Saturday, May 29, 2010

16 to 24

Here in the states, it is a holiday weekend. A time to reflect on the service men and women who lost their lives fighting for the rights of others, Memorial Day is also the official kick-off of summer - which means people fire up the grills and BBQ or hit the road bound for the beach or someone else's cook out. That translates to lots of folks in the grocery store stocking up on picnic or travel essentials.

After class today, I was in line with most of them, waiting to pay for my potato salad and Vitamin Water for our trip to the beach tomorrow. Long lines left me with some time on my hands, so I tried to pass it by reading the last People magazine on the rack. On the cover was Yeardley Love (pictured above), the 22-yr-old University of Virginia lacrosse player who was beaten to death a few weeks ago - allegedly by her former boyfriend who was also a student and lacrosse player at the school. She was reportedly found by her roommate face down on her bed in a pool of her own blood with one of her eyes swollen shut. Threats apparently precipitated his kicking in her door, tossing out her computer and pummeling her to death. It wasn't the first time he'd gotten physical with her the reports say, but it was, unfortunately, the last. Both of them were weeks away from graduation and playing with their respective teams in the NCAA tournament.

People gave all kinds of domestic/acquaintance violence statistics, but one nearly made me fall over: women age 16-24 suffer three times higher rates of domestic violence than any other age group. Can you believe that?!? I still have a hard time digesting that information.

Lately there have been too many stories of young women who went out for a run, a walk to school, a night out with friends, a rock concert, a trip to the local deli or whatever and never returned home. Many of them were abducted and killed by folks they knew while some of them were accosted by complete strangers. The end results were exactly the same.

I've asked before, but I'll ask again: what can we as martial artists, as instructors, as women, as humans do to help stop the madness so that we don't have to keep burying our daughters, sisters, friends, cousins, neighbors, class- and team-mates? What we're doing now isn't working or just isn't enough, it seems...

Friday, May 21, 2010

Product Review: Ringstar Full Coverage Sparring Foot Pads

Prior to ever stepping foot on the mat, I had THE most horrendous looking feet on the planet. Seriously - with bunions, scuffed up toes from squeezing them into cute "girl shoes," Morton's Toe (my second toe is longer than the big one) AND baby toes that kind of lay on their sides (due to an unfortunate mishap as a toddler with those hard-bottomed baby walking shoes from back in the day), they just plain looked JACKED UP. I learned to live with it by keeping my shoes on or wearing the most ornate sandals I could find when the weather heated up and my toes had to be exposed. Amazing what a little bling and nail polish can do...

But then I started kicking stuff with my bare feet in karate and they got that much worse. I've dislocated my right big toe, broken my right baby toe and badly bruised the next-to-baby toe on the left foot, all while sliding around the ring in the dojo practicing kumite and tai sabaki techniques. Nothing like making an ugly situation that much uglier.

Dipped foam sparring kicks helped keep my feet from getting any more roughed up, but my toes always felt like they were being strangled as once I strapped them on, as I couldn't really move my digits around very much at all. Plus the plastic strap that ran along the bottom made me slip and slide all over the place, so I switched to the padded elastic instep guards. Sure they kept me from slipping and my feet didn't feel like they were being choked to death, but my toes were also taking the brunt of the force when I kicked, too (hello, pain!). I needed to find a solution for my aching tootsies with a quickness.

At a tournament in NYC late last year, there were a few competitors wearing the Ringstar Full Coverage Sparring Foot Pads pictured above. Unlike martial arts sneaker-type shoes, they are heavily padded like dipped foam kicks which helps keep the foot safe while keeping the person being kicked from getting blasted too hard. The most appealing thing about them to me though, was the actual textured bottom which gave them the sole of a sneaker. Wow - the best of both worlds!

I finally got to try out a pair. They arrived in a shoe box - not a plastic bag like all the other foot gear I'd ordered for my son or myself over the years - with actual tissue paper separating the left shoe from the right one - plus they had that "new shoe" smell! They still fasten with an elastic and Velcro strap that wraps around the top/underneath the shoe and secures at the back of the heel, but they also have an additional Velcro closure where the laces of a traditional shoe or sneaker would be, which allowed them to completely hug the instep of my somewhat narrow foot. And once I got them on, I could actually wiggle my toes a bit. It was at that point that I think I thanked the genius who birthed the idea for this shoe and pushed to get his or her somewhat unorthodox design to the masses.

After strapping them on, I jumped around in my kitchen for a bit (the only floor in the house that emulates the actual dojo wood) and they felt pretty good! Moving on the ball of my foot to throw a spinning kick or even pivot for a roundhouse, side or hook kick was kind of tricky (because there was a little more friction to deal with than I was use to), but I hoped it would be something I'd figure out how to negotiate in time. I tossed them in my gear bag with the idea that I'd begin that negotiation when it was time to next work sparring drills in class...

About three seconds after last night's warmup in class, Sensei had us pad up and get ready to do just that, so I strapped on my new sparring accessories and got ready to work. We tackled blitzing, a few hand and foot combinations to drive an opponent back and also learned to target a moving adversary using the knee (to block if he/she charged forward) or move into a side, roundhouse or hook kick (if he/she moved off to the side or back even further). Next we did some line sparring before moving into light contact/high intensity round robin fighting, which was an absolute blast. For over an hour we fought - and not once did I even think about my feet. The shoes felt like they were a part of my body, not dangling extensions that I hoped would do what they were supposed to do without causing me to fall on my butt. I could bend and move my foot with no issues at all. My tootsies were happy for the first time in a long time (cue angelic "Ahh-ahh!!" here) - and so was I :-)

None of my training partners noticed any difference in the force of the kicks either, which is good. My buddy, Ed, even tried them on (yes, my feet are THAT big) and liked them too - so much that he'll be ordering his own pair from karatedepot next week. After class, another of my dojo sisters talked about how her foam kicks always seem to split near the heel from being pulled off after sparring rounds. Because of the soles, the Ringstar pads kind of have to be pulled off from from the bottom, so I think they'll hold up well. The only drawback of the night was the short, black streaks I left on the newly polished dojo floor. So much for the "skid mark resistant" bottoms...

At $59.99, they are a bit more expensive than foam kicks, but to me, they are well worth it. If you are having have problems with your sparring foot gear or just want to sample something new, give them a try.

An interesting aside: since tossing the shoes back into my bag last night, I've stubbed my toes on door jams TWICE and dropped a bottle of water my foot (ouch!). Perhaps I need to be wearing them around the house now, too...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Kata Time!

No longer straddling the fence between two different schools/training philosophies, I'm finally back to exclusively training in one place again - and it feels great. Although the road to get here was a bit on the bumpy side, it's time to get back to the business of training in full effect again. While the transition was happening, my gym time and solo kata/kihon training dwindled down to almost nothing as I dealt with the fallout, licked my wounds and figured out what the heck the next move should be. As a result, the stress and off-kilter eating patterns caused me to lose about six pounds I could ill-afford to do without. Suffice to say I slipped into a bit of a funk for a minute. But now that I'm back to my regular ancillary training routine, not only has my mood changed, but so have the patches on my gis :-). Time now to earnestly start working on some other changes as well - specifically when it comes to kata.

Training like we did for so long, my training partners and I have an entire curriculum of kata that we know how to do at least two different ways (my buddy, Ed - who came to the school we just left from yet another USA Goju school - actually knows three ways to do most of our kata). It got so bad that when we trained on our own and somebody called a particular kata, we'd have to ask them to clarify "which" Empi Go, Gesaku Sho, Gesaku Dai or Empi Ha they were referring to. Crazy, right?

Sometimes the differences between the kata are subtle, but more often that not, the changes in target as well as the arm, hand, foot and leg positions and even some of the techniques and transitions are pretty big. It was a challenge trying to remember what school we were training in when a kata was called, but the absolute worst was the frustration of being introduced to something one way, doing it the gazillion times it takes to commit it to (muscle) memory, then being introduced to a more efficient way only to have the hardest daggone time trying to erase the other memory and get the new one to stick. Grrrrr...

Such was my reality in class last night doing Sansero. A USA Goju brown belt kata, we spent over an hour last night with Sensei S tearing it apart - all to get a deeper understanding and appreciation of its complexities. I originally learned the kata as a third kyu - back in 2007 - but uncovered a whole 'nother layer last night. Ironically, it was one of the few underbelt katas we hadn't "torn up" since I began going to Sensei S's class last year. How apropos is it that the kata refinement "finale" comes almost a year to the day after shodan promotions - and hence the real beginning of my training.

Like I've done with all the other kata we've dissected, I've written lots of details about Sansero down in my notebook, but now is where the real fun begins as I've got to make those changes stick in the ol' grey matter. But for the first time in a long time, I won't have to struggle to remember which dojo I'm in when I'm presenting it. :-)

Too cool!

Friday, May 7, 2010

What's in a Name?

I haven't shared this before, but for the first karate class after my shodan test, I actually forgot to pack a gi in my gear bag (ironically, I'd been dreaming about forgetting my gi for weeks before the grading, too)! Running back to my house made me a few minutes late for class. When I got back to the dojo, Sensei F had the class stop what they were doing (with a "Courtesy to Sensei!" command) and bow in my direction - the norm whenever a black belt enters the dojo. But because the rank was so new (as in all of two days old), I stopped, turned around and prepared to bow to whatever dan was entering after me (duh!). I wasn't thinking of myself as a "sensei" yet.

When I first started teaching as a college adjunct instructor many years back, hearing "Professor H" from my students literally made me pause for a split second and try to figure out who the heck they were talking to (duh again!) - because I wasn't really thinking of myself as a professor yet. Putting PowerPoint presentations together, grading mountains of papers and making up exam questions have all helped changed my view, but I still giggle a bit on the inside when I hear "professor" before my name.

When I was having all the dreams about forgetting my gi last year, Sensei S questioned me on what I thought the dreams meant. "Is there magic in that gi or do you get power from your belt?" he asked. His point - about the uniform having no affect on the karateka I was - was well taken. Perhaps the same point can be made about one's name...

The few times Sensei S has had to call and leave me a voicemail, he's said "Hey there, this is K." Not once has he ever referred to himself as "Sensei S." Funny thing is that I've only ever heard Sensei J call him "Sensei" - never by his first name. And these are two of the most amazing practitioners and teachers I know, but still the black belts they wrap around their waists to train in have no stripes or way to signify that they are sixth- and fourth-dans respectively. Maybe they are the most humble, too...

Whether my sensei refers to himself by his first name or last, it doesn't change who he is, what he's done and the amount of respect he's afforded on the mat. Even if all his students developed amnesia and could only refer to him as "Hey, you!" he'd still be the same great instructor and man of Tao.

There's a lesson in there somewhere, I'm sure of it :-)


Last night marked my one-year shodan anniversary. How did I spend it? At a karate grading, of course - the very same one I was a participant in last year.

This time I only helped grade self-defense techniques and tamishiwara. I also sparred a little as well, but the main reason I was there was to cheer on some of my training partners. For the last four months or so, I've had the pleasure of training with my alma mater's Goju Karate Club after my Monday evening class on campus. Mostly students and recent alum, the karateka ranged in rank from seventh all the way to first kyu. Many nights I was asked by the lead instructor to work with the underbelts on kata. I think I learned way more from them than they learned from me because their enthusiasm was absolutely infectious.

Six of them earned their green belts last night, two moved to fourth kyu, two others to first kyu (official shodan candidates!!) and one - a tri-athlete and water polo player who stopped training as a fourth kyu years ago and returned to the dojo a while back in his purple obi - earned a crisp, new black belt. They all did an amazing job...

Here they are donning their new belts and certificates (their Sensei - another Sensei S - is kneeling in front). Congratulations!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Learn It Right and Learn It Early

I try to spend the mornings after karate class writing down specifics about techniques and recapping what we learned or reviewed the previous night. Before I did that this morning, I reviewed new posts from my favorite martial arts bloggers and found a great post on "Honoring Technique" from my "across the pond" MA friend, Sue. Great minds think alike, I guess...

Last night when I was visiting the dojo that meets on campus after my editing class, I ran into my own "honoring technique" situation when I was asked to help the underbelts with Ippon Kumite (one-point sparring) techniques. The group has a grading coming up later this week and the class was one of the last fine-tuning opportunities they'll have before promotions. There were only two women there - a seventh kyu and a fifth kyu. Close in rank, height and weight, they paired up and worked on their ippons together.

It became quickly apparent, though, that the two of them were just sort of falling to the ground when they were the uke (person having the technique done to them) and pulling techniques/punching past each other when they were the nage or tori (person doing the technique). I could see that they knew what they were supposed to be doing, but whether or not they could do it effectively in "real time" wasn't so obvious.

My mention of it to the sensei led to a discussion about appropriate resistance. Sure the uke needs to offer some resistance, but too much can make executing the technique almost impossible. But how much is too much for a white belt? For a green belt? I remembered one of my early promotions with my green belt uke who absolutely refused to be swept or taken to the ground. One of the senseis I'd been training with whispered to me to give Mr. Iron Man a gentle but firm push with my foot on the back of his knee to assist gravity a bit. Worked like a charm (he literally dropped like a rock), but I remember feeling kinda of surprised that I wasn't able to work the technique as I'd learned it for squat. Strange - because my uke in the dojo always fell right on cue. Hmmm...

It seems to me that we do each other a terrible dis-service by just falling to the ground when a punch comes into our vicinity. If I totally lose my balance when my tori simply touches my gi, it may give a false sense that the technique he/she is doing is actually working when in fact it might not be. Especially for women and others who may be faced someday with an evil-doer who is bigger and stronger, learning how to make the techniques as effective as possible is absolutely key - but not just so it looks good for grading. I think it's best to begin learning that as the technique is being learned. Because I've been there, done that, the idea of learning something one way then having to re-learn it so it works whenever you need it to is not the best way to grasp a concept, I'm thinking. The "it will make sense/get easier as you develop and grow" school of thought is totally to the curb when it comes to learning karate, in my humble opinion.

But that's not to say that there aren't techniques in our system that I didn't have difficulty learning or that would ever be my "go-to" ones in a real, live situation - especially if my adversary is bigger than I am. To try to understand how that might play out, I tend to seek out the solid guys with the strong hands when working self-defense and wrist grab escapes (thanks to Sensei J, Rob, Mike and Ed for indulging me :-). If I can't make it work with them when they know what's coming, chances are I'm probably going to have issues making them flow smoothly in the street against Chester the Molester, too.

I'm going to channel Sue here (who asked the same question of her readers): what does "honoring technique" mean to you?