Entering into the Unknown

My journey to the black gi grading starts with the Brisbane Goju Karate dojo. The first thing you notice when you step inside a BGK dojo is the wall of energy and passion for karate that greets you. I have the privilege to be taught and train with an amazing group of people. At the heart of this energy and drive are the inspirational individuals who wear the black gi’s. It’s infectious.

The phrase that was associated with the black gi grading that resonated strongly with me was “it’s the event you cannot train for.” How does one prepare physically and mentally for the unknown? The black gi grading is not a grading but a dynamic, highly unpredictable challenge, without static events and not having a clear finish that greatly perturbs the mind.

As a potential participant in the black gi grading, we were told early on that we were not to engage in extra training with the black belts or other black gi students. At the time I didn’t understand the reasoning but as this article has been written after the event with the benefit of hindsight – this is an extremely important part of your own training. It’s about building your mental strength to overcome your fears, learning to control your stress reactions and maintain a positive outlook, as it was very easy to get caught up in the momentum of fear of the unknown. I had read that much of mental toughness is simply attitude and self esteem, two things that I needed to work on.

My physical training was intense even though I knew this grading was not about how strong or fit I was. I wanted to have complete confidence in my physical ability (well as much as possible). It was also the one thing I could control leading up to the grading. I personally believe in sport that through frequent and tough workouts you will build an aspect of mental toughness. Physiologically, the aim is to saturate the muscles in lactic acid through frequent and intense stimulus (reaching your anaerobic threshold) to educate the body’s buffering mechanisms (production of alkaline; lactate is produced by when there is insufficient oxygen to breakdown the energy), resulting in muscle fail occurring later and later until you reach the ‘point’ where you can surpass your perceived limitation.

Most of my additional training was done early in the morning before work. I did two weights sessions, one high intensity interval training (HIIT) and one cardio session during the week, and then regular karate training at night. A niggling old injury meant I had to avoid running so I adapted my training to mainly include pool and bike sessions for HIIT and cardio. I would finish most sessions with bag work and speed ball. My goal was to make the action so familiar that even when I was exhausted and stressed, my body would function on auto pilot. HIIT included a minute sprint on the bike, then a 30 second recovery and do this for 15 minutes, hill sprints etc. In the pool it was swim a lap as fast as I could, swim a slow lap and repeat.

When I was making the decision to participate in the black gi grading, I knew it was going to be sometime in winter and that my additional training had to be done early in the morning before work otherwise I was never going to have the time. I had to make serious commitment to myself that to participate in the black gi grading at the level I wanted to be at, for the next 10 or so weeks regardless of work, training, climate, social activities etc, three mornings a week I had to get up at 5am and train.

I know it sounds cheesy but when the alarm goes off at 5am on a cold, dark winter morning and you know you have to jump in a pool (and you know how much I HATE the cold), I would lay in bed and say to myself things like “the only workout you regret is the one you don’t do” and “commitment – either you do or you don’t, there is no in between” and “the body achieves what the mind believes” and “of course its hard, its supposed to be hard. If it were easy everybody would do it”…. And so on. My ultimate inspiration to get me motivated on the most trying of days was, I would ask myself “Gane, how bad do you want it?”

The mental preparation was another challenge. I questioned myself relentlessly. Was I really capable of doing this? My biggest hurdle was believing in myself. It was not simply a matter of knowledge, ability and skill. It was about my psychological preparedness. Was I ready for the stress of the grading, recovering from mistakes and failure quickly, determining strategies to tackle the tough moments, ready to adjust dynamically to each new circumstance and maintain a positive and never give up mindset when faced with the seemingly impossible and your body is hurting beyond what you thought was capable?

One of the main reasons I wanted to attempt the black gi grading was I wanted to know what I had deep down inside. What ‘heart’ could I muster when faced with a truly hapless situation; when I was physically and mentally out of my depth in every single way? What terrified me the most, was what if I didn’t like what I found during this time??

What were you feeling the morning of the black gi grading?

The week leading up to the grading was the worst.  All the anticipation, fear, anxiety, self doubt – you name it – all came exploding out of me like Mt Vesuvius.  During this time, I can not thank Shihan Jamie Duggan, Sensei Kain Johnson and all the other black gi’s I train with.  Their support, patience and unwavering belief in myself was, for me, quite simply, overwhelming. For the first time in my martial arts life, I realised that I was surrounded with people who truly believed in me and wanted me to succeed.  I had to learn to trust and believe in myself and my training – this was my nemesis.

The night before the grading, I thought about everything that I had done up until this point.  Was there anything that I would change?  Was there anything I could have done differently?  Could I have trained harder?  My answer was no.  I was ready as I ever was going to be.

That morning, I woke up early and starting hydrating.  I followed the same hydration strategy as endurance athletes, 1L of water every hour before the event for every hour long the event is.  I had a black hole of anxiety and nerves in the pit of my stomach.

Even though it is an individual event, I was on the floor with two other extraordinary individuals who also had worked tirelessly, being through a similar emotional roller coaster ride and the three of us were going to get through no matter what.  The time for self doubt was over.

Was there any point throughout the grading that you did not think you could make it and what allowed you to find the strength to get through?

The most defining moment for me when I thought failure was a real possibility was when I did not break the tiles. I believed that I could do it but when it didn’t happen, I was devastated to say the least. I saw Mark and Chris smash their way through their tiles however when my tiles did not break, I felt like I had failed. I was so upset and angry at myself. Adding substantially to my disappointment was I had bruised my hand in the process. Self doubt came cascading down on me like the Niagara Falls in flood. How could I possibly get through this, particularly when the ‘worst’ is still to come and I can’t even break some stupid tiles?? My cheesy foolproof inspiration line came into my head “how bad do you want this Gane?” and as I muttered the statement I knew what I had to do. I eventually broke all the tiles but it was not how I had envisaged.

Of course there were moments in the kumite where I wanted to stop. However seeing and hearing everyone I had trained with, the people that made me believe in myself, feeling their energy and support, I owed it to them to continue and quitting was not an option.

How would you describe how you were feeling when the Black Gi Grading was finished?

I was overwhelmed. There is no other way or words I can find to describe how I felt when it ended. There was the disbelief that it had finally ended; I kept waiting for the next ‘test’. It was very emotional.

I felt like I had bared my soul on that morning for the entire world to see and I was feeling very vulnerable. I had given everything. There was nothing left to give but if I had to continue, somehow, I would have. I don’t remember much of the ending nor any of the speeches except trying to keep myself together. I remember feelings of disbelief as Hanshi Marty presented me with the black gi – this was really happening.

Once we changed into our new gi, we all bowed out as a group; a family of black gi’s and the three of us were now part of something special. After the final bow, my legs failed me and I couldn’t stand up. Somebody grabbed my gi and pulled me to my feet and I was engulfed by a swarm of congratulatory black gi’s. The symbolism of what that moment represents has stayed with me.

What advice would you give to someone that was going to attempt the Black Gi Grading in the future?

It was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to participate in a black gi grading. It was undoubtedly the hardest challenge I have ever undertaken, physically and mentally. I trained harder and smarter than I have ever done before. I learnt more about myself in the weeks leading up to the grading, than I thought possible. The journey to the black gi grading and the grading itself is a deeply personal experience and I have no doubt that every person who has undertaken a black gi grading comes out the other side with a very different experience.

However, I would also say it’s not an event for everyone. You have to want it from the bottom of your soul. You will question everything you ever thought you knew about yourself. Demons in many shapes and forms will raise their ugly head throughout your journey, many of these demons you didn’t even know you had. Think long and deeply about why you want to do it, understand and commit to your personal reasons; remembering the ‘punching’ and ‘kicking’ component of the black gi grading, in some aspects, is the ‘easiest’ part of the grading.

You have to be open and willing to learn things about yourself and those around you that you might not want to know. It’s a humbling experience as you are constantly learning, evaluating and redefining yourself.

While my contemplations have mainly been focused on the mental challenges that arose for me (that was my nemesis), make no mistake, it was a physically torrid affair (to use the words from Shihan). Shihan and sensei both said to me in no uncertain terms and I quote “You will bleed. You will cry and you will hurt”. And yes, there were tears, there was blood and there was pain. Then I bled some more. And just when I thought I had couldn’t take any more; I bruised and spilt some more blood.

How would you describe the way the Black Gi Grading has changed you?

Several weeks have passed, the bruises have healed but I’m still struggling to comprehend what I have accomplished. The black gi grading has changed me in a magnitude of ways, many of these are very difficult to put into words and I’m sure those who are closest to me are starting to notice subtle changes in the way I do things. I was forced to face my nemesis and I’m slowing winning that war.

Immediately after the grading, I sat and tried to process what had just happened (and because my legs were hurting too much to function) as I felt deeply disappointed in myself. I felt that I should have been better as I had made ‘rookie’ errors all morning. Over the days and weeks after the grading, I discussed this numerous times with Shihan Jamie and he made me realise it wasn’t about performance but something else entirely.

This required some processing from me but eventually I had an epiphany. So what is it you ask? Unfortunately, it is here that words fail me as I can’t quite articulate it yet. I’m still working through this ‘something’ but it is a real and tangible outcome that has made me re-evaluate and change my approach to my karate, opening a new realm of learning which I firmly believe will take my karate to a place that I didn’t think was possible. The one thing I am conscious of, is my black gi journey has only just begun.

I still don’t feel comfortable wearing a black gi as to me it’s not just a colour. The people in the Brisbane Goju Karate dojo who wear a black gi train with an unwavering commitment and dedication to improvement in all forms, mind and body. They approach each challenge with a positive mindset and energy, forging a confident and unwavering spirit. They demonstrate the very best virtues in a martial artist whilst always maintaining the utmost of courtesy, respect, etiquette and humility for others. I now have the honour to stand amongst these individuals, along with two other inspirational people that also shared the floor with me that day, Mark and Chris Cappellone.

These are very big shoes to fill or perhaps I should say, very black gi’s to fill.

My final words

(I’m a scientist, had to get the last word in)

The journey of every martial artist is shaped by events that happen inside but more significantly outside the dojo. It is here in the real world that our training comes to fruition. The lessons learnt through countless training sessions and the resulting blood, sweat and tears all resonate within us to give us the courage, strength and the will to overcome whatever obstacles life throws at us.

Thank you Shihan Jamie Duggan, Sensei Kain Johnson and the black gi Sempai’s Andrew, Jay, Guy, Dariusz and Steve.

Purpose of the Black Gi Grading

Here at Brisbane Goju Karate the karateka is given a choice at 3rd kyu (brown belt in our system) whether to attempt a black gi grading. A black gi grading, as the name suggests, allows the karateka to wear a black coloured gi (karate outfit) during training in classes. We would normally wear a completely white canvas gi.

The Purpose of the Black Gi Grading

As I have mentioned in the post on the purpose of karate a karateka begins training in the karate system with a particular purpose or intent in mind. What the black gi grading begins to undertake is a process of committing the karateka to a purpose that is outside of their original intent in training. It is a challenge that they are unaware of until requested to attempt. During training they are obviously exposed to the thought of a black gi grading as they would have seen higher ranked karateka wearing black gis that had successfully passed the grading. Regardless of possibly hearing about the grading, there is an enormous element of entering into the unknown, which we know requires tremendous courage. Overall the purpose of the Black Gi Grading is to challenge the karateka in a way that they have never chosen to be challenged in the past. The purpose of this is to train the mind and provide a platform for the development of skills that are required in times of panic, extreme stress and guaranteed failure. My simple way to explain this is that you are forced into a ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ environment and to pass you must attempt to fight through the flight response.

If you have any specific questions about the Black Gi Grading please ask them in the comments section below and we will answer them more specifically.

Chris Cappellone Kohai

After last months Black Gi Grading I asked the students that attempted the Black Gi Grading to write down their thoughts and provided some questions to stimulate their minds after the aftermath of the torrid event.

This is what Kohai Chris had to say.

The Black Gi Grading – Chris Cappellone

What sort of special training did you undertake to prepare for the Black Gi Grading?

Training for the Black Gi Grading was something we were informed by Shihan Jamie would help us, but by no means get us through. It is a grading that we were told ‘you cannot prepare for’. When you haven’t seen one of these grading in the flesh (like myself, Mark and Michelle Sempai hadn’t), it is very easy to get caught up in the magnitude because it is that fear of the unknown. Although obviously physical training and fitness is absolutely critical, there is a large side, more like a majority of the preparation, which is more so mental.

Physical training entailed sprinting, loads of pad work, Bunkai and Kihon. Training really needed to have high work rates, with the aim of reducing the rest and recovery periods in between. So pad sessions and sparring helped in this regard as well as conditioning training. When completing any of these, we would have a set work rate time, and a set rest time. Then every week, increase the work period whilst also decreasing the rest period. The biggest improvement in fitness was especially noticed after a few weeks of short sprint training.

Mentally however, the lead up was tougher than any of the sessions we completed. It is the fear, the doubt, the thought of failure and the unknown which really makes you question your abilities and very thing you have ever done, in karate and life in general. It is extremely difficult to convince yourself that all will be okay, when you know (or dont know) what you are up against. Conversations with Shihan and Sensei inspired and aided me to push, on as well as the support of my brother, Michelle Sempai and family.

Music played a massive role in my preparation, just finding that song which had more than bass and heavy metal, but with lyrics that inspire. Having said that though, there is only so much in music that can help you. So there were a few nights of google searching inspirational quotes and videos. I had a print of these quotes and would read them before bed most nights.

These were my two favourites:

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do” – Eleanor
Roosevelt

“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear” – Rosa Parks

The first of these quotes I could really relate to. The Black Gi Grading was always something I felt I couldn’t do, so when I found this quote it made me realise that the fear and doubt associated with the grading was reason to actually do it. It sounds like it was cut and dry, but there is so much more to it that is difficult to express. There are I guess, massive lapses of confidence and questioning of one’s self throughout the lead up to the grading, moments where you feel like “yep I can do this” and then later that same day, or even hour “what am I doing, I cant do what they have done”. It is a huge mental battle, but one which puts so much of life into perspective.

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Images provided by Cookoo Design & Photography

 

What were you feeling the morning of the Black Gi Grading?

 

The morning of the Black Gi Grading was horrible. This massive day had finally arrived and the old ‘butterflies in the stomach’ could only be described as more of swarm of wasps. It all seems like a blur. It was kind of a relief for the Saturday morning to finally be there. I just threw on a few psych up beats and read a few quotes and really just tried to tell myself that this was it. It wasn’t a good feeling at all, but really, it’s all worth it when you’re done and dusted.

Was there any point throughout the grading that you did not think you could make it and what allowed you to find the strength to get through?

black-gi-hr-0490There were so many points during the grading that I questioned whether I was going to be able to finish. The tile break was probably the point when I was most doubtful. I knew I had to break the tiles, but the thought of failing this, which would be the end of my grading, was something that was tough to get my head around. I had never done anything of the sought, didn’t know how to go about it, and knew I had to find something. I remember standing there looking down at the tiles closing my eyes and running through some quotes in my head. Its corny, but I actually recited a quote from the movie the matrix. It was something I felt really applied to myself as a person and I stood there closed my eyes and the little voice in my head went “you have to let it all go, fear, doubt and disbelief, free your mind”. I opened my eyes pretty much as my hand was almost at the tiles I think, I’m not exactly certain, and they smashed. I couldn’t believe it. I actually had a little smile to myself and thought, I can do this, I can finish this grading. It was at this point where I really felt that I could make it happen.

How would you describe how you were feeling when the Black Gi Grading was finished?

At the end of the grading I was emotional to say the least. I remember standing, listening to Hanshi Marty’s speech, with tears making there way to the surface. I never thought I would actually be there. And when Shihan Jamie presented me with the Black Gi top, it was a feeling of disbelief, but actually a good disbelief! I had actually achieved this ‘thing’ that I had on so many occasions thought I couldn’t. It is really hard to describe. You can succeed in so many things in life, but as I have come to realise after doing this grading, nothing will ever compare or relate it. The Black Gi Grading will be a day which will never be forgotten.

What advice would you give to someone that was going to attempt the Black Gi Grading in the future?

I guess the first thing would be to say that you just have to do it! I had never thought 3 years ago when I started karate, that I’d get to yellow belt, let alone be wearing a black gi. I think my piece of advice would be just to try and tell yourself that it has to be done. It is very easy to start to question why? Why am I doing this, why am I freaking out, and all of the what ifs? Im not saying I didn’t, because all of those thoughts went through my head every day. It’s just a very personal quest I suppose. I know that I wouldn’t have been able to make it without the support and belief of Shihan, Sensei and all of the Sempai.

So another piece of advice is to realise that although you will be up against this massive force of black, they want you to succeed just as much as yourself or anyone else. I think that constant discussions about the grading helped in realising the road ahead. I know I had countless chats with my brother over a coffee about the black gi, and all of the associated thoughts and fears that came with it in the lead up. If I didn’t have him to chat to I guess things would be a lot different. So I suppose, when you look at it, you are constantly learning by seeking advice from others. Just like anything realIy, its a matter of constant reflection and analysis of the situation, because, sometimes it might be something trivial that someone says, but becomes a cornerstone in the way you operate. It is hands down the mental battle which is most difficult to grasp in preparation for the grading, so I guess you could say you need to mentally train just as much as you physically train. I found that through discussion, I was able to realise a lot about myself, even if it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, because it aids you to understand yourself as a person and where you want to be or what you want to change.

How would you describe the way the Black Gi Grading has changed you?

It is still sinking in really. I cant believe that the first Monday training after the grading I could actually wear a black gi and although it was amazing, it seemed very strange. The grading has undoubtedly changed me. I’m sure there will be further realisations as time goes on, but I suppose the biggest discovery is one of overcoming the force of anxiety, fear and stress at the thought of such a task. When I look back, I actually can’t believe that it is all over. I remember the constant feelings and the gut-wrenching notions of facing a dojo full of unbelievable martial artists. And so the realisation is that those feelings were probably the worst I have ever felt to date in my life, so what then is really ever going to be a problem. My outlook on work, uni and life in general has changed or matured dramatically. It is difficult to fully describe the way the grading has changed me, because it isn’t a tangible thing, and with time, I will undoubtedly reflect and realise even more changes. Karate has really changed me into someone I never thought I could have been. I had really started over the last year or so to notice significant changes in my personality after I saw some old photos, and the black gi cemented these transformations I guess. Aspects of fear, doubt, failure and disbelief were all things I struggled to come to grips with. But now after finishing the black gi grading, you begin to realise that nothing really matters and all of those feelings can’t stop you from doing something, its just a matter of acceptance and doing that ‘thing’ despite those apprehensions and feelings. And no matter what – you survive. It sounds arrogant and cocky in some respects, but you start to believe in yourself, which is something I never really did.

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Black Gi Grading 2012

Black Gi GradingBrisbane Goju Karate will be hosting a Black Gi Grading this Saturday, 28th of July 2012 at the Camp Hill Dojo, 628 Old Cleveland Road, Camp Hill. The hall is located behind the Uniting Church, parking is available onsite or off street and the doors will be open from 9am with the grading scheduled to commence at 9:30 am and finish around 12:30 pm. A donation at the door to help cover the costs of hosting the event is welcomed.

Please come along and support the three students brave enough to attempt this torrid event. All spectators are welcome, whether you are friend, family or a student of karate from any local Brisbane karate dojos (Goju Ryu or Goju Kai etc).

The Black Gi Grading is a very special occasion as those of you who have been privileged enough to have witnessed a student attempt a Black Gi Grading already know. If you have not witnessed a Black Gi Grading then please do your best to ensure you are there on Saturday morning to support these students. It is an absolutely monumental journey to complete the Black Gi Grading and the moral support provided by friends and family is akin to a glass of cool water on a blistering hot day.

Black Gi Grading

Just to give you some background, the Black Gi Grading is nothing like a Black Belt Grading for Shodan. It is far more strenuous, enduring and and requires a more complete demonstration of a students knowledge of Karate. You really need to be there to fully experience what the student goes through but as anyone that has completed a Black Gi Grading will tell you, it is fulfilling and gratifying despite the torment. It allows the karateka to demonstrate their entire set of skills as well as gives them the platform to harness the power of will that has been developed within them through the years of training beforehand. As a spectator of a Black Gi Grading, you are seeing the karateka being elevated to a place that they have never experienced and a place that they will never forget. This is why, when you stand before a karateka wearing a Black Gi in kumite, you can be confident that they will be a formidable opponent.

 


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