Liam Keaveney, the Chairman of the British Karate Kyokushinkai (BKK) asked me to write a few words on my experiences at the BKK Summer Camp I attended in August 2015. These are they.
"Why do you do karate?"
The question asked by Shihan Liam Keaveney at the National Grading course he held five weeks before Summer Camp.
“Why do you want to do your Sandan grading?”
The question I asked myself over the years since attaining my Nidan.
The first of those two questions is a profound one, the answer to which being undoubtedly as personal for each karateka as the words I’m writing here are to me.
When I was 15 I read a book by Sosai in which he talked about the importance of aspirations, having goals to aim for. He also mentioned that whatever you do, you should do it as well as you possibly can.
It was clear to me that both those things are inexorably linked. And his words ended up influencing not just my karate, but every part of my life since.
So for me, above all the other reasons to do karate, the main one is this: to get better.
That being the case, the answer to the second question was simple.
If the grading system is a way of proving that you are improving, then I had to see if I was or not.
There was only one time and only one place I could do that.
And so, eight months before Summer Camp began I made to the decision to take my Sandan grading.
I’d experienced a few National Gradings in the past, five to be precise. (Yes, 2nd kyu, 1st kyu, Shodan and Nidan only add up to four. I actually failed my Shodan the first time round, but more of that later), so I had a good idea of what I was in for.
Immediately I felt that familiar sense of pressure.
Only this time the stakes were higher than they’d ever been, so the pressure was greater.
That pressure led to a kind of tunnel vision, an intense focus on that day up there in the distance. And there was a lot of work to do to get there.
I’m sure I’m not alone amongst karateka in saying that the hardest part of training is finding the time to train.
Working 12 hour days after having recently started my own business, plus trying to remain a decent husband and father, made navigating the journey to August a complex one.
Parks, hotel rooms, toilets, lifts, all became my dojos. Anywhere I went, my grading came with me.
Kata played a huge part of my training. Constantly referring to the kata book, with the odd question emailed to Shihan Janine. (By the way whether you’re going for grading or not you owe it to yourself to go to her kata courses. You won’t believe how much you’ll learn.) It helped with sharpening technique and increasing power as well as stamina. You can see why Hanshi says that kata was the hardest part of his training for his 100 man fight.
Of course, one of the greatest pressures of the Sandan grading is the creation your own personal kata.
I started work on mine with a basic framework and kept building and tweaking as the weeks went on. Until finally I was able to lock it down, write it up and spend the final few months practising it.
The course Liam Keaveney ran before the Summer Camp was invaluable.
Where no question was too dumb (despite the merciless mickey-taking) and where the plan for the grading and expectations were laid out clearly.
Quite simply, the course removes your excuses.You come away knowing what you need to do and what you’re going to go through.
It was also impressed upon us that the actual grading would be only part of the grading. The whole Summer Camp is an opportunity to be scrutinised. And passed or failed accordingly.
There would be no let-up. The pressure would be on for the whole camp.
"When you go into that grading you're going into war." Shihan Liam explained.
He was right.
But it wasn’t war with the instructors examining you, nor with your fellow students.
In the grading you're at war with your own mind and body.
You’re fighting the years you have on the clock. The voices in your head that tell you you can't do it. Every imperfection you have tried to iron out but haven't quite managed to.
And winning or losing that war dictates whether you pass or fail.
No matter what training you’ve done, it’s your mind that makes the difference. As the saying goes “if you think you can or you think you can’t you’re absolutely right”.
So training six days a week, sometimes twice a day helped my mind believe that it was ready to win the war.
As the countdown continued the pressure increased, ramping up in the days immediately preceding the camp.
My biggest fear became not the grading but not making it to the grading. Getting knocked off my motorbike, catching a cold, pulling a muscle.
Over those eight months I’d overcome pulled hamstrings, tennis elbows (needing injections in both arms), chest infections and numerous other attempts my body made to stop me.
All I wanted to do now was make it to the grading in one piece.
And so it was with much relief that, almost 34 years after I first walked into a dojo, and seven years to the day after gaining my Nidan, I walked into the last grading I will ever take.
We lined up and were given our numbers.
This was it. The beginning of the end.
What all that training and studying had been for.
Whilst we had no idea of the time (the clock had been removed from the hall), as the hours went on, thanks to Shihan Liam’s course, we could always tell where we were in the running order: kata, kihon, renraku, conditioning (press ups/squats/sit-ups/jumps over the belt), pad work, fighting.
All the while Hanshi along with Shihans Liam and Alex Kerrigan, and Sensei Moss Agneli prowled the hall, eyes boring into us, spotting (and often, due to their intense gaze) prompting mistakes.
I remember quite a bit of what I did in those eight and a half hours. But nothing of what anyone else did.
That’s because of that Shodan grading I failed back in 1987.
What happened there was really interesting.
There were about 30 of us. We completed all the techniques. All the excercises. Everything by the book. But as the grading went on the kiais got quieter. Then stopped altogether. The power dissipated. Everything just got a bit ‘soft’.
Everyone was being influenced by everyone else. In a bad way.
Hanshi failed every one of us. For ‘lack of spirit.’
I was tremendously upset, but quickly understood why it happened.
So what did it teach me?
Ignore everyone around you. Be influenced by no one else. Trust yourself. Plough your own furrow. Oh, and shout like your life depends on it.
Eventually we heard Hanshi’s words echo round the hall:
“That’s it. Your grading is over.”
Of course it wasn’t really. We knew we still had the rest of the camp to prove ourselves. So the pressure remained.
Two hours later, with gi still soaking wet, we were back in the hall for an evening session with Hanshi. This time with the rest of the camp attendees.
The next morning at 6.30 we lined up on the field for a warm-up with Hanshi before splitting into groups for different activities.
Those of us who were grading ended up squashed into a squash court nose to nose with Shihans Liam and Alex and Sensei Moss who proceeded to point out exactly how rubbish our techniques and stances were.
This was at once terrifying (clearly we’d all failed our grading the day before if we can’t even punch a decent chudan zuki) and enlightening (no matter how long you train there is always so much room for improvement. We are striving to achieve that unachievable perfection after all).
The rest of the day was split into different sessions comprising self-defence, pad work, kata and technique ‘polishing’.
On the final day we had another 6.30am squash court session, followed by training on the field, with Shihans David Pickthall and Nick da Costa offering up some really useful knockdown combinations. And then came the fighting.
Those grading had to line up for five fights, then everyone else was allowed to fight each other, finishing off with another five fights for just the grading group.
I didn’t count how many rounds we had. It felt like a thousand, but it might have only been 20.
From there it was back into the big hall to cheer as the results of the gradings were read out and those successful jogged happily up to collect their signed licences.
Brown belts, Shodans and Nidans. They all heard their names called out.
The three of us attempting our Sandan just sat and sweated.
The pressure now reached an all time high.
There was one final hurdle. We each had to perform our personal katas for the assembled group.
It was us performing our own creation in front of people who knew infinitely more about what made a good kata than us. (I later had a nightmare in which I was training in the dojo totally naked. Not sure what that meant…)
Afterwards we stood there convinced of two things: that there was nothing we could have done better, and that our best just wasn’t good enough.
Then, one by one our names were read out.
Mine was last.
Finally the self-inflicted pressure that had started eight months earlier was lifted.
It was replaced by a feeling I had not expected.
That the grading had not been the end.
But simply the end of the beginning.
That I’d finally completed the basics.
And there was only one thing left to do now: