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.

 

 

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.

back-stance-shuto.jpg

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.

backfist.jpg

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
strike.jpg

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.

Is this your Best?

My dad always said to me, “If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing correctly.” So, you must know that I did not always complete my work well, as I was reminded often of this saying. In the same way, Steve Jobs asked his employees, “Is this your best?” and as a result got better work and ideas from his workers. To keep pushing myself, I am hearing my dad and Steve Jobs asking that question of me. “Hey Sensei Glen, was that your best class or your best kata?”

dont-settle-steve-jobs-quotes

Is this your best?

Are you now asking that question of yourself?  In order to improve and give our best, we first need to know where we are. To be the “best” at anything, we need to know the standard we are comparing. Competitors in the Olympics know that they are the best when they win the gold medal. This is true for us even when gold medals are not given out during a regular class. When we give our best for ourselves, we can answer that question, “Yes, that was my best today.”

Glen Sarah and John National Champs!

Yes, that was my best today. National AAU Champions 2013.

We all come to karate as white belts. I freely admit that I almost always compare myself to others. It is something I do to see how I fit in with the other students. As white belts, we soon find out where we are in the ranks of other belts. I am still amazed at what other people in class have learned to do. They know all the moves in the kata I am struggling to learn.  The benefit for my competitive self is that it made the seemingly impossible task appear possible. In karate it is very rewarding to get our first colored belt. At that point we know where we are in our learning journey. We have white belt as a baseline and we sometimes say, “Well, that is a white belt kick, so I should know that kick.”

So, when we are asked, “Is this your best?” we need to remember our best in context. Our best kata may be our only kata. As a white belt, my best kata was my only kata. I was proud of my ability to perform it and did it well for a white belt. In context, the answer to the question can only be given if we know how you have been trained and then practiced that training.  Our senseis have spent hours teaching us and going over material they have long ago learned.

For some of us, we leave the dojo and move right into other areas and have lost our edge in learning the move we were just taught. We have not learned, practiced and re-learned the kata. We often skip the practice part as we are too busy. We learn and re-learn the kata.

In order to demonstrate that this is our best, we need to have time to practice and polish the rough spots in our kata. When we look at a map and see the “you are here” spot, we know where we are.  In that way we know which way to move to get to our destination. When we practice, I can imagine a “your kata is here” mark, and it is only when we continue to practice that we get to our best. Can we become our best without practice?

I agree that we can become better just by regularly showing up at the dojo and going through the floor drills and exercises. I have seen students and have at times been the student who just showed up. As you already know, with that approach we do get better due to the repetition. And we never really become our best with this approach.

Is there a better way? My thought is yes. The answer to the question, “Is this your best?” may be yes at all levels as the best for a beginner is unsatisfactory for the intermediate level. The better question for us to ask of ourselves is, “Are you satisfied with this being your best?” I believe this is why my dad always said to me, “If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing correctly.” We should still show up and be present even if we have not had time to work on all of our moves. Of course we are looking to set aside time during the week to practice outside of class. How about you? Do you ever ask yourself “?”

Looking forward to seeing you in class soon and hearing you say, “This is my best.”

 

Learn Kata Today, Live Kata Tomorrow

Sensei Mae here!

How is everyone doing on the 21 day challenge?

I know in a lot of dojos, kata (also called forms) is looked on as irrelevant, weak, or a general waste of time. Some senseis just “aren’t kata people.” Sensei Glen and I respectfully disagree with those.  Kata is so important to karate; we call it the lifeblood of karate.

Now it’s time for the Japanese word of the day! Kara, meaning “emptiness,” is the root of the word karate. And if you look at your right palm, you can see the Japanese kanji (or the Japanese writing) for “te” meaning hand. SO literally karate means the way of the empty hand. Now, what does this have to do with kata? Everything.  Here are the top three things this tells you about martial arts:

  1. Practitioners of karate are said to be devoid of emotion. Hence, the emptiness. One cannot fight with anger. You must empty or clear your mind of emotions. Anger, regret, or sorrow get in the way and distract the mind from what is going on. Our muscles tense up when we become emotional, and we cannot block quickly when we are focused on our emotions.
  2. The hand is empty. This speaks to the lack of weapons in karate training. In our dojo we practice Shotokan Karate, and in that system there are no weapons. It is all “te” or hand techniques.
  3. The “kara” and “te” signifies that there is no first strike. As you may recall from previous posts, we are big fans of that concept. We do not start fights, but we can finish them.  These are basic principles of karate, the way of the empty hand.

Kata helps to clear the mind. Personally I don’t care for yoga or “deep meditation sessions,” but I always enjoy kata. Kata focuses the mind and body.  Executing the proper techniques, breathing, and timing are paramount to calming. There have been a few occasions at work when I have become furious with a situation and removed myself in order to do kata. My coworkers know not to bother me while I am outside doing my “crazy karate stuff,” and when I return I am calm and usually have a solution.  Kata is a healthy outlet for frustration and stress. Even if I start kata frustrated, I always end calm. Starting from yoi or ready position  I have already focused my breathing and cleared my emotions.

For those of you who know me personally, I am back at university, and this can be very stressful. To combat this, I have developed a habit where I always walk through a kata in my head before I begin a test. That way I am calm and confident.   The simple act of visualizing kata can transform my mindset.

I encourage everyone to do kata regularly, and not just as a destressing mechanism but for many other reasons. My Hanchi always says that “kata is the essence of fighting” and is very important.   Kata teaches you to be empty and to fight without distraction.  That is how great fighters fight. When Bruce Lee fought, do you think he was worried about his hair looking just right for the cameras? I don’t think he even cared about that. He fought to defeat his opponent.

 

reverse-punch

Sensei Mae performing advanced kata.

Kata is the lifeblood of karate. Not only does it embody the meaning of karate, it teaches us the moves we must know to defend ourselves. As we move up in rank, our katas become more intricate.  The kata teaches us every move we need to know. From strikes to take downs to specialty moves, kata has everything.  By recording kata into our muscle memory, we can live kata every day.

I would love to hear about your favorite kata! Please comment below or tweet me @Sensei Mae.

 

#21 Day Kata Challenge. How are you doing?

If you are like me, I easily took to the 21 day kata challenge and thought it would be a breeze. I am committed to this challenge; it is public that I am part of the challenge. Of course, I struggled to fit this daily routine into my schedule. In preparing for the black belt test I practiced my kata four times per day. How hard could it be to practice at least one kata every day? It was not that easy for me.

It has been one week since we began the challenge. How are you doing? Here is how I am doing: Every day I have practiced at least one kata.

  • Sunday, I performed one kata at home. Day number one of any new challenge is always easy.
  • Monday, a holiday (January 2—do you remember?) I performed most of my kata at home. Of course I slacked off a little bit. We had company on Sunday and were getting ready for the return to the routines activities on Tuesday. So, it was harder to make it happen.
  • Tuesday, black belt class. I was so glad I had practiced my kata. It was kata night at the dojo, and we went through most of the first degree black belt katas. Prior to class I went over one kata with Sempi Josh that I am working on learning for the second degree test. That was great fun to work with Josh.
  • Wednesday morning I performed all my kata at the gym with the mirror and was able to go over some of the finer points from last night’s class. I am a regular at the gym on Wednesday morning, so, not too tough for me on Wednesday to meet the kata challenge.
  • Thursday, worked late and came home and performed one kata in the living room before eating and heading to bed. It snowed, it was cold. In the morning on Thursday, I was at the gym and pressed for time and did not practice my kata as I had on Wednesday.
  • Friday, I had fun swimming laps and then practicing my kata (and self-defense) in the hot tub. It was less than 10 degrees outside so I felt great being able to work on my kata in the hot tub and then stretching.
  • Saturday, performed all my kata in the basement. After a day of running around, I finally practiced my kata. Again, I brought home some of the fine points from Tuesday. This is why we take notes.

Kata is the lifeblood of karate. To get you motivated to continue to practice your kata in our 21 day challenge here are the top 5 reasons to practice your kata:

  1. It is good cardio. One of our dojo sensei’s has a t-shirt that reads “kata is my cardio.” Our Hanchi says that performing our white belt kata 4 times is the same as walking a mile. I find that running all the kata I know without a break gets the heart rate up. Have you tried running your kata without a break?
  2. In Karate only kata challenges the entire body as a unit during exercise. You can perform isolated exercises at the gym. Only kata is that total body workout.
  3. You learn to move in the fundamental stances, front, horse, and back. As you practice kata you learn the importance of proper stances and attention to the detail of the stances
  4. You sharpen blocking techniques. Our first kata teaches down block. We become experienced in blocking through this repetition of practicing our kata. A simple blocking drill is great and if you at the gym with me you know I practice one at the gym prior to kata. Kata is just more fun with the movement then a blocking drill. I like to be active.
  5. You practice how to strike. Every block, strike, stance in our kata is on our black belt test. We do not learn a kata without having first learned that block, strike or block. Have you ever thought about that?

kata-dumb

To the uninitiated kata is dumb. Do you know better?

A bonus for reading this far…secret knowledge is imbedded into every kata. This is called Bunkai, the application of kata.

 

kata-taught-me-this-move

You can learn a lot from kata!

Are you ready to begin? Have you already begun? It is not too late to jump on board the 21 day kata challenge. Remember that your New Year’s challenge from Sensei Glen and Sensei Mae is to practice one kata each day for the next 21 days. Are you able to spend less than 5 minutes a day practicing kata?

 

 

ready-to-practice-kata

Are you ready to practice kata? I am!

See you in class soon.