Bill's Journey To Black Belt

Becoming A Black Belt in Karate

After spending the holiday (December 2015) talking it over with Val and the girls, I've decided it is time to try to become a Black Belt in a Martial Art. This has been one of those life goals that has hung in the back ground of my mind for years, but never seriously pursued. As I mulled the decision over, concerns about could I, at my age, handle the curriculum ..... not just the physical challenges, but memorizing all the katas .... surfaced over and over. The style I picked, Shito Ryu, is famous for requiring more katas than any other single style. It was the uncertainty, the challenge, that finally pushed me into, 'Go For It'

Martial Arts Style and System: There are so many amazing styles of martial arts that it can be tough to pick through, and even if you pick your generalized form (e.g. Karate or Pugilism or Jiu Jitsu or Judo or Kung Fu or whatever), within those categories there are often further break downs into various systems. Karate, for example, has numerous break downs like Shotokan, Goju Ryu, Kyokushin, Shito Ryu, ... and on. A martial arts system is a particular combination of principles from physiology, psychology, and physics that when interlaced together in a particular way bring to life a strategy for handling physical interactions. As one studies a particular system, the selected principles from physiology, psychology, and physics get hard-wired into the mind yielding some of the often touted personal characteristics like focus, perseverance, and discipline. For my personal goals (becoming a black belt, loosing weight, challenging myself mentally, staying quick), modern Shito-Ryu fits the bill. It is a form of Karate that is very fast, and emphases sparring and katas. Sparring can be intimidating, and it serves as a wonderful motivating factor to drop more weight to gain speed. The katas aspect is both daunting and exciting. A kata is a choreographed pattern of movements. While no fight is choreographed, the neuromuscular patterns etched into the mind from the kata work naturally flow out when in a physical exchange and amazingly enough, they handle the bulk of on coming attacks.

Martial Arts School: Getting and Being a Black Belt are two different things. It is my desire to become a Black Belt, not simply get one. This means picking a school that can offer such an opportunity. There are many schools that will give you a Black Belt: simply pay the money and put in some time, and viola you get a black belt. These schools have the pejorative label of McDojos within the Martial Arts training world, and they would not be personally fulfilling for me. Another type of school is the tournament school. At these places, the emphasis is on the sport version of a given martial arts, with a heavy emphasis on going to tournaments and competing. This doesn't appeal to me. I could imagine going into a tournament now and again, but I'm not interested in the sport version of a martial arts. So, I've elected to go to the same Martial Arts school as my daughters where belt ascension is not guaranteed (I've witness this first hand at the school), and there is no time-table. This particular school, following the traditional model, posits that a black belt isn't an expert in the art, but someone who understands the concepts of the particular system and that they have proven the ability to apply them in dynamic (e.g. sparing/fighting) scenarios. As is said, earning your Black Belt is truly just a beginning. How long will it take to become a black belt at this school? Again, no time table as it is about the skill and understanding being critical. Most of the black belts I've met there have taken 7+ years. The owner, and master instructor, of the school is a former soldier like myself. Not only was he a sniper, but he helped train the US Army Karate team and was in fact an alternate him-self in the Pan American games. His military time plus over 40 years of martial arts practice has generated a no BS guy who takes this training very serious. In my mind, I can hear the constant sergeants training refrain: 'Train as you fight, fight as you train.'

White Belt Bill

(05JAN16) I walked into the dojo this evening, where my daughters have been training for the past 2.5 years, spoke with Shihan Gonzalez, wrote my check, got fitted for a Gi, and sat down to stretch. Holy Crap. I'm here, I'm going for it. Looking over at the parents area, where I use to sit, I could see other moms and dads looking at me, the same parents that I've spent the past few years chatting with while our kids were in the class. I smiled, and they would smile back... some gave the side to side head shake, some gave the thumbs up. No more chit chat for me... lest I eat a foot for not paying attention. As a newly minted white belt in a brand new crisp white Gi, I get the honor of being in the very, very, very back all the way to the left .... at the bottom on the pole. I looked at the others in front of me, all with years of experience. There were my girls, rows ahead of me, with my youngest looking back smiling. I'm going to do this. I'm going to push forward and enjoy the entire transformation process into a legitimate Black Belt. The fact that I get to do this journey with my daughters makes this all so much more special. I've cheered them on the past few years, now they will cheer me on! :) Of the other adults in the class, only one also has a kid in the class with him. They are a great father son duo. The dad shook my hand and welcomed me. Yep, so I'm the big bald 45 year old white belt in the very back. You can wish me luck, but I won't need it!

Blue Belt Bill

(05JAN17) Well, here we are with the first full year of formalized, system training now a memory Wow. I've learned so much. My instructors have been gracious with their knowledge, scolding me at times but always always always pushing me forward in what I could do. Here are three highlights for me from the year.

Number 1: Was taught Pinan Sandan by Shihan Gonzalez in a one on one session.
Shihan Gonzalez is a one of a kind character in the world, who has been actively studying and applying martial arts since 1970, the year of my birth! A whole book could be written about this guy and his martial arts achievements. In any case, for him to personally teach me a kata was the greatest honor of the year for me. He doesn't do that much anymore as his body is so worn down and beat up.

Number 2: The dojo awarded me a black gi. In our dojo, this is a huge sign of respect, not always given, and normally doesn't happen before 2.5 years of study at the school. Shihan Gonzalez gave a nice speech to the class about my dedication and commitment, and handed it to me. It is a beautiful embroidered Gi with the school logo on the back, the crest on the front with my name on it, and my pants leg even has the school crest. It is so sharp!! I'm still in the back rows at the class line up, but I am no longer in a white gi.

Number 3: At the end of the year, while training at another facility, I had the opportunity to step into the ring with an active 8 fight professional fighter of my size. The skill differential was obvious and I had an amazing experience. What really blew me away was this mans calm demeanor, even when I had thrown a flurry of shots that landed. I took the worst of it for sure, and its only three weeks later find that I can spar again without my ribs aching.

With my prior experience in kickboxing, picking up the basic moves and motions wasn't too difficult allowing me to demonstrate competence at the lower belt levels fairly quickly. I did have some retraining to do, for sure, but I understood the basic mechanics from the get go. I've also learned a whole new collection of kicks. I knew of them before, but I never focused on them to learn them until now. For example, the spinning back kick, the crescent kick, and ax kick to name a few.

So far the hardest part has been the stretching. Many of the kicks are done at locations I've not had to kick at before, with my previous primary focus always being the legs or the body. Now I'm expected to kick at the head at will, with precise control. This is taking a lot of work.

The kata's have turned out to not be as difficult as I had anticipated. Many of the motions and flows simply make sense as you do them. Like when I was boxing, as weight shifts, you load up on the powerside and deliver which shifts the weight again and you repeat the cycle. I've particularly enjoyed the bunkai's which are the physical (e.g. contact) version and application of katas. This is where the rubber meets the road.

I love it. I simply love it. I'm so so so happy I summoned up the courage to give this a try. Physically, I'm in the best shape I've been in since doing the Ironman (10 years ago). I can also see that my coordination and balance has drastically improved. I can also see that I'm ignorant in this stuff and that there is a whole universe still to explore and learn. Lots and lots and lots of nitty gritty detail in any area you want to go into. I'm looking forward to tonight's class!

Purple Belt Bill

(12JAN2018) Year 2 of intensive study of Karate complete. Still going at it very hard, with 4 days a week in the dojo, hours at home, active sparring 2 times a week, and lots of research into the strategies and tactics of Karate and specifically of Shito Ryu, my selected base style. So much of the fighting theory learned in the other fighting disciplines over my life continues to emerge, but now with a new framework. What has been particularly illuminating was the strategy approach in Shito Ryu, with its hyper focus on shifting angles and engagement distance management. These elements are in the katas of the style, but unless you seek to see them, they are easily lost. I've also done deep dives into the differences between Hard and Soft because Shito Ryu blends both, while other styles like Shotokan focus primarily on one or the other. So many dots are connecting with the years of just doing different things. So many of the “Hows” have been done over my life, but never a true comprehension of the “Whys” and that is really what grew in this past year.

The year also saw my boxing skills get picked up on by the instructors. They saw how I was handling things in the ring during sparring, and could tell that I had boxed. This has resulted in me helping to instruct and show boxing skills and drills to the class. Similarly, the wrestling skills from High School showed their heads when a guest instructor from a local MMA school came by for a 3 week visit, and that birthed into a whole class taught by me on basic wrestling skills and drills. (I was able to hold him down … something he didn't expect … hehehe) It is so nice to share these kinds of skills into a dojo. I'm so lucky to have a dojo near me that respects and still trains with tradition, but also allows other ideas and approaches to be showcased as long as they are effective.

My body is sore a lot of the time, and some weeks I need to take an extra day off, but I'm still having a ball. I've progressed to Purple Belt (4 th Kyu), and I hope to be able to test sometime in the year for Brown. Oh, my stretching continues to improve but still no full split.

Black Belt Bill

(01AUG2019) I did it!!! Sorry for being so late in updating this, but I had been awarded a Black Belt in Shito Ryu!!! Hundreds of kicks, sore ribs, more push ups than I can remember, and 14 Katas! The board of 8 black belts agreed that I should be awared the 1st Dan! Soooo very happy, and grateful to all those whom helped me along the way.

It must be noted, again, that a black belt simply means you understand and can demonstrate the basics of a particular style... it does not mean master of anything. As such, my studies in Shito-Ryu karate continue, and I am learning learning learning!

Would you start Martial Arts at 45?