Looking out for the potholes
In order to talk about life on the karate road, I suppose the first question we need to ask is, "where does the road start"?
In my opinion it would be fair to say, "the road begins for each student the very moment they first seriously consider the possibility that karate interests them".
The reason why it interest them does not matter.
It is the thought that counts.
That singular instant when all else is pushed to the back of their minds and they truly entertain the idea of trying a karate class for the very first time. This then is what I consider to be the beginning of life on the karate road.
Like all great journeys this one will also have begun with what at first may seem to be a somewhat insignificant event.
A simple thought.
Step two down this road naturally enough, takes place when the prospective student decides to do something physical in response to what up until now, has only been a minor itch in the back of their mind. So, putting one foot in front of the other, this phase in their journey now finds them standing in a local dojo putting pen to paper, and signing up for what is often referred to as a "beginners course".
Now at the start of their journey down the “do” or “way” of karate, it is impossible for any new student to grasp the true depth of all that Shotokan karate has to offer. In fact many students even after several years of training can often see no further ahead than their next class, or their next grading, let alone fathom all that this great art has in store for them.
The reasons are varied, but I imagine that for many practioners of karate just worrying about what they need to know at the moment, and practicing what they have learnt in the past, is often more than enough to keep them focused in the present, let alone leave them any time to start thinking of what lies ahead in the weeks, months, and even years to come.
As with all things of value, the true essence of Shotokan karate, or any other style for that matter, is not something you acquire overnight. Literally hundreds, upon hundreds of hours of hard work, sweat, diligent effort, countless mind numbing techniques, and yes, even pain, all lie ahead for any student wishing to achieve more than just a superficial understanding of what the term "proper technique" really means.
To be time well spent of course, all of this time and effort must take place under the guidance of a qualified Shotokan sensei, otherwise, while a certain skill level may be obtained, the "art of Shotokan" will not emerge, and in the end it is really the "art" that we are seeking to understand and to perfect.
For those students, however, who do remain long term in a proper Shotokan dojo that is associated with, and under the guidance of a skilled Master, then their journey down the karate road will be an eye opening experience to say the least. By the time they are ready to grade for the rank of Sho Dan (1st degree black belt) you can be sure that the number of hours they will have spent practicing will probably have numbered into the thousands.
Today given enough time, perseverance, and the afore mentioned work ethic, the average student can usually expect to rise through the junior ranks, or "kyu belts", in about three to four years time. The different kyu levels are themselves distinguished from one another by the wearing of different coloured belts. These belts are awarded to a student from time to time in recognition of their new found skills and continued their progress down the karate road. Throughout their journey each student will come to see their individual belt as a visible testament to their skill, dedication, and personal level of success within their dojo society. A certain pride on rising to a new rank is inevitable, and for most students this alone is enough to spur them on to even greater goals, a higher standard of behaviour, and a strong desire to work even harder in the months ahead.
For some, however, a new belt and a new rank strangely enough have exactly the opposite effect.
The question is why?
Not unexpectedly this most often occurs in higher kyu ranks, especially as they get closer, to their Shodan grading. Call it nerves, call it burnout, call it what you will, it still never the less occurs. But these possibilities alone are not the sole reason, because it is not uncommon for a slide in the quality of techniques, less time spent at class, and the desire to come late and leave early to also occur in much lower ranks as well.
So why then would an increase in rank and status have such an adverse effect on a student?
The answer is simple. For the first time in their journey down the karate road the student finally hit a pothole.

So now what?

You may find that the answer is sometimes far less complicated than it first seems.

In most cases the proverbial pothole is not really that deep, it just seems that way to the student at that particular moment in their journey. More often than not simply persevering through these difficult times will make all the difference, and in the end the student will be much wiser for having made the extra effort.

Let's take Mark for example.
Up until now things have been going great for him. During the past year he breezed through yellow belt grading, then his orange belt grading. Red belt was next, and that goal he also achieved, once again with what seemed like very little difficulty. But, now all of a sudden, nothing Mark does in class seems to be good enough for his Sensei. From Mark's point of view his technique feels alright, and they look fine to him in the mirrors, but oddly enough it seems that at every class he attends he feels like his Sensei is forever picking on him, correcting every aspect of his techniques, criticizing the quality of his stances, and generally tearing apart everything he thought he already knew.
Frustrated Mark now finds himself wondering, "hey how come Diane can get it and I can't"?
In search of the answer Mark tries everything he can think of. He suddenly changes his training schedule. He arrives earlier, leaves later, tries harder, reads more books, watches more video, anything he can think of in the hopes that things will improve. Such is not the case however, and for Mark the pothole just keeps on getting deeper.
Whether he realizes it or not Mark is at this moment staring at the first crossroad in his journey. He is in fact at a most dangerous place, because for the very first time since embarking down the karate road Mark is beginning to doubt his ability to go any further and is quietly entertaining the thought of quitting.
So what is Mark to do?
For a person who has dedicated himself to a regular training schedule over a long period of time, under normal circumstances this would be unthinkable. But these are not normal times. Something is wrong and for the moment in Mark's eyes he is stuck in a deep dark hole where everything seems unfixable. What's worse is that for Mark there is no clear answer is in sight. So doubts begin to creep in where they never use to be, and the pothole for Mark once again gets deeper.
But like all problems there is a solution.
The trick is for Mark to find it, and find it as soon as possible.
In Mark's case everything he has done up until now has been good enough to get him where he is. Even his sensei has been more than satisfied. The problem really lies not with what he has done to date, but in Mark's failure to realize that at his new rank what he has done in the past is no longer good enough. If he wishes to move further down this road, and up the kyu belt ladder, he must now take his training and his techniques to a new level.
In short now that Mark is a red belt, and looking ahead to 6th kyu, his Sensei wants more than he has been getting.
You see each advancement in Shotokan karate not only brings with it a wide variety of rewards, it also brings with it a demand for even higher expectations, something often over looked by the student. You see from the Sensei's point of view, what was good enough when Mark was an orange belt, is simply not going to be good enough now that he is a red belt. What's more if he wishes to become a green belt, Mark will find that the "expectation meter" is going to be move even higher. Because along with each increase in rank the bar is always raised and a new standard of technique must now be met.
Something that so far Mark has failed to grasp.
All Mark's Sensei is doing is simply pointing out to him in his own way, that yesterday's gedan bari, jodan age uke, oi zuki, and gyaku zuki are not longer an acceptable level of performance based on where Mark now finds himself within his dojo society.
Now while it is a fact that the art of karate is taught to the student through a wide variety of training methods intended to improve their discipline, physical capabilities and basic techniques, karate is also based upon the principal of self development. The self development I am referring to must start as, and continue to be throughout a persons martial arts career, an internal skill. For only through constantly improving, and perfecting one's own mental and spiritual character, can any karate student ever hope to improve their technical skills to the point where they can honestly begin to understand all that Shotokan karate has to offer.
Passing over this pothole and moving on down the karate road is simply a matter of Mark coming to this realization. Given time and the proper encouragement Mark may eventually come to this realization on his own, if not undoubtedly his Sensei will continue to point this fact out to him, the trick of course is for Mark to overcome his personal doubts long before the pothole swallows him up.
This story I am pleased to say does have a happy ending.
Mark in the end figured out that what is good enough for today is not always good enough in the future. He did indeed go on to pass his green belt exam, although he found it a lot harder than his previous gradings. As it should be. So with the crossroad and the pothole safely behind him, and with his new rank in hand, I suspect that Mark will now be the one pushing himself in every class.
So for Mark and for the rest of us life on the karate road goes on, egar to learn, proud to succeed, we all go forward with little to hold us back from reaching our goals.
Except the next pothole.
A winner never quits,
and a quiter never wins
Part the clouds - see the way.
"The objective of karate-do is to contribute to the evolution
of the human spirit through physical and mental training."
Sensei Peter Lindsay