This one time, at karate camp …

Sweat, swPOSSIBLEBACKLOWRESeat, sweat, pant, pant, pant, pant, creak, creak, creak, owwwwwwieeeee. Ah, these are what have become familiar sounds at the Okinawan Shorin Ryu Matsumura Seito Karate and Kobudo Federation’s (OSMKKF) training seminar in Bangor, Maine this weekend.  Okianwan karate master and OSMKKF President, Isao Kise, along with the OSMKKF’s United States senior leadership, has provided a weekend of knowledge sharing, mentoring, quality control, and good old fashioned hard work.  While I expected to hear the sounds associated with intense exercise at the seminar, I certainly did not expect the level of exasperation and feelings of inadequacy expressed by one of our students.

You see, in addition to Kaicho Isao Kise, our teacher’s teacher, United States Director Hanshi John Shipes also led the weekend seminar.  High ranking students from across the country descended upon Bangor to train with their federation brothers and sisters from eastern Maine.  For any non-martial arts readers, what you need to realize is that, in exchange for benefiting from the years of training and experience of their teacher, karateka are often fiercely loyal and protective of their Sensei and their school.  Significant time and quite literally blood, sweat, and tears are spent as one strives to better him or herself and master techniques being taught.  Despite seeking humility as a goal in life in general, students still want their Sensei to be proud of them.  Students want to perform well to show the senior leadership that their Sensei is providing quality instruction.   Hosting students want the event to go smoothly as an expression of the respect for the system they have studied and those who represent it at its highest levels.  Finally, serious training in karate-do leads to personal change and thus becomes a part of how the individual defines him or herself. So, basically, no pressure at all, right?

Meanwhile, back at the training … The stress level of the referenced student apparently rose throughout Friday morning’s workout.  With students representing schools from all over the country, it quickly became apparent that our dojo’s students performed certain skill sets in a completely different manner than that being promoted by the instructor and the other schools’ students.

This is a big deal.  One of the strengths of a traditional martial arts school, or at least ours, is that the system being taught and the methods used have been passed down and maintained across centuries.  A student literally should be able to walk into any OSMKKF dojo around the world and feel at home with the material being taught and the manner in which it is being presented.

So, our student started to experience self-doubt.  “I must not be doing it right,” “maybe I did not pay close enough attention in class,”the dog ate it,” etc.  With repeated discrepancies in what the student thought he or she knew and what was being presented, the self-doubt apparently grew into racing thoughts and a self-perpetuating cycle.  “How could I be so far off on so many techniques associated with my rank; ” “others must be thinking, ‘who has been teaching THIS student’,”  “I hope my teacher’s teacher does not see my incompetence because my Sensei works hard to teach me,” “Oh geez, I don’t want to be responsible for my Sensei and his teacher looking bad in front of the head of our system,” “maybe I don’t deserve to be at the rank I am,” “what’s that mean about the part of me that IS karate-do?”

Self-confidence and self-worth are now under full-fledged attack.  So the student, in an attempt to restore balance to the world, thinks “okay, karate begins and ends with respect.  If nothing else, I can be sure that I do what I am told to do, when I am told to do it, and how I am told to do it.”  About this point, the group of 80 or so need to split into two smaller groups as the whole floor would be needed by each group.  Half those in the room were told by our Sensei’s teacher to stand against the wall while he organized the first group.  Apparently some miscommunication occurred as one of the other high ranking expert teachers began to organize the second group.  Well, our Sensei’s teacher turned around to find the space he intended to use for the first group filled by the second group.  The second group then received a reminder of the original directive.

“Well poop,” the student thought [Okay, that isn’t exactly the term that was used, but we do have a responsibility to our young readers].  The student now perceived complete failure was imminent.  The one thing that the student believed really should be under his/her control, proper protocol/behavior, an expectation for competence that rises above all others, apparently just was not going to happen either.  The student felt that not only did he/she fail to do what, when, and how something was ordered, the failure was regarding something ordered by his/her Sensei’s teacher.  [Please reference two paragraphs up from this one.]

At this point in the blog, I’d be curious to know how many of the Maine students think this blog is about them.   I think people generally know that I write about real events with real students.  I know of at least two who have had similar, if not exactly these feelings this weekend.  Well, to those horrified souls who think I am about to out them, you need not worry.

The student in question in the present story is me.

By the end of Friday morning, I felt like I had even less knowledge than a brand new student, a white belt.  I don’t even know what lower than a white belt would be.  It’s not a black belt obviously.  Maybe a black hole instead of black.  Yeah, that’s it.  I felt like a black hole belt, complete with a big old suck (ie, the metaphorical byproduct of the black hole belt gravity.)

We’re almost to the point, I promise.  Before we get there though, the reader needs to understand one more thing.  About 6 years ago, I had been a student of Sensei Steve Apsega during a very difficult time in my life (I know, boo hoo.  Cry me a river, build a bridge, and get over it Shawn).  That story will probably be a blog post in a few years.  At any rate, the important part for now is that amidst a bunch of yuckiness in my life, our dojo had been my safe haven.  Unfortunately, a series of events unfolded across a summer month that destroyed that safe haven for me.  I felt angry, alone, and abandoned.  Instead of working to preserve one of only two things in my life I felt were positive, I pushed away the dojo and those in it and left in a highly disrespectful fashion.

In the immortal words of Hermione Granger in the first of the Harry Potter films, “what an idiot!”  Why would you push away one of only two good things in your life at that point?  Exactly my point.  Think of the amount of internal chaos that must have been present to cause such an irrational choice.

Back to present day.  My morning workout then ended as I got struck mildly to  moderately hard during a training exercise in an area that it really does not take much of an impact to cause paralysis or even death.  It was an accident, one that I have made with others to different areas.  The strike caused immediate dizziness and was compounded by the fact that I had had a serious injury to the protective portion of this area years prior.  I left the training floor to shake off the physical, but I could not shake the mental.  I felt exactly the same emotions I had when I left the dojo before.

It scared me.

Enter my amazing wife, who this Tuesday will have stood by me in marriage for 19 years, and my awesome son, a second degree black belt in our system.  It was lunch break and they sat in the car with me as I expressed a desire to just go home.

A curious thing happened.

Kyle, one of my fellow brown belts, was on his way to his truck to go for lunch.  When he noticed our car, he paused, took a few steps towards us, and mouthed, “are you okay?”  I gave him a half-hearted thumbs up.  One of our dojo’s instructors, Sempai Tommy, and his wife and fellow student, Leah, then climbed into their car which just happened to be parked beside us.  Sempai Tommy kind of looked at me sideways and asked if I was okay.  I gave him the same half-hearted thumbs up.  He correctly sensed to just leave it at that at that point.

As we ate, I talked with my son about his experiences that morning, both good and less good, only to learn how he deals with similar frustrations when he feels discouraged.  My wife gently pointed out that I could go home if I was physically hurt, but otherwise I had to go back inside and confront what is clearly a reccuring theme in my life of shut out the good to deal with the bad.  She, of course, was right … as usual.  I hate that.

Just then Sempai Tommy and Leah arrived back from lunch and stood outside in the hot sun for 15 minutes while I told my story.  Sempai Tommy related how he had come back from his very first training camp a few years back feeling like a white belt due to the wealth of knowledge he experienced at the seminar.

I decided to head back inside and ran smack dab into my friend and fellow student, Vic.  I plopped down in the chair next to him to talk about how overloaded we felt with all kinds of new and sometimes conflicting information from the training.

I pause and look up from my conversation, and there is Sempai Kristi, a second degree black belt from the Orland Shorin Ryu Dojo, sitting across from me.  Sempai Kristi was scribbling notes about corrections presented at the morning’s training.  She is a hard worker and an exceptionally talented karateka.  She reminded me that you take the gifts given to you in the form of corrections back to your Sensei for sorting and clarification.   Oh, you mean like what you do with a TEACHER. We talked about Sempai Kristi’s experiences at prior camps at length.  By the time we were done, the intense negative feelings that had invaded my morning were completely gone.

Son of a bit …. Uh, I mean golly.  I had come full circle but with a different ending.  I dared to lean on those who share my passion, and they all came through for me big time.

The graphic at the top of the page is the training camp graphic I designed.  It displays the Okinawan Sun with a shape of Maine carved out of the middle.  The kanji in the middle reads “kizuna,” which means bond, as in family bond.  The design is meant to reflect the bond of friendship and respect between Maine, Okinawa and the rest of the OSMKKF that exists because of, and is held together by, the Kise family’s karate-do.

The message of the day, then, is if you feel discouraged, confused, or conflicted while learning amazing things from amazing teachers like those from this weekend, dare to be vulnerable with the senior kyu students and black belts.  I think you’ll find you are not alone.  I know you’ll find support.  After all, we do it for each other as well … like a family.


You would think that I would be smart enough to have taken a dose of my own medicine.  Again, as Hermione pointed out, “what an idiot.”

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