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.

What is Goju Ryu Karate?

The literal meaning of Goju Ryu Karate do is Hard Soft Style Empty Hand Way and represents the traditional Japanese style of Goju Ryu developed by Chojun Miyagi Sensei in Okinawa in the early 1900’s. Now I don’t want this to turn into a History lesson as no doubt the origins of karate, or any other martial art, would be a murky story at best.

So instead, I am going to take this opportunity to give a recollection of ‘what is Goju Ryu Karate?’ the definition from the perspective of the karate student learning the art in today’s modern world. As surely we could discuss at length about the origins, its meaning and why it was developed way back when wars were being waged, technology was in its infancy and the stress of life and availability of time was not impacted by our Western influences.

In my post ‘the purpose of karate‘ I discussed that each student first starts karate training with some sort of purpose in mind, whether it is learning a self defence, getting fit or just to get involved in some sort of sport/training and meet new people. My purpose was to learn self defence because I was young, learning marketing and economics at University and with it hitting the town with my friends and getting into all sorts of dramas in the streets of Fortitude Valley, Brisbane. My purpose was to learn how to defend myself but also to be able to have my friends back or to protect the girls I was with if something was to happen. That aligns with one of my values of protecting and helping others, something that has resonated throughout my life and continues today.

It wasn’t until I met James Duggan Shihan and bombarded him with questions (as any good student does to their Sensei) trying to extract as much information out of him to achieve my purpose and be self sufficient in the art of self defence that I discovered that this ‘Goju Ryu Karate’ had a deeper purpose that extended beyond the physical but into the mental and philosophical. One of the initial findings about Goju Ryu Karate was that it extended beyond a physical self defence or fitness model and more into a system or way of living. The ‘do’ in karate do. This ‘way’ was all encompassing is something a student learns in the dojo but applies at work, in family life and in anything we put our mind and body into.  At that time it was just a concept but it was difficult to implement, I can say now that as a nidan I am now starting my journey into implementing the ‘do’ the ‘way’ into those other elements of my life.

“Karate’ then being the ’empty hand’ has both literal and philosophical meanings to the student. Literal in that the art of Goju Ryu Karate is weaponless as our body is used as the weapon but philosophical as to achieve peace without conflict by using the mind. Any conflict that can first be resolved without utilising the physical is an achievement of the karate ka. If the conflict escalates to the physical then the karate ka is able to apply the empty hand to divert the flow of energy between the realms of control or destruction. I.E minimal damage at first to your opponent through controlling the space that they occupy or if that fails to self preservation where our training and courage is called upon.

Finally the art of Goju Ryu can be disseminated. Ryu is simple, ‘style’, the curriculum of the Goju Karate system and what a karate ka needs to achieve in order to master the art. Whilst simple in translation it requires a journey of a lifetime to achieve and provides a continuum that determines the level of understanding of a karate ka. It is the measuring stick that we are assessed against and requires tools such as gradings, weekly training and conversation with our Sensei and fellow karate ka community to allow up to progress against it. This delves almost into the ‘Go’ (hard) and ‘Ju’ (soft) or the style. These two words are at the pinnacle of the style and are used philosophically to formulate the meaning behind the movements and physically to smoothly navigate attacks from our opponents to implement a level of control or to devastate our opponents and destroy them for self preservation.

Wow, what a mouthful! I hope that gives you some sort of understanding as to “what is Goju Ryu Karate” from my perspective and what I have learnt throughout my journey through the art. Naturally, I will probably change my mind about this stuff when I am older, wiser and have progressed further through the dan levels but hopefully I am on track. At least in my mind I am and I get results through training with this philosophy.

Finally, if you are thinking of starting Goju Ryu Karate do I highly recommend you find a local dojo such as Brisbane Goju Karate and get stuck into it. There is no reason to be scared of starting or to delay as every student that enters the dojo begins as a white belt and the shaping process begins to turn them into a martial artist. Good luck!

Domo Arigato and happy training!

Jay Killeen Sempai


The Purpose of Karate

This is straight from the Nemesis Dojos martial arts handbook and written by James Duggan Shihan.

The definition of ‘purpose’ in the World Book dictionary is

“Something one has in mind to get or do; plan; aim; intention”.

Each student arrives at the karate dojo with a particular purpose of karate in mind, either to get/keep fit, learn self defence, or perhaps to develop greater sense of personal awareness and confidence. Whatever the reason, there is usually a path within karate for them to achieve that goal.

Learning any skills should be an adventure and, as with any real adventure, there can be barriers, pitfalls and difficulties along the way. In Karate do the greatest opponent you will ever confront is yourself and your own fears.

The best weapon against the enemy of failure is to establish a particular purpose for Karate do and keep it firmly in mind at all times.

Your progression through Karate do will depend on your determination and persistence. These attributes will come into play in both your training and in your day-to-day life. Eventually you cease to be an opponent and become more a player in the game.

In karate there should never be a dull moment, unless we choose it to be that way. The Daruma or prophet of the Buddha said, “To fall seven times is to rise eight; life begins now”.

Rise to your goals and purposes and you will find your own way – the ‘do’ – in Karate do.

What purpose did you have when deciding that you wanted to start learning karate or become a martial artist; and how far along the path do you think you have travelled in achieving that purpose?

Feel free to add your comments below and help contribute to someone else in Brisbane that may be thinking about starting karate or already be training with us at Brisbane Goju Karate.  We are taught to gain knowledge but we inherently gain the responsibility to pass that knowledge on.

Occupying Space

You’ve really gotta enjoy those nights at training where you get to partner up and start putting into practice all those combinations that Shihan James Duggan drills into us up and down the class during Kihon Ido (basics with movements).

In today’s post we are going to explore the thought process required to correctly transition from practicing basic techniques into thin air and executing them on an opponent. The biggest challenge we face in this transition is not speed, accuracy or the strength to endure the pain of repeatedly being used as a crash test dummy.

It is the ability to occupy your own space and control your opponents. There is a reason our instructors constantly refer to the battle that is fought during kumite. This battle occurs because our intent is not just to land the perfect yoko hijiate or execute a mae geri with precision.

Our intent is to maximise our level of control.

As a beginner, this can be as simple as controlling our movements so that we do not harm our opponent more than what is required to practice the techniques correctly. As a black belt our control refers to our ability to maximise the space that we occupy. There are a couple of elements to this level of control; the first is what we actually can control and this is based on our ability, the second is what our opponent perceives us to control. Mr Miyagi is a great example of this (seriously how great is that movie!).

Do not underestimate the old.

Portrayal of Chojun Miyagi in the original "The Karate Kid"

So how do we do this Jay Sempai?

I have three pieces of advice for today that once again have been instilled in me by James Duggan Shihan. The first one is get your basics right, and minimise unnecessary movement. Remember Less is More. When an opponent is trying to attack you and you are completely still yet ready to strike it can be pretty intimidating. I have experienced this in sport karate tournaments where my opponent is jumping around losing all interface with the ground and I’m as still as a fly, perceived as an easy target but confident that my reactions and muscle memory will maintain my defence and counter attack.

The second. Ensure your projection of energy and the end point of your attacks is through your opponent. When you attack someone or someone attacks you it is not a fight for the space that overlaps between us. You want to take the space that is right beneath their feet, unearth them and ensure that they do not feel comfortable when they squaring off against you. James Duggan Shihan dismisses the term ‘bridge the gap’ in favour of ‘take the space’.

And finally, have intent when striking an opponent or defending ourselves. Our intent when practicing on our opponent is not to perfect the movement; it is to keep what is ours and take what is theirs. The movements, techniques and strikes are just tools to accomplish this.

There is only one constant in life, and that is self. The battle is won when your opponent no longer has control of their space and therefore has lost themselves. At that point control is claimed by you and you have the power to decide the final result.

All pretty hefty when we are facing a fellow Karateka in the dojo but remember the dojo is our safe place and how we train is reflected in what we do. That is why the more proficient you become the less people actually try to start trouble with you. They perceive an essence, a danger, and they are less willing to challenge that.

Renshu Owarimasu

Less is More

“Less is More” is a popular saying in the Brisbane Goju Karate dojo, one that is repeated by both James Duggan Shihan and Kain Johnson Sensei as often as Ichi, Ni, San. Usually in the context of movement, but with an unspoken relevance to intent and purpose. This post aims to explore this “less is more” concept and gain a better understanding of how it can improve our performance as a karateka.

I will start by exploring two other quotes that I have come across more recently when trying to understand “Less is More”.

The first quote

“I just carve away anything that doesn’t look like a lion, and I’m left with a lion” – Michelangelo

When we headed down the road to becoming a black belt in karate every action was to learn a new technique, increase our fitness or find a new height of mental strength. This is the journey to black belt, learning these basic techniques in order to give ourselves the best platform to mastery. If we are honest with ourselves, have trained hard with skill and an open mind then our instructors may reward our efforts with the black belt, the symbol that we have achieved the basics. In order to achieve mastery we now begin the journey of extraction.

Now for the second quote

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

This sounds simple, right? Or is it possibly the most difficult task and a journey that a black belt karateka and any martial artist alike spend their entire lives trying to achieve. Removing inefficient movement requires the highest level of understanding of body mechanics, energy flow and process of thought. This decision can be simple but difficult to achieve or it can be difficult to even conceive and once identified by our instructors very simple to remove.

So what is the reward? “Less is More”.

In simple terms, by removing inefficiency of movement we can complete techniques faster or reduce the time spent on redundant movement. This translates into more time and less energy expenditure. Giving us increased performance.

And to finish up, a quote from me…

“Everything in life that we wish to attain is already within us. We just need to remove what we do not need and find happiness in what is left.”

For the karateka’s feel free to comment on a part of your karate that you have been working on improving and what you aim to get out of it.

For everyone else… what in your life have you removed and have ultimately been given more. You can’t pick bad stuff either like drinking or smoking, it has too be something that you have been doing because you thought it was good.

Finding Courage with Karate

There is a well known saying about Courage and Fear:

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to enter into the unknown despite it”.

In this post we will look at the purpose of Karate to learning self-defence and how Karate can be used as the tool required to build our self-confidence and feeling of safety.

Fear is the largest contributor to failure. In most cases, fear stops a person from undertaking a task before they have even begun. This could be because they do not have the required self-confidence in their own ability which leads to the fear that they will fail. One lesson that life has continued to teach us is that each person has the ability to undertake any task that they set their mind to.

So what is fear and how do we overcome fear?

Fear can be defined as an emotion that we feel when placed in a situation that we are inexperienced to deal with, not physically able to complete or falls outside our comfort zone. Fear leads to a person giving up that task or failing to complete it. if a person underakes a task and fails at it, they they have shown courage and in order to complete the task the next time they may require more physical or mental training. If the person gives in they they have shown a lack of courage.

To challenge a fear we need courage. Courage is the quality of spirit required by a person to overcome the fear that is blocking them from achieving their purpose. So whether a person aims to climb a mountain, start a business or raise a family, we substantially increase our ability to achieve at our purpose if we are able to summon the courage to challenge our fears.

Karate gives us courage by challenging our comfort zone.

In Karate we are taught the tolls required to defend ourselves so that others cannot take from us what we have worked so hard to achieve. Karate also teaches us how to challenge ourselves and how we can summon the courage required to achieve other goals we have set in life. One simple model used to show how this works is the Comfort, Stretch and Panic Zones Model.

We live the majority of our lives in our comfort zone. In Karate we constantly strive to train within our stretch zone. The Stretch Zone is where we can apply our learning’s, gain our experience and test our current physical and mental ability. In Karate this may be by sparring an opponent with a higher ability, performing Kata in front of our peers or continuing to work hard even at the point of exhaustion. By undertaking this training our comfort zone is increased and we are more easily able to summon courage to overcome obstacles and subside fear. The Panic Zone is this model is also extremely important. The Panic Zone is an important reason why a student takes up Karate in the first instance. This Panic Zone is the area where we have no control, where outside forces may takes us to a place where we have not chosen to be. This could be in a confrontation with a bully that could escalate into a fight or any other real-life situation that induces fear and panic. In Karate we train with the intent of being in a situation where we need to defend ourselves against real-life challenges. This gives us the result of increasing our comfort zones and pushing the panic zone further away. A well trained Karateka is in their comfort zone in a street fight or confrontation because they have a heightened understanding of the situation, a self-confidence in their mental and physical ability plus they have endless potential to summon the courage required to defend themselves if they are outnumbered or beaten.

Defending against a gang attackMr Miyagi vs. Cobra Kai!

Feel free to comment below if you have any thoughts on this topic or can draw on a situation where you have had to draw upon courage to overcome a real fear in life.

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