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!

What Story Does Your Kata Tell?

This week our Sensei was on fire for Kata. He was looking to light our kata fire as well. He asked us the question “what story does your kata tell?” Of course some of us answered we need to practice our kata more.  The point of kata isn’t just to teach a form or sequence for dealing with danger. The point of a kata is to pass along a story about how an important confrontation was won in the past. We learn the outline of the story and do not go into the plot line fully for the whole story. We see down block left skipping to the next story sketch, learn its basic outline, and move on yet again, never getting the full flavor of the story. Instead of exploring all of the different ways we can use one kata, we move onto the next move or next kata in the belt progression without developing any competence about what we already have access to from the initial kata.

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On the attack looking to save a village!

One of our Senseis who helped us prepare for our black belt test challenged us to fight using only the kata we knew. The fight had us calling out after the punch, kick or block the kata name that the move came from. It was hard at first and never became as easy as it should have been. I thought I knew my kata moves. What I learned is that I did not know my kata story.

Kata story

Fighting using kata. Here is an outside block about to become a front hand punch!

Fundamentally we need to know the moves. What direction to turn, when to block and punch or kick and what type and how many. Without the direction and outline we do not have the foundation to tell our story. Practicing kata gives us the opportunity to learn how to demonstrate and express awareness, power and strength, softness, ferocity, and tranquility as we run through our basic moves. We set the foundation with learning the block, kick or punch and then put it to the moves. This alone does not bring the kata to life. It leaves the kata as mechanical and movement without purpose. Our katas provide us a forum for learning movement, self-defense, and self-expression. Practicing the principles of understanding body mechanics and application and giving that movement energy and life, will enable us to present a richer and more dynamic kata.  Each of us has the same moves and will interpret the story differently depending on our background.

Any good story has a beginning, a climax and an ending. Once upon a time there was…fill in the story from there. Or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” the epic opening for the Star Wars films.  As we perform the kata think about the introduction, the middle part (the battle) and then the climax (the big scream of hey we won!).  Each kata has a sequence that when acted out by two or more will tell the story of the event in a way that practicing by yourself would not happen. This is called Bunkai, the application of kata or the process of analyzing kata and extracting fighting techniques from the movements. Sometimes these movements are hidden from us practitioners of kata until we begin to understand them and tell the story to others through our kata.

Our Sensei told us a story of a great warrior who returned to his Master and told the story of how hew slew 18 warriors and freed the village from tyranny.  The Master asked the warrior to show him how this was done. The warrior was perplexed. He did not have the 18 men to show how he dispatched them and the village saved was not close by. He said to the master; let me demonstrate by breaking boards or bricks to demonstrate my skill. The master only replied that breaking was not the same. The Master then said it was not possible to demonstrate as anyone can get lucky and break a board or a brick. This great warrior was unable to demonstrate to his Master the skills. In kata we are able to fulfill the desire of the warrior to demonstrate how he defeated those 18 warriors. This also demonstrates to our Sensei how it was accomplished. With Bunkai we are able to show how the block or punch was effective.

Come on Sensei Mae. Lets get up and kick

One of the defeated warriors

How about it—what story does your kata tell? I am working on each one of my katas to see what story I am telling or missing. See you in class soon.

What is Your Favorite Strike?

Today we did open hand strikes in class. Sensei Mae and I probably enjoy a good back fist more than any other strike. It was great that we got in several back fists today and kept alive the streak of participating in the 10 strikes a day challenge. We were practicing referencing and moving up and down the dojo floor with the back fist.

Sensei Mae Backfist Prep

Sensei Mae getting ready for her favorite strike

Of course the reason to have a favorite strike or strikes is to use it in self-defense or fighting. I have worked on a two strikes and one kick combination for sparring so I would always have a “go to” move. Like our self-defense on the tests at our dojo, this repetition allowed us to relax more in a fight. When I am more relaxed in a fight (which is not too often) I fight better. Having a favorite strike or two really is a benefit to my martial arts career.

Sensei Mae Backfist

Sensei Mae lands a back fist on the bag as part of the 10 strike challenge.

Today we did open hand strikes including ridge hand and shuto. Our sensei reminded us that the open hand strikes were the most dangerous. We used Muay Thai pads in class today as a part of the drills. Ridge hand is very dynamic and we enjoyed using the pads. We always learn how to block a strike when holding the pad for our partner in the drill. It was a great lesson in the techniques we practiced today.

We were reminded that in a fight, the open hand strikes may be deadly, so please be careful when practicing on your friends. A good pad holder for the drill makes the drill a success. After several rounds of ridge hand and shuto, we performed them in combination. Our sensei shared with us that we could first break the opponent’s weapon, like their arm…and then attack the body. The combination techniques were fun to execute with our partners.

How are you doing on the 10 strikes a day challenge? In last week’s post we were challenged to get back to the roots of karate. I have met my daily quota for striking; it was easy to make 10 once I was at the bag, so I added more strikes than the challenge called for each day. Karate is fun! It is great to go home after work and in a safe place be challenged to hit things.

In my week with the challenge I have begun to notice that my kata is getting better when I need to throw a punch. This may have been what sensei had in mind when he issued the challenge. Of course our strikes in kata are not on the bag as the challenge has us practice. I can see the benefit for my kata in the challenge by concentrating on my strikes. How about your kata practice? Did it benefit from the challenge?

In class today I was instructed, I instructed others and I watched others perform. At the class prior to the adult class, several of our kids were performing a complicated bo kata with varying levels of proficiency. It is so great to see the kids’ progress and learn almost in front of us as the class progresses. I look at them and know that I look like the class participants in learning my most recent kata. We all go through this process of learning a new skill.

Hope you had a good class. I know that I enjoyed the class today. Please let us know your favorite strike in the comment section. I wanted to say hi to our Sensei Mark P who is with the Army stationed in Germany. I know he has a favorite strike. How about you?

See you in class soon.

Have You Hit Something This Week?

Baseball season has begun and this is not what our Sensei was on fire about. Karate is the way of the empty hand. This means we are striking, or hitting, or in some way using our hands to defend ourselves and well, I can say, attack others after they attack us. Gichin Funakoshi has on his gravestone this quote, “Karate ni sente nashi” or “There is no first strike (attack) in karate.”

As karate practitioners, we hit things! It is what we do. That was the point Sensei was making for us all in class on Tuesday.  We started with a simple reverse punch and moved to a front punch. We did combination strikes front and reverse punch. It was a lot of fun after a long day of working to punch a bag. We did have a go at my favorite, back fist. It felt good to do back fist drills.

Sensei Glen with a back fist as part of the ten strikes for the day.

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This is the first class this year that I recall us focusing on striking. Our Sensei shared with us that we are a karate dojo and we hit. He then listed some of the other martial arts:

  • Taekwondo emphasis is on kicking
  • Judo is designed to grapple and throw
  • Aikido has an emphasis on throwing
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Sensei Glen hitting the bag. Have you hit yours today?

The point for all us on Tuesday was that we needed to go back to the bag and ensure we were hitting and striking daily. He gave us the 10 hit a day challenge: each day punch a bag or other object ten times with each hand to improve our strikes. I am happy to report that so far I have participated every day and met this challenge.

In studying for our black belt test we had a series of over 100 strikes to perform both standing still and moving. It was a challenge to master all of the different strikes. It is interesting how many of them we use in our various katas. The next point that was made on Tuesday was that our katas all have strikes in them. Not just blocks. We need to work on both. Even with no first strike in karate we need to know how to strike properly.

Have you noticed that katas begin with a block? Take a look at the kata you like the best and let us know if you see that as well. I am sure our Sensei would also like us to make good punches in our kata. Block, punch is a basic winning formula for a good kata. Yes, we have the occasional kick as well. When we teach striking, we use our bodies, not just our fists. Throwing our hips and weight into a punch makes it land better.

At our dojo, we incorporate the best of martial arts into our teaching. We are a karate dojo and we also teach kicking, grappling, throwing and weapons. Our teacher is real. He worked as a bouncer at a bar and tried out the material he teaches us to ensure it worked. Besides the confidence that comes from learning a new technique or drill, we want to ensure that it works. What if, like the Music Man, you used the “think system” to learn any drill. In the movie, the boys to learn to play via the “think system,” in which they simply have to think of a tune over and over and will know how to play it without ever touching their instruments. That is not what I want for me and my family. We want the real deal.

I know that I am practicing my strikes and here is our challenge for all of you. How are you doing on your strikes? Could you make 10 strikes a day for the next ten days beginning the day you read this? Follow us on twitter and you will hear how we are doing #10strikestoday. Put a comment on Facebook or on this blog post. We are interested in how you are doing.

See you in class soon.

Are You Stretching Yourself?

Our Sensei often says that running kata is a workout and all you need to maintain your fitness level is to come to class and practice at home. One of my fellow senseis has a tee shirt that says “kata is my workout.” Being physically fit encompasses five essential components:   Cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, and body composition.

Of these five, flexibility, which is the ability to move a joint through its complete range of motion, is often neglected outside of our pre-class warm up. Some of you know that I make attending yoga classes a part of my routine. We are emphasizing flexibility in our movements in yoga as well as in all of our classes at the dojo.  You can reap the benefits of flexibility training at any age. I am sometimes surprised that my regular flexibility training shows up in performing moves with ease that if I was still or inflexible I would be unable to perform. Flexible joints are a key in maintaining pain-free and independent movements. This is a vital component for karate. How high we can kick, if we can perform that strike or kata often depend on our flexibility.

Think back to your last class at the dojo. We follow the same pattern in the classes. We begin with getting the muscles warm by performing a series of exercises designed to get blood flow into the legs, arms and all of the muscles we will use in class. When stretching at home please follow the same guidelines and never stretch cold muscles. The muscles must be warmed up for them to stretch.

Strech

Working on getting head to knee as shown here.

There are three components that affect flexibility: muscle elasticity and length, joint structure and nervous system. Of course we were born with our joint structure. Where flexibility training is impactful is on muscle elasticity and length and the nervous system. These two areas can be positively impacted by regular flexibility training. This is why we stretch prior to each class and some of us stretch after the class. After class stretching, especially after a fun kick class on Saturday, is where the real benefits of stretching come into play.

Flexibility is important for completing everyday activities with ease. Have you ever had trouble getting up out of bed or performing a simple task of bending down to pick an item up off the floor? Of course each of these requires a certain level of flexibility to be comfortable. Flexibility for students under the age of 20 is more natural. As we age we need to pay more attention to stretching and flexibility as our flexibility deteriorates with age. Engaging in regular flexibility training can assist with increased joint mobility, better posture, decreased back pain and a lower risk of injury.

Increased flexibility can improve muscular strength and endurance. Stretching can be a form of relaxation, which can positively impact physical fitness and mental fitness. For karate students this can positively affect your performance through increased mental toughness. When we enter the dojo we are to leave our worldly cares behind so we can focus in the moment on the lessons for the day. Meditating while stretching can assist with this concept and make it real for us.

To achieve peak performance, we must utilize the full length of the muscle to exhibit power and strength. As Sensei say, power comes from the maximum extension of a technique. If our muscles are too tight, they may not be able to provide the explosiveness necessary for a particular movement.

AP Strech

Proper stretching takes time. Spend at least 20 seconds per move–longer is better.

Here are several key benefits of flexibility: Improved performance of daily activities, Improved performance in karate class and training at home,            Enhanced joint health, Prevention of low-back pain and injuries, Relief of aches and pains (particularly in the muscles exercised), Relief of muscle cramps, Relaxation and stress relief (mental and physical), Decreased risk of injury due to more pliable muscles, and, Improved posture and balance (minimizes stress on spine).

Static and dynamic flexibility training is important and necessary to become “flexibly fit.” Dynamic flexibility is important for daily activities and for karate as karate movements require a full range of motion. Static flexibility, on the other hand, is preferred for increasing overall flexibility through muscle elasticity and joint mobility.

Flexibility training should be performed after the muscles of the body have been properly warmed up to allow effective stretching to take place. Ideally, flexibility fitness should be included five to seven days a week for all major joints. Here are some guidelines for general flexibility fitness:

  • Intensity: Stretch to the point of mild discomfort, not pain
  • Time: Hold stretches for 20 to 30 seconds. Perform them two to three times for the same area
  • Type: Static stretching exercises that focus on the major joints (stretch slowly and do not bounce). For karate performance, incorporate dynamic flexibility as well.

Next time you are with me on the floor let me know about your flexibility. Is increased flexibility a goal for you in the coming year? Please let us know your favorite stretch and warm up drill in the comments below.

See you in class soon.