Maintenance Mode

I’m glad this month (February) is short.  So far, this has been a challenging month in my personal life.  This has affected my Karate.  Due to this, that, and the other, my attendance in class and my practice time at home has been sparse.  I’ve been in “maintenance mode.”  I’m hanging on to what I have, and improvement is something I simply hope for.  My tendency is to berate myself for not practicing more at home and for not taking better care of myself (I did get sick, and it’s still lingering a bit).  But when I write out everything that happened so far this month, I’m amazed I did any Karate at all.   Any one of the things that happened this month would have a significant impact on my class attendance and practice time.

Sure I’ve lost ground – in “wind,” or endurance, and in upper body strength.  But I know I can get back what I’ve lost.  It won’t be easy.  Easy has never been part of the equation anyway, so what else is new?  Yet it’s frustrating to lose ground at a time when I’m supposed to be gaining ground.  My sensei are not berating me, so why the heck should I berate myself?  But I do.  Maybe I’m discouraged.

Part of our dojo kun (school motto) that we recite at the beginning and end of each class is “Be patient, and not discouraged.”  I like how our dojo kun presents patience as the opposite of discouragement.  This is a time when I have to be patient with myself.  It’s the fastest way out of the funk that I’ve wallowed in from time to time this month.  Reminding myself to be patient is how I’ve been maintaining my drive to succeed in karate.

Keeping one’s motivation up is key.  I know there are life circumstances where that might be impossible.  It’s been a hard month for me, but not that hard.  Back to the point – if it is possible to maintain your motivation, the next step is to figure out what you can do with whatever resources you have.  Here’s some tips I’ve learned:

  1. Be super flexible.  When there’s tons of stressful things going on in your life take the time to do your Karate whenever you can find it.  When things settle down, you can go to class and you can buckle down in your practice time.  But for now, just do what you can when you can.
  2. Visualizing/Meditation.  This is something I learned from Andrea Harkins and from Elisa Au Fonseca.  Andrea spent six weeks in the hospital on bed rest, so all she could do was practice kata in her head.  Elisa Au Fonseca led  Gasshuku (camp) in 2017 and taught us how to meditate our way through a kata.  Visualize yourself performing flawlessly, take as much time as you need for each move.  Imagine every detail – how your gi (uniform) feels on your body, the texture of the mats under your feet, your muscles moving under your skin…  I’ve found that meditation works for kihon (basics) and sparring as well.
  3. Quick walk through kata.  This should take a minute or less per kata.  For the purposes of this exercise, don’t do the stances but do position your feet.  Kicks should be slow and to knee height.  Hand techniques should be more suggestive than effective.  This is good for when you’re almost over a cold.  This very mild exercise is just a way of reminding yourself how the kata is supposed to go.
  4. Kata practice – for real.  It doesn’t take long to warm up and then perform four or five kata full speed and power.  If all you have is 15 minutes, kata is a great way to make the most of it.  Kata is cardio, strength, kihon, self defense, and more.
  5. Bathroom breaks at work.  Don’t laugh.  The handicapped stall is big enough for honing blocks and other hand techniques.  Lately I’ve been getting quite a few tips on refining my techniques, so any chance I get to practice those changes, I take it.  Ten reps is better than nothing.
  6. Speaking of bathrooms, brush your teeth while holding a stance. Switch lead legs (if applicable) when you switch from upper jaw to lower jaw.
  7. WATER!  You’re not exercising as much, but you still need it.  During times of stress it’s easy to forget to drink your water.  Keep your water bottle by your side at all times.  Seriously.  It only takes a few seconds to take a quick swig.  You’ll feel better if you stay hydrated.

It’s hard to think creatively when one is busy, stressed out, seeing to the needs of another person, and maybe even ill on top of it all.  While you are in a time of calm and order, write a list of ideas of what you think you can do while you’re in “maintenance mode.”  I’ve already got you started.  It helps to think of strategies while you are not in one of those months.  Once you pull through, you might find that the time you spent in “maintenance mode” was a lesson in adaptation and perseverance.


Why now?  Why not sooner?

Lately I’ve been made aware of many little not-quite-ideal habits that have either crept into my Karate or that have been there all along. Of the former, that’s on me. I know better. I’ve taught better. So what about the little not-quite-ideal that have been there all along? Part of me is sometimes tempted to ask, “Why wasn’t I taught the proper way to do this right from the beginning?” Please note I have no desire to make an implication that there’s been a deficiency in my training. Right off the bat, I can think of three answers to that question. There are probably more answers and I’ll probably discover those answers as time goes by.

1) I wasn’t developmentally ready until now.

I have a long history of teaching both in karate and in home school. Some would argue that because I don’t have a master’s degree in education and have never taught in an academic institution, I can’t make any claim to teaching. OK, I admit I can’t just walk into a fifth-grade classroom, get them focused(!) and teach them how to solve story problems without using algebra. But one thing I do know both from home schooling my daughters and from teaching beginning karate students is this. You can’t force growth – your students will be ready when they are ready. Most fifth graders aren’t developmentally ready for algebra. Even though using algebra is a fantastic way to solve story problems, details about solving story problems using algebra will only confuse fifth-graders. The kiddos must slog through rote memorization for another three or four years. Not unlike new beginners in Karate.

2) There are too many details for anyone to absorb all at once.

Computers can store huge amounts of data nearly instantly. An entire college-level textbook on, for example, quantum physics can be loaded into a computer in a matter of seconds. Human minds do not have that capability. Knowledge and skill need to be built over time, through study and practice. It’s true that new adult beginners can understand and remember more details than their child counterparts. But even though an adult can intellectually grasp concepts that a child cannot, adults and children alike must build muscle memory and refine techniques over time.

3) Muscle memory must be built gradually

Now that I’m getting to the point where I have to be more aware of all the little details, I appreciate the foundation that I have. Pianists build their foundations with finger exercises, scales, etc. A beginning piano student fumbles through these drills and can play only simple melodies. But it takes time to develop the coordination necessary to play more complex music. So it is with karate. If a student wobbles her way through Kihon Kata Ichi (Basic Form #1), there is no way she can handle the more complex and refined movements of Bassai Dai (one of the advanced, “black belt level” forms). If my piano skills were at the same level as my karate I’d be playing recognizable, maybe even enjoyable tunes. But I’d still be a long way from playing at Carnegie Hall, or even with the local city orchestra. I’d know my scales and arpeggios, and my friends wouldn’t be cringing if I played for them. It’s time to build on and refine what I know.

Details.  Details.

If I tried to bombard a class full of new beginners with all the details I’m getting now, they’d probably run screaming out the door. Yes, even the adults.  But what happens over time? Students become more confident in what they know. They’re physically and mentally capable of learning just a little more. Time goes on, and they start to figure out what questions to ask. They start making connections between this technique and that technique. They start comparing kata (forms). This is a fun stage of development. But even still, intermediate students don’t need to be bombarded with everything there is to know about Karate. And what about myself? I probably would have gone to the locker room and wept if, on my first day of Karate I was bombarded with thousands of minutae. I would have thought, correctly, that it was too much to live up to, too much to remember, much less execute with muscles that hadn’t moved that way in a little over a quarter century. What about a little later, after I’d earned a few belts? No, I wasn’t ready even then. I was still working on my foundation. I still am, to be honest.

It’s time to tighten up those little things that have slipped. Time to refine. Time to start performing more and more like the yudansha (“black belt”) that I will some day be. Even the smallest of improvements make a difference. Little by little, I’ll get better at karate if I pay attention to all the little details. It will be a lifetime study, I’m sure.

Time Outside of Class

How should I manage time I spend exercising outside of Karate class?  What should I do, and what order should I follow?  What’s the optimal time of day?  How much should I do?  I have re-visited these questions multiple times ever since I started Karate.  My life changes, my family’s schedules change, my goals change, sometimes a sensei (instructor) will change what is emphasized in class, and sometimes new opportunities arise.   I have to adapt the time I spend exercising outside of class accordingly.

When I first started karate four and a half years ago, I didn’t know much about exercise.  Interval vs. circuit was beyond my ken.  I’m not sure I even knew the meaning of  “cardio.”  I had no idea of what to do, how to schedule.  I didn’t practice karate outside of class at first.  All that changed gradually over time.

Years ago, my “home” dojo (school) was in a rec center.  I took advantage of classes and activities beyond Karate.  I started learning about exercise, and eventually was “on call” as a substitute water fitness instructor.  Best of all, the rec center used to allow people to use studios whenever there wasn’t a scheduled group exercise class.  Gradually, as I learned more karate, I started taking advantage of those studios more often.  Other activities took a back seat and then faded away.  Eventually, due to changes beyond my control, I had to create a space in my own home for exercising.  This made the “when” slightly easier.

Eventually I had so much karate material to work on that I needed to have paper charts.  My week started to become full, so I needed a chart of not only what, but when.   I figured out that I really enjoy circuit workouts.  After some experimentation, I started using a spreadsheet.  Changes can be made quickly and easily.

I’ve had to adapt to quite a lot.  It seems like changes in my life are happening more and more frequently.  Either I’m perceiving time differently or I’m growing.  Or both.  Sometimes I need a season to scale back.  After such a season or in preparation for something big, I need to ramp up.  I don’t know how many revisions my exercise chart has gone through.  In fact, I made a revision just a couple of days ago.

I don’t know why, but sometimes a little voice inside me scolds me for changing my charts so often.  For some odd reason, a bunch of my old charts are still clogging up my cloud drive, so I can see that major changes don’t come often.  Mostly I do minor adjustments.  But still – is it so bad to make major changes in my charts?  Some part of me wants to believe that I should be disciplined enough to keep the same routine going no matter what.

Balderdash.  A quick search of the Internet reveals that there is no one right way for me to manage my extra-curricular exercise.  And let’s face it, life happens.  If I don’t adjust, I stagnate.  If I were a slave to an unchanging exercise routine, I’d probably give up out of sheer frustration in trying to keep up with everything.  Learning to adapt is also a lesson in perseverance.  This is a lesson I hope to pass along.

Now I’m making charts for someone else.  My daughter does well with lists.  Because of where she is in life, she accepts only a modicum of input from me.  I’m glad that I can provide her with a chart that reflects where she is in her karate journey.  Whenever I give her a new chart, I point out that if I’ve increased the number of reps it means she’s getting stronger.  I was proud to add two new kata (forms) to her chart last month after she passed her first belt test.  Recently I asked her if she’s OK with the circuit-workout format and listed some other options.  The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree – she likes circuit.

I hope this encourages you, dear reader, to build your own routine.  My best advice is to be flexible.  When it comes to scheduling and charting exercise, there’s loads of options.  Don’t fret about which website, which book, which guru.  Find something you like and talk with your doctor (yeah, you knew that).  Look at how the rest of your life is scheduled, find your time slots, and just go for it.   If something isn’t working, change it.  Change, learn, grow, but most of all – enjoy.  Don’t beat yourself up for backsliding.  Instead, set realistic goals.  Focus on the fact that you’re doing something positive for yourself.  Success will come, I guarantee it.

The Posts I Have Not Written

In this blog I open up my Karate life to public scrutiny. Or do I? Am I really presenting a true and accurate account of my journey? I’m sorry, but the answer is no. I remember very vividly the first lecture in my first college class in my major – Introduction to Mass Media. We were taught that every single time we point a TV or film camera at something, we are excluding everything else. We were taught that, in a way, we lie to people without intending to. I must admit that I do leave some things out of my blog.

Most of the time when I write an autobiographical post I set a lighthearted and sunny tone. Maybe I make my journey sound like it’s always a walk in the park. Sometimes I wonder if my breezy writing is a dis-service to my target audience (working adults who can’t imagine themselves starting a martial art). My audience does need to know there are tough things to deal with while one is studying a martial art. But on the other hand, who wants to wallow in the mire?  A good many of the things I don’t want to reveal are dark things I generated myself. Usually I’ll write about them only after I’ve already overcome them. But some of these things involve other people and are nobody’s dang business except for the people who are directly involved.

When it comes to writing about other karateka who are a part of my journey, I am cautious. I respect people’s privacy. If I have a conflict with them I don’t bring it up on my blog. If I am writing an anecdote, I try to make sure that I don’t interject anything negative into my portrayal of that other person or people. As I get more and more involved in the functioning of the Karate organization that I belong to, I must be even more careful. I must not overstep my bounds – I do not hold any authority to speak for my dojo or organization. There are things that are best left with those who are in leadership. Every once in a blue moon I will tackle an underlying social issue that my dojo or organization happens to be dealing with. But the vast majority of posts about broader issues have not had anything to do with anything specifically related to my dojo or organization. Most of the time with such posts, I simply had a flash of insight into a general issue or common situation.

Sometimes I’ll test the waters before I write about a social issue that either affects martial arts or is endemic to martial arts. I’ll private message a friend or two. Maybe I’ll post to more friends on Facebook. Other times I’ll leave a comment on someone else’s post and read the responses. I rarely post on forums, but that can be a good way to generate ideas and get a feel for where the topic might lead. This strategy has yielded gold in the past. But one time, it bombed. Even though I was able to express myself a lot better in six paragraphs than in six sentences, I’m not sure I’ll ever re-visit the draft I wrote while I was watching the responses appear. Oh well, I’ve got plenty more material.

Discarding material, omitting things, and shying away from some topics is a part and parcel of writing in general. To be honest, having more material than one could or should use is preferable to writer’s block! Yet leaving things out does affect my blog.  Sometimes I feel like I’m presenting a “Disney” version of Karate. I know huge chunks missing from the account of my journey. And yeah, I get the occasional rotten tomato lobbed my way, so I leave some things alone afterwards. Yes, I admit to using smoke and mirrors. But on the other hand, I think my blog is better off for all the posts I have not written. Who wants to read negative stuff? People who don’t respect others’ privacy are generally not popular. Not to mention I dislike rotten tomatoes, deserved or not, so I do my best to avoid them. All in all, I think I prefer the consequences of trying to do the right thing over the potential consequences for all the posts I’ve never written.

The Last Kyu

Tomorrow (12/1/18) I will test for my next rank – what we call “high brown” (otherwise known as i-kyu).  I won’t get a new belt – in our system, one wears the same belt through what is, for us, the last three ranks before black belt. No stripes adorn our brown belts – we have to talk to one another and keep track of every brown belt’s progress in order to figure out who stands where in line and who is senpai (senior) to whom.

My sensei (instructors) tell me that I am ready to test even though I’ve been ni-kyu (middle brown) for only six months. I have to admit I balked when I was nudged to test in October. I didn’t learn the two new kata (forms) that I will perform for my test until after I’d competed at Nationals in July. Annanko (kata) was no problem, but Kanku Dai (kata) is another animal altogether. For Kanku Dai I felt I needed more time than just three months. By mid-November I felt far more confident. My Kanku Dai isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t have to be. I have years ahead of me to polish it further.

The three ranks of brown in our system are meant to be a time of transition, particularly during the final kyu (colored belt) rank. I don’t know when I will test for Shodan (first degree black belt), but I do know that if I pass tomorrow’s test I’m in for a boatload of hard work. For my Shodan test, whenever that will be, there will be two new kata to present and a couple of significant format changes in the test itself. I will have to train just as hard if not harder than I did for Nationals. At least I have already shouldered a boatload of teaching, so I’ve already had significant preparation for the responsibilities that I will  have as a yudansha (black belt). In just a few days I actually will need to scale back the responsibilities I currently hold.

So far I have been balancing my own personal training with my dojo (school) responsibilities. But if I pass my test tomorrow I will need to give up one significant responsibility. OK, truth be told, I will need to give up helping with the college’s physical education class anyway because for next quarter the college has changed the class time and days. But even if the Winter Quarter Karate PE class was still going to work nicely with the rest of my schedule, I would still have to let go. Since the beginning of Fall Quarter I have been getting up at five in the morning to get personal practice time.   I admit I’ve been feeling a little ragged around the edges.  Pass or fail, I will need more time (and more intensive time at that) after tomorrow’s test to practice, to polish, to toughen my body further.

I am a little sad about not being part of the college class next quarter. It’s been a significant part of my journey and a tremendous boost to my growth for most of my training now. I will miss working alongside the dojo sensei and occasionally getting help with my own material after class. It’s been an honor to serve at the same place where the head of our organization got his start. But I understand it’s time for me to let go. It’s time to move on to my future. I’m excited about what’s next for me.  This time of transition is bittersweet.

Whether or not I pass my test tomorrow the coming months or years will most definitely see me intensively preparing to tie on a black belt. And yes, when that happens, I will still be a beginner. I will always be beginning something new.  I’ve been told that Shodan is the new beginning, the first step, and the true beginning of my own journey.  It’s gonna be a helluva ride.

My deepest thanks to all the karateka who have helped me get to this point.

Update:  I passed the test!