Sysiphean Actions

This article could have started with a nod to the fact that no one ever said Karate was easy, in fact however, I have recently received an invitation to train in a local community hall with someone who had multiple senior grades and who professes that Karate is easy to learn and fun for all. Whilst I don’t disagree with the latter there was much about this flier that ‘worried me’. First of all said ‘Sensei’ was a 5th Dan and 6th Dan in two different styles. Seeing as he looked about 25 (as illustrated by his topless picture on the flier) I can’t help but be a wee bit cynical.

SisyphusHe was right on one point though, Karate is very easy to learn-isn’t it? On the face of things it would appear not, I don’t know how many beginners I have welcomed to try karate, follow the moves and ultimately ‘see how you get on’, sort of thing. Once the initial wrangling over left v’s right hand has been resolved the new student, if they stick it out, will then try and build on their skills towards the next grade or ultimately black belt. This must surely be a wonderful time of learning? So much to prove of oneself and so much to learn, it is a pity that I was quite young when going through this as I am sure I would have learned more had I been older. I see kyu grades pushing themselves all the time, you do kind of stick out if you have a colour belt on, there are kata patterns to learn, the search for kime is never ending and the physicalities of say kicking can be mind boggling for a stiff late starter. Arguably this is a good time in ones karate career.

Then, if it all goes well, you get a black belt. Disaster. What do you do now? Aren’t you supposed to feel different, know more stuff? Sure, you are now treated differently by instructors, but there is an adherent danger also. For the first time gradings become massively more spaced out, identification of improvement milestones becomes a homogenous mix of technique, knowledge, attitude and for some teaching skills. Now, the grading syllabus is not about learning the next kata and getting through it without too many nerves it’s about depth and breath.

It is hard though to focus on these requirements because as a new black belt there is now access to a myriad of gasshukus, katas and instructors. I was recently reminded of the significance of this when I met someone at a gasshuku in the UK who commented that they didn’t enjoy the course because they didn’t quite ‘get’ what the instructor was teaching but ‘at least they got his signature on their gradebook’, and more shockingly added that this was another one off the list of destination instructors that this karateka wished to train. More worryingly though, this was a comment that was made by someone who professes to have trained for twenty plus years and who will often push themselves to the top of a given senior grade line up.

Not saying that everyone should ‘get’ everything that an instructor puts out there, but there is a level of competency that you would expect after a long period of training. A depth, but depth comes with continuous exposure to a specific skillset and a honing of those skills. In karate we look for something different, probably a bit like learning music. You wouldn’t expect to hear concert level piano-ship from someone who only played twice a week, in the same way you wouldn’t expect someone who practiced diligently daily to sound the same way as our twice weekly player. It is exactly the same with karate, however there are many more people who position themselves as a concert pianist when in fact their experience is significantly lacking, not because of any reason other than the fact that there is a focus on knowing the next kata, the next technique rather than spending time immersing themselves in the study.

Take two pinnacle katas, Unsu and Superenpi, stalwarts of their styles, I cannot remember how many people have told me they wanted to learn these katas, however I have only met one person who has invested the time in Unsu for example, to be able to perform it to a high degree. This wasn’t for competition either, it was just because this person wanted to be able to perform the kata well and to understand it. It became a running joke, every time we met he would be working on some aspect of the kata, the big movements, the small movements and every time he taught the class we were destined to be heading towards the ground at high speed practicing ‘the jump’. Years later at as seminar with many, many competition karateka who were kata specialists I remember a very famous owner of a superb version of Unsu stop the class (we were working on Unsu also) and get my friend who was now into his 50′s to come forward and demonstrate part of the kata. Why, cause he got it. His kata would not have won any WKF competitions, because it was much more than that. It was the result of years of dedication, of training, of examination of technique, of bunkai, of research and of simple sweat.

We are, after all involved in a Sysiphean activity.

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