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.

Making a Difference

Last week a few of my fellow karateka (people who study karate) and I helped out with a womens’ self-defense seminar taught by one of or organization’s sensei (instructor). With seven assistants among twenty four women, not everyone got to have a karateka as a partner. I very deliberately chose someone in particular to work with. “Judy” (not her real name) was my senior in age, not old enough to be particularly fragile, but I wanted to be sure that she was paired with someone who would be able to instantly modify the material if need be. I was very confident that I could do that, and that it would be a great experience for me. I was right.

I’m familiar with the era Judy grew up in. She would have come of age sometime in between my parents and me. Sometimes I hear the echoes of society’s messages from that era (for further reading, click here and here). It was pretty obvious that Judy hears those echoes too. I admired her willingness to explore what she is capable of. Yes, Judy can indeed execute those wicked awesome moves we taught her. But more importantly, Judy learned she is capable of being strong mentally.

Judy admitted to me that she was crossing into unfamiliar territory. She told me that she hadn’t really thought about or learned much about the power of being assertive in a potentially dangerous situation. Of course I was gratified when Judy said I was a good role model for her and that she admired my inner strength. But truth be told, I was in awe of Judy. She was growing and learning. Judy became more and more comfortable with the physical exercises and started to see possibilities for adding more to the material. I do so love it when a student starts thinking on that level! That manifestation of engagement indicated a significant mental shift for Judy. Right before my eyes, she became empowered. Judy owned what we were teaching.

Judy said I was a good role model, but really, she is an excellent role model herself. It takes grit and determination to step beyond what women were told in the era Judy and I grew up in. More so for Judy because she spent a longer time than me in that era. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone takes guts, and it’s obvious Judy is brave. Most of all, Judy wanted to learn. A strong desire to learn helps a student overcome many obstacles, and Judy overcame a lot that day. I admire her for that, and I am honored to have been a part of that process for her.

Making a difference and helping students to be better than they were before they walked in the door should be my focus every single class that I help teach or actually teach. I admit, some days I’m grumpy, I’m unfocused, I’m not in that zone. Maybe on those “off” days I should ground myself by remembering Judy. Hmm – it looks like Judy is making a difference to me and, by extension, the karate students I help! What goes around comes around.

Looking Back at Looking Forward

As 2018 draws to a close, I, like many Americans, reflect back on the past year and set goals for the next. Some martial arts bloggers post an end-of-the-year recap. I prefer to do my annual review not at the end of the calendar year, but sometime around my “Karateversary.” My collection of end-of-the-year posts are a potpourri. I’ve written accounts of holiday banquets, some autobiography, and, of course, more generalized martial arts lessons. While looking at what I’ve written at the ends of previous years, I found a series of posts I wrote at the beginning of 2016.

Sometime around the end of 2015 a couple of my online acquaintances were mulling over what it means to be a black belt. I contributed one sentence to the discussion and was challenged to look deeper and figure out what black belt is going to mean to me personally. I sat down at the computer and typed and typed and typed. I called my series of blog posts “More Betterer,” Parts I, II, III, and IV. I had no idea that three years later, I’d be on my last kyu rank and, accordingly, training for Shodan (first degree black belt).

A few things I wrote about have already come to pass. I’ll hit the highlights.  From Part II: I have done a good bit of substitute teaching over the last three years, not just assistant teaching but leading classes start to finish. From Part III: I am better at dealing with imposter syndrome. From Part IV: I’ve made great progress on the physical goals I set out for myself three years ago (but I still can’t do 30 push ups).  That’s progress!

I thought it would take more time to reach where I am now. That said, for all I know, maybe I will have more time before I’m expected to test for the next level. At this point in my training the only control I have over whether or not I test for Shodan is if I goof off. If I goof off I most definitely won’t be invited to test. You see, black belt testing is held once per year in October. Sometime in late January or early February, our organization’s yudansha (black belts) decide who gets invited to test for Shodan and above. I-kyu(s) like me are expected to train hard whether or not they were told to test. I could have nearly two years (or longer) to prepare or, perhaps, only ten months.

The course I laid out for myself in my early 2016 blog posts is daunting. However, much to my surprise, I’m mostly where I wanted to be.  Do I hope for a beautiful new black belt in 2019? Of course I do, right? Well… Honestly I go back and forth on that one. Most non-karate people focus on the status and sheer bad-assery of having a black belt. I look at the responsibilities, the change in test format, and at the physical requirements…  Yeah, sometimes I  find myself daunted. And yes, that’s an indication of imposter syndrome. I have to remind myself it’s not about the belt, it’s about the journey.  Not because I’m arrogant enough to think I’m entitled to a nice new belt, but because I’m a little bit scared of failure.

These words I wrote three years ago are still true for me today, as I contemplate what 2019 might bring:

The exact number of years [that I will take to reach Shodan] is not important – what’s more important is Bruce Lee’s maxim about being a little bit better today than I was yesterday.
And being a little bit better today than I was yesterday is something that must not stop at Shodan. In other words, I should always strive to be more betterer.

In 2019 I hope I will rise up to the challenges and learn from the mistakes. I hope I will grow mentally and become even more physically fit. I hope I will continue to look for opportunities to expand my knowledge and improve myself. I hope to help others do the same. And that, dear reader, will happen regardless of the color of the belt I will have a year from now.