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.

About Jay Killeen

I began training in 2004 under the guidance of James Duggan Shihan. I have since achieved my Nidan in Goju Ryu Karate do Seiwakai. My favourite kata is Sanchin and I enjoy the challenge of kumite against great opponents.

Comments

  1. Congratulations Michelle Sensei and thank you so much for writing up your experience with the Black Gi Grading. I am sure this is going to be so valuable for future students and in particular other female martial artists who need a little inspiration. You are surely leading the way!

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