Words cannot express just how proud we are to announce that eight of our members have recently been promoted to our coveted black belt rank, after a gruelling 5-hour grading on Sunday 27th May. Over the past months, they have all been training very hard for this event and performed with every ounce of energy they could harness. It was an honour to witness such skill, determination and tenacity all in one room!
In our dojo, the grading requirements for Shodan (first degree black belt) are very demanding - physically, mentally and emotionally. It takes years of consistent development and devotion to karate to be even considered for black belt, so only very few of our members ever make it to this point. But that's not the only reason why we consider our black belt award so special.
At least two weeks before the test, candidates are required to submit a written essay or conduct a class presentation on a karate-related subject of their choice. This in itself takes weeks of preparation, research and numerous drafts being questioned, corrected and revised. Topics from our 2018 candidates included the history of karate, kata application, power generation, movement efficiency, mental strength, the importance of sparring and old-school Okinawa karate principles.
Before the physical testing begins, all candidates are required to sit a panel interview, to answer questions relating to their essay/presentation topic and additional pre-requisites that includes the history of the karate ranking system, explaining to the panel what holding a black belt would personally mean to them and what they think their reaction would be if they were unsuccessful. We ask these questions to check understanding of what a black belt is and most importantly, what it isn't.
The physical grading covers a variety of aspects from our curriculum and challenges candidates thoroughly across many pathways. Included are fundamental techniques and kata (forms), combination techniques including the ability to transition smoothly and adapt freely, kata applications for civilian self-defence, a range of intense pad work drills against focus mitts and impact shields, pre-arranged sparring and limb control drills, grappling methods, numerous rounds of free-sparring to a variety of scenarios, both long-range and self-defence based. The final challenge after being totally exhausted from the above is to harness enough energy, concentration and focus to cleanly break a one inch wooden board with both a hand and foot technique.
Candidates are assessed on their overall performance including technique, ability, understanding, consistency and tenacity. They are also assessed on how they respond to challenge, pressure, doubt and any mistakes they may make along the way. The character traits for black belt are equally as important as the physical attributes.
It is my pleasure to announce the following promotions to black belt and share a little about their individual progress:
Phoebe Forster - Junior Shodan
Phoebe was one of our very first junior members some eight years ago. She's clocked nearly 3000 days since her very first grading and has grown into a fine young lady. Hundreds of members have joined and quit since she began her journey with us, but she's living proof that our blueprint works for those few who are willing to see the process through.
Her level of maturity at her young age is impressive. She dominated her interview better than many adults would and managed her physical performance exceptionally well. She displayed a fine balance of all the attributes we require for Black Belt.
Due to the pressure, there were a few emotional tears during breaks, but when the next phase was called, Phoebe took control, flipped the switch and showed everyone what she's made of!
Sarah Hobbs - Shodan
The way Sarah has overcome her fears represents the spirit of our dojo and displays what attaining a Toku Sei Kan Black Belt is all about.
Many people consider breaking an inch of wood easy...Sarah didn't. And her mental battle towards this challenge has been going on for months. After hours of intense effort, she bravely walked on to face the boards literally crying, composed herself and harnessed what energy she had left. She walked off having defeated the greatest enemy she'll ever face, herself.
We all find challenges in life that may seem superficial to others, but are very real to us. But facing those challenges head on and bravely battling those demons that threaten your realisation of personal success is what puts you in the minority of those who walk on this spinning planet. Sarah has now earned a life-long membership of 'The Minority Gang'.
Dominic Mills - Shodan
Karate is obviously not the only thing going on in people's lives and Dominic was one of those who had extra stresses outside of the dojo, as he is right in the middle of his GCSE exams!
A few weeks ago he came to me rather upset and ready to throw in the towel completely, as he was finding it impossible to juggle grading prep with the demands of his school revision. After we talked, he decided to keep on struggling.
Parents who have supported their kids through GCSE's recently will know just how hard it is. Many from this age group drop out of karate altogether due to such pressures and never resume to realise the talent they may have. This makes that fact that Dominic even turned up to the grading worthy of respect.
It's easy to make excuses when other difficult stuff is going on in your life. It's something to blame. But taking personal responsibility for your path is what leads to real success.
Elaine Ashford - Shodan
Elaine is like a pit bull terrier as she packs a mighty punch for her size. And after being under the weather for days leading up to the grading, she still stood up and toe'd the line!
Elaine's success will have a huge impact on her kids, Millie and Charlie, who are also dojo member and were both there to witness their mum unleashing the warrior within. What an inspirational lesson to give your children!
At one point during the grading she glanced over with a look of sheer exhaustion and desperation in her eyes that indicated a little doubt that she may not be able to continue. I said, "you OK?" and her eyes immediately changed as she reached deep to find some more energy. She nodded, threw her doubts away and then got stuck right back in. I'm not even sure is she remembers it, but for me, that was a pivotal point in her grading.
Terence Ross - Shodan
Already ranked 5th Dan in Wado-based karate, Terry attended a seminar with me back in 2008, which happened to spark some interest about my approach. A few seminars later, he approached me to seek full student membership of the dojo under the condition that he start again from white belt. That alone told me a great deal about Terry's character.
Living in Lancaster, Terry drives over a 4-hour round journey to practice at our dojo. This certainly motivates our local members to 'go the extra mile' and attend class when theymay have had a tough day at work or school. Because of his location, his attendance is sporadic, but his prior experience and work ethic more than makes up for his irregularity.
Up until very recently, Terry was an active instructor with another association, which meant that he had to learn to adapt to our style, whilst still maintaining high standards in another. Anyone who's had to do this will know how difficult that can be.
After a previous grading with us, it was evident that Terry would need to work on his general fitness and since then he's lost weight, gained strength and mobility. His performance at the grading showed a culmination of all his sterling efforts.
Thomas Duggan - Shodan
Over the years Tom has been a member of our dojo, he has had to make some significant changes to his karate. He's one of our members who has spent time training with teachers in Okinawa (the birthplace of karate) and the hunger he possesses to dig deep and understand what's below the surface of karate practice is commendable.
As Tom is quite tall and has long limbs, his personal challenge has always been around attaining smooth and efficient movement, along with the focus to end techniques precisely. Over the years he has steadily chipped away at these issues, developed his self-confidence and through all his hard work has gradually gained more power, accuracy and consistency. Even up until the day before the grading, he was in the dojo making sure that he'd taken full ownership of what would be required on the day. With such a humble and genuine character, I have no doubt that Tom's quest to improve will continue just the same as it always has, exhibiting one the most inspiring attributes we look for in our black belts.
Garet Mair - Shodan
Garet has already clocked up a long and impressive experience in martial arts including Taekwondo (former British champion) and mixed martial arts. He's certainly been 'round the block' so to speak and because of this, I take pride in the fact that he finds something special at our dojo and over the years has grown to love all that we're about.
A doctor of engineering, Garet has a particular interest in the physics associated with karate power generation and submitted a very in-depth study for his grading essay. This passion extends to understanding how the more traditional aspects of karate may fit within a more contemporary understanding of science.
But as well as 'talking the talk', Garet can also 'walk the walk'. Despite a niggling hamstring injury and bloody forehead towards the end, his grading performance was beautifully balanced and consistently managed -a testament to both his prior experience and in-depth preparation leading up to the event.
Kelvin McDonald - Shodan
Kelvin's work rate throughout the grading day was in a word, exceptional. He simply didn't let up...not even for one second!
In the months leading up to the grading I've witnessed Kelvin push a little harder each week. One more burpee. One more kata. One more try. His karate is almost incomparable to what it was 12-months ago and he's a positive example of the fact that what you consistently think and how you consistently act, so shall you become.
Since travelling to Okinawa with us back in 2014, Kelvin's view and passion for karate has increased exponentially. His determined, but respectful attitude in the dojo is one that we'd love all our members to have and I'm sure that his daughter Natasha, who is also a member, will find a great deal of inspiration from her father's achievement.
The Japanese term Shodan, does not mean 'expert', but 'beginners level'. It suggests that newly ranked black belts are merely on the first step of a long ladder in their lifelong journey in karate. However, being on the first rung does not mean that they have only learned the 'basics', far from it.
In order to prepare karate practitioners for a lifelong study, they are carefully forged over the years leading up to black belt, just like a sword would be forged and tempered in order for a sharp edge to be polished. Students are progressively exposed to increasing levels of heat and consistently moulded by the demands of karate's traditional teachings - physically, mentally and spiritually.
Although not popular as it causes discomfort and probably the main reason why there are so many 'get your black belt quick' schemes around the World, the tempering process associated with traditional martial arts is an absolute necessity so that a sharp edge may always be regained. It is not an easy process and it takes lots of time and effort, which is why in our dojo, only a very small percentage of our membership will develop the attributes required for Shodan.
On behalf of everyone at E.S.K.K Martial Arts & Fitness, I'd like to congratulate all our newly ranked black belts on a job well done! The roots are now set firmly in place and now you have the opportunity to use this fundamental platform for continued development within the dojo, to grow some branches of your own and begin the lifelong process of polishing your individual expression of karate.