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

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.