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Karate is Hard

“Karate is hard . . . that is why it is so good.”

These are words my teacher, Sensei Morio Higaonna told me over 25 years ago as a young yellow belt karate student in San Diego. Back then I really did not understand the significance of this statement. I thought “Yah right, we do lots of hard punching and kicking?!” I thought he was just saying this to motivate us to sweat and work harder. Little did I know.

Like many profound lessons we learn in life we do not fully understand the lesson until much later. This is the case here. Last night’s belt stripe testing of our students was a good example. I asked our instructors, our students, and our parents to do something very hard.

For our instructors: I take the responsibility of helping our parents develop character in their children very seriously. I know that one of the unique and valuable things we can do here is place your children under stress. The good stresses of fear, hardship, boredom and failure. Children today do not get nearly enough of each of these mainly due to technology and parents unknowingly over-protecting their children. We can create this stress in an intentional, intense but safe manner. Courage cannot be developed without the presence of fear. Likewise character, grit and hard work cannot be developed without hardship, boredom and failure.

One of the many powerful tools we have in our hands is the belt stripe testing. We could do this the easy way by spending a lot of time making sure every student has plenty of time and attention. We could easily make sure we do not test until everyone is 100% ready. We could easily set the standard so that everyone passes. Instead we purposely create good pressure and stress on the students by giving them very difficult material and not enough time to learn it. But that is life. Life rarely tests you when you are ready! (By the way, our beginners are graded on attitude and effort, while at green belt and up we turn it way up grading on technique and performance.)

So why is this hard on our instructor? You might be surprised. They have too soft a spot in their hearts for the students. I will tell them “We have to make sure to fail at least 1/3 of the class.” (The reason is if only a one or two fail it is too crushing a blow to those one or two, but by regularly failing a significant number, failing becomes more the norm than the exception.) My instructors will say “No problem Sensei, we got this. We will give out a bunch of half stripe” but when they are actually face-to-face with a student they just can’t get themselves to give a half stripe. I really have to push them or they will give out too many full stripes!

For our students: Is this tough on our students? Yes! But I wish I could make it even harder. It might be tough to see a student shed a tear and hold back crying but we know the more emotional an experience we can create the stronger the lesson. I have seen many a child hold themselves together then totally lose it when they get to their car. Is this hard? Just know that the harder they cry the better it is for them. Like I told everyone last night, use this as a talking point with your child on the drive home. When something gets really hard or you fail, people will generally have one of two reactions. One is where they get crushed and shutdown. Often you will see them revert to making excuses and blaming. They also become jealous of others success. The other reaction some have is to be driven even harder by the failure. They get knocked down then immediately get up wanting to prove us wrong. They are the ones who say “Bring it on” and want more. They will say “I want to re-test right now!” So, which one are you? Which one is your child? This belt stripe test is designed so you can answer this question then decide which person you will be!

For our parents: I save our parents for last because this may well be the hardest on you. No parent wants to see their child fail. No parent wants to see their child hurt and crying. We know many of you have really good, high performing kids. They walk on water. You are not used to seeing your kids do anything other than succeeding and exceling at everything. If this is the case, the more your child needs to experience hardship and failure. Just change your perspective a little so you can help them. “Hardship and failure is good. Every time your child encounters it and powers through it they get stronger!”.

So, please try not try to ease their pain by telling them they are okay, or that they got robbed and deserved the whole stripe. Definitely do not make excuses for them or help them blame their failure on something or someone. You do not need to rescue them. Let them feel and learn from the failure. The pain is good. Embrace the failure and they will too. I know this is hard for you. Often the half stripe is harder on the parent than the child.

I have to give my friends in the Army credit for a saying that fits well here: Learn to “Embrace the Suck!”

Yours for kinder and tougher kids,


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