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  • Writer's pictureMatt Powell

A MATTer of time: Ten years a Yondan. PART 1

Recently I met up with several of my oldest karate friends.

Sat around the table in the Red Lion Pub was an assortment of black belts ranging from those in their mid-forties to others in their mid-seventies most of whom I have known for twenty plus years.

We tend to meet up every few months and have a few sociable drinks and a curry. But mostly we share old karate memories and chat about what we are all doing now.

I particularly enjoyed this meet up as one of my Senpai (James) joined us and it has been a few years since we last shared a pint and a chat.

When I was a young brown belt James was a third dan and a senior I respected greatly. Along with Paul Hickey he had recognised potential in me, encouraged me to compete and has remained interested in my progress ever since.

Growing up I was in no way a gifted sportsman. I wanted to be part of a team, but somehow never found my fit or my group.


when I hit my early twenties, I suddenly found my people …… and they were in the dojo!

On a Friday night we would often finish training and then head to the White Hart pub (now an old peoples home 😊 ….. how ironic) and I would listen to the stories and karate memories.

I loved it then as I still do now. But most importantly, I felt part of a group, a community, a team!

Seeing James reminded me of one Friday night chat with him and Paul many years ago. We had been discussing grade and development and I remember James telling me about his personal expectation of a third dan in knowledge and skill. The conversation continued and I distinctly recall saying something along the lines of ‘when I am a fifth dan I want to be able to …. etc etc’.

James laughed, smiled at me, patted me on the back and said, ‘I love that Matt, you are so confident and certain you will get to fifth dan …. and I believe you’.

I remember the chat so clearly as it was symbolic of my mindset. Once I found my place in the dojo, I knew I never wanted to leave. Progress for me was a certainty as I enjoyed karate so much, I never considered leaving or ceasing to train. I wasn’t being arrogant; I was just certain that I would stick with it!

Now I am older I realise that nothing is guaranteed, circumstances and injury can, and does halt progress for many. But when I was a young pup, I was largely naive to all of this. So, I felt back then that for me, fifth dan was simply a ‘matter of time’!

In June of this year, I was presented with my fifth dan a little over ten years since I graded for forth dan at the SEKU instructors’ class in Portsmouth. Having seen James on Friday and remembering our conversation from all those years ago I thought it would be interesting to consider what I learnt in my ten years as a fourth dan black belt.

Fortunately, when the idea hit my I had my iPad to hand, so I quickly made notes to serve as paragraph titles and today I returned to those notes to generate a blog. It transpires that I have learnt quite a lot so I will split my findings over a few articles.

Here are the first of my thoughts.

1. Enthusiasm pollutes control.

As a young black belt, I was often misunderstood. I can clearly remember accidentally knocking out a member of the Portsmouth Dojo at a grading with a Uraken (Back-fist) counter during set kumite. As I left the hall I could here Sensei Dewey say ‘Bloody Matt Powell’ as I wandered to the changing room. That saying became somewhat of a theme as I trained more and more with Sensei.

I never meant to hurt anyone, and I certainly wasn’t deliberately malicious, but I just tried too hard. I was so focused and desperate to be good. The result was that I would occasionally have a slip of control.

Once, before training at Portchester. Roy asked me to pair-up and spar with him before class. The result was that I split his eye open with a round-house kick. Roy had to go home and couldn’t train, and Sensei O’Donnell was very disappointed in me. I was gutted, it wasn’t intentional. I thought the world of Roy…… I just simply tried too hard and once again my enthusiasm polluted MY control.

Since I have been running my own dojo, I forbid kumite (sparring) before class, as I am mindful of my own experiences and mistakes. I also now understand how frustrating it is when a student cannot train as they have been hurt before we have even lined up.

I also recognise in my own students when their own enthusiasm gets the better of them.

I regularly use this saying to take the edge off and diffuse situations if temperatures have been raised during pair-ups. Equally I feel I can spot when enthusiasm isn’t the cause of issues, and someone may be getting spiteful due to frustration.

It is my job to step in and manage the situation!

2. Choose Finesse over Thuggery

My Sensei has always been skilled at building and maintaining strong numbers in his dojo. Consequently, I was very aware that he could not only watch or show interest in my karate each session.

Somehow however he always managed to give me feedback after class.

As a young man in my twenties, I was very strong and athletic. I would train karate six or seven days a week and attend the gym at least four times. Isn’t it amazing the time we had at our disposal before we became parents.

Back then I would feel most fulfilled in training when I had experienced the most feedback. i.e. I was awash with sweat, my feet maybe blistered and my muscles ached from exertion. I would then await Sensei O’Donnell’s appraisal of my performance at the end of the evening.

More often-than-not it would be very simple and quick.

‘Still too strong Matthew’.

This phrase haunted me for years and I was forever chasing relaxed karate.

Somehow the more I aspired for smooth movement and ‘Senior’ Karate the more it alluded me.

When I was teaching on Zoom I recorded my classes. I would watch my own performance but also appraise the work of the students. Suddenly I heard myself critiquing my students and encouraging them to choose ‘Finesse over Thuggery’.

How ironic I thought.

Suddenly mindful of my own Sensei’s appraisal of my strong approach all those years ago, I watched my work back and suddenly realised that now I am finally relaxed.

Perhaps this is a ‘time-served’ maturity of technique issue, but I choose to believe it is more to do with relaxation. The less focused I have been on chasing the karate I wanted and the more focused I have become on the moment and the task in hand, the more relaxed I have become!

I now can watch my students and see when their own effort is their enemy as once it was mine.

In that moment I encourage them to prioritise finesse.

3. Your potential belongs to you!

There are several different definitions of the meaning of the word ‘potential’. My preferred is the following I found online,

Potential, (noun) something that can develop or become actual.

It is very tempting as a teacher or coach to invest hopes and enthusiasm into a student when you sense or can see what they ‘could become’.

I have realised over the last ten years that whilst I may see the potential for great things in a student. It is unfair to expect or push an individual to deliver on a vision that may or may not be theirs.

Realisation of potential is the right of the individual!

My Mums cousin David was an extremely talented footballer in his youth. From memory he played Sunday league into his advanced years and always shone when on the pitch. When he was a teenager in the 1970’s he was scouted by several professional football clubs, but he decided to resist the temptation to become a professional and remained an amateur.

When I was growing up this anecdote fascinated me, and one day I asked my dad if he knew why David had never ‘turned pro’?

Dad told me that he had spoken to David about it, especially when Portsmouth had shown an interest (Dad was a die-hard fan). David simply chose to remain Amateur as he didn’t want to loose his love of the game’.

To people with lesser talent who could only daydream of similar opportunities this decision may have proved unfathomable, but to David it made perfect sense.

It was his choice!

His potential belonged to him!

The modern world is a strange place to operate. The pressures on how a person’s life ‘should be’ are polluted and influenced by social media, and I often take stock by referencing the stoic quote ‘comparison is the thief of joy’.

I worry for my students that they feel pressure to ‘be’ how others think or expect them to.

Consequently, I encourage them to own their potential in every aspect of life.

As a teacher it is not my right or responsibility to dictate how a person should develop. Instead, I choose to give them options and encourage them to think about what they want to be, do, or achieve.

Happiness is not a grade, trophy, or perfect kata away. It is now and in the moment.

I often fear that the joy of karate training can be lost if it is all work and no play. I have learnt that karate training, study and teaching must be fun. People (including myself) can choose to strive for their potential or otherwise. The individual has the right to choose, they must not loose their ‘love of the game’. Especially if the pressure to achieve is driven by someone else.

I have witnessed Senior Instructors distance themselves from loyal and dedicated students as the student chose a different path from the one they hoped, thought or expected their disciple to take. This is unfair and a real shame. Sure, some people may make bad decisions, follow the wrong path or simply get lazy and park their potential on the sofa. But I have realised that is the prerogative of the student!

A Sensei’s role is to guide ...... not dictate!


Part two coming soon …..

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