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What Karate Has Done For Me

Master Richard Leasure

It was over twenty-two years ago when I first entered a martial arts studio. I was thirteen years old and had a lot to learn about the people around me, and about myself. Little did I know that I was starting a journey that would be a major focus of my life for the rest of my days.

It was just amazing standing there looking at the other students. Everyone was wearing sharp white uniforms with different colored belts tied around their waist. My belt was white because I was at the beginning of my training. Immediately, I began to get the sense that things were different here than in the other places that I had been. It was here that I first began to really learn about the concepts of dedication and accomplishment. These ideals have shaped the character of the old man that I have become.

The first thing that I came to understand was that karate is hard work. “Physical Discipline Builds Character,” that is the motto at my Dojo (training studio). Often, I would find myself on the floor trying to perform push-up after push-up and wondering why I ever agreed to put myself into this position in the first place. My Sensei, (Instructor) would often say, students need to learn to recognize discomfort and look to the goals they are reaching for. Eventually, the effort seemed to be paying off. I had reached the point of physical strength to make the class the routines seem almost easy.

In each class there are three goals for the day. The first is to continue developing physical strength. Strength training is designed to follow a progressive pattern that promotes muscular and cardiovascular conditioning. After we bow to the Instructor and the highest-ranking student present for the class, we usually begin with a total body stretching routine. I like to start with the neck and work my way downward. Once all of our muscles are warmed up we begin the strength exercises. It is important to stretch first. This increases blood flow to the muscles and reduces the risk of injury. For strength training I like to work the biggest muscles first. Generally, I begin with deep knee bends then proceed to push-ups and then sit-ups / leg lifts. This helps prepare the body for the next step in physical training: the basics.

Martial arts a basic are the blocks, strikes, and kicks that when combined create self-defense applications. An accomplished Instructor will take the students through a series of basics that represents several levels of training. Kicks and strikes that are learned from white belt up to blue belt are commonly practiced in each class. Here students who have advanced beyond this level of training get a good review. Also, students who have not reached this level have an opportunity to preview what is to come. Half an hour or more of each class is often devoted to training in basics. By the end of this section we all begin to feel the effects of the strength training that we had started our class with. Our muscles are tired and we have to reach deep inside ourselves to tap into the dedication that will motivate us to finish the routine.

The third division of the classroom time is often devoted to practical self-defense applications. Here the Instructor shows the students how to use the basics that they just practiced in a realistic application. The emphasis is on strategy effectiveness. An effective strategy is one where the student is exposed to the least personal risk and has a fair chance to avoid serious injury.

Another way to develop our self-defense is to practice sparring situations. We will select a partner and face off in the ring (usually a taped square on the floor) and attempt to score points against each other. A point is scored when you strike or kick your opponent in a designated safe area. Our goal is not to cause each other pain of injury, but rather to learn to hit a moving target that knows how to block and avoid our advances. It is often fun to try to think of new ways to gain advantage over your “opponent”. At this point tired muscles are having a negative effect on your thought processes. You are in a position where strategy and quick reflexes are what prevents you from being injured or hurting your opponent. Mental concentration and physical discipline are all that carry you through this portion of the class.

Although you don’t really notice it at first, the techniques learned even from the first class will develop into a system of practical self-defense applications. I remember training in class many times and doing what I thought were innovative and quite impressive combinations only to realize later that it was merely an extension of the drills performed in class a few months ago. At first, this new understanding deflated me a bit. Then, I realized that it meant that I was learning how to apply the knowledge that the Sensei (instructor) had shared.

The underlying premise of each class is to train through any difficulty in an effort to attain mastery. Mastery of the martial arts takes many years to reach, but is a major focus in each class. Each time we add something to our knowledge or ability we move a little closer toward mastery. Training for mastery can be as complicated as learning a complex series of techniques called Kata or a simple as doing one additional push up that was beyond our ability just a short time ago.

In my martial arts system the Instructor takes us through a series of techniques that are designed to build on the techniques learned before. After a specified number of basics and Kata are learned to a recognizable level of skill, our Instructor invites us to take a rank exam. There are nine exams required to reach the black belt. The levels are: white, yellow, blue, green, purple, advanced purple, brown, intermediate brown, advanced brown, and finally the black belt.

The exams are hard, but that is the point. Each belt I earn in karate is a trophy to me. It represents the hard work and dedication that is required to succeed.  I know that every time I take a rank examination that I am making the statement that I have accomplished something important and I am proud of myself. I have to admit, there is a great sense of relief when the Sensei comes to you and announces that you have passed the test.

Now I am in a position to teach the arts to others. It is a fine privilege to share the knowledge that I have accumulated over the years with my students. I have learned as much from my students as I have from my Instructors. Each time I help a struggling student overcome a personal limitations I learn more about the desire within myself to never give up the attempt to grow stronger.

Training at a martial arts school also gave me the chance to test my abilities against the skills of others. We often went to trips to other schools and joined in with them to learn and share our abilities. The friendships that I formed with other students are still strong today. The ties one develops through mutual hardship are not easily broken. It is always nice to see again the people who have helped support my advancements through the ranks. Many of us are Instructors today. We have the added privilege of helping each other’s students succeed in much the same way we helped each other years ago.

I have reached many of my personal goals in the martial arts. Currently, I hold Black Belt Master Ranks in five different styles. Additionally, I hold advanced Black Belt Instructor ranks in several others. It has been my privilege to train with and teach some of the finest individuals in the arts from all over the country.

I have gained some international recognition for my martial arts practices. My black belt ranks are recognized in the worlds finest martial arts associations. Additionally, I have been named the Master Instructor of the year and the most distinguished Master by the International Martial Arts Association. Also, my own martial arts business, The American Martial Arts Organization has been named the Organization of the year and received the pinnacle of success award. I am honored to have achieved these awards because they symbolize the hard work and dedication that I have applied to my training.

The greatest advantage that I gained from the martial arts is the ability to carry the concepts of the training into every day life. Being a student in the classroom requires much the same discipline as being in the martial arts studio. However, while I am not expecting to block an attack from my professors, I do need to concentrate on the material being discussed for further reference. Also, I have noticed that the lessons learned even from the first day are structured so that I can build my knowledge base. I may not understand the value of the lesson learned today, but someday I will.

Life is hard. I have learned that I am expected to do difficult things every day. I am fortunate to have had the training in a difficult activity that brings confidence and respect for challenge. Each time I face a new obstacle I know that I have done harder things in the past. I have every reason to believe that I can get through the hardships of today and then have a greater appreciation for the pleasures of tomorrow.

I have learned a lot in the past twenty-two years. I still expect to learn more in the next one hundred. I do know that the experiences that I have so far will be the basis for my continuing success. I have the confidence to try new things because I have already reached amazing goals so far. Also, I define confidence as not only the unshakable belief in my ability to succeed, but also in my having the courage to fail.

Through the arts I have developed a sense of belonging in my life. I was not always the one who fit it with the crowds. However, in the Dojo, anyone wearing that uniform was automatically respected as a fellow student. Practice and dedication soon had people coming to me for advice and help. I had an opportunity to earn a position of respect that I was unable to find in the outside world.

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