A Day in the Life of a Sensei

“Ah! What a beautiful day! I think I’ll go and train and -”
*phone starts vibrating*

And then pour in the Whatsapps.

What time is the grading next week? When are the dojo shirts arriving? Suzy Q has gymnastics/maths/chess trials today and will miss karate later. My account looks wrong – are you sure you can add properly? Have you spoken to my child yet about the bullying at school? What time is the training seminar? I know its for black belts, but maybe my kid can come anyway? Is it holiday hours yet? What’s happening with the tournament? Any chance you could do private classes, but for like, free?

Ping, ping, ping. Then various whatsapp groups for parents and students start blowing up because someone shared something utterly idiotic they saw on Facebook, which is usually kind of racist and awkward. Apologies are made, rebukes issued and with a sigh, the phone is set aside for the moment.

Day adequately derailed, the Sensei decides to check in on email, sees four million emails regarding team selections, federation meetings, gashuku arrangements and offers from shady martial arts gear companies promising good prices. There’s an email chain with far too many people CC’d in, and some people still haven’t learned basic email etiquette despite being old enough to pay tax. There isn’t enough coffee to deal with this inbox right now, so the Sensei decides to catch up on old school paperwork.

But where to start? Updating the student database? Filing the medical info cards? Sending out accounts? Then chasing accounts that remain unpaid for no clear reason? There’s newsletters to be printed, grading certificates to be signed, testimonial letters to be written. There’s events to organise, forms to collate, merchandise to be ordered, and and and and and — oh god, is that a sneeze, but I got my flu vaccination and and and —

Well, at least, that’s how it feels.

Every dojo is different. Every dojo has its own challenges and offerings. The bigger the dojo, the greater the admin. Some instructors have to work full time jobs and then still teach at night. Those of us who are lucky enough to do it on a full-time basis sometimes miss out on the normal things other people take for granted. Weekends, for example. Some of us are studying, working and teaching. I’ve juggled a counselling course, freelance writing and teaching this year. I know instructors who work at schools, hopping from one to the other, driving all day. Some are just trying to get a foot in the door, just starting out in a tiny dojo with no equipment but with so much heart and passion that they don’t charge a fee that’s fair to them as well. The starving artist trope extends to martial artists as well, as unfair and unnecessary as it is.

And it can be a good kind of busy, when you’re doing it right, and for the right kind of reasons. I love being a daywalker – my day is flexible, until roughly 3pm, when it’s time to prep for class, have that last cup of coffee (and a chocolate) and then teach for four to five hours. I sleep in a bit (because I hate mornings) and at least when I do admin at my desk, no one can tell me that a unicorn onesie is inappropriate workwear.

Of course it’s stressful – we are always worrying about litigious parents, bills, this student’s progress, that one’s troubles at home. We try to keep our qualifications current, and pay huge money to go train with our seniors to keep our skills honed. Never mind the cost of a grading in whichever home dojo we belong to overseas, which can easily cost a couple hundred dollars a pop, just for the certification. Never mind the plane trip and somewhere to sleep that isn’t a bench.

A Sensei is so many things – janitor, nurse, counsellor, accountant, career guidance coach, wailing wall, mentor, caterer, event manager, teacher and role model. Even when we don’t want to be, we are always in a gi. We are always aware of our actions, for the smallest misconstrued comment can blow up, and any lapse in judgement can bring the mobs down upon our dojo. Whatsapp statuses must be carefully written, personal Facebook posts reconsidered. It becomes a habit after a while, this careful self-policing, but there are days when I really would like to use that sweary image as my whatsapp avatar.

Our students often look to us for a good example, and there are days when I sometimes lie on the couch and see if I can catch popcorn with my mouth forty times in a row, and I’ll do this for an hour. I’m not always the shining example of adulthood that my students perceive me to be (although I’m not sure anyone is).



But when the kids come barrelling into the dojo, so excited to train and be on the mat, shouting over each other and basically carrying on like labrador puppies on a sugar high, it all melts away. The drama, the politics, the admin, the fears, the anxieties. I could be in the blackest, foulest mood, (and I often am when I am hangry around 3pm) but the minute they arrive, it all makes sense.  

It’s amazing, when you think about all the things an instructor has to do, just to be able keep teaching your little one how to do a face block. After all, that which gives light must endure burning, and everything I do is for the students, because without them then I really am just a karate bum.

So, please be patient with us when we don’t respond to your text at 11:30pm about something that really could wait until tomorrow morning. It might seem like we have easy lives, because “you only teach for four hours”, but there are mountains and mountains of invisible work that go into what we do, and yes, we do lie awake at night and worry about our students too.


Late Bloomers Welcome

I got an email from a possible student the other day, asking if we offered adult classes, or if we would be willing to accommodate a 45 year old. I get messages like this all the time – parents and grandparents who want to either join their kid on the mat, or find something to do now that the children have all grown up and gone. Sometimes, it’s picking up where they left off thirty years ago, always plagued by the regret of quitting. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they wish they hadn’t quit as a kid, I’d be able to buy a shiny, fancy new gi.

Always that question: is it too late for me to start?

I always say, never. 

If you want your child to become national champion, then yes, they have to live it from when they are four or five. You also have to hope that they are freakishly gifted in strength, agility and speed. (But that’s a blogpost for another time.) Otherwise? It doesn’t matter when we start – what matters is that we stay. 

While the majority of my students are under 16, we are fortunate enough to have a thriving adult class of 30, when everyone is on the mat. The oldest student is 67. There is a grandmother aged 62, who trains consistently and with great humility and a smile. She’s properly awesome, and rightfully inspiring.

But this is the hard part for us – keeping adult students interested. The sheer demands on our time – work, family, health – make finding a couple of hours a week a challenge sometimes. In Joburg, there are literally hundreds of dojos, but anyone in a small town will struggle to find one close enough. Even then, proximity isn’t enough, because a dojo should be good. A dojo should be accommodating without sacrificing the integrity of the syllabus.

Adults have different fears; they’re afraid of falling, of not knowing everything, the risk of injury, of not being up to standard. Adults don’t like to work in close proximity with each other, and many feel exceptionally limited by their bodies. And as I’ve written before, the more classes a student misses, the harder it is to come back.

But the important thing is the trying – the participation. Joining in and doing your best is all that ever really matters. Only instructors and professional martial artists have to care about a hundred possible bunkai. Only instructors have to immerse themselves in history, in hardcore training regimes, in endless weekends given up to seminars, gradings and tournaments.

But you, the adult student? All we ask is that you try to attend class whenever possible, and that when you are on the mat, you learn to trust the process. If you’re free and willing to help out, then great! We would love that. But if not? Well, life isn’t all burritos and naps.

I myself started ‘late’ – while I did do judo in primary school for four years, I took a long sabbatical during high school and my gap year. I started up again when I was 19, and only started taking my training seriously in my second year. I never really planned to be an instructor – that only occurred to me about four years ago. But the advantage of starting as an adult was that I already had the necessary focus and experience to fully enjoy my martial arts. Some start too early, hit a plateau while waiting for black belt, and quit. Some kids burn out. Some teens, incandescent with talent, quit because their friends make fun of them, or because their parents want them to focus on their studies.

But you, the adult student? You may have commitments, but you also have more control over your time. You probably don’t have to spend your evenings doing homework. Your Saturday mornings are yours, no longer tyrannised by school commitments. You have the patience to train slowly and steadily. You are less likely to need the external motivation of the next belt.

So why not start? Why not try something new? Meet new people, discover new things. Get stronger, enjoy more focus. The internet is full of wonderful stories of people finding just the right dojo. My life is on a very special path because of one little dojo hidden in a university. Try a bunch of styles. Go to a few free classes. If your gut warns you, then try another dojo. (And if they ask for six months’ fees in advance, then best you run screaming. That dojo is failing.)

May you find the dojo and style that gels with you – remember, there is no perfect or best style. There is only the style that you enjoy, and that you stick with. The rest is decoration.

The Launch of Martial Heart

Despite the flack that the martial arts community gets for the occasional thuggery andMartial Heart poster.png bad behaviour of some, I truly believe that most of us wish to be better and to be kind. A dojo is often a place of sanctuary and acceptance, a family that can be a great support in difficult times. I know that my dojos over the years have been places where I can be myself, which means being a bit weird and super nerdy about things.

It is with this in mind that I finally started an initiative that I have been thinking about for a long time. It is a small start, but I hope it will grow over time.

I have started with a simple bin for collecting old karate suits, training equipment and clothing in general. It is in the dojo reception area, and has a sign on it encouraging dojo members and family to donate. Every week, I hope to sort through the donations, then allocate them to dojo members on dojo account as well as dojos that are just starting out in less fortunate circumstances. Whatever is left over, I will take to charities in the area and build up relationships between our dojo and charities we personally approve.

We have tons of parents and kids coming through the doors every week, and we are so lucky to have the time and resources to train. Why not make it easier for people to give back with a collection point in a trusted environment? Parents often ask if there’s anywhere they can donate the good clothes their kids grow out of. Let’s make it easier for them!

If you would like to start something like this in your dojo and theme it (pet food as entry to a gashuku, toys for Christmas, whatever), please feel free to download the posters using this link. 

Martial Heart poster

I would be honoured if this appeared in even one other dojo. Please send me photos!

We have the opportunity to give back, always. I believe every dojo is special, and has so much to give.

Follow your martial heart 🙂



Vygotsky and the Sempai

In one of my many gchats with an old friend, the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) came up, and I went squirreling off in search of this fascinating education theory. In it, Lev Vygotsky offers a way for us to understand the value of peer teaching, which appears in all good dojos around the world: the sempai-kouhai relationship.

What is the Zone of Proximal Development? 

Basically it is a system that puts students within the orbits of those who are best placed to help them depending on the subject material and their learning styles.

Lev Vygotsky views interaction with peers as an effective way of developing skills and strategies. He suggests that teachers use cooperative learning exercises where less competent children develop with help from more skillful peers – within the zone of proximal development.

Vygotsky believed that when a student is in the ZPD for a particular task, providing the appropriate assistance will give the student enough of a “boost” to achieve the task. – Saul McLeod (emphasis mine)


Or, as Vygotsky himself wrote,

“the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p86).

It is a far less top-down method of teaching, instead employing the collective to help scaffold a learner until they can solve the problem themselves. While the term ‘scaffolding’ was not used by Vygotsky himself, scholars after him created it as a tidy term to explain the way others can build a support structure for another learner until they can solve the problem themselves.

Wood et al. (1976, p. 90) offer the following definition of scaffolding:

‘Those elements of the task that are initially beyond the learner’s capacity, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence’.

Basically, put people with others who are best placed to help them – teachers, students, parents. But for our purposes, let’s stick to peers.

Okay, that’s nice, but what does it have to do with martial arts? 

Have you ever been in the dojo, or at a gashuku, or just sitting with dojo mates, and memstylessomeone just explains something in a way that clicks?

We know that there are 7 different styles of learning, and a good instructor tries their best
to cover as many of these as possible. We tend to use visual, verb and logical cues.

But in a class with many students of different abilities and understandings, sometimes it helps to crowdsource a better explanation. 

Within the classroom, the person who is more knowledgeable is not always the teacher; students can also be placed in collaborative groups with others who have demonstrated mastery of tasks and concepts.- Heather Coffey

I myself am a more social, verbal learner, and sometimes someone just says something that explains one problem beautifully. But others might need just that one physical correction – a touch to a floating elbow, maybe – and the problem is highlighted and therefore solvable.

In your dojo, you have a variety of intelligences, and while we shouldn’t expect our little champs to be good teachers, this is vital to introduce into your dojo from about the age of ten. I have an orange belt, who is ten years old and an exceptional fixer of stances. I have never seen someone so dedicated to working with his peers to fix their footwork. When it comes time to pair them off, I know who I can rely on to spot that issue and fix it in another student.

What are the benefits of the Sempai-Kouhai relationship? 

Briefly,  Sempai-Kouhai is basically a mentor/student relationship. It has overtones of big sibling, little sibling – a gentle way to teach students to take responsibility and pride in the success of their classmates. Once in awhile, pairing seniors with juniors can yield many fruitful results.

The Sempai-Kouhai relationships uses scaffolding as a way for a more junior student to learn from the higher student. Perhaps it is the first 10 moves of a kata that the sempai knows well. By letting them work with a junior, you teach them how to improve their own kata along the way.

To teach is to learn twice – this is one of the major advantages of a Sempai-Kouhai pairing. Below, some benefits that I have gleaned over the course of my uchi-deshi course and in the dojo over a decade:

  • Building esprit de corps
  • Leadership through gentle mentorship
  • Learning to give and receive criticism – feed forward, not back
  • The sempai realises that teaching isn’t as easy as it looks
  • By being able to sit out and watch for a bit, it is an excellent way for the instructor to pick up on problems – whether something was inadequately explained, or there’s a general problem preventing further progress
  • Likewise, it also gives instructors a tool to manage the need to micromanage students. An instructor is a gardener, not a carpenter. 
  • Building confidence for both sempai and kouhai
  • More rank, more responsibility – teaching the value of dojo hierarchy
  • Engendering patience and kindness towards fellow students
  • Learning to use different pieces of dojo equipment to fix or explain a problem
  • Taking pride in the dojo through teaching juniors
  • Awareness of the depth of understanding required to be a good teacher
  • Responsibility is more important than technical perfection: we can always fix the technique later, because we are building people, not robots
  • Humility
  • It helps splits up the syllabus on those occasions when there is a wide split in abilities in the class

Over the years I have been immensely fortunate to have seniors along the way that have been integral to my martial arts journey. From my first Sempai, who ignited my love of kata and general martial arts studies (thanks for all those wonderful Sunday training sessions, by the way) to all the seniors I have now from whom I learn each day. In South Africa, we have a term for this: ubuntuI am, because you are. The idea of collective growth, love and support is beautifully encapsulated in this phrase, and I love to pair it with ZPD.

Of course, our instructors will always be important, but we can learn from everyone in the dojo. To sum it all up: I am, because you are, to teach is to learn twice, and so we can scaffold each other to greater heights.

Do you have a sempai that has hugely affected your martial arts journey? A kouhai you’re proud of? Please share your stories in the comments below.

Further Reading: 

An Introduction to Vygotsky edited by Harry Daniels

The Zone of Proximal Development by Heather Coffey

The Zone of Proximal Development – Some Conceptual Issues

Simply Psychology: The Zone of Proximal Development

How to look after your gi

They say the suit maketh the man, and while that’s a bit narrow, it is helpful to paraphrase it as the gi maketh the warrior. A clean gi (or do-gi) is a sign of respect, not only for oneself but towards one’s dojo and fellow training partners. To arrive in a dirty, untidy gi is to show a lack of self-respect, and is especially egregious in Japan.

This year I invested in several high-quality gi, as befitting my journey towards becoming an instructor. After all, I spend upwards of twenty hours a week in my gi, and that’s excluding gashuku and other training seminars. If I am sitting on a grading panel (even in just an observational capacity), it still behooves me to look the part. Having a few good suits to switch between extends the lifespan of each one, and the old ones still have their place for outdoor training. I would never take a Shureido out on the mountains, after all.

To whit, I’ve created an infographic that has some basic and easy care tips for a gi. In the spirit of martial cooperation, it is yours to download and share amongst all members of your dojo. Feel free to print it out and staple it to every gi your dojo sells, or to put in your next dojo newsletter. If you put it on your website, please just link back to me, that’s all. And if you print it, please don’t crop out my website name.

I hope this will help students (and parents of young students) in all styles keep their gi in great condition. If you have any suggestions, corrections or stories to share, please do!


Returning to the Dojo

Looking for translated copies of this? Please jump to the bottom! 

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 so unfit!
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:

In German: http://sakurayama-dojo.de/time-to-make-a-comeback/

In Spanish: https://bushidojo.wordpress.com/2018/10/23/es-hora-de-volver-al-dojo-tras-un-paron/ and https://truegakusei.wordpress.com/2017/06/26/hora-de-volver-al-dojo-extraido-de-otro-blog/

In Hebrew: Returning to the Dojo Hebrew translation by Guy Goldsmith (downloadable pdf)

Five Reasons Why Kids Need Karate

Or any martial art, for that matter, but I admit my bias.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that children and teens aged 8-18 years old are spending 85% of their time sitting. Childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing, not only in developed countries but in developing countries.

According to the International Obesity Taskforce one out of every 10 children is overweight. This means there are 155 million overweight children worldwide, with about 30 to 45 million of these classified as obese. In South Africa, almost two out of every 10 children are either overweight or obese. – Overweight Children: Puppy Fat or Predisposition to Obesity? 

Even worse, childhood depression is on the rise. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, one in four teens attempts suicide, and the rate of suicides for kids aged 10-14 has doubled in the last 15 years.

Our kids are struggling with their weight and their self-esteem. Of course, there are no easy solutions to these problems, but we may have some answers and a way forward.

As a partner piece to my perennial classic Eight Reasons Why Women Should Do a Martial Art, read on to see all the benefits a martial art can bring your kids.

1. Exercise (Duh)

Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way first. While training in a martial art might not have the quick gains of something like running, it builds a different kind of fitness. Karate, for example, builds endurance and stamina, with an emphasis on core and leg strength. Aikido builds flexibility and speed. Other martial artists are welcome to weigh in below, but overall, we need to get kids moving. The couch is killing them, and I’m not being facetious: sitting is the new smoking.

2. Building Discipline 

Even people who don’t train know that doing a martial art develops discipline, but aren’t entirely sure how. Sure, it is obviously honed in the discipline of just showing up (sometimes, showing up is enough), or finishing a thousand punches, but it is in the tiny things that carry over. It is respect for space (the dojo), respect for presentation (the neatness of a gi), the small rituals of respect that allow the teaching process to flow. By teaching kids to be still, to listen and when to step forward and when to step back, they learn discipline through tiny habits. Never forget the power of tiny habits to build life-long pillars of discipline.

3. Socialising

All martial arts are by their nature more gender-inclusive than other sports. Nearly all school sports are split along gender lines, with girls and boys teams training separately. In the dojo, boys, girls and everyone between trains together. It is in the dojo that many lifelong friendships are formed, and kids get an opportunity to meet people outside of their school and home environments, giving them the chance to make new friends. What can be more precious to the shy child? Or more fun for the extroverted?

4. Confidence 

When I was in primary school, I was hopelessly bullied. I spent every break reading in the library. How could I not be a target? My teeth alone generated a thousand insults. (They’re better now. Braces are best.) But then I found out that judo was on offer in the school hall every Tuesday and Thursday. I signed up, because I thought that if I got big and strong (hah!) then they would all leave me alone. So, I started judo and took to it like a stoner to cereal. Within weeks, the bullies left me alone. I hadn’t threatened them, but as soon as they found out I was doing judo, they backed off. I call this the Hollywood Ninja effect: the minute anyone starts a martial art, other people are intimidated.

But that aside, in the dojo kids will often have to demonstrate their technique in front of the class, and while initially they may struggle to perform, eventually they get used to it. In a world where extroversion is so prized, this is a great way for shy kids to build their confidence.

5. Play

No, console gaming doesn’t count. I enjoy gaming, sure, but there’s a limit. It isn’t supposed to encompass the entirety of play. I cannot overemphasize the importance of play in childhood development. Suffice to say, this quote covers it:

Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. – The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds (American Academy of Pediatrics)

A good dojo builds play into teaching – kids aren’t adults, and they aren’t meant to learn everything like little automatons.By encouraging play when schools are squeezing it out, we leave a place in the day for this important tool. Whether it’s a game using karate techniques or letting them do cartwheels from one end of the dojo to another, play is built into karate for young kids. And you know, sometimes adults need a chance to play too (except we get too competitive, and it ends poorly. This is why we can’t have nice things.)


How to choose a dojo:

When picking a dojo, try a few classes first before making any decisions. If your gut says no, then look for another dojo. If something seems off, it probably is. There are plenty of great dojos to choose from (like mine!) but sadly, there are a few terrible ones that give the rest of us a bad name.

Let your kid try different styles, and see which one works for them. You’ll know when you find the right dojo for your kid, and with your support and encouragement, it could change their life. They will need your support on this: making it to class consistently and on time depends on you as the parent, and it hurts their training when they miss class for avoidable reasons. By being a good karate parent, you are giving them many gifts that will last them a lifetime.

Obituary: Kazuo Chiba, 1940 – 2015

Even though I no longer formally practice Aikido, it is a martial art that still matters to me, and one I often think of. I still miss it, and not just because of the hakama.

Recently, T.K. Chiba shihan passed away. He was one of the few living disciples of Aikido’s founder Morihei Ueshiba and his son Kisshomaru, having served as their uchi-deshi for seven years and taking his teachings abroad. He spent ten years teaching in Britain, and he ran a dojo in San Diego from 1981.

I am incredibly fortunate to have trained with two of his students, one of them being my Sensei Denzil Beukes in Grahamstown. Though he may have taught an ocean away, he had an influence on my Aikido, my beloved Rhodes Aikido club, and on my martial arts journey as a whole. His approach to personal development through adversity remains influential to this day.

“I try to stick to the traditional ways as much as possible. The martial, warrior spirit is something I admire greatly and is something I try to preserve. The combatative arts have a profound body history in them and I don’t want to lose it. But it’s more than that. We follow the art, which is struggle. And through the struggle, we transcend into the path of Aikido. Eventually, it brings harmony between you and the external world.”

As more and more of the few remaining disciples begin pass away from old age, regardless of style, it is important that we continue building a martial arts repository online. We are fortunate to have something as valuable as Youtube for preserving footage of how these great teachers trained, and taught, and inspired. So much has already been lost in martial history – the firebombings of Japan in WW2 and the invasion of Okinawa by Allied forces decimated valuable archives and killed numerous students and teachers. As we bid farewell to the giants of our different arts, let us ensure that their legacy and contributions remain long after they do.

Dear Adult Beginners: It Gets Better

For whatever reason, you’ve decided to join a dojo. Maybe your kid trains there, or a friend does. Maybe this is the year you get stronger. Maybe there’s a sadder reason that you’d rather not talk about. For whatever reason you joined, there will hopefully be many reasons to stay.

It is difficult to find exact figures for how many people get from white to black belt. A quick google search churns out mostly forum discussions, and it seems to be between 1 and 5%. Probably less than a third make it to their second dan. Some styles have a lot of belts between white and black, and some have very few, but with longer waiting periods. Overall though, the attrition rate for martial arts is ridiculous, but I can understand why so few people stay. I am hoping, though, that I can maybe convince you to stay.

David Wong wrote an amazing article titled How The Karate Kid Ruined The Modern World, and he sums up one of the major reasons why people don’t stick with something:

The world demands more. So, so much more. How have we gotten to adulthood and failed to realize this? Why would our expectations of the world be so off? I blame the montages. Five breezy minutes, from sucking at karate to being great at karate, from morbid obesity to trim, from geeky girl to prom queen, from terrible garage band to awesome rock band.

In the real world, the winners of the All Valley Karate Championship in The Karate Kid would be the kids who had been at it since they were in elementary school. The kids who act like douchebags because their parents made them skip video games and days out with their friends and birthday parties so they could practice, practice, practice. And that’s just what it takes to get “pretty good” at it.

Nothing in this image has anything to do with karate.

Nothing in this image has anything to do with karate.

Everyone thinks they’re a training montage away from being good at something, but getting a black belt within a good federation is a years-long process. (You can get one in 6 weeks at a terrible McDojo, but that’s a whole different blog post.) It takes anything between five and ten years. In my case, it took eight whole years, and that’s with regular, consistent training and the work of several teachers.

But that work is invisible to someone has just joined.

The adult beginner sees other adults with senior rankings, and it looks attainable. And the seniors, we sometimes look so graceful. (Well, I don’t, but there are those that do.) We do these advanced kata, and we move like Sensei does, and we know the terms. It isn’t great to ever be the junior, especially when in other areas of your life, you’re senior in every respect. Being shown how to do basic stepping by someone ten years younger – that stings a bit.

I want you to read two articles. I want you to read this one by Jesse at KaratebyJesse.com, called How to Feel Good About Sucking at Karate. If you read the comments, there are fifth dans and higher admitting that they feel that way all the time. I see instructors getting corrected, people who have been training longer than twenty or thirty years. The learning never stops. Unlike corporate, for example, there’s never really a plateau where you’ve learned everything there is to know at your level. There’s a hundred years of research, ideas and history that informs your training. Of course no one expects you to scratch the surface for a few years. And remember: there’s no rush.

There are no deadlines in karate that you have to chase.

It seems like shameless self-promotion, but I’d also like you to read this piece I wrote about Impostor Syndrome. It was after a really pathetic night of training, when I honestly wondered if I had been given my black belt out of pity. I want you to know that that feeling comes, and it will go. And that there will also be days when some things fall into place, and you will hear the angels sing, and you will deserve those precious, bright moments.

But as an adult beginner, the constant corrections are overwhelming, and sometimes humiliating. It’s hard not to feel like a failure, and to think that no one else has ever been this bad at karate, or aikido, or judo, or whatever you choose to do. But you know what? There isn’t a senior who wasn’t a junior, and who doesn’t learn every day from the junior students they teach. You’re not slowing anyone down by asking for help. 

There are a lot of good reasons to do martial arts, and I hope that you will stick with it. When it is hard, push through. On the other side of frustration lies progress. You will be amazed how many people really do care that you stay. No senior worth their belt will refuse to help you, and if the seniors in the dojo are offish or rude, then get out and try another dojo.

In a year’s time, you will be glad you stuck with it, and in five years’ time, you will wonder why you ever thought of quitting. I promise. So don’t be scared to ask for help, and always train with someone more senior than you. You’ll learn a great deal, you’ll progress quicker than you expect, and you’ll find out more about yourself than you ever imagined.


Credit: Karate by Jesse.com

Something I wrote a while ago…

Here’s a piece I wrote after a particularly rough training session at Aikido. I thought it might be a good start to the blog.

Of course its not fucking easy.

Of course there’s pain.

Your arm gets wrenched like a stubborn anchor from rocks, your head snaps back too fast, you hit the ground harder than you thought possible, and bruises proliferate on areas where bone meets the ground with the barest layer of flesh between. Your body becomes a steady ache in an unsteady frame, knees like water and spine like string. Fear of more pain, more humiliation, makes the blood leave your face, and every move becomes an exercise in hesitation, and all you want to do is to leave the mat, to curl up in the dirty bathrooms outside and cradle your wounded ego and uselessness and sob like the little girl you know you still are inside.

Because nothing in my life prepared me for the acceptance of pain. We are completely hardwired to avoid it, not to look for it. We have no true memory of pain, can never recall what it really felt like that day your coccyx cracked or your elbow was pushed in directions antithetical to its purpose. Oh, maybe you remember that you were squirming at the time, that you could barely walk and picking up a book satchel was agony. The memories are vague, but that sense of pain is hardly there. We have no memory, so that we can never get used to it, and ever lose our fear. We can never make peace with it.

But we keep going back.

We go back to the reminder that we are dumb, weak and uncoordinated. That, only after seven years of dedication, are we considered worthy enough to really commence training. Only then are we taken at all seriously as students. Only then are we bearable idiots. There is no praise. Gradings are the only sign of progress, the only acknowledgment of the work you do for those few nods. It all boils down to you and your self-discipline. I have to be able to shelve my whimpering ego, my problems and my pain and remember that this is no short trip. This is not a three-year degree, or a puppy for Christmas. This is a life-long journey. And either do it properly, or fuck off.

Fuck it, I know it’s not supposed to be about others. I know I should do it for myself, without needing praise. I should do it for the sake of the art, and not for my ego to be endlessly coddled because my body is too weak and my mind too small to fully grasp the concepts. I have to accept that I am stupid and slow and hesitant and that I have no natural capacity. I don’t flow, I twitch. I don’t land, I crash.

Martial arts never claimed to be for everyone, much less for those without talent. After a certain point, there is no space for stupidity and self-indulgent whining. This is not a game. People get injured and if I don’t keep my focus, I could hurt someone. If I am not wholly focused, I could get myself killed.

I am privileged to study with the teachers I have. I am beyond fortunate that I have no genetic problems that limit my training. But I still don’t know why I keep going back. There is no sign of a future for me in the art, in Aikido or Goju Ryu. I have to work twice as hard to keep up with the others. I still fear pain and correction. I can barely handle criticism. I am weak, I am slow, and I am fearful.

If I knew why I keep stepping onto the wood and mat, if I knew why I still jump to be uke and to help others, to teach when I have no right, to train when I am so ill-fitted for it, I might be able to find some peace. Gods, I don’t know why. Maybe I am really some spectacular kind of masochist. Maybe this is the mentality that either creates utopias or destroys them. I don’t know whether my stubbornness is endearing or disgusting to others. I have only got as far as I have on pure will. I doubt I will be able to get any further without any talent. The corrections are endless. I was even told after a grading that my technique is sloppy, but I have spirit.

Maybe that is all I have. It might not be enough, but it has to count for something. It has to be the only thing that makes sure I don’t throw my gi away in a fit of self-obsessive pain and failure. If that is all I have, and perhaps all it takes to keep training and working when there are a thousand reasons not to, maybe there is a tiny, tiny whisper of hope.

I may never be a great sensei. I may never see purple belt or 4th kyu. I may forever remain a senior and not a sempai. I may never hear any praise from any instructor on my technique, but as long as I can train, and do so because I want to, and not because I am capable, then there is little more I can ask for. One either has talent, or not. Just as one cannot learn to be a great writer without any inherent talent, one can never be a great sensei without any natural ability. And that’s fine, and that is how the universe works. It is how it weeds out the pretenders, and makes sure that only teaching of worth is passed down.

And, I am okay with that. I can live with the bruises, because they are mine, and they are proof that I get up and swing another punch, land another strike. Take another fall, another ripping of joints and slam of knees into mat. The pain becomes proof that I am alive, that I am brave and that I am made of more than just protein and carbon. I may be scrawny and weak and stupid, but I have self-discipline and I have will. And, perhaps, when I put my head down at night, that’s something worth living with, and being proud of.