This week our Kids Kyokushin class will be focusing on the principle of kindness. As a school teacher, I know that talking about being kind and doing kind things will only go so far. We have to DO something!
I've always had a heart for the homeless so, today, we will brainstorm items that can go into care packages for homeless individuals in Montgomery County. Then, in class on Thursday we will take some more time assembling the packages, and I will deliver them to individuals in the days ahead. Awesome right? Now, without a doubt there are some folks reading would strongly disagree with this project, and I'll address the two complaints that I've already heard below:
Complaint #1: Parents are paying for their kids to learn karate, NOT to do service projects.
This is simple enough, and I would only ask how you define karate. To me, in our Way, in the Forge Dojo, and in the Phoenix Karate-do Association, karate is more than punches and kicks. Karate, REAL karate, is about the perfection of character. You're right, parents are paying for their children to learn karate...and I'm delivering exactly what these young ones need. I'm not teaching self defense, though much of what we do can be interpreted that way. Here, in my dojo, students are taught the art and skills of warriorship...and that cannot be selfish or self-serving.
Complaint #2: Why the homeless? Couldn't the kids be doing something better?
I chose to center our kindness project on the homeless in our community because it's a problem that is somewhat visible to our children. At many of the major intersections in our community, you can now find folks asking or begging for help. Most adults avoid making eye contact because it's uncomfortable. Many kids do look because they're curious and MOST of them would help if they could. Through our training this week, the kids will be given an opportunity to help others in our community.
It would be ignorant of me to finish without acknowledging that those asking for help at intersections in MoCo are just the tip of the iceberg. Homelessness is a much bigger issue than most of our residents realize. Hopefully, our project this week will help to enlighten students and their families to just how big this issue is and how incredibly simple acts of kindness can go a long way in helping.
A week ago this morning we were all busy checking into Camp Phoenix 2017. As an association, it was memorable as always. As a dojo, The Forge dojo experienced a lot of success and hit a few milestones.
What makes for a successful Camp? First, there were no serious injuries! Being hurt is different from being injured...no injuries, but there might have been a bit of soreness in the days after Camp concluded.
Some of our success was measureable. We had our first two nidan (2nd degree black belt) tests which went amazingly well. Both Sempais Matt and Mary finished their 45 minutes of sparring with such fire and tenacity; a testament to their year-long preparatory training.
In addition, we had three shodan (1st degree black belt) tests which were spirited to say the least. Sparring, kata, the works...it was an incredibly busy weekend for them, but in the end, we've got three new black belts in our dojo.
With six brown belt tests, we've set the stage for a year of hard training in preparation for their black belt tests next July at Camp Phoenix 2018. All six of those tests were terrific...full of skilled fighting, sound kata and kihon, and strong breaking.
Tons of boards and concrete blocks and tiles and baseball bats were broken.
HOURS of sparring.
Hundreds (maybe thousands) of punches and kicks.
All crammed into a powerful weekend.
Then there are the successes that you can't really measure. Three white belts (one relatively new) joined in for the training....a HUGE investment. The jokes and laughter around the lunch/dinner tables are always fun. Ribbing/making fun of each other seems to bring us closer as a group. There were those words of encouragement from teachers who aren't your own that can light a fire deep inside and motive an entire year of training. There we new friendships forged from students from different dojos/schools.
As a small dojo, we will be reaping the fruit of Camp Phoenix 2017 for many years to come!
For the next couple of days, this is my morning view. Just over the edge of the driveway, about 50 meters from where I'm sitting right now, is the Greenbrier River. I've got some pretty awesome memories of this area from when I was a kid. So much seems the same, but my perspective is much different.
The river used to be a place for me to play. Now it's for my kids. Where I used to enjoy the energy and noise, I now find comfort in the sounds of the hummingbirds zooming past my head of the river running its course. It's peaceful here. I think that the river helps to bring this feeling. When the river is calm, it's infectious. However, those who have property and live down here know that when the river is troubled, incredible destruction comes with it.
We are like rivers. Our words and actions will either bring infectious peace or sure destruction. We will carry encouragement or despair. We will lead toward virtue or hedonism; but remember we will always be leading.
Just wanted to throw that thought out there. Camp Phoenix reflection coming soon.
After finishing Day 1 of Camp Phoenix, I’m left in such a state of....I don’t know. I want to say that I’m so proud, but the thought of pride is so twisted nowadays. I want to say that I’m surprised…but I’m not. So, I’ll say that I am overjoyed…almost to tears at the work put in by the students in our dojo today.
For those outside of our world, “nidan” means nothing. To me (to us) nidan is a gatekeeper to the teaching/sensei ranks. Today I watched Sempai Mary and Sempai Matt completely crush their promotion tests. I can’t wait until tomorrow evening to welcome them into the higher ranks! They are like family. Matt is my Kyokushin brother and Mary is my Kyokushin sister.
Earning a black belt is a big deal. Even those who don’t practice martial arts know that the black belt is (hopefully) a sign of elitism. Lord willing, we will welcome three new students into that group tomorrow. Lianne, Andrew, and J.I. all rocked their kumite and breaking tests today. A few more trials tomorrow and then they will join an elite group of karateka.
Our brown belt tests were doggone show stopping this evening. As hard as today might have been though, they’ve got an entire year of trial and examination awaiting them.
Perhaps one of the most proud moments for me as Sensei was found in those students who came to this Camp Phoenix experience without the expectation to test. Each of these guys came in with an “empty cup” seeking to learn as much as possible today through the hours of kumite and kihon.
So, I’ll just sign off tonight by saying that I’m damn proud.
Proud to be a part of this organization.
Proud of my students.
Proud of my teachers.
Proud of the effort.
Proud of the amazing work ethic shown today.
Life is complex and complicated. My first teaching job out of college was in the prestigious Ivymount School; serving students with autism. I distinctly remember working with one student for weeks in order to help him perform what we think is a very simple task: make a bag of microwave popcorn. You probably think of taking the popcorn, throwing it in the microwave and hitting the right button. Simple enough. For this student, the task of making their own bag of popcorn was broken down into a 27 step process. That's not a typo...27 steps to make one bag of popcorn.
Real karate training is a lot like making a bag of popcorn. In the beginning it's complicated and seems darn near impossible. For those who are new to the Way, throwing a simple combination or performing a kata can feel overwhelming. I think that's because newer folks just don't have the basic yet. You need those basics...and you need to drill them over and over so that you don't even have to think about them anymore.
Another connection would be that you do not need to understand how the microwave pops the popcorn in order to carry out the task. In the dojo we use an expression: "copy first, create later." Listen to your instructors and your Sempais. Watch those around you who have been training longer than you have and copy their movements. You cannot practice a technique enough and I seriously mean that. We could spend an entire week training a mawashi geri/roundhouse kicks and still struggle with getting them perfect.
I say "back to the basics", but in reality the only reason we deviate from them is our own misguided arrogance. We should never really leave the basics and should rather strive to make progress each day toward perfection.
As we gear up for another Camp Phoenix this weekend, Kancho will per tradition lead us through kihon (the basics). He gets it. He wants us to get it as well. There is no beauty, no strength, no legacy without a mastery of the basics.
Camp Phoenix kicks off next Friday morning so, by this time next week, we will be training in the lake. Camp is a highlight of my year as it's one of the very rare times when the a large gathering of Phoenix Karate-ka takes place (in the States at least). It's one of my favorite times of year.
Camp is a highlight for many of us, but for a select few it will be historic as they walk through the trials of the shodan and nidan tests. So, with less than a week until kickoff, what does the next few days have in store? What tips does Sensei have for you testers?
1. You're probably not going to get stronger, faster, or more conditioned in the next five days. So, with that in mind, don't try to be Wonder Woman or Captain America. I'd recommend making Monday your last solid conditioning workout. If you train here at The Forge, don't worry, I've got you covered:-) No unnecessary injuries this week. Lots of visualization this week. As best as you can, visualize yourself in the suck and think your way through and out of it. Nice long walks are a great way to stay loose, get some low impact exercise, and can help you keep from going crazy from not training with the same intensity you may be used to.
2. Do not use your body as a chemistry experiment. I do not recommend changing your diet too much this week as you gear up for your test. If anything, clean your food up a little bit, but don't introduce anything new in the couple of days leading up to Camp. Never tried sushi before? This is not the time to branch out. Not into spicy food? Don't eat Thai Thursday night.
3. Make sure you've got everything together. Some folks will wait until Thursday to pack. Heck, some of you may throw everything in a bag Friday morning before your drive up to The Mount. If you're testing, you do not want any more surprises than what's already going to be coming at you. I'd recommend packing Wednesday and then double checking everything Thursday.
Finally, know that you're ready...to test. If you've made it this far and you're still slated to test next week, then your instructor believes you are prepared to walk through your respective trial. You know the material. You've practiced the techniques and the kata. You can fight at your respective level. That being said, YOU have to do it.
I still remember my first day coaching varsity soccer back in 2006. It was hot. I was young(er). The whole experience was a little intimidating. That season, that Fall of '06, was one of the best experiences I've ever had, and it was all kicked off at the end of that first practice.
The entire training session was planned out and ran smoothly. It was after we packed up the gear that something happened I wasn't expecting. One of the Seniors walked up, shook my hand, and said "thank you Coach". Then another. Then another. Every player on that team repeated the same kindness at the end of every practice and every game that season.
But it always struck me as odd that I was being thanked for something I loved doing. Even now, when I coach soccer much less and teach karate a whole lot more, I'm humbled by the expressions of gratitude, but I love this. I love teaching.
You know who deserves the real thanks? My family. For over a decade my wife has supported what I'm doing. She sacrifices so much. My kids over the years have sacrificed time with dad so that I can help others.
If you're on a team or in the dojo, your coach/sensei is pouring themself out so that you can improve, but their family is giving a lot more. Not asking you to do anything with that thought...just wanted to give a gentle reminder that there is a whole team of people who you rarely see, that are supporting you.
I've gotten some great feedback over the last few days. Some folks like my principles first approach, but there are others who believe (very strongly some of them) that specific practices should be taught and mastered first.
Maybe I should clarify why I like the principles-first approach. Know that in doing so, I'm not saying that my way is right. In fact, I don't pretend to have all of the answers anyway...I'm only sharing what has worked for me as a teacher and coach.
First, I'll admit that a principles based approach has a major drawback...it takes time. You've got to plan and spend the time laying a foundational fund of knowledge and understanding. This is important because it's that principle foundation that we are going to build our technique upon. This can sometimes look like me giving a mini physics or kinesiology lesson so that we understand the natural order of movement. Once we understand the principle involved, building our technique becomes a continuation of what occurs naturally.
Here's an example that I walk through with every new student when working on our roundhouse kick (mawashi geri):
When learning this kick, it's important to open the hips. We do this by turning the foot of the base leg outward. "Open your foot." "Pivot on your base leg." It would be incredibly simple to drill the step of turning that foot to throw the kick a million times. I believe though, that in doing so, there will always be a part of the mind engaged in the task of turning to foot outward in order to open the hip. One of our goals is to train and execute without having to think so much! So, to teach the principle of turning the foot outward, here's little activity I want you to try:
Get up. Whether you're on your phone or at the computer, I really want you to stand up and try this. Now, stand with your feet shoulder width apart...be comfortable standing. Now take your left foot and turn it outward, about 90 degrees.
Stay in this position for a moment. What do you feel? Likely you feel the tension running through your left knee...tension that your body doesn't like. So now, put your weight on that left foot so that you can lift your right foot off of the floor. What happens? Did you notice how your body naturally wanted to correct that tension by rotating everything so that you face to the left of your original position? So what is the principle I use to teach the mawashi geri; it's this:
Your body doesn't like tension, but sometimes we have to create tension in order to make progress.
Those of us with more life experience know that principle pervades every part of our lives. Want to grow professionally? Create positive tension. Want to grow stronger physically? Create positive tension. Want to grow relationally? There's going to be tension...see it as an opportunity for growth and progress.
Real karate...budo karate is about the perfection of character. I want everyone who walks into the dojo to leave a slightly stronger person. Maybe I'm being selfish, but a large part of me lays down the principle first because I'm never guaranteed to have another teaching moment with that student. By giving a principle to guide thought and movement, my hope is that I impart something that will become part of an individual's walk toward forging a better version of themself.
So, back to stance, posture, and why it's so doggone important.
The way you present yourself speaks to the degree of seriousness that you have for the person in front of you, or the activity you are engaging with. Weak stance and posture isn't just incorrect; it reeks of disrespect. Hands on your hips or loosely balled up below your waist when you should be in "ready stance"? Really? Arms folded across your chest like you're bored? Those are a couple of common examples of poor stance and posture that I have observed during times of instruction.
It all boils down to respect. Present yourself correctly. Position your heart and mind to be in a place where you can honestly, humbly admit that everyone you interact with has something that they can teach you.
We are less than 3 weeks away from Camp Phoenix 2017, which means we could all use a few reminders about basic courtesies and traditions. I'll get to those, don't worry, but those who have trained with me know that I'm big on teaching principles first because principles inform our practice.
Honestly, as we look forward to our annual summer gashuku, I think the most important principle to keep in mind is Sosai Oyama's belief that "The martial way begins and ends with courtesy. Therefore, be properly and genuinely courteous at all times."
If we come into our training looking for ways to exemplify courteous nature, then many of the specific practices, particularly posture and stance, will fall into place on their own. I intentionally name posture and stance because that's where things begin to slack in my own dojo. We train hard together on a weekly basis. We work and sweat and improve together. Sometimes though, through that bond of hard training, things can become a little too casual. I'll be the first to admit that when this happens at The Forge Dojo, it's my fault. Never too late to alter the direction of the ship though...back on course for us!
So, what are we looking for with stance and posture? To clarify, stance and posture are not the same...at least when I think of them. Stance is physical, while posture is mental and spiritual.
With regards to your stance...is your back straight? Are your feet and hands in the correct position? Are your feet and shoulders facing the direction of the person speaking to you? Stance is easy. Stance is a checklist that is drilled into us from the time we first step into the dojo.
Posture, on the other hand, grows inside of us. For some it grows quickly, almost naturally. For others, proper posture grows more slowly. Sometimes folks just have to learn the hard way. You see, posture deals with the mind and heart. Is your heart in a place to openly receive instruction, and possible, correction...or are you coming with an already "full cup"?
Personally, I find that if your posture is right, your stance will almost automatically fall into place.
More to come as we get ready for an awesome Camp Phoenix!