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.

Not Fair!

Note: Some of these scenarios are real, some are fictitious. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which I’ve seen happen to others, which I’ve experienced directly, and which I’ve simply made up.

He is a new beginner who has to work hard to overcome the weight of his own body. His opponent is shorter but lighter, faster, and three belt ranks higher. He moves as best he can, never quitting even while his lithe opponent darts in and out, running circles around him. NOT FAIR!

He learns to anticipate his opponent’s next move and lands a solid punch.

Two tournament divisions are too small, so they are combined. Ladies with only three or four years of training are competing against women with a decade or more of training. One of these more advanced ladies has won medals in international competitions. NOT FAIR!

They learn they are ready for the pressure of their next belt test.

He is three ranks above her, is stronger, faster, and a little taller than she. They are sparring. He grabs and holds her gi sleeve while pummeling her face (but with enough control so that it doesn’t leave a mark). Such an act is against tournament rules. NOT FAIR!

After class he teaches her how to get out of that situation. This could happen in the ring, in class, or even in the street. She learns something useful.

After warm-ups, she is not needed in her role of assistant instructor, nor has she been given an order to work on her own kata while the instructor evaluates the beginner class’ grasp of basic material. She hurried directly from work to class to help teach, and now she’s just standing there. NOT FAIR!

She spends the time silently pretending she’s the instructor. She notes who needs help with what. She watches for trends in the class as a whole. She moves around quietly if she needs to see something better. Whenever the instructor gives feedback, more often than not she noticed the same things.   The next class day, the instructor’s car breaks down.  She teaches class.  The students work on exactly the things they needed to improve on.

He has an injury and can’t do the drill. NOT FAIR!

He and his partner modify the drill and their instructor approves. Both learn something. The instructor learns something too.

The instructor is sick, so a senior student teaches the beginner class. After class, the parent of one of the students complains that he paid for a third degree black belt to teach and asks the front desk staff to refund the cost of that class. The senior student happens to walk by and hears everything. NOT FAIR!

Unbeknownst to that parent, the child had a breakthrough during that class. The next class day, the instructor comments positively on the child’s improvement and the senior student smiles with pride.

There’s been a disturbing trend in parenting for the last twenty five years. I stubbornly resisted it while raising my own daughters. Everyone has to feel good. Everyone gets a trophy. Everyone gets showered with praise even for deliberately weak performance. We have to be “fair” to everyone. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learned from this movement. I am more ready with praise than I would have been otherwise. I am more patient and more willing to see how I can help someone become better. But I have a problem with the attitude that everything should be easy and “fair.”

We learn a lot of life lessons on the mats. The biggest lesson is how to fight oneself. Our egos take more of a beating than our physical bodies. I know very well what it’s like to have a little voice inside me screaming, “NOT FAIR!” News flash: that thug on the street won’t play fair. Self defense is one of many reasons why we train, right? Sure we learn the physical skills to shatter joints and damage internal organs. More than that, we learn the mental discipline that it takes to deal with situations that are not fair. If we can’t face those situations on the mats, how are we supposed to deal with life itself?

Life, more often than not, isn’t fair. I’m two years shy of half a century spinning around on this planet, so I know what I’m talking about. The dojo is a place where we are put under pressure and we come face to face with our strengths and weaknesses. We face a lot of “unfair” situations and, if we’re persistent, we come out better for having been through them. Quite often, someone will come alongside to help. Sound familiar? Yeah, sounds like life.


We live in a diverse world. For decades, many Americans have been laboring at the arduous task of shifting our culture towards inclusion. What does this mean for Karate? We’ve made a lot of progress – just look at how many women are top athletes and instructors in an art that has, historically, been reserved for men. One of Karate’s best achievements is inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games – obviously we’ve embraced the world and reached many different cultures. These fantastic developments are readily apparent, but there are some other people groups that I’d like to highlight. These groups may not get as much attention but they are, nonetheless, included in the Karate world. This is all from my experience, and I’m amazed that I’ve already had this much exposure to the world that Karate has become. I do admit that my perspective is limited to only not quite four years of study and to my own cultural biases. I’m hoping to spark constructive dialogues and ideas.

Gender has always been a hot-button issue. Like it or not there are many physical differences between men and women – and I’m not talking about “equipment,” I’m talking about structure, which muscle groups tend to be stronger, and how the body develops athletic abilities. To be perfectly honest, I think there are advantages and disadvantages either way. Now – what about an issue that has hit me square in the face at the Karate program at the college? Yep – transgender individuals. At the level of the dojo, this is easy. We wear the same clothes, we sweat together, we respect each other. It should be a non-issue. But what about tournaments? Are we willing to let people register as male or female without a murmur of protest? I have mixed feelings about doing away with male/female tournament divisions. On the one hand, we train together, so why not? But would competing together cause more problems than it would solve? Quite possibly. In some societies there are taboos centered around gender, and competing together would exclude some people groups.

I work and help with the Karate program at one of the most diverse college campuses in the nation. I’ve helped teach male students who, due to culture, do not want me touching them. A shinai might be appropriate for me to use when working with these young men, but so far I’ve been able to work around their restrictions. I’m just happy they respect me and follow my instructions. I also know there are women-only Karate classes. No men are allowed inside the dojo and the windows are covered. According to the WKF rules, women may wear approved hijabs.  We have yet to see a similar concession for men who must cover their heads.  For some women, though, a hijab alone is not enough so they refrain from competing.  It’s already a huge cultural shift for these women to be training at all!

What is also a huge cultural shift is the notion that we can accommodate the various challenges, both mental and physical, that are out there. I’m particularly sensitive to this because I am the parent of an autistic adult. I’ve also trained with and helped teach students who brought various physical and/or mental things to the table. Any group learning situation that has deadlines for students to meet is going to automatically make life difficult for both the “out of the box” student and their instructor. One-on-one, student-paced instruction is ideal for anyone, actually, but especially for those who need a little more help.  But even just having an assistant instructor available during class plus investing time before and after class helps a lot. Still, realistically, there’s only so much an instructor and their assistant can do. Just like everyone else, these differently-abled students must own their own growth. But we who teach or help teach can point the way.  We can come up with ideas and we can offer our support, respect, insight, and ingenuity.

What does all this mean? It’s on me to adjust because I am able to adjust. Some students are limited in how much they can adjust, therefore I’m the one who should meet them where they are.  I am from a flexible, innovative society. I have knowledge of how people learn. I am sensitive to gender and culture. I have ingenuity and a willingness to experiment. Why do we expect those who are different from us to become “more normal” when we ourselves are the ones who have the ability to change? Obviously if Karate doesn’t click for someone, it’s not meant to be. But as long as someone is respectful and is making progress towards their next belt rank, does it really matter if they are trans, have cultural taboos, are autistic, or a dwarf ? I don’t think so. I’ve seen how people make Karate work for them, and I myself have flexed to accommodate. Accommodation without sacrificing quality is just one more challenge for us as students and instructors to embrace. And meeting a challenge is what all martial arts are about, right?