What if?

Ceinture_De_Karate_Ou_Judo_clip_art_greenWhat if our belts changed color according to how well we’re performing at the moment?

I am not qualified to judge my best techniques, but I will judge a role I play and say with confidence that when I’m teaching a group at College Dojo, my belt would be brown (higher ranked than I am now).  Circumstances have landed me in the role of senior student and assistant teacher a little early in my Karate career.

When I’m not at my best, definitely the belt would be blue (a low rank in our system).  And yeah, there are times when my belt would be white (students buy white belts when they buy their uniforms – white belts aren’t earned by passing a test).

How long would my belt actually stay green (my current rank as of this writing)?  Hopefully it would be most of the time.  My Sensei would not have told me to test if he didn’t think I couldn’t live up to the color and work towards my next belt rank.  That said, public and home school teachers and my own home school experiences have taught me that most students excel in some areas, are average in some areas, and struggle with the rest.  If my belt color could reflect my performance in the moment, it would definitely change color sometimes.

In those moments where I know I nailed something, I am elated.  There might be a flash of black when that happens.  But what about when I am not understanding something?  How would I feel if the belt color shimmered purple, then blue, orange, and finally stayed white while I struggled with a detail of a basic movement?  What would I say or do?

Last Saturday, I was totally “there,” feeling like a white belt.  Punching an opponent – how hard can that be?  Sensei was teaching a new way of moving (well, new to me anyway) and I just wasn’t “getting it.”  I must confess that my training partner and Sensei were more patient with me than I was with myself.  I had to let myself be carried by their encouragement.

I think the most helpful thing said to me was, “It’s OK.  We’re here to learn.  Take your time and go slowly.”

I wasn’t making much progress so I was next paired off with a twelve year old blue belt boy.  This actually was very beneficial for both him and I, so my belt color would’ve probably changed to blue.  Better.

Eventually the class moved on to other things.  Maybe my belt color would’ve changed a few times, but I think it would’ve stayed mostly green.  I will say this, though.  The moment I decided to write down what I’d struggled with and practice it at home my belt would most definitely have either been green or a higher color.

SuccessTaking this a step further, what if there were some sort of tiny computer with an LCD screen on the belt that would display a chart of overall growth?  I don’t think there’s a computer capable of doing that.  As Jackie Bradbury explains, martial arts growth is not linear.  One could chart the color changes of the make-believe belt, but that wouldn’t mean anything.  I might perform like a white belt because of an injury.  Or maybe I’ve learned far more from a prolonged period of blue than from a flash of black.  A computer couldn’t chart that.  I’m finding out that a journey from white to black is far more organic, far more human than that.

Lifting Up the Junior

We were drilling defense against haymakers. Rather than have him block bone-on-bone, I turned my forearm at the last second so that he’d be blocking bone-on-meat.

The other day I looked at the bruises on my forearms from a low-ranked person repeatedly blocking me in a drill and as I did so I looked a little deeper.  I remembered a few weeks ago a black belt allowed me to work him into an incredibly vulnerable position – I slowly mimed the fatal blow I could’ve dealt.  When one is Sempai or Sensei, one often makes oneself vulnerable to a lower-ranked student.  We take risks so that others can learn.  In a way, we give up our bodies.

Yes, we threw haymakers both left-handed and right-handed.  I really wonder what the junior student’s forearms look like along the bone…

A few months ago, a black belt told me about one of my many responsibilities that I will have for the rest of my Karate career.  If I get hurt, I’m in trouble.  If my lower-ranked partner gets hurt, I’m in trouble.  The responsibility for our safety lies more on me as the senior.  In essence, the junior’s safety is more important than the senior’s safety.  We are diminished so that they are protected.

Those of us who are senior in rank even sort of give up our names because most often in the dojo we are called only by our titles, “Sempai,” or “Sensei.”  Thus the students become more important than ourselves.  Yes, the title is held in high regard.  Nonetheless, giving up one’s own name and calling one’s students by their names is humbling (in a good way of course).

I believe this mix of honor and humility is balanced.  Yes, I can assign pushups, I can do a bit of leading and teaching, I have a title and the authority that comes with that title, and  I am a role model.  But at the same time, I am expected to risk my body so that others may learn.  Sometimes it takes awhile for new students to learn my name because it isn’t spoken often in class.  I am both honored by the juniors and humbled from lifting them up in turn.  I find it interesting that this realization came not from peaceful meditation but from a somewhat painful classroom experience.

Student Teacher

graduation-hat-cap-mdCollege Dojo Sensei gave me an assignment and a test today.  I had the white belts all class.  Both College Dojo Sensei and I in the last month or so have taught them their first kata.  Today I was to teach them the other three katas they need for their first belt test.  This isn’t hard, as the patterns are the same – just insert a different block.  I don’t think I’ve ever taught this particular lesson before.  At the end of the class, College Dojo Sensei had the colored belts sit down.  Suddenly I realized this was not only a pop quiz for the white belts, it was also a test of my ability to teach.

“Make me proud,” I whispered very, very softly.

They did.  Sure enough three students weren’t exactly stellar in their performance.  But they tried, and really, what more can I ask?  I think I passed my test too.

After class, I received marching orders from College Dojo Sensei to concentrate on those students who want to test for their first belt.  He’d noticed that towards the end of class I had split the white belts into two groups – those who wanted to practice on their own and those who wanted to work at a slow pace with loads of input from me.  College Dojo Sensei told me he wants them to sink or swim after today.  We only have five classes left this quarter, so really, only four more lessons and then the test.

Four more lessons.  Three students stumble all over themselves when turning in kihon kata.  But I’ve got my orders and I need to get used to the fact that I am not allowed to hold their hands anymore unless they ask me for help before or after class.  I need to be content with those who are not struggling.  It’s time for me to realize time is running out.

I still have some teaching habits left over from my background.  When I was a teenager, the dojo where I studied had three 90 minute classes weekdays and one or two Saturday classes.  This allowed plenty of time for any given student’s development.  I taught “first lesson is free” people and the newbies who weren’t quite ready to integrate into normal classes.  Later in life I home schooled my children for several years.  I allowed them to develop on their own timetable – this was vital as one is gifted and the other is special needs.  In a nutshell, I’m still learning about teaching groups on a schedule.

Both Home Dojo Sensei and College Dojo Sensei have had to remind me that newbies are on a timetable.  They have to be moved along, and whatever they’ve got is whatever they’ve got.  Every two months at Home Dojo a new batch of newbies comes in.  College Dojo’s schedule lines up with the college’s quarter system because it is, after all, a class that students take for credit.  Oh, and have I mentioned the students in both dojos get only one hour twice per week?  There comes a point where I have to let go of the newbies who aren’t quite up to speed yet.

On one level, I understand.  Three people shouldn’t drag down the other nine.  Room must be made for new newbies.  Time is limited.  But on another level, it rubs me the wrong way.  I don’t like watching people struggle when I know that just a tiny bit more time and attention will make a huge difference.  I don’t like giving up on people.  I can’t wave a magic wand and conjure up four black belts to help out with class, or summon a Púca to create more time for our workouts.  I guess I just have to carry on and be proud of the work I’ve already invested in each person I’ve taught.

Lowest Ranked

BeltRankEnd of the line in the back row.  The person who knows the least about Karate.  The one who had to sweep the dojo floor before class.  The person most likely to not understand something or to mess something up or slow everyone down.  Many people probably think being the lowest ranked in Karate class is the pits.  Nope.  I always love it when I am the lowest ranked in class.

Don’t get me wrong.  Being Sempai to College Dojo is great.  I’m gaining skill in leading and teaching.  The youngsters look to me for help when Sensei is busy with someone else before or after class.  I play a significant role in the opening and closing ceremonies.  Everyone lines up based on where I’m standing.  Who wouldn’t love this?

Here’s the thing – I need to develop my own Karate.  Sure I can do this even when I’m doing kihon along with the newbies, but often I need to be a newbie myself.  I need to learn new techniques and deepen my understanding of movements I’ve already learned.  This is easier when the class is geared towards the higher ranks.

If I get a bit lost or don’t catch on to something as quickly as the others, It’s OK because I am, after all, the lowest ranked in class.  And you know what?  I’ve noticed that even when I’m the lowest ranked in class, I’m not the only one who occasionally messes something up or doesn’t quite understand something.

So instead of moping or feeling self-conscious about being on the low end of the totem pole, I bubble up with joy.  I strive to perform as well as and even out-perform my higher-ranked classmates, but I don’t feel pressure to be better than anyone else.  I relax more and I feel free to be exactly who and what I am.  I enjoy the challenge of keeping up with the rest of the class.



I cannot stay silent.  This desperate plea tugged at my heart strings…

Todd Woodland is, as Jackie Bradbury says, the world’s best uke. And he’s still pretty low ranked.  Heck, even I’ve passed Todd in rank.  That’s just not fair to Todd, who obviously has been training longer than I have.

The guy gave up his left eye just so Master Ken could demonstrate a few techniques to the world.  His groin has been stomped and re-stomped up to 100 times,  which means Todd has given up any chance of having any children ever.  What more do you want, Master Ken?

I hope you’re reading this, Master Ken, because it’s obvious even to a 5th kyu beginner like me that it’s high time Todd was promoted to Pink Belt.

I hear all the rest of you out there sniggering about the color.  Stop it.  What’s wrong with Pink?!?  It “soothes lady pains,” and believe me, that alone is awesome. Pink is such a powerful color that even Jesse Enkamp, well-known blogger and Karate entrepreneur, has given people pink belts to wear at his prestigious Karate Nerd Experience seminars. I think the honor of wearing a pink belt is long overdue for Todd.

So here’s what I want all you martial artists out there in the world to do.  Spread the word.  #PROMOTETODD

Please do the right thing, Master Ken!!!