Monday, March 21, 2011

On Being a Black Belt - part 1

In January of 1979 I was tested and approved my Lewis Sensei’s IKC for my Sho Dan in Isshinryu. But I wasn’t aware I was in the end time of my training. In April Murray Sensei returned to the US Air Force for his career and from that point I was on my own.

Those last few months he was pushing the remainder of the Isshinryu kobudo kata into me, though at the time I didn’t know what was to happen and the pace was consistent with the previous training I had received from him. I simply thought he just wanted me to have them for a training partner. In stead by his last day he concluded my formal Isshinryu education.

From that time I was on my own and began to discover what being a black belt was about. I was never again to have Isshinryu instructors to train with.

I was still a member of Mr. Lewis’ IKC, I traveled the 6 hours to Salisbury to train as frequently as possible, and most times was able to train with Reese Rigby Sensei in Dover, Delaware too. But the training did not really cover instruction as just workouts.

I was responsible for my own training program. I was responsible for the direction of my Isshinryu development. I was also left with a few karate students from Murray Sensei’s Church and needed to find a way to continue their training.

I had already experienced leaving Isshinryu for when I moved to Scranton 3 years before I only had the choice of training in Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan. I knew I wanted to remain in Isshinryu and thought the best way to do so was to find a way to share a youth karate program. I approached the Scranton Boys Club and received approval to teach there. I also had a second answer. I began competing in regional karate competition on a regular basis, and through those tournaments met other schools which extended invitations to train. Having the time available I then ran my Boys Club program, trained with friends in diverse arts or trained by myself at the YMCA where my wife worked and competed at open tournaments as frequently as possible.

Very quickly I was in a 6 day routine of teaching and training that would continue for the next 6 years.

Foremost was developing myself as an instructor. Moving from Brown Belt to Black Belt did not make me a qualified instructor. It was my wife’s background as a physical education teacher that provided me guidance on how to adapt to young students needs. At that time there were few youth programs so I was on the forefront of training the young. After a few years teaching as well as competing I felt there was a need to provide a competition venue for the young where they would not be over shadowed by adult competitors, so for three years I ran a youth only karate tournament for a flat $5.00 competition fee and we drew about 150 competitors from Eastern Pennsylvania for the day.

I’m very grateful for the many instructors who made their schools open for me to train. I never did so to learn a new system, instead I was looking for a hard sweat and adults to spar with. However what I discovered was sparring was rarely done in the schools I visited, and whatever drills or kata being taught were an opportunity to push myself into new studies. In turn I worked on them alongside my Isshinryu.

Primarily my Chinese studies in Tai Chi and Northern Chinese systems with Rothrock Laoshi strengthened my lower body and helped me work on a softer flow to my movement. My studies with Sutrisno Sensei developed a larger range of wazza studies in Aikido, Shotokan and Tjimande covering locks, takedowns and projections alongside percussive striking in a different range than Isshinryu. I had occasion to expand on the Bando staff shared by Murray Sensei at a Bando summer camp where I was taught the Bando Short Stick. I was also studying weapons arts in multiple systems. The end result was a lot of material I had to work to retain till I was in continual training.

Nothing however changed my focus from Isshinryu, I saw all of that training as subsidiary exercise for my development. The range of those studies, however, shared a general understanding of a great deal of what other martial studies did include.

The Black Belt as Researcher 1 – Studies on how to train the Young

Along with those studies I was reading whatever martial material was becoming available in books and magazines. In those days that was about it. There were very view movies on training available, though I could see that coming. Because the lack of supporting study material or others to train with in Isshinryu, I was forced to continually keep working on my Isshinryu studies to be sure I retained them as much as to improve my skill.

Isshinryu as I was taught was the study of kihon, kata and kumite as in open tournament fighting. My initial youth program was based on the same studies I had learned, but as I began to understand how to progressively train the young, alongside with my other studies I began to question how to prepare them more strongly. At that time I was unaware of anyone in Isshinryu exclusively training the young and had no one to turn to for advice, so I followed my instincts and slowly worked at it over 5 years.

I observed a range of different methodologies used by other systems for their beginners. I came to feel the straight Isshinryu system could be developed a little differently for the young and slowly I tried some other beginner kata modified to Isshinryu technique to see how the students would adapt to those drills. My basic premise was not to change Isshinryu to develop a new training curricula with some other kata to prepare them for the Isshinryu studies more soundly.

My original studies did not include a ‘loyalty test of study methods’ for ‘correct Isshinryu’. My instructors only used one test, the Sho Dan examination, a practice I still follow to this day. My logic was then the only test that their Isshinryu had to be ‘correct’ for was a students Sho-dan examination, and if I added additional training exercises to prepare them in solid Isshinryu technique I wasn’t changing the system, just using a different beginner methodology.

I eventually worked out that beginning students with an Isshinryu version of the Matsubayshi-ryu Fuguyata-Sho (to be called Kata Sho) and then an Isshinryu version of the Shimabuku-Ezio Annaku would provide shorter building steps towards the study of Seisan kata.

Likewise I felt as Seisan and Seiunchin Kata (Isshinryu’s 1 and 2) are rather long, it might be useful to teach a shorter kata between them and that Goju-ryu Saifa fit the bill. Saifa is frequently taught before Seiunchin in different Goju schools. I was not changing the technique from the version I studied, with Ed Savage, but keeping the original Goju version to give my students a taste of what others school studied.

On occasion my students also studied Shotokan takiyoku Sho-dan and Heian Sho-dan to be familiar with how other systems practiced their technique to contrast against Isshinryu’s methodology. I felt if my students could at least perform beginning kata from various systems they would not be awed with those systems if they faced them.

But during this research I did not change the current student curricula. I couldn’t simply resolve what those changes would do with the current’s studies understanding of their own development. At that time the extra kata drills were just experiences. My students did them well.

In additional to working towards a new methodology for training young beginners I had learned so much from my friends, much more than anyone could retain, I wanted my students to have a small link to those instructors arts and began to consider how I might include a study in Shotokan, Chinese Arts and Bando weapons into my program, not to replace Isshinryu but as personal challenges to expand my students understandings of how others work, and to honor those who shared with me.

The Black Belt as Researcher 2 – Studies on how to apply Isshinryu

The Isshinryu that had been shared with me did not include the study of kata technique for the most part.

I should note that my instructors was teaching the way they studied in 1959 and in 1972 at Shimabuku Senseis’ dojo in Agena, Okinawa. Their teachings were based on the way they studied and nothing was being ‘hidden’. [Note: It is evident that many Isshinryu seniors came away from Okinawa with differences in their studies too.]

After my sho-dan, reading the martial magazines, I realized every interview with a senior Okinawan instructor always showed illustrations of how several kata technique could be applied. A year or two later in the early 80’s a new term began to be used in those articles. That term was ‘bunkai’.

That gave me pause and somehow I began to try and work out an understanding how technique applications could be generalized. Almost all of the schools I trained with in Pennsylvania practiced various formal applied technique studies but they were not directly attributed to kata, most often the generic term wazza was being utilized. So when shown I worked to remember and understand those studies one at a time.

I began to realize each of those classes might be one time events and started keeping notes from those classes.

At the same time my training with Rothrock Laoshi progressed and our friendship began to develop. In addition he would ask me leading questions about how Isshinryu worked. Questions today I realize he could have explained very well, but instead he made me work and question myself.

Eventually I worked out a number of underlying principles of technique application I find true to this day. But teaching youth I wasn’t able to begin the technique studies I required for myself.

About 82 I began training with a friend, Sutrisno Sensei and from the first class I heard ‘bunkai’ being used and taught in connection with kata studies. Uncountable studies in Kata ‘bunkai’, Aikido drills and Tjimande studies and technique applications. It would be many, many years before I began to understand his family approach to ‘bunkai’ was singularly unique from how others used the term. Instead of the application of a kata technique or section, it was using a movement point on a kata as the opening for a series of technique applications covering all of his arts. Hundreds or Thousands of them, all Dan studies taught in a strict sequence. All of them unknowable by observing the kata. An extremely private study to their art.

The short answer is that all the studies mentioned, and many others showed me how movement could be used, applied to striking, locking, projecting and takedowns. All of which bolstered my underlying principles how technique might be used.

1985 Moving to New Hampshire

The necessity of moving to New Hampshire for work was of course bitter sweet. I had to close down my program in Scranton and leave those students behind. A very difficult event. On the other hand I was able to begin a new program at the Boys and Girls Club in Greater Derry, almost immediately. Having new students I choose to use the new curricula I had been working on and my new Kyu training program became my new standard.

I also discovered a few adults who wished to train with me, and now had adults to prepare for additional training studies.

The Black Belt as Researcher 3 – How to develop an instructor

Now living in NH, working at a new job and teaching 3 days a week, I no longer had the availability of my friends dojos to train at. My commute and work responsibilities no longer gave me unlimited time to train either, so I began a different level of study. In fact I suffered extreme arthritis attacks and for a few years my own training took a great step backwards. I had to make choices between all of my previous studies, which ones I could fit into my training schedule.

Over the years I had read about the JKA International Instructors program in Japan to develop the instructors they were sending around the world, especially that they were the only individuals qualified to promote within the JKA. The details were sparse but the idea gave me inspiration into considering how to develop an instructor. I realized I was teaching too early without the qualifications I felt should be developed. I began to consider how to develop them and to prepare a training program.

I recognized any number of issues.

1. Karate was too new in the States, most instructors were in the same category as I was, they began teaching to be able to continue training. In this I realized I had a lot in common with the original instructors in Isshinryu. I didn’t have to establish the knowledge that karate existed, but in my areas I was as alone as they were and had to work it out myself, how my program should grow.

2. There was a paucity of material available for instructor development. Both in Isshinryu and assorted material on all of the arts an instructor should have, work on anatomy and physiology, first aid and innumerable other subjects to build the knowledgeable instructor.

I reflected on my own experiences and began to work out an instructor development template. Among my postulates:

  1. I felt the first 15 years of training should be focused on developing the individuals understanding of the art. It seemed to me that teaching before that time was taking energy away from the black belt’s first goal, increasing their art.
  2. I felt the instructors I developed should be on the same page as myself as to how our technique should develop. Not let that be an experiment for each instructor to answer. This would require an apprentice ship in developing a class from beginning through black belt testing.
  3. I separated standing in front of a class making everyone train at the same time from understanding how different people have different teaching needs, how experience at training white belts was different from training green belts and or brown belts. That the instructor must be able to do all of that simultaneously. That the instructor understands how errors creep into a student, and at what level and understand how to develop the student beyond those situations.
  4. The instructor must be experienced at the differences between new black belt instruction, between black belt instruction for those working on their own needs, between black belt instruction for those working on advanced black belt studies in karate and kobudo, between developing the black belt researcher, between developing instructors.
  5. Black belt instructor training materials must be developed.

I didn’t expect that program to completely do all of that, but I had a working premise on how I would develop the instructor.

I took this a step further and gathered together a wide range of materials to use for this purpose. The entire body of which filled a note book over 1” thick. A resource tool for the instructor. It really was quite an effort with my wife helping out using her own background studies. This was years before I needed it. I gave copies to my friends but unfortunately over the decades I’ve misplaced my own copies. I certainly have all of the source material, but the original effort remains hidden

To be continued..

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