Is Sleeping the Key to Great Karate?

Prior to my most recent karate test, I made sure I had a good night’s sleep. As I am sure you know, common advice prior to taking a test is to get plenty of rest the night before the big event. That general wisdom got me thinking about sleep and the impact on athletic performance. Several studies have shown the benefits of a good night’s sleep related to improved athletic performance.  A sleep study was run on the NCAA men’s basketball team from Stanford University and showed improved athletic results for the entire team. Here is a link to the ESPN article: http://www.espn.com/blog/collegebasketballnation/post/_/id/32692/study-stanford-players-need-more-sleep

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Sample sleep study room

I have a habit about when I go to bed each evening. You may be thinking, only when I was a child did I have a bed time. My experience is different in that I am better prepared for the day when I hit my regular bed time. I am more focused and alert with a regular schedule. I generally get up a few minutes prior to the alarm clock. We are an interesting society that uses an alarm clock to set a wake-up process versus allowing the sunlight in our rooms to wake us up. Of course we could always reverse the process and set an alarm to go off at night to get us to our bedroom and get ready for bed.

Prior to the black belt test, I took a few minutes after warming up and stretching to shut my eyes and concentrate on the moves for kicking and striking as well as the katas I would perform. That focus really assisted. I also had a good night’s sleep and slept in prior to driving to the test site. This practice of a good night’s sleep did improve my karate result as I kicked higher and was more relaxed during the test than I had been during the pre-test the week prior.

Karate is like any other sport. We work on coaching the fundamental techniques and practicing them. As our team prepares for the AAU national tournament in another week, should Sensei Mae, one of the instructors, focus in on sleeping as one of the key target areas for improvement in the skills? I believe the answer is yes. We should always practice like we plan to perform.

It is easy to get excited prior to a big event.

  • A consistent sleep pattern designed to maximize performance will relieve some of the pressure for performing on the big stage.
  • Maintaining that sleep pattern is no different the night prior to the tournament. Perfect practice makes perfect.
  • I believe that the regular pattern of sleep has led to improved results for me when taking the karate tests, as the sleep the night before is just an extension of my normal pattern.

If we get up in the morning refreshed, we can exercise harder and with less effort and that will lead to us meeting our goals. Also, a proper sleep pattern may even lead to proper weight maintenance. Web MD has an interesting article on sleep and weight loss. The two elements are related. The article stated that being overtired leads to poor eating decisions. “Plus, when you’re overtired, your brain‘s reward centers rev up, looking for something that feels good. So while you might be able to squash comfort food cravings when you’re well-rested, your sleep-deprived brain may have trouble saying no to a second slice of cake.”

Here is a conclusion from The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players study: “The results of this study strongly suggest that the less frequently considered approach of extending total sleep time may perhaps be the one with the most potential for positive impact on athletic performance. For an athlete to reach optimal performance, an accurate knowledge of one’s nightly sleep requirement and obtaining this amount should be considered integral factors in an athlete’s daily training regimen.”

So, our challenge for all of you is to measure your sleep for the next week. Once you find that pattern, let us know in the comment section below. My goal nightly is 8 hours and I achieve that on a fairly consistent basis.

If you are competing in the upcoming AAU national championship, consider an extension of your sleep to maximize your potential performance while competing, and best wishes for success at the national tournament!

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See you in class soon.

 

 

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?

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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.

 

 

Are You Ready for the Test?

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Am I ready to test?

This last weekend we had a black belt test, and as a new Sensei I was on the panel judging the candidates. They did great. The test got me thinking about how we prepare for a test.

Test preparation begins with the first day of class as a white belt. Day one in class—making the decision to show up is probably the hardest day of class. We all have so many unknowns and you may not know how to fit in. Day 2—coming back to class is an equally hard day as you need to decide if you have enough determination to see the process through. Will you finish what you began? That is the question you begin to answer showing up for the second time.

In school, every class that you attend, assignment you complete, and contribution that you make helps prepare you for any questions that may appear on a test. At the dojo, each class is adding to your base of knowledge in a variety of subjects (kicking, punching…) and you are able to measure yourself against a standard that is set up at the dojo. Attending class regularly helps build up the muscles, stamina, quickness and speed necessary to make it from white to black belt.

Each belt level leading to black belt has a series of kicks, strikes, katas, weapons or other techniques that the student is required to demonstrate. There were times that we were and other times that we were not ready for our next belt test. Sometimes we did not put in the practice or the hard work required for the next level. Vince Lombardi said the “Dictionary is the only place that success comes before work. Hard work is the price we must pay for success. I think you can accomplish anything if you’re willing to pay the price.” So, whether in karate or on the gridiron it appears that you need to work hard (practice) and then you can accomplish your goals.

I was always thinking about if I was or was not ready for the next belt test. What skills did I need to learn and were they being taught in the class I was in or could I ask a fellow student after class to show me a move or a technique or sometimes even a whole kata.  Belt progressions and getting ready for belt tests rely on our own personal motivations and goals. Will we put in the work it takes to reach that next level? It would be great to condense all required knowledge down to a simple formula or practice one day out of seven and have all the skills and stamina needed. Each person is different and we are all ready at different times.

Here is my simple diagram on determining if I am ready for the next test.

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Sensei Glen’s diagram. Ready to test?

If my answer was I was not yet ready for the test, I went to as many classes as I could and asked others for assistance, especially the Senseis. It was sometimes easy and at other times hard to identify what areas of assistance I was looking to develop or improve. Sometimes my class work or a private lesson pointed out areas that I needed to practice. When I practiced, received coaching and had the skills, I would pass the test. In business we talk about performing at the next level and then moving to that next level. It is often the same in karate.

When preparing for our black belt test, we thought we were ready because we had come to class and worked some of the time outside of class. We asked our Sensei to let us come to the black belt pre-test. We quickly discovered we were not ready.

The pre-test is a great option at our dojo, and our black belt pre-test was a humbling experience for us. It was there we recognized how much work (practice) and coaching we needed prior to the actual black belt test.  About six months later we were asked to take the test as we had put in the hard work and developed our skills.  An interesting change occurred in that six month time period. We did spend significantly more time training than we had prior to the pre-test failure. We applied the failure of the pre-test to get help in areas where we were weak. This training in class, private lessons and practice sharpened what we thought were good skills into black belt skills. Even after we passed we realized we were not as good as we could be and continue to work on improving our skills.

It is easy to know that you are ready for a test when Sensei says “hey, you are ready and should take the test.”

Of course, we had already learned beginning with the white belt test that you are ready for the test when you keep practicing correctly that new skill.

A popular myth is that 10,000 hours of practice will make anyone an expert. We first need to think about the kind of practice. If you practice self-defense move #1 for 10,000 hours, you might not be any better at it if you practice it imperfectly. If you are at the dojo or have a private lesson and receive feedback on self-defense move #1 you will, over time, become an expert. This is when you begin to know that you are ready for the test. You have received feedback that you can demonstrate the skill or technique successfully more than once from an acknowledged expert.

The reason Sensei will say you are ready for the test is that your Sensei sees the results of the hard work and determination you put into practicing skills both in the dojo and at home. When your kata looks good and you know your self-defense it is easy for you and your Sensei to know that it is time to take the test.

I will leave you with one final quote from Vince Lombardi: “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.” These words can be applied to belt tests and all others in life. Gathering the will to practice properly and obtain feedback on your skills will make it obvious to you and your Sensei that you are ready for the next test.

See you in class soon. Please ask me or any of the other Senseis your questions to help you prepare for that next test!