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It seems inevitable for many students – after years of dedicated training (or even just months), the training begins to slow down. Sometimes, it just stops suddenly, and there’s a conspicuous gap where a senior used to be. A pocket of quiet where a boisterous teen used to stand and idly nudge the punching bag while listening to instructions.
No student slips away unnoticed.
There are a thousand demands on our time, many beyond our control. Money must be earned, marks attained, sports teams made. Families require an investment of quality time, and for many teenagers, just getting to the dojo relies on parental availability and willingness. Sometimes, it’s as simple as an injury that dragged on and suddenly, it’s two months off the mat.
One missed class can easily become three. Three classes becomes a month. Then six. Then a year. And then there’s a day when you open your cupboard and there is your gi, hanging up and gathering dust. Waiting. (And silently judging you.)
“But what will Sensei think?” the student wonders, before slowly closing the door. “I can’t go back after so long.”
Oh, but you can. You can always come back. 99% of the time, your Sensei will be utterly delighted to see you return. All that matters is that you make the decision to put your gi on and get to the dojo. Oh, sure, there might be excuses, like…
But I’m sounfit!
So few people are genuinely fit anyway. If fitness was a precondition for martial arts, very few of us would get to start. Fitness comes back much faster than you think, and honestly? It’s not that important.
What if my friends aren’t there anymore? Then you’ll make new ones. A dojo is always in flux, so you’ll meet new people and make new dojo family. I’ve been in so many dojos, both because of moving and being a deshi, I know that you’ll soon find a good training partner and your own groove.
I never told Sensei why I left Look, very few instructors are soft and fluffy and wear dreamcatchers. But your Sensei is human (very much so) and probably isn’t holding a grudge. (Disclaimer: I can’t speak for all instructors.) Just come back (bearing chocolate helps) and say sorry, and ask to train again. It sucks to ask, but it is also pretty hurtful when students disappear and text messages, calls and emails go unanswered.
I can’t remember it all anymore You are not starting at the bottom – everything you learned is somewhere in your head. It just needs a gentle reminder and some dusting off, and things will start to flow back again.
A wise man named James Clear gives some great physics-related advice on how to stay committed to something. The whole post is well worth reading, but I simply wish to use this rule:
Losing momentum is the cause of so many failed hobbies, talents, dreams and projects. In trying to get any major goal accomplished, we forget that it is made of a thousand little steps. A black belt is only the sum of hundreds of classes, not a special talent. You don’t have to do amazing feats: you just have to go to class every week. Every class you can, except when you really, really can’t.
If you have a virus, stay out the dojo. If you have an exam tomorrow, then study. Big family thing? Even Chojun Miyagi believed that family comes first. But tired? Busy? But not so busy that you can watch two episodes of Game of Thrones?
Get your gi on and get thee to a dojo!
UPDATE: Wow! Over 33,000 hits and shares! Thank you to the global karate community for sharing this! I would love to hear from you, so please do leave a comment and share your stories.
UPDATE 2: I am overwhelmed by the wide support for this article, and the patience so many have shown in translating it! If you would like to share and support these amazing martial artists, their work is below:
I get why people want to pray for South Africa now during the riots. People feel helpless, and maybe prayer will help. And they see the hashtag (I’ll puke before I use a hashtag, you know how I hate them) and they retweet it and then they feel like that’s enough.
But if prayer was enough, the riots would be over. Clearly, they are not.
I spent some time trying to find articles or guides on how we can really help, how we can actively contribute to making a difference in these crazy times. I believe, with all my heart, that the majority of South Africans (and the foreign nationals who live with us and contribute to our economy and call our country home) are good people at heart.
A few thousand rioters do not represent 60 million people. It’s a couple of percentage points. And with the news, local and international, never forget the first rule of journalism: if it bleeds, it leads. The more violent, upsetting and divisive the footage, the more it will be shared. Facebook, Insta and Twitter are gladly monetizing hate and fear. We don’t have to be part of it.
Action helps us feel more in control. Doing good things creates a ripple effect. I’ve seen a couple of images of people helping, but I also wanted to compile a guide for how citizens can make a difference. This list may grow over the next few days. Please add your comments below regarding organizations you’ve worked with and trust.
And now: a list! (we love a list)
Join the ReBuildSA volunteer group on FB (yes, I know its FB, but the people are there) – there are amazing offers to help, and opportunities to make a real difference. Whether its offering a bakkie to move things, e-walleting those who have lost their businesses, or helping people with paperwork to claim insurance, you have the skills to help.
Go donate blood! Some of the SANBS banks were looted. Here is a list of blood donation sites. And you get usually get a small gift and some juice and biscuits. (I love donating blood. I’m in a waiting period, otherwise I would be there with both arms out. I’m there on the 5th of August!) They will also come to you if you can motivate your big office block/school/federation to host a drive.
Donate to the organizations on the ground. This is sometimes the only option for those who are at home looking after children, are in isolation, or have to still go to work. They can make your rands (or pounds, ex-pats!) go far!
Help tidy up. Like climate change, you might not have caused this mess, but making the difference is our collective responsibility. Grab some garbage bags, double-mask, and go find somewhere to help. Get your friends together! Take some selfies, and inspire others. Here’s a FB group arranging volunteer groups.
And the easiest one: stop forwarding LITERALLY EVERY SINGLE THING YOU GET ON SOCIAL MEDIA. Ugh. Half those videos are outdated, some aren’t even from South Africa. Some of those posts are complete and intentional disinformation. This is the opposite of being helpful. Also, try speak up when your racist uncle sends you racist memes. I know family confrontation is hard (I would rather fight any UFC fighter before I fight my family, mostly because I am always vastly outnumbered and most of them don’t respect me) but don’t let the younger family members hear that garbage. There is so much deliberate disinformation out there – don’t make it worse. Take this opportunity to block and ban that member of the family that supports the AWB, QAnon and whatever other hate group they belong to. Sies. It might not stop the riots or the sadness, but for a moment, you’ll at least feel better. Let them see that single tick forever.
I am just a simple South African, who loves her country and believes that we are better. We have been through worse, and all storms must pass. Literally nothing lasts forever, and neither will this. We can set the example, and make the difference, and all those cheesy phrases that last because they are true.
This is a much longer version of the essay I submitted with my recent grading.
Just as the gold standard was once the international backing for currency, the black belt standard is the closest thing karate has to a global, understood standard. Even those who don’t do karate know what it is, even if they’ve never stepped in a dojo. Between movies and TV, the coveted black belt is world famous. Thanks to Cobra Kai, we’re seeing a resurgence in karate interest and sign-ups.
But what it means to others, and to me, and its value, often don’t have much overlap.
I have been a black belt since 2014, about half of my karate career so far. But what has changed from grading to grading is where I find myself; not only as a martial artist, but as a junior instructor, and a mother. When I last graded, I was (unknowingly!) a few weeks pregnant, with no idea how much my life would change, and how much my karate would be affected. (Oh, how naïve.) The ink still fresh on on my second dan certificate, I threw myself back into training, still working towards finishing up for my instructor’s license.
And then, trying to do karate while pregnant. (More on that here). When everything else was so difficult – the heartburn, the fatigue, the anxiety of impending motherhood, foolishly trying to move house in the last trimester – I still had my kata. I still had the dojo, and the students. I didn’t let pregnancy take away my karate, even though it would have been so much easier to hang up my gi for a few months. I finally understood why so many women do.
While I haven’t been able to train at nearly the same level as I did in my late twenties (with plenty of karate, no children, and marathon running to turn me into a stamina monster), I have genuinely tried to juggle full-time childcare, running a business, starting a Youtube channel (not just for the dojo, but to ensure Che’s amazing knowledge doesn’t get lost before we can write it down) and the demands of family and marriage on top of my karate. It hasn’t been easy, but I have tried my best.
I never went into physics or the astronaut corps to become a role model. But after my first flight, it became clear to me that I was one. And I began to understand the importance of that to people. Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.
I started karate entirely for myself, a long time ago in a very small dojo. But over the years, as I have advanced and outlasted many more who are far more talented, I have found myself becoming a little bit of a role model that I never set out to be. When little girls look up in the dojo, and look up at the nafudakake boards, they should see women there. Not just boys, not just men. They should see that there is space up at the top of the mountain, and at the table. Their path will be beset by challenges that no male practitioner will face (menstruation, childbearing, menopause, the list goes on), but they need to know that they are more than equal to those challenges. And yes, sometimes, they’ll have to fight harder to be taken seriously, but as Shirley Chisholm once said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
So what makes a good black belt? Talent? Time? Effort? The ability to fight off multiple attackers while wearing sunglasses? Spinning jump kicks? There should absolutely be a level of technical ability, and especially maturity. The black belt is cheapened when it is given to seven year olds in American dojos.
But black belts aren’t always given fairly, or on time, or to good people – there are enough egomaniacs with self-given titles who should have been kicked out of karate by the rest of us a long time ago. There are some who have been waiting patiently while less talented, less driven people grade past them. Karate, like life, isn’t always fair.
But perhaps character still counts for something. It should count for something, because plenty of sociopaths, bullies, charlatans and narcissists bring shame to the black belts we wear. Self-appointed shihans and owners of McDojos have tarnished the meaning of the belt. Everyone knows an asshole with a black belt.
But even though we can’t control what other dojos and federations do, we can at least account for our own members. Good character is the prerequisite to grading, and technical ability confers value on the black belt. Good people, and good karate – this is all that should truly matter. Not wealth, not shining and wasted talent, not influence: just the quality of our character, and our karate.
My black belt represents much more than just my work, more than the years and years of effort, of sacrifice and sweat and patience. It represents the time that others have invested in me – my instructors, past and present, my federation, my students, my training partners. It represents my capability in an area still very much dominated by men. It represents a path forward for the girls who walk behind me, just as I have walked behind other women more senior than me.1 We each carve a path forward, to make it better for those who come after us.
Yes, anyone can have a black belt. Anyone can literally just buy one and wear it – there’s no karate police to stop that. (When I was a kid, I thought one had to present a certificate to get a black belt, at a special store. It just seemed so magical.) People wear them for Halloween. Any dojo can hand them out as they wish. There are dojos and federations that do – to children, to rich people who buy their way into the black belt club, to administrators that have never stepped on the mat.
But not everyone can be a black belt, a real yudansha, who gives back as much, if not more than, they are given. Time to your dojo, mentorship to juniors, dedication to the craft. Exemplifying the best qualities of a martial artist and representing the art well to the outside world. To give the black belt the credibility and weight it deserves. To try and restore some honest value to the idea of the belt and the milestone it represents.
Just as quacks do harm to the medical profession, McDojos do real harm to serious dojos. They undermine our work by handing out ranks like candy to those willing to pay instead of working for it. They give people a false sense of their ability, which is as dangerous as it is foolish. They think they can handle themselves, but under pressure we fall to the level of our training, not our expectations.
It takes years to get a serious black belt. It’s dozens of weekends spent at gashuku (seminars) instead of birthday parties, and missing family events. It’s week after week of studious application, month after month of showing up and putting in the time. And not just the bare minimum of classes, but every opportunity to train is taken. It’s an achievement measured in years. There is a price for a black belt: one that cannot be measured in currency, but in spirit and character, time and effort.
It should be hard to get. To steal a cheesy quote, hard is what makes it great. Whether it is marathon running, or parenting, or karate, it is the difficulty that yields such beautiful rewards. Easy is for instant noodles and Netflix. Easy is for weekend warriors. Real karate, and real progress and rewards, is like chipping jewels out of a mountain using a butter knife. (Or at least, it feels that way.)
There are hundreds of thousands of people wearing black belts all over the world. It’s not exactly rare. And sometimes, a belt is just something that holds your gi jacket together. But to me, it represents a decade and a half of karate, and I value it as much as my two degrees, which usually impress people more than my black belt does (even though they took half the time it took me to get to Shodan, and were much easier to accomplish). It is the symbol of my sweat, my sacrifice, the work of my teachers and my peers and my juniors, and what I have to offer others.
I am grateful that I have been considered worthy, and that the path was not easy. I know that it was not given lightly, and I hope to live up to the expectations of my instructors, as well as my students, and the parents that entrust their children’s karate journey to me (and my husband, obviously). Hopefully, I can help more girls, and young women, stay on this path and not give up. And with time, I hope to be able to give back more to the art that has given me so much.
I stand on the shoulders of giants. Thank you to Sensei Lillian, Sensei Davina, Sensei Mutsuko Minegishi and Sensei Mary, and even though I’ve never met her but I’m inspired still, Sensei AND Doctor Mary Roe, of Jundokan International.
Does what it says on the tin – how to do Geki Sai Dai Ichi in a straight line! This training tool teaches bunkai, distancing (maai), sticking close to a partner (muchimi) and fighting spirit when practiced at full speed.
We also briefly discuss ude tanden (conditioning). It is also a helpful tool for introducing beginners to fighting, and working up to randori. Learn the kata sequence, the attacker’s sequence, and the pros and cons of doing this particular exercise. Great when paired with our video on corridor karate!
Tensho, the great balancing kata that pairs beautifully with Sanchin kata. In this video, we give a brief overview of the history of Tensho, the sequence, and most importantly, how to teach this kata to anyone, and especially how (and why) we teach it to children.
1 move, 8 applications – arm bar, scarf choke, strikes, blocks: all of these moves are hidden in a simple age uke (rising block). Sensei Jagger explores all these composite movements hidden in plain sight within this simple block.
Karate is never boring, especially when you know what can be found with just a little digging and knowledge. We use this basic block to explain the concept of Shuhari, or mastery.
Please like and subscribe for new videos every Friday at 2pm CAT! We would love to hear in the comments about your favourite underrated applications for basic moves.
We’ve done two videos on opening and running a dojo, but there’s also something to be said for whether this is the right path for everyone. Oh, it looks great in the movies, and Cobra Kai actually does have a beautiful tribute to what it means to be a real Sensei:
Ali, you’re right. It’s crazy how things change. For a long time, I didn’t have much direction in my life. But then things got better. I met a kid who needed some help. So I got back into karate and became a sensei. There were ups and downs. I even gave up for a while. But I can’t give up anymore. I have a long way to be a better man, a better father, a better teacher. But I can make a difference in these kids’ lives. It’s a tough world out there, and I can help them be ready for it. That’s what I’ve been up to. That’s who I am. I’m a sensei.
– Johnny Lawrence, season 3 of Cobra Kai
And you know what? It is great. It is amazing, and I would have to lose everything before I crawled back to corporate and dealing exclusively with adults and their agendas. And meetings. So many meetings.
(For now, let’s set aside the etiquette and challenges of who gets to call themselves a Sensei, what the word means etc etc. I know some big karate Youtubers have discussed this recently – we’ll get to that another day.)
But this life isn’t easy. And I was warned, no doubt, by those who have gone before me. But maybe it needs to be written down somewhere, where everyone who is thinking about quitting their day job, opening a scrappy underdog dojo and becoming a full-time karate bum, can see it.
These kids are going to break your heart.
95% of the kids that walk in aren’t going to stay. Let’s rip off that particular band-aid first. Because no matter how much you may throw yourself wholly into the work, into being the most committed, caring and invested instructor you can possibly be, these kids, these teens, and even adults, are going to quit. They’re going to move away. They’re going to emigrate. They’ll get bored. Their parents will run out of money. Or the parents will get divorced and karate falls by the wayside when the kid needs it most. Parents will ghost you when you follow up. They and their kids will disappear without a goodbye, even if you have spent years getting to know them. Students get injured. They might get ill. They might be so talented that they get in their own way, and end up quitting anyway. You might have the next Miyagi walk into your dojo, train for three or four years, and then scream out of frustration when they quit because “karate isn’t cool, Sensei.”
That no matter how much you try, the nature of this beast dictates that most of them aren’t going to make it. Most of them won’t want to. And that’s okay.
Good karate, real karate, is hard. Damned hard. It is sweat, and repetition, and showing up over and over and over again. It is slow progress and constant feedback. It is a years-long marathon of effort that requires dedication and time and money, and the willingness to be humble, take that constructive criticism, and to keep coming back. To go to the dojo when it’s cold, when it’s too hot, when there’s a couch and Netflix and no one telling you to pull your hand back into chamber.
Nothing great is easy. Karate is the best thing that happened to my young adult self, and saved me from my worst impulses. I genuinely believe that karate has many answers to various questions, but they must be worked for. The answers will reveal themselves, in time.
But these kids are going to quit on you. A blessed, beloved handful will stick with you, and they really do go a long way to making it worth it. My husband has some students who have been with him since they were knee-high to a meerkat, and they’re young adults now. I dream of the same. But now, 5 years into this journey, I’ve come to realize that no matter how much you try, most of them go. You get used to it. Mostly. When you stop caring, then maybe it is time to quit.
You can only hope that the best of what you said made it through, and they take it with them. You hope that they remember how much you believed in them, and wanted the best for them, and that some of the lessons stick with them. If you do your job right, they might not stay with you in the dojo, but maybe a little part of you stays with them.
(And if you are reading this and you are thinking of your Sensei? Reach out to them. I promise they will be glad to hear from you.)
Your Own Training Will Slide
I thought I would get in SO MUCH training when I started teaching. Doing all that karate, all the time? Yeehah! Effortless kata, here I come. I am going to be a karate goddess.
And as the Yiddish saying goes: we plan, God laughs.
Yes, you will do the most basic kata three hundred times a month. Those will be your better kata – you’ll know them inside out, you can spot the wrong hand/wrong foot from the other side of the room using the mirror – but your senior kata? Your actual grading kata? Not so much. I am not on speaking terms with Seipai; that poor kata is so neglected. I have to make a serious, concerted effort to train by myself to work on everything I need to work on. I can’t do that when teaching, because it is absolutely not about me, but about everything from correcting foot placement to fielding a thousand questions to managing the “SENSAAAYYYYYY HE ISN’T DOING THE KATA RIGHT” tattle-tailing to barking constant reminders about wearing masks correctly.
(I can’t wait until we can be free of masks. If you are reading this in 2022, 2023, I hope we don’t need masks anymore.)
However, one of my favourite teaching aphorisms is “to teach is to learn twice”, so that does help somewhat. And one day, I will become one of those people that gets up at 5am to train. One day is one day.
Karate Wife, Hard Life
I can’t even remember where this came from – it has been said of every patient wife of an instructor, dutifully managing the rest of his life so that he can be a great sensei. Taking care of the minutia of daily life, so that he need never think about finding a clean gi, paying bills or making a meal.
For the most part, I think those days are increasingly behind us, and for good reasons. But being a karate spouse is still hard, even when you are both in the dojo, all the time, together. And just as there are many schools and dojo that are run by spouses, there are many more that are being run by a single instructor. And that instructor is not just teaching all the classes, but they are also taking care of the accounts, running all the marketing, doing repairs and lesson planning, managing a website and fielding calls and whatsapps from dojo parents. I’ve written before about a day in the life of an instructor, but I didn’t add the strain it can put on a relationship. Especially if that instructor can and does travel to compete, or coach, or improve their own karate. If you are both in it, then the sacrifice makes sense and can be shared. When Che used to travel as team coach, I would miss him but I was also proud of him, and knew what he was doing and the extent of it. But if I were a civilian, and didn’t get this karate life? I’m not sure I could be patient for years and years.
We have weird hours, and often lose weekends to seminars, morning classes, gradings and away camps. There are so many unwritten rules and expectations and habits that we don’t even realize we have, and that can be hard on someone who isn’t immersed in this world. (I know its not specific to karate, but this is me staying in my lane and writing what I know.)
Props to those who love their karate wives, and boyfriends, and girlfriends, and husbands, without being karate people themselves. The friends that don’t get half of what we do, but wait for us to get to the braai as soon as our Saturday seminar is finished. (My merchants – I love you for this.) We see you and appreciate you.
But still, no regrets
I used to work in corporate. It was neat and tidy; 8am to 4pm, dedicated lunch breaks, lots of colleagues to go to lunch with. Paycheck regular as clockwork. I had no real power, so no real responsibility. Just a copywriting and marketing minion. I had my evenings and weekends uninterrupted, and while I have done karate my whole adult life, I got the fun part of just showing up to train and then going home. I didn’t have to worry about liability insurance, or affiliation money, or whether I was going to get another WhatsApp telling me a dear student was quitting.
Would I go back?
Absolutely not. I love being an instructor, and I hope that I have done enough to earn the title of Sensei. It isn’t one you can claim for yourself – it can only be given. And it is only given meaning when someone calls you that freely and without hesitation. When they see you as the one who has gone before, and has something worth teaching, worth imparting.
Otherwise, you’re just some chop in angry white pajamas.
Following our Geki Sai Dai Ichi video, we get stuck into the details of Geki Sai Dai Ni, working on stances, hands, posture and technical differences between Goju schools.
Ideal for beginners who want to better understand the kata, as well as seniors looking to add polish to their kata. Instructors will find handy teaching tips, especially when teaching the kata to children.
Please like and subscribe for new videos every Friday at 2pm CAT, and share your ideas for teaching and learning this kata with us in the comments!
Whether you’re just beginning your karate journey, or are grading for a black belt, traditional Geki Sai Dai Ichi is the foundational kata upon which all Goju Ryu kata are built. Improving your Geki Sai Dai Ichi improves all of your kata, and we hope this instructional video will help you polish and improve your Goju Ryu.
Covering stances, blocks, punches, kicks, strikes, transitions and more, this will deepen your understanding of the mechanics of Geki Sai Dai Ichi.
Please like and subscribe for new videos every Friday at 2pm CAT, and tell us about your tips and tricks for improving this incredibly important foundational kata.
Sanchin kata is famous for the demands it makes on the body, as well as its ability to help karate practitioners develop better lung capacity. In this step-by-step video, we go over the sequence of the kata, break down some of the moves and common technical issues, look at the correct and safest way to do the kata, and build on the anatomy discussion from our previous video.
Please like and subscribe for new videos every Friday at 2pm CAT, and tell us in the comments about your relationship with Sanchin kata. Visit our Teespring store for great karate merchandise: https://teespring.com/stores/grkc
Using decades of insight, as well as his anatomy studies at Wits University, Che Jagger breaks down the anatomical aspects of Sanchin kata, looking at everything from toe placement to shoulder height. An easy to follow, detailed and fascinating look at how Sanchin kata should be performed for long-term joint safety and strengthening, as well as building leg strength and improving lung capacity.
Please like and subscribe for new videos every Friday at 2pm CAT, and share your Sanchin stories with us in the comments. Visit our Teespring store for great karate merchandise: https://teespring.com/stores/grkc