More Betterer V – I’m “There” Now…

In January 2016 I created a series of blog posts called “More Betterer” in response to a friend’s challenge to think deeper about who I will be when I am a Shodan (first degree black belt).

On October 16, 2021 I passed my test for Shodan. Yesterday at the time I’m writing this.

Dan-rank testing (1st degree and beyond) is held yearly in October. I was supposed to test in October 2020. That didn’t happen due to COVID-19. Yes, I admit I was bitter from time to time. OK, well, to be honest… I was quite often bitter. But sometime after July 2021 when I was able to be in class again in my dojo I started to realize that the extra year was very beneficial. My performance at my Shodan test confirmed this. Talk about a silver lining! Another nice bonus was that friends and family who would not be able to be there in person were able to watch online. I never foresaw that, and I loved it that they were “there” to root for me.

So. Now I’m Shodan. Did I predict what it would be like accurately?

More Betterer Part I – Introduction

There really aren’t any predictions here. I now have a better idea now of what it takes to run a dojo in different settings: in recreation centers, as a club, and as a business. Of the three, the business model scares me the most. In the last couple of years I’ve learned that leasing space is expensive and you’re locked in for five years. Often the contract says the rent will increase each year. Tuition from teaching children can cover the expenses, but as for myself… I cannot teach children because I am immuno-compromised. So I learned that if I some day start my own dojo the business model probably won’t work for me unless I have at least two other yudansha (“black belts”) in with me.

More Betterer Part II – The Nitty Gritty

Just some short, random comments on this blog post…

I’m very grateful to my online friend not only for being the inspiration behind the “More Betterer” series but also for his continued support throughout my journey. I am honored he took the time to watch my test online.

I have a more clear memory of the black belt oath now that I’ve signed it, but… Memory will fade. I need to ask for a copy so that I can read it from time to time.

I’ve changed my main dojo since 2016 (I’m still within the same organization) so I won’t be helping at the two dojo(s) (schools) I mentioned in the article. I will be doing some substitute teaching at my current dojo – heck, I already have done that from time to time before and after we were closed for COVID-19. I love teaching – in fact, that was a big part of my bitterness when the dojo(s) were closed down and I couldn’t test for Shodan and gain that credential that would grant me the official designation of sensei (“teacher”).

And yes, I anticipate dealing with “stuff” that I mentioned in my article.

More Betterer Part III – Mental

Yes, the “inner demons” are still there. Imposter syndrome hasn’t been much of a problem in the last couple of weeks because my Sensei and others have done a great job of building me up. You know who you are – thank you!!! But I’m sure imposter syndrome will rear its ugly head again sometime. I am better at dealing with all the inner demons I listed in the blog post. I think I have grown bigger and I have learned more about dealing with those dark emotions. They will never go away and there’s no “woo woo” magic about being a yudansha (“black belt”) that will make them go away. It’s what I do about it that counts.

More Betterer Part IV – Physical

Just some random comments…

I still watch those who outrank me but sometime since I wrote this blog post I learned to also watch those who are my peers and those who are lower in rank. My kohai (those who are lower in rank) have their gifts, and I know I have my challenges. For instance a new white belt might ask better questions than I could ever come up with. It’s my job now to bring out my kohais’ gifts and help them to shine.

Physical goals…

1) Lose ten more pounds – I don’t know what I weighed when I wrote this article. I do know that I did a lot of stress-eating in 2020 due to the COVID-19 situation. I did a lot of damage to myself. My knees felt it and I couldn’t fit into one of my gi(s) (uniforms). I was back to my pre-karate weight. When I got word that testing in 2021 might be a possibility I immediately went on a diet. I lost 20 pounds and reached my target weight a month before my test. I stopped dieting so that my body’s resources wouldn’t be strained. I’d like to lose ten more pounds, but if my half-century-old body won’t allow it, I’m at a good place.

2) Be able to do at least 30 pushups – Sometime in the summer of 2020 I tried. I made excellent progress and then tore something in my shoulder while doing push ups. It wasn’t a bad tear, I was still able to judiciously participate in online classes, but it put me off push ups forever. Once my shoulder healed I started doing alternative exercises. Months later I took up bo which has done wonders for my upper body.

3) Nice deep stances (if deep is called for) – I’ve been complimented on my stances lately. That said, in the years since I wrote this article I’ve had to revise my notions about stances. Form is good but not when one sacrifices fluid, balanced movement and smooth transitions. Like anything else in karate there’s a balance. I will continue to improve my stances.

4) Better endurance – well, I’m still working on that one. I’ve learned more about breathing, about not “powering through” with muscle, about kime (when to tighten up), about breathing, and about when to just move. Honestly that’s what got me though my test. I hate jogging. Hate, hate, hate it. Jogging could’ve been a good thing for me to do, but in the end? I think the time I spent just working, working, working on kata taught me more about how to get the most out of my body.

And yes, I’ve had to be very clever about my training. I’ve had to be even more clever than I originally predicted. I trained in my basement, I bought a webcam, I learned how to use videoconferencing technology. For the past year a friend has allowed me to teach an early-morning fitness class in his space and he doesn’t mind one bit if I practice karate after.

In this blog post I was looking at seven years from 2016 “give or take a year or two.” That would’ve put me at 2022-2024. Obviously I was off by two years. It took me five more years – four because originally I was supposed to test in 2020 but couldn’t due to this infernal plague.

Being a little bit better today than I was yesterday is still my goal… Or will be. I took today off to do some shopping and make the three hour drive back home. I’m taking tomorrow off too. But the next day I’ll be back in the dojo. Back to work!

And yes, there are things I was completely clueless about back in 2016, and there are still things I’m completely clueless about. There are still more depths I haven’t even begun to sound. Shodan literally means “first level.” I have taken the first step on a bigger journey.

This is the true beginning of my journey.

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.

More Betterer Part IV – Physical

Click Here to read Part I

6kyuVSshodan

What will be the physical differences between who I am now and who I will be if I’m granted the rank of Shodan?  Every single class I see how others who are better than I am do things.  I am constantly challenged in very specific ways to improve what I do.  I know I don’t look nearly as good now as I will years from now if I’m invited to test for Shodan.  So I watch those who outrank me, I listen to them, I practice, and I have to trust the process that will get me there.

By the time I am invited to test for Shodan, I want to have reached the following goals:

1) Lose ten more pounds
2) Be able to do at least 30 pushups
3) Nice deep stances (if deep is called for)
4) Better endurance – particularly in highly “cardio” activities

I’d like to reach these goals sooner rather than later!  Other physical things that should happen by the time I’m invited to test for Shodan include:

1) Great form
2) Optimal execution of all techniques
3) Gi-popping awesome speed (when speed is needed, of course)
4) Loose when and where I need to be loose, tight when and where I need to be tight

In a nutshell, I should be stronger, better, faster, have more endurance, and I should look pretty gosh darned awesome when I’m doing Karate.

How am I going to get there?  Detailing everything would take me quite some time.  Nutshell summary…  I have to be flexible and clever about when and how I train.  I have my “home” dojo, but one hour twice per week is not enough.  I am very fortunate to be part of a larger organization that includes three other “sister” dojos within reasonable driving distance of my house.  I also take advantage of my YMCA membership and do some supplemental exercise.  Once I reach 3rd kyu, I will be expected to drive out of state for training once each month.  This period will last a minimum of three years, and then maybe I might be invited to test for Shodan.

How long is this going to take me?  The time-frame I’m looking at to reach Shodan is roughly seven years from now, give or take a year or two.  The average in our organization is 8 to 10 years.  Really, though, the exact number of years 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.

So that wraps up this series of posts.  I get the idea there are things I’m completely clueless about and depths I haven’t even begun to sound.  Those of you with more years under your belts, please feel free to burst any bubbles I might have.

More Betterer Part III – Mental

Click Here to read Part I

Mental - as in crazy, as in mad cow disease... Oh, never mind.
Mental – as in crazy, as in mad cow disease… Oh, never mind.

Yes, I know – the title of this post loans itself well to the British synonym for “crazy.”  And maybe I am a bit crazy.  Other ladies my age are comfortably doing safe things like Zumba and swimming.  Ah well, “normal” is merely a setting on the dryer…

Initially I had some trouble thinking of how different I will be mentally at Shodan vs. where I am now.  Of course I came up with really off-the-wall wacky stuff to joke about – things like floating in the air while doing meditation and bending spoons without touching them.  But it took me awhile to come up with the idea that I’ll have had loads of practice dealing with the “inner demons” I’ve already encountered.  So when I encounter them again (and again and again) I’ll have loads of experience to draw on.

I’m just going to name some of these “inner demons.”  I’m sure they’re familiar to all of us and none of us like to dwell on them…

1) Imposter syndrome
2) Self doubt
3) Negativity
4) Giving respect even when it’s hard to give it
5) Fear
6) Discouragement
7) Exhaustion (mental and physical)
8) Injury
9) Juggling family, work, and Karate
10) Impatience
11) Anger
12) Remembering the battle is not with the other guy (or gal) but within me

I know, this is not an exhaustive list and it’s all kinda nebulous – some of these merge into others.  We face down a lot of our inner demons on the mats.  Sometimes the battle is silent and sometimes it’s there for everyone to see and hear.  I don’t think dealing with these things will get any easier, it’s just that over time, and certainly by the time I reach Shodan in roughly 7-10 years, I’ll have had more practice.

My online acquaintance, Mr. James Bullard confirmed my idea and added his experience,

“The bad news is, you’ll probably be facing those demons for most, if not all, of your time in the martial arts.  The good news is, they get smaller (or maybe you get “bigger?”) the further you go.”

I like the idea of me getting bigger.  Not long ago in a post-class lecture, my Sensei briefly touched on a very good reason for being in Karate in the first place: namely, to change one’s self (I’m paraphrasing).  I liken mental development to strengthening the core muscles – our spirits have  “cores” too.  I hope my core will be nice and strong by the time I reach Shodan.

MORE BETTERER PART IV – oh, and feel free to burst any bubbles that might need bursting 🙂

More Betterer Part II – The Nitty Gritty

03_Image2Click Here to read Part I

A few weeks ago one of my Internet acquaintances, Mr. James Bullard, was inspired by a mutual online acquaintance (Jackie Bradbury) to think about what it means to be a black belt – most likely he’d read Jackie’s article, “I’m Really a Black Belt!“.

James Bullard wrote a wonderful post on Google+ expressing his thoughts about what it means to be a black belt. I’ll include the last few sentences of his post here…

“I’ve spent over 30 years training in martial arts, and when I look at the huge gulf of things I do not know, it seems the very definition of hubris to consider myself to’ve mastered this art.

Socrates said that admitting one’s ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. If this is true, then perhaps I have BEGUN to acquire wisdom, but I certainly cannot yet call myself wise.

My Journey continues, and I hope that it will continue to do so for the rest of my days.

What about you? What does a black belt (or any rank, for that matter) mean to you??”

I came up with a one-sentence reply to his question. Of course James Bullard proceeded to challenge me to look deeper. That’s what good teachers do, right?

“You’re currently a 7th kyu [author’s note – I’ve since been promoted]. When you envision yourself reaching Shodan level, what does that mean to you? What is it about Shodan White that is different from who and what you are today??”

It took me a few days to fully respond to these two questions via Google+. It took me more time to re-format and polish my thoughts for this blog. The first things that popped into my head were practical – the day to day things that I will have to deal with.

As Shodan, I will have taken our organization’s black belt oath immediately after passing the test and I’ll be held accountable. Really there’s nothing in the oath that I’m not already practicing. I’ve heard it twice now, and black belt testing is only once a year, so I’m pretty fuzzy on the exact details of the oath. There are some moral things mentioned, and one practical thing. I will be required to get permission from the head of our organization in order to teach Karate. I’m sure one of many reasons that restriction is there is to keep new Shodans from “teaching” (read: showing off to) their cousins at the next family gathering. I don’t do that anyway. But I suspect it’s more to show that the head of our organization endorses the newly-minted black belt’s qualifications and recognizes her/his efforts to support whichever dojo s/he cares to tackle.

I plan on at the very least being a co-instructor or a “helper” at the two dojos closest to me. We have three degrees of brown belt before black, and during those years I will be an assistant to at least one Sensei. Once I’m Shodan, if the chief instructor of any given dojo tweaks his elbow or if he has a business trip and can’t make it to class, I will be able to step right in and substitute teach. At Shodan, I will also be one step closer to “inheriting” at least one dojo because I live ten minutes north of one and ten minutes west of another. The current Senseis of those dojos live further away. I applaud them for making the commutes, but if they ever get sick of driving and they think I’m ready, I’ll be willing to serve!

As far as teaching goes I’ll have all the joys, frustrations, triumphs, and tears that go with the territory. I’m pretty sure I have a good map of what this territory is! Due to various circumstances, I’ve recently been given teaching responsibilities at two dojos (yes, at 6th kyu – desperate times call for desperate measures). I home schooled my two children from Pre-K through 10th grade for one and 7th grade for the other. During those years I learned everything I could about how people learn. I have taught third grade Sunday School. Going further back, as a teenager I taught numerous “try one Karate class for free” people and brought many others up to speed to join class, plus helped out in a little kids’ class. Conservative estimate – I taught Karate basics to 75 people by the time I was 18. I’m pretty sure all this life experience plus the “on the job” training I will receive as a brown belt will ensure I’ll be up for teaching 🙂 That said, there’s an aspect of teaching that will likely be new to me as a Shodan. I’ll have to deal with “stuff” from parents and from students. Yep, that goofy kid who needs to wash his gi, the guy who hits on me (and I don’t mean punching), and the helicopter mommy.

Speaking of dealing with stuff, there’s another thing that will probably be new to me too as Shodan. However, it will be nothing new to me as a person who has been involved with various human institutions throughout my life. Namely, there will be friction and politics among my peers and superiors. It’s human nature. It’s present in any office, any church, any sports team. Enough about that – the benefits of being part of the organization far outweigh the pitfalls, and that’s something I will keep in mind as I navigate the new waters I’ll be treading as Shodan.

And yes, I’ll have to deal with “stuff” that is dished out by whatever facility the dojo “inhabits.”  Don’t get me started on that one. I deal with it now mostly because I choose to, partly because everyone in my dojo deals with the “stuff.” I could walk away from arranging for extra time for belt tests, from getting our equipment out of storage, and all the little things I do that put me square in the cross-hairs of the facility’s rifle. But when I’m a black belt and really and truly an instructor, this won’t be an option – it definitely will be my job.

OK, enough negative. I can’t not acknowledge it, but I don’t have to dwell on it. And that will probably be key to my survival when it’s my job to deal with it 🙂

Feel free to burst any bubbles that might need bursting 🙂

Click here to read “More Betterer Part III”