So you want to be a Black Belt...

Some time ago I decided it was about time I got back into teaching and open a club in my home town of Byford, Western Australia. I’ve been training and teaching for many years now and over that time, it still surprises me just how little people really know about Karate and the martial arts in general.

In recent years, there has been many schools open up, some of which are not so scrupulous and often don’t consider the basics of where Karate came from or in fact how effective what they teach really is. True karate is its real form is more of a journey than anything else.Through this series of articles, I will look to shed some light on what going on a journey with Karate has meant to me and hope others will gain a better understanding that they can apply to their own journey.

Choosing a club can be a daunting task. Whilst advertising the opening of my new dojo I received a message from a prospective student who asked,

“with there being many styles of Karate around, can you please tell me about yours?”

Of course, this is not such an easy question to answer in a short text message so I’ll cover a bit of history here that will help clarify this. Japanese Karate is separated into four main recognised styles. These are Shotokan, Wado-Ryu, Shito-Ryo and Goju-Ryu. Each of these styles are then made up of a number of organisations and often style extensions, such as when a founder has awarded a certificate of Teaching or Menko to a student that is considered worthy of such. There are around 8 to 10 other styles both of Japanese and Okinawan that are recognized or practice recognized kata.

Personally, I am a member of Kofukan International and we practice Tani-Ha Shito-Ryu. It really doesn’t matter what style or organisation you join as long as you consider the following points.

  1. Is it a recognised and reputable style and organisation?

  2. A quick Google search will allow you figure this out in no time. In Australia, the following link is a good place to start .

  3. Look for affiliations in your country such as the Australian Karate Federation (AKF) and the World Karate Federation (WKF). This helps to ensure the organisation you are considering has some level of structure and governance.

  4. If you discover the organisation does not allow you to compete in events such as national or world championships and these days the Olympic games, it’s probably a good indication they are not a recognised style.

  5. Some organisations are just out to make a buck.

  6. A good school is not necessarily the biggest school. Don’t get me wrong, a healthy growing club is important but not the only factor to consider.

  7. If you can gain a higher belt by simply showing up to class a certain number of times or you are forced to grade every 3 months regardless of how you feel about it. There is a good chance the organisation has a financial agenda.

  8. Does the club have a good community feel about it?

  9. Joining a club of any kind is not just about the activity itself. This is how clubs differ from simple sports. For example, you’ll often see this when comparing football clubs. Some, you just turn up to training and the game on the weekend. Others, have more of a social aspect to them as well and tend to look after the players on a more personal level.

  10. The martial arts in general are a personal journey. By that I mean, if people in the class don’t show up, you can continue training by yourself. That being the case, it is really important to feel a part of something bigger, like a family. This way, you can ask questions of your fellow students and I have often found that explaining something to another, is a great way to find out how well you know it yourself.

  11. Are the instructors qualified?

  12. I have been to some schools where questioning the instructor on their rank was considered a no-no and put down as being disrespectful. I was shocked. How more disrespectful can you be to a student, than pretending to be more than you really are.

  13. Qualified individuals are not concerned about people knowing just how qualified they are. In my organisation, we do not consider anyone to be able to run a class with less than a 1st Dan black belt. That’s not to say we don’t utilise those of a lower rank, such as a green or purple belt helping a white belt with a technique, but we would never pretend them to be anything other than what they are. I also consider getting my brown belts to run a class or at least parts of a class as a good and essential training and learning experience. However, I would not expect them to run a grading or a class without me.

  14. Look for contradictions.

  15. I’ve seen some school advertising as Traditional non-contact. By definition this cannot be true. Traditional Karate was a brutal time of repetition and harsh instruction on the path to perfection of mind, body (technique) and spirit or Shin-gi-tai. At Kofukan Karate for example we train in Kata (forms and patterns), Kihon (basics, both alone and with partners) as well as Kumite in differing forms. One of which is full contact sparring. Naturally, we take precautions to make this as safe as possible using control and safety gear where necessary. Performing martial arts in a purely non-contact environment in my opinion is simply not correct and certainly not Traditional.

  16. That doesn’t mean non-contact Karate is bad in and of itself, however pretending it’s traditional is not honest.

Sensei Russell holds a 3rd Dan Black Belt from

Shito-ryu Karate-Do Kofukan International

This story continues in: “Becoming a White Belt – your journey begins”