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  • Writer's pictureMatt Powell

Back in the game, this feels familiar!

It is now approaching midnight and I cannot sleep. I am wide awake and full of endorphins. I feel the best I have this year!

Tonight, was my first night back in the dojo since the middle of March. After five and a half months of zoom classes and training on my own I had my feet back on a dojo floor and ‘Man it felt good’!

I taught three classes to three separate groups to maintain Social distancing and operate in a safe and appropriate manner. No pair work, no kumite, no randori, no pad-work! It was in many ways vastly different, but in other ways it was so familiar.

I started karate back in 1987 when I was eight years old. My Dad had borrowed a hooky copy of karate kid one and two from one of his colleagues and it had inspired me to start training. Now Netflix has bought the rights to its follow-up series Cobra Kai and even though I watched it last year on Youtube, I have again binge watched all the episodes …. twice!

The writers of the series are geniuses. They have a history of recreating 1980’s nostalgia (Hot Tub Time Machine) and are experts in the karate kid franchise. They have excelled in capturing the mood and the familiar. Watching it is like catching up with old friends. The subtle references, the nods to the past. Everything is exceptionally well done!

It is new but somehow takes you back to younger more innocent days when life was simpler. I do not think it is a coincidence that it is extremely popular with adults who remember the original. What could be better during this crazy pandemic than an escape back to the innocence of our child hoods?

What makes me chuckle is that Johnny is stuck in the 1980’s. That is because in many ways so am I. I drive a 1981 V6 Coupe that is black and aggressive, I am not great with technology and I listen to 80’s Rock constantly. (My kids love REO Speedwagon and Rainbow as a result). I am also not exactly a fashionable dresser. I love a retro 80’s He-Man T-Shirt!

What I really like about the series is that it challenges the viewers perception of who is good and who is bad. It encourages you to understand different perspectives and points of view. In the case of the original movies it challenges decades of acceptance of ‘who was the bad guy?’

I had a wonderful discussion recently with a good friend who was educating me on some of the principles of Aikido. He explained that one of his favourite teachings involved a practitioner humanising and respecting an opponent during confrontation. I thought this was an interesting concept especially when considering conflict de escalation, self-defence and the law. Strangely Cobra Kai captures the same sentiment. There are always two sides to a story!

A few years ago, I stretched myself too far. I changed jobs, put an extension on our house and had a baby girl all at the same time. We had also started our own Karate Group as we had left the Karate association, we had grown up in. Life was busy to the extreme!

Some people questioned our motives in leaving but that is natural and sooner or later everyone appreciates your point of view. What proved more upsetting was that during that time I let my students down! I was simply spreading myself too thin and had no spare time. Stress was flying at me from every angle and I took too long to realise the effects it was having on me.

Thankfully, Keith Williams stepped up and took the lead at the club and I took more of a back seat. Some thought I was losing interest.

The reality was I was losing control……… of my life!

Something had to give and one morning my immune system decided it would be my face!

I woke up at 5am as I was supposed to be driving my Managing Director to Wales for an important Sales meeting, but when I started to shave, I realised something was wrong. I could not fill my cheeks with air to get an effective shave. Then I could not move the left side of my face at all!

Something similar had happened to a friend of mine years before so I didn’t panic and I woke my wife up gently.

“Karyn wake up….. please, wake up. I can’t move my face!’

Hmmm, in hindsight maybe it wasn’t that gentle. My poor wife leapt into action and we had phoned 111, then 999 and after dropping the kids at my In-Laws were soon in Accident and Emergency. Fortunately, I was on strong Steroids within an hour and that combined with my otherwise good health (and my stubborn attitude) allowed my body to recover from Bell’s Palsy and my face to return to ‘normal’ within two weeks.

(Just in case anyone reading this finds themselves in the same situation, a valuable fact I discovered was that if you cannot close your eye it is unlikely that you are suffering a stroke and is more likely to be Bell’s Palsy. Stay calm and seek medical help).

While I recovered from my health scare, I received the same advice from three different sources:

‘If you do not look after yourself, then you cannot look after anyone!’

Since then I have gradually adjusted my priorities and tried to recognise in myself when I am overwhelmed, stressed, or stretched too thin. In many ways I have been working out how to live a more intentional life that I am in control of.

When Dad was unwell, I had a moment of clarity and in October 2019 I decided I would double down on my efforts and focus on my ambition to become a professional karate instructor. (Who knew that a few months later we wouldn’t even be able to leave our houses for more than thirty minutes let alone lead a hall full of willing students.)

A positive that I took from lockdown was the time it afforded me to appraise and think deeply about things. I have thought long and hard about what a ‘professional karate instructor’ is or indeed should be. It is certainly not John Creese of the Cobra Kai.

I decided that a Sensei is a contributor. Someone that offers value to his students and community and is invested in their improvement. Crucially they should also offer inspiration…… regularly!

The challenge I faced was that apart from online classes there was no obvious ways to contribute or offer this value to my student’s. So, I decided to get creative and force myself to embrace something new. I became a regular blogger and then a Youtube contributor. It was new, challenging but rewarding. It also allowed me to reconnect with my students and their families while we couldn’t get together.

Unless you teach karate I don’t think you can appreciate how much communication and paperwork is involved. Especially if you have large numbers. Previously I had become reluctant with the associated paperwork as it felt like work and karate was my escape. But now with my new mindset that karate is my profession, I have embraced it and bolted it on to my regular activities of blogging, filming and training. Weirdly I enjoy it.

So, a couple of weeks ago I started working with venues to put a return to training plan together. Then I needed to reach out to my members and offer a safe solution to get ‘the team back together’. It has been a lot of work, but tonight it felt so worth it!

I arrived at the brand-new studio I had first visited as a building site in January. I met the owner wearing facemasks and then got set up. I sterilised door handles and bannisters and laid out cones after measuring two-meter grids. It was vastly different. I then set up my Ipad to film the classes and sterilised my hands before finally getting into my gi. I then asked Alexa (All cool modern dojos need a sound system) to play the Eagles greatest hits and I started stretching. This was a little different to my normal routine of moving benches.

I taught a brown and black belt class first where we focused on kumite footwork, breaking line and repertoire. We then studied the kata Empi and really concentrated on timing and kime. Now things were starting to feel more familiar.

The second class was for kyu grades and we warmed up with Kumite bouncing to Insomnia by Faithless, then we stretched, worked on breaking line with basics and then focused on Heian Godan. Again, getting back to basics reinforced the familiar.

Finally, my last class was for 5 of my 2nd Dan Black Belts. Alexa wasn’t playing so our kumite bouncing warm up lacked music, but I could tell everyone was pleased to be back in a dojo. We then explored a drill I had been working on from three different contexts. We explored Basic performance, kumite movement and delivery and then finally a pragmatic variation focusing on self-defence. The same drill modified for three different contexts.

Time flew by and before I knew it all three classes were finished and I had taught for three hours and twenty minutes. I said to Liam that I couldn’t remember the last time I had taught for so long and still felt so energised. Liam remarked that it was probably about 8 years ago when I was gradually teaching more and more classes. I think he was right.

The funny thing about that time is that my classes were much smaller and we worked in smaller venues. Our dojo at Privett was tiny and we had to dodge nursery furniture. One week a chick hatched while we were training, but that is completely random and another story entirely.

Strangely the whole pandemic situation has forced me back to the familiar and so-far I am liking it. Wayne who has trained with me now since 2010 has often said that he misses the close dynamic we all had in the ‘early-days’ when the dojo was small. Tonight, that dynamic returned encouraged by training bubbles, new venues and safety protocols.

The other interesting outcome is that training in zones encourages different ways of training. We simply cannot effectively march up and down in line. Instead we are breaking line, cutting angles, practicing dynamic footwork and turns. It feels fresh, but again it is familiar. It is the old recipe I established when I started the dojos.

So, I urge all those nervous about returning to training or teaching to embrace the limitations and get back in the dojo. You may discover something new or stumble across methods that you may have forgotten that suddenly feel fresh but familiar.

Likewise, to all our students returning to school in the coming days. Embrace the new and enjoy the familiar. It feels good.

It’s been a cruel summer! Now we begin to reboot. Ganbatte Kudasai.

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