Are we not Karate-ka? we are Martial Artists!
Earning a green belt was my first short term karate goal. I clearly remember the bar being raised by my instructors and being held to a much stricter standard in my training. By this time I was fully committed to my training and eager to be the best Karate-ka that I could be. I trained at home every day after work, even on the nights I attended classes. I thought about karate all the time and had to force myself not to continually talk about it. Apart from my fellow students, I found people got a bit bored of listening to me prattle on about different techniques and Okinawan history and such.
It was around this time that my brother and I were attending a training session with our Australian head of style and during a conversation he mentioned something that seemed very profound to me. He spoke to us about when we started our training we were just a couple of guys going to some classes. In Karate we call this Karateka, in the same way as Judo practitioners are Judoka and so on. However, he went on to say that now we've been training for a while and grading for our green belts, we are moving out of the beginner ranks and into the more senior side. He said he had noticed our attitudes and abilities over the past few months and how he had witnessed them changing. He described this change as the difference between just being a person who trains in Karate, to being a martial artist.
Personally, I took this not just as recognition of my hard work in training but also with a certain amount of responsibility. I realised that more junior students were looking to me as an example and that outside the dojo, I was a representative of my organisation and style. I was also a representative of my Sensei's and any mistakes I made or bad behaviour I exhibited, reflected on them as well. That lesson has stuck with me deeply till this day. Now more than ever when I'm out or driving around, I am conscious of how my behaviour affects my club and my teachers. Similarly, my students are a reflection of me and I hope to pass on this sense of responsibility to them.
Achieving my green belt was a great feeling and really spurred me on to my next goal of the coveted black belt. I knew I still had a long way to go but I was training hard and really enjoying every minute of it. It seemed each grading was getting harder and harder but my knowledge was increasing at the same rate. I can't thank my Sensei's enough for pushing me as hard as they did and constantly bringing new challenges to the table. Sparring was something we were eager to do but we were always pushed to practice our kata again and again and again. It's so easy to put kata and basic kihon training aside in favour of a good fight but to really increase your fighting prowess, strong basics, kata and partner work are essential ingredients. I believe this cross training transitioned me from simple brawling into really being able to bring martial arts to the table during a fight.
In my organisation of Kofukan Karate Australia, we grade in our home dojo up until 3rd kyu brown belt. After this point we have to attend a senior grading panel of black belts, held twice a year. At this panel, brawling is not considered a positive and students are expected to behave with dignity and respect. It doesn't matter if you're up against a fellow brown belt or one of the senior instructors. The expectation is always to push yourself to the limits, while maintaining a good and respectful attitude. That isn't to say that there wasn't a fair amount of blood and other injuries occuring. These things are common in any combat or martial activity. However, it was always made completely clear that bullyish behaviour or disrespectful attitudes would not be tolerated.
Following my green to purple belt, we were now expected to wait a mandatory 6 months between gradings. Looking back it seems like a long wait but at the time I never thought twice about it. In fact, waiting an extra 3 or 6 months or skipping a grading opportunity until we felt ready was the norm and we were far more concerned with being good than what colour belt we had tied around our waist. I find we live in such a rush these days and it seems we always want everything right now. Achievement and realisation of goals doesn't always work that way though. And good things often do come to those that wait. Martial arts and the journey of the true martial artist, is one of patience and hard work. Anyone can learn how to throw a punch or repeat a kata like a mindless dance. Real understanding comes from repetition and reflection. Martial arts is as much about the mind as it is about the body so don't be afraid to take your time. Learn to understand the moves and techniques by trying them out on your partners and workshopping different interpretations of them. There are so many principles to expand on and discover that without time, one can never really understand. Enjoy that time then and be the martial artist that your Sensei would want you to be.
Sensei Russell holds a 3rd Dan Black Belt from
Shito-ryu Karate-Do Kofukan International
This story continues in: “How I became a Shodan and where to now?"