Kung Fu Drilling

Your earworm for the day. You’re welcome.

Because the rate of hospital admission due to COVID-19 is just as high in my county as it was in Fall of 2021, this immunocompromised karateka (IgG2 deficiency) is very grateful for online seminars. Now that we know monkey pox can be spread on surfaces and by skin-to-skin contact, I’m facing a double whammy. I don’t relish the possibilities of bacterial pneumonia on top of COVID-19 and/or MRSA on top of monkey pox. Accordingly, I very much appreciate online seminars. They’re not quite as good as in-person seminars, but it’s really nice to have this option, especially when your travel budget is limited and/or you just can’t be crammed in a small metal tube with 300 some-odd people for hours on end.

Twice now I’ve taken online seminars led by an acquaintance of mine, Ando Mierzwa. The first was a seminar on forms, and it was the last of a marathon of karate seminars benefitting Ukraine. A few days ago Ando offered another seminar. I guess I didn’t pay much attention to the advertisement beyond the words “Kung Fu.” For some reason I got it stuck in my head that this would be a beginner’s class. I was anticipating being a “white belt” (new beginner) for a little while, just like some of the other times I’ve cross trained.

After the seminar started it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I wasn’t going to feel like a white belt. Rather, I felt every inch of my black belt. Ando taught a Kung Fu drill that translated beautifully to karate. I learned only one new technique, and I’ll bet if I look hard enough I’ll find some karate kata (form) somewhere that has it – so I can’t really say it’s an exclusively Kung Fu technique. The main point though, was not to learn cool Kung Fu moves. Ando was getting us to think about our body dynamics. He also taught us how to teach the drill – building up from bits and pieces (and a couple of variations) and finishing with the full drill.

From time to time during the seminar I could hear the late Remy Presas, founder of Modern Arnis (a Filipino martial art) whispering, “It’s all de same…” As another acquaintance, Jackie Bradbury explains,

“The meaning of this is that what we do and learn in my style isn’t actually terribly unique in the martial arts world.  Much of what we do can be seen in other seemingly unrelated styles like taekwondo, karate, and kung fu.”

Jackie Bradbury, The Stick Chick Blog

I knew I was learning some new material that I could teach at my own dojo. A few days later, I did exactly that. The only thing I changed was horse stance ( kiba dachi to us karateka). I changed that to shiko dachi because it was easier for our lower-ranked student. The only difference is the position of the feet. I also didn’t add the “new” technique because we didn’t have time to explore the variations.

That day in the dojo there was only me, a fellow Shodan (senior to me by a couple of years), and a low-ranked gentleman. I had to slow down the drill and keep it slow because although the lower-ranked student caught on to the movements quickly, he needed to work on staying the same height throughout. Of course this forced me to think about what exactly my fellow Shodan and I were doing. Then I had to explain and demonstrate to the lower-ranked student. This was a prime example of the teacher learning something too. The next time I teach Ando’s “Kung Fu” drill I’m sure I’ll learn more.

What would have happened if I’d been the same rank as the student I taught? I believe I would have learned the drill with very little difficulty. After all, Ando did choose to teach something that translated well. The seminar was not really about the drill itself. The drill is simply a tool that points the way to a bigger concept. I’m sure I’d have grasped the overall concept when I was lower rank. But I do know I’d have felt a bit awkward, and not nearly as sure of myself. I’d have devoted more mental resources to “doing” and fewer resources to analyzing. I would have memorized the drill well enough to explain it and demonstrate it in class, but I would not have been able to teach someone else how to move properly.

What a difference a few years of training makes! So yeah, I not only learned a drill from another martial art and I taught that drill, but I also learned something about myself. I noticed I am getting more confident about tackling new material. A few days later I gained experience in teaching something that hasn’t been taught in my dojo before. Passing on knowledge is what it’s all about, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure Ando agrees.

P. S. because I spent most of an hour transitioning in and out of Horse Stance, my legs were a little bit sore the next morning. This meme came to mind…

Blind Spots

We all have ’em

Last night, two of my fellow Shodan(s) – first degree black belts – came to the dojo. Unfortunately my dojo sensei (head instructor of a school) missed them. Of the three of us, I am the lowest in seniority but my dojo sensei left me in charge so I didn’t quite know about the etiquette of the situation. We all managed just fine.

There were more sensei(s) than students. We traded off teaching duties. I multi-tasked like crazy. I worked one on one with a student while listening to my peers give feedback to the other student. If I overheard feedback on something that the other student was doing I looked for it in whoever I was working with. And for awhile I put myself out there.

We dismiss our new beginner after an hour and then for the final half hour of class we focus on a student who’s been with us awhile. At that point last night it was three yudansha (“black belts”) to one student. I became a student for awhile. I had already told my fellow Shodan(s) that I needed them to look for any blind spots that I might have. After that first hour my peers had a side by side comparison – a student who I’ve taught for the last three weeks and myself. There are things I need to work on for myself, things the students need to work on that I have been blind to, and yes, things that both the students and I need to work on.

I’ve drifted away from our style’s standard in a couple of techniques. I was blind to a few things that the students need to improve in. Those two students are happy and doing well for their respective ranks, so obviously I’m not a complete failure. It’s just that having another pair of eyes (or two other pairs of eyes) helps tremendously. Ideally we’d have the dojo sensei there, but for a season that’s going to be intermittent. But in the meantime, I know who I can count on to point out what I’m missing. Yes, my peers who came last night, but even more than that – all of us yudansha know we can count on those who are higher ranked than we are.

If our organization’s chief instructor for our state had visited my dojo last night he’d have seen everything my peers did and more. This is not a bad thing. Feedback means everyone will improve. An outside pair of eyes brings a different perspective, and it’s even better when those eyes have seen decades’ worth of students come and go. Not to mention those who are more senior to me, including my dojo sensei, are quite familiar with everything that goes along with being a newly-fledged sensei. Is it any surprise that some of our yudansha are managers in their professional lives? They have the “soft skills” in spades, and believe me when I need to pick their brains about that I do.

It would be the height of arrogance for me to think that now that I have that pretty belt tied around my waist I know everything and can start my own dojo (school). I have my foundation, yes, but until I build more on that foundation I’m not equipped to take someone to Shodan. I’m still wet behind the ears.

A couple of days ago I watched two videos of myself presenting the same kata. The earlier video was taken at my test for 2nd kyu (2 ranks below 1st black). The other was taken at my Shodan test a few months ago. I had to pause the earlier video two or three times because I was rushing the kata back then. On the flip side I saw a couple of things in the later video that I need to work on in the weeks to come. My overall impression was that I didn’t really understand that kata all that well back then. I suspect that if, five years from now, I take another video of myself doing the same kata I’ll see just as big a gap, if not bigger.

Even videoing myself has its limits. I know some things to watch out for, I know some of my habits. But I’m lacking experience and I will need help along the way. There is absolutely no substitute for someone who has years more training on me being right there in real life, 3 dimensions, telling me exactly what it is I need to do to improve, learn, and grow.

We all have blind spots as teachers and students. Those blind spots exist to allow others to share their experiences. We need people who see things through a different lens, especially mentors. I need that input to keep going on this journey. Shodan to me means my bags are packed and I’ve taken the first step on the path outside my door. I don’t want to be stuck there, never seeing what’s down the road, never picking up souvenirs, and never being able to help a fellow traveler because I haven’t the foggiest idea of what lies beyond what little I can see from my doorstep.

What You Missed

You see me greet your child with a smile before class. You see me wave and smile at you when you pick up your child after class. Here’s what you don’t see…

Soon after you left a family came into the dojo. You didn’t see their smiles or hear the happiness in their voices.

You didn’t see me take something I learned in a seminar and adapt it for whoever happened to be in class that day.

I don’t really blame you for not seeing me wince when I demonstrated a technique. I did my best to hide discomfort from an injury I sustained during the rare times when I get to be a student.

You missed me advising an older adult student on how to adjust their stance to work around a stiff foot that was injured a long time ago.

You didn’t see me teach a class that included different ages and ranks, juggling their needs and making sure that everyone learned something valuable.

You didn’t see the look of pride on my face when your child demonstrated that they had memorized their new kata.

You didn’t watch your child fearlessly spar with someone older, bigger, and more advanced in rank. In fact your child deliberately chose that student.

You didn’t see your child’s reaction to the news that they are going to be testing for their next belt.

While you were busy taking pictures after your child’s belt test you missed the quiet conference held among the “black belts” in a corner of the room. We received feedback about our students. In the months to come we will be adjusting our teaching.

I gave your child a flyer about a special event and I emailed you. You and your child missed the event. In fact you’ve missed all the special events we’ve had since your child started – including potlucks, seminars, tournaments, and, sadly, your child’s friends’ belt tests.

You see my black belt with the cool embroidery but you have no concept of what it means to earn it – or what it took to earn it. And you don’t know this, but I am still striving to learn and grow in my art.

You have no idea that I started karate when I was older and more heavyset than you.

You’re still sleeping when I get up to practice.

You haven’t seen all the tears that flow whenever there’s bad news about a member of my karate family.

And you have no idea that us “black belts” would much rather help you learn karate alongside your children than see you zip off to who knows where. We do know this is the norm for most students in our dojo but that doesn’t mean we don’t wish it were different.

Parents… Adults in general… I am far more than a rather expensive babysitter. Please don’t take me for granted.

Disclaimer: This comes from several years of observation and is not tied to my recent change of status and subsequent responsibilities. If you recognize yourself in this either as a parent or a sensei it’s because everything I’ve written about is all too common.

Spring – New Growth, New Beginning

The transitional seasons of Autumn and Spring are my favorite seasons. I’ve already mentioned how in October 2021 the changing leaves of Autumn reminded me of the transition I was about to undergo: namely, my test for Shodan (first degree black belt). In that same blog post (written a couple of months later) I related that I was enjoying “winter mode,” a time of active rest. These days the frenzy of Spring blooms parallels the growth I am discovering in my karate.

Trees change themselves in very deep ways before, during, and after winter. I’ve spent the last few months in process too. I’ve been working on my upper body by using weights and I’m continuing to condition the rest of myself. Of course I’ve tweaked my practice/workout times as I’ve done many times before. I wasn’t too happy with a few things I did during my test so I’m fixing them. In addition I am learning two new kata (forms). But something deeper has changed. I feel more comfortable in seminars (still online for me). Learning new kata is getting easier although directional dyslexia still makes that process interesting. I’m starting to actively develop my kumite (sparring) during my practice time instead of just throwing myself into a “fight” and hoping for the best. From one of my new kata I’m learning about movements that, yes, serve a purpose, but they are also transitions to something else. I’m hoping that will help my sparring. The explosion of flowers on the trees has made me more keenly aware aware of the beginning of this new phase of my karate journey.

Many people both in and outside of the martial arts world think that if one has earned a black belt one is a master and “knows karate.” In other words, learning stops when you tie on that pretty new belt. Balderdash. Shodan, or first degree black belt, literally means “first level.” A friend once told me his sensei said “black belt” means your bags are packed with everything you need for your own journey. Both before and after my test I’ve been told pretty much the same thing by my own sensei, with the addition that I’m now responsible for the pace and direction of my further development as a karateka (one who studies karate). Many of the yudansha (“black belts”) in our organization have made it clear that if I need help with something or want to know more about something all I have to do is ask.

Being able to ask for and receive help is vital. Yes, I am now called “sensei” (teacher) and that means I have all the responsibilities that go along with that. Let me make this clear – “teacher” implies a relationship. I don’t think of “sensei” as a title so much as an expression of my duty. I am responsible for teaching what I know and for the development of any students who are under my care. That could be for a few minutes of a class, an entire hour, or for all the classes during the course of a few weeks.

Due to various reasons the dojo I belong to has only four karateka and now isn’t the ideal time for us to seek expansion. Starting in mid May my sensei will need me to shoulder a good bit of teaching until sometime this coming Fall. I think the world of my two kohai (lower ranked students) and am honored that for a season I will have a significant impact on their development. I hope to see them each advance a rank or two in the coming months. Since we began to meet sometime in mid-July I’ve gotten to know these two students quite well and I’m looking forward to guiding them in their journeys. And who knows – maybe we’ll have a brand new beginner or two just to give me an additional challenge. Bring it. I know I can yell for help if I need advice, an additional instructor, a substitute instructor, or even a guest instructor.

Every once in awhile over the past few months it’s just been me and my sensei in class. I have come to treasure those times. Since early 2020 the focus was push, push, push for my Shodan test and I had an extra year of that. Now I’m seeing the “flowers” of all that effort. There are some really fun things that my sensei can teach me now that I’m at this stage of development. I’m not talking about secret magic woo-woo stuff that only “black belts” get to learn. It’s just that some things are easier for more advanced belts to learn and that’s where I’m at now. Of course there are things I don’t do perfectly and I have some areas that need work. But the ideas and the questions and the exploration of concepts are all coming more easily to me now. And I see that my sensei is enjoying teaching this brand new Shodan.

I hope some day to be in my sensei’s position. I hope some day I’ll see one of my students earn Shodan and beyond. My future students will be the fruit of the early springtime flowers that I’m seeing in myself now.

In Spite of X / Because of X

A few weeks ago I visited “X” in order to reflect on everything that had happened since the last time I had seen X. OK, ok, I didn’t do all that much reflecting. I grumbled and grouched. I even yelled, “I succeeded in spite of everything ‘X’ threw at me!”

Eventually I grew quiet but my heart was still burning with hurt and anger. I went away from X.

Your own “X” could be anything – material or immaterial. X could be an event or a series of events. X could be a person or people who stood in your way. X could be a broken down building with a splintery floor and no air conditioning. X could be an injury or other debilitating condition. X could be a combination of all of the above. X might not even exist anymore except in memory.

Before I go further, I acknowledge that if your “X” is a person or group of people your trauma might run so deep that you might consider this blog post to be “toxic positivity.” If that is the case I apologize and recommend you stop reading. Seriously – I am not qualified to address deep trauma and this blog post is only about stuff that is, at most, aggravating, frustrating, and maybe even stupid.

After visiting “X” I decided to visit “Y.” Y had played a role in my success and still contributes positively. I was hoping visiting Y would get my mind off X. As I “sat with” Y, I relived some very pleasant memories. Yet X still niggled at me. As I left Y, I realized X had given me an appreciation for something else – “Z,” if you will. Z is a good something else. Z has its flaws, yes, but without the experiences with X, I wouldn’t appreciate Z. I’d blow up Z’s flaws, making mountains out of molehills. Perhaps because X made me realize how good Z is, X indirectly contributed to my success.

A few days later I realized that X is a mirror that I can look into to see myself as I was then and as I am now. Was I perfect when X was part of my journey? No. Did I contribute to the negativity? Yes. Did I do the best I could in the face of X? Yes. I dare say I learned and grew because I appreciate “Z” all the more. It’s not pleasant to think about X, I wish X had never intruded on my journey. But X was there and it’s up to me to learn the lessons X had to teach me.

It’s difficult to be in the middle of an “X” and see any benefit. It’s quite likely the next time I encounter an “X” I will again contribute to whatever negativity is present. I’m only human and nobody likes it when their buttons are pushed. I seriously doubt I’ll see any benefit to the new X until maybe years after it’s done slapping me around. Or – maybe I’ll respond better. Who knows?

What I do know is that my success means more because I went through what X threw at me. The adage, “A black belt is a white belt who refused to give up” implies that the way isn’t easy, it will have obstacles, and one will want to give up. I don’t think that I ever wanted to give up because of X. But that’s me – maybe others would have at least been tempted to give up if they had faced my particular X.

I also know I do not wish to be an “X” to someone else’s karate journey. But I probably will. I might hit too hard while sparring. As a fledgling sensei I am afraid of mishandling situations, frustrating students, and setting the bar too high for someone’s rank. I’m pretty sure I’ll botch a few calls when I get to referee at tournaments, and I know I’ve missed points as a judge. I struggle to keep my ego in check, to not show off. I have been and will be an arrogant jerk and/or just plain stupid on occasion. “Grouchy” is often my middle name. There are so very many ways I could be a hindrance to someone else.

It’s a little reassuring to know that if I find myself being an “X” to a fellow karateka it’s an opportunity for both of us to learn and grow. I wish everything could be smooth sailing all the time, but I’m human. That doesn’t excuse any wrongdoing on my part, it’s just an acknowledgement that perfection is impossible. Fortunately, karate does teach us self discipline. More than that, we learn how to work through our own shortcomings, both mental and physical. We learn what it means to be our best selves.

Maybe time will soften the emotions whenever “X” enters my thoughts. I don’t think I’ll be visiting “X” again anytime soon – I feel those emotions have been released and have more or less run their course (at least for the time being). I can always remind myself of how much I appreciate “Z” because of “X,” and how appreciation of “Z” has contributed to the success of my journey thus far.

For further reading (I stumbled across these books very soon after visiting “X”):

Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee by daughter Shannon Lee

Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore