Becoming a White Belt – your journey begins...

When it came time to write this series of articles, I had to really think hard about how it felt when I first started my martial arts Journey. I had already decided to do Karate, but wasn’t sure about styles or organisations.

I covered that somewhat in the previous article so I won’t go over that again except to say, I knew I wanted to do something real, traditional and well regarded in the martial arts community.

Showing up for my first class was quite a daunting experience. Upon reflection, it needn’t have been as my instructors, Sensei Mark and Sensei Wayne, made me feel very welcome. I was lucky, in that the club I joined was very small with only four other students. Mark and Wayne had put their hands up to run the club at a time where the Kwinana dojo was at the point of closing. Through their hard work, commitment to Karate-do and care of the existing students, they established a foundation that is still strong and vibrant to this day. On my first class, standing in t-shirt and shorts, I went through all the basic techniques or kihon in Japanese, including stances, blocks, kicks and punches. I remember thinking at the time,

“how am I ever going to remember this?”

The answer to my question came in the form of concentration and repetition. Lots of repetition. Bruce Lee has been quoted as saying;

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

This saying certainly held true for me. I have often used the analogy with my students of running through the bush to get from your back garden to the road. At first, it’s just bush and the going is tough but over time a track starts to form. After many years the track becomes a well beaten path that can be easily followed and traveled quickly. Our neural pathways are like this. At first, we punch, step and kick and the movements seem unnatural and blocky. But over time and with repetition, those movements become burnt into our brains and can be performed without thought and with incredible speed and power.

With my first class over, I went home pretty worn out but also with a feeling of achievement. I had taken my first step on a road that I would continue to follow for the rest of my life. Of course, at the time all I had really done was meet my first goal, to enroll in a karate club. However, these types of goals should never be diminished, as the first step on any journey is often the hardest.

At that time, I was working in an office in the city and had given up the idea of team sports. For years I had dealt with team mates not showing up and having to find replacements, or the reverse of having to drag myself down to the game for fear of letting down the others. I wasn’t doing anything physical and as a result found sleeping difficult. My brain was often tired but my body was full of energy. Martial arts seemed the perfect answer to me. I had always dreamed of being a black belt since watching my first Bruce Lee movie as a child and figured no one would be relying on me to show up each week and I wouldn’t be relying on anyone else.

So with that thought in mind I called my brother Iain whom I knew had done a few different martial arts in the past. I questioned him on what Karate he had done and would he be interested in joining with me. I remember he had spoken to me about going to a few clubs and how one was great and the other not so much. I didn’t really know anything about karate but I knew I wanted something traditional and real. He said the club he liked was called Kofukan Karate, I’ll leave the other unnamed and refer readers to my previous post entitled “So you want to be a black belt”.

Upon contacting my local recreation centre in Kwinana, I was given a name and number to contact from a flyer that was left on the front counter and as luck had it, it was a Kofukan karate club! I called Sensei Wayne and after speaking for a few minutes agreed to attend a class on the following Wednesday night. The following week Iain joined me and we began training in earnest.

It really did seem like there was so much to learn, especially once we were introduced to basic combinations, kihon ippon kumite (one step sparring) and our first kata called Shiho Sanshiki. If there is one lesson I pass on to all my students from these early days of my journey, it is to practice. Each night after school or work, spend at least 15 minutes doing all the basic techniques and forms. This number will increase over time but for now, 15 minutes every day is enough. This practice should not be taken lightly however, our Australian Head of Style, Sensei Matt Beaumont, once asked me why I was performing a move the way I was, that is to say incorrectly. To this I answered, I was merely going through the movement mostly in my head and kind of following with my body in order to memorize it. Sensei Matt was quick to say;

“If you practice the movement wrong, that is the way your body will remember it, ALWAYS practice with correct form and technique”

This is a lesson I have been able to apply to all areas of life, from Karate, to study and to helping my kids in their sports training. And so I did practice correctly. I practiced and practiced and practiced. I remember going home after training twice a week feeling absolutely shattered. My legs felt like jelly, my arms were bruised from blocking and my gi was soaked through with sweat. And I can honestly say, I loved every minute of it.

All this effort culminated in my grading to yellow belt. I had never experienced a grading before and had no idea what to expect. The other students at the dojo, who consisted of a young couple and a mother and daughter, were also going for their next belts, orange and green respectively. Being the lowest rank, it was myself and Iain’s turn to go first, which meant we had no one to watch and learn from. All that aside, we lined up in front of the instructors table, went through our basics, our combinations and partner work and then our kata. I’m happy to say we passed and even as an adult, the sense of achievement and recognition in tying on that coloured belt for the first time, was a wonderful experience and I knew in my heart my journey had just begun.

Sensei Russell holds a 3rd Dan Black Belt from

Shito-ryu Karate-Do Kofukan International

This story continues in: “Bruises and broken bones”