Gasshuku 2018

My little hatchback car seemed to explode once we arrived at the Yoshida Gardenview Estate for Gasshuku (Karate camp).  Somehow I had jammed the little car full with three people (including myself), two tents, three sleeping bags, two bo (long staffs), assorted other camping and karate stuff, and cleaning supplies for the bathrooms.  One of my senpai (higher ranked student) had hitched a ride with me and  my younger daughter.  As he claimed his favorite tent site, my daughter and I made a little boundary with our bo(s) (long staffs)  to mark our home for the weekend.  Our tents were set up in short order and we threw ourselves into a weekend filled with training, chores, and fellowship.

Our retreat was “home grown” this year, in that our own yudansha (black belts) led the training (as opposed to bringing in a guest instructor).  For us students it was almost like visiting classes at sister dojo (schools) without having to travel to each individual school.   As always, everyone got to be a student at least most of the time.  Each sensei (instructor) has a different teaching style so it’s good for us students to make the little adjustments students need to make when someone other than one’s own teacher is teaching.  Having a variety of sensei(s) teaching meant that we got a lot of different perspectives.  We all were exposed to things we’d never done before, and all of us took things away that we can use for ourselves and for our kohai (students who are lower-ranked than oneself).

I had a lot of fun and gained some knowledge.  Bo (staff) work is coming more naturally to me now, which is good because it’s not part of our curriculum back home.  I learned a few footwork drills that I can use for myself and for when I lead warmups.  And I fell in love.  No, not with a person – with a kata (form).  Tomari Bassai. I’m already quite familiar with Bassai Dai, so it was easy to follow along with Tomari Bassai.  New for me this year is that I knew enough about kata to recognize that I personally would have an easier time learning Tomari Bassai rather than Sochin.  In general, I noticed I’ve improved in working around my directional dyslexia.  I wasn’t the only one who had things to work around.

Not only is my daughter a brand new beginner, she is also autistic.  There were a few little incidents, she often needed prompting, but on the whole she did quite well.  Even in regular classes my daughter has fun imitating what she sees around her, so she wasn’t at all fazed that the material at Gasshuku was well beyond what she’s done so far in the four or five weeks she’s been training.  The karate community at Gasshuku supported her, and everyone was kind – but also firm whenever a boundary needed to be drawn.  I really appreciated that – it’s one thing when Mom says something, quite another when a total stranger says the exact same thing!  As the mother of an autistic adult, I am constantly balancing her increasing need for independence against her disability.  I’m grateful that Gasshuku was a safe place for me to let go of her a little (but only a little because I’m still also her senpai).  Having my younger daughter along was one of a few things that were different for me this year.

Looking back on my post about last year’s Gasshuku I can see some changes in myself.  I am definitely established in my role as a brown belt.  I earned 3rd brown last Gasshuku and, in fact,  I had  already earned 2nd brown before coming to this year’s Gasshuku (the ranks are numbered in reverse order, so 1 is high and 3 is low).  I am much more accustomed to how children and adults relate to me as their senpai.  I did better this year about remembering to work with kohai, as opposed to always seeking out someone of a higher rank for partner drills.  During bo training I did better than in previous years because I concentrated on my body movement and trusted my weapon and gravity to do the rest.  I’m thinking I’ve grown in my art since last year.

I wonder how much I’ll grow between now and next Gasshuku (2019)?

Judging at Nationals

It’s no secret that I’m the lowest of the low in the world of Karate judging. I got my USA-NKF Judge D license just a few months ago. I would never have dared volunteer to judge at Nationals (2018) if it hadn’t been for one of my sensei(s) who, after coming home from judging the US Open, said, “It was the best judging experience ever!” I figured if I wasn’t wanted or needed at Nationals someone would let me know. I should’ve known I’m not the first rube to volunteer to judge at Nationals.

There was a lot of mentoring going on for anyone who needed it. I was very grateful for that. The more I learn, the better I become. I’ve heard stories about ring controllers who are mean, who chew officials out and deride them. I’m sure someday that will happen to me too, and I hope I’ll have the right attitude about it. I have been told that I can ask to be assigned to a different ring. I hope that will never be necessary. I feel badly enough when I make a mistake, and I feel a lot more confident if someone calmly teaches me how to perform better. If I’m treated with respect I’m a lot more willing to push myself out of my comfort zone.

The first day was incredible – the experience was so valuable that if I’d had to turn around and go home that night – missing out on competing, mind you – I’d have been happy to have had just that one day at Nationals. I was already somewhat familiar with judging kobudo (weapons) thanks to my online acquaintance, “The Stick Chick” Jackie Bradbury and a little prior “sink or swim” experience my first tournament judging. I spent most of the morning judging weapons and received a lot of valuable tips on what to look for. I must confess, though, that I abandoned ship rather than judge iado (sword).

I changed rings with someone who was familiar with iado, and lo and behold, I got to judge the very division I’d been hoping to judge: mentally disabled 18-34 year olds. My daughter’s division,  if she ever wants to compete at Nationals. I had to hold back tears as I watched these incredible people who have come so far and overcome so much. After judging them and the visually impaired adults, I was back in my “home” ring again. I was delighted to judge team kata, and found that came just as naturally to me as judging individual kata. With the exception of a little kobudo, I’ve never had the experience of judging these specialized divisions back home!

I skipped two days of judging because I knew I’d make a lousy judge on my competition days.  I didn’t judge for the Oregon state qualifier because I needed that competition in order to go to Nationals, and I was nervous. I can get away with both judging and competing in the fun tournaments. But facing a high-pressure competition later in the day is another thing altogether. While waiting for my division to be called to staging, I still worked on my judging skills by watching the elite divisions. I remembered how I’d prepared to earn my judging license by watching the judges and referees work together. This is still a valuable thing for me to do when I get the luxury. There’s still plenty more for me to learn!

Judging kumite (sparring) doesn’t come naturally for me. I approached the final day of Nationals with some trepidation. It took me awhile and some respectful feedback before I hit my stride. I also got a bit of a morale boost.

Officials are forbidden to work in the ring when there is a competitor from their home state. For one match I was swapped out with someone who had such a conflict of interest. The score ended up tied and the first-point advantage had been taken away due to a minor foul, so the referee signaled for us judges to vote on who should win. I threw the only flag for Red (competitors wear red or blue belts and judges have red and blue flags). I admit I had a little black storm cloud hovering over my head as I went back to my “home” ring, but I heard someone from my own organization call out a commendation for my call. The little black storm cloud evaporated and the sun came out.

I felt more confident. Good thing, too because next thing I knew, I was judging Advanced teenagers. GULP! The cream of that crop will be 2019’s elites. 2019’s elites will be representing the United States in 2020, when Karate will make its Olympic debut. I had to shove that pressure aside in order to focus on the other officials and the athletes. I was grateful that most communication among the officials is nonverbal because it was LOUD in that convention center. I was relieved whenever I got to sit in Judge 1 and Judge 4 positions because, while most coaches were wonderful, there were some who, uh, got a little excited. I don’t blame them, though – we all were well aware of what was at stake for these athletes.

Because there is so much at stake for the athletes, there are strict rules of etiquette that must be followed. I’ve already mentioned that one must not officiate when a competitor in your ring is from your own organization, state, or country. There’s more, and sometimes it’s hard. Many athletes and I are used to the nice little tradition of shaking hands after the division is finished. We had to stop that tradition in the name of objectivity. I recognize this helps prevent accusations of favoritism, but it made me a little sad to turn those kids away. When I was in a gi (karate uniform) for my competition, I couldn’t fraternize with the officials I’d worked with the day before (ironically, my kumite division ended up in the same ring I’d worked). When I was in an official’s uniform, I couldn’t chat with friends who were wearing gi(s) or track suits (which is what coaches wear). Even when I was just in shorts and T-shirt practicing kata in the areas set aside for that purpose, I had to be careful not to spend too much time chatting. It’s hard, because I truly do love networking, but I understand the need for judges to be beyond reproach in their objectivity.

During the gold/silver rounds for the elite groups on the last night, my fellow officials and I were rewarded for our hard work. The highest among us got to referee and judge these amazing athletes, and the rest of us officials got the best seats in the house to watch the action. I had a blast watching some excellent karate, and I was sad when it was all over. I said goodbye to old friends and new, and left knowing that I was a better judge than I was when I turned in my passbook at the pre-tournament officials’ meeting.

P. S. Most people ask me if I get paid for judging, so I’ll go ahead and address that. The answer is officials get free lunch and, usually, a small stipend. Since earning my credentials I’ve made back my license fee and what I paid for my uniform (mostly assembled from thrift stores and Black Friday sales). Local non-profit booster clubs often help officials with the costs of food and lodging for national and international events.  But we pay the vast majority of our expenses ourselves.  We’re not exactly the National Football League!

The Right Time

Three years ago I was invited to train with those who were going to compete at the USA Karate Nationals. “Come find out what you’re made of,” the yudansha (black belt) challenged me. I did indeed find out what I was made of, but I didn’t make it to Nationals until this year (2018). I had fun training during two summers (2015 and 2016).  During those summers I was one of a few karateka who couldn’t go or didn’t want to go to Nationals but who enjoyed training hard and supporting those who were competing. Last year and this year it was not possible for our group to have that specific training.

In an ideal world, all four summers I would have had both the financial resources to travel and a good bit of tough training outside of normal class time with a close-knit group of mentors and comrades. I really don’t want to go into why these things never happened in combination for me. I have moved on from the angst I felt about that. This year I decided to heck with it, I would go to Nationals anyway.

Whenever I caught myself moping about “the good old days,” I reminded myself that I spent two summers learning how to train for a big competition. The advantage to being mostly alone this summer was that I could customize my workout. I used a spreadsheet to create a circuit workout – arms, legs, abs, kata, and drills. Three times I did have help with sparring outside of class, but for the most part I had to rely on regular class. For kata I simply worked on things that my sensei(s) pointed out during regular class. I buckled down and got ‘er done. I also sought help with my angst and was encouraged to simply have fun and to learn from the experiences of preparing and competing.

I did learn and I did have fun.

At this point in my story, it would be grand if I could say I won medals at Nationals. Oh what a great thing it is to be the underdog who triumphs! Well, that might have happened if I had registered as Intermediate. Karateka who have trained for four years can register either as Intermediate or Advanced. I didn’t feel right about the prospect of creaming someone who has only been training for two years, so I registered as Advanced. Besides, I’m used to testing myself against those who are better than I am (that’s a polite way of saying I’m used to getting my butt kicked in competition). Intermediate and Advanced for my gender and age have always been combined in all the local tournaments I’ve competed in, so that’s three seasons I’ve been competing with ladies who have trained longer than I have. I’m on the low end of Advanced, so – yeah, no medals for me at Nationals.

It’s not about the medals. I’ve blogged about that over and over again.  I got what I came for. I was there for the experience. I was there to pressure-test myself. My performance of Bassai Dai kata (form) was my personal best performance ever. I need to raise the bar for myself now when it comes to kata – and not just Bassai Dai, but all the kata I’ve memorized. My kumite isn’t as bad as I thought, and when I watch the video I do see improvement. I acquitted myself well and, for once, didn’t get any warnings. A national competition held in a big, noisy convention center was a very high-pressure setting but I dealt with it calmly. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, and anytime that happens there is growth.

So was 2018 really the worst year for me to go to Nationals? No. It was the worst year for me to stay home. I darn well knew how to prepare for the competition. I don’t think I could have looked at myself in the mirror if I’d stayed home moping about the circumstances not being perfect. I honestly don’t know if all the stars will ever line up exactly right. I hope they will someday. But let’s say that my financial situation had allowed me to go to Nationals in 2016. There’s one thing I have now that I didn’t have then, and that’s a USA-NKF Judge D license. In my opinion competing in Nationals was simply icing on the cake. I’ll write about my judging experiences in my next blog post!

Another Beginner


She shudders, grimaces, and hugs herself as her sister spars during a belt test.  She flinches at every punch and kick and does not understand her mother’s assurance that the fighting isn’t real, that most of the techniques are controlled.  She isn’t convinced that her sister is unharmed.

Due to unforeseen circumstances she is dragged to a tournament.  She buries herself in a book and tries to ignore what is going on around her.  But when a parent starts yelling, she feels compelled to look up.  She is frightened by the loud parent and anxious about the girls who are sparring.  She has to step away for a few minutes.  She eventually buries herself in her book again.

She grows and matures.  At the library she finds a book about superheroes.  She gets hooked.  Soon she memorizes which heroes belong to which publishers, she knows every power and every limitation.    Her tastes in movies change from “My Little Pony” to the PG-13 superhero movies (and she learns cuss words from Wolverine).  She learns there are times when one has to use force in order to protect oneself or others.  She learns there are things worth fighting for.

She wants to be a superhero.  Her mother tells her that being a martial artist will be the closest she’ll get to being a superhero.  She’s been listening to her mother’s karate stories at the dinner table.  Sometimes she imitates what she sees when her mother practices at home.

She watches her mother undergo a tough belt test.  Immediately after her mother’s belt test she puts on some fist pads and imitates what she saw.  Her tired, sweaty, hungry mother teaches her a little bit of Karate right then and there under the casual supervision of several yudansha (black belts).  She is warned that she will, from time to time, sustain minor injuries.  She is finally mature enough to realize that most of the time her mother comes home from class unharmed and injuries heal over time.

Her mother asks if she would like to begin Karate lessons.  She says yes.  She graduates from high school – a mix of special ed and mainstream classes.  As a graduation present her mother enrolls her in the new beginner class.  She has fun the first day of class.

This is my daughter.  She is autistic and she is brave.

Long-time readers of this blog will recall that I joined my first daughter after she started training.  My first daughter decided to stop training and I continued.  I never expected my second daughter, who used to be fearful at the merest hint of violence, to develop an interest in Karate.  In the opening paragraphs of this post you can see how autism has affected her perception of Karate.  You can also see that she grew past it.  I waited about a year to see if my daughter really was serious and if she really did understand what training involves.  I discussed my training injuries thoroughly with her and made sure she understood real life consequences versus  movie consequences.  After my ni-kyu test I had no more doubts:  she was ready to begin Karate.  She had a blast her first week.

I have to admit I do have some anxieties about my daughter’s autism getting in the way of her karate.  But according to her high school special-ed teacher, my daughter made some quantum leaps in her personal development.  We saw this at home too.  I have to trust that.  I also trust the sensei (instructor) who teaches the new beginner class.  Not only that, I trust Karate itself.

In general, autistic people crave structure in their activities and they appreciate specific guidelines for social interactions.  Karate has that.  Autistic people, like everyone else, want respect.  The dojo is a place where everyone is expected to treat everyone else with respect.  My daughter loves ceremony and ritual, so she’ll do well with that aspect of Karate.  In the dojo my daughter and I will be adults together – my role as mother will be diminished.  This will help us both, I’m sure.  I know that Karate aids personal growth on several different levels – and yes, autism has delayed my daughter’s development so she needs the boost that karate can give her.  It is likely she will thrive in Karate.  I know she’ll have good guidance from the very people who are helping me on my journey.

I didn’t expect this at all from the girl who used to shudder at violence.  I’m looking forward to seeing my beautiful, special daughter become Wonder Woman.  But even if she decides to stop training at the end of the three months that new beginners commit to, I will be proud of her for trying.


“Wow, that was so awesome when those blue belts went like this,” a little white-belt (no rank) boy enthused, imitating the movement in the intermediate kata (form) that had most impressed him.

I chuckled, smiled, and agreed, “Yes, it was. Someday you’ll learn that kata too.”

Of course the blue belts (a low rank in our system) were not performing that movement at black belt level, not by a long shot. I’ve seen that kata performed by patient yudansha (black belts) as they were teaching me and others. It is definitely so awesome when those yudansha go like this… But in that moment when the little boy praised the other kids, I agreed wholeheartedly that it was awesome when those blue belts went like this… Of course there are several reasons for me to agree with the boy, but I really don’t want to go off on a tangent right now. Let’s look at the little boy who loved what he saw.

That little boy’s “Sense of Wonder” (a term coined by Rachel Carson) is fully operational. I’ve seen his sense of wonder kick in at other times too. I have to admit it’s flattering when he’s in awe of what this slightly-lumpy middle-aged matron can do. But it’s even more gratifying when he compels me to take a closer look at something, to see it through his eyes, and to feel my own heart swell with the joy of witnessing something amazing.

Karate, with its endless drills, its plethora of kata to be memorized, and its demands for more and more repetitions of each and every movement, would seem to be a murderer of the sense of wonder. However, Karate’s demands won’t kill anyone’s sense of wonder if the leaders in the dojo (school) are constantly cultivating their own sense of wonder, letting their joy spill out for everyone to see. Nurturing a sense of wonder is the job of everyone in the dojo, of course, but there’s an extra burden on the sensei(s) (instructors) and the senior students. Wonder is a powerful motivator.

The dojo should be a place where people are tuned in to the amazing things that they can do and to the amazing things that everyone around them can do (no matter what their rank). Yes, improving in the art of Karate takes a lot of repetition, gallons of sweat, and a smattering of pain and tears. Students will start to value the tough process of growth if those in leadership are constantly pointing out specific ways in which each person is improving, if the leaders exult in those “aha” moments, and, most importantly, if they are constantly feeding their students’ sense of wonder.

I’m sure there are many teachers – and not just martial arts teachers – who have loads of practical ideas for maintaining that curiosity, that thirst to learn, that constant recognition of everyday miracles. Some of their ideas might work for your dojo and for your teaching style, some may not. Research what’s out there. Bounce ideas off your peers. Experiment on your students (I’ve been a lab rat loads of times).

Most of all, cultivate your own sense of wonder. Watch videos of karateka who you admire. Think back on how far you yourself have come. Remember when your own sensei showed you something and you were amazed. Here’s a hint: you’re not limited to Karate when it comes to nurturing your own sense of wonder! Take the time to do these things and your students will reap the rewards.  We are awesome – all of us – from first-day beginner to seasoned master.