Small Steps = Big Improvements

Our family is moving to a new house soon. We are downsizing. Not to worry, we are still near the dojo.  We are losing some of our at home training space and gaining a right sized house for us. One of the first things I did prior to putting an offer on the house was to run our white belt kata in the finished basement. Our rule of thumb is that if we have enough room for that kata, we have enough room for all of the others and can move into the house. Do you have a similar measurement or wish you did prior to moving?

Kata in a new house

Practicing kata while house hunting. This one fits!

As we are getting ready to leave our current house, we are taking a critical look at what we possess and asking if it comes to the new house.  We have looked and included some items as transitional, meaning they are coming until we purchase a replacement. Other items are being restored. My grandfather was a carpenter and put together a night stand for me when I was a child. That one is being restored and coming to the new home. Other pieces are being sold on Craig’s list or eBay.

As you look at your kata, does it need the same critical eye applied? In studying for my second degree black belt test, I found that the kata sometimes spoke to me and some of the technique I thought I knew needed abandoning and other techniques needed restoration to their correct form. Of course it was a constant question at the dojo the week prior to the test…”Where is the kiai in this kata and tell me again how does that move go?”

The week prior to the test, our Sensei was focused on our technique. In performing an opening move for one of our advanced katas, our Sensei took 10 minutes to explain the first several moves. We had looked at them as the opening sequence and it turned out that there was more to the story. When we went to the test, I participated in a bunki exhibition with another candidate on the same opening moves and he had yet another interpretation of the same sequence. Wow, that was fun and opened us up to a better kata performance during our test.

A simple word of caution, please do not plan on completely gutting and renovating from scratch your kata. It will become overwhelming.  The world has so many options; limit yourself to a one or two so you can make improvements.  When it all feels overwhelming, and it will, stop and just make little choices (see the blog post testing today? and chunking) because one by one added up they will give you a completed and updated kata.

A good sensei will work with you on the frequent, small do-able steps so you not get overwhelmed with the task itself. I am glad my Sensei did not tell me everything to improve, as I would become overwhelmed. Instead, he focused on one or two points to create or restore me back to a great kata.

Our sensei coaching model says that in the beginning, we break down tasks into small improvements. All of the improvements at once, as I just noted, is overwhelming. A coaching session prior to the testing should occur a few months in advance and be followed up with other senseis or the same one in a few weeks so the refinements continue and the practice is sharpened.

Every day we are all “renovating kata,” whether that is in the form or learning a new skill or accomplishing our entire kicking task. We are constantly doing things that can overwhelm us if we let them. If you meet me in the next few months and I look a bit frazzled, it won’t be because I am doing small incremental tasks, it’s going to be because I am trying to renovate an entire kata. I will come back to the advice I’ve received about breaking my kata down, time and time again, it’s what will keep me sane. If you’d like to learn more about preparing for your next test and getting recommendations about breaking down tasks for your kata, we’d be happy to help you at a private session. Ask us after class. We are happy to assist.

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Sensei Glen after passing the second degree test.

Just a note to congratulate Josh, Emily and Cathy who, along with me, passed the test for their second degree black belt last Saturday. Well done! Of course, we applied the little bits together and made big improvements in our kata and techniques. See you in class soon.

Testing Today?

I recently heard that you have no pressure to perform on the day of the test. Is that your experience? It has not been mine. My test is later today and I am nervous about performing well. So I wanted to write for me and share with all of you on how to become the pressurized kata and self-defense performer you want to become.

Imagine this: you are performing kata in front of the Sensei board and the special guest 9th degree who has flown in for a 5th degree test and is watching and evaluating your test as well. You are performing all the kata that you know and everyone is watching to see if your feet and hand positions are where they should be. They are also watching all of your movements. Any pressure? Yes!!! Of course they are not evaluating me like they just did the 5th degree candidate, are they?

Arbitrator

Representative arbitrators of the test

The test means a lot to me on my karate journey. I have thought that teachers (senseis) should be more than just a first degree black belt. I looked up to Sensei Mark P. and Andy who were both second degrees. My idea of a great sensei is that I should be a second degree to even teach a white belt. Of course that has not stopped me from being a sensei and teaching white through brown belts in our dojo. I have even judged in our state AAU tournament.

I do take comfort in the knowledge that several of our current black belts and high ranking black belts have failed to make the cut on a test and have come back and passed the test. That is not my ideal outcome.

The question is how do I become the pressurized kata and self-defense performer? How do I look the 9th degree, or 8th degree and the others on the panel who have put in more work and time than I have and demonstrate that I am ready? Here is what I did on the black belt test and here is my plan for the second degree test. Pass or fail, I am going to concentrate on the task: each individual move of the kata or the self-defense works.

Back Stance Shuto

Practicing back stance–one move or task at a time

I am going to focus on the task: throwing the punches and kicks as I have practiced. I am not focused on the outcome. I am convinced that by focusing on the task, as I mentioned last week, I will practice and perform in the same way. One step at a time is my focus through the katas until they are done. My judges will go off and decide if I demonstrated enough to pass the test. My focus is on what I can do.

I am not thinking about the outcome, just the task. That is how the pressure is off of me, and I know each and every task in detail. I have been running my kata daily for months, multiple times each day. I just let my muscle memory lead the demonstration of skills. Since I have performed each of the katas and each of the moves within the katas thousands of times, I will perform on the test in the same way. It is just another one of the thousand moves that I have been making for months and in some cases years. The task is easy and routine, and on the test I have very little pressure on a punch or kick. I cannot think about the consequences of making or missing the mark, that is what puts on the pressure. Instead I am focused on the task and each step. Just a simple focus on the task and I am not crippled by the outcome.

It is baseball season, and I read a quotation from hall of fame pitcher Greg Maddux:  “What has benefited me the most is learning I can’t control what happens outside of my pitching.” As I think about how this applies to karate and taking test, I realize that we can only control ourselves. We cannot control what happens after we kick or punch. The judges will judge and we need to do our best. Greg Maddux also challenges all of us to improve our “game” so we can control what we should be able to control, like our kicks and punches.

From the book From the book Crunch Time: How to Be Your Best When It Matters Most by Rick Peterson and Judd Hoekstra:

Everything that happened to the ball after it left his [Greg Maddux] fingers was beyond his control.  The mental discipline of focusing on only what he could control served him well.

The book goes on to share about focus.

An effective strategy for reducing the perceived difficulty and corresponding threat is chunking. Chunking refers to the process of breaking down a seemingly overwhelming goal [like a karate test] into bite sized pieces…by creating a series of simple, short term, bite sized process goals [step by step in the kata!] linked to a larger outcome goal, you recognize success more frequently.

 Keep focusing on the task, one step at a time. Control what you can control and enjoy your next test as it is just one step at a time like your last practice. Please let us know if this message helps you to become the pressurized kata and self-defense performer you want to become in the comment section below.

See you at the dojo soon.

 

 

How do You Practice?

Several students at the dojo are getting ready to have a belt test. The question being asked is how is your practicing going? Answers vary from “not well” to “I ran my kata 4 times today.” The question I want to ask is how do you practice?

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Sensei Mae Practicing Kata after class at the dojo

I recently heard the story of Ben Hogan and his remarkable career in golf (you can read the story by clicking here). My Dad had Ben Hogan golf clubs and I had no idea who he was until after I heard this story. When you read the story, you learn he was a pro golfer who served in WWII, came back and was at the top of his career. Tragedy struck and his car and a Greyhound bus collided leaving him close to death.  He not only learned to walk again after the accident, he won the triple crown of golf within four years of the accident.

How does this relate to the question of how do you practice? The article from the Ben Hogan museum says, “Hogan was known for his demanding practice regimen.” Of course the movie version of his practice regime was skipped as it is highly repetitive, full of discipline and focused work. That makes me wonder what our legacy of karate will be. Will we be able to say (your name) was known for his or her demanding practice regimen? Or more likely, “they said they wish they had spent more time practicing prior to the test”?

Here is an outside view on practicing from Ernest S. Williams in his preface to The Secret of Technique-Preservation, a book for trumpet players. In that book he wrote:

  • “All practicing should preferably be done when the performer is fresh and alert; but there should not be any ‘let down’ of the daily routine, even if some mental or physical fatigue is felt.”
  • “The first moment of the daily practice period must be devoted to ‘finding the technique anew.’”

To paraphrase Ernest S. Williams, his final advice is to practice when you perform and perform correctly when you practice.  He would have made a good karate sensei.

I am practicing for a test as well. I know that my effort is unlikely to equal Ben Hogan’s or even what it should be. Yes, I am working to pass the test. I practice daily. I have been practicing with intensity for the last month or so. As I have stepped up the intensity, the one thing that has struck me is that the more I practice, the more I discover about my kata and how the kata relates to other aspects of the test and karate. Pass or fail, the practice has been good for me.

I am interested in hearing how you go about practicing. Here is what I have been doing for the last month or so. I have a membership to a local LA Fitness and in the morning I spend quality time on the gym floor with some mirrors and several heavy 110 pound bags running kata.

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Getting ready to practice kata!

Here is my routine:

  • I generally run, warm up the arms and legs similar to our normal class structure, and lightly stretch.
  • I have a favorite blocking drill that I went over with one of the classes today that daily reminds me of how to execute blocks and strikes. I have to discover how to block and punch daily!
  • Then I run the katas needed for the test. I generally pick a different direction after running all of the test katas in succession to run them again.
  • When I make a mistake or need to improve, I stop, rehearse the “broken” section and then re-perform the whole kata.
  • The weapon katas are run using a small stick, a towel or anything else I have at the time. I do not bring my weapons to the gym. When the weather is nice, I do run the weapons outside and indoors I use some of the weapons to ensure my wrists are in the proper shape.
  • At the heavy bags I perform my 100 punches and practice self-defense by hitting the bag at the appropriate time.
  • I vary the speed of the workout from fast to slow to examine how and what I am doing when running kata.

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Getting ready to hit the bags.

Please let us know your routine for practicing when you are getting ready for a test and when you are just working on your karate. Post your comments in the section below.  See you in class soon.

What Are You Doing to Improve Yourself This Week?

We were challenged this week in class to make ourselves better in the coming week. When I thought about the challenge I asked myself what I would do to become better. More sit-ups, pushups or exercising will sculpt the body. I could join my son and lift some weights—no, that was not for me. My thought was to improve my self-defense.

Often on walks I have to remind myself to have good posture. I do sit at a desk all day (just as I am now…) typing. When we are all slouched over with poor posture we look like a victim to others. When we stand like a tall tree, as our head Sensei would say, with good posture we project confidence. So, practicing good posture is self-defense training.

 

Quiet Place--see the tall trees?

See all the tall trees?

In response to the challenge, I am going to try to walk a little more and of course practice my self-defense while walking by standing as much as possible like a tall tree.

  • If you are not exercising much now, walking is the simplest form of exercise that almost everyone can do.
  • The great thing about my walk at the office is that is a free activity.
  • It does help me maintain a healthy weight.
  • Walking is great for your heart. It enhances your circulation, helping to lower blood pressure. Studies have shown that walking briskly for just 30 minutes a day is enough to improve heart health.
  • The moderate, low-impact nature of walking is enough to lower pain and improve function for most. (Just be sure to consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program.)

It is spring in Northern Kentucky where I live. It has been wonderful, in between the rain, to take walks during the day to enjoy nature. On the walks while at the office, I have looked for a place of solitude to work on my self-defense. I have discovered a few places where I can go. I have also noticed that just walking there puts me in a good frame of mind.

While walking on the way to my “quiet” place I start to relax, smile and begin imagining the self-defense moves in my head. Yes, I am fortunate to have a place near the office that is well maintained and nice.

 

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Quiet place for Self-Defense

We never know who is around the next corner, so I also try to imagine walking along and being attacked and what my reaction would be. What better way to get into the frame of reference for self-defense?

Our Sensei tells us that we can work on self-defense when we are alone. I was telling the white belts today that our family would go through the moves together. Of course in the busy days of getting ready for the black belt test, we could not always find a time together with a partner so we would practice alone. I would wake up and go through the moves and then move on to other activities. Practicing with others is much better. My wife and son were practicing with me for the same test. I did find that the solo time cemented my learning and allowed for faster recall when we practiced together, and I believe the benefit of practicing together and alone made it easier on the test.

Have you ever looked in the mirror and performed your self-defense techniques? I know I did that too during the “drive” to black belt. It was great to see if my arm was straight or bent in various moves. And yes, it was not always where it should have been. I remember practicing with Sensei Mark P. on the beginning moves for our self-defense and him telling me to keep my arms straight.

What are a few ways you can carve, sculpt and mold a better you in the coming week? Are you able to keep your technique fresh and alive by finding a quiet space away from the busy day to spend 5 minutes going back over the techniques that may save your life? How about we all go for a brisk 30 minute walk and practice standing like a tall tree?

Even the dojo can be a quiet place

Even the dojo can be a quiet place

Remember, at the end of the day even the dojo can be a quiet place for reflection. You are looking good! See you in class soon. Please join me in standing like a tall tree.

Sensi Mae Posture

Sensei Mae has good posture!