the shifting earth

transition from 4th kyu to 1st dan - a personal view of the brown belts

in the beginning

the initial, and easily the dominant, part of my karate training took place in manchester and salford; i was very fortunate in that the karate club i arbitrarily joined - the one that happened to be at the university - happened to be of exceptional quality, and under sensei garry harford i went from white belt to second dan. i won't say easily, that would be wrong, but i progressed with confidence in the training i did and the instruction i received, always certain i would pass the next grade. looking back, i now realise i took the standard of the training a little for granted. the manchester university club, at the high end but not totally atypical of its type, was heavily focused on competition karate, and had an impressive history for both kata and kumite. training alongside international competitors on a weekly basis, as well as getting piercing instruction from garry directly, meant that techniques were sharp, strong, and accurate. we worked very hard, were glad to do so, had a great time. i would recommend dropping by if you ever have the chance.

and if you have time on your hypothetical visit to manchester and salford, do check out the central library, the fab cafe, the science museum, and spend some time in the northern quarter. and, if you have time, head out to the lowry.

the lowry, a gallery and theatre building, is named after the artist most commonly associated with the area, l.s. lowry. you might know his work, even if you don't think you do. the kinks wrote a song about his work, and you might even know that. the lowry gallery has an impressive collection of lowry's work, unsurprisingly, but also hosts lots of other things that might draw your interest. it's a neat building, to boot; check it out if you can.

i'll happily confess i knew nothing of lowry's biography before i went there to see an exhibition of his work, shortly after the gallery opened; i had seen some pictures, and i knew my mum liked him, but that was about it. and i don't really remember much now, but i did learn something that i hope will be relevant to this article, when i (finally) come back to the subject of karate.

origins of a master

l.s. lowry went to art school. specifically, manchester art school, and then salford royal technical college, but he went to art school and learned to draw. and learned to draw very, very well. in the exhibition at the gallery, along with a lot of his 'actual' works, there were a lot of his drawings and doodles from his days at art school. notebooks and assignments, and the like. not 'his' works in the way we normally consider, but his work nonetheless. and it was fascinating! and completely unrecognisable in terms of the style he would later become so famous for, the instantly recognisable 'matchstick men'. his early work consisted of drills, learning exercises, all to gain the skills that he might later confidently be able to give expression to his own vision. these sketches and notebooks prove, beyond any shadow of a doubt (lest anyone have one), that he was perfectly able to draw realistic figures (consider for example the self-portrait, below). in his work, he deliberately chose to abandon realism. but he could do it all.

in discussing the progression of a karate student into the ranks of black belts, or what might elsewhere be described as 'capable' or 'proficient' status, there is a list of prescribed techniques, kata, and so forth which are required knowledge. alongside these specific techniques, though, there needs to be an appreciation of the distinct processes that advance the student. it appears to me that there are a variety of processes involved that develop alongside each other, at different speeds for each student depending on their instructor but also their character. these are less easy to pin down in a formal syllabus, but the expectation would be that they derive from the set of techniques and formal exercises that constitute progression through the ranks. examples of such processes might be:

gaining of confidence
development of balance
development of spatial awareness
ability to overcome social cues regarding physical proximity
ability to 'switch on' aggression
increase in efficiency of movement
freedom to react without first processing
ability to find a target instinctively
familiarity with shock of being hit/hurt
recognising and dealing with effects of adrenaline
matching of distance with a moving opponent

and so forth. some of this list, it is obvious, simply take time to master. if you train long enough, you will eventually become familiar with the sensation of being hit, and it will no longer cause you to freeze. the same applies to the proportionately smaller amount of times you will actually be hurt; there is no need to 'practice' being hurt per se, because that would be stupid, but from time to time you will take an unintended knock and that can be useful experience. being at least passingly familiar with being hit will let you have a context for the next time you get hit, and you may be able to recover faster and continue fighting. given the comparatively low expectation of fighting in our lives, this aspect need not be drilled explicitly the way it might for someone preparing for a cage match.

some of the list simply require continued practice; once familiar with balancing exercises, not much input from an instructor is needed. spatial awareness can be worked on alone if needs be, using walls, furniture, tennis balls on strings, etc. reaction training realistically needs a partner to train with.

some of the list, it should also be apparent, need explicit guidance, particularly in the more technical aspects such as efficiency of technique locus and recognising targets and opportunities. the role of the instructor here, to recognise and feed back ways to improve (it is much easier to see these from an outside perspective), is crucial.

the rate of development of all of these different parts of proficiency will vary depending on your personality, your instructor, and your clubmates. some clubs might sacrifice attention to technique for maximising martial attitude, and some might favour the other way, and some compromise both to make money (stay away from these!). in an ideal case, not only will your club closely match the balance you prefer, but will also push you in the areas you naturally lack or normally shy away from, in a manner and timescale that you can deal with. the goal in the longer term is to improve, push your boundaries, and become proficient at all aspects of karate. this is precisely the preparation that occurs from 3rd kyu to 1st dan and beyond; it is the brown belt transition from novice to senior.

the attainment of shodan is impossible to ignore as a milestone in karate training; what precisely this achievement means in an objective sense is open for debate, but there is some sort of consensus that it is representative of both skill and experience (in some suitable combination). over time, i have personally come to think of it as graduating art school.

the beginnings of mastery

when you begin in karate, everything seems (rightly) awkward and strange, and there is a seemingly unending list of detailed instructions when completing the simplest of tasks - stepping forward suddenly requires a total reworking, for example. the reasons for all of the specific instructions are not often explained in full detail, and certainly through the first couple of kyu grades there is an amount of faith required in following along without necessarily understanding. lengthy explanations in karate lessons aren't much fun, and can seem like a waste of your money. over time, principles will be explained and demonstrated, ideas repeated and expanded on, and things begin to make more sense (it turns out there is a reason for stepping that way!), but often the surest way to understanding is repetition and having the real feedback of applying techniques to a training partner. as a novice grade, the key to success is drill; continual repetition of simple techniques in order to internalise their application, deliberately connecting techniques to targets and situations. drill, drill, drill. satisfy the examiners that you possess the basic building blocks. this can be considered the equivalent, through repetitious technical exercises, of learning to draw.

by the time you have gained 3rd kyu, lengthy combinations show how individual techniques can be used together for greater effect, and you have to some degree served your time in the basic stances and hard linear directions. blocks and attacks are familiar, and drilled responses begin to allow reflexive distancing and targeting. from prescribed kumite consisting of set counters, at black belt level you are allowed to flow, to be creative. suddenly, the drills and exercises from earlier time served can be combined in your own way, to create novel, adaptive, and individual expressions of key ideas (don't get hit, improve your position, worsen their position, take initiative, open-ended targeting, and so on). from shodan into higher dan ranks you are now encouraged to flow, to be creative, to develop your own answers to problems, to understand your own limitations and begin to create and nurture your own, personal style. the brown belt transition is the preparation for the addition of choice to the assumption of technical ability and contextual experience; beyond simple drill, this is the process of becoming an artist in your own right.

the brown belt transition, which begins in but certainly is not limited to the brown belts, is the beginning of the process of mapping all your training onto how you are as an individual. but of course, the choices you make as to how you prefer to interact and fight are only relevant if your choices are made from a suitably complete range; in order to pass shodan, you are demonstrating a baseline capability in all of the aspects present in shotokan karate training as well as a personal dimension that reflects your understanding. and once you trade the brown belt for black, this process continues to the extent that different yudansha will often have entirely different responses to the same stimulus. advanced training then becomes a mixture of continued development of basic and fundamental technique, but also a creative exploration; as a dan grade, you begin to feed back into the system with your opinion, sometimes formally as an instructor but also simply by your presence, and you inevitably bring outside experience (from other instructors, martial arts, sports, etc) to refresh, further develop, and specialise your own karate.

there is an excellent video (the link below is currently active; if not, try searching for 'JKA shotokan all heian kata' or similar) of a group of JKA karateka, all high-ranking and all instructors, performing the heian kata together; the difference in style between different people performing notionally the same kata is both obvious and fascinating, and it makes no sense to say any or either is doing it 'wrong', in the same way that it might be reasonable to use that description for a novice grade. if your skill and adaptability is already established, then how you choose to do your karate becomes the definition of karate, because 'karate' does not exist outside of the people doing it and is thus entirely defined by the sum of those people. and though you would still seek instruction in order to improve what you do, it is now your karate, and it is what your training has been moving towards the whole time. even if it didn't become apparent until most of the way through the brown belt transition.

video of individual heian style

- neil jerome, 2014

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