SPLAT!  A tall strapping young man hits the mats.  A woman who stands a head shorter and who is easily old enough to be his mother put him there.  How does this happen?

I do have more strength than the average woman my height and age, and there are people who I can muscle down to the ground (admittedly, these are mostly teenage girls).   But not this young man.  Working with young giants forces me to bring timing and positioning together to create leverage.  When everything goes well, taking someone down feels effortless.  I call it the magic of leverage.  I’ve learned to stop and evaluate what I’m doing if I feel myself bringing my strength into play. My strength won’t budge a young giant.

Leverage doesn’t apply just to takedowns.  One can shatter joints, take away a weapon, or render someone powerless to go anywhere but where you want them to go.  Leverage definitely comes into play even in basic blocks we teach in a new beginner’s very first class. By blocking, one is manipulating someone else’s limb, using leverage to divert its path.  I’ve done just a teeny tiny bit of weapons training and you bet there’s leverage there, especially when it comes to disarms.

One time I came away from learning an empty-hand vs. bo disarm asking myself, “How practical is that?  Who the heck carries a bo down a city street?”  Then I realized all I had to do was adjust the technique slightly to disarm someone with a baseball bat or tire iron.  The leverage used would vary only by the length of the weapon.

Creating leverage isn’t easy, especially when you get into some of the fancier takedowns, disarms, etc.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve failed miserably to create leverage, or stood patiently while a partner tries to get me down to the mats.  I have no illusions about my ability to actually use anything more than a couple of the simplest takedowns “in the street.”  I simply have not drilled these things enough with a live, resisting partner at a speed and in a context that would be similar to the way things go down in real life.  I don’t have the precision, timing, or reflexes yet.  This is where experience and years of training come in.

There is one aspect of leverage that I absolutely have mastered.  I’ve mastered having fun with the magic of leverage.  I feel a certain amount of glee when I’ve got someone at my feet after I did something that felt effortless, or when I’ve taken away someone’s bo.  Practicality (i.e. will it work “in the street”) is secondary to me.  Leverage is cool, and I love geeking out over it.

A Karate Thanksgiving


Yes, of course I’m thankful for the usual – friends, family, good health, my country…  But this blog is about my Karate journey, right?  So here is what I’m thankful for in Karate.

03_Image2I’m thankful for my Sensei.  The word “Sensei” is both the singular and the plural form of the word that means “one who has gone before” (i.e. teacher).  Because there have been changes in my home dojo (school) and because I do visit other dojos and assist with the college PE Karate class, I’ll just lump everyone in together – “Sensei” and “you” can be both singular and plural so I’m going to run with that.   Sensei – I appreciate the time you take to make sure I understand what to do.  You’re very patient with my flaws and you always take the time to tell me how I can improve.  I am thankful that you truly appreciate the art we study because a teacher who loves what he or she teaches is the best kind of teacher to have.  Your encouragement and instruction mean a lot to me.  Thank you.

karate-312474_640I’m thankful for my Sempai – those who are higher ranked than I but aren’t black belts yet.  Again, this is both singular and plural, and I’m going to run with that.  I am thankful for your help.  You have invested your time in me and have helped me succeed in climbing even to your own rank.  You push me hard when we’re paired up in class and I appreciate that.  You serve as good examples to me and you’re my companions on the journey.  Thank you.

beltgreenstripeWhat about those who are the same rank as I am?  Well, most of them are senior to me and I still call them Sempai.  So… That leaves one person who promoted at the same time as I did (a couple of months ago).  I am thankful for her as a person and I am looking forward to training more with her in December.

OssuI’m thankful for my Kohai – those who are lower ranked than I am.  Yep, both singular and plural.  Thank you for being my guinea pigs.  I am not now nor will I ever be a perfect teacher, but I am improving my teaching skills because of you.  I’m learning how to figure out what you need from me at any given moment.  Some of you think I’m a hero and I’m learning to look past my discomfort with that and channel it right back to you by showing you the way to be a hero too.  I love seeing you stepping out of your comfort zone and trying new things – that is truly heroic.  And yes, two or three of you are teaching me a lot about staying patient and encouraging, but don’t worry about that – it’s good for my character.  I am truly thankful that you forgive me my flaws.  Just like you, I’m still in process and I will get better.

I’m thankful for my online acquaintances – I’ve never met you in person.  I’ve never trained with you.  But you’ve been there cheering me on.  You’ve often given me valuable tips and you’re always encouraging me to be my best.  I have a blog because two of you encouraged me to start one, and as I “grow up” in my art, I appreciate having a record of what I’ve been learning along the way.  Thank you.

jwofficeI’m thankful for my job and my co-workers.  No, I don’t get paid to do Karate.  I’m an office assistant for the International Student Programs office at the local college.  I’ve written about the connection of my job to Karate here.  I’m funding my Karate expenses with this job, and that alone is something to be grateful for.  I very much appreciate it that my supervisor flexes my hours so that I can assist with the college Karate class.  I am glad my co-workers don’t run away screaming when I mention Karate for the umpteenth time in a day.  And it’s always fun at the beginning of every quarter to see the look on international students’ faces when they realize who is making them do push ups (it’s that lady from the ISP office!) or who is telling them they need to fill out a form to see an advisor (it’s that crazy Karate lady!).

FootRI’m thankful for kihon (basic movements).  Building strength, building endurance, learning finesse…  Kihon has all that and more.  There’s always something to refine. Combinations of kihon are like puzzles to solve.  How do I make my body transition from this to that?  Yes, I’m thankful for what many consider to be “boring.”

140919_Graphic1I’m thankful for kata (forms). Ohhhh yes, even the kihon kata have a lot to offer.  I’m constantly telling myself that I shouldn’t look like a white belt (no rank) doing kihon kata: I should look like someone my own rank doing it.  I’m thankful that any given kata takes time to memorize and loads more time to refine.  This means I’ll never be bored because there will always be something to work on.  I love, love, love bunkai (interpretation of kata).  This movement could shatter a joint, or it could be a block… Wait, what if I do this with it?  I love the showmanship that goes with performing kata in tournament.  Part textbook, part war dance, part pounding lethal movements into your muscle memory…  Kata is all that and more.  I often find that practicing kata helps me let go of negative emotions – it’s like a moving meditation.

black eye 2015 Joelle White
Bruises are fun!!!

Even though I get hurt sometimes, I am thankful for kumite (sparring).  I used to be terrified of sparring, particularly against anyone more highly ranked than I am.  Now I welcome the chance to be pushed beyond where I think my limits are.  Sure I get trounced quite often, but I wouldn’t learn anything if I were constantly top dog.  I’m learning to conquer myself, really.  If I undermine myself during sparring with negative thinking I stiffen up, miss opportunities to score, and I might even find myself hyperventilating.  I perform better and reduce my chance of injury if I calmly assess my opponent and wait for or create opportunities to score.  I’m thankful that I’m starting to take baby steps in understanding that a good chunk of kumite is about conquering oneself.  I’m also thankful that I can pass along that knowledge by sparring with my kohai – even if it means putting my hands behind my back to let the most timid person in class gain confidence to go ahead and hit.

In a nutshell, I’m thankful for all the ways I’ve grown in mind, body, and spirit and for those who have been with me on this journey.  Have a great Thanksgiving!

Sticky Hands

Today’s blog post is gonna be short and sweet.



Earlier this week I had one of those, “Wow, I’m actually doing this!” moments that I love so much.  We were doing an exceedingly simple sensitivity drill.  Partners had to keep their hands/wrists in constant contact with each other as one blocked and the other punched.  At one point in order to demonstrate how far that particular drill could be expanded Sensei called me up to help demonstrate.  He told me to close my eyes.  I did the drill easily.  With my eyes still closed, Sensei took the lead and moved unpredictably, trying to lightly strike me.  I kept my wrist and hand in contact with his in order to foil his attempts at striking.

So yeah, it’s cool that I can do this “sticky hands” stuff with my eyes closed. But as I trotted back to my place in line after, I realized this sensitivity training could be useful if I’m ever blinded by dirt thrown in my eyes, blood running from a scalp wound, or just plain lack of light.  I’ve done this sort of sensitivity training before – with two hands and indeed the entire body.  But never with my eyes closed, and I never realized the practical application.  It was a neat little “light bulb” moment for me.

Sorry for the brevity.  I’ve been wrestling with MailChimp for months, and this week I neglected blogging in favor of figuring things out on MailChimp.   Hopefully those of you on my subscriber list will have already received email notification of this post.  If not, I guess it’s back to the drawing board for me!


Sometimes change is like broccoli - it's good for us but not exactly easy to like.
Sometimes change is like broccoli – it’s good for us but not exactly easy to like.

I’ve put off writing this blog post.  Indeed, I didn’t even write last week because I knew what I wanted to say but not how to say it. But now I feel the time is right.  And yes, I’m writing this at the “last minute” before my usual automated posting day/time.

Back in February (2016) College Dojo was already down to one Sensei (instructor) and an assistant brown belt.  Then the assistant moved away, leaving me as senior student.  College Dojo is really a class that students take for credit.  Most people take one quarter and we never see them again.  A few take two quarters, and it’s a “one room schoolhouse” situation, just like any other dojo.  Three or four students might stay on beyond the two quarters not for credit, but just for fun.  I originally joined in order to shore up my basics and stayed on just because I enjoyed the class (and to keep my basics polished).  As the highest-ranked student I inherited a boatload of responsibilities.

This was a very good change and I welcomed it.  I’ve grown used to my new role at College Dojo and I look forward to being involved there for the rest of my Karate career if possible.  This is my favorite age group to work with.  I’ve grown as a teacher and a karateka.

September brought more changes.

Maybe someday I’ll write about what’s been going down at the dojo I call home.  I’ve been too full of anger and grief and the story hasn’t fully played out yet.  In a nutshell, I am very sorry that my “home” dojo Sensei cannot be Sensei there anymore.  Understandably, we’ve also lost the occasional assistance of his lovely wife who is also a black belt.  It’s a good thing College Dojo Sensei stepped in.  I am immensely grateful.  But this change means that I get to be a student in my “home” dojo only every third class until the new white belts are integrated.  Add that to my teaching at College Dojo and yeah, making sure I grow in my own skills is challenging.

In my last blog post I wrote…

“I have to do a lot of work on my own and seek out opportunities to learn at a higher level with higher ranked people.  This is what black belts quite often need to do for themselves so this would have come sooner or later in my career.  It just happened to come sooner than usual.  I am blessed to have a good deal of support from many incredible people.  But even though I’m embracing this new phase, this time of transition is quite challenging.”

I wish that I could reassure myself with the thought that I will see the fruit of my teaching, but College Dojo students move on every quarter and the future of my “home” dojo is uncertain.  The host facility of Home Dojo has never been entirely understanding of what we need (you can read between the lines in this article).  Things have been even more difficult since I wrote that article and eventually everything came to a head a couple of months ago.  There’s been more stuff heaped on us since then.  Not only that, the host facility might shut down our dojo soon.

Because College Sensei stepped in to teach at Home Dojo, College Sensei is now my Sensei.  I am happy with this.  But if worst comes to worst and “Home” Dojo ceases to exist, “College Dojo” won’t be enough.  I will need a new “home.”  Fortunately, we’re part of an organization so we have other karateka pulling for us.  We’ve got ideas noodling around and people are looking for solutions.  I know I won’t be an “orphan.”

In the face of these challenges I am still making progress in my training.  Sensei is doing everything he can to train me and I visit other dojos and have their support as well.  But still, it feels like a premature end to childhood and there’s a little bit of stress that goes along with that.  Also I’ve invested a lot into Home Dojo and facing the almost certain possibility that it will be shut down soon is hard.  I have been grieving over the series of unfortunate events (to borrow a phrase) that have brought Home Dojo to this point.  Shortly after I started training I envisioned myself with a black belt happily expanding the program at “home dojo.”  That’s most likely not going to happen.

It’s time for a new dream.  If I can hold on for a couple of months longer I know I’ll find one, or one will find me.  Meanwhile, I just have to work through my grief and come to a place of acceptance.  It sure does help that vigorous exercise and doing something positive with other people generates some lovely endorphins.  It also helps that I love my art and there’s enough in Karate to keep me quite busy for as long as I am physically able to do it.  I’m working towards my next belt, and that alone could keep me going strong through this time of transition.  But still, I need something to replace the dream of expanding Home Dojo’s Karate program.  It’ll come, I’m sure.

What Do You Want for Your Child?

blackbeltpottySo you’re choosing a martial art for your child to get into.  There’s loads of things to consider.  Location, price, and the instructor’s reputation are biggies.  If you’re lucky you might find a good match in all three of these areas.  But there’s something more important that you should examine before you sign you child up.

Ask yourself, “What do you want?”

I understand the starry-eyed vision of your little darling wearing a black belt (I’m going to use “black belt” generically ’cause it’s easy for folks to understand – please note that many arts recognize high achievers differently).  You want your child to achieve and that’s great.  Chances are your child wants that black belt too, and that’s fantastic.  So, which school is more attractive?  School A warns that it will take 8-10 years to maybe be invited to test for Junior Black Belt, then test again at age 16.  School B will get your child to black belt in 6 years.  School C promises 4.  Which do you choose?

You might think you want the fast track for your child.  You might even think that four years is too long, and to a child yes, four years is four-ev-er.  But stop and think.  Do you want the black belt to be given to the child just to make him or her feel good, or do you want that black belt to really mean something?  There are martial arts schools out there that will give you exactly what you want if you think the black belt is the end-all-and-be-all of martial arts.  Are they worth the money?

Let’s get back to School A.  The one that says it typically takes 8-10 years until your child might be invited to test for Junior black belt, then re-test at age 16.  Chances are if you talk a little longer with the higher-ranked folks from School A they will tell you that learning doesn’t stop at black belt.  Black belt is regarded as a new beginning, a sign that one has a good foundation and is ready to embark on a journey of even more and better learning.

If, while talking to folks from the school, you hear a passion for lifelong learning (thank you, Kai Morgan), high expectations, tough requirements, and personal development you’ve found a great school.  If you hear a hesitation to award a black belt to a child after only 4-6 years, stop and listen to the reasons.  Chances are the school expects a lot from their black belts.  Children can achieve quite a lot physically, and often that is recognized with a junior black belt.  But even just the physical abilities cannot be achieved without a lot of time, effort, practice, and a willingness to focus, learn, and commit to the art for a number of years.

I know by the time I might be invited to test for black I will have physical skills, yes, but I will also have been trained in how to teach and maybe even in dealing with a host facility.  Hopefully I’ll have some idea of how to handle “That guy,” (borrowing from fellow blogger Jackie Bradbury).  Examples of “that guy” would be someone with bad hygine, or maybe a know-it-all.  Children can’t handle these responsibilities.

Every single belt I’ve earned has meant a lot to me.  All my future belts will mean even more because I will have put in a lot more time and sweat into earning them.  The tests I will take from here on out will be a lot harder than my previous tests.  I will have gained a lot of physical skills in my art that one cannot gain without considerable effort and time.  Have I mentioned other things I hope to gain along with my black belt?  Ohhhh, yes I have.  Here, here, here, and here.  Chances are if you read any given post on my blog, you’ll see where I’m headed.  This is what I want for myself.  Do you want the same for your child?

You might want to look beyond the belt and how fast your child can get it.  Some, not all, but some schools count on your fixation on the color of your child’s belt.  In fact, some go so far as to charge outrageously high testing fees because they know parents will do almost anything to get bragging rights.  Don’t be fooled.  There’s a lot to be said for enjoying the journey and appreciating where one is at the moment.  Certainly children can be guided into this if their parents aren’t fixated on the color of the belt and how fast it can be obtained.  They will most likely perform better and stick with the art longer.

My Karate “childhood” is drawing to a close.  Due to unforeseen circumstances I have been taking on responsibilities that are usually given to students who are a little more highly ranked than I am.  In addition (again due to unforeseen circumstances) I have to do a lot of work on my own and seek out opportunities to learn at a higher level with higher ranked people.  This is what black belts quite often need to do for themselves so this would have come sooner or later in my career.  It just happened to come sooner than usual.  I am blessed to have a good deal of support from many incredible people.  But even though I’m embracing this new phase, this time of transition is quite challenging.  Parents, please let your child have his or her martial arts “childhood” because that time is precious and vital.

I hope you understand that a black belt should be more than just a piece of cloth and a pat on the back.  If you’re still not convinced, go ahead and get your child that black belt in four years.  There’s room for just having fun, and heck, it’s a free country so anyone can wear any color belt they want especially if they pay money for it.  Just don’t expect that the color of the belt will mean the same thing in every single martial arts school.

Wanna read more about choosing a school and being a martial arts parent?  My online acquaintance, Jackie Bradbury has you covered.  Check out her blog post “A Parent’s Guide to Martial Arts.”