Welcome to our conversation on karate. Please join in!
We all want the quick fix, the silver bullet, the one thing we can do to skip practice and still become the best. I loved that scene in Captain America where Steve Rogers is injected with the formula and grows several sizes in strength. Never mind that we have all learned we cannot have our cake and eat it too.
This week Sensei Mae shared with me a video on self-defense. We are not commenting on the quality of the technique. We have not tried the technique used in this video, and it is not part of our teaching. We are open to learning new things, however, we are not recommending anything other than our proven system.
We all know that the internet is full of videos like this one. The basic appeal is to get us to buy something. The marketing appeals to our instinct that if we watch the video, we will be safe. Just remember the technique and you will be able to overcome any obstacle. I do want to believe that I can have my cake and eat it too!
I am sorry to say that we cannot determine if a technique will work simply by watching a video on Facebook. As a kid, when I learned in biology class about osmosis, I set my biology book under my pillow in hopes of the material leaching through the pillow and into my brain for an effortless, unconscious assimilation of the knowledge from the book. All I received was a sore neck and no additional knowledge about biology. We will not have the time to search the web for the correct technique to learn when we require our self-defense skills, let alone be able to evaluate their validity.
At the dojo we teach self-defense, often from the very first class. This is one of the many reasons people take up karate. We do not think we will get into a lot of fights. Most of us believe we are possible victims requiring some self-defense training.
At the dojo we practice modeling a technique to our students and then letting them experiment with it. In a recent class, I taught several of our basic techniques. It was important that the students get hands on experience with it working and not working for them. We also ensure they take notes and practice the techniques. On the black belt test the candidates must show it working on black belt attackers. As an attacker, the student only passed if they knew the technique. We would not fall for improper technique.
In class, we start with the most basic self-defense techniques to ensure all white belts have enough to save themselves from basic situations. We cannot cover every experience in class as time is always limited. We do know that we have a proven method for our teaching. As the students progress in training, we add techniques that people are less likely to encounter and are more difficult to learn. Of course, our best advice is always to avoid the situation and be aware of your surroundings. We only incorporate techniques that work all of the time. Even these techniques will only work if they are practiced and worked on by the students. It is great to have passed the black belt test. However, unless I am still practicing the techniques, I will not be able to call upon them when needed as my skills will have diminished.
We are working on teaching our students that to master the technique, they must train hard. This is similar to the work that psychologist Robert Eisenberger, at the University of Houston, is working on with his experiments. He has noted that when we learn to work for our reward, we perform better than those who do not have to work as hard for their reward (See his work . Learned industriousness. Psychological Review, 99, 248-267).
Dr. Eisenberger’s conclusion implies that we are more likely to learn new things when our initial learning experience was hard. Our push then for learning something new, like a cool new self-defense technique, is something we can struggle with and learn. My theory is that by struggling to learn a technique, we are more likely to recall and use the technique because we were forced to master that technique during training. So, just watching the technique will not help. Pairing up and working the technique is a great start to our journey toward mastery. Working hard for the goal is an effective way to learn. Maybe Sensei Mae and I will need to watch some videos and try them out.
We need to put in the hard work to achieve our goals and improve ourselves. What are you doing to ensure you are practicing hard (and not hardly practicing!) in order to achieve your goals? Keep in mind that you cannot learn self-defense from a video or a blog post. This is the time of year to review and reflect on what worked in the past and what should change in the future.
See you in the dojo soon.
The black belt test was a success last week and we had candidates pass the test. During the last part of the test, the fight, I was reminded of the Army Ranger, Green Beret core belief “improvise, adapt, and overcome.” The Army Rangers are a group that spends a lot of time drilling and preparing for situations. Hand in hand with the Green Beret belief is this quotation on planning: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” This was said by Mike Tyson, a well-known champion boxer. This week we will look at how you can apply either the Green Beret belief or Mike Tyson’s in your next training, tournament or test.
For my black belt test I prepared for the last part of the test as best I could. I survived the fights, which is about as well as we can expect when fighting two other black belts at the same time. Looking at the test from Saturday, and hearing Sensei Mae tell the candidates prior to and during the fights to use their training and demonstrated skills, I realize that all of the candidates, myself included, had the skills needed to do better than just survive. We were all highly trained; we just showed we knew more than 100 kicks, strikes and several blocks. We also showed we knew several katas that have direct applications to fighting. Prior to my test, one of the senseis had us practice fighting by using unique moves only from our katas. During the practice time we could not repeat moves until we drilled for one minute. That was a great drill; I recommend it when preparing for a test with fighting.
Here are some thoughts on how the Green Beret core belief improves our fighting:
Improvise: The dictionary has a few definitions for this verb:
- to compose and perform or deliver without previous preparation; extemporize
- to make, provide, or arrange from whatever materials are readily available
- When the first definition says “without previous preparation”, it is not saying we should show up to the fight without any preparation. When our candidates came to the test, they were all well prepared, including wearing clean Gi’s. The first definition goes back to Mike Tyson and fighting, in that we do not know what our opponent will do during the fight, test or situation. As a result we must make do with the material we have available.
- When we make do with the materials that are available, it has a big impact on our success in fights, tests, tournaments or similar situations.
- In the test, the material we have is all of our experience to date, our practice time, and our demonstrated skills.
- Just as a carpenter brings a toolbox not knowing the specific tool required, we bring to the event our toolbox of training and look to pull out the correct kick, strike or block at the proper time.
- We cannot improvise without practicing and planning for some encounter. The situations we encounter are unlikely to match any we drilled and practiced for in our training. The improvisation will work if we have our toolbox to fall back upon.
Adapt. Here the dictionary defines this verb as: “to adjust oneself to different conditions, environment, etc.”
- We have seen from improvisation that we need to pull out of our karate toolbox the tools needed for test we are facing. We have been hit and now need to react to the situation. Adaptation is an adjustment based on the conditions of the day.
- We require the agility and nimbleness to move in lockstep with our surroundings. Being in shape is paramount to success in a fight. The candidate must arrive to the test in fighting shape on the day of the test. Our test is an endurance challenge as well. Saturday’s test started at 3 PM and ended at 8 PM. This is a mental and physical test for the candidates. The black belt fighters warmed up during the self-defense portion of the test as they were thrown by the candidates and were ready for the fight. The black belts were fresh, relatively speaking, to the candidates.
- As a black belt candidate, I had a plan and it hardly survived the first kick and strike. Just like the candidates from the most recent test, I had to adapt and adapt fast to the situation.
Overcome: The dictionary defines this verb as: “to get the better of in a struggle or conflict; conquer; defeat.”
- At the end of the black belt test we call time and do not declare a winner. Our objective is to look for the candidates to display a black belt spirit. They need to come to fight despite the odds being stacked against them. We want the candidates to show that they will get up eight times if they are thrown down seven.
- In all tests, we need an unwavering commitment to results by remaining focused on the desired outcome and doing whatever it takes to deliver by improvising and adapting after that first punch comes. Can we afford to do anything less? The candidates came with the singular focus on their top level goal of winning their black belt. They overcame the hours of practice required and criticism they received when they were not meeting standards.
To obtain your top level goal, are you getting the better of the struggle against yourself? Are you ready to improvise—to adapt in order to overcome after the first punch in the mouth? How have you used this lesson in your life? What obstacle are you looking to overcome? See you in the dojo soon.
This guidance came out of a conversation on how the candidates for the black belt test today were preparing for their test. It started with one annoying thing that candidates do, and quickly grew. The sad thing is that most candidates don’t even realize that they’re engaging in these behaviors or that they are so damaging.
- Someone else wants the belt more than you. You have to want the belt enough to earn it. A lack of desire by the candidate will show up on the test. Your sensei and your parents will not be taking the test, you will. This is a classic case of desire. Our dojo promotes the students who pass the test. The parents do not get a vote.
- The best students want the black belt so bad that they can taste it. They are practicing and begging their parents for additional training, like they would when they ask for a new puppy at Christmas.
- For the parents who read this, find out what your child wants and challenge them to achieve their goals. Yes, they should take the test when they are ready. Our youngest son was not convinced a few months prior to the test. It turned out that all of our practice (both parents) got him in such good shape for the test that helping us pass the test pushed him over the top and gave him the confidence and desire to take and pass the test.
- Lesson: You have to judge your desire. The more you want the black belt, the more you are likely to properly prepare for the test and be motivated to take the test yourself. Of course, having a friend or a training partner will push you toward your goal and help with your own motivation.
- Envy of someone else’s demonstrated skill. Thinking that (name of student here) is a natural and I will never be as good as them so I will not try. I have been surprised that some of the best martial artist I know did not pass the black belt test on their first try and some their second. You would not be testing if you were not capable.
- In sharing with my students last week, we are looking for what they are capable of performing. If you can make the effort and practice consistently, you will likely do well on the test with, of course, proper fundamentals and proper technique. Please, do not give up on the effort required prior to the test unless you are looking to fail the test.
- Lesson: Practice consistently to improve. Take lessons or seek help; ask for “mini” evaluations after class on areas that you may be unsure about. You are competing against your best self, the dojo standards and not anyone else.
- Belief that prior success will carry them through the test. The best score on the black belt test was achieved by a student at our dojo who failed the pre-test and took more than six months to come back and prepare. Several students have won gold medals at tournaments for kata and fighting and not prepared for the test, only to find out they were not ready and their prior success would not earn the belt.
- When the pretest came around and I was judged as not prepared, it was a shock that the time in class, and little preparation for the test on my part, would not even pass the pretesting phase of the black belt test.
- Lesson: You have to bring the black belt skills to the black belt or any other test. We do not give life experience belts at our dojo. You need to put in the practice time and have expert advice in order to succeed.
Approaching the test with fear or lack of confidence. We have seen the candidates who come to the test and go through the motions. Yes, the kata was nice. This is a battle for your belt. I was a little scared to take the test and fearful of my ability to perform for several hours. I trained hard and that training showed during the test. I had a fighting spirit that said to the panel judging me that I was more than ready to be one of them.
- We are looking for the candidates to demonstrate a warrior spirit. If you cannot defend yourself in the ring during the fighting or throw down the bigger student during the black belt self-defense portion, we will not pass you along. You need a fighting spirit. After the test, we will all go out for dinner and have a great time. During the test it is another story. You have to fight for your black belt.
- Lesson: We are looking for our black belts to have a warrior spirt. Yes, black belts are nice people who have a warrior spirit. Try not to provoke us to show that spirit when we are in the process of judging your performance.
- Lack of respect during the test for the panel. The black belt test, like other athletic events, is a judged event. Failing to show those who are already wearing a black belt the respect and courtesy they deserve is a way to show the panel that you lack a black belt understanding and will therefore need additional training.
- We do coach the candidates to not talk when others are performing and they are resting. We also consistently coach in class proper dojo etiquette. If you are adjusting your gi or belt without permission or in front of the teacher, that is just bad form, especially during the test. If you show up with a wrinkled, sweaty, smelly gi, we will not feel respected.
- Lesson: Show respect to the panel. Know your dojo etiquette. For the test, wash your uniform, use deodorant, brush your teeth, and skip the cologne and perfume. You’re going to a martial arts test, not a dance. Show up to your test like it’s a first date with the most important person you will ever date. Look sharp and be sharp.
These irritations loom large for black belt candidates because we only have the test results to go on when deciding if you have what it takes to be on par with the other black belts. It’s easy to avoid them.
Be prepared in every sense and your test performance will be significantly better. See you in the dojo soon.
I trust that you are enjoying your martial arts journey. I have enjoyed writing this blog that started from a family conversation, okay several, about karate. We all just celebrated Thanksgiving and a few of us had karate conversations again around the table. I am thankful for readers of this blog. I am grateful to my teacher, Sensei Steve, for teaching us such excellent karate.
In thinking about our karate journey, our Sensei is a mentor to us giving us direction daily in class on how to handle ourselves in different situations. Our responsibility is the easiest, which is to show up for class. Okay, you might say, “I have done that this week.” I just worked with some of our black belt candidates on polishing their technique. They have been showing up for class for years and still had not worked on the small areas that make the techniques effective, such as how to grab or throw or even how to spin and kick.
I am reminded that we need to practice prior to class so we can polish what we learned in class. We worked through all of this with them and Sensei Mae is working with the same group and will likely have some comments as well.
The lessons we have learned as students of karate have had a profound impact on my life and that of my family. For a while I traveled internationally as a part of my job. I now know that going to another country is no more or less dangerous than going to the grocery store. The confidence that I received from my training in self-defense, being aware of situations and how to best win a fight (by avoiding it!) were ones that made the journey to another culture less daunting. In finding that new place to visit, I was drawn into the culture more quickly as karate has us in another culture already. A new culture was not as big of a deal as it would have been if we had not been studying karate and involving ourselves into karate as a new undertaking already.
Was I concerned traveling? Of course I was. I have also been intimidated at local locations. It is no different the world over. One of my international trips brought me closer to my friends when I needed to practice with a bo staff. It is hard to explain a bo staff to someone without a context. I was so pleased when they arranged for one and that we found a place to practice. Practicing with a group of my friends in a park was also exciting as they wanted to see what all was done with this weapon and the others I had brought with me to practice.
I did not need to use any of my karate skills while traveling internationally. I was confident and more aware of what I was doing and where I was going. I thought about how I would handle a group of people or avoid them when I saw them coming. I tried to travel in a group, when possible, so I was less of a target.
All of this thinking goes back to the basics of my martial arts training. I did not want to ever look like a victim walking on the streets. When we traveled to San Francisco this summer and took the public transportation, we applied the same lessons and enjoyed the challenge of keeping safe.
I have a lot to be thankful for in my karate journey. As we approach the end of the year, are you looking at what you can accomplish? Do you have a plan?
Happy Thanksgiving! See you in the dojo soon.
Do you have what it takes? I read a story recently about Muggsy Bogues, the shortest man, at 5 feet 3 inches, to play basketball in the NBA, where he played for 14 years. This is a league where the average player is 6 feet 7 inches tall. How do you overcome that disadvantage? A high achiever chooses to do uncommon things. They actually practice and work on overcoming obstacles to winning.
When our sensei asks black belt candidates how long they are practicing for the black belt test on a daily basis, we could predict the success or failure rate from the student responses. The successful candidates put the time in each day to make a difference in their karate career. One of the reasons they practiced daily was their strong desire to succeed and pass the test.
When it was time for my test, I was not satisfied with remaining a brown belt, especially when my daughter, Sensei Mae, was already a black belt. I had a fire within me to work hard and not miss the opportunity to succeed on the test. In addition, I was much older than many of my classmates and I did not have the luxury of failing and becoming a long-term brown belt. No, I wanted to pass this test and the next. My desire was high; I found opportunities in my day that I had not ever considered. I made some sacrifices to concentrate on this one goal. I wanted to reach my black belt potential and fulfill my dream of becoming a black belt.
The effectiveness of your desire and training plan will determine your likely chance of doing well at a tournament or passing your belt test. What matters is how strongly your reasons are for achieving a goal. That is what will drive you to complete that goal. To determine if you have what it takes, find your desire level on the chart. If you have a high desire you are much more likely to meet the goal.
Last week was the Commonwealth of Kentucky AAU karate tournament, held at our dojo. The tournament was a big success for those who participated in the event. People that have reached the gold medal in this tournament did not get there by chance. They did not put “common” or “going through the motion” effort into their achievements. These athletes did uncommon things that you may not see. They practiced and worked in a way that their competitors did not. They put in the effort to make themselves distinguished. And they had a high desire to succeed.
Muggsy Bogues had a high desire to succeed, despite his height disadvantage. He loved to play basketball and learned early on that he had to disrupt the play of taller players and make them not even want to dribble the ball near him. He practiced a lot and worked on his game daily. How is your desire to succeed? Are you focused in on the goals that will achieve success for you today and in the future?
See you at the dojo soon.
The secret to move from up from white belt is to show up at class consistently. The next thing you will want to know is how do I obtain my black belt? Of course for that you need a plan, a good teacher and commitment to a goal. Each dojo is different and has different colors for their belts. As you advance to the (generally) higher and darker colored belts, the plan is what we can help with the most on Let’s Talk Karate.
My friend has come for a few weeks as a new karate student and is really enjoying his white belt experience. It has been good for him to get out and take out some frustrations that are best not left in the house. As a white belt, all the training he is receiving is fundamental knowledge. It has been good for me to see again what it means to be a brand new student of karate. Our sensei has a plan for all students, the number of expected weeks between belts, the skills, weapons and kata required. Besides regularly attending classes, the element that got our family to move up from white belt was a plan. Do you have a plan for the coming year on your next steps for your training plan? Now is time to think about next year.
One of your first actions should be the development of a training plan. A well-developed plan will encourage you to keep showing up and suiting up to progress. It will also clarify the goals you have for the training program. Here are the five common mistakes to avoid in developing your karate plan of action for next year:
- Not honestly reviewing your current year performance. Improvement begins with an accurate evaluation of your baseline performance. Ask yourself these questions
- What skills or drills did I avoid?
- What goals did I fail to achieve?
- What were my greatest strengths during the year?
- What were my most significant weaknesses during the year?
- Overall, how do I feel about my karate performance?
- Failing to set measurable and time-bound goals. We all set goals, especially at the start of the year, to do things like lose weight or stop some habit. The best goals have two key ingredients; they are measurable and time bound.
- Measurable goals include items such as I will achieve a (fill in the color) belt. You either do the work for the belt or you do not. It is easy to measure. Or, it could be I will practice my kata twice daily.
- Time bound means by when…so, by Tuesday I will practice my kata 14 times or by the end of April I will have passed the (fill in the color) belt test or become a (fill in the color) belt.
- Failing to set both outcome and process goals. As I explained last week, our dojo has both outcome goals as well as process goals.
- Getting a belt by specific testing date is an example of an outcome goal.
- A process goal is something like, having performed 1,000 kicks in January in one class to kick off the New Year. Another process goal is to run kata daily in multiple directions.
- Setting goals too high or too low. Your goals should be both challenging and realistic.
- Setting goals too high generally means you will fall short and be disappointed. You will not likely be the first one to begin a karate program without a proper understanding of the training commitment involved with the program.
- Setting your goals too low, you may achieve them and at the same time feel dissatisfied. “Karate is so easy—I became a (fill in the color) belt in only one year,” which may not be very challenging.
- Try to find a “goldilocks” goal, where goal attainment is difficult but possible.
- Not modifying your goals when circumstances change. Prior to the black belt test, I had to be out of the country for two weeks. My training goals and daily achievements were not possible with air travel and staying in a foreign country. I modified my training plans and borrowed equipment from my in-country friends to stay on track.
If you would like assistance in working on your training plans for the coming year, please let us know. We are working on our goals for the coming year as well. Our local tournament is this weekend. Try to find one to challenge yourself and see how well your training is going. See you in the dojo soon.
To progress, most of what you need is to suit up and show up to the dojo on a consistent basis. If you fail to suit up and show up, your skills become stagnant and you are no longer growing on your karate journey.
When we signed up for karate, we looked for three things, probably the same as you:
- Location, a dojo near the house
- Classes that fit our timing, day of the week and times we could regularly attend
- An initial fee and ongoing cost that fit our budget.
As good shoppers, we had the kids attend a week long karate camp in the summer. We were interested in ensuring they could learn and wanted to attend. We also discussed with some of our friends where they sent their kids.
We have stayed suited up and showing up for three main reasons:
- We are always learning.
- Every class we attend at the dojo, we learn something to include in our notebooks or to pass along to others.
- I helped teach today and learned several great new drills and ways to teach—and I only helped for the first couple of classes.
- We have tested our skills and found them excellent.
- We have both competed in the AAU karate national tournaments and found that the instruction we receive from our sensei at the dojo is equal to or better than other dojos. It is because our competition teams routinely win top honors in competitions that we know how well our instruction methods stand up nationally.
- We have put the program to the test, and the program has come out on top. Other dojos can also make that claim. See if yours does.
- We are growing and progressing in our martial arts journey. I have learned that preparation determines outcomes.
- We are prepared and follow a planned progression of ever building skills as we advance in the ranks.
- We believe in showing up and suiting up. Our instructor challenges us each class. I showed up to class consistently as a part of the program to pass the second degree black belt test. The test was more to show to the panel that I paid attention and practiced. Suit up and show up consistently to pass the test.
All of this is to say that if you find yourself in a dojo and you are not consistently learning and growing as well as advancing, you may want to look around for a different instructor in martial arts. My guess is this is a rare occurrence when we are in our first few years of training.
The point about testing our skills is to do so in structured ways, not going out to fight random strangers on the street. Our recommendation is to go to clinics and tournaments. At clinics and tournaments you will be able to see your training in action against students outside of your dojo. In a clinic, you will learn from other masters. I would not say that losing a fight is due to poor teaching. I have lost fights and know I have a very good sensei. It is looking at the whole work being performed at the dojo.
As a white belt, my son encountered some different fighting skills and lost a few rounds early in a tournament. Was our teaching bad? No it was not. We did not know how much work or effort was needed to become a champion at our first competition. We had never been tested outside of our classmates. So, the next time we encountered students from the same school we did better and won more rounds as we worked on new skills. On the whole, our dojo students win more than they lose. Of course we have never been 100% in the win column. I lost the gold medal fight in the AAU national tournament. It was my lack of skill and not the coaching from our sensei. It was a close fight, and a loss. I was able to learn from that experience to become a better fighter.
Your preparation does indeed determine what you will achieve from any program, and karate is no exception. You will continue to learn and grow as long as you continue to suit up and show up at the dojo door. See you in the dojo soon.