My stories as I remember them during my journey in the Martial Arts

Thursday, July 23, 2009

What Does it Mean to Achieve a Black Belt

What does it mean to achieve a Black Belt? Why pursue this goal? We pursue many things in our lives and set many goals. Achieving a Black Belt is usually a special goal. It takes years of practice and dedication. Along the way we will learn much about ourselves. We will push our minds and bodies to the limit. I think the pursuit of reaching Black Belt mirrors our human experience. Life is a struggle, we work against challenges and strive to succeed in many things, family, work, spiritual, and personal goals like that of a Black Belt. On the road to Black Belt we learn how to dedicate ourselves to a goal; we can transfer this learning experience to our everyday lives, in work, family, and spiritual endeavors. The struggle of life is what makes it interesting. Sometimes the struggle is self imposed other times we struggle against odds and circumstances we wish didn’t exist. Challenge and strife often times create who we are for better or worse, and everyone will experience it. A life without significant challenge would be boring and without meaning. We all need challenge, we all need to move forward in our lives, when we stand still we become “stale”. Like standing water, we will eventually begin to stagnant, and move backwards.

Working towards a Black Belt can precipitate the evaluation of life goals. Many people set no life goals. Martial arts students will begin to set goals while on the road to Black Belt. Like life our success on the road to Black Belt will be determined by other people. Success in life is often judged by others. If we run a business the success of the business is determined by our customers. If we work for someone else our success is judged by the individuals running the business and individuals we report to.

The requirements for achieving a Black Belt will vary from one organization to another. All reputable organizations will have a very specific set of requirements that must be met before the student is considered eligible for Black Belt. Testing and/or judgment of how a Black Belt is awarded will vary from school to school but in the end, achieving this goal in a good institution will be challenging, difficult, and fair.

There are many advantages to working towards a goal of achieving Black Belt. What it means to reach that goal go hand in hand with the advantages. Black Belt it is a goal reached that was most likely only a far off dream when you first stepped through the door of the dojo. The old saying is: “goals are dreams that have a deadline”. The dream of achieving a Black Belt is no different. At first it is just a dream and then training begins and it becomes a long range goal with the focus on each step along the way. After many short range goals and small steps you reach the point where Black Belt is the next step. All your training becomes fine tuned and you condition your body. It is the peak for that final sprint. The sweat, pain, and obstacles have been over come. You are now a Black Belt. It means you have achieved a goal. You have overcome obstacles, personal, physical, mental and spiritual, everything has played a role.

Achieving a Black Belt means you had the discipline few individuals possess and you were willing to put in the work to conquer something that wasn’t easy. You put yourself to the test and with perseverance, indomitable spirit, honesty and integrity a passing grade was awarded. Some people go in front of judges for gold, silver and bronze metals, some people run races and some people test for a Black Belt. It is a test for yourself, to achieve something special, achieving it means that your struggle has paid off. Pass on what you learned along the way and the meaning of achieving this goal grows beyond just the personal reward. Everyone you contact can benefit and in a small way each Black Belt can enhance the experience of all their friends, family, co-workers and community. Worthwhile endeavors create strong character. True Black Belts have strong character that is one reason they were able to do what it takes to get there.

Achieving a Black Belt is also the beginning of journey. It is not only a journey in the martial arts, but it can also be a journey in life. No one is perfect, Black Belts are not perfect. People with character know this very well. Well rounded people also know that striving for perfection should still be the goal. That is the journey. Take the tools needed to achieve Black Belt and apply them to life. Conquer challenges in everyday life the same way they are conquered on the road to Black Belt. Grow with your experience in the martial arts and life.

Achieving a Black Belt is this: a journey to get there, a journey to stay there and a journey to move forward from there. It also a goal and goals are never ending. The goal and the journey are the challenge. Black Belts in life and the marital arts conquer the challenge and meet the goal. Black Belts give back to the arts and give back the people around them. Achieving a Black Belt means you have and created the strong character needed to excel beyond the ordinary.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Do We Need Martial Arts and The Martial Way?

The Martial Way in modern times may seem, to some, to be unnecessary. We no longer need to defend a village against aggressors and wars are no longer fought with swords, shields, spears, and the like. Regardless of what some people “selling” self defense might lead you to believe, it is pretty unlikely you are going to meet that fabled “street fighter” and engage in combat. Unless you live or work in an area that is plagued with high crime, chances are very good you will not run into a “mugger” in the near future. Also, most criminals are not going to wear a sign that says – “I am here to harm you now”. If you are unlucky enough to be targeted by a professional criminal the attack will be done and over before you even have a chance to react. The “pro” will pounce on you like a cat and then be gone. All predators, human and animal, will not put themselves at risk. They will stalk and attack when the prey is unaware; if the prey becomes aware they will give up the attack. This is the end of the self defense lesson. I will leave that discussion for another time. Here I am laying the ground work for a discussion on motivations and reasons to follow the Martial Way in modern times. I would like to leave behind discussions on “self defense”. Too often people speak of physical self defense as if it is a necessary life tool. While I am certainly an advocate of learning physical self defense, the truth is: most people get by fine without it. The Martial Way can, however, provide many benefits in modern life if applied in a meaningful manner and without the fantasies portrayed in movies and self defense ads seen in every M.A. magazine.

We have many challenges in modern life. Many people have anxiety and take a variety of prescription drugs to combat and alleviate stressful feelings. [The CDC numbers indicate 118 Million prescriptions a year are written for antidepressants, in the United States.] Anxiety disorders top the list for mental disorders in the U.S. [Also per the CDC]. For advice on treating stress, anxiety, depression, and other emotional issues people should always seek the help of a mental health professional and/or a physician. However, the Martial Way offers another option to cope or add to an already medically suggested course of action. In fact the American Psychological Association claims relaxation and breathing techniques are often used as successful treatment for panic disorders. Many martial arts incorporate breathing and meditation as part of a training regiment. Exercise is also often suggested as away to help with everyday stress and the Martial Way includes great exercise. It is easy to see that M.A. practitioners have an extra tool available to meet modern life’s challenges.

To face life’s challenges with the outlook of predicting your success is a part of the Martial Way. A warrior would never enter into battle with defeat as their mind set. A warrior may have been ready to die in reaching success but that was not defeat. If we apply the warrior mindset to our own daily endeavors we can effectively reduce the amount of stress we have. Much of today’s stress is created by our own minds and the thoughts of failure we interject to any task or challenge. What if we loose? What will happen? Facing these questions is essential and how we answer these questions will determine our mindset when we enter into “the game”. If the end outcome is not what we desired are we prepared to just give up? If we are committed to the Martial Way we will not give up. We will learn why the outcome was different than what was expected and take that experience forward. The true practitioner in The Martial Way will incorporate the experience into the learning process and pick up “the banner” and begin again. This is honor. As long as our effort was true and we applied our best knowledge there is no failure. Enter into a challenge knowing you will put forth your best effort and know that each step is a learning step and the fear of failure lessens. As the old warrior did not fear death do not fear failure since there is no failure if your intentions are honorable and honest. If you know you took the effort to prepare for the challenge and worked with integrity and indomitable spirit to achieve your goal there is no reason to fear an unexpected outcome. Many times new opportunities and “doors” are opened when one opportunity ends and/or an unlooked for outcome occurs. Defeat is never an option when we have applied ourselves with honor. New learning experiences are the only outcome of an honorable effort.

With the fear of failure removed the feelings of anxiety in general will also be removed. Without the fear of failure anxiety has no place to “sneak” into our thoughts. This also creates a greater level of concentration, since without anxiety we can focus on the task at hand. Our minds will not be preoccupied with thoughts of “what if”. Freedom from this type of stress will help keep us healthy. The CDC tells us stress can have many ill effects on our bodies. The Martial Way in the modern world is a survival tool just as it was in ancient times. Here I have discussed only one way M.A. can help us in our everyday lives. There are countless other advantages when we make the Martial Arts a way of life. If you are already a Martial Artist take inventory of the advantages the art provides for you. If you are not involved in the Martial Arts, jump on in, the water is great!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Finding Time for Kata Training

I was reading a blog of another martial artist talking about finding time to work on Kata. This prompted me to think about the time I spend training. In the past I have always found it a challenge to fit in my karate training. When I was also an instructor and working another full time job it was next to impossible. That was 20 years ago. Luckily my life has changed. There are no longer any children at home and I have a regular 9-5 type job. I no longer instruct and that leaves even more "open" time. Let us also say that I am now a "mature" person. Also, I only live six miles from my work so I have almost no travel time. (I do drive to work since the route includes a major highway with a 65 mile an hour speed limit and I can't pedal my bike that fast!) This means: I am lucky that it is now easy for me to carve out time to train.

Still however, now that I have been training for many years I also have a lot of material to cover. I have been training with most of my katas for over 20 years. Having taught them trained with them with etc. over the years they have become second nature. Although I still search for details and try to always improve them. One thing that does keep me going is: with this familiarity, I can almost meditate while doing them. I can get lost in the kata and follow each of my movements in fine detail. I am able to clear my mind and focus on doing just the kata. In the past I was always working on keeping my mind clear while doing a kata, but having a mind that just races along, made it a challenging endeavor. I would guess that "maturity" has helped me reach this ultimate goal as some of my AAD tendencies seem to be subsiding with age.

What I find that works for me is looking at "kata time" as my time. This is time to relax and meditate and be "lost" in the movement and the moment. For me sitting and meditating is just out of the question I just have to be moving. Even at work I fidget and move in my chair I am one of those people that is constantly on the move. Among many other things, this is one thing, even if I wasn't aware of it exactly at the time that brought me to and kept me in the arts for so long. So, combining my meditation time with kata becomes an effective time management tool. I also use this method for running and biking, heavy bag work, basics work, and so forth. I take all of the day's worries and pressures and wash them away with all my training. This approach I find refreshing. It makes me really want to train every day. The mind set of training to relax and relieve life's many worries just creates its own time.

I found I needed this time during my wife's battle with breast cancer. I was and am always supporting her in the battle against the disease. I am her main care giver. I owe her the responsibility to keep her care giver healthy. That is one more reason for me to remain training. We all have such responsibilities. If you are a parent and/or a spouse you have the responsibility to keep yourself healthy. If your family depends on you for support and love they want and need you to be healthy and to be the best you can be. To reach and maintain this goal we all need our own time. Having your own time recharges you and enables you to be a better spouse, parent and person. For me, this wipes out any feeling of guilt about what else I should be doing, since I should be training for my own health and my family needs my health too.

I have also found over the years that many people will miss a couple of days and begin to feel guilty and discouraged. The couple days turn into a week, a week turns into two weeks then a month and so on. If you miss one day or two days remind yourself that its O.K. Life's commitments can and do override training. There is always tomorrow. If you miss a day or even a week, just wipe the slate clean. Start fresh the next day you can. Relax and enjoy training its fun, rejuvenating, and stress relieving. For me training keeps me from becoming fat and happy and eventually fat and unhappy.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Mcdojos, Martial Arts, Self Defense, Fighting, Sport, Hobby, Art

There are many terms thrown around regarding martial arts, self defense, and martial arts schools. If you were new or are new to the world of martial arts it can be a very confusing landscape to navigate. I have been involved in the martial arts for over 26 years and a fan of the martial arts for many more years. I also have extensive training in the legal world. My education in law came about after my expertise in the martial arts had been obtained. One thing to get out of the way: I am not an attorney and if you need legal advice about the martial arts and self defense contact an attorney.

A derogatory term used a lot in internet forums and other places is the “Mc Dojo”. There is some truth in the “standard” definition of Mc Dojo. A large chain of Martial Arts schools whose main purpose is to make money. Obviously Mc Dojo is an analogy to fast food. An argument made many times is that the instructors teaching at these commercial schools are not qualified to teach or instruct the martial arts. Let the question be: if you are learning from “some dumb guy” in his garage for free what are his qualifications? Most experts in any field have received their education from an institution that also makes money. So gaining your education in the martial arts from a school that also makes money is not necessarily bad. Necessarily is: the qualifying word. There are many martial arts schools that have a poor product and for the trained eye they are easy to pick out. For someone who has no experience in the field it would be difficult to distinguish what a good product is versus a bad product. Make no mistake, martial arts schools produce a product. The product produced is: black belts. This is exactly what many would say is the exact definition of a Mc Dojo. We call them schools. The product of a school is graduates. How would we rate an educational institution that never graduated any students?

There is nothing wrong with someone making money from teaching Karate, Judo, and Tae Kwon Do etc. Just as there is nothing wrong with teaching dancing, gymnastics or boxing for money. As long as all involved are upfront about what they are teaching. Beware of the person who wants to teach you his super kung fu skills so no one will ever beat you up. As with the purchase of any product research it and then choose your purchase carefully. Most people will research the purchase of a big ticket item but will plunk down their hard earned money to the first “Karate” school they find in the phone book. Most people would not buy a car without test driving it. Test drive your Karate purchase. Whether it is for you or your children watch and listen to what the school teaches. Ask other students and parents what they think about the establishment. Keep in mind many schools have good sales people. If you are wary about what a car sales person says be careful about the salesmanship of the Dojo Master. If they use high pressure tactics to keep you from shopping around, leave and don’t go back. If they have a quality program they should be confident. They do not need to pressure you to sign up now.

If the assumption is that an institution is producing a product then, only the quality of the product should determine how good or bad that institution is. The problem with many critics and people using the term “Mc Dojo” is: they are not judging the same product. Some are assuming that the purpose of learning the martial arts is to become the ultimate street fighting machine and every black belt should be that street fighting machine. If you want to become an ultimate street fighting machine/ultimate urban warrior you won’t need to spend your money on the martial arts. The best method for becoming the best street fighter is to get into a lot of street fights. If you are not arrested, killed, or maimed you will become a really good street fighter. You could then use the money you saved for your hospital, legal fees, and funeral costs.

I trained under Kyoshi Steve Lavallee for about 7 years. He told me he could teach, a talented athlete, everything physically needed to become a black belt and/or good fighter within a year’s time. However, the mental fortitude, discipline, humility, and all else that makes a real black belt takes much longer. This is why it takes several years to become a black belt. Exactly how long it should take to become a black belt is another argument for another time. The point is: there is more to becoming a black belt than knowing how to kick and punch etc. Now we come around to the misconception that the martial arts in our modern world are about fighting and/or self defense. The origins of the arts certainly go back to combat but in the 21st century the arts have evolved. The skill we learn can cross over to a self defense situation but I would say if you have found yourself in that situation you have already failed at self defense. Marc “The Animal” MacYoung has written much about the topic of real self defense and discusses this topic in detail on his website. I suggest this as a place to start if self defense is something you want to learn about.

There is a big difference, legally, between what is deemed self defense and what is deemed fighting and/or assault. As an example let me use one of my favorite Kenpo self defense techniques. The technique is called the dance of death. Right away, just from the name we can assume that this technique might be overkill and it is. The technique ends with your “opponent” on the ground. Once the alleged dirt bag is on the ground you side kick/stomp on his head and then hop over him and stomp/side kick his head again. If you did this and the cops show up you will be seated in the back of the squad car with your hands cuffed behind you. Your next “dance” is likely to be with someone named Buba. Once an aggressor’s attack is stopped, any action beyond that point is assault. Another technique I learned was for a gun being held to your head. The technique ends with you holding the gun and then shooting the “attacker” who is on the ground at that point. A law enforcement official, training with me at the time, pointed out that if you did really shoot the attacker, after disarming said attacker, you would definitely be charged with murder/man slaughter and hauled off to jail. While this gun defense technique looked cool in a demo it was neither practical nor legal.

If the Martial Arts are not about fighting and not about self defense what does that leave us with? I would say it is a sport and a hobby. I now train under Rick Iannuzzo and he once pointed out to me that training for most people, like myself, is a hobby. Many people would admonish me for having this opinion. Real combat now does not involve swords, spears and hand to hand fighting. Real combat in the modern world has nothing to do with what was the origin of today’s modern martial arts. I would also say that what we learn is an art. Expression of movement is an art. That is what we have now. Sure many of us enter the Arts to learn self defense but if you stick around long enough you find that is not what keeps you training. Training will keep you healthy and active; training will help you gain a feeling of achievement. The martial arts can push you to discover your physical and mental limits. Learning some new technique or kata keeps your mind fresh. Learning to concentrate during a sparing session also keeps your mind far more active than just sitting and watching T.V. Also being active with something that motivates you and is interesting keeps your body moving. Keeping your body moving keeps you healthy. If you attend a good studio you also have the benefit of being surrounded by good people. So now the Martial Arts are both a sport and an art and will have the benefits of both. The art will keep you thinking, learning, and expressing. The sport will keep you competing having fun and being in a social environment.

Now, if what you want is real self defense do not look at the modern martial arts school. Also you must decide if you really need to learn physical self defense. Are you in law enforcement? Are you a prison guard? Do you work in a mental institution? These types of professions do need to know how to handle a violent person’s attack. If you are in one of these professions your organization will, in most cases teach you what you need to know, if not ask them to hire a professional that does teach self defense. In most cases this does not mean a martial arts professional. For the rest of us we need to know how to avoid these attacks and stay out of situations and places were these attacks might occur. That sometimes is not a simple task and if what you are really interested in, is self defense than look for books and writings of people qualified in that field. In almost all cases your martial arts instructor is not that person. Sure there are martial arts people that do know a lot about real self defense. If your instructor says they have this training just be sure they have proof of those credentials. Otherwise trust that your Martial Arts instructor is just that a Martial Arts professional and that, as I have discussed here, is something other than self defense.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Why do I train in the Martial Arts

Over twenty-six years in the martial arts. Why have I stuck around so long? I first started because I loved the skill I had seen in my youth. I always wanted to do something extra ordinary in my life. The martial arts gave me that opportunity. I was lucky that I found a great school that trained excellent Black Belts. I was longing for a sense of accomplishment. I had decided to drop out of college after receiving a two year Associates Degree. I had left my prior career plans unfinished and jumped right into the work world. I felt incomplete and inadequate.
On the outside my reasons for wanting to train were physical fitness and self defense. Deep down, even if I wasn’t conscience of it at the time, I wanted to accomplish something special. Soon I found myself very satisfied with learning katas, kicks, punches, and self defense techniques. I was amazed that I could really do all the things I had seen and been awed by in the past. Each belt promotion gave me a new feeling of achievement and motivated me to keep going. I also had great instructors that emphasized a positive attitude and goal setting. I was not a natural, each movement I learned took hours of practice, but I kept it up because I wanted my skills to be just like the Black Belt and Brown Belt instructors teaching me. Every time it was possible, when the school did a demo or tournament I was there. I watched the upper belts carefully and tried to copy their movements. During class I paid close attention to the instructors. I would not always get the moves right away, but I kept at it until I got it right.
It was hard work but the reward of the accomplishment kept me going. I also found belonging to the school comforting. It was a family like atmosphere. When you where learning something new everyone would help. The higher ranked students would always point you in the right direction. I struck up friendships with other students and my instructors. We would gather socially creating relationships many of which are still active today. The friendships, family atmosphere, and the satisfaction of reaching challenging goals kept me returning to class.

As I kept going I also kept growing. I was learning discipline which had been missing in my life before karate. I was learning how to persevere through the difficulties of achieving a challenging goal. I was now able to set goals and map out a path to that final destination. My life outlook had changed. Prior to training I had no direction. We were taught about the wheel of life. The wheel of life needed balance. Each section of the wheel, career, spirituality, family, finance, martial arts/physical fitness needed even attention otherwise life became out of balance. When one part of your wheel was out of balance life goals became more difficult to achieve. I was learning these lessons and started to become a better person in all parts of my life. I pursued betterment in my career. I went back to college and with my new found discipline achieved a 4.0 grade point average. When I was laid off from my long time job I had the discipline to turn job hunting into my job. The martial arts had taught me to climb life’s mountains and break through barriers. What had started out as just a way to make me feel better about who I was had actually redefined my entire outlook on living. Instead of a wandering soul I had become a focused driven individual.

Now when people ask me about the benefits of training in the martial arts I have a very affirmative answer. I have my own example to hold up as proof of the value the martial arts can add to your life. The martial arts provide lessons on mapping out and achieving goals that bring focus and direction to your life. Instead being a ship with no rudder you become a person who will navigate through life’s challenges. Martial arts will give a person direction, motivation, indomitable spirit, perseverance, integrity. These are the attributes of a Black Belt in the martial arts and in life.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Why Train in The Martial Arts?

What makes a person want to start training in the Martial Arts? What makes a person stay in the Martial Arts? Many will say self defense. Others will say fitness. Some will say it was their children’s involvement that drew them to and kept them in the Arts. What if we strip away all these superficial reasons? I believe those of us who started in and stayed in the Martial Arts met a need we had. Meeting this need kept us sticking with it. When we lift the layers away, basic emotions are the core of every Martial Artist’s desire to train.

Fear is an emotion and great motivator. Many people have fear in their lives. Fear is brought into life for a whole variety of reasons. Maybe being bullied when they were young created fear. Maybe some other life changing event introduced fear into a person’s being. Where the fear came from doesn’t matter. What is important is: this drove them to start training. You start training and then start believing you have the ability to defend yourself. The fear dissipates. The dissipating fear keeps you training. Some people are looking to belong. We start training and find we belong to this group and belonging will most certainly keep a person coming back. Others feel inadequate. Training will make a person feel more adequate as they are rewarded for progress with advancement through the ranks and belts. The list of emotions that bring and keep a person training could be endless. Most times it is not just one emotion or need but several.

Discovering the true motivational emotion that keeps you training will help you continue that motivation. Throwing away the superficial, will bring a person to enlightenment. When training becomes difficult and when you begin to doubt there is any reason to train, bring yourself back to the moment you first put on that white belt. The open mind a white belt has and that emotion will reenergize your training. When there is doubt and obstacles, knowing what brought you to where you are in your Martial Arts journey will lift you up. Discover what the Arts have done to change your life for the better and that will keep you training. When you continue to train you will keep reaping the benefits that originally brought you to and kept you in the Martial Arts.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Loss of a Friendship and No Matter How Flat You Make a Pancake There Will Always be Two Sides

Introduction: Here is a sad story of the loss of a friendship. This is only my perspective. I have not pursued any answers from either party. I don't believe that is any one's business. So, what I am writing about is what I see as a third party looking in.

Mr. Rick I. and Mr. Steve Lavallee had been friends for many years. Rick I. was one of Mr. Lavallee's first Black Belts. He was also one of the most talented. Rick ended up working for Mr. Lavallee and eventually ran the Liverpool school. Rick I's brother was also working for Mr. Lavallee and he ran the Cicero school. They were like family.

At some point Rick I wanted to break off and run his own business. Something many people desire. He started with just a Gym. Eventually he started teaching Karate. Many people had asked him to do so. It was the only thing he knew and to ignore that business opportunity would not have made any sense.

Apparently Mr. Lavallee was not happy with this and the friendship ended. I don't know the details and if I did I wouldn't discuss it. The details of the "what" and "why" don't matter. The sadness is in the ending of a long friendship, a close friendship, at least it looked like that from my perspective.

No one but Mr. Lavallee and Mr. Rick I. can mend what was. For the rest of us, we need to realize it is between them. There is always two sides to any conflict - thus the saying: No matter how flat you make a pancake there is always two sides.

I hope that these two men can, someday, become friends again. It will only happen when one of them decides it is more important to be friends than to be the "winner". It is very sad since together they could achieve great things as friends. They don't need to be in business together they just need to be friends. As Mr. Jeff I's passing proves - life is too short to leave your friends behind for any reason.

Clear The Air

One of my fellow black belts that I trained with at Lavallee's pointed something out to me. It seems like my blog has a negative slant towards Lavallee's. I apologize for this perception. I believe I need to clear the air about how I feel about the school and the people that originally promoted me to black belt. It might seem to some that I have a negative slant towards Lavallee's. This not the case at all. I am only recording what happened as I saw it. Others my have seen things differently but I am writing about my experience.

I still respect the Lavallee's school. They change lives for the better. Training at Lavallee's and working for Lavallee's gave me the attitude I needed to conquer challenges in my personal life. Mr. Steve Lavallee taught me valuable life lessons. My training has instilled in me a positive attitude and I owe this to my Martial Arts training.

I have wandered away from training at times in my life but I always found my way back. I was always glad with the decision to return to training. I no longer train at Lavallee's I train with Rick I. Mr. Rick I. was once Mr. Steve Lavallee's "right hand man". Mr. Rick I. is also a personal friend of mine. Rick I. has always been there for me in my training. It was only logical to continue my training with him. The decision to train with Mr. Rick I. has nothing to do with how I feel about my training at Lavallee's. That training will always be part of me and will always influence my training.

Mr. Steve Lavallee also gave me valuable training and I will never forget that. Without his help I would not have had the successes I have had in my training. I still remember the coaching tips he gave me and I implement them when I train now. Mr. Lavallee was a coach, an instructor an employer, and mentor for me. We never had a personal friendship. I attended parties at his home both when I was employed by Lavallee's and as a S.W.A.T. team member. I was even invited and went to Mr. Lavallee's wedding to Mrs. K.C. Lavallee. I also participated in other events as a student. However I never developed the friendship with Mr. Lavallee that I did with Rick I. My relationship with Mr. Lavallee was at the level of student and teacher and there is nothing wrong with that. With the number of students and employees Mr. Lavallee had this would be the most likely outcome.

So keep in mind I am only writing about my experience. I still have great respect for Koyshi Lavallee. He runs a successful business and shares his knowledge. He trains excellent Black Belts. He always has, I am learning from one of them now. My roots are with Lavallee's and without those roots I would not be growing like I am now.

Everyone's Journey to Black Belt Has its Own Path

Recently a person who trains in one of Mr. Steve Lavallee’s USA Black Belt Champions Schools was asking a question in his blog about a teenager being informed of a need to wait to test for a Black Belt. Apparently the teenager had some maturity issues that needed work. The question is: should problems at home or in life be considered and is this too much to ask of the teenager at this point in their life. The answer to that question is difficult. Not knowing all the details makes answering it even more difficult. Each individual is different. The road to Black Belt is not always clear cut. Now I have seen some people denied black belt that should have achieved it. I have also been witness to people being awarded black belts that in, my opinion, did not deserve the promotion. In the end it is what is in your own heart as to whether you deserved your own promotion to black belt that really matters. The decision process is very subjective. I was on the inside track of this having been a staff member asking to grade people to determine their readiness to test. Of course the head instructors and/or senior black belts always gave the final “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”. The only way for me to answer this question of readiness for black belt is to explain one person’s journey.

My friend John C. had started training just prior to when I had started. We became friends and enjoyed many good times training together. We sweated together and went through our third degree brown belt test together. We had both been promoted to that last level prior to Black Belt.

John was older than I was a being about 40, I believe, at that time. I was twenty-eight. The requirements in those days included running three miles in twenty-one minutes or less. John meet all the other requirements but being a former body builder he had a large frame and running did not match up with his body type. I would have called John very fit, especially for his age. He was told he needed to improve his running time to break the threshold to black belt.

In December of 1988 I was promoted to black belt. This had been my own second attempt. John was still not considered eligible for promotion. He had been side by side with me the whole way. He did have many good talents. He was an excellent fighter. He had very good timing with an awesome reverse punch. He was not a great kicker, but 40 year olds are not likely to be showing off ninety degree angle kicks. John also knew every kata and self defense move inside and out. The only thing holding him back was his running times.

John never gave up. He tried time and time again. He certainly displayed black belt indomitable spirit. My friend Al and I started training together. Al was also having trouble getting by the final barrier to black belt. Al had other issues working going to school and raising a family. He did not have the time necessary to devote to the training needed to break over that barrier. He watched John’s struggle and finally stopped training. Witnessing John’s struggle had discouraged Al and he felt the process had become unfair. Al dropped out from training.

It had been about two years since I had been promoted to black belt. Al had become discouraged and was no longer training. He had a meeting with Mr. Lavallee about his training. Mr. Lavallee allegedly suggested to Al to quit taking college courses so he could devote more time to training. Al never returned to training after that. I was training for my second degree at this time and again was training side by side with John. We both missed Al. The three of us had always been training partners and with one person missing it just was not the same anymore. I was having my own difficulties at this time. I no longer paid for lessons since I had been a staff member. I was however being asked to devote many hours to teaching. I was now married and working nights. I could not keep up with this. I eventually stopped training too. With me it was not a conscience decision. I jus t stopped going to class on consistent basis. I then began to feel guilty about not devoting time to teaching class since I no longer paid for my training. Finally I just never went back to Lavallee’s.

All this time John had continued. He would not give up. He had been through many life changes. He had a divorce, his daughter had become an unwed mother but John kept trying he kept training. He had proved he had more perseverance than either Al or me. Still Mr. Lavallee would not award John with a black belt. John succumbed. He stopped training. He told me his knees could not take running anymore his hips hurt his back hurt, his body was giving up on him.

I had stopped training although I still practiced all my Katas and material on a consistent basis. I missed the interaction of learning. I knew all the material for second degree since I had been almost ready to test when I left Lavallee’s. I had been working out at Rick I’s gym all along. Rick was now teaching Karate again. I decided to train with Rick. His teaching style was more like the “old days” at Lavallee’s. The reason the teaching style was like the old Lavallee’s was because Rick was the old Lavallee’s. I was on the road to second degree even if I was starting from scratch again. In December of 2000 I acheived my second degree black belt.

I ran into John from time to time and always encouraged him to start training again with Rick I. Finally between Rick and me we must have convinced John and he returned to the martial arts. I had been working at a job that prevented me from getting to class at times class was held. So my own training was on hold for awhile. While I was away John was training with Rick. Rick was about to promote John to black belt. His promotion was just on the horizon. John’s body however was giving him trouble. Keep in mind John was now about Sixty years old. Rick told me John came in just prior to his test he was almost in tears. John told Rick he could not do the test. His hips had given out and the doctor had informed him he needed a hip replacement. Rick said he had already ordered the belts with the names stitched in. Rick said “John you deserve this” and he handed him his black belt. Rick had been there for most of John’s prior attempts to make black belt. He knew John had never given up. He knew that no one had ever put more into trying to achieve this goal than John. John had always had the spirit of a black belt. No one but Rick had ever recognized it.

This does not directly answer the question about the teenager. What I was trying to convey is what goes into the decision to let someone be awarded this level of achievement. Each person is different each journey has its own life. Should this teenager wait? That is hard to say. Is Lavallee’s asking too much of this teenager? Only the teenager and his instructor can answer that for sure. Hopefully he has an instructor like Rick who recognizes the real meaning of this achievement.

Keep reading I will write about what it means, to me anyway, to be and achieve a black belt.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Life with Cancer Part II

My wife had gone through her radiation treatments and was now doing well. We had survived breast cancer. Donna was now among the many breast cancer survivors. I was planning on running in the Susan G. Komen Race for Cure in honor of her survival. Then one evening in March of 2008 my mother called and said she had something to tell us. She too had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Now I was running for two women in my life.

My mother's cancer was different than Donna's which made her not eligible for the radiation treatment Donna had participated in. Also because of the position of my mother's tumor a lumpectomy without radiation was not an option. My mother opted for a mastectomy.

In April she had the operation all went well. She wasn't going to need radiation her recovery was more painful than Donna's but still all went well.

My mother did have the benefit of Donna for support having been through the fear and anxiety associated with news that you have cancer. Again the whole family gathered around my mother to support her. Today my mother is a survivor and I will run again this year in The Race for The Cure for two of the most important women in my life.

As a side note: The local paper did a story on my run in 2008. They had called looking for stories of runners participating in the Race for The Cure. When I told them my story they were interested. They ran the story of our experiences in the Breast Cancer world just prior to the 2008 race.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A little LaVallee's History thanks to Rob V

Here is the history of Liverpool Martial Arts known as LaVallee’s Sport Karate Studio, now as Steve LaVallee’s East Coast Karate.

Lee Thompson owned the studio and decided to sell it to Steve Cravic. I think the year was 1974. LaVallee was upset that Thompson didn’t sell it to him so he left and moved to California. A student named John Vanelli kept calling him and asked him to come back; the school needed him. He came back and bought the school from Cravic. LaVallee’s older brother George worked for a bank and told him it was a very bad investment. The school was in debt. Working many side jobs and teaching karate, LaVallee was determined to make it work. He even picked up a job as a repo man.
The school and LaVallee were very successful on the karate circuit. The problem; people didn’t realize Liverpool Martial Arts was Steve LaVallee. He changed the name to LaVallee’s Sport Karate Studio.

The original students were taught one private lesson and two group classes per week. Instructors would teach the private lessons and then LaVallee would teach the group classes. This was possible because the studio only had about 50 students! As the studio grew, the teaching style would later change to what we have now.

At the time, black belt exams were all done on a one to one test. The order of black belts are as followed:
1. Bill Stanley
2. Rick Iannuzzo
3. John Vanelli
4. Jeff Iannuzzo
5. Scott Ogata
6. Jeff Snoggles
7. Rob Vanelli

*Bill Stanley came up under Thompson’s rein, but LaVallee tested him when he took over the studio. The remaining black belts were all taught directly under LaVallee.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Life facing cancer

It was October 2007 we had been planning a camping trip to Old Forge with the family and the news came. We had both been worried about this for a while ever since the mammogram showed something “suspicious”. I guess we both thought it couldn’t be - it just couldn’t. I think it was Wednesday Oct. 9th. Not sure since it was all a blur. Donna didn’t want to tell anyone until we actually saw the surgeon again. Yes we had heard it. It was cancer. My beautiful wife had breast cancer.

We went ahead with the camping trip anyway. We told the kids that Donna just had a cyst removed. We didn’t say anything about a biopsy and what results we knew of. We tried to forget and just have a good time. I am glad we did since we did not have a clue of what we were in store for.

Donna is the strongest person I know. Guess that is why we are friends and why we married and have stayed married. This was a new challenge. It was for sure going to be the toughest challenge we have ever faced together. But perseverance is in our blood, relationship, and souls. Cancer was not going to beat Donna and it wasn’t going to defeat us!

After we came back from the camping trip we settled in and tried to come to grips with what we now faced. First we needed information. The appointment with the surgeon was Monday. We let Donna’s older sister and mother know and they went with us to the appointment. The doctor went over everything in detail and spent a lot of time explaining what the possibilities were. What stage the cancer could be and what treatment options might follow the surgery. Nothing would be set in stone until after the surgery. Donna went with the doctor’s recommendation and the lumpectomy was scheduled.

We called the kids in for a family meeting. We explained what was going on. We also called Donna’s siblings and they all planned on being present on they day of the surgery. I think this family support helped Donna face this disease with courage.

The gang all gathered and we waited to hear from the surgeon. Donna’s sisters Judy, Pat, Ann, Margaret, Debbie were there. Her mother also came to support her daughter. Donna’s brother, Carl, was represented by his wife Dianne. Carl is a judge and had to be in court or he would have been there too. Donna was in surgery for a long time. We were all getting worried. She went in at 10:00 A.M. We did not hear anything from the surgeon until 2:00 P.M. The surgeon explained that all went well, and as they suspected, the cancer was stage one. The good news was that it had not spread beyond the breast tissue. The next steps would be the radiation treatment. There would be no chemo at this point.
We went in for the follow up appointment. Donna had decided to go with a new radiation treatment that would only take a week instead of the standard six week treatment. The insurance was approved and we went forward.

The treatment involved cutting space in the breast where the tumor had been removed. Yes more surgery. A balloon is placed in the newly created space. A catheter is attached to the balloon and is exposed outside the breast. Once in place the radiologist fills the balloon with radio active material. This is done twice a day for a week. It is very painful and Donna suffered for that week. The up side is the treatment is over in a week and recovery time is shorter than standard radiation treatment.

Then the ongoing treatment began. For the next five years Donna will be taking hormones that will reduce the chance of the cancer recurring. This is not easy. The hormone treatment causes hot flashes, fatigue, headaches and night sweats. It also causes a drop in calcium levels so calcium supplements are needed as well. The calcium supplements have their own side affects which are varied stomach and digestive issues.

It has been over a year now and Donna has done well. I am lucky to work for an employer that provides excellent insurance. I wonder how people without insurance face these issues. There are many Americans that work and make too much to receive public medical assistance. They may be O.K. for the common cold office visit but something like what Donna faces could easily bankrupt a family that lacks insurance coverage. I felt very lucky. That is why now I am an advocate for cancer research and better medical coverage for all. There is no reason that in this country people will die from cancer when they could otherwise survive with proper treatment. Do not be fooled, many low income people die from cancer because they do not receive the same medical treatment people of means and/or insurance receive. In my opinion that is an unacceptable condition.

I will be running again in the local Suzan G. Komen Race for The Cure. If you are a runner find out where and when this is going on in your area. We can cure cancer and this is a way people who enjoy running and fitness can help. Last year I ran this race in honor of my wife and my mother who was also diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 2008. I will write more about that challenge. Again if we all ban together a cure can be found.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Something old and Something new

Well today I took a step back in time. I went to and competed in a tournament. It was the Bailey’s Copper City Championships in Rome NY. This tournament has been running for a long time. I competed in it coming up through the ranks. I remember going there and seeing some of the “senior” Black Belts from other schools with belts that looked old worn and tattered. Now I am one of those Black Belts. In fact my belt is older than some of the adult men Black Belts I was judging.
The tournament was run very well. Tournaments have come a long way. It used to be the event would start around 10:00 in the morning and would not be over until maybe 9 or 8 in the evening. Now everything is very organized and they keep all the rings occupied and moving. They also created a new scoring method for Kata. They divided the divisions into groups of four and/or 3 competitors within the division. We would watch each small group and then each judge would hold up a card signifying the order we thought that competitor should be placed within the group. Then each competitor is given a medal, gold for first, silver for second, and third, and fourth place are given a bronze medal. The competitor that receives the gold moves on to compete against the others within the divisions that won gold in their groups. The winner of the group of gold medal winners is awarded with a large trophy cup. This new method solves many problems inherent to scoring each competitor one at a time. Judges are not sitting for a long periods of time giving each a competitor a score. I always found that method tedious, flawed and time consuming. The biggest concern about individual scores concerns the number of competitors the judges might see. A judge may, in the beginning, give one competitor a fairly high score and then see a competitor they think is better than that person. The only way around this is to keep giving higher and higher scores. They would usually judge the first four competitors and not give them the scores until after the fourth person had performed their Kata. The idea is: to give the judges a baseline to work from. Many times, however, the first four would just happen to be either the best or worst of the bunch. Again in this case, many times, judges would end up painting themselves into a corner. The new method eliminates that aspect of individual scores. It also provides a reward for each competitor and further rewards the winners by giving them a chance to perform again and win the trophy. This system is a very positive way to run a tournament and gives each competitor (especially the children) a since of accomplishment. Sparring is done in similar manor with the gold medal winners competing for a cup.
I did well winning a silver medal. Many people thought I had the best Kata in my group. Too bad the judges didn’t see it that way. Mr. D. ended up taking the division. He won the gold in his group and definitely had the best Kata in our division. He decided not to compete for grand champion. I think he should have, he would have won. I was still very happy with my performance. Mr. D said he was very impressed with my Kata and I know he meant that. Hearing that meant more than any trophy I have in my collection.
I will go over some tournament stories good and bad soon. I have some really sad stories, funny stories, and many some may find interesting.

Friday, March 27, 2009

where it all began

I have been thinking lately of all my years training in the Martial Arts and what it has meant for me and done for me. I started in the “old days” before the movie “The Karate Kid”. I am not saying that the old days were necessarily better, just that the old days were different.
Let me explain the old days. Back then you learned to spar the hard way starting at white belt. Sparring class was all belts white to black. Everyone sparred with everyone. The advantage to this was: you learned how to spar/fight quickly and gained a vast amount skill over a very short amount of time. The disadvantage: most people didn’t stick around long enough to pick up the skill. We also learned very many self defense techniques per belt level and long complicated katas. Again, this created great skill levels but most people would become discouraged and drop out before they could really learn the skill.

Why go over the old days if everything today is better, or worse? The old days are history. Those days are my history. Those days brought me to where I am now. That is what I want to relay here. How the martial arts has changed my life and how the martial arts have changed, with me, along the way.

Since I was about twelve years old I had an interest in the martial arts. I loved the show “Kung Fu” with David Carradine. I also had a friend taking lessons at Tracy’s Kenpo Karate. I went and watched and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. These guys could really fight, these people had remarkable skill, and I wanted to learn. I begged my mother to allow me to take lessons. She wouldn’t have it. My parents were not familiar with the martial arts and only saw it as a violent sport.

I eventually went on to other things as most young people do. However I never entirely forgot about the martial arts, learning Karate was always in the back of my mind. I read about it, watched movies about it, and my friend who made it all the way to brown belt taught me some things. In fact my instructor, Rick, who is actually a little younger than I am, said he remembers my friend, Mike, as one of the top instructors. Rick said everyone wanted to be like him. Why Mike discontinued his journey in the martial arts is another story for another time.
Mike, along side with Steve Lavallee, taught group and private lessons for Lee Thompson who owned Tracy’s at that time. Steve Lavallee had been instructing since he was a blue belt and had been Mike’s instructor. Now if my memory is correct I believe Steve Lavallee was about 16 years old when Lee Thompson promoted him to Black Belt. “Lavallee’s USA Champions” website says that as of 2008, Mr. Lavallee has been a Black Belt for 35 years. That seems to match up with what I remember. I am including all this because; this influenced how I viewed the martial arts. I witnessed how my friend, Mike, grew in maturity and discipline. Although at the time I didn’t consciously know it, I needed discipline. I was wandering with no map for my future. Yes, I was involved in other sports. I was in wrestling and track but these sports did not develop the same level of discipline and character building demonstrated by people in Karate. Mike told me about the incredible skill Steve Lavallee and Lee Thompson possessed. Mike also described the incredible skill of other students at the school. The martial spark had been ignited in my soul even if it would be awhile before the flames started to burn.

My high school years began. I was involved in many school activities and was on the Varsity track team and wrestled. I ended up graduating high school and going to the local community college. I majored in Humanities. Humanities, for me anyway, was a catch all major for a person who had no idea where he was going. I finished with my associates degree and then went into the work world. I did not go further on in college since I thought marriage to my girlfriend was around the corner. Of course the marriage never happened; yes that’s another story too. My first full time job was with a company called Standard Office Supply. I worked there for a couple of years. The warehouse foreman left Standard Office Supply to work for Perry Office Products, a competitor across town. About a month after he left, he called me and offered me a job with his new employer. I accepted the offer.

At Perry Office Products I met my friend Al. Al was into, and still is, weight training. I did some weight training too, coming from my wrestling background. We soon began weight training together. As Al and I became friends we both discovered we had a connection to Tracy’s Karate. Al had trained there for awhile up to about Orange belt and quit. Al talked me into taking lessons. We had started our journey.

I couldn’t believe it I was about to begin my childhood dream. The old studio had a heavy pewter colored door, with a dragon molded into it. The semi oriental theme continued up the stairs. A small Buda statue sat on a side shelf that ran along the top of the staircase. The smell of sweat mixed with the smell of a pungent air freshener. Before you could see anyone, you could hear the Ki-ah of students on the floor. We had an appointment and Rick quickly met us. Rick was younger than us. Al and I were about 23 at the time and Rick would have been about 18. Some of the change that was about to take place in the Martial Arts business was in its infancy at this time. Rick gave Al and me our first lesson together, signed us up, gave us our Gis, our white belts, and we never looked back.

In those days there were no yellow belts. In fact the belts that I have are white (two tips your second tip would be equal to a modern day yellow belt) orange, purple, blue, green, brown 1st, 2nd , 3rd degrees. Red belts came about after I was promoted to black belt. Coming up through the system we were usually awarded our belts during class. You didn’t know you were testing until the end of class when the instructor would come out with a belt. You would go through the belt ceremony and you were promoted. Actual formal testing classes didn’t start until later. I don’t remember exactly when. Brown Belt always had a formal test and it may be the other belts started having formal tests sometime after I had my brown belt. I know each of my degrees of brown belt had a formal test. Formal testing is a good thing. It gives a student a goal to work towards. Students going through a system of formal testing also learn what is to accomplish conquering and reaching a goal. With that being said; the surprise of having a belt promotion after what you thought was just a really hard class was cool.

When I first started we were learning two katas per belt level and about 10 self defense moves. The old Tracy’s run by Lee Thompson taught 40 self defense techniques per belt level. I am not sure ho w many katas per belt level they taught. I am still in contact with Mike I will have to remember to ask him some day.

Al and I started learning our basics and our 1st kata which was short one. After we had short one down, we began learning long one. I met one of my most influential instructors, Mr. Rob V. I believe he runs a school in Florida now. Mr. Rob V. was a brown belt at that time and I learned more from him during my kyu ranks than any other instructor. Mr. V and I later became good friends although we are not really in contact anymore. I will have to change that at some point. I will talk more about Mr. V and our friendship later.

Al and I continued our journey up through the ranks. Orange belt saw us learn Short 2 and Long 2. Purple showed us Short 3 and Moi Fah. About this time belt requirements changed. We started learning just one kata per belt level. I don’t think self defense had changed at that point. I remember learning many defenses for holds and grabs, I still know them all. Later certain self defense moves were assigned for each belt level. I can’t remember the exact changes now. The names of the moves were no longer really referred to anymore. I know them now. There are too many to list here. Some examples are: Crossing talon (for cross over wrist grab), Seven Swords (for punch to the body). Tracy’s had/has many self defense moves all with names etc.

I should also mention some other things that created the atmosphere of the old school located above a hobby store and restaurant. The old school had banners in the window that read: Chinese Kick Boxing. The actual name of the school at this point was: Lavallee’s Sport Karate. Rick was fighting full contact in what was called the PKA or the Professional Kick Boxing Association. That was really big then. It also had an influence on the training focus in the school. The studio had a very Gym like atmosphere. The studio was also dull and dingy. If you have ever watched Rocky III think of the gym Apollo Creed takes Rocky into, except we had windows. This was different than Lee Thompson’s old school. Lee, I think, was more focused on the art in the Martial arts. When Steve Lavallee took over the focus was more on the sport. I am not saying that either is right or wrong or better or worse just a different focus on training. The student can create their own focus since the material and moves being taught are the same. So, I am not referring to material being taught, I am just referring to the atmosphere in which the learning is taking place. The PKA influence was everywhere from the PKA t-shirts for sale to the sparing that included hooks and upper cuts although blind techniques were discouraged i.e; spinning back-fists.

There was also a big focus on point fighting since a big part of training back then focused on tournaments. The School did have some amazing talent going to tournaments. That is why Lavallee’s was the winning school in every local tournament during that era. Ichi (Scott O.) was a young black belt that had amazing talent in both kata and fighting. Then there was Jeff I. Jeff was the most amazing talent I have ever experienced in the field of martial arts. Jeff was doing musical Katas long before it was the popular thing. Jeff really was a pioneer in this new Kata form. Jeff was Rick’s younger brother and another influence in my training and was also a friend. I will devote an entire blog to Jeff’s influence in my training in another separate Blog. R.I.P. Jeff. There where also many other talented Brown Belts and other lower belts that contributed to the School’s tournament success. Some of these same talents are running their own schools now, some under the Lavallee’s “umbrella”, some independently.

The sport focus also opened the door for the change in teaching philosophy. Under both Steve Lavallee and Lee Thompson the teaching focus was on Karate and Martial Arts skill. Lee Thompson was old school teaching skill to become good at the art. Steve Lavallee was teaching skill to become good at the sport. While there is a goal in learning the art, sport is much more goal orientated. When Steve Lavallee became involved in the EFC the EFC philosophy of goal setting etc. matched up perfectly with the sport atmosphere. Sport always has a goal: winning. While the goal to learning the art is less defined, the goal in art is to become very skilled. Karate however has another relationship to goals: the belt system. Each belt is a goal. Goal setting has always been a part of business as well. It is a perfect formula, sport, goals, and business all tied to Karate. Steve Lavallee began to change the whole focus of teaching the martial arts. He began to use the martial arts as a medium to teach life skills. Some would argue that the skill of Karate is lost with this teaching method. I am not going make these arguments now. I only include it since my training has been influenced by it. I am focusing on my martial arts experience here. I will say that teaching life skills along with martial arts does have value. How far that value goes I will address, maybe, someday.

I am going to return to the structure of the classes. When I first started White belts had their own class for Kata and self defense. Sparring class went from 2nd tip white belts to black belts. I think this changed about the same time I was promoted to purple belt. This was also when only one kata per belt level became the curriculum. I had already learned all of Short 3 and was learning Moi Fah when the curriculum was changed. I also met John C. about this time. He was already a purple belt and was learning Moi Fah. John was about 12 years older than I was and was one of the older people training at that time. I should also mention there were not a lot of children training when I started but this was rapidly changing during this time period. Also a heavy emphasis on goal setting was taking root. Now with only one Kata per belt level students began to move faster through the system. This was helping people realize their progress sooner than under the old system. Also the school was growing in membership very rapidly. The Karate Kid flood gates had opened. The timing was perfect for Mr. Lavallee. He was starting to realize, with the help of the EFC organization, how to run a financially successful martial arts school at exactly the same time the business was booming for all martial arts. With the number of students coming in the class structure had to change. White Belts now had their own class and no longer sparred. Yellow belts were introduced into the system and a yellow orange belt or novice level was created. Purple, blue and green belts were put into their own class and this was called the intermediate level. Brown and above was considered the advanced class. This would remain the class structure going forward. What the class structures are now, at Lavallee’s USA Black Belt Champions, I don’t know since I have been training with Rick I. since about 1991. Also at this time classes were very crowded. The number of students had outgrown the size of the studio. It wouldn’t be long before Mr. Steve Lavallee opened a 2nd location in Cicero. I am not sure exactly when that was expect that it was about the same time I had been promoted to second degree brown belt which was about 1986.

Mr. Jeff I. was the 1st head instructor at the Cicero location. I believe that soon after it opened Mr. Rob V. became the program director there. Mr. Jeff I. had been heading the Liverpool location for sometime by this point. Mr. Rick I. had been the program director and pretty much running everything else as well. Mr. Steve Lavallee was just kind of overseeing everything and also focusing more on the new location in Cicero. During this time the S.W.A.T. team program was beginning. I had been assisting in teaching for awhile and was one of the only brown belts doing so at the time. Soon after my friend Al began assisting too. John C. also started putting some time in assisting with classes. I loved teaching and found it was also increasing my skill. One Friday night Rick I. requested I go to the Cicero school for class. It was a very tough class almost like a test but I wasn’t up for testing and all tests at this time were scheduled so I had no Idea what was up. At the end of class Rob V. told me to come to the front row with the third degree brown belts. There they presented me with a Red Gi top the same the instructors used at that time. Mr. V. told me welcome to the S.W.A.T. team. I was the first S.W.A.T. team member. Soon after, I was joined by Al and John. Many others would join after that. Eventually it became a requirement for Black Belt to on the S.W.A.T. Team. Third Degree brown belts going for Black Belt were required to help with at least three classes a week.

Now my training was beginning to be geared towards Black Belt. By this time weapons Kata’s had all been moved up to black belt level. I was a little disappointed in this since I had looked forward to learning the Kenpo Bo form. I did learn all of the Old Logar before it was pared down to its current form. Of course Rick I. doesn’t teach it at all now. I also learned all of Sil Lum 6 before it was deleted. That was a great help since I never forgot it. I ended up needing it for my 2nd degree Black Belt with Rick I. That was one less Kata I had to learn for that promotion. Also having started when I did I was able to pick up many self defense techniques most others after me have never had a chance to learn. Also being on the S.W.A.T. team in the early years included special classes where more of the old Kenpo moves were taught by Mr. Lavallee.
My Black Belt training was on the cusp of the old way and the new way. Prior Black belt tests had at the most 2 or three people testing at a time. Of course prior to that, it was usually only one person at a time. The only test I remember being just one person was Mr. Rob V. Mr. V’s Black Belt test was the last of the old school tests with just one person testing and the testing was totally brutal. Not that tests now or after that was easy, the old school way was just totally brutal. If people now were to watch the old school black belt test they would run out the door saying, not me, not me. After that black belt tests started having more people, reflecting the increase in student numbers that had been taking place over the years. At first it was two and three people. If I am not mistaken Mrs. K.C. may have had only two other people testing with her. She was the first female in the school to be promoted to black belt too.
The black belt tests kept growing in the number of people and number of tests. By the time I actually tested we had twelve people testing. Mrs. K.C. Lavallee tested for her 2nd degree on my test along with Mr. Jeff I for his 3rd degree. Now let me see if I can remember all the others. The Neiss brothers tested for their 2nd degrees on this test too. The first degrees were: Karen W., John S., John and Paul W., Tony D., Mark E. (who still teaches and works for Lavallee’s now), Dennis R., and me. On December 3rd, 1988 we were all promoted. At that time this was the largest number of people who had ever tested at once. It was the second test held in a local school gym outside the studio. These were the beginning of what Lavallee’s schools now call “Black Belt Spectaculars”.

Now for the people who helped get me to black belt. Early on Mr. Rob V. instilled his dynamic Kata performances into how I performed my katas. Mr. Rick I. was always there giving the best coaching tips of anyone. In fact he still does that for me. Mr. Jeff I. taught me how to have spirit and detail in my Martial Arts. Of course Mr. Steve Lavallee was there too. His positive outlook always pushed us.

After Black Belt I continued to teach and work on the S.W.A.T. team. About a week after my Black Belt test I started working at a new job that was on the night shift. This gave me an opportunity to work more with teaching. I poured all my spare time into teaching and working out. Soon Mr. Lavallee took me into the office and said he wanted to make me an instructor. He said he would pay off the remaining balance on my contract and if I did well they would hire me as an employee. This became my opportunity to be in the inner workings of what was now a large organization, a business. The old dingy school was gone and a new fancy school was opened downstairs were the restaurant had been located. At the time, I believe, this was largest school in the area in both number of students and square footage.

I also began to go to the instructors classes during the day on Fridays. These were mostly led by either Rick I. or Mr. Lavallee. This training really improved my skill and brought me to another level. I had a chance to learn new techniques and obtain the best coaching tips from all the top black belts at the school during that time. There was a problem though. I was burning the candle at both ends. I would work my night job which was 10:00 P. M. to 6:30 A.M. I would get home by about 7:30 A.M. and be in bed by 8:00 A.M. I would be up by 2:00 P.M. to be at the instructors meeting. Also my week end for the night job was Friday morning so to attend the instructors’ class I would end up staying up for more than 24 hours. I would attend the instructors’ class then do some training on my own until the Instructors’ meeting at 3:00. I would then teach until the last class that night. Testing for queue ranks was done on Friday nights and those nights we would usually not be done sometimes until 10:00 or so. I also was on the Demo team at that time. There were a couple of Demo’s prior to tests that didn’t go well for me, guess I was not up to performing well at times when I had been up for almost thirty hours. That being said, I learned more during this time than I learned in almost all my prior years of training.

Soon this schedule took its toll on me and my training and skill began to suffer. I lost too much weight and lost energy too. Mr. Rick I. and I came to an agreement and my official instructor days were over except to fill in for other instructors for vacations etc. About this time I met my wife. Of course this changed everything.

I was still working nights but had backed off teaching quite a bit. I wanted to focus on my training as it was time to be looking at second degree Black Belt. This was about 1990. The issue was the requirement to do S.W.A.T. 3 times a week. I was then also planning a wedding and moving in with my wife to be. I simply did not have time to train and S.W.A.T. This was the one thing that had held back my friend Al from Black Belt. He had a family and with two young children at home it was simply too much time to do the required S.W.A.T. work and train. I was sometimes critical of him for this but now I understood. This all has nothing to do with being positive or negative. It is what it is there is only so much time. Adults with families and work are beyond challenged with a requirement to help three hours a week and put in time to train.
About this time Rick I. was also planning his wedding. Rick married Julie in August of 1990. I am not sure of the details but I do believe Rick I’s. and Mr. Steve Lavallee’s relationship began to be strained at this time. I am not about to go into that I just mention it since it created some the circumstances that lead to my future training in Karate. I was beginning to get ready for my second degree Black Belt as I mentioned before but I was becoming discouraged since I was being requested to put in more S.W.A.T. time. Mr. Steve G. was the program director and spent much time calling me when I missed class and S.W.A.T. Just prior to this Rick I. left and started a fitness Gym. I joined his gym and went there every day to work out. I honed my skills and saw great improvement. I was training hard for my second degree test. I would go to Rick’s gym in the morning after work and then class at night. The only thing holding me back was my S.W.A.T. time. Also by this time I was married and spending two to three hours in the morning training and then spending an hour away at night was not going over well with my new wife. So we can see were the demand for S.W.A.T. was not going to fit in.

In the beginning Rick had promised not to teach Karate at his new Gym. I have no idea what his real agreement was with Mr. Lavallee I just knew he wasn’t teaching martial arts at this point. However, every day there were people asking Rick to start teaching martial arts. Soon he couldn’t ignore the business opportunity he had. Rick had been instrumental to the business success of Mr. Lavallee’s schools. None of the success enjoyed by the Lavallee’s organization would have been realized without Rick. At this time Mr. Jeff I was still working for Mr. Steve Lavallee. I have no first hand knowledge of this but apparently Mr. Lavallee asked Mr. Jeff I. to choose his loyalty: his brother or the Lavallee organization. Jeff immediately began working for his brother. Jeff I. told me about this himself. Now I have never heard Mr. Lavallee’s side to this. I would defiantly side with Mr. Jeff I on this, but that being said no matter how flat you make a pancake there is always two sides.

Now at this same time I was having my own conflicts with S.W.A.T. time etc. Mr. Lavallee had just reviewed my pretest performance with me. He had been very impressed with my performance and told me I just needed to work on my current material. Good news until Mr. Steve G. began to badger me about S.W.A.T. I finally just stopped going. I was still training on my own and my wife and I were now renting a house where I had room for a heavy bag and room to train. In fact Al would come and train with me too. We would spar etc. In this way I forgot nothing and in fact improved my skills. Still I realized I wanted more training. I went to Rick and began training with him. Mr. Jeff I. was running classes there at this time. This was good for me since while, I was instructing at the Cicero school Mr. Jeff I. had been my instructor and he knew what I was good at and what I needed to work on. Of course I needed to begin to fulfill my requirements for 2nd degree all over again which was fine. I was very happy to be training with Rick and Jeff I. They allowed me to just train and never asked me to provide free labor.

Unfortunately I was going to have to abandon my formal training for awhile. The plant I had been working at was closing. I finally was faced with my past lapse in not continuing school. Part of the severance package offered was schooling. I still had to work, and decided to go to school full time as well so I would be ready for new work when the plant did close. There was no way I could keep up with going to Karate classes work full time and go to school full time. I still worked out maybe one half hour a day when I could just to stay healthy. Also I was starting to notice something about my body. I was gaining weight which had never been a problem for me before.

I finished my degree in three years and the plant closed and I found new work with my new career. I was now about 20 lbs heavier than I had ever been before. I decided now was the time to go back to training. I needed to loose weight and I really missed training. Again I had to start all over again with my 2nd degree requirements on top of getting back into shape. Now the interesting thing was Mr. Rob D. was now the head instructor for Rick. Rob D. had been one of my students when I was teaching. He was now a 3rd degree black belt and he is very talented. It was great to see someone I had influenced become so good. Rob D. is about 15 years younger than I am and was about 12 years old when I received my Black Belt and had been instructing him. His parents had been dissatisfied with Lavallee’s for their own reasons and brought him to train at Rick’s school very early on. He quickly became Rick’s top student. Rob is still the head instructor with Iannuzzo’s Black Belt Academy, Rick’s current school.

I was on my road to 2nd degree. It was now 1998. It had been 10 years since I had received my Black Belt. Amazingly although I was rusty I had forgotten nothing. Rick was now teaching the old Bo Form which I had learned with Mr. Jeff I when I first came back to training at Rick’s prior to going back to school. They also required 40 Beats which I already knew and had not forgotten. Rick also brought back Silum 6. I also remembered this Kata. All the time I had been out of formal training I still practiced all my material. I did need to learn a new kata which was a two man bo form. Rick had also brought in some brand new lower belt Kata’s and I easily learned them. The new Kata’s were called universal Kata’s and were all Rick’s own creations. Eventually Rick would replace the old lower belt Kata’s with his new universal Kata’s. Universal 1-5 are now part of Rick’s system. I however, still know and practice the old Katas – Short 1, Long 1, Short 2, Long 2, Short 3, Book-set, Mass Attacks, Kenpo Two Man, Lo gar shin. One Kata that was added after I was promoted to black belt was Ki-Chung a Kata taken from Ernie Reyes’ system. Rick brought this Kata into his system as a Red Belt requirement. I knew this Kata being part the original class at Lavallee’s when Ernie Reyes Jr. introduced it to us.
I eventually took another job working nights doing data processing for my old employer who had closed the manufacturing plant but still had data processing located here in Syracuse. Working nights gave me the opportunity to train directly with Mr. Rick I. Rick was holding day classes early enough to where I could feasibly train. I had gone back to my roots training with Rick. I spent the next two years training with Rick and finally achieved my 2nd degree December 21st 2000. Unfortunately my employer was again dropping jobs. All the data processing jobs were sent to India. I quickly found new work except the hours were midday and kept me from attending day classes and the job also went into the evening hours preventing me from attending those classes. I was training on my own again.

I eventually drifted further away from my training and gained much weight over the next several years. I found a new career with my present employer. At first I was working 10 hour days which continued to keep me from training. I finally was able to be promoted at work and was again working normal Mon-Fri day hours. I thought about returning to training but it had been so long, seven years, I was reluctant to return in my fat and happy condition. Things health wise were getting bad for me too. I had high blood pressure, I was depressed overweight and had moved so far from my former fit self I just couldn’t believe it was me anymore.
I had traveled up to my parents camp for a vacation and thinking of taking this time to start getting back in shape by running and going through all my old Katas. To my surprise I remembered everything. I guess over the years of practicing and teaching these forms over and over they were ingrained in me forever. This is when I heard the news. A former Karate instructor had been killed in a trucking accident. I was shocked when the picture on the news cast was Mr. Jeff I.

I went home and attended the calling hours. Thousands of people were there. These people had all been touched by Jeff just as I had. I saw many of the “old crew” there. Scott “Ichi” O. was there, Mark E., Jeff B., (A black belt from another school who always trained with us and has his own school now), Keith C., a black belt and former instructor, and host of others all connected through the Martial Arts. No one could believe that this strong dynamic person was gone.
After this I really began to think about what the martial arts had meant to me. It had given me the discipline I needed to attend school and work full time. The martial arts had taught me never to give up and to persevere regardless of the obstacles life placed before me. I had gone through 3 layoffs but kept going, always finding work right away. The positive attitude instilled in me through the martial arts had given me the tools to succeed in life. Although I had wandered away at times I always eventually returned to my martial arts training. Karate became part of what I am, had I not ever developed an interest in it and never started training my life would not be the same.

After the passing of Jeff I. I realized I needed to return to training to save myself. I was now grossly over weight out of shape, and was beginning to a have health problems. I needed the martial arts discipline to get my body back into shape and to fill the void I had been missing since I had stopped training. I called Rick and told him I would be returning.
When I came to see him at the new School building another one of the “old crew” was there. Chuck B. Chuck B. was promoted to Black Belt on the test just after my promotion. We had trained together through the years Chuck being about my age. Chuck, Rick and I spent about an hour talking about Jeff and the old days it was a wonderful reunion and again the martial flame was burning within me. Chuck and I started training together learning all the new Katas and getting ourselves back in shape. It has been almost two years since I have gone back. Chuck has a few injuries but I am sure he will be back. In the mean time I have lost most of my extra weight and my conditioning is very good, considering I am now less than a year from 50.
I am on the road back and plan to start getting ready to train for my 3rd degree black belt. I am even going to a tournament. While I have a way to go to get back into prime shape I am certainly on the way. I have been running and even ran in a 5K race. Amazingly I still remembered all my Katas, although many of them are no longer taught at Rick’s school (Iannuzzo’s Black Belt Academy). Mr. Rob D. is now a 5th degree black belt and a great coach I am glad to be back with the best school in our area. Much is new but much is the same. Rick has managed to keep the old flame burning while keeping everything fresh and new. Since we all know if you don’t keep going forward you eventually start going backward. From now on I am going forward in the Martial Arts – Oss.