent scored three times before I got my point.

After my opponent exited the ring, hesitant applause began.  The clapping ended abruptly and two or three people drawled astonished “Ohhh-s” when my second opponent stepped onto the mats.

People sat bolt upright. Up until this point, they’d seen their children spar only one opponent, then they were done.

My second opponent was another yudansha who is younger than I. She scored one point then I got my score. The audience wasn’t familiar with the referee’s calls, so they didn’t react.

My first opponent immediately came up for another round with me. The audience murmured, surprised at her return.

The guy sitting in front of my daughter, who was taking video, turned and looked right into the camera when my first opponent came up again. Clearly he was thinking, “What more do they expect of your mom?!?” He’d heard me reassure my special-needs daughter that the match would look scary but more than likely I’d be perfectly OK. He seemed to have his doubts.

First thing that happened in this third match was I went down – probably my opponent swept me but it’s more likely I tripped over my own feet. Oddly, there was not much reaction when I fell and came back up with a rather primal kiai (yell) – a roar of challenge. There was dead silence from the audience. The referee called a halt, I returned to my starting position, my opponent was awarded one point. When the match was resumed, someone in the audience gave an astonished “Ooooooo!” that rose from low to high in pitch, indicating that person couldn’t believe my tenacity and was amazed that I was continuing like nothing happened.

Throughout the rest of the match, only scattered murmuring could occasionally be heard – for the most part, silence reigned.   The match went on, interrupted from time to time by scores (hers), only one flag thrown (there need to be two flags for points to be awarded), and a foul (mine).  The guy sitting in front of my daughter shifted uncomfortably then leaned forward, watching intently.  The rest of the audience appeared to be holding its collective breath.

The audience was unfamiliar with the referee’s calls, so they didn’t applaud immediately when I finally scored a point. After I exchanged a bow with my opponent and backed out of the ring, the members of the audience realized it was over and enthusiastic applause broke out. A woman in the front row was particularly happy for me.

After everyone had sparred, the yudansha (black belts) went to the office to tally scores and confer with one another about the candidates. I put my gear back in my bag, swigged a quick drink of water, and gave my daughter instructions about video-ing the awarding of my new rank.

The guy sitting in front of my daughter asked me, “Why did they make you fight two black belts?” His eyes were open quite wide. I sensed genuine curiosity and just a little concern.

I grinned hugely, grabbed one end of my brown belt, held it up, and said, “This is why,” then explained. For the previous test, this test, and for all future tests I have fought with and will fight with three karateka in succession. Ideally these would be three women roughly my same rank and ability. But June is a busy month for a lot of people, so that day we had only two adult female fighters. It just so happened they outrank me. I told the man that I’m used to competing against yudansha (black belts) in tournaments and assured him that I don’t mind. “It’s all good,” I said. I gave him a huge smile, a thumbs-up, and a nod to emphasize my point, then turned away. Duty called: I had to help a more senior brown belt teach the white belts how to receive their certificates and new belts.

I’ve written about gender and Karate on this blog a few times (click here for posts). We’ve come a long way but there are still some interesting social views about lady martial artists – particularly about slightly-lumpy middle-aged matrons who enjoy “a strange little hobby of acquiring bruises for funsies” (as blogger Jackie Bradbury puts it). I have to wonder how the audience would have reacted had I been a middle-aged man sparring with other men. What if I were a young man sparring with other young men? Ah – trials that push one’s body and spirit are to be expected in tests for men, right?  But not for middle-aged ladies.  Clearly the audience was surprised by my gumption.  Why is it so surprising to them that I can spar three rounds with two yudansha and live to tell the tale?

The answer to that is complex. Part of the audience’s surprise lies in perceptions of what life as a middle-aged matron is “supposed to” look like. Hint – it doesn’t involve getting punched in the nose.  I’m also guessing the audience didn’t really understand what they were seeing. Sparring at my level and above looks a lot different than what one usually sees from lower-ranked children. It was fast and intense – the three of us ladies were ferocious. Even my daughter admitted she was a little scared – and she knows that most days I come home unharmed. It was obvious that my opponents didn’t cut me any breaks, and neither did the judges or referee.  One or two audience members might have been thinking that they didn’t know it was even possible for someone my age, gender, and (yes, I’m going there) body type to do what I did that day.

What I’m hoping is that some of those parents will see what is possible for themselves – Karate, yes, of course (I love adult beginner students), but to be quite honest I’d be over the moon if even one person thought to himself or herself, “Wow – maybe I shouldn’t let my fear get in the way of starting my own business,” or “Maybe I should finish that project and see where it leads me,” or even, “I should get my flute out of the closet and start playing again.” I hope they saw the power of the human spirit and I hope they realize their own power.

You’d be surprised at what you can do when you put your mind to it. Surprise yourself today.

Fourth Karateversary

June 3, 2018

Some martial arts bloggers like to do a yearly summary around New Year’s Day. I prefer to publish mine on or just after my “Karateversary.” You can read past years’ posts by clicking on these links:


I promise I have material in this post that I haven’t already blogged.  If you want to read more details about past events that I have blogged, look at the toolbar on the right side of your PC screen. Under the word “Archives” you can search for posts by month.

June 4 – June 30, 2017– 4th Kyu (High Green belt)

I made a trip to Oregon with a friend from Japan. Saturday we visited my organization’s hombu dojo for a very tiny class – and I was the only one of four who has not yet earned a black belt! The next morning we had a beautiful drive along a mountain ridge looking down on a valley filled with pretty farmland. I was glad my friend got to see one of the most beautiful places in America. We competed in a tournament and then headed home.

Advanced class was held outside one day. I got to experiment a little with fighting off two opponents at one time.

On the last day of the college PE Karate class I was surprised by being called on to perform a role someone my rank usually doesn’t play. I got to call out the techniques and movements for those who were testing for 10th and 9th kyu. I did OK for coming into this cold, just needed a couple of prompts from College Sensei. Fast forward a few months – during open practice time at my “home” dojo I was quite comfortable running some 10th kyu candidates through their paces for a mock test as my way of rewarding them for showing up to practice time.

I also accidentally harmed a comrade during class. As in a trip to the emergency room and stitches for something that was completely my fault. It took me quite awhile to work through my feelings and I received much-needed help from been-there-done-that mentors. There were differences in responses between gentlemen and ladies.  No matter what people say, our minds do work a bit differently sometimes. Back to the topic – I still think I’d rather be on the receiving end of a training injury rather than harm a comrade. Fortunately, my fellow student healed quickly.

July 2017

I’d been studying WKF tournament rules and observing officials at tournaments for at least a few months. During a belt test (I wasn’t testing) I was called on to serve as a fukushin (corner judge). This was my first time throwing flags for a formal event. Little did I know that a few months later I would earn my judging license for judging at tournaments!

Two days later my dojo sensei said he had is eye on either August or October for me to test for 3rd kyu (Low brown belt).

August 2017 – 3rd Kyu (Low Brown belt)

August 3rd I got word that I would be testing for 3rd kyu at Gasshuku (camp) later in the month. Earning my brown belt began a new phase of training for me. In the organization I belong to, we have “low brown” (3rd kyu), “middle brown” (2nd kyu) and “high brown” (1st kyu) before we test for Shodan (first degree black belt). The time spent wearing a brown belt is time spent actively training to be a sensei (instructor, or more literally, one who has gone before).

I passed my test at Gasshuku (camp) – barely.  Gasshuku was led by Elisa Au Fonseca – one of Karate’s superstars. It was, as always, a very valuable time for learning and for building friendships.

September 2017

Weekend practice times were devoted to helping the candidates for Shodan prepare for their test in October. These excerpts from my journal sum up my experience of training alongside them.

… I’m gaining confidence that someday I, too, will earn Shodan – and hopefully beyond. I have a LOT to learn and refine between now and then, but I’m seeing Shodan as not a nebulous “oh, yeah, maybe,” but a definite “I do believe I can!”

Of course being san-kyu helps, LOL.

The meaning of “Sensei,” one who has gone before, is really starting to deepen for me now.  I’m watching karateka who are making the transition, and I know I’ll be relying on their experiences when it’s my turn…

I’m definitely preparing for Shodan and beyond. I always have been, I suppose, but it’s really coming home to me now.

Later in the month I received word that the college class was canceled for Fall Quarter due to low enrollment. Fortunately, the college allowed the class to start up again in Winter Quarter.

October 2017

The karate organization I belong to holds our annual Godo Renshu (unity training) in this month. Godo Renshu starts off with belt testing for all levels. I was a sparring partner for two candidates during their tests, including one candidate for Shodan. I always regard this as an honor no matter what rank the candidate is testing for.

Later in the month I attended a seminar by George Kotaka and, next day, competed in a tournament.

As part of Professional Development Day at work I had the option of attending a basic self defense seminar. Because the techniques were very easy for me I spent the majority of the time analyzing how to teach  and how the students were reacting to and executing the material presented. I have a dream of someday teaching one-off self-defense seminars in addition to teaching Karate.

Sadly, we lost a dear 4th kyu man from my dojo to cancer this month.

November 2017

I know that my blog is full of sunshine and cheer. Sometimes I do open up about my foibles and failings. But I don’t remember ever sharing raw grief, livid frustration, or deep sorrow. As I look through my personal journal for November I see a lot of heartache. I don’t want to go into details.  I just want my readers to know that my Karate journey isn’t always a walk in the park. Quite frankly, in my blog I want to dwell on the positive, not the negative. So please forgive me if I give a false impression that everything’s always hunky dory. Rest assured, my Karate journey is a very human one. November 2017 was particularly difficult. I came through it, and over time I’ll see the lessons I learned.

That said, there was a big bright spot during the month of November. I attended a more advanced self defense seminar. I found out I have been building a good solid foundation. I tried ground work for the first time and after a few tries it no longer felt alien to me. After I earn Shodan (first degree black belt) I’d love to cross-train so that I can teach this stuff.  I came away with a deeper appreciation for my base art.

December 2017

I had been eagerly anticipating brown belt training ever since I first heard about it. I attended my first in early December. I enjoyed being one of the lowest ranked in class – I always like this because I know I’m being challenged and learning a lot. I combined this trip to the Hombu Dojo with a family weekend getaway. That night we watched a Karate friend perform in a Taiko drum group as part of a Christmas concert. Taiko is very physical, and I admire my friend for performing after successfully testing that morning.

Our annual holiday banquet was, as always, a great time for bonding and looking back on the previous year. I was surprised by being named Adult Student of the Year for my dojo, mainly for my diligence in setting up mats before class. This goes to show there’s honor in even the most humble of tasks.

January 2018

We had enough students signed up for the college PE class to start a new quarter. It was good to get back into that groove again, especially now that my belt rank finally matches the role I’ve played there since February 2016.

Our organization and sensei(s) at my “home” dojo needed to work some things out with the rec center that hosts my “home” dojo. While this was in process, we didn’t have class during the month of January. Long-time readers of this blog know that I have lots of connections with the dojo(s) that belong to this organization. I was granted permission to train at a sister dojo during this month.

I hadn’t visited this sister dojo in quite some time because the class schedule had changed to the same evenings as my “home” dojo.  Classes at this sister dojo are small and intense. I fine-tuned my newest kata during my month’s sojurn there and got to test myself sparring with karateka whom I hadn’t sparred against in a year or more.

I drove down to Oregon for the first workout of the new year at our Hombu Dojo. This was the first class I’d ever attended under our organization’s head Sensei. That was both fun and an honor!

January 14 marks the day I saw one of our sensei(s) for the very last time. He was on hospice, his long battle with cancer very nearly at an end. It was an incredible visit and I will cherish the memory.

On a lighter note, I learned how to tie a double Windsor knot in preparation for wearing a judge’s uniform while earning my first license to judge at tournaments.

February 2018

My second brown belt training! Hooray!

I earned my USA-NKF Judge D license. This opens up an entirely new aspect of Karate for me. I passed up an opportunity to compete in my state qualifier in order to concentrate fully on earning my credentials. I made up for that latter by competing in another state’s qualifier in May.

The sensei who I visited for the last time in January passed away. This was our second loss in five months, both to cancer.

March 2018

One of our organization’s highest ranking sensei(s) came from out of state not only for the memorial service but also to lead a class in memory of the sensei we lost in February. We fine-tuned the Pinan series of kata, which is what he used to have his students do on a regular basis at his dojo.

I chose not to attend the memorial service. College Sensei absolutely had to be there, but the service was held during his class. With permission from him and from the college, I was his substitute teacher. This was my first time teaching with absolutely no yudansha (black belt) within a five mile radius.  My primary motive was to pay tribute by stepping up to the plate to fill a need. Also, I thought it was important for the students to have continuity – especially because there were only two more classes left in the quarter. I had help from an 8th kyu young man and I came away with a new appreciation for the role I normally play as assistant instructor and uke (LOL).

March 17 I attended two seminars. March 18, I played three roles in our organization’s annual tournament in Oregon. Volunteer, judge, and competitor. I’m still tickled pink about interacting with some of the top names in Karate!

April 2018

For the first time in our organization’s history, us brown belts got a weekend retreat all our own. A number of our yudansha (black belts) came to help out as well. Sure we had training time, but we also were given a good amount of time and some ice-breaker activities so that we could get to know one another. Our founder shared his life story and all I can say is I am amazed at all the twists and turns and how everything has turned out all right for him. I am looking forward to next year’s brown belt retreat!

During the retreat I learned of a women-only class. Later in the month I drove down for their belt test. The sensei in charge of grading gave us visiting brown belts grading sheets. We did not actually grade anyone, but we were simply practicing for when we ourselves will have this honor. At one point I got to set my clipboard and pencil aside in order to spar with two candidates for 2nd kyu (one rank above me). The women of the dojo adopted me as a sister 🙂  I even got to hold a baby!

The day before I visited that class, I served as a judge and competed in a local tournament. My division was called late in the day so I got plenty of time in the chair throwing flags. Tournaments are great for meeting people, and I did make some new acquaintances.

May 2018

I made up for not competing in my own state qualifier by competing in the Oregon State qualifier. I was way too worked up about the competition to judge. I was lumped in with younger ladies – whatever.  I still qualified for USA Karate Nationals in July and I had a great time. It’s great to see friends from other organizations and to chat with karateka from sister dojo(s).

I made up for not judging at the Oregon tournament by helping out with a tiny local tournament. This tournament was for children and officials alike to learn and grow in skill. Boy, did I ever learn! Not only did I judge, I refereed matches for the first time. I also judged Sumo, which I’d never even so much as watched on YouTube before.

College Sensei’s vehicle broke down, so I substitute taught the college PE class again. Different quarter, different students than last time I substituted. Fortunately, the previous class day, College Sensei had run the students through their paces to assess where they were mid-quarter. I saw some general trends. So when I got word that I would have to teach, it was very easy to come up with a lesson plan. College Sensei was satisfied with the students’ progress when he returned.

Towards the end of the month I twice substitute taught the Intermediate class (no-rank and 10th through 8th kyu) with help from fellow brown belts and 4th kyu students while our sensei was on vacation. It seems like I’ve been doing a lot of substitute teaching in recent months. I’ve substitute taught the new beginner’s class two or three times, the college class twice, and now the Intermediate class twice. It’s quite a responsibility!

June 3, 2018

Now for how I celebrated my fourth “Karateversary.” One of our organization’s higest-ranked sensei(s) came from Oregon to teach a seminar at my “home” dojo.  A bunch of our yudansha (black belts) came as well – it was so good to see them!  We started with a drill, built it step by step, then worked on what we learned with one partner on “offense,” one on “defense.”  The two hours flew by.  I was glad for this opportunity to learn something new to use at Nationals.

All in all, this has been an incredible year for me. Being a brown belt has opened up new doors. I’ve had a lot of fun along the way, and I know I’ll find myself in new adventures. I’ve made the commitment to train for and go to Reno in July for USA Karate Nationals – my first time. Stay tuned!


Beyond the Comfort Zone

About a month ago I was invited to help with a small tournament about half an hour’s drive from my house. Another karate organization was hosting this tournament in the gym of a private school. The little tournament, held this past weekend (5/19/18) was for children to learn about what a tournament is like in hopes of generating more interest in competing in regional, maybe even National, tournaments. I thought it was a great opportunity to get more experience with judging, especially because I didn’t judge for the Oregon State Qualifier in favor of focusing on competing.  Yes, I got the judging time that I was after, but it turned out I got so much more. It was a much-needed kick out of my comfort zone.

I earned my USA-NKF Judge D license in February  and so far I’ve been declining opportunities to do more than what I’m actually licensed to do. At local tournaments it’s OK for a Judge D to do more than just throw flags. I have to confess I didn’t study all the things a referee needs to know. I had not practiced the hand signals and calls that a referee uses. Up until this little tournament I was coasting along, worrying more about developing an eye for good points than anything else.

I arrived early and helped out with a few last minute chores. During a break I was informed of my duties. I was to referee as much as possible. My dismay at the prospect of refereeing was quite obvious.

“I haven’t studied how to be a referee!” I whined at the tournament organizer.

“I read your blog. I know how much you value learning. This is a time for you and others to learn. You will make mistakes. We all will make mistakes. That’s OK. This is not a high-stakes tournament. I wanted this to not only be a learning experience for our children, but also for you and the others who will help out today. Now, do you know how to start a match?”


“Do you know how to stop a match?”


“Do you know how to call points?”


“Do you know how to resume a match?”


“Do you know how to close a match?”


The tournament director assured me those calls and signals were enough to start with. I was assured that the kansa (who oversees the judges and referee) would prompt me when needed. Most of all, I was told that nobody was expecting me to be perfect – in fact, it was a given that I would make mistakes. This was a time and a place for me to do exactly that, and to learn and grow in my skills. Both gentlemen who were serving as kansa(s) for the two rings were kind enough to walk through a match between imaginary contestants with me for a few minutes. They gave me some much-needed feedback and then went back to overseeing the final preparations for the day. I spent time rehearsing some things on my own until the start of the tournament.

I was surprised when I learned that one of my fellow students from my own dojo would be refereeing for the first time that day too. She has worn a judge/referee uniform more often than I have, so I had always assumed that she had refereed at least a few times at local tournaments. Nope – like me she had only ever thrown flags and had declined opportunities to referee.  I was glad someone else was in the same boat I was. We reassured one other and cracked jokes. I felt much better.

Competitors were divided into age groups. Kata (forms) are performed first. Judging kata is coming much more naturally to me than judging kumite (sparring). For kata competitions there are five judges. One sits front and center, the other four sit at the corners of the mats. After two competitors complete their kata(s) the front and center judge calls for a decision, gives two blasts of the whistle, and all five judges lift either a red or blue flag to indicate which competitor they are voting for. This sounds simple, but… The front and center judge has to be aware of when the four judges have taken their flags off their laps and are ready to signal their votes. The front and center judge has to lift his or her flag at the same time as the other judges – which means delaying a little after blowing the whistle. I’d had a little practice with this at a tournament last month and got more this time around.

Refereeing sparring matches is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. The section for kumite rules in the WKF rulebook  is a heck of a lot longer than for kata. There are quite a few calls and hand signals that a referee needs to know, most of these are for calling warnings and penalties However, we were using modified rules – we simply gave a verbal warning on the first offense. I personally didn’t need to use signals for warnings because none of the competitors I refereed repeated their fouls. Overall, the number of actual warnings were rare owing to the good sportsmanship exhibited by the children.

The ideal situation for sparring competitions is to have four judges sitting at the corners of the mats and the referee moves freely around the mat – and, of course, there will be a kansa to oversee the officials. At one point we had only a kansa and three judges/referees. I’ve seen this situation in every tournament. Some officials get sick. Some leave to coach their students. Some officials go on break (especially lunch break). Some have other places to be in the afternoon. Crazy people like me both work in the ring and compete. When there are four corner judges, the referee does not get to vote on which competitor has scored a point. I was thrown for a loop when, later in the tournament, we were down to two judges and me. Suddenly, I, as referee, had a vote.  There’s a hand signal to go with it that I most definitely hadn’t practiced. I still need more practice with this situation. I was grateful for the feedback and tips I received.

The growing and stretching and moving beyond my comfort zone didn’t stop at refereeing. No indeed. The dojo(s) (karate schools) these kids are from also teach a form of Sumo wrestling. I backed out of judging Sumo at first, but after watching a division, I understood what merited a score and how to signal it. So – yeah, suddenly I was judging a form of fighting that I’d never even watched before. I have to say that watching those nimble young kids grapple was fun. No, they didn’t wear, um, whatever that’s called around their loins – they simply wore their gi(s) (uniforms) and head protection. It looked like fun and a lot of hard work. I never in a million years would’ve guessed that someday I’d judge Sumo bouts!

I also learned about giving the athletes their medals. I hadn’t thought about it or noticed it before, but there are little things that make this ceremony go smoothly. After one division had done their kata, kumite, and sumo, I had the honor of actually hanging medals around the athletes’ necks as their parents looked on proudly. I hope we succeeded in getting these children and their parents more interested in tournaments.

Sure I was a little nervous, but I grew more confident as the day went on. I knew my kansa had my back. And yes, I messed up. But so did everyone who stepped into the role of referee that day. No harm was done, and we all learned and grew in skill. That was the whole point. I was very impressed that most of the judges were children. They were good judges and they were every bit as mature as us adults when it came to gracefully accepting feedback and learning from mistakes.  My friend from my own dojo did very well too.  She was working in the other ring, but from what I saw she refereed most of the matches – even the Sumo matches.  I think all of us were more confident at the end of the day than we were at the beginning.

Because this was a tiny tournament, we were done in the early afternoon. The two karateka from my own dojo had places to be and so took their leave. After cleanup I was the only representative of my organization to go out to lunch. Having fun trying new types of food, discussing the competitions, and talking shop was a good way for us to strengthen ties with one another. We have been and will be working together for a lot of tournaments to come.

This time that I invested went way beyond just myself. Of course there were personal takeaways. Yes, there was growth in my skill. I experienced far more growth than I originally anticipated. But so much more was accomplished that day by everyone, not just myself.  The children were happy, their parents were proud. Those of us who were officials invested in one another and reinforced the ties between our organizations. We’ll see the effects of that day for years to come. Who knows? Maybe this was the first tournament for a future Olympic athlete.  It was an honor to be a part of this event.