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.

More Betterer Part IV – Physical

Click Here to read Part I


What will be the physical differences between who I am now and who I will be if I’m granted the rank of Shodan?  Every single class I see how others who are better than I am do things.  I am constantly challenged in very specific ways to improve what I do.  I know I don’t look nearly as good now as I will years from now if I’m invited to test for Shodan.  So I watch those who outrank me, I listen to them, I practice, and I have to trust the process that will get me there.

By the time I am invited to test for Shodan, I want to have reached the following goals:

1) Lose ten more pounds
2) Be able to do at least 30 pushups
3) Nice deep stances (if deep is called for)
4) Better endurance – particularly in highly “cardio” activities

I’d like to reach these goals sooner rather than later!  Other physical things that should happen by the time I’m invited to test for Shodan include:

1) Great form
2) Optimal execution of all techniques
3) Gi-popping awesome speed (when speed is needed, of course)
4) Loose when and where I need to be loose, tight when and where I need to be tight

In a nutshell, I should be stronger, better, faster, have more endurance, and I should look pretty gosh darned awesome when I’m doing Karate.

How am I going to get there?  Detailing everything would take me quite some time.  Nutshell summary…  I have to be flexible and clever about when and how I train.  I have my “home” dojo, but one hour twice per week is not enough.  I am very fortunate to be part of a larger organization that includes three other “sister” dojos within reasonable driving distance of my house.  I also take advantage of my YMCA membership and do some supplemental exercise.  Once I reach 3rd kyu, I will be expected to drive out of state for training once each month.  This period will last a minimum of three years, and then maybe I might be invited to test for Shodan.

How long is this going to take me?  The time-frame I’m looking at to reach Shodan is roughly seven years from now, give or take a year or two.  The average in our organization is 8 to 10 years.  Really, though, the exact number of years 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.

So that wraps up this series of posts.  I get the idea there are things I’m completely clueless about and depths I haven’t even begun to sound.  Those of you with more years under your belts, please feel free to burst any bubbles I might have.

More Betterer Part III – Mental

Click Here to read Part I

Mental - as in crazy, as in mad cow disease... Oh, never mind.
Mental – as in crazy, as in mad cow disease… Oh, never mind.

Yes, I know – the title of this post loans itself well to the British synonym for “crazy.”  And maybe I am a bit crazy.  Other ladies my age are comfortably doing safe things like Zumba and swimming.  Ah well, “normal” is merely a setting on the dryer…

Initially I had some trouble thinking of how different I will be mentally at Shodan vs. where I am now.  Of course I came up with really off-the-wall wacky stuff to joke about – things like floating in the air while doing meditation and bending spoons without touching them.  But it took me awhile to come up with the idea that I’ll have had loads of practice dealing with the “inner demons” I’ve already encountered.  So when I encounter them again (and again and again) I’ll have loads of experience to draw on.

I’m just going to name some of these “inner demons.”  I’m sure they’re familiar to all of us and none of us like to dwell on them…

1) Imposter syndrome
2) Self doubt
3) Negativity
4) Giving respect even when it’s hard to give it
5) Fear
6) Discouragement
7) Exhaustion (mental and physical)
8) Injury
9) Juggling family, work, and Karate
10) Impatience
11) Anger
12) Remembering the battle is not with the other guy (or gal) but within me

I know, this is not an exhaustive list and it’s all kinda nebulous – some of these merge into others.  We face down a lot of our inner demons on the mats.  Sometimes the battle is silent and sometimes it’s there for everyone to see and hear.  I don’t think dealing with these things will get any easier, it’s just that over time, and certainly by the time I reach Shodan in roughly 7-10 years, I’ll have had more practice.

My online acquaintance, Mr. James Bullard confirmed my idea and added his experience,

“The bad news is, you’ll probably be facing those demons for most, if not all, of your time in the martial arts.  The good news is, they get smaller (or maybe you get “bigger?”) the further you go.”

I like the idea of me getting bigger.  Not long ago in a post-class lecture, my Sensei briefly touched on a very good reason for being in Karate in the first place: namely, to change one’s self (I’m paraphrasing).  I liken mental development to strengthening the core muscles – our spirits have  “cores” too.  I hope my core will be nice and strong by the time I reach Shodan.

MORE BETTERER PART IV – oh, and feel free to burst any bubbles that might need bursting 🙂

More Betterer Part II – The Nitty Gritty

03_Image2Click Here to read Part I

A few weeks ago one of my Internet acquaintances, Mr. James Bullard, was inspired by a mutual online acquaintance (Jackie Bradbury) to think about what it means to be a black belt – most likely he’d read Jackie’s article, “I’m Really a Black Belt!“.

James Bullard wrote a wonderful post on Google+ expressing his thoughts about what it means to be a black belt. I’ll include the last few sentences of his post here…

“I’ve spent over 30 years training in martial arts, and when I look at the huge gulf of things I do not know, it seems the very definition of hubris to consider myself to’ve mastered this art.

Socrates said that admitting one’s ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. If this is true, then perhaps I have BEGUN to acquire wisdom, but I certainly cannot yet call myself wise.

My Journey continues, and I hope that it will continue to do so for the rest of my days.

What about you? What does a black belt (or any rank, for that matter) mean to you??”

I came up with a one-sentence reply to his question. Of course James Bullard proceeded to challenge me to look deeper. That’s what good teachers do, right?

“You’re currently a 7th kyu [author’s note – I’ve since been promoted]. When you envision yourself reaching Shodan level, what does that mean to you? What is it about Shodan White that is different from who and what you are today??”

It took me a few days to fully respond to these two questions via Google+. It took me more time to re-format and polish my thoughts for this blog. The first things that popped into my head were practical – the day to day things that I will have to deal with.

As Shodan, I will have taken our organization’s black belt oath immediately after passing the test and I’ll be held accountable. Really there’s nothing in the oath that I’m not already practicing. I’ve heard it twice now, and black belt testing is only once a year, so I’m pretty fuzzy on the exact details of the oath. There are some moral things mentioned, and one practical thing. I will be required to get permission from the head of our organization in order to teach Karate. I’m sure one of many reasons that restriction is there is to keep new Shodans from “teaching” (read: showing off to) their cousins at the next family gathering. I don’t do that anyway. But I suspect it’s more to show that the head of our organization endorses the newly-minted black belt’s qualifications and recognizes her/his efforts to support whichever dojo s/he cares to tackle.

I plan on at the very least being a co-instructor or a “helper” at the two dojos closest to me. We have three degrees of brown belt before black, and during those years I will be an assistant to at least one Sensei. Once I’m Shodan, if the chief instructor of any given dojo tweaks his elbow or if he has a business trip and can’t make it to class, I will be able to step right in and substitute teach. At Shodan, I will also be one step closer to “inheriting” at least one dojo because I live ten minutes north of one and ten minutes west of another. The current Senseis of those dojos live further away. I applaud them for making the commutes, but if they ever get sick of driving and they think I’m ready, I’ll be willing to serve!

As far as teaching goes I’ll have all the joys, frustrations, triumphs, and tears that go with the territory. I’m pretty sure I have a good map of what this territory is! Due to various circumstances, I’ve recently been given teaching responsibilities at two dojos (yes, at 6th kyu – desperate times call for desperate measures). I home schooled my two children from Pre-K through 10th grade for one and 7th grade for the other. During those years I learned everything I could about how people learn. I have taught third grade Sunday School. Going further back, as a teenager I taught numerous “try one Karate class for free” people and brought many others up to speed to join class, plus helped out in a little kids’ class. Conservative estimate – I taught Karate basics to 75 people by the time I was 18. I’m pretty sure all this life experience plus the “on the job” training I will receive as a brown belt will ensure I’ll be up for teaching 🙂 That said, there’s an aspect of teaching that will likely be new to me as a Shodan. I’ll have to deal with “stuff” from parents and from students. Yep, that goofy kid who needs to wash his gi, the guy who hits on me (and I don’t mean punching), and the helicopter mommy.

Speaking of dealing with stuff, there’s another thing that will probably be new to me too as Shodan. However, it will be nothing new to me as a person who has been involved with various human institutions throughout my life. Namely, there will be friction and politics among my peers and superiors. It’s human nature. It’s present in any office, any church, any sports team. Enough about that – the benefits of being part of the organization far outweigh the pitfalls, and that’s something I will keep in mind as I navigate the new waters I’ll be treading as Shodan.

And yes, I’ll have to deal with “stuff” that is dished out by whatever facility the dojo “inhabits.”  Don’t get me started on that one. I deal with it now mostly because I choose to, partly because everyone in my dojo deals with the “stuff.” I could walk away from arranging for extra time for belt tests, from getting our equipment out of storage, and all the little things I do that put me square in the cross-hairs of the facility’s rifle. But when I’m a black belt and really and truly an instructor, this won’t be an option – it definitely will be my job.

OK, enough negative. I can’t not acknowledge it, but I don’t have to dwell on it. And that will probably be key to my survival when it’s my job to deal with it 🙂

Feel free to burst any bubbles that might need bursting 🙂

Click here to read “More Betterer Part III”

More Betterer Part I – Introduction

Welcome to the first post of 2016!  Please bear with me.  This will get around to Karate, I promise.

Not at all like this child

One day I was doing my water fitness routine and I moved to shallow water for a particular movement.  The pool has a floating rope thingy to divide the kiddee area from the rest of the pool, and I started in on my reps near that rope.  After a minute or so I noticed a small child swimming underwater from the kiddee area.  Because of the distortions of the water, it was hard to tell her exact size.  It was clear she knew how to swim and had a destination in mind.  She swam under the rope and surfaced.  Something didn’t seem quite right, so before I even consciously thought about it, I was moving towards her.  She turned her body from horizontal to vertical and ducked under the surface.  I fully expected her to swim right back under the rope.  Then it registered on my conscious level (keep in mind I was still moving towards her thanks to my instincts) – that head was not just little, it was tiny.

She came up again sputtering and flailing her arms in the classic, “I’m drowning” sign.  I reached her a heartbeat after she went down a second time.  I fished her out of the water, settling her on my hip in a well-practiced motion.  She weighed next to nothing and couldn’t have been older than two and a half.  She was so young that she was already on to the next thing after her near-drowning, namely, who the heck was this strange lady cooing, “Well, hello!  Whatcha doin’ over here?”  My heart was pounding, but I maintained calm for her sake and the sake of the other little ones playing nearby.

Without an accurate visual reference to this child’s size I initially had trouble evaluating the danger of the situation because that kid was moving very, very well under the water.  She was deliberate in her choice of destination and she went there efficiently and beautifully.  What she lacked was judgment.  She fully expected the bottom of the pool to be firmly under her feet.  She probably didn’t remember or even comprehend her caregiver’s instructions to stay close and not go past the rope.  Even if she did comprehend and remember the instructions, it’s likely she’d have gone past the boundary anyway just because that’s what she wanted to do and who cares about the grownups’ opinions anyway?  I’m not criticizing the kidlet – it’s just that the reality of being only two years old means she was too immature to make good choices or anticipate the possible outcomes of her actions.

So I got to thinking about this and drew some connections.  I’ve seen videos of brilliant young karateka whose katas are really something.  I wouldn’t care to challenge them – I like my body, particularly my joints, to stay whole and healthy.  I can understand why many organizations will award black belts to kids as young as six.  Watching these kids is truly wonderful.  But I also understand why many organizations choose not to award a black belt to children, or designate them as “junior” black belts.

Is my new little acquaintance able to teach her swimming skills to a class of fifteen people aged 2 to 102?  How about if one of her teenage students developed a crush on her, how would she handle that?  What if a goofy adult student asks an awkward question that is best answered with, “I’m not the best person to talk to about this.  Do you have a counselor or psychiatrist you could work with?”  Can this tiny brilliant swimmer handle a student’s parent who is constantly bellowing instructions to the student during class?  And how much pressure can she take to always be practicing, always striving to perfect her swimming technique, and always seeking new knowledge about swimming, nutrition, stretching, complimentary exercises, etc. etc. etc.?  Does this little girl have any good ideas for fundraising to buy new kick boards?  Does she know how to run a business?  Most of all, if she had to use her skills to save her life, could she do so?  I think I’ve already answered that question.

Many organizations maintain there’s more to being a black belt than just technical skills and either award a junior black belt or make the child wait until he or she is a teen or young adult.  My encounter with that tiny mermaid got me thinking about that preference.  In connection with that, I’ve been mulling over what I myself am going to have to develop in order to really and truly be a black belt.  A couple of months or so ago I was challenged by an online acquaintance to think about it.  The next three blog posts will be cleaned-up versions of what I wrote in response to his challenge.