November 20, 2015

Goals vs. Justifications

I’m a perfectionist at heart – if I’m going to do something, I want to do it really well.  And if there’s a better way to do it, I want to find it.  This was precisely one of the things that kept me coming back day in and day out to karate training.  Whatever the instructor told me to do, I wanted to do it as best I could.  I was given the task to do, and I did it, because that effort was getting me closer and closer to reaching my goals.  I wanted to be better at each training than I was the day before.  And that can be incredibly motivating as a practitioner.

But it can be frustrating as an instructor.  I now provide the drills for my students – and I want them to be better.  But just being better isn’t a goal in and of itself – we need to know: better at what?  And that’s where goals come in.  Do I want someone to be better able to defend themselves, or better at tournaments, or better on their test, or a better person, or more fit, etc.?  Because different goals require different methods to get there, or at least to get there optimally.  We need to understand what goal(s) we are working towards to be able to define anything as “better.”

It would be easy if the syllabus was a fixed thing that met all of our goals optimally, but with competing goals that can never be the case.  The grading syllabus sets the intermediate milestones toward meeting our training goals, and I believe the milestones should be set by the goals and not the other way around.  More importantly, the syllabus should be open to change when better methods are discovered.  The goals and the necessary building blocks to reach those goals will remain relatively static, while the exact techniques, drills, and training methods should be relatively fluid as we are always striving to find better ways to reach our goals.

Being limited by a static, technique-based syllabus prevents the use of precious and valuable training time working to reach our objectives if our goals don’t align perfectly with that syllabus.  So those of us who have been working with (and teaching) the syllabus for years end up putting a lot of effort into justifying why those elements are there and why they are necessary and why the progression is necessary. But are they? 

If you could start from scratch to try to get someone from zero skill to one of your goals, is there anything that you would change in the syllabus?  For example, I’d throw out 3 step sparring in a heartbeat if students didn’t need to test with it.  Whether your end goal is self-defense or free-sparring, 3 step sparring has no place in the progression.  There is nothing that you get from 3 step sparring that you couldn’t also get from other forms of sparring that we do, and it has the added detriment of teaching poor tactics. 

You can dream up all kinds of things that you are learning or working on in 3 step sparring, or any drill.  But are they necessary/important skills, and would there be a better way to teach them? When the syllabus is handed to us and we don’t have the power to change it, it’s easy to fall into the trap of rationalization.  Working out the syllabus based on goals might look completely different, but even if we end up with things looking the same, I think the intentionality of what we do is important.

To me, the syllabus (or test) should be a checkpoint to make sure that students have all of the skills required at that point in their progression.  And it should clearly progress to an end goal(s) if you look across the entire syllabus.  Karate training has the potential to do so much for students, both physically and mentally.  We can develop some very useful skills through our practice of the martial arts.  But we can’t allow the training and the techniques to be the goal by themselves.  The training needs to be driven by and focused on the skills and abilities that we are trying to develop.  I think we would benefit from defining our goals, identifying the necessary components and skills to achieve them, and working from there to develop a progression that gets our students to be the best they can be as quickly as possible.

Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan

September 27, 2015

How, What, Why?

I read an article recently where several self-defense instructors were exploring how to teach an intangible thing that their students need.  They proceeded to discuss that how to teach the lesson really requires the teacher to know what it is that they are teaching.  Finally, they concluded that what they are teaching is only important if you know why the students need it.  The progression was “How?” to “What?” to “Why?”

This train of thought bears a striking similarity to the budo concept of shu, ha, riShu means to protect or obey, ha means to detach or digress, and ri means to leave or separate.   The stages of shuhari represent the learning of form, the breaking of form, and finally the transcendence of form.  These stages of budo learning are the answers to how, what, and why.

A student asks, “How do I do karate?”  Well, you punch like this, move this way, do this kata…   “Wait a minute, what is karate anyway?”  It’s a way to physically prevail by using physics to your advantage.  You are now free to explore different ways to define “how” you do that personally.  You can make karate your own.  “But wait, why do I want to know karate in the first place?”  To win competitions, to become a better person, to defend yourself in an emergency…  When you know the answer to “why,” your answers to “how” and “what” transcend the forms that you once knew.  Your karate manifests in limitless shapes and movements.  You progress from making karate your own to making your own karate.

The weird thing is… the process seems backwards.  Shouldn’t we define our goals, then define what strategy will achieve those goals, then decide how we will fulfill that strategy?  I think the reason we have shuhari instead of rihashu is to build on the knowledge of previous generations.  Instead of wasting time on trial and error, we find a master or teacher or guru and copy what they do to get a head start.  The dynamic is similar to the master-apprentice relationship in crafts like pottery and metalworking. If you want to win championships, find someone who trains champions.  If you want to get into shape, find the instructor that stays in shape.  The tough question here is, “Who is a master of self-defense when physical encounters are so rare, and every student and every situation is different?”

Submitted by: Matthew Baran, Sandan

July 22, 2015

Defining Shotokan

What defines Shotokan training?  While a seemingly simple question, I think it can be hard to define, and I think the definition varies fairly widely among practitioners of the art.  I don’t know if there’s one “right” way to define what Shotokan training is, but I want to explain what elements are essential to me.  I would define Shotokan Karate-Do as a traditional martial art with ties back to Gichin Funakoshi.  In looking at each component of that, we can come to understand what I see as Shotokan.
  • Traditional – Our lineage traces back to Gichin Funakoshi, and we need to understand the history of our training.  We need to look not just at our immediate predecessor (our Sensei), but to how our training originated and why.  But upholding that tradition is not about purely preserving the techniques and training methods that have been passed down to us.  We keep those strong roots, but we need to continue to grow and adapt and change.  I would argue that one of the traditions that we are passing on is that of change – adapting to current circumstances, solving the same problems with modern training methods and new information.  As an example, traditional training involved hitting the makiwara, but we now have many other types of equipment that are more versatile to practice impact that should be utilized in training to test and strengthen our technique.  Studying and solving the problem of violence is part of the tradition.  To me, the only technical requirement for traditional training would be the inclusion of kata.  The kata have been passed down and contain the tactics and strategies that form the core of karate – the kata are the “textbooks of karate” that we have for our study.  Other training methods such as kihon in lines, jiyu kumite, etc. are more modern additions to training, and since their history isn’t as long, I don’t consider them necessary for traditional study.
  • Martial – Our movement’s effectiveness and efficiency is defined by combative principles.  The basis for our study is to learn about unarmed conflict and how to apply our techniques (primarily from kata) to solve those problems.  While practice of defending against another karate practitioner can be valuable for training, I think we need to be mindful that the art was not intended to solve that problem.  Our study should focus on using karate’s techniques to address civilian self-defense, and metrics for success are linked to combative effectiveness.  Applying this responsibly also includes learning about violence dynamics, what types of violence you’re likely to face, and the non-physical parts of self-defense (moral, ethical, legal implications) as well as aspects such as de-escalation, awareness, escape and evasion, etc.  These elements are a part of Shotokan Karate-Do if we are to conscientiously practice the art.
  • Art – The mental and philosophical aspects of training fall largely here, and it is important to study the philosophical principles handed down to us in the Dojo Kun, Niju Kun, and other martial philosophy (Art of War, Book of Five Rings, etc.).  The “art” part of training encompasses the practice of constant refinement, mindfully studying what we do and why, and trying to always improve and do things better.  For me as an instructor, that always also includes trying to find better ways to teach, and trying to help my students get better than me in less time than it took me to get there.  Particularly in the modern age, the ability to freely exchange information and learn and adopt from others is important for finding ways to constantly improve the study of our art.  To continue to improve our training, we should also learn about biomechanics, proper warm-up and stretching methods, understanding violence dynamics, methods of instruction of physical education, and the list goes on and on.  There are so many resources out there and experts in areas that impact our training that we can learn from to constantly improve.
The details and techniques and drills and methods of training do not make the tradition.  Things like the syllabus don’t define for me what Shotokan is.  I think we can look to the kata for techniques, but the inclusion or exclusion of any specific technique isn’t defining for me.  If someone did all of their training based on the 5 Heian kata and never learned mawashi geri – would it still be Shotokan?  I say yes.  Some would characterize Shotokan by the deep stances and athleticism, but is it a defining characteristic?  For aging practitioners, if they don’t have the deep stances anymore, are they no longer doing Shotokan?

For me, what is discussed here are the minimum requirements that I consider for someone to call what they’re doing Shotokan karate.  It’s our practice of a traditional martial art, and can be connected back to Gichin Funakoshi.  We preserve our shared history through the kata, study based on combative principles, and always seek to improve.  To me, that’s the essence of Shotokan.

Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan

May 8, 2015

After Black Belt

The Black Belt is a famous symbol in martial arts that is often mistaken as the sign of a “master” who has achieved the apex of their combative studies.  Of course, anyone who has spent a little time studying martial arts will know that the black belt is just the beginning of study, and in fact, “shodan” means “first level” in Japanese.  Still, with many martial arts styles, organizations, and instructors, the black belt may be awarded at just about any skill level, and the symbol is only meaningful within the entity that awarded it.  Indeed, a certified black belt can be purchased through an online fast-course, or it can be earned through 8-10 years of arduous study and a grueling hours-long examination.  The meaning of the belt on your waist is, as ever, only as good as your capabilities on the floor.  Despite the ambiguity, I would like to offer my thoughts on what shodan means to me.

I believe a black belt is a person who has absorbed the basic physical principles of their chosen art.  They can move, generate power, and defend themselves effectively within the framework of their martial art.  They should be motivated to adapt their training and learn independently, too.  A black belt should be a capable martial artist: one who possesses the physical tools of attack and defense, but also possesses the mental tools to create and adapt in the presence of new information.  A shodan is someone who has the physical and mental capacity to improve themselves and has the willpower to fulfill that capacity.

For Shotokan students, I look for the ability to apply power from the hips and legs in a wide variety of martial movements.  Body shifting, stepping, sliding, rotating, etc. should be coordinated and driven from the body center.  Power generation should be based on driving from the floor with the legs and hips, and connecting the torso mass to the technique with very precise timing.  The student should have developed instincts for fighting as well; understanding an opponent’s movements relative to your own movements and adjusting appropriately is important for success.  The student that is ready for black belt has internalized these physical elements and can perform effectively in many situations without conscious thought.

As part of the preparation for black belt, I also look for a student’s psychological preparation.  It is more difficult to measure, but I look for students that can take information from class and synthesize new information or ask deeper questions based on independent thought.  I also look for a student’s attitude and awareness in their approach to training.  Do they recognize the martial nature of the practice, and are they mentally focused during training?  Do they maintain concentration on their practice, or do they drift in and out?  Do they make an effort to follow directions and adapt to feedback from the instructor?  What is their attitude toward dojo etiquette, punctuality, and attendance?  These are a few of the signals I’m looking for that indicate mental preparation for a black belt rank.

Finally, based on my definition of shodan, I believe that black belt training should be internally driven and personal to the trainee.  I rarely offer my opinion to black-belt students, visitors, or training partners, because they should be responsible for their own development. I expect them to perceive the lessons offered in class and apply the training without my interjection.   If they want my opinion on their karate, I am happy to provide it, but otherwise I will leave them to their training.  After black belt, martial arts training should become more and more internalized, and the constant insertion of external feedback acts as a barrier to the internalization process.  For me, a shodan candidate should demonstrate the “first level” of internalization and self-improvement.
Submitted by: Matthew Baran, Sandan

April 22, 2015

12 Tips for Success

It has been over a decade now that I have been teaching karate, and several years longer that I have been training.  In reflecting on that time, I have had many ups and downs to my own training, and have observed many successes and failures of my students and fellow karateka.  In trying to look back and summarize what have been consistent contributors to success across all those various experiences, I have come up with the following list.  I hope you find it useful in your own training.
  1. Make training a priority, and keep training.  Show up to class and train, even if you don’t feel like it.  You can always find a reason not to train, and it’s easy to justify to yourself why it was ok to miss class today.  As soon as you start justifying reasons for yourself to miss, those excuses become the pattern.  Make showing up to training the pattern that you want to enforce.  And if you have direct conflicts and you can’t make class (class conflicts, work conflicts, travel, etc.), then don’t allow that to be a reason that you miss training – make time for yourself to train on your own.
  2. Always assume the instructor is talking to you.  In many seminars and even in every day training, the instructor will give feedback and instructions to the class in general, rather than to individuals.  Always hear that as if the instructor is talking directly to you.  Never assume that you’re already doing what they want.  Make a conscious effort to change or tweak what you’re doing to reflect the information that is being given to you. 
  3. Focus on yourself and your training.  Allow the instructor to give comments and correct others, unless you are specifically told to do so.  When you’re in training, worry about yourself.  You can’t simultaneously focus on yourself and others.  If you’re looking outward to what others are doing, then you’re not doing the best that you can to improve yourself, and you’re not getting the most that you can out of training.  Spend your time and energy on being the best that you can be. 
  4. Acknowledge and celebrate the progress that you’ve made.  We often get bogged down in the constant struggle to be better, and we’re always looking for more that we could have done.  But we also need to acknowledge how far we’ve come and celebrate our successes.  Be proud of your accomplishments, and allow them to motivate you to continue to improve.
  5. Accept that you’re not perfect, but never stop reaching for perfection.  There will always be something that we can do better, or something else to improve upon.  Let go of your ego, and never allow yourself to think that what you’re doing now is enough, or is the best that you could ever do.  Keep pushing to improve and to be a little better today than you were yesterday, and a little better tomorrow than you are today. 
  6. Expect more of yourself than what others expect of you, and then work to exceed even your own expectations.  Don’t allow yourself to get complacent – keep pushing your boundaries.  Your partners in class will give back the level of effort and intensity that they see from you, so don’t give them any reason to not also give their best.  Do things that might scare you or make you uncomfortable – maybe certain drills in class, attending seminars with unknown people, taking a test, competing in a tournament, etc.  Make it hard on yourself – choose the hard opponents in class whenever you get the chance, and work to conquer your fears.
  7. Seek to understand before passing judgement.  If you get advice that you don’t quite comprehend, then reflect on it and try to gain understanding before dismissing the ideas.  Avoid gut reactions and immediate rejection of ideas.  Many times, you will get advice from your seniors that comes from years of experience, and you may not recognize its brilliance at first.  Spend time reflecting and actively trying to integrate their advice into your training, and then come back with questions if you still don’t understand.  They will be happy to give you further advice if they see that you have been taking the time on your own to reflect and trying to incorporate what they have told you.    
  8. Learn from the past, but don’t get stuck in it.  Respect your seniors, and absorb as much as you can from them.  Appreciate their experiences, and learn from them so that you don’t have to repeat their failures.  But don’t forget that we’re all human.  Never be afraid to question what you’ve been told (but remembering #7!).  Don’t assume that what we’ve always done is the best or only way to do things, and take time to explore and try to develop and grow.  None of our seniors or the past masters were satisfied with the status quo or stagnating in what they were given, so we can best pass on the tradition of our art by passing on the desire to improve.   
  9. Remain calm, and focus on what you can control.  If you’re emotional about problems, it’s harder to solve them.  We all have things that affect us or our attitude in training.  You might have a physical limitation (injury, inflexibility, strength, etc.) on what you can do, or you might come across an opponent that scares you, or any other number of obstacles.  Don’t dwell on the problem or make excuses, but seek to find a solution.  Concentrate on the elements of the training or the engagement that you can affect – focus inward rather than outward to solve the problem, because you can only control yourself. 
  10. Don’t assume that you can get everything you need from one place.  You need to get out and train in different places and with different people.  Attend camps and seminars.  Take every opportunity to get to train with different partners and learn from different instructors and hear different perspectives.  Interact with people with different backgrounds and who have trained in different styles or systems and learn from them. 
  11. Continue your training outside the dojo.  Training in the dojo isn’t enough.  We have precious little time in the dojo, so we need to extend our training outside the dojo to really improve.  Find little ways to train on your own – sit in stance while you’re brushing your teeth, practice your punching distancing with your curtains, or run through the movements to your kata (in your head) while you wait in line.  Supplement your training with any strength or flexibility training that you might need.  And be sure to train your mind – read articles or books, watch videos, and engage in conversation about karate with others.
  12. Enjoy yourself!  Take the time to get to know the people you train with and form a bond with them outside of class.  Take advantage of social functions.  It will make training more enjoyable, and will help motivate you to come to class and to do well.  The better you know people in training and the more comfortable you are with them, the more you are able to push them in training to be their best (I’ve never seen anyone push each other harder in class than spouses training with each other).  Most importantly – have fun.  If you really commit to training, you will spend a lot of time practicing and thinking about karate, so you should enjoy doing it! 
Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan

April 16, 2015

Jack of All Trades – Master of None

Without focus and purpose to our karate training, I think that’s where we end up – knowing a little about everything, but not being great at anything.  About a year ago, I solicited feedback from many of my karate friends, from beginners through those with higher rank, about reasons why they train.  As you might expect, the reasons varied widely and covered a large spectrum of knowledge, skills, and abilities. 

Many of these reasons were not specific to any particular activity, but rather folks have been able to work toward these goals for themselves through karate training.  This won’t be an exhaustive list, but some of these include:
  • Physical fitness, health, coordination, flexibility, balance, strength, stress relief, etc.
  • Self-confidence, problem solving
  • Enjoyment of spending time with our “karate family”
  • Self-improvement, always something new to learn, life-long process and challenges
  • Mental training, concentration, focus, discipline, etc.
  • Philosophy for living life – constant improvement, Dojo Kun applies to everyday life

I personally find most, if not all, of these as things that I get out of karate training.  And I think that’s part of what keeps me coming back for more.  But there are many activities that we could participate in that could address these motivations. 

Where I start to become conflicted, particularly as an instructor, is in the reasons for training that are activity specific, particular in their requirements, and often contradictory with each other.  Some of these reasons may include:
  • Fighting ability
  • Self-defense
  • Attaining Rank
  • Success at tournaments
  • Passing on a tradition

When I started training, and even when I started teaching (actually, until fairly recently), I honestly thought that what we did in training would prepare us for all of these things equally.  Now I know better, and that presents a dilemma for me as an instructor.  I know that I have students who fall into each of these categories with respect to their motivations.  But each of them requires different things from training, and different things from me as an instructor.  And some require much more time and effort than others to be successful. 

I have always been a person who aims to please, and I think that we have been trying to be all things to all people.  But by trying to give everyone what they want, no one is actually getting what they want.  Training time is precious, and it feels that we’re spread too thin and don’t have time to address all of these goals adequately in training.  Perhaps more importantly, it seems to me that focusing training on some goals requires contradictory training methods to focusing on others. 

I don’t have a good answer right now about how to solve this problem.  The only thing I do know is that if we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always gotten – and I don’t think that what we’re getting is an optimal solution.  I feel like I’m doing a disservice to myself and my students by trying to do everything, because we’re not able to really focus training effort and skill development in any given area when we’re trying to address all areas. I think I need to accept that I can’t be all things to all people, and focus our time and efforts on a smaller subset of these training goals.  As Funakoshi tells us in the Niju Kun, “Always create and devise”.   
Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan