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Why Train?

Hours scheduled: 12
Hours Trained: 10

Yesterday someone sat down beside me while I was nursing my morning coffee and after the pleasantries had been exchanged she asked me a strange question. She knew I had been training karate for some years and wondered if I would be interested in coming with her to the court house as a bodyguard.

I hardly knew what to say. It was a surreal moment. The only thing I could do was explain that I didn’t think I would be able to provide her with whatever it was she was looking for, and perhaps, if she was frightened, contacting the police was a better option than a yojimbo.

For me, that incident really highlighted some of the fundamental misunderstandings about martial arts that are floating around out there. For example, take the question, “So when do you get your black belt?” which is something everyone who trains will be asked at least once.

There are two beliefs implicit in this statement that signal how little karate is understood by non-practitioners. The first is the when part, which implies everyone who attends karate will get a black belt as a matter of course. Everyone who trains or has tried to train knows how erroneous this assumption is. I have no idea what percentage of people take up training and drop it long before achieving shodan, but I’d hazard a guess that fewer than ten percent of people who ever train will make it even to their first dan rank. I suspect, in fact, that the real percentage is somewhere closer to five than ten.

The second assumption is a little less obvious. It’s buried in the unspoken part of the question, the suggestion that after a karate student reaches their shodan, they are done training. And in some ways this assumption makes sense. After all, when a university student finishes their degree, they tend to enter the workforce in their chosen field. They make money putting to use all the things they learned. Some go on to further their degrees, but these tend to do so with an eye to finding a better position and therefore making more money when they leave school. Karate isn’t like this. It doesn’t follow the standard schooling model. A black belt is not a degree.

So, if you aren’t likely to hire yourself out as an instructor or a bodyguard, and you never really finish training, what’s the point of karate?

Ask me that question and I’ll probably mouth like a fish for about ten minutes before I can come up with an answer. It’s a great question, and like so many simple questions, the answer is very complex.

The study of karate has really lost its urgency. I mean, we’re not exactly disaffected Okinawans desperate to protect ourselves from outrageous foreign samurai, are we? Most of us live in unbelievably safe neighborhoods and many of us will never feel like we need to use the skills we’ve learned. Lots of us will never open schools, enter tournaments or write books about the martial arts. Most of us will never make a penny from all this study. None of us will ever master it. So why bother?

I’m learning that the reasons people study are profoundly personal. Everyone comes to martial arts for their own reasons and those reasons can change as study progresses. One thing that seems true for every practitioner I’ve met, however, is the effect of all that training.

The effect, simply, is feeling good. Everyone I talked to feels good about training. People feel like better people because they’ve trained. They feel healthier, or stronger, or more safe, or calmer, or less tired, or more self-aware. It sounds like a little thing, but it’s not. Having the opportunity to feel really good about yourself, to step outside your regular habits twice or three times a week is a pretty big thing.

It might be startling for non-practitioners to discover that karate ka don’t relish an opportunity to show off their skills by breaking some legs in the street. It might be startling to discover that our aims are never to be tougher, bigger, meaner than the tough, big, mean guy at the bar. It might surprise people to learn that the black belt trains as hard, not less hard, than the white belt. And it might be the sudden awareness of these things; the value of humility, the search for self improvement, the acceptance of lifelong imperfection, that drives so many people away from karate. It is exactly these things that keep others coming back to the dojo three times a week for years and years, even though there’s no practical, financial reason for them to do so.

Does it matter, then, that most of us will never compete in the Olympics, see our picture on TV ads or open a dojo? Not really. Does it matter that my friends will always ask what I’m going to do after I get my black belt and frown at me when I say ‘keep training’? Not really. And nor should I be surprised by their reaction. Karate doesn’t really translate into a world of vigilant police, financial logic and degree collecting very well. Karate is rewarding, difficult and deeply personal.

I left karate for four or so years. I sort of fell out of it. I had worked hard in my old dojo and enjoyed the time I spent there but I wasn’t confident I’d do so well in another dojo, so I never bothered to look one up here in Victoria. A good friend coaxed me back in a nefarious way. He got me to do kata with him. I’d worked hard to keep up my kata by practicing at home, but doing kata with another person was almost magical and at the end of the set, I felt like I was flying. It wasn’t long after that I agreed to check out his dojo.

I will never forget coming back to martial arts. The minute my feet touched the dojo floor, I realized I had been a incomplete person all the time I had been away. It was as if my life had been waiting for me to return. I felt whole again. Neither money nor credentials or fame will ever give me that. That’s why I train.

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Categories: Drop in the Bucket
  1. Avery.Myall
    July 22, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    Ive only given-up training on one thing……and that was Soccer. I completly hate it….I’m not kidding! I had more fun hitting the coach with the ball then doing anything else…I’ve never really known the feeling of getting back into something…except swimming, but that’s a different story..(More about fear than giving up…) And I don’t intend in knowing how it feels to quit Karate…. Nope not happening.

  1. June 1, 2008 at 10:28 am

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