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.

Author: Joelle White

I began training in Karate in June of 2014 after a 27 year hiatus.

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