The Path Back to Black Belt

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Are you a black belt or do you have a black belt? When looking at my martial arts activities over the last year, I have determined that there is a difference. At one point in time I was a black belt but now I just have one. This may seem like double talk but there is a point. Having a black belt means that you passed a belt exam and in the eyes of your teachers at that point in time, you were worthy of earning a black belt. Whether or not you are a black belt depends on what you do after that point.

I know several people who earned black belts as kids but have not trained in years. They have a black belt but it would be a stretch to say they are black belts. On the other hand, there are people who touch the martial arts every day. They have proved themselves in testing and continue to live the martial arts experience after the test. Those people are black belts. It is the difference between a trophy and a mindset.

I trained in the martial arts as a child but I injured my knee and required several surgeries so I gave it up. It wasn’t until I was an adult and parent that I got back into the martial arts and earned my black belt. For several years after that I lived the martial arts lifestyle and I considered myself a black belt. Since then my job has gotten more challenging and I had a few injuries that kept me from training consistently. In the last year, my training was intermittent and I after reflecting on it, I no longer consider myself a blackbelt. I just have a black belt.

The people in the schools I train in still consider me a black belt, addressing me as Sabunim or Sensei. The way I look at myself is a personal decision. I have a high standard of what a black belt (the person) is and if I am not meeting those standards, then I need to reevaluate my status in my mind. The good thing is that the status is not permanent.

Taking an honest look at my lifestyle has been a wakeup call for me. As I get older, I need to consider if I want to continue training. Many people do not. I do want to continue training. With that in mind I need to start training more consistently now. I need to get back into shape and I need to touch the martial arts every day. This means making a commitment to myself to pursue the martial arts. Being a black belt is a responsibility. We need to exceed our own standards and set the example for others. There are valid reasons to slow or stop training but that is not the path I want to follow. I am committing to myself to be a black belt rather than just having one. That means that I am committing to consistently work hard and live the martial arts lifestyle.

What are your thoughts? Do you think there is a difference between being and having a black belt? Let us know your thoughts by posting a comment.

Thanks for reading!

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A blade for defense

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knife

I know a few people who carry a knife for defense as well as utility. For the longest time, I did not find the value in it. After attending some seminars, I now understand why people would use it as a defense item. I still would not, because I am not proficient in the techniques and in a defense situation a poorly understood technique can be more dangerous than no technique.

Many of the people that say they would use their knife for defense never train in it. The closest they come is cutting an apple or a piece of twine. I believe that they are putting themselves in more danger by carrying a tool that they don’t know how to use or would have trouble using when they are under stress.

Many knife holders think that the act of carrying is a defense strategy. If people do not train with the tool, they are setting themselves up for disappointment. A knife is not a shield. Just having it on your person or even holding it in your hand will not save you. You need to know how to use it and more importantly you need to be able to use it in a stressful situation.

To become proficient in defense, you need to train against other people. The touch and fight back factors are where the rubber hits the road. If you do not have another person in front of you for at least some of your training, you are not ready to defend yourself, especially if you are expecting to defend yourself with some kind of weapon. Many people who carry a weapon don’t practice with it and if they do, they do not practice with it in a defense scenario.

At this point in my training I use the knife for fun and education. I do not carry a blade but I am beginning to understand why some of my training partners do. If used properly, the knife can be a great defense weapon. The problem is that you can go from defense to excessive force with one wrong move. You need to be cognizant of how you are using your tools in self-defense. Without proper training, you can kill someone or hurt them beyond the bounds of self-defense.

Just like a weapon, a self-defense plea is not a shield. You need to mind your response. Excessive force can put you in jail along with your attacker. Remember that self-defense is also keeping yourself out of jail. You need to be thoroughly trained and you need to practice with any weapons system you want to employ for defense.

I went to an interesting weapons seminar. It was based on the zombie apocalypse. Since zombies move slowly, we were able to practice our techniques at a slower speed. After working the techniques in drills, we practiced against live attackers, first a single attacker, then multiple attackers. It gave you a real feel for person on person conflict. They were suited up with protective gear so we could realistically strike with training blades rather than just simulating the strike.

Working with aggressive attackers (suited up training partners) and having the ability to execute realistic strikes was an eye-opening experience. But even this was not fully realistic because we started with the training blade in our hands. A knife in a sheath or folded in your pocket adds more complication in a defense situation. Retrieving the blade also needs to be trained if you are going to use a knife in defense. A knife is not a good defense option if it is stuck in your pocket or somewhere else where you cannot reasonably access it.

I am lucky that I live and work in areas that have lower chances for violent attack. I feel comfortable enough with my open hand techniques that I do not feel the need to carry a knife. For those who do feel the need, find a good teacher to teach you the proper techniques, practice in realistic situations regularly and remember that excessive force can put you, the victim, in jail along with your attacker.

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Training Everyday – Master your techniques

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As I have mentioned in earlier articles, one of my teacher equates martial arts with walking. When we are white belts, we are like toddlers just standing and holding onto the couch as we stumble along. As we develop, we don’t need to hold on to things any more but we still stumble along. As we continue to walk, we get better and better until we master walking.

How do we master walking? By doing it every day.  The same applies to martial arts. If we are to reach our full potential in martial arts, we need to work it every day.

This does not mean going to class seven days a week. Just like when we were back in school, martial arts require homework. You need to work on your own every day, even if you do go to classes. Working on your own makes you think about the moves. You cannot follow the leader. It also lets you do it at the speed you are comfortable with. Sometimes classes can push you along so you just go through the motions. Doing it on your own makes the techniques sink in.

I work on groups of my techniques every day.  There are too many to do them all. I choose groups of techniques to practice and I rotate them. On weekends, I add more than I do on workdays. I found that training first thing in the morning is a great way to get motivated for my day and I don’t put it off because of things that happen later in the day.

I go to classes three to four days a week. I train a few styles and I am no grand master. I need to go to class often to hone my techniques. Self-study is an enhancement of, not a replacement for teacher led classes.

Lastly, when I go to bed, I visualize my techniques in my head. If I go to bed before my wife, I do the breathing cadence along with the technique, otherwise I do it silently. Doing the techniques in my head is better than counting sheep. It puts me right to sleep and it helps me retain the moves.

Whether you are competing, preparing yourself for defense or looking for a certain state of mind, working your martial arts every day will help you reach your goals.

 

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A Theory of Defense

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Self-defense has been on my mind lately. The news is filled with violent protests and attacks; the internet has been filled with self-defense videos and advertisements for classes; and people I know have been asking me about how they can defend themselves.

The need to defend oneself has been front and center in a lot of people’s minds. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to self-defense. How one defends oneself depends on a several factors:

  • Location – are there avenues for escape or defensible cover?
  • Tool Available – are there implements at your disposal to help you defend or escape?
  • Skill Level – Do you have the proper skillsets to defend yourself?
  • Condition – Are you physically fit enough or did the initial attack leave you in adequate condition to defend or escape?
  • Responsibility – Are there people with you for whom you are responsible?

Every situation can be a little different but that does not mean that you can’t prepare. To prepare you need to do a few things that may be uncomfortable for you.

  1. Assess your physical fitness. If you are at a large venue event and there is a situation, do you have the energy/ability to run a half mile to an exit? If you cannot or if you are with people who cannot, running away is not an option. So if you are out of shape or if you are with grandma and there is a problem, you need a solution that does not include running.
  2. Assess your skills. – Are you properly trained to defend yourself? Doing punches and kicks in line or even sparring does not fully prepare you to defend yourself. I was at a seminar primarily for blackbelts from a variety of styles. This seminar was on countering quick and violent attack. Many of the practitioners had trouble coping in the spontaneous environment. This shock can be exacerbated with the introduction of a weapon. Are you ready to face a dynamic violent situation?
  3. Determine your attitude on violence – Are you prepared to hurt someone to defend yourself or others. If you are not prepared to hurt someone, possibly severely, you need to come up with a different plan.

Defense is a personal decision. It really depends on you. Be honest with yourself in assessing your condition and your skills. Improve yourself if you can, but always be honest with yourself. If you cannot or will not do certain things to defend yourself, prepare yourself in other ways.

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Bunkai – From theory to reality

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Even though I have earned black belts in two disciplines, I strive to maintain a white belt mentality. I am still a beginner and no matter how much I learn, I know that there is more to learn than I could ever know. There are martial artists out there that have forgotten more than I have learned. Since most of my training is in non-traditional and sport style martial arts, I wanted to explore a traditional path to balance my martial arts experience. No matter what style you practice and how many years you have been training, it is important to step back, review your progress, and determine what path you should take to expand your knowledge.

It is easy to stagnate in your training. Instructors are very susceptible to this stagnation. They get stuck in a loop of training others and forget why they got into the martial arts in the first place. They neglect their own training. Sometimes they neglect it to the point of confusing teaching classes with their own training. Teaching techniques to students does open one’s mind to the inner working of the techniques and is in my opinion the final step in learning a technique but it is not a replacement for training. I have seen many martial artists get stuck in the teaching trap, only to see their martial arts stagnate. When their martial arts stagnate, not only does their personal performance suffer, their teaching style suffers and when teaching, they seem to be just going through the motions and they exhibit no energy.

In my self-evaluation, I determined that my reinvention involved learning how kata applies to practical self-defense and fighting techniques. In my research, I found that traditional kata can contain an entire martial arts system. Each movement has a specific meaning and is useful in fighting. My past experience has had kata and fighting taught separately. Kata was taught to help with stances, balance and discipline. Fighting and defense was taught with punch and kick combinations. I have had conversations with traditional martial artists and have seen videos on social media that connect kata to techniques and I wanted to learn more about it. I am not abandoning my other styles. I will continue to train in those but I will add to my knowledge.

As part of this reinvention I am starting as a white belt. The teacher said that I could start as a higher belt because of my previous experience but I want to start from the beginning and earn each step. Having trained in many styles through seminars and yearlong side studies, I am amazed at the similarities in the arts but the slight differences that differentiate the styles can be confusing. These slight differences can be very important because the secrets of the styles can lie in these small differences.

The new style I am pursuing puts a heavy emphasis on Bunkai. If you are like me and have a primarily non-traditional background, you might not have heard of Bunkai. The Wikipedia definition explains it pretty well: “literally meaning “analysis” or “disassembly”, is a term used in Japanese martial arts referring to process of analyzing kata and extracting fighting techniques from the movements of a “form” (kata).” However, explaining it and experiencing it are two different things. Practicing Bunkai can be an eye-opening experience.

An example that I have experienced was the deconstruction of a high block. My fascination with this move might make me a karate geek but this one lesson has had me thinking for a few weeks. Why did this fascinate me? There can be so much power generated with small technique changes. This might not be a revelation to you but it was to me because of my size. I am a pretty big guy. Because of my mass and strength, I am able to execute moves effectively even if my technique is not perfect. Continuing with the high block example, I can adequately defend myself with the high block as I originally learned it, but when I executed the high block using the deconstructed technique, I knocked the uke backwards. Learning these little details are going to make me a better martial artist.

Whether you have dedicated your life to one style or if you are like me and have explored martial arts more broadly, continue your training. One of my teachers has been training for 50+ years and he says that he is always learning new things. If he can be learning new things after being in the martial arts for so long, you and I can find new things to learn. Make time to train. Never forget why you started martial arts. If you are not growing, you are dying, so keep growing!

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A Balanced Fighter – More Than Just Self Defense

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centerline

Many of my teachers have told me that I should be a balanced fighter, meaning that I should train my left side as hard as I train my right side. Most times the reason given was that I should be able to defend myself even if I am disabled on one side.

This has been useful advice for me. I had broken my hand defending myself when I was younger and have broken toes in competition and needed to switch my strategy to continue. More recently I have found health reasons for being a balanced fighter.

This is not medical advice. I am just giving my opinion of experiences I have had and you should consult a professional if you have injuries you need addressed. I am in my late forties and have a commute and job that requires a lot of sitting. Over the last year I found that I lost some flexibility and have some back pain.

I had heard about type of physical therapy and I thought I would check it out to see if it would help me. When I went to the practitioner, we found an abnormality in how I held my hips. It caused my stiffness and affected my flexibility. We talked about my sitting and my martial arts. He has worked with other martial artists and asked me about my kicking techniques.

As we discussed it, I saw that I was favoring one side in my point sparring training to the point that I was sacrificing strength and flexibility on the other side and that started affecting my whole body. We are working through the kinks now and I will let you know how it works out when I am through with the therapy.

Your body has bilateral symmetry. To maintain balance and overall strength and flexibility you need to train both sides. Don’t make the mistakes I made and train one side too hard. Self-defense includes staying healthy and uninjured.

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The Danger of Self-Importance – Boasting diminishes credibility

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As martial artists we should be proud of our accomplishments and lineages. We work hard, we get tested, we measure ourselves against other martial artists when we spar. We accomplish a lot of things that are worthy of pride. However, when we focus on solely on our pride and accomplishments, we get into trouble.

I was inspired to write this article by some of the negative chatter I’ve seen on social media. There is a lot of negative chatter about different martial artists online. Some of it is warranted, some is not. The one commonality I found in the recipients of these negative comments is that they suffer from self-importance. They post about how great they are and what they have accomplished, sometimes with exaggerated rank. Some of it is so blatant that it reads like a cry for help and I actually feel bad for the people. There is one martial artist that boasts so much about their humility that I like to say that they take pride in their humility.

Self-importance is not one of the tenants of martial arts. Following the path of humility, respect, and discipline can keep us from getting self-important and arrogant.   It is an honor to be a blackbelt and a privilege to be a teacher. Even if you are the worldwide expert and the greatest thing since sliced bread in the martial arts, humility is always the best policy. Performance is noticed. People will talk about how good you are. You don’t need to tell people how great you are.

When one continually boasts, they will just get people asking why they have to talk about themselves, they annoy their peers and leave themselves open for people challenging their rank or ridiculing them online. It also puts the students in an awkward position.

We are taught to respect our teachers. When teachers make outrageous claims or constantly talk about how great they are, it can put their students in an awkward position. When students train, hard and go through rigorous testing, they shouldn’t have to go through the distraction of peers questioning them because of the online claims of their teachers. Self-important posts do a great disservice to students.

The problem self-importance poses can best be expressed by taking out the factor of respect traditionally afforded to martial arts instructors, let’s switch the profession from martial arts instructor to salesperson. If we have a salesperson that is telling everyone how great he is, how does that affect your opinion? Do you listen to the sales person and agree that they are great or are you feeling annoyed or uncomfortable? By pushing a self-important agenda, the teacher is causing a conflict in their students between the respect we are taught to exhibit and the discomfort self-importance can bring.

I have always believed that if you have to tell people that you are a “bad-ass”, you probably aren’t. The same goes for your training. Don’t feel that you have to boast about your talent or rank. Show pride in your lineage, your students and your style. Don’t get wrapped up in self-promotion or rank. Your students will respect you more if you are truly humble and have not exaggerated your accomplishments. Train, teach and spread the benefits of your art. Let you students, teachers and peers sing your praises.

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