Taking Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growth Via Observation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction vs. Reality

Monday, January 9, 2017 was the first day of class at the college.  This is a physical education class that people take for credit.  It’s rare for students to take both quarters that are offered, even more rare for a student to audit in order to attend beyond the two quarters.  How I became involved is a long story – and as of last Spring I’m the highest-ranked student and therefore have some responsibilities.  It’s a rewarding experience to help introduce young people to Karate, and I always hope that they remember the class fondly and take up the art again after they’re done with our little class.

I’ve decided to do something a little different this week on this blog.  I wrote down how I anticipate the first class will go.  Then I wrote about what actually happened.

Here’s my anticipation, written Sunday night (1/8/16)…

I’ll tear myself away from the busy front desk at the office, reluctant to leave my co-workers to deal with the crowd of students who always come in during the first day of class.  But my involvement in the Karate program predates my job and one of the conditions I laid down when I was hired was that I can flex my hours in order to continue to be involved in the Karate class.  I’m anticipating seeing at least two of our International students in the dojo.  I don’t recall what they look like, but I’ve memorized their names.  I’ll surreptitiously peek when Sensei does the roll call.

I’ll stop at my car to retrieve my gear then hustle to the locker room.  My transformation from office professional to karateka begins with switching my bifocals to contact lenses and ends with tying my belt and shoving my feet into flip-flops.  I’ll experience some sadness when I remember students who I won’t be seeing this quarter.

It’s quite likely after I bow into the dojo that someone will ask me for a hair band or a Band-Aid.  That always seems to happen the first day of every quarter.  I always keep things like that on hand for those who need them.  I’ll put my gear down in a corner by Sensei’s bag, shuck my flip-flops, then help Sensei put tournament mats down on the floor.  I’ll explain how the mats are supposed to be laid out to eager students who are anxious to help.  Once this task is done, I’ll ask people to remove their shoes and socks.  I’ll probably do that two or three times before class starts.  If I’m lucky, I might get to practice kata.  I think I’ll do Rohai Shodan – an old lady balancing on one leg (sagi ashi dachi) is kinda impressive.

Sensei will call us to line up, and I will take my place in the Sempai position.  I will remember three people who used to be in that position.  I will do my part in the opening ceremony, pausing so that Sensei can explain each step.  Then Sensei will ask me to lead warm-ups.

I like to be cheerful and human.  I’ll introduce myself briefly, and probably make a wise crack like, “You guys are lucky – I just got over the worst flu ever, this is my first workout since before Christmas, so I’ll go easy on you today.”  I will take maybe five or ten minutes to hit major muscle groups.  There’s no need to kill myself or them.  We get only an hour anyway, so it’s best not to spend too much time warming up.

I’m anticipating three or four students taking the second quarter.  I don’t remember which of them tested for their orange belt last quarter.  No matter – the ones who didn’t test can still learn their new kata (forms).  Sensei will tell me what he wants me to cover, and he will take the newbies – typically we have about eighteen or so each quarter.  I get to teach the second-quarter students on the first day.

I think Sensei will want me to review kihon (basic movements).  I like to hammer in the Japanese terms, so I’ll be sure to incorporate that as we go.  Given the tiny group I’ll have, there will be plenty of opportunity for me to give feedback and advice to refine their movements.  Sensei might tell me to teach them their new kata.  They will have two to learn, but one is just a variation on what they’ve already learned.  I will be running out of time after we go through the first kata, so I won’t be able to do more than briefly introduce the other kata.  I’m really hoping, though, that Sensei will tell me to do kumite (sparring) with them instead of kata.  I’d love to do some drills that involve the defenders stepping away at an angle to set up for a counter-attack.  All too often we drill in straight lines, which means defenders go straight backward.  This results in students thinking stepping backward is their only option.  I want to expand their horizons at this stage.

After class I’ll help tear down and stack the mats.  If there isn’t another class or sports team coming into the room, I’ll have a little bit of time to practice kata, and Sensei might stay to help me, or at the very least he might practice his own kata.  It’s always a treat for me to watch him, as he’s vastly better than me.  Watching him reminds me of what I need to be working towards.

Now let’s see what really happened…

When I bowed into the dojo, Sensei had not put out the tournament mats.  Blocking the door to the equipment room was a cart full of hand weights.  Sensei had stacked foam shields against the wall.  I bowed to Sensei and asked about mats, and he said we wouldn’t be using them today.  I filled out the waiver form that I have to fill out every quarter, then directed new students to remove shoes and socks.  Much to my surprise, I only had to ask students to do this once.

I had loads of time to practice kata while students filled out waiver forms.  I found out the really bad flu I’d had over the winter break had really taken a toll on me.  I had a lingering cough and got winded easily.  Still, movement felt good after seventeen days of not working out.  My balance wasn’t what it should be and I wondered if my inner ear was affected by the medicine.  I was relieved to find I hadn’t forgotten my kata.  The new students who had already filled out their waiver forms watched.  I didn’t care about messing up – I found that my need to practice outweighed my desire to look cool.  Besides, it’s good for students to see that I’m not perfect and it’s good for them to watch me patiently work through something that I just flubbed.  At one point Sensei gave me a refinement to work on.

Sensei finally called the class to gather around.  He talked about what to expect and introduced me.  This was definitely a departure from the normal first day.  Usually he has this talk just with the new people and I get to teach the returners.  I spotted an acquaintance in the crowd.  I was not expecting her there at all and I was very happy to see her.  She is a black belt from Japan, she’s my co-worker (in another division of the office I work for), and she and I have been training together at another dojo.  I recognized a couple of returning students, and was just a little dismayed that there weren’t more.  We lined up properly and Sensei walked us through the opening ceremony.  He led so that he could explain everything, so I didn’t get to do my bit until the closing ceremony.

After he led a brief, light warm-up, Sensei had us students partner up and I paired up with a returning student.  We grabbed the big foam shields.  Sensei demonstrated how to hold the shield and I was flattered when he had me kick it in order to demonstrate exactly why one needs to hold the shield properly.  WHAM!  I always feel so powerful when I can land a good kick on something solid.  But we weren’t going to do kicks.  Instead, Sensei walked the class through elbow strikes.  I’d never done elbow strikes outside of kata, so this was a treat for me.  I found myself thinking about my hikite (the hand that pulls back to “chamber” while the other strikes) and about my hips.  Sensei came over at one point to tell me to not “pose” at the end of the technique – strike and pull back immediately.  “You’re not a beginner anymore,” he said.  Well, technically I am and I will most likely still feel like I’m pretty wet behind the ears when I finally do get to tie on a black belt.  That said, Sensei’s point was that I need to think beyond the drills in order to build better habits.  It’s a recurring theme with me, and he’s not the only Sensei who’s been saying it to me.  I guess I’d better stop being afraid to build on the drills.

Sensei wanted all of us to remember how much power we were able to generate and said we’d re-visit elbow strikes the last class day so that we could see our progress.  Later, at home, I thought about my hikite and my hips, and I realized I still had a tendency to “muscle through” the technique.  My best strike that Sensei saw and commented on was one in which I felt loose until the moment of impact.  I have some work to do.

We ended class with the hand weights.  Sensei walked the class through the motions of punching, and we did this wit the weights.  I found out I was still fairly strong even after half a month of illness.  Putting the weights aside and punching for real felt great, especially when we added kiai.  Unfortunately, we were running over time at that point.

Sensei had us go through the closing ceremony a little more like how we usually do it on the first class day, so I got to do my bit.  I helped put equipment away and he asked my opinion.  I was flattered he asked.  I told him I thought that jumping right into bag work was a great way to start the quarter.  I observed that we seem to lose a lot of students after the first day, and speculated we’d be keeping more this time around.  I asked a couple of questions of my own.  College Sensei has been asking my opinion more in the last few months – it’s pretty obvious he’s starting to train me as someone who will become a Sensei herself.  I’m honored that he’s prompting me to think about the dojo as a whole.

One more pleasant surprise was in store for me as Sensei and I went to grab our gear bags.  One more of the college’s International students asked Sensei if he could join the class.  This student has been studying at the college for awhile now, so I knew who he was – and he’d been in to the office earlier that morning.  I love seeing the realization dawn on a student’s face when he or she recognizes me, and this time Sensei got to see it too.  Yes, Linda Lee Danvers is Supergirl and vice versa.  I checked that the student knew how to add classes online, then went off to practice kata while he chatted with Sensei.  Finally it was indeed time to clear out.  This quarter we will have the room for twenty minutes after class, so that will be sufficient to take up tournament mats and maybe sneak a little kata practice in.

When I got home I found my elbows were sore, red, and had little patches of skin rubbed off.  I’ll heal.  I had to drive the elbow strikes into the “body” rather than clip the chin as I’ve practiced in kata, so I’ve learned a valuable technique for when the opponent is quite close.  Given the force I’m able to generate, this technique could disable or at least drive off an attacker.  The lingering ache in my elbows actually felt good in a way.  The pain is a reminder that I’m grabbing life by the horns and holding on for the wild ride.

OK, so I learned technique and got high from the endorphins (which helps reinforce the lesson that this Karate stuff is lots of fun).  But there are deeper lessons learned from this first day of class.  This is my eighth quarter of being involved with the college’s Karate class, and the first day has always been pretty much the same every time (except lately I’ve been in the role of senior student).  I learned that there is always room for improvement.  It’s perfectly OK to experiment, to try something different with a class.  College Sensei outranks me vastly and has decades more experience in karate and in teaching karate to others, but he still seeks to be better.  His students, including me, will reap the benefit of his willingness to improve.  College Sensei knows my ambitions – he knows I want to teach.  He is setting an example for me.  I’m very glad to have these lessons.

The Value of Struggling

In the science-fiction movie “The Matrix,” the main character’s brain was connected to a computer and he was thus able to learn anything almost instantly.

“I know Kung Fu…” he gasped, astonished.

“Show me,” the leader of the humans challenged him.

The two mens’ brains were hooked up to a computer and a fantastic battle ensued in the virtual world.

Most of us don’t like hard work if we’re doing something we’re not at all passionate about.  This was evident in a conversation between two boys after class one night.

“How do you like Karate?” an orange belt (low rank) boy asked a new beginner.

“I thought we’d be learning cool stuff.  This is boring,” the new beginner boy griped.

Get this – we’d been learning take-downs that evening.  Take-downs are cool.  I’d taught the new beginner boy every third class for a few weeks so I already knew he liked the idea of being able to do Karate but he wasn’t willing to put any effort into learning it.  I hope someday he’ll be doing something for the sheer joy of it, even if it’s difficult to learn.

What if we could hook up our brains to a computer and instantly bypass all the boring, difficult things that come with learning a skill?  I know I’d choose to be a house flipper, a jeweler, an actor, a singer, a flautist, and a harpist.  But what if learning could be instant and two thirds of the world’s population became professional harpists?   I wouldn’t be anything special.  No one would go to concerts.  The value of the skill would be diminished.  Let’s narrow the scope a bit.  What would it mean for me personally to not have to struggle to learn something?

Notice I didn’t say I’d learn a martial art instantly if I could.  I’ve learned lessons from struggling that I wouldn’t have otherwise.  If you’ve been reading my blog and/or training with me, you’ve seen the lessons I’ve learned from sweat, tears, injury, frustration, embarrassment, fear, and even dyslexia.  I’ve had to re-build techniques and even calisthenic exercises from the ground up because I found out I need to fix something.  Yes – starting over from scratch as if I were a white belt (new beginner) again, stumbling all over myself trying to incorporate that one little change that will improve my Karate, practicing until whatever it is I’m working on becomes second nature.  The pride of accomplishment is my reward, but there is also a lot of satisfaction in the process itself.  I know I’m growing in skill, but more importantly, my character is being molded and shaped.

What would I lose by being able to learn Karate instantly?  I’d miss out on all the lessons in perseverance.  I wouldn’t have been lifted up by the encouragement of quite a number of people.  Leadership skills and learning how to be a teacher depend on other people – those wonderfully unique people who are your mentors, peers, and students.  Respect is so much more than saying “Ossu!” (“Yes Sir!”) and knowing who comes up from a bow first.  Respect is relational and grows over time.

Perhaps the biggest thing I’d miss out on are the lessons in empathy.  I need to be aware of what my kohai (plural – lower ranked students) need from me because I too once struggled (and maybe am still struggling) with the same things they are.  I need to be aware that my sempai (plural – higher ranked students) and sensei (plural – black belts) have some very awesome skills but they are still human and need appreciation and encouragement just like everyone else.

No computer or, if you prefer, magic wand could give me these very human lessons.

Culture Shock

“That expectation is appropriate for [certain circumstances], but is unrealistic for [this particular situation]…”  Sensei (my instructor) patiently explained.

Surprised, I thought to myself, “Wow.  Back when I was a teenager training in [that other organization]…”

I stopped that train of thought immediately, recognizing it as a symptom of culture shock.  I have a background from a previous karate organization.  Some things were the same or similar, and some things were different.  Culture shock can either be a roadblock to learning or an opportunity to open a productive discussion.  I chose the latter and was glad I did.  I gained insight which I will use to shape my future words and actions in the dojo.

Me circa 1983

For those of you who don’t already know, I trained in a different Karate organization for three years when I was a teenager.  I participated in only two tournaments and I didn’t use the opportunity to make connections with karateka (karate students of all ranks) from other organizations like I do today.  The Internet didn’t exist, so there were no online martial arts forums.  And let’s face it – I wasn’t as “seasoned” in life as I am now.  My perspective was very limited.

Let me stress that from my point of view, there is nothing wrong with the organization I was once a part of or how they did things back in the day.  Having that background has given me a great boost when it comes to navigating things like etiquette and work ethic.  It’s just that every once in awhile I run into things that are handled differently and I find I have to adjust my thinking.

You’d think that a 27-year-long “vacation” then subsequent training for two years, six months, and six days would have eliminated any preconceived notions of how things are “supposed to” work when it comes to the “culture” of the organization of dojos (karate schools) I currently train in.  Nope.  I still have a lot to learn and I think I will always be learning because my past did shape me – yes, in a positive way, but it was different.  Not better, not inferior, just different.

I remember the first time I recognized the signs of “culture shock” in myself.  It took me weeks to come up with a good way to open a discussion about something I’d seen.  I formulated a polite question and carefully chose who to ask.  I was scared out of my gourd that I’d cause offense.  I needn’t have worried.  The sensei (instructor) was every bit as sensitive to my need to know as I was sensitive to not be judgmental in any way.  I gained a lot from the discussion that followed.

I can definitely respect “new” and “different.”  Even if I happen to think something was handled better in the other organization “back in the day,” I am willing to adjust, adapt, and patiently wait for evidence that the “new” way works best for “my” dojo under today’s circumstances.  The way I figure it, some day I’ll have a black belt and I’ll get my chance to dust off some things from the past to see if they’ll work.  Either I’ll fall flat on my face or I’ll succeed.  Meanwhile, I continue to ask carefully crafted questions.

I’m getting better at recognizing “culture shock” and more at ease with opening dialogs.  I find it helps to ask questions and to not bring up how things were done at the other dojo.  The first line of our dojo kun (school code of ethics), which we recite at the opening and closing of nearly every class, instructs us to be humble and polite.  This is a great guideline for navigating the tricky waters of culture shock.

“Culture shock” can be turned into a driving force for learning and growing or it can get ugly.  Sometimes the strong emotions evoked can take one by surprise, and these emotions are, admittedly, tricky to wrestle with.  The good news is that one has a choice of how to respond.  It’s an important choice.  I’ve seen a student with a background from another martial arts school fail to work beyond his culture shock.  During his short-lived study he chose all the wrong responses to what he was experiencing.  It wasn’t long before he was asked to leave.  This could have been avoided.  In contrast, no one has even so much as assigned push ups to me for asking questions, so I’m probably on the right track.