On Friday 17th February I was awarded my 6th Dan in Karate from Steve Rowe Sensei/Sifu 9th Dan, head of Shi Kon Martial Arts. Quite a few people have asked me what is involved in a Black Belt grading involved and whether it was simply a time served promotion. The following is a précis of my experience.
Those of you who know Steve well will know that every class, lesson or seminar with him he is testing your understanding and also your techniques, so a Black Belt examination with him can and often is a long involved process. He will leave you in no doubt about how you are progressing and what you need to work on. Some teachers will often tell you how awesome your are, at every class, this is most definitely not Steve’s way
The formal start of my Black Belt grading project for me was in December 2015 and agreeing some targets to be measured against with Steve. This sorted, my wife Lindsey Andrews kindly interjected and said words to the effect that it needed to be more challenging in some areas. So version 2 was born. (Note to self, must stop Lindsey and Steve talking about me.)
Karate Kata, Kung Fu and Tai Chi forms
I had a number of these that we chose in order to show competence on some particular technical points or principles inherent in that Kata or Form.
In terms of Karate Kata, the Shito Ryu ones selected from me were Suparinpei, Chatan Yara Kushanku, Kosukan Dai and Anan. The Shotokan ones were Gojushiho Dai, Sochin and Tekki Shodan. With the exception of Tekki Shodan, these are all Black belt gradings kata. Some of these Kata were ‘ticked’ off earlier during the year so I could put them to one side and others, notably Suparinpei and Chatan Yara Kushanku I continued to work on throughout the whole of the period and in fact I’ve still been working on improving these two today. I have to say that this doesn’t mean that I think I know these Kata yet, merely that for the sake of my improving some technical deficiency or skill, I worked on these Kata and when we thought I was showing reasonable competence, I moved on. Clearly as a teacher I need to know a number of Kata to be able to competently teach them, however for my personal training, I generally work on no more than 4 at a time and try to look in depth. To give you an idea I worked on Tekki Shodan for about 25 years as my favourite Kata playing lots with the Kata and how I performed it and still know there’s m0re to learn. I was given Kata from two different styles as each style performs their Kata with slightly different nuances in terms of power generation, timing, and stances.
Moving onto the Shi Kon system, I was looking at all the forms we practice from both a practical physical aspect and as a teacher working on understanding at what level of training do students begin to grasp the concept of internal principles and how to better develop students with this skill. When is it appropriate to anticipate a student being able to demonstrate that they are utilising these principles in their training and how would you expect them to demonstrate this. Finally where is the significant switch from hard to soft training in our Karate/Kung Fu systems. The beauty of the Forms is that as senior instructors we are encouraged to make them our own, so different clubs will have some idiosyncrasies of their own because of the thinking of their chief instructor, it goes without saying that we have to test and validate the forms.
I’ve been working for many years with Steve on our Yang family Tai Chi syllabus. So it wasn’t a surprise that I had the challenge of being able to apply the core techniques, dynamics and harmonies to each of the forms including The Tai Ki Form, Grasp Sparrows Tail, The Long Form, Long Boxing, 2 Person Form, Broadsword, Double Edge Sword and the Spear. Not forgetting also being able to apply these skills to partnerwork. Although a very different art to Karate, there are many similarities to explore and which have helped me to improve my Karate.
I also had a number of fitness and fighting targets courtesy of my wife to get ready for the WUKF World Championships in Dublin in Summer 2016. With a mixture of hard focussed training against the senior grades at our club, who really pushed me hard from January to June to iron out some areas I wasn’t happy with. Plus advice and feedback pre Dublin and during the matches themselves from Sensei Tricia Jordan The Shi Kon Head Coach in Dublin.
I exceeded my expectations and targets and after a very tough evening of fights starting at 8:20pm and finishing at 11:45pm I won a Gold Medal in the Veterans Kumite. (We had other members of the Shi Kon Martial Arts squad who also Won Gold medals in their respective divisions.)
I was really pleased with my performance, but was more proud of the fact that we, as an association were able to showcase Karate as an inclusive activity for all as part of the opening ceremony.
As an Association coach I also had a number of coaching targets, including looking at what are the best in class practices for Martial Arts Clubs/Associations in a number of different areas, Sport England Clubmark recertification, charity and community work, coaching at seminars and in clubs, mentoring clubs and coaches and improving value to our members.
Other areas being tested
Like the other Black Belt candidates at our club in Basingstoke, I had a number of other topics to work through which needed to be signed off. Like everyone else with each of these areas, I was challenged to test my beliefs, views and actions in each of these.
These areas included:-
- a monthly review of skills and areas to focus upon
- a food diary for at least a month to review nutritional needs
- a training diary for at least a month
- reviews of progress against targets
- the application of my learning to members
- progress of 2016 potential Black Belt grading candidates
In essence my grading was a mixture of physical techniques, a number of theory based areas around the physical skills which were demonstrable and repeatable along with coaching skills all tested and retested over a 16 month period. Additional training and testing from many members at our club in different areas and what seemed like endless private lessons with my wife who encouraged me to do better, I’m still trying. Private lessons most weeks with Steve to work on what he thought I needed to work on and lots of surprises saying “we worked on this x weeks / y months ago, show me. Monday 13th February a nice session with Lindsey looking at Kosukan Dai and being not so gently prompted to fix some issues in a couple of sequences. A wise teacher once told me, train everyone day and you will improve. I had a private lesson with Steve on Wednesday 15th February and he told me that we were going to work on the beginners Tai Chi form. The key thing from both was Fundamentals or Kihon is really the key to success.
This is what my Black Belt grading involved. Someone else’s grading with Steve will be slightly different as he will get that person to focus upon their own weaknesses and areas that need improvement and will challenge them accordingly.
I’m lucky really that I’ve had some very good teachers over the years who have all helped me to improve as a Martial Artist.
Whilst living in Torbay, Dave Owen Sensei helped to set a thirst for high quality Karate and consistently set high standards to follow and exceed. A superb and much under-rated Karate technician, thanks for setting me on the right path as a Yudansha.
Hirokazu Kanazawa Sensei who in my mid 20s introduced me to the concept of Tai Chi and soft Karate after I fought him at our dojo and lost convincingly. I stopped competition Karate immediately to focus upon this and 25 years later, I’m still trying. A defining time with him was the training involved for my 3rd Dan Black belt grading and the feedback he gave me upon becoming a Sandan about my new responsibilities as a teacher.
Tomiko Mitsuoka Sensei, who although many years older than most of her class, 9/10 times got into the line and trained with us and outdid us in terms of effort and performance. I remember turning up to a class once and only her and I were there, I asked her if she wanted to cancel the class and go home, I can’t remember her exact words, but it was to the extent of “stupid boy of course not.” Or the course she taught for a number of very senior Black belts, my phone line buzzed for 2 weeks with the complaints “that the training was too hard and we didn’t need to train like that anymore.”
Mitsusuke Harada Sensei from Karate-Do Shotokai although of slight stature a real Karate giant with some very impressive Karate, he and his senior students like Tony Lima Sensei helped me to understand Shotokan better and want to be able to block like Harada Sensei and punch like Tony Lima Sensei.
After 22 years of putting up with me, I’d like to Thank Steve Rowe, for his laughter, admonishments and encouragement to become the best Martial Artist I can be. Above all it is else his laughter at me and with me, that teaches me. I’m not there yet, but I’m still trying and I will get there. I knew I must be improving when part way through 2016 Steve told me that my Tai Chi almost looked like Tai Chi now, almost. The same is true of much of my Karate or Kung Fu that I practice with him.
I’ve been with my wife Lindsey for 25 years now, I first met her, when I was a Sandan (3rd Dan) teaching at a club in Marlow and she came in wanting to learn Karate. Now after all these years, the circle has turned and she teaches me now just as much as I teach her, as a 4 time world Kata champion, I still wish I perform my Kata like she does. Only one thing for it, train harder and smarter until I can do it. I need to bear in mind though, something Lindsey said “Keep dreaming Sunshine.”
As a final point – I needed to buy myself a new belt for the WUKF Competition in Dublin last year, so went back to Kamae who I’ve brought my previous two Black belts from and bought one with white embroidery on it, to remind me and the people I train with, that every single day that I still feel like a beginner and that’s a good thing. SHOSHIN!
Thanks again everyone, enjoy your training.