It’s Not a Race to Black Belt… it’s a Journey!

Many students, especially our younger ones, believe that there is a race to black belt.

It has been my experience that boys, teenage and younger, treat training more as a race than girls of the same age do. I have noticed that girls usually want to get it right before moving on while boys just want to keep it moving. Older students (30+) seem more patient and desire to learn to perform techniques correctly and consistently before moving on.

As a teacher, this is a challenge! I need to manage the expectations of the young aggressive students while encouraging their motivation to succeed. I have found many ways of accomplishing both goals.

Young students like to see young black belts. I guess it’s the old saying “if they can do it, I can, too!”

Every now and then I tell a story of one of my younger black belts. We discuss how old they were when they started, how old they were when they tested for black belt, and some of the ups and downs they had along the way. The old saying changes to “if they can stick it out, so can I.”

I also allow students of all belt levels to open and close class and to lead the exercises. The higher level students will get the opportunity to teach a kata to lower belt students. These small opportunities of leadership help to keep the students motivated. It also shows them that with leadership comes responsibility that some students are not in a rush to have. It’s also true that you can learn more deeply about a kata you already know by teaching it to someone else. The students actually slow down, see techniques from a different perspective, and enjoy the journey.

Speaking of journey, I routinely tell all of my students that it is not race, it is a journey. Several times a year I put on my white belt to let them know that the color of the belt is not important. Learning is key. I used to join class and allow one of them to teach. I stopped because they are too strict! I wonder where they got that from!

I am now working on a “Turnaround Day” where, for one class, parents take a class and the students teach them. It’s a big day where their children can convey their excitement about showing what they have learned to others, and to remind them about how much they have accomplished, even if they are at a beginner belt level. And for parents, they may see martial arts practice in a new light.

This might seem like a hard sell for some parents. A benefit of martial arts practice is to break down the self-imposed barriers we may have, and to try new things, even if we may not do them well. When children see parents willing to try new things, it encourages them to pursue new things in the future.

My goal in teaching is to keep the students encouraged and to help them to savor each moment while working for future goals. Remember: it is not a race, it is a journey!


New Year, New Goals, New Students

With the start of a new year, there are also new goals, new opportunities, and new students.

Many karate schools start to prepare for the upcoming tournament season in January. Students order new uniforms, weapons, and sparring gear. Dojo heads map out the tournaments that their students should attend. Tournament fever starts to fill the air!

I believe that you should work a new kata, empty hand or weapon, for at least three months before performing it in a tournament. The complexity of the kata and the skill level of the student weigh heavily in the amount of time needed to practice. January is a great time to start preparing for those spring tournaments in earnest. It’s also a good time to set goals for the new year. Our dojo has new membership goals, student retention goals, and student motivation goals, to name a few.


Many dojos offer free class, free uniforms, or reduced tuition to attract new students. Reflection about the reasons why some students left the program in the previous year can identify the program improvements that will foster improved retention in the new year. No dojo likes to lose students and sometimes we have to tweak our programs, without compromising our core values, to keep students of all ages invested in their goals and interested in the discipline. We want all of our students to remain in the dojo and to be successful in their journey.

Some dojos see a flood of new students in January, just like fitness centers get the most memberships with New Year’s resolutions about people wanting to ensure better health. There are many reasons for starting in January. Some receive karate lessons as a Christmas gift or holiday promotion. Others have new fitness and weight management goals that they want to start. While others watched so many martial arts movies during the holidays that they just have to give it a try. Some just want the challenge of learning something new. Regardless of their reason, all new students are welcomed with open arms. During the cold winter months the dojo is a good place to come workout and sweat. Hard working new students will start to see the fruits of their labor by spring. Perhaps they will experience the accomplishment of a belt promotion, participation in a tournament, or representing the dojo in a spring or summer demonstration.

Yes, the new year is an exciting time in the dojo. New people, new goals, new opportunities, and new memories.

Back to School! And Back to the Dojo!

It is common for students to take off for long stretches of time from the dojo during the summer.

Some go to camp, to grandma’s house, or long family vacations. Regardless of the reason, it is important to return to the dojo as soon as possible.

Unfortunately for many students, “out of sight” means “out of mind.” It can take several classes for the student to get their “groove” back.

Combined with being in a new grade in school, and in some cases a new school all together, can add to the challenge of resuming good karate training.

That is one reason why students should return as soon as possible and not wait until they have many new challenges at the same time. Instructors are always happy to see students return to class and are always willing to assist them to regain their previous form, and prepare them for new lessons.

It is imperative that students dedicate themselves to catching up. They all have “muscle memory” that can make it possible, but the finer aspects of kata often need refinement.

Of course, practicing while on vacation is the best way to ensure that catching up is as rapid as possible. It does not take long to practice what you have learned. Maybe 30 – 45 minutes once or twice a week will do it. Practicing on vacation can be great fun; it is common on Okinawa to practice on the beach! The sand offer resistance in stepping, and builds up leg strength and flexibility.

Any time devoted to practice is better than no time at all. In the end the student will be better able to “hit the ground running” when they return to the dojo.

Time away affects readiness for testing: calendar time is not the same as dojo time. It is also important that students don’t have unrealistic notions about testing. Depending on the test cycle the student might not have enough class hours or have the necessary command of the next level’s material to be tested. Don’t stress out!

The study of martial arts is not a race, but is a journey. Not all journeys begin and end at the same time.

Have fun during your summer breaks. Practice your karate when you can, but be sure to make time for it and practice it in interesting places.

Return to the dojo as soon as possible and most importantly enjoy the martial arts journey.

So… You Can Serve More Than One Master!

When I started karate classes many years ago, I often heard my instructor say “you can’t serve two masters.” He didn’t mean it in the biblical context (Matthew 6:24), but in terms of the intensity of a student’s desire to learn, and quality of their focus, and their management of time.

He believed that, regardless of age or belt level, you can only study karate from one instructor (school). For youth, it went one step further. For them, he believed that kids could not play any other organized sports or activities like cheerleading and gymnastics. He was seeking full commitment to the study of karate.

Before I go any further, let me make it perfectly clear that I do not endorse underbelts training in more than one karate style, particularly in kata. Stay with one style until achieving black belt level in it, and then talk to your instructor about your desire to learn a different style. Initially, I accepted the “one master” notion in my personal karate endeavors. For the majority of my underbelt years, I practiced with my one instructor in his dojang only (“dojang” is what those studying Korean martial arts call their dojo).

It was not until I achieved brown belt rank that my desire for more sparring practice increased. We practiced very little sparring at the dojang, and that lead me to secretly spar with other students an instructors. At that same time, my son, who started karate at age 5, wanted to play football while continuing his karate study.

We spoke with our instructor, and as expected, he was firmly against it. As a compromise for our son, we found an intramural soccer league that practiced and played games on the same day. It was a very informal league, and it satisfied him at the time.

As soon as he tested for black belt, we signed him up for football. Jump ahead almost 10 years, and I am running my own martial arts school! Initially, I had the same rule as my first instructor, and expressed my displeasure about students participating in football, baseball, and other activities while practicing karate. Some families made their child focus solely on karate while others let their children choose. I lost some good students. I believe some would have matured into very good black belts.

This gave me pause… and as I thought more about it, and came to reevaluate my position.

I asked myself a question: If a student decided to participate in other time consuming actives while studying karate what was the worst thing that could happen? Other than quitting karate, it would be that they would just miss the next test opportunity. That means that the road to black belt is a little longer for them.

Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.

Now I meet with the parents and students and let them know the consequences of participating in multiple time consuming actives. Instead of potentially being eligible to test every 4 months the might have to sit out a test while their outside activity is in session, resulting in at least 8 months between tests. This change in position for me has worked well for me and my students. We have had soccer players, football players, baseball players and even a teenage member of the NC National Guard in the dojo. They train at their own pace and advance accordingly.

Earlier in this article, I mentioned that I used to train without the permission with other instructors to improve my sparring. Well, wouldn’t you know it… I faced the same problem in my dojo? No, none of our students were sneaking around. It relates to a change in approach to teaching sparring. We have changed from point sparring to full contact sparring.

With over 20 years of point sparring experience I knew that I needed help to implement the change. Rather than run the risk of having my students sneaking off like I did, I solicited the the support of a good friend who is the head of a local Bushiken Karate dojo. Not only does he invite our students to his bi-weekly fight night, he offers insight to all of us about the finer points of his art.

So, yes, you can serve more than one master. You must do so in an open, honest, and well thought out manner. You need to acknowledge that there are compromises in the speed of promotion or the depth of knowledge for that particular time. When other activities no longer compete for that time, a fuller and deeper study of martial arts is always waiting for you.

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Start Training with Sensei Mirror

Some students and karate practitioners like to watch videos of their kata so they can diagnose what is not correct yet and build on what they do well. There’s a simpler way of seeing your own abilities that is more important than video: a mirror… or, as I like to call him, “Sensei Mirror”.

Below are some of the benefits of training with Sensei Mirror.

  1. You can see… you! Otherwise you always have to rely on others to help fix and adjust what you can easily see in the mirror. You may attend class twice a week, but you probably pass by a mirror a few times a day. Take advantage of that!
  2. You can make your own corrections and get a better sense of proper technique. Your own corrections are often better because you understand how your body feels when you do a technique properly. Doing it, seeing it, and feeling it is how we learn, and the mirror helps us bring all three of those sensations together, and learn in a more effective way.
  3. You look at you — right in the eyes. Good concentration starts with focused eye contact. Sometimes it’s hard to get used to looking at a fellow student directly into the eyes with great intensity. It’s easier if you practice it in the mirror… by looking at you!
  4. If the mirror is large enough, it helps you develop peripheral vision. You learn how to take in your surroundings, left and right, high and low, while still having focused eye contact. It’s amazing how wide our range of vision is when we pay attention to it. This helps us defend ourselves because we are focused and aware at the same time.
  5. As you progress, you are taught visualize an opponent when executing all techniques (punches, kicks, blocks, etc.). Make Sensei Mirror your opponent. All proper techniques when taught assume that your opponent is the same size as you — so a middle punch is delivered to the same spot it would be as if your opponent was punching you. You can see that in the mirror better than you can feel it practicing without a mirror.
  6. The more you practice good targeting of punches and blocks in the mirror, the better prepared you are to find those same targets on someone of a different size.
  7. You can see how you might appear to an opponent. Do you look like an easy target? Do you protect your centerline? Do you have a confident posture?

By practicing in front of a mirror we start to consider ourselves as our own opponent. This is not really new. When we study martial arts we are always overcoming our limitations in knowledge and physical ability. We don’t always feel like practicing, and we don’t always feel like learning. By considering ourselves as our own opponent, we strive for more knowledge and to always improve our abilities and techniques. Many students have said that as they studied martial arts they came to realize that the times that they did not feel like practicing or going to class were the times when they needed the practice and the class the most. Very often they found that those turned out to be their best classes and best performances. They learned that self-discipline grows from practice, and the discipline of martial arts helps them in other areas of their life. Sensei Mirror is very good at creating self-discipline.

When it comes time to practice alone, look in the mirror. We see ourselves and what we are and what we do at that very moment. We see how we can be improve and we can see how much better we were than before. Sensei Mirror can enhance what we learn in class and help us improve our karate in many ways. Sensei Mirror provides us with a sense of progress and accomplishment as we pay attention to what we can more plainly see.

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The Centerline. What is it? Why is it important?

Most martial artists are familiar with the “centerline.” We have heard our instructors say “protect your centerline” or “attack your opponent’s centerline”. What are they talking about?

The centerline is the axis that runs down the middle of the body. Draw an imaginary line down the forehead, between the eyes, down the middle of the nose, through the middle of the chest, existing the center of the groin. This is the centerline. Why is it important?

Many of the important targets you are trying to attack and the ones you need to defend are down the centerline of the body. We protect ourselves with blocks or body positions so we are not hit in our head, eyes, nose, throat, solar plexus, or groin.

A person’s center of balance is often along this axis as well. Targeting the centerline gives you advantages over your opponent.

The use of stances and blocks is the foundation of centerline protection. Students do not learn this explicitly at the beginning of their karate studies, but it is in the basics of learning proper stances and proper targeting of punches. This is why we teach them to punch while giving them a target by facing them directly.

The reason for this is to ensure that the legs/feet are aligned properly (length and width) and that blocks are in the proper position when they are initially taught. Instructors want to ensure that the beginner student is punching down the center of their body.

As the student progresses in ability the importance of protecting one’s centerline and attacking the opponent’s centerline is stressed. Slight adjustments to the upper body, turning to the left or right, will help shield the centerline from a direct attack. With this adjustment of the upper body it is important to practice all blocks to ensure that they are executed effectively without causing unnecessary stress to the body or limiting the range of motion. Care should also be taken to ensure that punches, kicks, and other strikes can still be delivered to the centerline of the opponent. The centerline can also be protected with slight shuffling of the feet (side-to-side, backwards, etc.). The goal here is to avoid direct contact to your centerline while still placing yourself in a position to deliver a counter attack to your opponent’s centerline.

The figures show that only a slight change in position protects the centerline and also puts your hips in position for executing powerful techniques.

Centerline fig 1 & 2 image 060417

Considering that most fights are conducted at close range, it is extremely important that the student learns how to rotate his upper body, shuffle his feet, and block to avoid direct blows, often fatal blows, to his centerline.

Students must also learn to mount an offense while using these counter measures. Unless there is a one punch knockout both opponents in a fight will get hit. As is said in card playing “to shuffle you have to deal.” The goal is to minimize the trauma that your body receives while maximizing the trauma that you inflict on your opponent. How do you do this? One way is to protect your centerline while attacking his! This is why the centerline is so very important.

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The Martial Arts Teacher-Student Relationship Has Many Facets: Change is Good… Sometimes.

The relationship between the teacher (sensei) and student has many dimensions. Unlike a school teacher, whose relationship with students is usually bound to a calendar, the martial arts relationship is like that of a parent… but then again, it’s not. Or perhaps it’s like a mentor, but not always. Then maybe it’s like a friend, but it’s not always like that either. The relationship of a sensei and student does indeed have many dimensions, and the complex nature and depth of it can be seen when a change is made.

The bond between student an teacher can be and should be a close one, especially in smaller dojos. They spend so much time together it is natural for a parent/child or a older sibling/younger sibling relationship to form. This cultivates a mutual respect that flows both ways. They might not always agree (what relationship does?) but those are often handled by an “agree to disagree” philosophy.  It’s easy to forget that both students and senseis in martial arts have a commitment to constant learning, and sometimes when time passes perspectives change.

The intention of a dedicated student of the martial arts should be to remain with their instructor in a manner that is similar to the “until death do us part” commitment — like a marriage promise. Personal experiences of ourselves and others tell us that changes sometimes happen.

There are many reasons for leaving a dojo, a sensei’s organization, or a particular martial arts style itself. Not all reasons for change reflect a lack of loyalty on the behalf off the student. Unexpected events are always possible, and circumstances, like time or distance or obligations, affect the sensei-teacher relationship.

Instructors do retire, or relocate out of the commuting area, or are unable to continue teaching. Of course, the death of an instructor is also possible. Any of these can result in the closure of the dojo, sending students searching for a new teacher, and sometimes needing to study a different style.

There are situations when a high-ranking student studies for many years and becomes very close in rank to the instructor. To advance to broaden and deepen their knowledge and skill, they may need to be aligned with a different higher ranking instructor to continue the progression of their studies. There are times that having two highly ranked instructors may cause some dojo students to consider the high belts as rivals, even though those instructors may not be. In some circumstances, this can be disruptive to the natural flow and structure of the dojo, affecting the manner in which classes are conducted and the way study is organized.

There are other reasons. I have personally known of cases where changes in students physical condition that require a change in style. This can be the result of injury from accident or surgery, or just getting older.

One of the reasons I changed styles from Tang Soo Do to Shorin-Ryu was because of the high kicking requirements and deep stances of that style. Multiple knee surgeries took much of the joy out of practice; the Shorinkan has a tradition of accommodation and adaptation to physical limitations.

Many times students want to change or leave for financial reasons. Talk to the sensei first! Most of us don’t teach just for the money, and even if we have financial obligations that rely on dojo income, we hate to lose good students and will try to work something out. In any of the scenarios above it is desired that a change can be amicable and both parties part on good terms.  It is not uncommon for the student to still support events held my his former instructor and to stop by from time to time to check in because of their past experience, and the respect and understanding they had in the way they handled the change in their relationship.

In any of these scenarios presented here, it is hopeful that a change, if needed, can be made amicably and both parties part on good terms and in appreciation of each other’s dedication to the art. Martial arts is not like a team sport that has a season, or like a school semester. It encourages long-term relationships of mentoring and teaching with the goal of passing the style and knowledge to generations of students.

At the beginning of this blog I wrote that the goal of every student should be to remain with the original instructor whenever possible. Sometimes change is good, whether it is sought or created by unexpected circumstances. In all situations, the respect taught in the dojo about the relationship of teacher and student, is a foundation for handling the changes that life brings to us every day.

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Speed, Power, and Accuracy … It’s Called “Technique”

Which is more important? Speed? Power? Accuracy? They’re all important, separately and together.

Many karateka, especially those in the beginner or intermediate stages of their training wrestle with each of these. Sometimes they have to be practiced separately. As one grows in skill and knowledge, they all come together into a well-executed techniques.

What do instructors and tournament judges look to see most?

How should they be practiced?

There are many more questions revolving around these three aspects of our practice and our kata. Did you ever notice how beginning students rush through their kata? They think that speed is good! With that in their minds, their technique is poor with little power in their movements.

Have you ever seen the student who tries to exhibit power but their kata appears stiff and slow?

Or how about the karateka who kicks very hard and fast but has no idea where the kick will land (or that they should even have a target)?

Instructors emphasize speed, power, and accuracy at different times. The importance depends on the purpose of the lesson in that particular class. If it’s a new kata, accuracy might be more important, such as punching to the right target at the right time, and understanding the stances and the sequences. Power and speed will come as the student becomes more familiar with the new kata and makes connections with others they have learned and learn to visualize an opponent. Preparing for a tournament may be a reason to emphasize speed and power since that is what so many judges look for.

Generally, I focus more in accuracy. Learning how to execute a technique correctly and ensuring that it is delivered to the desired location is most important to me. Once the student has developed good accuracy, then we gradually work on speed, and their speed and accuracy together. You don’t want to lose what you learned in the process.

As the speed increases in a controlled and thoughtful manner, so does the power. As both power and speed increase we continue to monitor the accuracy of the delivery.

A fast and powerful punch or kick that is off target is of no use, and exposes weak points that an opponent can use. A powerful block that misses its target has no value. The key is to deliver a powerful technique with speed and accuracy.

As students move up in rank, it is plain to see that they combine speed, accuracy, and power in a way that makes their kata both interesting to watch and demonstrates their knowledge of the kata.

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There are Two Types of Karate Tournaments: Which is Right for You?

What type of karate tournament do you prefer? There are two main types of karate tournaments, “open” and “traditional.”

  • Open tournaments are just like the name implies. They are open to all styles of martial arts and often allow gymnastic movements in the competition.
  • Traditional tournaments are more restrictive in the styles that they allow to participate and the demonstrations that competitors can perform.

Each type of tournament has its purpose, but one may not be right for you at a particular time.

As an under belt (kyu rank), my son and I completed numerous times every year and even participated in a regional promotion circuit. We competed in several states on the east coast and won state championships in kata and sparring. All of those tournaments were considered “open.” The gymnastics-in-kata craze was not very popular in the events that we were in. In those tournaments where the craze was common, we tried to sign up for traditional divisions and events when they were available.

senseikamaUnfortunately, traditional divisions in open tournaments are usually reserved for black belts only. Under belts do not have as many options. Being a traditional martial artist in a gymnastic-heavy open tournament can be a real uphill climb. After achieving my first black belt, I switched styles from Tang Soo Do (Korean karate) to Shorin-Ryu (Okinawan karate). After that switch, I was introduced to traditional tournaments.

Traditional tournaments restrict participation to practitioners who share a basic martial arts philosophy or style. Examples of traditional tournaments are an “all Japanese and Okinawan” tournament or an “all Chinese” tournament. In these events, competitors are restricted to skill-level-appropriate katas and sparring that form the foundation of their systems. No flips, no tricks, no shiny weapons!

Judging traditional tournaments is easier because it is more of an “apples to apples” comparison, while open tournaments leave much to the whims and discretion of individual judges. Some judges have a fondness for creativity and flair for the spectacular, rather than how well participants uphold the traditions and and purpose of the styles they study.

Many students and instructors flock to open and traditional karate tournaments every weekend. There’s always one going on somewhere! Students who are interested in regular competition train long hours, sometimes under the instruction of event-specific instructors. Tournaments help students to assess their individual skills, effectiveness and knowledge against their peers.

Tournaments also serve as “game day” for martial artists. The NFL has Sunday afternoon, and we have our Saturday tournament!

Regardless of your preference, keep training, keep working hard, and get out there and compete!

What is the Best Age for Children to Start Martial Arts?

What is the best age to start a child in martial arts?  Age 5? 10? 3?

This is actually a hard question with no exact answer.  There are a few factors that need to be considered for each child.

When a parent comes to me with a very young child (3-6) I try to assess how verbal they are. Can they provide me with answers to simple questions? That is very important in conveying ideas and instructions.  I also look at their level of interest.  Is this something that they want or something that mommy and daddy wants?

senseikamaHow well coordinated is the child?  Is the child playful or reserved? The answers to these questions can help me to provide a program that is challenging and interesting but not frustrating.

I also have to make the program fun.  I take into account whether there are other students about their same age. Even a two year gap can be daunting to a young child. Sometimes the most important factor is the expectations of the parents. Some parents want their child to be a black belt but are not aware of what goes into making a black belt. Nor are they aware of the responsibilities a black belt has in the dojo.

I was one of those parents when my 4-year old son started out.  His karate school had a 5-year program to black belt, my son was almost 5, so in my mind I envisioned him becoming a black belt by 10! I did not factor in mental and emotional maturity, and his instructor did not make me aware of that, either.

In our dojo, I make sure that every parent of a child under the age of 7 understands that under the best of conditions I do not test for black belt level before a student reaches the age of 12.  Currently I have a young man who started with me on his 4th birthday (give or take a day) and in a month we will celebrate his 5th year in the program.  He is on track to test for black belt 3 years later (8 years after he started).  It is a joy watching him grow and mature as a student and as a person. I have no doubt that he is developing into a fine martial artist.  Hats off to his parents!

Some parents and students won’t want to invest as much time. This is especially the case when the “McDojo” down the street will promote students in 36 months regardless of age and maturity. By the time one of our students tests for shodan (first level of black belt) at age 12, many of his McDojo peers will be nidan (second level black belt) or higher! That can be difficult for a young child, and perhaps their parents, to understand.

What is the best age for a child to start in martial arts? It depends on the child, the parents, and the assessment of the instructor.