28 April, 2013

The ancient art of karate

My oldest daughter recently obtained her brown belt in karate. Quite an achievement, really. Just two more belts and then she’ll be aiming for the pièce de résistance—her black belt.

She started learning karate three years ago and has progressed quickly through the belts, despite only having lessons once a week (twice a week is just too expensive, given all our other commitments!). Thinking back to when she was starting out as a newbie white belt, it’s interesting to compare how she practises karate now with how she practised then. When she was a beginner, she (quite understandably!) moved less fluidly and her kicks and punches weren't terribly convincing. But now she’s really quite scary. She moves fast and gracefully, and her attacking is strong and sharp. She does a pretty impressive job of defending herself.

If you watch the lessons, though, it’s not entirely clear how students progress from beginner status through to advanced. That’s to say it’s not clear exactly how they are able to master the moves and improve. The classes are large (20+ students), cover a whole range of belts, and are led by (at most) two instructors. And my daughter does little practice outside her weekly class, so what she picks up and perfects, she does in class, not outside. But improve and move forward she certainly does, all the time. Perhaps it’s by a process of osmosis...

The gradings (the examination sessions which determine whether or not students are awarded their next belt) are interesting too. Students grade en masse (all students currently holding the same belt grade together), which means that the examiner has to keep an eye on roughly twelve students, all of whom are doing the same thing at the same time. They are examined on several things—their ability to perform a number of moves called at random by the examiner; how well they perform in their kata (the unique sequence of moves associated with a specific belt); and how well they defend and attack in a sparring session with a fellow student. It’s quite a lot for the examiner to take in and assess—and the grading always ends with him frantically scribbling notes!

But the system appears to work. Those students who you know to be good generally pass the grading, and those who you know to be less good often don’t pass, or are awarded a 'temporary' grade, meaning they’re not quite up to the required standard.

My daughter really enjoys karate and she seems to get a lot out of it—fitness, agility, discipline, confidence, a sense of achievement... Ultimately (once she’s a black belt), she hopes to be able to earn a bit of pin money from helping out with teaching. So, I’m very glad she decided to take this ancient art up. It’s been worth it.

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