Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: A Recap

I admit it - last year this time, I was experiencing a bit of tunnel vision. Six months away from testing for shodan, my focus was on stepping up the intensity of my training without getting inured. I succeeded in totally exhausting myself, but it led to all kinds of introspective examination that forced me to view my training in a new light - all of which I am still able to draw on today. Of course it led to some other epiphanies, realizations and discoveries - all because I had training partners (like Ed pictured with me above) and instructors (thanks, Sensei S.!) who encouraged me to ask questions and not take "That's just how it's always been done" as an acceptable answer. To them I am most grateful.

Although the year ushered in some economic downturns, it has been a rich one in terms of what I've gained from the martial arts. Wasn't sure exactly what I was expecting after spring grading, but I definitely got much more than I bargained for, including:

* my first broken bone (ouch!)
* nostalgia over untying my brown belt for good
* contemplating karate 12-step programs
* new training routines
* seeing amazing karate practitioners earn their red belts
* competing and judging in some great tournaments
* connecting with some great female martial artists via their blogs

Here's to an equally incredible 2010! Happy New Year =)

Monday, December 28, 2009

My Feet Are KILLING Me...

And sparring barefoot in the dojo is only making things worse.

I usta wear the dipped foam kicks to spar in, but they kinda squeeze my toes together and the plastic strap on the bottom make me slide all over the ring. I now wear cloth shin guards that have padding to cover my instep which provide lots of flexibility, but they leave my toes exposed. After a particularly foot-brutalizing round-robin sparring session on Tuesday night, I'm finding that exposed toes hurt when you kick something over and over again. I need a new solution for my feet, I think...

At a tournament I went to a few weeks back, I noticed lots of participants sparring in shoes with padded tops but that tied/fastened like shoes. I saw an ad in a karate magazine for the Ringstar shoes above and think I may have found something that works. They have suede bottoms that cover the entire bottom of the foot (no more sliding!) and they are easier to fasten (no more velcro that either comes undone or cuts off the circulation to my toes!) - heaven! Of course they are new on the market (so I don't know anyone personally who's tried them) and much more expensive than my $25 foam kicks, so I'm soliciting some feedback here.

Have you tried or know anyone who has tried them?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Delicate Balance

Fellow martial artist and blogger Michele posted a question in her "Just a Thought" blog a few days ago about black belts teaching. Should it be required? Is there a responsibility to "give back" to help keep the art alive? What is it about becoming a yundansha (black belt) that makes a karate student magically eligible to teach?

The school I came through the ranks in has no strict rules about teaching. In fact, many of us had led class stretching/warmup/kihon more than a few times by the time we'd become second- or first-kyu brown belts. There's no real instruction on how to lead the class though; your sensei just calls your name and asks you to start the warmup or demonstrate X technique. Let's just say we learned fast that there's a world of difference between being told what to do/how to do it and telling everyone else the same.

Three of us tested for shodan this past May and within a few weeks, we were all leading groups of under belts through kata, self-defense and sparring techniques. Although I love teaching and enjoy helping other karateka, what I found was that once the teaching started, the learning sorta stopped. But if black belt is really the beginning of training, how do you continue on a path that has become a bit obscured by the lessons you now give instead of the ones you get? Understand, I personally have no problems with giving back, but learning more in order to have more to give would be a great, too. Unfortunately, I had to go elsewhere to learn more - which is how I ended up with Sensei S since June.

Think about the instruction you've gotten and it isn't hard to see that some instructors are simply better than others. Just because you know a thing does not necessarily mean you can effectively explain how or why that thing is to others. Sensei S and I had a conversation about why this is the case. He's a very thorough instructor and has a knack for explaining things in logical, practical ways. When I asked him how he got to be such an instructor, he said he was fortunate enough to have instructors who taught him how to teach. Hmmmm...

So, an open letter to my other senseis would probably read like this:

Onegaishiamasu - please teach me - how to teach before you toss me into the lion's den to fend for myself. Baptism by fire might not the best instructor make. And please help me help others by continuing to teach me more about this incredible art. Teaching and learning probably shouldn't be mutually exclusive. Domo arigato goziamasu.

Stepping off my soapbox now...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

History in Harlem

In a junior high school gym in the Bronx last weekend, The Harlem Goju Association held its year-end promotions. Bigger than any they've had in recent years, 105 karateka fell in - at least 18 of whom were fourth-dan or higher. Grand Master Sam McGee - the head of the organization - said that all of the students in the first row had each been training with him for at least 30 years, evident by the white gis they wore to signify their rank.

There were no self-defense techniques, no tamishiwara, no sparring - just individual, group and demonstration kata. There were many highlights of the afternoon, but at one point, Master McGee called his youngest student out for kata. No more than four, she stood there in kioske and looked up at him, waiting for instruction on what to do next. Too humbling.

Being in that gym was like watching a "who's who" of USA Goju. In talking about how important the association has been to the community over the years - especially in providing free karate training to area families - Master Eddie Long spoke of a grand championship kumite match at the Manhattan Center in the 1970s where he was the center judge and Master McGee and Master Ernest Hyman were tied at the end of regulation. Master McGee blasted off the line to score the next "sudden death" point to win the match, but Master Hyman promptly ran off with the trophy! Classic stories like that remind you that although these great karateka have won championships upon championships and have taught more people than I can probably count, they are still mere mortals who put their pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us.

When the last certificate had been given out, Master McGee was in for a surprise of his own: after promoting the son of his late sensei, Major Leon Wallace, to 10th Dan, he was also elevated to the rank of 10th Dan. Never seen anyone get a red belt before, but seeing two folks tie on those belts in one day was pretty amazing.

Very happy I went and got a chance to witness history...

Friday, December 4, 2009

Paradigm Shift

I'm not sure how "normal" is is to have more than one instructor, but I actually have four. The most I've trained with at one time was three, which seems like a lot, really. But there is a story behind it all.

I started Goju at my son's instructor - Sensei F's - invitation to just "try" it. Somehow, I think he knew I'd be hooked. But as my interest in this new thing grew, I felt kind of limited by the fact that Sensei F's class only met once a week. He graciously pointed us to a sister dojo one county over, whose head instructors - Sensei M and Sensei R - came through the ranks with him. Their classes met twice during the week on days that didn't conflict with my home class. Some things were done differently - especially in kata - which made me kind of scratch my head because the two schools were not only part of the same clan, but taught by folks who had been taught together. Hmmm. But my son and I - and later the training partners from our home dojo who eventually joined us for treks across the bridge - just adapted a "When in Rome..." attitude and acted accordingly. Consequently, we learned two different ways to do many of the self-defense techniques and katas we were required to learn. For almost four years we traveled and learned. We also asked questions that weren't always answered, but that's another story.

It's funny how the things you do seem perfectly sane while you're doing them. But now, the thought of doing the same techniques two different ways with both being accepted as "the standard" seems utterly ridiculous. And just when it seemed things couldn't get any weirder, we started traveling to yet another dojo.

Since the Tuesday/Thursday classes across the river kind of dwindle down to a trickle once summer rolls around (meaning that since Sensei M and Sensei R aren't around too much, you never know which guest instructor or shodan will be leading the class) and since the idea of going from three nights a week of class to one was not one I was willing to entertain, we took Sensei S up on his long standing offer to come train with him and his students as a way to supplement what we were already doing. My son, training partner Ed, and I have been traveling an hour each way twice a week since June to get to his class as a result. Although we couldn't continue to travel so far every Tuesday and Thursday once school began again, my son and I still make it at least once a week.

Trouble is that now, some of the information we're getting is starting to conflict with the information we learned way back when. I'm talking polar opposites in the basic, simplest techniques. Direct contradiction is not an overstatement. Again, same style and senseis who at least started with the same instructor - but the differences are astounding.

Last week, after he'd been being ridden by Sensei S like a Kentucky Derby horse over his stances and "floating" kicks, my son said he was upset about how some of the techniques were initially taught to him. Some things - like hand positions during sparring and kata bunkai - seem so ineffective and inefficient now, and even when he asked what the techniques were or why they were done a specific way, he said he got answers suggesting that those reasons had more to do with tradition rather than working what works. He really likes going to Sensei S's class because he gets those explanations - given in practical ways that make sense to him - before he is SHOWN how and why it works. I heard him during our conversation, but last night - when it was MY turn to be that Kentucky Derby filly - I totally FELT what he was talking about.

I've come to realize that much of what I've been taught up to June feels like a watered-down version of karate, which ain't good. And since I'm now teaching a little at my home dojo - and have been asked to teach it how I learned it - I find myself in quite the pickle. If I had to go elsewhere to learn that my techniques weren't effective, I now know that the people I'm teaching those very same techniques to will hafta re-learn them at some point - which they'll have to go elsewhere to do. If they don't, they may get their butts handed to them if they ever needed to rely on those techniques in a real, live situation. In effect, I'm contributing to the watering down by default. I can't be easy with that - which means I've got some decisions to make...

Moving on means I'll be back to one-night a week class at least until summer rolls around again, which is a bad thing. But watered-down is a bad thing, too. Is bad karate better than no karate? That is the question...