Playing Rough

Forty years ago when I was climbing trees instead of playing with baby dolls a middle-aged lady taking up the art of Karate would have been a huge shock.  Yes, I’ve heard Karate training was pretty brutal in the mid 1970’s, but I guarantee you that even today’s more relaxed expectations would have been deemed far too hard for a lady, especially a lady my age.

Most American women my generation and older were brought up with the notion that rough play is taboo for girls and women.  Meanwhile, boys were encouraged in the types of play that taught them early on that experiencing pain doesn’t necessarily mean suffering lasting harm. Admittedly, rough-housing, contact sports, climbing trees, and activities like skateboarding can lead to serious injury but most of the time only bruises and scrapes are acquired.  When I was growing up little girls were discouraged from such activities.  Women did not learn their capacity for pain until they gave birth.  How many women have wilted under a mild blow instead of rallying and fighting back against an attacker?  I shudder to think.

In spite of a ton of support from my parents to go ahead and climb trees and, later, take up Karate as a teenager, that cultural expectation still lurks in the back of my mind.  It whispers to me when I’m sore, tired, or injured – especially when my middle-aged body isn’t healing as rapidly as it did when I was a girl.  When someone else gives that cultural expectation a voice sometimes it’s hard for me to give a civil, polite answer.  I don’t talk much about mild aches and pains, but there’s just no hiding a limp or a black eye.  People are bound to talk.  Someone might even say to me, “You can’t be serious about keeping this up and earning your black belt.”

I am serious.  I have learned that I can survive.  Training is getting harder.  I’ve noticed there’s a bit more of an “edge” lately.  I’m taking more falls and more hits.  Falling isn’t the end of the world.  My instructors, training partners, and tournament opponents are not trying to hurt me, otherwise I’d be dead by now.  Because my training partners and my instructors control their techniques, getting hit more often than not simply stings, and there might be a small bruise later.  I’m learning to put pain in perspective.  I’m learning these lessons as a middle-aged karateka, not as a child playing with other children.  Most guys my generation and older had this advantage while growing up.


One of the best things that ever happened to my Karate is I was kicked in the jaw.  I fell to the mats, stunned.  When I regained the use of my body I got up and into fighting stance again.  My sparring partner was horrified by what she’d done.  But really, she did me a favor.  I learned that I had it in me to get up again.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget how empowered I felt.

That was only a little bitty hurt compared to what could have happened in a real attack.  Unlike a real attacker, my opponent did not go in for the kill.  If I don’t have the capacity to survive one kick that didn’t do any lasting harm (just a few days of soreness), how will I ever find it in me to survive a real attack?

Learning about falling and taking hits in a safe environment has allowed me to explore possibilities for coping with a real fight.  If I’m unexpectedly taken down, I still think, “Oh, ****!” and might reflexively clutch at an arm.  But now that I’m more or less used to this kind of rough play, I’m finding I can play back.  As I’m lying on my back I might see a perfect opportunity for a backfist to the groin, so I’ll execute it (of course aiming for six inches short of actually hitting).  Because I’m getting used to playing rough, I am increasingly ready for exploring more about my art.  This will no doubt help me as I advance through the ranks.

Slowly, the cultural disadvantage I grew up with is being eroded.  I am doing more and experiencing more than many people think a middle-aged lady can do or ought to experience.  I wasn’t a little boy growing up, but I’m finding that I never needed to be a little boy.  Nor do I need my culture’s approval.  All I need is an open mind and a brave heart as I follow the lead of my instructors and training partners.

Out of the Groove

Just hanging out with a few friends
Just hanging out with a few friends

Last weekend I went to Gasshuku – Karate camp.  About sixty of us pitched tents along the perimeter of a big, grassy lawn.  We came from two states and perhaps ten dojos to train barefoot in the grass under the hot summer sun.    There was training Friday night followed by a belt test (no, I wasn’t a candidate but I do have friends who earned their next belts).  Saturday there were four training sessions, each 90 minutes to 2 hours long.  Sunday morning before breakfast found us training one last time together.  We also had a good bit of free time and plentiful food.

Box vector designed by Freepik
Box vector designed by Freepik

I think the biggest lesson I learned is I take it for granted we have our own way of doing things.  Even when something I haven’t encountered before is thrown my way by one of our organization’s instructors I might think it’s new or different but chances are it still fits within the style or art I study.  When a guest instructor from outside our organization, style, or art comes along with a different way of doing things, I learn that really and truly, I’ve been in a groove.  Learning a different style’s way of doing a particular block isn’t all that difficult but, “Time that block to land at the same time your kick hits its target,” is utterly foreign to me.  But yet for that guest instructor’s students back in his home city, that’s probably the “normal” way of doing things.

ClockMore fascinating to me are the reasons why one might want to do things “differently.”  Fortunately, we got to partner up and apply some of what we’d learned.  I love doing this.  The highest-ranked brown belt, an acquaintance of mine, chose to work with me Saturday evening.  In a usual class, one doesn’t always get to talk during the drill or deviate from it.  My brown-belt friend gave me more than just a target or a chance to practice my skills at being a target.  We had a great time discussing what we were doing, why we were doing it, and experimenting with what we were doing.  This kind of fun doesn’t always happen in the groove of a rec-center schedule.  We had the luxury of time, so we were able to go deeper than usual.

This was also a chance for the black belts to see my brown-belt friend outside of his usual context of advanced training with other brown belts or while he’s teaching a beginner’s class.  Every once in awhile when he and I were working together, a black belt stopped by to watch for a minute or two.  I hope these black belts saw that my brown belt friend was doing a wonderful job with me and that he’ll be a heck of a Sensei someday.  I hope that day is soon.  Just my humble opinion, what do I know, I’m only 5th kyu 🙂

Bo. Not “tooth pick.” Bo.

Weapons training is another chance for us empty-handed martial artists to get out of our usual groove.  We did plenty of work with bo (a long staff), which isn’t as different as some weapons because it involves a good many of the push-and-pull movements we’re used to.  But still…  It’s a big stick and one has to learn to manage it.  Saturday I opted to learn the bo basics rather than attempt to learn the bo kata (form).  Unfortunately, Sunday morning only three or four us from the basic bo class were present, and the Sensei who had taught us wanted to do the kata himself.  So we tried our best to keep up with those who had learned the kata on Saturday.  Yep.  Learn a kata – a weapons kata at that – with nobody breaking it down for me.  That was definitely out of my groove.  Or was it?  Maybe not.  Every once in awhile new songs and choreography are added to the Zumba class I go to on Saturday mornings.  And nobody breaks it down for me.

By Monday afternoon I’d already forgotten both the bo kata and the empty-hand kata we were supposed to have learned.  So if I didn’t learn the two katas, was this camp a waste of time, energy, and money?  No.  Was the camp all roses and song?  Well…  I admit my self-discipline was tested.  More often than usual I had to battle the frustration that sometimes crops up when my dyslexic brain decides to act up.  The muggy heat wasn’t fun.  I admit I got discouraged sometimes.  Overall, though, it was a good camp because I know that one learns a lot when one is knocked out of one’s usual groove.  Being out of the groove is groovy.


Picture this

For this post I’m doing things a little differently.  Usually my posts are text-driven and the pictures are mere decoration.  Also, most of the images I use are not my own.  I was looking through my photos and digital art and decided it would be fun to do the opposite.  Use the pictures to drive the text and use all my own images.  So sit back and enjoy!



In any given dojo, chances are you’ll find people who are just starting out, at least one person who is mature in his or her skills, and some who are in between.  We’re all growing and learning.


In our Karate journey, we go through seasons.  Sometimes we are in “winter” – working through illness, injury, or maybe even a tough situation that the whole dojo is facing.  Sometimes we are bursting with new knowledge and growth.  We can learn from every season.

BroccoliWeird broccoli.  Who wants some?  How about burpees – let’s do twenty right now!  Just like broccoli, there are some things in Karate that are hard to get excited about. But they’re good for us, so we do them.

SeaglassSea glass starts out as ordinary broken glass.  But something magical happens after a few years of being tumbled by waves, buffeted by rocks, and scoured with sand.  Rough edges are smoothed away and the glass acquires a beautiful frosted finish.  A gem is formed.  Karateka are refined through training.



There are times when I feel like a salmon swimming against the current.  Perseverance is hard, but it’s worth it.

WhiteChickLogoRI have to admit, sometimes I’m a little chicken during Karate classes, belt tests, and tournaments…

But then I remind myself that Karate is fun.  Deadly, but fun.  Kinda like a rattlesnake wearing Groucho Marx glasses.  OK, maybe I’d better stop the analogies here, LOL!



Of course we have to listen to our instructors when they’re talking to us or to the whole class.  If we don’t, we’re likely to be assigned push-ups or we might not get tapped for promotion.  But what about when Sensei is talking to someone else.  Do we get to tune out?  Sometimes, yes.  If we haven’t been told to stop what we’re doing we need to continue to give our full attention to the task at hand.  But what about if we’re just jogging, stretching, or waiting for the next count or for our turn?  If I have the opportunity to listen to my instructor talk to someone else, I do so.  I learn a lot.

earWho is Sensei talking to?  If he or she is talking to someone more highly ranked than himself or herself, I pay attention – this is most likely how I myself should be treating those above me.  If the instructor is talking to someone lower ranked than me, I try to remember if I’ve had the same thing said to me when I was that rank.  If Sensei is speaking to someone the same rank as me or higher, I try and see if what he or she is saying applies to what I am doing.  I look for trends – do most people that rank need help with that particular thing?  If there is a trend, do those students improve after a bit of advice?  It’s good to start building a knowledge base before one starts teaching.  If it’s OK with the instructor and the other party, I listen in when he or she is talking with parents, facility managers, and others who are not students.  Someday this might be my gig!

CoachArgueHow the instructor is saying something is very much worth noting.  I look at the Sensei’s body language and his or her facial expressions.  I listen to the tone of his or her voice.  If I find myself thinking I would prefer to take a different tone, I make a note of that.  I tell myself I don’t have to be a clone of any instructor.  However, if the Sensei is getting positive results, by all means I remember how he or she is communicating.  Then, if I can, I pressure test it myself as appropriate in training, at work, or with my family.

There might come a time when I will see a Sensei being pressure tested.  This is pure gold.  How does he or she deal with angry parents?  How does he or she handle it when a pissed-off lady marches to the front of the room and glares at everyone (yes, this really has happened)?  What does the instructor do when a child just won’t stop clowning around?  I’ve even seen a Sensei physically attacked, and the response was awesome and didn’t result in any harm to anyone.  Adversity sometimes brings out the worst in a person – if an instructor blows it, how does he or she clean up the aftermath?  Seeing an instructor under pressure is an opportunity for me to learn.

OssuListening is a part of the discipline of a martial art.  In many Karate dojos, students are pretty much restricted to saying one word – “Ossu!”  during class time.  This actually is quite freeing.  I am free to analyze what the instructor is saying, how he or she is saying it, and the results.  If I’m devoting my brain power to talking, I miss out on a golden learning opportunity.  I miss out on learning how to be an instructor.

Want to read an article that complements what I’ve written?  Check out this article by Jesse Enkamp – This “Shut-Up-And-Train” Challenge Will Laser-Focus Your Karate


Mirror, Mirror

I finally had the opportunity to spar with a new adult lady student.  I was looking forward to it because I knew she’d had previous Karate experience.  Her brother has been coming to class for a few months and his previous level of experience shows.  She herself has only been with us for a short time, and I didn’t know her well.  I assumed she had the same abilities as her brother.


I knew instantly I was mistaken.  Looking at her was like looking into a magic mirror that showed how I once was.  Instantly I knew what she was feeling.  It was written all over her face and body.  Her fighting style is different than mine used to be, but oh did I ever relate to what I saw in her as the emotions played across her face and body during the bout.  She acquitted herself very well.

My new friend is definitely “in process.”  Don’t get me wrong – I liked what I saw in her, and really, it was beautiful.  I’m still in process too, as evidenced by Sensei’s request for me to ramp down my intensity even further while working with my new friend.

black eye 2015 Joelle White
Bruises are fun!!!

Later the same class I gleefully bounced over to a new sparring partner, a lady who significantly outranks me.  I love sparring with karateka who are way better at sparring than I am because it pushes me to the top of my game.  Never mind I get my butt kicked, I value the lessons more than my pride.


What did this sparring partner see in me?  Did she see anything of herself reflected back?  I’m betting she knew how hard to push me based on what she saw.  Even still, she once threw something just a shade too hard and apologized (no harm done).  I’m thinking she’s still “in process” too.  Did I get a good look into a magic mirror that showed me something of my future?  I hope so because I liked what I saw.