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?

Too Old

Almost four years ago I was tying on a white belt in the locker room for one of my first few classes. Someone asked if I was the instructor and was quite surprised that I was a brand-new beginner. I’ve lost track of how many times since then people have taken me for an instructor.  Obviously the stereotype is this: everyone who starts martial arts begins when they’re kids, therefore any middle-aged person wearing a gi (uniform) must have been training and teaching for decades. Adults let this stereotype dominate their thinking whenever I invite them to join class.

“Oh, I’m too old,” they say of themselves.

I have to chuckle at this. I was 44 when I started, and often I hear “I’m too old” from adults in their early thirties. I’m very nearly 48 at the time of this writing. Every once in awhile I’ll hear this from someone older than I am but who regularly lifts weights and dances in Zumba. Sometimes I wonder if they are uncomfortable with living proof that their perceptions of age and Karate are inaccurate. I get the feeling that a lot of them are silently asking themselves, “But isn’t she too old to be doing Karate?”

I’m too old to not be doing Karate. I’m too old to not do what I enjoy doing. I’m too old to be wasting years in stagnation, never growing. I’m too old to not be seeking to improve my mind, body, and spirit. I’m too old to forgo chasing dreams. I have the final half of my life ahead of me. I don’t want to waste it. But I am realistic about my limitations.

It is harder now to gain ground than when I was a teenager. I have to fight very hard for even a small improvement in strength and endurance. Even minor injuries take longer to heal nowadays. I’m a little less flexible, but not much less. When faced with a younger opponent it’s obvious I’m not as agile. And yeah, shedding a few pounds would help that. Frankly, none of these limitations are a barrier to my growth. My limitations simply prod me to develop ways to work around them.

Most of the ways I work around my limitations are mental. I have to be patient with myself and set specific, small goals over a longer time in order to improve physical conditioning – and I need to persist in reaching those goals. Injury, while unpleasant, prompts me to think about why it happened and to come up with ways of keeping the rest of my body in shape. Flexibility might or might not improve over time, but as long as I can throw a jodan mawashi gheri (roundhouse kick to the face) I’m happy – I don’t need to post a video on YouTube of myself kicking a can of soda off someone’s head. As far as dealing with younger, more agile opponents goes, there’s a saying:

Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance.
– David Mamet

Frankly, there are a lot of advantages to being “old.” I have a lot of life experience that I bring to the dojo. There are things I grasp intuitively that children struggle to understand. For the most part my kohai (students lower ranked than oneself) take me seriously simply because of my age. Young whippersnappers figure out really quickly that if I can do something and they can’t, they’d better step up their game. I don’t get admonished as much as any given kiddo – but then again it’s easy for me to refrain from picking my nose and bouncing around the room when everyone else is already lined up. The biggest advantage is I deeply appreciate my abilities because I have built my skills in spite of my age.

For the most part the culture I grew up in expected middle-aged women such as myself to already be firmly ensconced in safe hobbies like crocheting. I have nothing against crocheting.  My grandmother’s and my daughter’s crocheting was and is absolutely amazing (and my daughter has won ribbons at the state fair). It’s just that one generally doesn’t get black eyes and broken toes from crocheting. Therefore some think crocheting is “ladylike” and Karate isn’t. Fortunately, the times, they are a changin’ – I can, as a middle-aged matron, join a dojo and be assured that the instructors and students will take me seriously as long as I work hard and am respectful of everyone. Women who trained in previous decades will tell you this hasn’t always been the case. We’ve come a long way, baby. But we still have echoes from the past, and I see it every time I tell a fellow adult woman that yes, you can learn Karate too. I’m not sure this mindset will go away anytime soon.

Karate will be introduced to the Olympic Games in 2020. I’m sure we will see a significant uptick in enrollment of Karate students. However, I predict these will mostly be children whose parents have dreams of seeing their darling wearing an Olympic gold medal. I contend that parents won’t see themselves having fun training alongside their children. My opinion is that there will not be a significant rise in the number of new adult students. I speculate that the Olympics might even reinforce the idea that one must start training as a child, than an adult is already washed out.

I understand how intimidating it is to look at the national and international Karate superstars and compare one’s inexperienced self to them. I know the feelings of inadequacy.  Heck, I even know exactly how scary it is to get into a ring with a superstar who’s won medals in international competitions (and YES, I have had the honor of losing 8 to 1 against such a person in sparring).   Those scary feelings don’t exactly attract adult students who already think of themselves as past their prime.

Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely thrilled that Karate will debut in the Olympics in a couple of years.  But I believe us karateka should still keep on pointing to all the other great things about Karate in order to attract more adult students. Competition is a big part of what we do, but it’s not the end all and be all of Karate. There are benefits for everyone, including slightly lumpy, middle-aged matrons like me.

That is, after all, what this blog is all about.

The Teacher is Also a Student

For a little over two years now I’ve been helping out with teaching beginners. Normally this doesn’t happen until one reaches the rank I earned back in August (2017), but circumstances in two dojo(s) called for me to step up to the plate. I’m grateful for the teaching I did when I was a teenager  and the research I did into how people learn  before I started home schooling my children. All that said, I’m still learning about teaching and I’m still learning as I teach.

I studied Karate first as a teenager under a different organization. Some of the sensei(s) broke away to form their own organization – among them my dojo sensei’s assistant. My dojo sensei began to rely very heavily on senior students and she saw my potential. I started teaching “first lesson is free” people and getting new students up to speed so they could join the beginner class. I learned how to adjust my teaching according to each individual’s need. I think the biggest lesson I learned was that everyone in the dojo believed in my ability to teach. For someone who was routinely put down at school learning that I have a talent that people respect was a wonderful and powerful lesson.

As I’ve covered in previous blog posts, I quit Karate for 27 years and during some of those years I home schooled my children. Researching learning preferences and tweaking lessons to meet my daughters’ needs on an hourly basis taught me a lot about my ability to improvise. My daughters are both “out of the box” – one is gifted, the other is autistic. I was very inventive during those years and I tried hard to transmit my passion for learning to my daughters. I became sensitive to things that work and things that don’t work, and moment by moment I adjusted my teaching accordingly. Of course when the time came I brought these skills to my assistant-teaching at the dojo(s) where I now train.

During my teenage and home school years I was teaching very small groups or one-on-one. This continued for awhile starting roughly two years ago. Since then I have been occasionally given opportunities to lead class for groups of roughly ten or twelve people. Often there is a deadline to meet, so certain skills must be built by the end of the class. I’ve had to learn how to back off a little from those individuals who are struggling. Either there will be time after class to address their needs or they will practice on their own. It’s hard for me to do this because I’m so used to making everything work for everyone, and that’s possible with groups of up to four people but not for the larger groups I’m learning to teach.  Teaching larger groups of people who need to be up to speed on specific skills by a certain date is something I’m still learning how to do.

I recently led class for ten beginners.  Something I didn’t think about much before that day is the importance of the role I usually play:  assistant instructor.  Don’t get me wrong, none of my sensei(s) have ever taken me for granted and I know they appreciate me.  It’s just that when I stepped into the role of instructor I got another perspective on the value of an assistant.  My assistant the day I led a beginner’s class was a young man who is five ranks below me. Giving him his chance to help teach was gratifying to me. Also I knew I could count on him to help me demonstrate what I was teaching. I had the class switch partners frequently and I heard him helping his partners if they were struggling. It was nice to know that he would take care of at least one student while I was busy helping others. I came away from that class with a deeper appreciation of my own role.

For that particular class I had to come up with a lesson plan. This in itself is nothing new to me – I learned to do this from home schooling my children. However I never worried much about time in home school. I had fifty minutes for this class. Less – probably 40 minutes of actual teaching. I had to leave time for opening and closing ceremonies, taking attendance, and cushions of time for setting up the room (we ran two minutes over time) and changing equipment. My plan coalesced a few days prior when I saw some definite needs in the students’ jiyu kumite (sparring). I’m glad to say that my lesson plan went well and we had enough time for very nearly everything that I’d come up with (I had planned an extra drill just in case I needed to fill some time). Even though things went well this first time I will most definitely need to further develop my skill in planning out material that fits the time slot and meets the students needs.

I’ve been told over and over that one way to improve skills is to teach them. I’ve seen that with kata (forms) and kihon (basics). Now I’ve seen it with kumite (sparring). At sparring class the next night after teaching I found myself doing exactly what I’d taught the day before. It’s not something I’ve drilled much but it was simple enough for beginners. I had not done many reps myself, but of course I had to break things down for the students and help those who didn’t quite understand right away. I had the students get out of the way of oi tsuki and mae gheri by slicing forward at a 45 degree angle. The next night I was fighting someone who usually keeps me on my toes. I used exactly what I’d taught and I wasn’t sucking air after fighting him like I usually do. It was like magic, and was just what I needed. I haven’t been feeling good about my sparring for a few months now, but now I know I’m back on track – at least when it comes to sparring with that particular fellow student!

Yes, I’ve learned a good deal about teaching but I’ve also learned about how to improve myself through teaching. It’s not just being a better and better teacher and it’s not just building my skills. It’s also building my patience. I’m learning more about communicating. I’m learning about turning students around when they’re not engaged. That’s an ongoing process because students can be very creative in their way of expressing their desires to do anything but what the teacher would like them to do. Sometimes buttons get inadvertently pushed – either the teacher or the student is triggered. As the senior in rank, I have to overcome my own stuff in order to be a good example and to think creatively so that the student and the class can get back on track. Everyone wins, but sometimes I think the teacher gains oh so much more – not because the class is running smoothly but because the teacher has overcome his or her own self in order to make that happen.

It may sound like from this article that I’m mostly “there” already. In some respects, maybe I am. What I bring to the dojo from my life experiences helps.  But there’s a lot I still need to learn about teaching Karate specifically and I’m grateful for my mentors. I am also learning how to work within guidelines set by my dojo sensei and not by myself! There’s always more to learn from my mentors and peers about what works and what doesn’t work. Through seminars and the Internet martial artists can swap creative ideas for teaching others. Every so often I’ll buy a book about martial arts and when I’m teaching I’ll use what I’ve gleaned. Keeping things fresh and sharing experience benefits everyone! And that’s what teaching is all about – making everyone better then they were when they walked in. I was reminded at a recent seminar that teaching a class is not about me making everyone else do what I want in order to raise my status and puff up my ego. The seminar leader reminded us that we’re all learning together.

Spectrum of Engagement

I came to work just a little early on a Friday morning and did some small tasks to get my brain warmed up. Before I’d really started my day we were told to go into lockdown. Two hours later the SWAT team came to evacuate us. No evidence of a gunman was found but the police weren’t taking any chances. As I filed passed one of the SWAT team members I shuddered at the sight of his submachine gun. I do not want to be that close to such a weapon ever again. I fixated on that submachine gun during the adrenaline crash I experienced that evening.

The next day a sensei (karate instructor) told me about a martial artist who worked in airport security. This other martial artist was threatened while on the job. He begged, “Please, sir, don’t do this.” When the aggressor escalated the situation the martial artist defended himself and sent the aggressor to the hospital. He had given the attacker a chance to disengage but the attacker didn’t take it.

While listening to this story I suddenly realized why I didn’t like the SWAT team’s submachine guns. Having the power of near-instant death that is launched from a considerable distance away from your enemy means you can very easily choose not to give the enemy a chance to walk away. In many situations this is a very good thing. But in each of the situations I’ve actually been in if I’d had such a weapon and if I’d discharged it I’d be sitting in prison right now. To me, the submachine gun represents a level of power that I hope I never need. So it’s not so much the cold metal thing itself that bothered me – it’s more that I was disturbed by the fact that I’d been in a serious situation where having such weapons handy was necessary.

I prefer having a spectrum of engagement over needing the power of instantly killing from a distance. Here are five levels that I see along the spectrum:

1) I don’t know about you but I usually can avoid being in a bad situation in the first place. Not always, but usually. For instance it’s very easy for me to choose not to be at a bar in a sketchy part of town at two in the morning.

2) If possible walk or run away

3) Try to talk. “Yeah, having no money isn’t much fun, right?” “Who hurt you? Someone must have hurt you for you to be so full of anger – was it your mother?” Or, if tactically necessary, say something bizarre in order to cause momentary confusion – for instance, “Hey, do you smell ice cream?”

4) Defend and run

5) Maim and run

6) Kill

At levels 2 through 5 the aggressor has the choice to disengage. Call me soft, call me a hippie, call me whatever you like – I don’t think there’s any shame in giving someone a chance to stop walking the wrong path. Of course there’s no time for that in a war or in a mass shooting. But if you’re only at levels 2 or 3 with someone there’s no justification for lethal force.

Here’s a very human paradox I found within myself in the days after the lockdown incident. I definitely have some reservations about killing someone with an instant spray of bullets but I have no problem with disabling or even killing an attacker at close quarters. Most of the bunkai (application of movements from forms) I’ve been taught involves being very up close and personal with your attacker. Close enough to hear and feel exactly how you’re breaking someone’s body. Surely that’s more gruesome than dealing death from a distance? On one level – yes, absolutely it is a horrible, ghastly thing. So why am I not squeamish about close-quarter fighting? It’s more than just my training. If an attacker is that close to me  the attacker has crossed a clear and definite boundary. It’s realistic for me to conclude that my life is in danger. Of course I can also choose to step into my attacker’s space – but I will do so only if that is my best option for saving my life or the life of another.

Taken by a colleague outside our office door

As the grand-daughter of a World War II veteran I do understand there is a time and a place where weapons like submachine guns are appropriate. But I have no desire to own such a weapon nor do I think they’re “cool.” My grandfather talked to me about what it means to take a human life. At first I didn’t understand my revulsion at seeing such a powerful weapon at close quarters – especially when I’m trained in an art that, let’s face it, is designed for levels of violence from mild to lethal at distances from the reach of one’s leg to grappling. I had a lot to think about and analyze after I saw that SWAT team member’s submachine gun. What it boils down to is I don’t like how easy it is to take shortcuts when one is in possession of a submachine gun – to go from harmless to lethal in a split second without stopping to analyze whether or not such force is merited. Again, there’s a time and a place for dealing instant death. But my preference is to be able to stop conflict at any point along my spectrum of engagement.

P. S. – A book that has helped me to understand Level 3 (talking) on my spectrum of engagement is _Conflict Communication: A New Paradigm in Conscious Communication_ by Rory Miller