Five Kensington Karate teen students joined me in visiting a Jiu Jitsu/Grappling tournament at City College today. We watched six-year-olds and sixteen-year-olds alike, rolling on the mat like two snakes in a life and death struggle. Nearly three hours of matches later, it occurred to me that we did not see a single student over-celebrating a victory, nor a single student showing poor sportsmanship, no coaches yelling, no parents screaming, no arrogance or negative attitudes- I could go on. It reminded me why I chose to train in a traditional martial art for 35 years now, why I continue to teach, and why it is such a valuable activity for children.
I was particularly impressed with the parents who were watching, keeping a distance, letting the coaches and referees do their work, and being positive and supportive. I see the same thing at our annual Karate Heroes Tournament and Demonstration. Role-modeling respect for the officials, and guiding their youngsters to accept both victory and defeat with grace and sportsmanship. It is, at times, an effort to do so. How tempting is it to blame a poor score on the officials, or to insist that a competitor was "robbed"? Done in the name of not having the student's feelings hurt, it has a harmful long-term effOvercoming that temptation allows a child to come to grips with competition, losing, winning, and luck. It makes for a more resilient child, who is able to deal with failures, bounce back from defeats, and enjoy the moments of victory with some perspective.
Sometimes, a karate parent's role is to volunteer for an event, lead a committee, encourage students when they hit a bump, or just to ask to see their most recent karate move. Sometimes, a karate parent's role is to sit back and watch their child roll around on the mat. Sometimes, a parent's roll is to not sign in for their child, not move their shoes under the benches, not tie their belt for them, and not remind them to bow in. And yes, the student is probably going to get yelled at. And yes... that's a good thing for them.
Practice Does Not Make Perfect
Anyone who has read the Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers, will recognize it as a reference to him when I tell students to count on 10,000 repetitions before they master a particular karate move. There is truth in that, but with a caveat.: Practice does not make perfect, unless you have the proper feedback to correct errors and reinforce correct performance.
World class Olympic down-hill skiers have coaches correcting them. The top Major League Baseball players, making $29,000,000 a year, have a batting coach who keeps them swinging well. Even with talent and years of experience, a coach is invaluable to an athlete. The same is true in other walks of life where performance is measured. (Business, School, Dance, Music, etc.)
This brings us back to the traditional kata (forms) taught at Kensington Karate, that were left to the martial arts world by great masters from the past. Make no mistake, these men were fighters and tested their skills in real life. They learned and survived. The ones who did not… left us no kata! These kata serve as teachers and coaches, reminding us to focus on what works, rather than play at the fantasy world prevalent in most modern systems of fighting. But, we must go beyond the repetition. Instructors are there to ensure that students practice the moves with the right technique, safe body-mechanics, sufficient power, and correct intent.
Like the symphony conductor, whose job it is to interpret music written hundreds of years ago, it is the karate teacher’s job to interpret the coded kata to its fullest expression. “Bunkai” is the study of that process, “Oyo” is the application that results from that study, and that is what is emphasized when students reach the teen program at Kensington Karate. Some of this material is not appropriate for younger students, so Karate Heroes ramps up the scope of material and mindset concepts over time.
Encourage your youngsters to practice their kata and to focus on corrections that they received from their Sensei or classmates. (Learning how to correct other’s kata helps you with your own.) Kensington Karate's upcoming "Everyday Heroes" tournament on May 18th is a brilliant chance to seek perfection in classical kata. For more on perfection through practice, follow the link below. Good Training!
Kensington Karate held belt testing yesterday, and 14 juniors passed their test to advance in rank. Nine of the students were white belts, testing for their first colored rank. Of course, it is a time of celebration, photos, pride, and in some cases... a good night's sleep with that belt still around your waist! Then, there is that moment that you walk into your next class, and you realize something: You are no longer a pure beginner, others are viewing you as a role model, and your days of limited expectations are over! In other words, you are a "sempai" to someone, and they are now your "kohai". A sempai's job is to educate and mentor the kohai in the etiquette, culture, and technique of the dojo. This mentoring system applies across many different organizations and activities in Japan, and simply means that one who has been there longer has an obligation to help newer members. Now, it is hard enough for adults to be gracious in mentoring new members of their work place, club, etc., but imagine trying to do so with the life-experience level of a seven or 11 year-old. It is then the Sensei's job to teach sempai how to lead without bullying or bossing others around. It takes some work, but the results are clearly visible, especially in the teen years and beyond. This is one of the least understood and mentioned purposes of traditional karate training: Students learn leadership skills. In turn, they see themselves as having something important to offer to others, which leads to that elusive self-esteem. It explains the Karate Heroes motto: "Shaping Everyday Heroes, Every Day".
I’m a white-belt blogger, or am I? Looking back on 30 years of teaching karate, whether in Kensington, Old Town, or Del Mar, it is tempting to view every class as an individual blog post. Each time I have the privilege of teaching a junior or adult class, the questions gets posed; What do I want students to take away from this moment? What is the content? I imagine a very long blog, representing somewhere around 19,000 classes taught! Not that anyone would want to read all of that, but it is fun to think about it.
Of course, a student walking in tomorrow, or next week, or yesterday, has not had the chance to read that very long blog. They are a blank slate and have that wonderful state of mind that Sensei refer to as “shoshin”, or “beginner’s mind”. It’s a combination of awe, enthusiasm, and an absence of intellectual interference. That last one just gets in the way of learning karate properly. Children are particularly good at shoshin, but it gets harder for students starting later in life.
I can honestly say that I have never taught the same lesson twice. (True, the bad jokes and puns remain constant!) Each class is an opportunity to write on those blank slates, or to remind senior students to keep their open minds. Each lesson plan represents an opportunity for a unique experience, sometimes one with a good deal of impact. The ideas get engrained through the physical expression of the training. Very powerful.
So, yes, this is my first blog entry, but not really. There are some 19,000 others that were not written down, but touched someone, somewhere. And, much like the power of the web to disseminate information, those karate-ka used that message to relate to friends, spouses, students, co-workers, and even their own children. Many thousands of interactions that yielded many more thousands. You might say that the concepts we learn in karate go viral!
Students are excited for the Jiu Jitsu seminar that’s coming up at the Kensington dojo. It’s a chance to be in awe again. A chance for, even the most senior students, to feel that sense of clumsiness. It’s good to be a white belt again!
Andy Eros has 30+ years of Shotokan Karate teaching experience, is a Physical Education Specialist at Warren-Walker School, and holds a Masters Degree in Exercise Physiology from SDSU. He lives in Point Loma with his wife, Christy, and three children, Diego, Sasha, and Lily.