Saturday, November 24, 2012

Delving into "The Way to Black Belt"

This is a re-print from our school's blog:

Although one of our students finished "The Way to Black Belt" by Lawrence A. Kane and Kris Wilder a week after she got it and others are in the throws of finishing the first few chapters, no one has been able to put their thoughts about it on paper yet. So for now, let's start with mine.

It's interesting reading the first two chapters as both a karate student and an instructor - especially since I instruct and get instruction in two different schools. And as I'm currently looking for some way to change my learning environment (specifically: expanding into more kobudo and eventually traditional Okinawan Goju-ryu), the book came at just the right time for me.

I'm currently a nidan in USA Goju so earning a black belt is not my goal, but the information detailed in chapter one - on knowing what to look for in a potential school and instructor as well as setting/reaching goals - is most useful. While I'm transitioning, Iain Abernathy's SMART technique - or creating goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound - has fast become my mantra. It and the "action plan" listing at the end of chapter one are also helping me figure out whether my current struggle in my learning environment is simply a training plateau or something else all together. I'm a bit more earnest in jotting down specifics in my training log as a result.

Next week marks my foray into seeking additional instruction by visiting area dojos. Reviewing "Chapter 2: Find a Good Instructor" has between helpful - mostly because I found my first school (which I left shortly after earning my black belt) by total happenstance as the class met weekly in the community center where I worked. But it's also helping me when I wear my "Sensei" hat as I strive to ensure that I embody those "characteristics of an exemplary instructor" outlined in the chapter.

I'm just starting to move through "Chapter 3: Know How You Learn" but for me, it's been so far, so good :-)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Contemplating Kata

Yesterday, training partner Ed and I, along with one of our students traveled to a tourney in NYC. I dragged my gear bag along - complete with my "competition" sparring stuff - in case there actually were "executive" (read: old) female black belts there, but there wasn't a long line of 45-yr-old females waiting to jump in the ring, surprise, surprise.

What I did see, though, was an amazing karateka in the children's division. I'm not big on 10-yr-old black belts normally, but this young lady had the most amazing focus and technique. She was obviously not just going through the motions and looked like she had been training her whole life. The same could not be said for other competitors, though. There was one young green belt - perhaps 15 or so, I guess - who actually did Unsu, an advanced Shotokan kata. He was full of spirit and very loud kias, but although his stances weren't bad for a relative beginner, for Unsu, they were not that great at all. I guess there is a reason why it's an advanced kata.

With the exception of an 8-yr-old brown belt who was very much on pointe, most of the other underbelt kata I saw was filled with lots of stomping (?!), ear-piercing kias and not much else. Although they looked really menacing while they were killing bugs on the floor, I kept waiting for some semblance of kata.

Another trend yesterday was the screaming of the name/style/sensei/kata presentation speech to the judges. Not an "I'm full of karate spirit!" type of yell, but an edgier, barky, almost rude type. Some even yelled up close then screamed the name of the kata again shortly before they began. And to step the rudeness up even further, too many folks felt bound and determined to let the judges know that they disagreed with the point calls during kumite. I'm talking incredulous stare-downs, outlandish hand gestures and outright questions to the center judge about his ability to see. I'm not quite sure what to even say about that.

Just so we're clear, this isn't a slam on large tournaments at all - but rather a commentary on the competition mentality. Any karate pratctioner who has ever competed knows that kata in open tournmanets tends to be a bit more, well...dramatic...than usual. For example, there are probably a few more kias tossed in when judges are watching than there normally are. Game faces are in place and practitioners try their best to bring the heat. But shouldn't that be the goal of kata done in the training hall sans judges as well?

I'll admit that I sometimes put different effort in when I'm first learning a kata, when I'm working on a kata and when competing. In front of judges, there is no thinking about the kata - there's just doing. Things flow a little differently when I don't have to think about the next technique or where my body has to go next - because I've already done that thought during the training sessions. In the confines of a ring, it becomes almost etheral in a way that I don't always feel during training (except when I'm working Sanchin kata). Maybe that's because the learning process calls for starts and stops, bunkai examination and flat cadences, I dunno. But it seems odd that the rote "in the moment" kata appears for me most when I'm presenting it to folks I don't even know and who don't know me. Perhaps the goal should be to flip that script.

When I was watching that 10-yr-old do her thing in the ring, I got chills - and the distinct impression that she always does her kata the same way. As it sould be, I'm thinking...

I wanna be like her when I grow up, I really do :-)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Second Verse...Same as the First?

Even before Hurricane Sandy did her dance up the US east coast - forcing my family and lots of others in NY, NJ and CT to stay inside our homes for a few days - I'd been in a bit of a funk. I'd told my honey I was having a karate crisis and we'd even chuckled about it, but the sadness of it all was very real to me. See - I've been struggling on the path for a bit, now. Something is definitely missing - and what is there seems quite broken.

Here's an example: My learning school is an hour away from my home. For three and a half years, I planned my schedule around 7PM Tuesday and Thursday night classes, breaking my neck to finish all my work and family stuff so I could get out of my front door by 6PM whenever possible. But in the last few weeks, my mindset has been "If I make it, I make it and if not, well..." On Election Day - after rushing around all day and even hurrying to vote so I could be done on time - I sat in my driveway with my beloved at 5:45PM and told him that I just didn't feel like going. So I didn't. I felt absolutely no guilt or anxiety about my last-minute decision at all - just relief. To me, that speaks volumes.

Yes, gas in my neck of the woods is a crazy $4 a gallon and after transportation to and from is factored in, a two-hour class actually nets me closer to five hours which are huge time and monetary commitments - but those aren't really the reasons I'm staying close to home these days. Being totally honest, it's the actual class itself that's giving me pause.

You may have noticed hints of it in my past few posts, but since writing about it has proven as difficult as talking about it (the latter actually makes me cry), I've tried to sort of kept it out of this space. That's beginning to feel very dishonest these days, so I think I've gotta just write it out already.

For a lot of reasons, my learning place has become a very unfriendly environment. It goes way beyond being gigged for the most minor of things (because I EXPECT to be corrected and taught - that's why I train, after all). The best way I can explain it - and hard as it is for me to say this - I feel like I'm being bullied on the mat. That is NOT what I expect to feel when I'm training in an art I've come to love as much as anything I've ever done in my life.

Does it matter that my sensei is dealing with some seriously tough emotional issues? It shouldn't, but it does, as it is causing some very weird and uncharacteristic behavior from him on the mat. Although I feel very badly about what he's dealing with, I'm just going to say the most politically incorrect thing imaginable: I can't really see what that has to do with the students when we're training. As callused as that sounds, I see it like this: we ALL have crap on our plates. It should be no more acceptable for an instructor to make the envorinment for his/her students an emotional mine field than it would be for a student to do the same to his/her fellow karateka. As hard as it is to do, shouldn't that stuff all be left outside the dojo door along with our shoes and attitudes?

The vibe has definately changed - so much so that there have been many, many classes in the last several months where I've driven home in tears - and that simply shouldn't be. On my desk scrawled on a note pad is a quote I found somewhere and jotted down: "Karate is supposed to be fun. If it feels like work, you're doing it wrong." Right now, it feels like work in a sweat shop. In the middle of sweltering August heat. Without an open window. And it most certainly sucks.

Don't misunderstand - I'm not expecting side-splitting hilarity in class, but I don't think I should be feeling like walking out 15-minutes after bowing in either, because that has never, ever, EVER been my reality. A not-so-great class every now and again is to be expected, but when those occasions become the rule rather than the exception, something may be amiss.

I'm just...tired...but really sad, too. I left a not-so good (instructionally speaking) school for this one - because of the amazing level of instruction and mutual respect, and I've stood by/sallied forth even when not one of my black belt training partners was able to (due to work and life responsibilities) or willing to do the same - but now I can't steel myself to go to class. Three and a half years ago, I thought I'd never have a need to ever even explore another school. Today I'm Googling area dojos. How the heck did I get here...again?!?

Karate is a leisure-time activity - not my profession - but it is very, very important to me. I miss that I'm only teaching these days and barely sharpening the tools in my toolbox or acquiring any new tools. I miss my training partners - even the ones who no longer train there - and I miss the way my school used to be as well, I really do.

Addressing this with my sensei at this point is not an option, as this is not a conversation that can take place over the phone or via text message and I can't make it down before or stay too long after class to chat because of my work schedule and travel time. I keep having the same debate with myself: is the point of a sit-down an attempt for me to help foster change or is it just to make my feelings known in an "I must get this off my chest" sort of way? Is either even productive or necessary? How will that (whatever THAT is) be perceived and received? Experience has burned me badly; it wasn't received well the last time I was here.

Right now, on this Thursday afternoon, I'm watching the clock to figure out what I can juggle/move around in order to be out of here on time to get home and pack my gear bag. Today's not too crazy a day, so it can be done. But the question becomes "Do I want to?" - the same as it was on Tuesday, last Thursday and the week before that as well.

But, as I used to tell my son when he was having issues with his grade school friends, if the same situation keeps happening over and over again, you should take heed. It can't always be everyone else's fault. This is the second time in as many schools where I've felt like I didn't belong or that I've over-stayed my welcome. But it can't always be someone else's fault. I'm sure I have some onus in this as well.

I just don't really know anymore...