Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The black belt grading - 'an observer's view'

On Sunday I accompanied my training partner, Charlotte, to her Black Belt grading. We had to be at the venue by 10.00am so it was an early start. I was up at 6.00 and out of the house by 7.30. Fortunately the snow held off for us and we crossed the Penines without any problems, arriving early at 9.30.

Charlotte was nervous but composed on arrival. We changed into our gis and went into the main hall. This is such a great venue - a purpose built judo dojo with wall to wall matting! There were 5 candidates grading - 3 teenage girls from our club grading for 1st dan and a teenage boy and man from other clubs grading for 2nd dan.
Charlotte, Alex and Caroline looking relaxed before the grading commenced!

Our girls were all a bit nervous - it is a big occasion for such young people, and so I did feel a bit like 'Mother Hen' looking after her chicks! I just wanted to keep them calm and focused so we had a jog around the hall to warm up and did some stretching.

The senior grading officer then called us to the grading mats and explained how the grading would progress and what the expected etiquette was for entering and leaving the grading area. There were 15 sections to be graded on with short breaks between each section to practice or get a drink/snack.

The first hour was devoted to practising the kihon sections under an instructors guidance. This was designed to get the adrenaline pumping and get rid of any nerves before the grading started. I, and the other non-grading partners were then asked to leave the hall and wait in the corridor until we were needed for the partner work. In our system no one is allowed to observe the dan gradings unless they are directly involved. The candidates then worked through all their kihon again, this time being graded. By the time I was allowed back into the hall the candidates were all looking pretty hot and exhausted!

Once all the kihon is out of the way (first 4 sections), a partner is required for the rest of the sections. We then moved onto kata and bunkai - 3 kata with 3 bunkai demonstrations for each. Now I was feeling a little nervous! Charlotte and I practiced the bunkai demonstrations at the back and then we were called onto the grading mats. I thought Charlotte performed her kata very well - she put in the timing and breathing, she
remembered to look, prep, turn, and her technique was strong and sharp. In my humble opinion they were good performances.

As the grading continued more and more pressure was put on the girls, 'Do it stronger', ' look like you mean it', 'let's see that again', were common comments from the grading panel. As they became more physically exhausted the stress was starting to show. Half way through we started to get a few tears, a few doubts and few negative thoughts creeping in. It was time to get into mother hen mode and start encouraging and motivating the girls again! To their credit they held it together, re-composed themselves ready for each coming section and then gave it their best shot.

It was a tough grading, fair but tough. The girls were taken to the brink of physical and mental exhaustion - it was an emotional roller coast ride for them. They felt sick and ill with exhaustion but they carried on. They felt tearful with the stress of it but they composed themselves and carried on. They are young girls, still growing, still gaining strength and stamina. They put on a good performance, they couldn't have given more.

At the end of the grading everyone was asked to leave the hall whilst the panel discussed the marks. This was a tense time, the girls were relieved it was over but still tearful and fearful about the result. Their parents had arrived by this time and so we all tried to lighten the atmosphere a bit and get the girls ready to hear the results.

We were all allowed into the hall when the results were announced. The girls lined up with the two guys and were called in turn to hear their mark. Alex - passed, Caroline - passed, Charlotte - passed. (The two guys passed their 2nd dan as well). It was such a great moment. They had passed with respectable marks as well. We all clapped and cheered as they were each presented with their certificates and black belts.
From left to right: Alex, Caroline, Charlotte and me!

I think the girls could hardly believe it - they were pretty shell shocked by this stage so I think it may take a while for their success to sink in!

But girls, if you are reading this - this is black belt, this is the beginning not the end. You were not expected to be perfect, you were expected to show strength, spirit and stamina, and despite the stress and tears you did that in bucket loads. If it had been easy it would not be worth having. You had a tough ride and you survived! WEAR YOUR BLACK BELTS WITH PRIDE - YOU DESERVE THEM.

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Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Partnering someone for a black belt grading...

The last few weeks I have been busy training with one of our older teenage girls who is grading for her black belt on Sunday. I am to be her partner at the grading (though I am not grading myself). I felt very honoured when sensei asked me to be her partner, presumably he thought I would be good at it.

There are several sections in the grading where I will be required - ippon kumite, goshin waza, bunkai demonstrations, gobon kumite, pad work and to demonstrate a floor drill. I will not be required to participate in sparring as the candidates have to spar with each other for that.

It is quite common at our dan gradings, though not compulsory, for a candidate to take a non-grading partner with them and there are advantages to this. Firstly you can choose a partner that you are comfortable working with and you can trust to help you put on your best performance. Also, if your partner is not actually grading themselves then you do not have to act as a partner for their techniques and so you can concentrate fully on your own performance and not get tired out having to be on the receiving end of their throws/locks and take downs.

Agreeing to partner someone at a black belt grading brings great responsibilities. I do not want to let her down and the concept of honouring technique has assumed even greater importance. I feel that my job has been more than just 'attacking' her in the prescribed way and letting her demonstrate her techniques on me. I have also thought it important to give her feedback, suggest improvements to various defences and encourage her to be more aggressive with me. She has listened and tried to take on board things I have said. I also felt it is my job to help her prepare mentally and develop more focus - hence the motivation behind writing 'The World Guide to Passing your Black Belt Test' and 'The Official SSK advice to preparing for Black Belt grading'. I presented my partner with a hard copy of this in case she didn't read the blog!

Of course, all the credit will be hers when she puts that black belt around her waist. The grading officers won't be interested in my performance, they will only be watching her so the effort has to come from her. However, I hope on the day I will be able to encourage, advise and motivate her to keep going when she is practising in between sections. I want her to pass and to pass well. I know she has it in her to do this and I am working on her confidence so that she truly believes in herself too.

Helping someone else to prepare for black belt has been quite a journey for me. I will be in her shoes next year and so I now have greater insight into how to prepare myself and what it is that I will require from a partner when it is my turn. No doubt I will be almost as nervous as she is on the day.

Another advantage to me is that I get a preview of what my black belt grading will be like and how it will be run. This will be an invaluable experience for me too!

The only potential blot on the landscape is the weather forecast! It has been forecast to snow heavily across Britain this weekend and we have to cross the Pennines (see photo above) to get to the venue - fingers crossed we'll make it there!

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Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The World Guide to Passing Your Black Belt Test

I have been overwhelmed by the response to my last post calling for advice and tips on how to prepare for a black belt grading. I received over 20 responses from a range of experienced martial artists from around the globe. I have used all your comments and advice to put together, ‘The World guide to passing your black belt test’. I hope I have done justice to all the contributors’ guidance.

“Dan grading should be a natural progression and part of the journey not the end destination. Shodan is the just the beginning .” (Steve Nelson).

Physical /technical preparation:

• TRAIN HARD! “In all of my black belt tests I have noticed one thing that helps more than anything in almost every style – cardio.” (Nicholas Guinn)
• The trick to black belt belt cardio is that you need to train three different metabolic processes:
1. Aerobic (long term) – walk, jog or run. Aim to get up 3-5 miles. Vary speed but don’t stop.
2. Anaerobic (short term) - e.g. sprints or shuttle runs
3. Explosive/instant - e.g., get a stable box around 24ins high. Jump on/off several times or step up/down with alternate legs. Pick up intensity. (Nicholas Guinn)
• Mix basic training with pushups, squats and ab exercises. Train at least 5-6 days/week (including 2 classes). (Mathieu)
• Work hard on the basics of your art….”but don’t forget to work hard on your stamina, my black belt grading was long and gruelling, if you cannot maintain your form because you are totally exhausted, it really spells against you.” (James)
• Practice the basics in front of the mirror when you are brushing your teeth, use visualisation whilst waiting at the bus stop or in line at the post office – doing them over and over is the key. (Felicia)
• Practice all of your testing material regularly, but allocate more practice time to the stuff that needs the most work. (Sandman)
• Video tape your performances of basics, self defense, kata etc. (John Vesia)
• Videoing yourself is painful but informative…you’ll be able to see a lot of your problem areas from the tape. (Bob Patterson)
• Stay away from things like caffeine and alcohol a month or so before the test. (John Vesia)
• Make sure you can demonstrate proficiency in all your techniques (punches, kicks, stances, blocks, katas). Show correct positioning, alignment and hip rotation. (Denman)
• Polish your weak points – this is critical, it is the poor techniques that will sell you short. (James)
• If you do board breaking: Get good board holders. Having experienced students will help a lot. If they move, it will be very hard to break. (Bob Blackburn)
• Practice kata facing in all directions and then do them with your eyes closed. Pay particular attention to the stances as that is what the sensei will look for. Do each form with intensity, even when practicing. (Matt Klein)
• Go to class early (or stay late) and ask a black belt to take you through a practice grading. Sensei will notice the initiative. (Matt Klein)
• Don’t test injured! It will severely impact on your performance. Better to wait. (Bob Patterson)

Mental/Spiritual preparation:

“The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.” Vince Lombardi.

• Believe that you test every day – always perform your techniques as best as you’re able, each and every time. (Joseph Ansah)
• Martial arts are not just something you do for a few hours at a time, but something you are/become. Believe that you can and will make it through. Enjoy the journey, not just the end result. (Felicia)
• Believe in yourself as the test approaches. Visualize yourself performing flawlessly - see yourself moving and succeeding. (Journeyman)
• Spirit is really important. Yell your kiai each time you do a technique. (Matt Klein)
• Talk to yourself; tell yourself you are good enough. Try placing affirmations like ‘I am a black belt’ around the house and read them. Visualise yourself being handed your 1st dan by your sensei and everybody clapping and cheering. (Steve Hegarty)
• Tell yourself that you are there because your sensei has already tested you in the dojo. You would not be there except for that and the “FACT” that you have achieved black belt in your heart. The mental is the only obstacle, not theirs, not the participants, not family or friends but YOURS. Start with the type of self talk that is success. (Charles James)
• Try the Buddhist approach which is reflected in some of the combat teachings: No expectations. Also, remember Rudyard Kipling quote (also a Buddhist approach): “If you can treat success and failure as the same imposters, then you a man my son”. (John Coles)

Knowledge and Understanding:

• Make sure you know clearly what you are expected to do. Try to get feedback on your weaknesses (relative to the test). (Sandman)
• Find out what the order of events will be in the grading itself. Know your body and its limits and expect to be pushed past them. (Felicia)
• Know what standard is expected. Will the fighting be to see control and skill, or marathon style to test one’s mettle and endurance? (John Vesia)
• Ask questions! Things can vary from school to school, even in the same organisation. Find out what’s required – you don’t want surprises on the day! (John Vesia)
• Ask for a handout of the syllabus with all the techniques needed for grading. (Matt Klein)
• Once you know all the techniques have someone call them out one after the other. Now try to do it faster. Then do it in a random order. This helps prepare you for the stress of the test. (Matt Klein)
• Make sure your partner is happy with all the elements of the test.(Sarah Nelson)
• Try to practice with a partner outside of class. If not treat each technique as a mini kata and go through the steps until you are sick of them. (Bob Patterson)

The grading day:

• Get there early to warm up and stretch. This will help you get those kicks up and prevent injury. You do not want to pull a muscle on grading day. (Matt Klein)
• Perform your techniques with full power (Matt Klein)
• As it’s an assessment, on that particular day all sorts of things can happen, so concentration is a must. It’s a long day with many sections; however, you can only perform one section at a time so the best way to think about the task ahead is to take each section one at a time and then move on, putting that section behind you. This way you only have to concentrate on a smaller section of the grading and put everything into it. (Steve Nelson)
• You will make mistakes, it is human nature and no one is perfect. Do not let it get you down. Improve on the remainder of the test and you will still have a good shot. (Matt Klein)
• Don’t let other student’s throw you off with their mistakes. Keep a razor-sharp focus on you imaginary opponent, right in front of you. (Matt Klein)
• It is important for the testing candidate to know that they will make mistakes. The test is how the person deals with the mistake. (Michele)
• The material needs to be second nature to you before the test. Be confident in your knowledge of the technique, your ability to execute it on command and approach your test without anxiety. (Joseph Ansah)
• Keep your muscles warm and stretched throughout the test. If it’s not your turn focus your mind on the next task in hand. (Chris Robinson)
• Remember to take everything with you: yourself, your partner, gi and belt, sparring mitts, gum shield (and any other protective gear), slip on shoes, over gi top, drinks, food, confidence! (Sarah Nelson)

Here are three testimonials from shodan students:

Alicia: “I had a very hard test for my probationary black belt. I had to retake parts of it because I did not pass. Before that test, I spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about what I was going to do and trying to imagine being successful. When the test day came and things didn't go the way I had imagined them, I started to do worse and worse. I think I psyched myself out. So, for my black belt test I tried a different approach:

“Denial. I practiced every day, but (especially that last week leading up to test day) once I was out of the gym, I did not think about the test anymore. It did not overtake all my waking thoughts. I trusted that if I practiced every day then I would be prepared, but really I tried not to think about the particulars very much at all. Since I got my black belt, I've noticed that when you come to class regularly and show your instructors your enthusiasm for the material, you are really passing your next test every day.”

Tayla: “I just received my black belt before I left for the army back in June. I have a black belt in Shotokan, which is traditional. It took me about six months to get ready for my test, and it was  harder than all of basic training, not to mention I was the only female who tested. However, my test was eight hours long and it was worth all the time and effort I put in. For anyone getting ready to get their black belt, prepare youself. As long as you give it your all, know your material which is required for the test and you give 110% the whole time, there is a slim chance you will fail. Believe and Succeed and anything is possible."

Katrin: “When I first started karate five years ago, I never thought that I would still be pursuing this sport now, never mind be calling myself a first dan. The main idea was to accompany my little boy and to get fit myself, but it became strangely addictive and I found myself becoming more competitive as I progressed through the gradings. However, I still did not feel confident that I would ever manage to fulfil the requirements of a black belt grading, so as the day approached, I regularly asked myself whether I was actually fit enough, whether I would remember the 15 sections, whether I would be good enough… What helped me enormously was attending sessions at least twice a week, turning up for every extra session, practising at home and with my grading partner regularly, making notes during lessons, watching kata videos and going through the grading in my mind every night just before going to sleep. So, when the day was finally there, yes I was nervous, but I felt that I had done my best to prepare.

“The grading itself was the most nerve racking and physically demanding test I have ever had to take. With the day starting at 10am and finishing at 5pm I not only had to keep my concentration going and but also ensure that my body was not giving up on me. My notes came in very handy to remind myself in the short breaks between sections and my husband Paul was a great help as a partner especially because he had been through the grading himself. Last but not least, having enough water and energy drinks as well as little snacks was an absolute necessity during the day.

"So, how does it feel to finally be able to wear this black belt? Well, I am certainly proud of myself! All my hard work and practice have paid off. But also I can now fully appreciate what it means to reach this level and how you can achieve a lot if you just believe in yourself. Well, of course, practice makes perfect!!!”

A big thank you to all the contributors to this article. Each name links back to their own blog/website (if they have one). Please visit their blogs - they have decades of martial arts experience between them and all write excellent posts about their martial arts experiences.

Good luck to anyone who is grading for a black belt in the near future!
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Thursday, 11 November 2010

Are you a black belt? Can you help?

My karate organisation (SSK) is holding a dan grading on Sunday 28th November. As the manager/main writer of the SSK's blog I am planning to write a post for it giving advice and tips to those student's in our organisation who are grading for their black belts. The problem is.....I'm not yet a black belt myself and so cannot give this advice first hand!

Are you a black belt? Can you help? What would be your best advice to someone who is preparing to grade for their black belt? This can be advice for preparation prior to the grading or advice for coping with the actual grading day. It doesn't really matter whether your black belt is in karate or another martial art - your experience and advice will still be valid. So whether you have recently become a black belt or you are a black belt/instructor of long standing I would value your contribution.

I plan to compile the tips/advice I receive from you into a single blog post. Each piece of advice will be attributed to its author and I can provide a link back to your blog/website. The blog post will appear on the SSK's blog early next week as well as on this blog. You can send me your advice either by leaving it in the comments section below or by e-mailing it to me at: mailto:kickasssuec@googlemail.com

Thanking you all in advance for your help........

Here's a link to the SSK blog if you want to check it out first: http://www.sskarate.com/ssk-blog.html 

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Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Maai! Maai! How difficult this one is to learn.

Have you ever noticed that when you learn something new, as you progress with that learning, whole new tiers of complexity open up that you didn't even know existed when you started out? Just when you think you've cracked something or know everything about something someone introduces you to the next level and you suddenly realise that you know diddly squat about it! Education is a very humbling experience, perhaps that's why educated people remain intellectually curious about things - there is always more to learn about any given subject.

Martial arts is no exception to this; in fact, martial arts is a fine example of this. There are many complex and difficult concepts to learn in martial arts, concepts that are introduced to you in a very elementary way when you start out and then progress in their complexity as you advance through training. One example of this is 'distance' and 'timing'.

Even a white belt sparring with a partner for the first time may be told to 'keep your distance' and 'move in to punch then move straight out again'. A little further up the grades and you get advice like 'move in to disrupt a kick' or 'move off line'. The more advanced practitioner then starts to actually anticipate what there opponent is about to do before they've even made a move (sen no sen) and moves in to attack first or disrupt the opponents attempt. This is advanced stuff! We're still talking about distance and timing here but this ability is many tiers up - now we're in the realm of maai.

Truly appreciating and utilising maai requires a unity of mind and body. It is as much a mental skill as it is a physical one. The Japanese word maai translates simply to 'interval' and is referring to the space between two combatants during a fight. The wikipedia entry on maai describes it as: "a complex concept, incorporating not just the distance between opponents, but also the time it will take to cross the distance, angle and rhythm of attack." If one controls the space between then one controls the fight.

An analogy that I like that helps to describe maai comes from a friend of mine, Peter Seth, who is a 5th dan in aikido (maai is big in aikido!). He says, "Imagine music without the ‘spaces’ of silence between the sounds, the gaps between the notes. Without the spaces there would be constant noise, which may vary in pitch and intensity but would be chaotic and unbearable. These spaces set the time/timing, rhythm and beat of the music, which in turn affects/controls the whole composition. So influence in this area of the ‘space/s between’, effectively allows the leading of all these energies. You become the ‘conductor of this orchestra of energy’. "

Maai is a fluid thing, constantly changing as a fight progresses. Maai has a temporal element as well as a spatial one. It also pertains to the momentary lapses of awareness that are manifested in the opponents mind. Capitalising on these mental intervals (or lapses of concentration in your opponents mind) is also a way of controlling the maai. Being constantly aware of both your maai and your opponents as they constantly change and then being able to manipulate this to your advantage so that your opponents techniques are constantly disrupted requires an intuitive understanding of movement and timing. I am in awe of people who have mastered this skill because I am very much still operating in the lower tiers of elementary 'distance' and ' timing'.

How do you stay inside your maai (ie. your sphere of influence) so that you can land punches and kicks on your opponent whilst staying outside of theirs? How do you get inside their maai (to disrupt it) whilst still keeping them outside of your? These are currently one of life's mysteries to me. When I am practicing sparring I focus too much on what I am doing and don't really think about what the opponent is doing. I don't notice I've entered their space (well not until the kick hits me!). I don't necessarily notice when they've entered mine so I miss the opportunity to attack. I can remember to move off line or slide in for the punch and move back out again and I am often aware of the space between us but no way am I in control of it.

Controlling the maai - there is a steep learning curve to climb for this one. I have a long way to go!
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Tuesday, 2 November 2010

When does a question become a challenge?

Traditionally, in Eastern cultures, the transmission of karate knowledge from generation to generation required new students to follow and copy the movements of their sensei without question and certainly without challenge. In this respect learning was passive rather than active; the student allowing their ‘cup’ to be ‘filled’ by sensei’s (often) silent teachings. Verbal communication between sensei and student was kept to a minimum and was generally one way traffic from sensei to student.

This is essentially a description of a pedagogical approach to teaching which is also widespread in the Western world, particularly in schools. In fact, pedagogical teaching methods have their origins in medieval Europe when young boys were received into the monasteries and taught by monks using methods that required the student to be submissive and obey the teacher’s instructions without question, in order that the children learned to be obedient, faithful and efficient servants of the church.

However, since the 1960’s, research into educational teaching methods with adults, much of it led by M.W Knowles, has resulted in the learning theory of andragogy. This theory is based on several assumptions about the way in which adults best learn:

1. Adults need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking it.

2. Adults like to take responsibility for their own decisions and to be treated as capable of self-direction

3. Adult learners draw on past life experiences when making judgements about new learning experiences.

4. Adults are ready to learn those things they need to know in order to cope effectively with life situations i.e they prefer problem solving approaches to content learning methods.

5. Adults are motivated to learn when they perceive that learning to be useful to them in real life situations (and not so keen to learn things for which they perceive no value)

Essentially the theory of andragogy states that adults learn better when they are more actively engaged in the learning process and are able to take some degree of charge of it (self-directed learning)

However, martial arts continue to be taught in most systems in a pedagogical way i.e very didactic and teacher led. It is not surprising therefore that occasionally the androgogical requirements of adult learners will clash with the pedagogical approach of most instructors. This may result in much tongue biting, inappropriate questions or even challenges to the instructor’s authority.

This brings us to the main point of this post. What constitutes an inappropriate question or a challenge to the instructor? In most Western dojos these days I would imagine most instructors don’t mind answering students' questions, particularly of the nature, ‘Can you show me that again?’ or ‘I don’t quite understand why we are doing it like this, can you please explain?’

I have been trying to think at what point a question crosses the boundary from being appropriate and welcomed by the instructor to being inappropriate and unacceptable in a dojo. I think the boundary may be crossed when the question being asked is a result of ego on behalf of the student. By this I mean a question  the student is only asking because it is an opportunity to display their own knowledge/prowess. For example, ‘Why do we still do this technique like this? When I went on a course/read a book/saw a YouTube video they said it was better to do it this way.’ I think this is inappropriate because it undermines the instructor and the student is trying to display his (perception) of superior knowledge – ego motivates a question of this sort.

One of the ultimate goals of learning a traditional martial art is to free oneself from ego. It therefore represents a challenge for adults to learn martial arts in a pedagogical environment. To learn to ask only appropriate questions, the ones that actually aid your ability to lean martial arts and to refrain from those that are designed to undermine or challenge the instructor.

It’s not always easy though is it? I know that I have been guilty of asking slightly ‘challenging’ questions at times – questions I now regret asking. My instructor has always responded with good grace whilst at the same time putting me quietly in my place. On reflection, these questions have usually revealed my ignorance rather than my superior knowledge!

I think in a situation where ‘modern adults’ meet ‘traditional training methods’ there will always be some degree of tension between instructor and student. However, pedagogical training methods have stood the test of time in traditional martial arts and whether by accident or design offer a test to the student – a test of mental and spiritual strength in which the student must learn to control impulses, know when to stay silent, develop trust in their instructor, overturn previously learned bias/prejudice and rid themselves of ego.

On the other hand, the instructor must also recognise the tension or resentment that may result in the adult learner who is not allowed to express their desires or self-direct their learning according to preferences.

How easy is it to strike this balance between how the instructor wants to teach and how the adult student prefers to learn? What do you think are appropriate or inappropriate questions to be asking an instructor?
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