Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Benefits of Keeping a Training Diary

Most Shotokan practitioners would probably agree that one of the hardest things to do in karate is to get to class consistently and to train regularly.  Despite all of the trials and tribulations of learning the mechanics and execution of basic techniques, despite the mental and physical challenges of kata practice, and despite the rigours of kumite training, getting to class seems to be one of the primary obstacles to success and consistent growth in our karate training.  This obstacle is confirmed by the many masters of our art who say again and again that the only secret to karate is “to keep training”.
            With this being said, many readers of this article will probably also have a negative reaction to my case for keeping a training diary or a karate journal as an important and necessary method for improving your overall ability, knowledge and understanding of your chosen art.  But please give the idea a chance and hopefully you will see the full benefits of such an undertaking.
            Let’s look first of all at why writing a training diary might be something of value to any martial arts practitioner.  A diary is an invaluable memory aid that will help you to keep a tangible record of your training experiences that you can look back through at anytime and know that what you see in your journal is what you actually did in class.  Sometimes the amount of new information that we learn can be overwhelming and in order to organize this weekly information into a meaningful structure that makes sense to you it is necessary to take notes.  Students at colleges and universities take lecture notes; business leaders take seminar notes; why shouldn’t karate students take lesson notes?  Our art is deep by nature and the more you learn, it sometimes seems like the less you know, but through consistent and committed practice inside the dojo, and integration of the concepts that are taught by means of notes and a journal, you can organize information in a way that makes sense to you.  Integrating concepts means obtaining a fundamental knowledge of how each concept relates to other concepts. Without this understanding, each concept exists alone as a sole jigsaw piece; if you are able to see the wider picture, the pieces of each evening’s lesson should mesh together nicely, expediting your move to the next level of training.  Through your efforts in writing a diary you are able to live each lesson a minimum of two times, once physically and once mentally.  If you reread your notes periodically you can actually live each lesson many more times and will often gain deeper insight into what you learned previously due to your increased experience.
            So now that I have described the reasons for writing a training diary or karate journal let’s now look at the task of how to write a training diary.
            Well the good news is that you don’t need much in the way of equipment, a pen and a piece of paper or notebook (either paper version or laptop version) will suffice.  Next you don’t need to devote too much time per day to your journal writing (usually 20 – 30 minutes is enough to write down what you did and what you learned during the lesson).  But here is where most note-takers or journal writers fail – you MUST be consistent and you MUST write an entry for every lesson that you attend (or that you teach) for you to truly gain value from your efforts!  When compared to your training, instant gratification from one diary entry is but a fleeting glimpse into the world of future possibilities that are not yet achieved realities.  To make those glimpses of insight windows of learning you MUST be consistent.  You will have those days when you think you have solved all of the mysteries of your art and your place within the art, and then come the days when you realize how little you know, how much you still need to learn and how hard your chosen pursuit, hobby, or career path really is.  It is in these times that you will want to turn to your diary to RE-appreciate your journey up to this point and to see how your future path will not always be rosy but will ultimately still lead you to your goals.
            OK, back to your training diary.  If you are a student or instructor, no matter what level, the basic entries for your journal should include the following:
·         Date,
·         Name of the instructor (only if the class instructor changes regularly, if not then maybe title your diary Lessons with Sensei [Instructor’s Name]),
·         Content of the class (this can be broken down into the classic kihon, kata and kumite segments, or could be organized chronologically according to the flow of the class, or could include warm-up drills, conditioning drills, essential drills, creative drills, etc.  Basically this content structure should match both your sensei’s lesson content and flow and your own way of assimilating information),
·         Important points of the lesson (i.e. sensei’s explanations, key ideas and concepts, historical notes, cultural notes, language and terminology, rank-specific information, etc.),
·         Personal Notes (i.e., need to work on my execution of knife-hand block, need to improve on my rhythm in Heian Godan, need to focus on my weight distribution in kokutsu-dachi, need to make sure my punches are on target all of the time instead of just some of the time, etc.)

Once you have done all of the above you have the basis of a training diary.  So now all you have to do is to get started!  Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Unfortunately it isn’t, because just in the same way that getting to class consistently is sometimes an obstacle, writing a diary will prove to be a bigger obstacle because it is one more thing on your weekly to-do list.  I personally wrote a training diary for three solid years including 279 lessons during my time in Japan training at Master Hirokazu Kanazawa’s Honbu-dojo in Tokyo.  I will be completely honest and say that it was a difficult thing to do but the way that I got around my tendency to procrastinate on my karate journal was to make the actual diary notes a part of the lesson.  I made a decision that writing my notes when I got home from class was non-negotiable and that the physical training and my mental review were not mutually exclusive; they were in fact one and the same!
            In hindsight my efforts with my karate journal have turned out to be one of the most productive and valuable parts of my almost 30 years of training because the process of writing down what I did in each class I attended, what I needed to work on, my observations and understanding of key ideas and concepts and all of my other notes have made sure that I won’t ever forget what I learned.  I may not still get everything that I learned right and I know there will be many more obstacles ahead in my training but I am confident that I have given myself the best chance to be successful in my personal quest to reach my full potential in my training.
            In conclusion, a karate diary or journal serves primarily as a blow-by-blow account of your training.  It includes what you studied, what you learned, what you need to work on and other personal insights and observations that you gained from your lessons.  It should be done consistently in order to gain the greatest benefit and it should be reread many times over at different stages of your study to keep track of your progress.  Finally what you will realize after some time is that your diary notes are not only an invaluable training aid to you personally but that they are also valuable to other practitioners.  You could share them with your friends and training partners in your dojo, with your instructor, or as many people have done, with fellow practitioners by means of articles in different magazines.  I have read many such reports on seminars and have often found them to be very useful and informative.
            So I challenge everyone to write a journal and to assimilate all of the teachings of the great masters and instructors out there into something that makes sense not just to you but also to others.  You have nothing to lose and potentially everything to gain.  Happy training – and happy writing!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Five Simple Tips for Making Each Lesson Different

Often one of the biggest challenges for a martial arts instructor is coming up with different ways to present the same material and create varied lessons each week.  Finding a good balance between teaching the required content and making your classes fun and different is not always easy.  Have you ever felt like you’re teaching the same thing over and over again?  Have you been frustrated by using the same old practice drills each week?  Even worse, do you sense that your students are getting bored and are losing interest?  First of all, rest assured that you are not alone.  All instructors at some point in their development feel the need to take their classes to the next level and change things up a little bit.  So if you are at this point but are unsure how to inject some fun and excitement into your classes, then start today by implementing these 5 simple tips for making each lesson different.
1.       Brainstorm all of the different training drills and teaching methods that you currently use in class and write them all down.  Now you have a starting point for organizing your content and your delivery methods.  Next organize these drills and methods into similar categories such as basic training, kata training, sparring drills and additional content.  From here you now know what your base content and methods are and you can gradually begin to build your teaching repertoire and incorporate new drills.
2.       Make a monthly schedule of what needs to be taught each class and then plug in your training drills to each lesson.  By making a monthly teaching schedule of which content you will cover in which lesson, you now commit yourself to focusing on different content for each class and you will not allow yourself to fall back into the trap of teaching what is most comfortable to you.  This method still gives your students what they need and it also forces you to stretch your content knowledge and overall teaching skills.
3.       Change the order of lesson components.  If you have done step one and two and you still find that you have several lessons that cover the same content, a simple way of making the lesson different is to change the order in which you present the content.  For example if you are used to beginning with a warm-up, then teaching basic techniques, then going to kata training and finishing with some partner work drills, why not begin by using kata training as a warm-up, then move to partner work drills and finish with basic techniques.  There are several ways that you can change the order of your content and consequently make each lesson appear to be different despite essentially teaching the same stuff.
4.       Adjust the pace and focus of the lesson.  Another easy way to make your lessons different while covering the same content is to first change the pace of your lesson and then adjust the focus.  For example if you want to teach punches in two separate classes, the first class could focus on being a detailed explanation and practice class on the fine points of each punch and the second class could be a fast-paced workout with multiple repetitions of each punch.  To adjust the focus you might want to use line drills in your first class and pads and targets in your second class.  There are lots of additional ways to adjust the pace and focus of your lessons.
5.       Alter the context in which you teach your content.  A simple change in the context of your lessons can very easily make two lessons that appear similar have a very different theme.  Let’s take kata training as an example.  In the first lesson your context could be to teach Heian Sandan and to focus on the performance of the movements and relate this to tournament participation and demonstration.  In the second lesson on Heian Sandan your context could be to look at the sets of movements within the kata and apply the different sets to self-defense situations.
So as you can hopefully see, these five simple tips can dramatically help you design multiple lesson plans for your students that focus on similar content but which are delivered in different ways with interesting and varied approaches.  These types of adjustments in your overall teaching methods can also lead to increased student retention and improved skill levels for all of your students.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why is Basic Training (Kihon) so Important?

 “Do I have to practice this again?    I know how to do it already.  Why can’t I learn the next punch and the next kata?  Do I still have to do the things that WHITE BELTS do?!?”  Have you ever felt agitated with your instructor for having you drill basics when you already “know” them?  You’re not alone.  “Basics again?” is a common question asked by karate students.  In actual fact you could probably handle some of the more advanced techniques but slow down “grasshopper”, your sensei has much logic to the drilling of basics.  After all, who doesn’t remember the classic scene in the movie The Karate Kid where Mr. Miyagi has Daniel-san “wax on and wax off” for hours on end to the point of frustration?  Daniel-san is made to polish cars and paint fences until he can’t take any more.  At this point Mr. Miyagi steps in and ‘enlightens’ Daniel-san as to the value of what the young apprentice has just been practicing.  Suddenly Daniel-san understands the value of basic training and fundamentals!

Think about building a house.  If we had all four walls already measured out and put together and we rested one wall against the other securing each in place we could make other people think that our house was secure.  Until that first strong wind came!  Suddenly the house is blown down and nothing is left.  What do we do?  We leave and move somewhere else and try to rebuild.  This whole scenario is much like the Karate student who neglects basics and thinks they know it all.  They stay with one club for a while and then they move on to another club.

So what should we have done with our house?  First of all it is essential to lay the foundations.  Then we build the walls, we add the roof, then we paint it, furnish it, make the outside look good and then live in it.  Sometimes we live in our house before any of the inside and outside cosmetics are done!
In the same way our Karate practice must begin with basics.  With basics we lay the foundations of our practice.  By consistent practice and hard effort we add the roof so that we have a more sturdy structure for our house (our Karate).  Then we paint the house and furnish it (we make our Karate look good).  Then we make the outside of the house look good (we further polish our Karate and iron out the inevitable kinks).

And finally we live in our house and begin to appreciate its beauty and its value to our lives (now we are able to enjoy and apply our knowledge that we have gained through our training).
Hopefully we live in our house for a long time and we gradually feel more and more “at home” and more and more comfortable with our surroundings (now we are beginning to have a deeper understanding of Karate and its application to our lives).  I hope that you live in your house for many years to come, or if you move, I hope that you appreciate the time and effort it takes to build a house.  Building your Karate is just the same!  It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort to make it strong!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mastering Karate

I have had several karate instructors throughout my karate experience but none of them have been like Master Hirokazu Kanazawa. Master Kanazawa has been a role model in my life ever since the day I met him on July 13th, 1994. I showed up at his dojo by means of an introduction from my host Japanese mother. Sensei spent over half an hour with me of his personal time after having never met me before. I know now that he is a very busy man. That half hour helped me to make a decision that has shaped my life ever since.
That is another story for this blog but I have to say that one of the greatest honors of my life so far was to be featured in my sensei's DVD production.

At the recording date of this DVD Master Kanazawa was 73 years old. We filmed this in March 2005 and his birthday is in May.

Please enjoy watching one of the best in the world perform karate.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Importance of Having a Beginner's Mind

As a karate instructor or high-level practitioner of the martial arts it is often useful to remember where we came from and how we got to where we are.  Our journeys were not always easy and our students deserve to hear about our own mistakes and experiences to show that we too are human and that we went through many of the same struggles that they are faced with.  Here is one such story from my own development as a martial artist.
One hot and humid summer evening’s lesson during my stay in Japan, Ichihara-sensei (one of my instructors) was teaching us oizuki (front punch) when it suddenly hit me like a sledgehammer.  No, not the punch thankfully, but a realization - I guess you could call it a moment of inspiration.  I had been training in Karate for about 14 years at the time and I suddenly realized that I had been making a basic error in the execution of the front punch.
It doesn’t really matter anymore what the mistake was as I have since corrected it, but the real lesson I learned that night was something much more than a minor technical adjustment.  That night under the watchful eye of Ichihara-sensei I was reminded of the importance of having a “Beginner’s Mind.”
It happens to all of us periodically and usually when we least expect it.  I’m talking about those moments when our confidence along with our egos takes over and suddenly we feel like we’re invincible.  We have mastered a particular skill and now, knowing everything there is to know, (or so we think) we become self-proclaimed experts, willfully demonstrating the infallibility of our technique to others.  Right at that moment something happens to bring us back down to Earth.  For example you’re a good golfer and suddenly and inexplicably you hit an “air shot” or you’re playing soccer, and faced with an open goal just six yards out you completely miss the ball and fall flat on your behind with the grace and poise of a one-year-old just learning how to walk.
Back in the dojo, a senior ranked student performs a front kick and slips and falls over for no reason.  He gets up really quickly hoping nobody saw and mutters about some undulation in the perfectly flat wooden floor.  Trust me, I’ve seen this kind of thing happen again and again and it always reminds me of the importance of having a “Beginner’s Mind.”
If you watch any serious beginner in any activity you usually see great concentration, heightened awareness and a real drive to succeed.  Although they know their techniques aren’t perfect, their mistakes are usually due to a lack of knowledge rather than a lack of focus.  We “experienced” practitioners of Karate should learn from this and should try to think back to that special feeling that we also had as beginners.  That exciting feeling of learning something new, of learning the next sequence in a kata, of successfully blocking an opponent’s attack, and of ending a fight against a black belt and being able to say you were on the floor just five times instead of the usual ten, or better still that you actually put the black belt on the floor too!
A “beginner’s mind” means that you still realize you have a lot to learn, it means that you’re open to criticism, but maybe more importantly the next time you fall flat on your face, you’ll get up with a smile rather than an attitude!


In karate, and martial arts in general, discipline is often one of the main reasons why a parent enrolls their child in your program in the first place.  The video below talks about the importance of discipline and what it really means.  This video is useful for students, parents and instructors alike.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Effective Lesson Planning for Karate Instructors

This article deals with the very important aspect of lesson planning.  Just as school teachers need to plan their lessons, I feel that karate instructors should also plan their lessons.  After several years of teaching experience the planning process naturally becomes easier and at this point it is less necessary but at the very least I believe that an effective instructor needs to refer to some kind of overall syllabus, curriculum framework and general lesson plan on a weekly basis.
There are several main objectives that I have identified as critical to the overall lesson content of karate at all levels. I view a complete teaching cycle as about three months, as that is usually the length of time between grading examinations at the lower levels. Of course it is not possible to cover all content in three months, but it is possible to touch on all of the listed objectives. These objectives are

·         element, which includes kihon, kata, and kumite;

·         type, which includes quality, quantity, fun, and serious;

·         level, which is beginner, intermediate, and advanced;

·         focus, which includes grading syllabus, bunkai/oyo(analysis and application), self-defense, target training, and general.

Generally, every lesson will include all four of these objectives. The components of each objective relate to the actual lesson content. By combining these components and making slight changes, each lesson will be interesting yet different while still sticking with the necessary content required at each rank level.
I will define each objective and its components.


The element objective refers to what kind of content the lesson includes. Usually, each lesson will use one or more of the three k’s – kihon (basics), kata (forms), and kumite (partner work or sparring.)


The type objective deals with how the lesson is delivered. Does the lesson focus on quality (detailed explanations of basic techniques, forms, or partner work), quantity (a hard workout using repetition of technique as the main teaching tool), or fun (a more relaxed atmosphere than normal, with activities such as target training, games for the kids, light sparring, or something completely different such as kata from another style)? Or is it a serious lesson—working on etiquette, posture, correct behavior and habits, traditional philosophy, and history of karate? Each lesson can, of course, incorporate more than one of the four methods of delivery.


This objective shouldn’t need too much explanation, as it refers to the three main levels of students in class or to the level of content delivered in each class. Beginners are ranked tenth to seventh kyu, intermediate students are ranked sixth to fourth kyu, and advanced students are ranked third kyu and above. However, lessons, at times, could still include beginner content for advanced students, to remind them about the things they should already know. Likewise, advanced content can be given to beginner students. This gives them a chance to see what they have to look forward to if they stick with their training. In a club with a large membership, there may be enough black belts to warrant a black belt-only class. If so, there could be a distinction between brown and black belts as to their level of class. This is for the instructor to decide, depending on the membership and resources of his or her club.


This objective guides the reason behind the content. When a grading is coming up in the next couple of weeks, a lesson on the techniques that will be tested in the grading is obviously a good idea. When students have learned and memorized the moves to the kata they are studying, it is time to focus on the bunkai/oyo. Perhaps one of your students is being bullied at school, and you feel it is time to revisit some self-defense techniques. Maybe you just want to have a lesson that has a bit of something for everyone (general).

Planning a lesson

            Now that the four objectives have been defined we can look at planning an actual lesson.  Before any lesson can be planned the instructor must first know what level class he or she has been assigned.  Once this has been determined then the instructor should refer to the curriculum pacing guides and determine which week of which grading quarter the class is currently in.  In my club I have put together full pacing guides at each level which define the content that should be studied for each level class throughout the thirteen week grading period.  By doing this the instructor will then know what the class content of his or her assigned class should be.  Now the Level and Element objectives have been defined and all that remains is for the instructor to determine the Type of class that he or she would like to teach (fun, serious, quantity, quality, etc.) and the overall Focus of the class within the parameters of the class content (grading focus, application of technique, self-defense, etc.)  Now the four key objectives have been defined and the instructor can then make an appropriate lesson plan.  An instructor’s individuality and personal style can be expressed through the delivery of the content and the overall flow or theme of the lesson.  For example additional elements of martial arts training such as the importance of focus, discipline, self-confidence, health, fitness, self-control and other key words can be introduced into the lesson through the content.  This is especially appropriate for the kids’ classes but can also be good for the adult classes when related to everyday tasks, chores and responsibilities at work and at home.
            Here is an example of how this works:

Assigned class: Beginners on a Thursday night (family class – age 7 and up)
Current week and quarter: Week 6, Quarter 1

From this information the instructor consults the pacing guides and sees that the content for that evening’s class is:
            Kihon – Syllabus         Kata – Heian Shodan              Kumite – Gohon kumite #2

Now the lesson planning begins.  Already the two objectives of Element and Level have been defined, so the instructor should then determine the Type and Focus objectives.  After this has been decided the instructor can refer to the grading syllabus for 10th to 7th kyu content and decide which basic techniques he or she would like to teach that evening and what type of drills to use for those techniques.  The lesson plan might look something like this:

Element: Kihon, Kata and Kumite
Type: Quality
Level: Beginner (10th to 7th kyu)
Focus: Grading preparation

1.      Oizuki
2.      Gyakuzuki
3.      Age-uke, gyakuzuki
4.      Soto-uke, gyakuzuki
5.      Uchi-uke, gyakuzuki
6.      Shuto-uke
7.      Maegeri
8.      Mawashigeri

Practice all techniques up and down in the lines in sets of five.  Explain the key points of each technique and let the students know what the instructor is looking for on the upcoming grading.

            Heian Shodan

Practice this kata slowly step-by-step, then half-speed and then regular speed.

            Gohon kumite #2 (chudan oizuki attack, chudan soto-uke defense with gyakuzuki counter)

Practice this set to count, then all the way through and then with the attacker changing the rhythm of attack to try to unbalance the defender.

Finish class by verbally reviewing the grading requirements at the Beginner ranks (10th to 7th kyu) and give a reference point for further study (club website, etc.)

An alternate lesson plan for the same content could be:

Element: Kihon, Kata, Kumite
Type: Quantity
Level: Beginner (10th to 7th kyu)
Focus: Drill key techniques from Heian Shodan and Gohon kumite #2

1.      Oizuki
2.      Age-uke
3.      Soto-uke
4.      Shuto-uke

Drill each technique up and down multiple times and then with a partner forwards and backwards with both partners performing the same technique simultaneously.

            Heian Shodan

Run through the kata 8 times focusing on executing each technique with power and highlighting oizuki, age-uke and shuto-uke that were practiced in the kihon section of this class.

            Gohon kumite #2

Practice this partner work drill three times as attacker and defender and change partners and repeat.  Keep changing partners multiple times so that everyone has a chance to try their attacks and defenses against different people.

Finish the class by explaining the importance of drilling the key techniques through repetition and the importance of training with different partners to help increase the ability to modify techniques based on the different size, strength and ability of your potential opponents.

In conclusion, over time and with experience you will begin to know which drills and activities work well for both the students and for you as the instructor.  You will remember how you taught each lesson previously and you will also be able to modify and adjust your lesson plans accordingly based on the actual students who show up that night, the overall mood and energy of the class and the required content for that lesson.  At this point you are on the path to becoming a great instructor.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Jiyu ippon-kumite - Jodan attack

Here is another video from my YouTube channel. This video shows some different defenses against a jodan oizuki attack as practiced in Master Kanazawa's SKIF kumite system. The video demonstrates and explains the key points of each defense.

What is Karate really all about?

This question seems like a very innocent and fun type of question to try and answer but the truth is that it is not an easy question to answer at all.
“What is karate really all about?”
Is it about learning some punches, kicks and blocks? Is it about memorizing endless forms? Is it about self-defense? Is it about health and fitness? How about making friends and socializing? What about all of those buzzwords such as self-discipline, self-confidence, self-control, self-esteem and all of those other ‘self’ prefixes that cater to our already aggrandized egos?
Some of us have already done our research on this topic to find out what karate is all about and we have found many answers. Conventional martial arts wisdom tells us that karate is about perfecting our character, being truthful and honest, never giving up, building strong spirit, trying our best at all times, adhering to strict discipline and etiquette, following “the path” or “the Way”, and reaching our potential in life.
I can guarantee that if I put this question to a room full of students that all of the above answers will be suggested and probably some more in addition.
The point of this somewhat long-winded introduction to this article is that karate is about all of the above and none of the above and it all depends on who you are talking to. The problem however is that the difference between most people’s words and actions can be quite great. For example, saying that karate is about focus and discipline and then demonstrating weak technique and bad manners while being easily distracted tells me that someone isn’t really being honest. Saying that karate is about health and fitness and then driving straight to McDonalds after class for a Big Mac meal with extra fries might not qualify you as painting that picture. And by the way, I’m not exempt from all of this hypocrisy as I’m a proponent of it too and have eaten fast food after class on more than one occasion!
So “what is karate really all about?” I’d say it’s all about YOU and it’s all about what YOU make of it. You can make it a fun and challenging hobby and family activity by participating with your family members. You can make it a really worthwhile physical activity by training hard and improving your health and fitness. You can also make it an incredibly boring and frustrating pursuit that becomes potentially harmful to both your self-confidence and character by not trying hard and feeling like you are “no good” compared to everyone else in the class. Or, as I have done, you can make it a lifelong goal to try to capitalize on the strengths that you were born with and gradually improve the weaknesses that you inherently have one day at a time through the honest and fully committed practice of karate.
Perfection of character doesn’t mean that you never make a mistake, trying to be truthful and honest doesn't mean that you never catch yourself being a hypocrite at times, and nor does trying your best mean that you’re never tired. What is most important from all of this is your self-awareness. Through the template of karate we should be able to constantly polish the stone that holds all of our skills so that we can clearly see our own reflection in all its beauty and ugliness. Gradually through consistent effort and practice, and knowledge of ourselves, we can tip the balance of our life’s scale to positive nourishment and self-improvement, in order to ultimately help others and find our place in this world. Karate, although not complete in and of itself, holds many keys towards this goal.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Piecing Together the Karate Jigsaw Puzzle

As a young kid I used to enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles. Like any other person who has put together a jigsaw puzzle, I soon figured out that I had to create a system to understand the mass of jumbled and disconnected pieces.
The system first involved turning over all of the pieces so they were face up. Then I found the corners and the edges and started piecing those together to make the framework of the puzzle. Next I found like-colored pieces and put those together and gradually other pieces started finding each other with the help of my system and my frequent scanning of the whole jigsaw puzzle and resorting and regrouping.
Finally the jigsaw was solved and I could see the full picture that it revealed, despite already knowing what it looked like previously, thanks to the picture on the box!
I use the jigsaw analogy from time to time in my weekly Karate classes to try to show that the process of learning Karate also uses a systemized method of arranging techniques, organizing content, piecing together combinations and sets, building a framework of skills and gradually understanding the different shades of technical nuances of the general curriculum as you go through the ranks on the way to the Black Belt and beyond.
The main difference between a standard jigsaw puzzle and the puzzle of learning Karate is that there isn’t a clear picture of the Karate outcome when you first start the process of organizing the pieces of the overall puzzle. It is the job of the instructor to gradually introduce the pieces one by one, and to give hints as to where the pieces fit in to the overall picture. It is the job of the Karate student to capture those pieces from each Karate lesson and to place them in his or her personal puzzle.
The reason for this is that the ultimate picture of every individual’s Karate puzzle is different and will also change over time as details are modified and improved upon. This can be very confusing and frustrating and this is why it is important to focus on the journey rather than the destination. The journey of course is the process of solving the puzzle and the destination is the end picture that the puzzle reveals.
So what does the Karate puzzle look like? Well, like I have said already everybody’s puzzle is different and it would be foolish of me to try to explain what your personal Karate puzzle looks like. Instead, I should try to explain what the puzzle is made up of and what my own picture is beginning to show me. In very simple terms the framework of the Karate puzzle is made up of the three Ks, Kihon, Kata and Kumite. Kihon, of course, represents the punches, kicks, blocks, strikes and stances of our style. Kata are the forms within our style that show us how the basic techniques fit together in natural combinations, and kumite represents the partner work drills that show how our style can be applied in one-on-one situations and also in multiple opponent situations
So let’s get to the picture part of the puzzle.
I often thought that solving jigsaw puzzles was a little fruitless when you already know what the picture looks like, so sometimes I would ask my parents to give me just the pieces without the box so I could figure it out for myself. Maybe that’s one reason Karate is so satisfying for me because I still don’t know what the final picture of my puzzle that represents my Karate journey will look like! Yet, I have had many satisfying glimpses into the beauty of the images and checkpoints along the way.
This is the way it is supposed to be! But I still have to ask myself what does my current picture show and how does this help me improve.
I believe that my current Karate picture shows a fully integrated matrix of information that represents the Shotokan syllabus as a whole, and that it shows vital cross links between individual techniques, the different kata and bunkai combinations, as well as a whole host of kumite techniques, options and arrangements that now come naturally during teaching and demonstration. However, despite the matrix that is shown to me in my mind of everything gradually coming together, I also see several weak intersections within the overall matrix. I see some unanswered questions and some dark areas that maybe I shouldn’t venture along yet. Certainly not as an instructor, maybe only as the innocent student in search of information! These gaps represent the many questions that I haven’t answered yet. They represent the missing pieces of my own Karate jigsaw puzzle that my sensei gives me every time I train with him. What I have also learned is that filling the gaps in my knowledge is not only dependent on my sensei but is also dependent on my students. The questions asked by my own students often force me to learn and improve just like a seminar with Master Kanazawa does. Which brings me to the next question, “Do you ever stop learning?” I think Master Kanazawa said it best in his book Karate, My Life, when he described his ascent up the mountain of Karate learning,
“The more I know, the more I climb, yet the mountain just gets higher. The more I try, the more I focus, the depth is limitless. There is no end in sight. That is karate, my life.”
The Karate jigsaw is not meant to be solved so that there is a final outcome or final picture that we look at for a few seconds, grunt disconsolately as if to say “Is that all there is?”, and then move on. The Karate jigsaw puzzle is a living and a creative endeavor. The picture it depicts changes over time as we progress and mature and as we gain knowledge of our art and ultimately of ourselves.
Our Karate jigsaw puzzle and the problem-solving strategies that we gain from it can act as a template for our lives. It can show us how to find confidence when we need it, inner and outer strength, perseverance and endurance, compassion and tolerance, and self-belief based on honest values.
If we ever see the true and beautiful picture of our Karate puzzle, then we will have mastered not only our art but also ourselves.
For me, that’s enough to keep putting the pieces together and to keep training hard! How about you?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Shotokan Sensei has a YouTube Channel

In addition to this blog I have set up a YouTube channel with some instructional videos of Shotokan karate, including kihon, kata, kumite, ideas and concepts and other topics.  There are a limited number of videos available already and more will be added as time goes by.
Here is the link to the channel:

As a sample, here is one of the videos that has already been posted:

Welcome to the Shotokan Sensei Blog

This is the first post of this brand new blog that is focused on delivering quality instructional content on the style of Shotokan karate to all who are interested, regardless of style, rank, age or gender.  The blog will be updated on a regular basis with articles, videos, photos and other contributions that match the overall theme of this blog.
I hope that the readers of this blog will participate in the interactive element of being able to comment on the posts and more importantly on being able to contribute to the overall content by means of articles, suggestions, recommended videos, photos, etc.