Back in the year 2000 I had returned to karate after a seven-year break. I had trained hard all year and then competed as a 1st Kyu (Brown and white belt) in the Portsmouth Invitational.
I had a good day and in my debut competition as an adult won the Brown belt kata, the brown belt kumite and was a member of the team kumite who placed third beating black belts along the way.
I was on a roll!
A few days after the competition I was watching television after a morning at university when the phone went, and it was Sensei Mick Dewey the Chief Instructor of SEKU (the karate association where I grew up).
Sensei invited me to become a squad member and join the team on its next tournament visit to Trnava in Slovakia for the annual Christmas competition.
I was thrilled and accepted the invitation with pride and anticipation.
On this occasion Sensei Dewey had duties with the EKGB (English Karate Governing Body) so entrusted the care of the competitors to Jim Hele Sensei of the Hayling Shima Dojo. Jim was an international referee, a great karate man, and a lot of fun to be around.
The trip itself was an eventful one and I will write about it in detail one day. But for me the biggest lesson lay in my own naivety.
During the tournament I had performed kata but not progressed past the first round, then in kumite (sparring) my right leg was swept, and my knee injured. It immediately swelled up to the size of the football.
(If I close my eyes, I can still hear the Slovakian referee screaming out ‘DOCTOOOUUUUURRRRRR’).
I spent the rest of the day with my leg elevated and an ice pack on my knee. I was gutted! Not only did I not get to showcase my abilities, but also, I knew it was now likely that I would be unable to grade for my black belt two weeks later.
Having worked hard all year I would now have to miss out and wait longer for the belt I always wanted.
Why……. Because I wasn’t prepared for the specific pressures of competing on a different level.
At no point did I consider my injury my opponent’s fault. The Slovaks were a formidable karate nation and they trained kumite exhaustively. They also had a different perception of acceptable contact. I just knew that if I were to return, I would have to put extra work in.
My injury eased and I passed my Shodan black belt in February of 2001. I then graduated from university in June and started a job in August, so I was unable to return to Slovakia until 2002.
When I did, I placed 2nd in heavyweight kumite, and we came 2nd in the team kumite event.
I had taken responsibility for my own drive and performance, and it had made a big difference.
In May this year our Association hosted our inter-club annual summer competition. Our clubs did very well, and I knew it was important for our team that we kept momentum. I identified the WUKF Welsh Open on June 11th as a good opportunity to test performance in a different arena with different rules and opponents.
In consultation with Wayne Lee and Mike Smallpage I picked a small team of under 18’s for the trip but excluded those who are due to grade for Shodan at the next grading. I refuse to knowingly repeat my own mistakes with our students.
Consequently, I drove a full mini-bus to Wales after training on Saturday the 10th of June. The travel party consisted of Petersfield and Knowle students with their respective parents or guardians and Jess (the Cheong) and her daughter Lucinda who joined us from the AKA Southdowns dojo.
I love a good karate road trip and the four hours in a mini-bus was worth it to hear everyone get to know each other better and enthuse about the competition ahead.
I had organised for us to stay at a Hotel ten minutes from the Leisure Centre and Big Sams elder brother Chris met us there. After we had checked in we met for dinner and a few refreshments in the hotel’s restaurant. Everyone was relaxed apart from Jake who was so buzzed up he was running laps of the table and doing burpees. He was like a Tasmanian devil!
The next day we met at 7am for breakfast and then a team briefing in the hotel foyer before we boarded the bus to the competition.
As we entered the hall I saw some familiar faces, including Eden Burrell formerly of SEKU who was refereeing and Colin Parker Sensei of Moichido Karate in Epsom. Ironically Colin trained under Jim Hele at Hayling and we have been friends since my early visits in the year 2000. The relevance of the connection was not lost on me.
After the referee briefing, I realised that I had overlooked a rule in that under 12’s had to wear head guards for kumite. Thankfully Colin introduced me to George from the Vale of Glamorgan karate Association who asked his student Rhys to share his equipment with Jake from our team. Thank-you George and Rhys.
First up was kata and the format of this competition offered a fresh challenge to our young team. Instead of the normal Heian elimination kata rules, everyone was able to pick their own choice of kata. Also, the under 13’s (Tommy, Jake and Bremner) were in an open category competing against other styles for the first time. I was proud that many of our students progressed through a couple of rounds despite being at a disadvantage to those from other associations performing Unsu and other advanced forms.
Brooke showed maturity here and adjusted her timing to showcase her precision and solid stances. Elliott who normally favours kumite also found an extra gear and put in the best performance in a kata competition I have seen from him to date.
Lucinda from SDKC demonstrated a solid Jion and progressed through a couple of rounds narrowly missing the final.
Pandora who has been working extremely hard since we returned from lockdown maintained her consistency and placed third in the sixteen and over kata. Her Bassai Dai is improving consistently, and it was great to see her hard work pay off.
It was extremely hot in the sports hall and the atmosphere heated up even more once kumite began.
First up was Jake in his borrowed head-gear in the under 12’s kumite. It is easy to forget that Jake is only ten years old as he is a tall lad with size 9 feet. He soon put those assets to good use with some well timed mae-geri against his first opponent.
Soon I was having to spread my time between multiple mats as the kumite rounds progressed. Thankfully Big Mike was on hand to support me and we shared the workload.
Big Sam commanded his normal presence on the mat against a very experienced fighter who showcased some nice movement and big kicks. Sam held his own but needs to vary his movement and work rate in the rounds to match opponents of this stature.
Pandora was breaking line well and as always was relaxed and unfazed. Bremner moved extremely well and never looks rushed on the mat. It was a close match but for both of them it was not to be their day.
Meanwhile Jake was continuing to progress through the rounds with a solid base of Gizami Tsuki, Mae Geri and Gyaku Tsuki. Jake has always trained extremely well, and his timing and sense of distance were proving a challenge for his opponents.
Whilst I was coaching Jake, Mike was supporting Brooke who was facing a much bigger opponent in the 14 and 15 year old category. As Jakes match finished, I took the coaches chair but could see that Brooke was frustrated.
Every karate competitor who has competed on multiple occasions will recall having a day where none of their techniques seemed to score. For whatever reason, whether the referees failed to see the points, our kiais went unheard or our opponents smothered our attacks. The biggest challenge in these moments is to manage frustration.
From experience I also know that at this point the competitor is at the biggest risk of injury.
Brooke was throwing some big legs and these were simply not being scored. Regardless of a competitor’s own self-belief it is often the best strategy at this point to switch tactics, but I could tell that Brooke was in her own ‘zone’ and unable to adjust or listen to my coaching.
After taking a heavy knock and enforced break there were twenty seconds left on the clock. Brooke regrouped and maintained distance as directed for the remainder of the fight.
She was emotional, frustrated and upset. But it was a valuable learning experience. This was only Brookes third competition in kumite. Experience and the ability to vary tactics when techniques are not being seen or scored will be crucial to her development.
Elliott Walsha won his first-round match convincingly and then faced an experienced competitor in the next round. Elliott pushed his opponent to the end but did not prevail this time. His opponent went on to win the event and from my opinion Elliott gave him the biggest challenge of the day. Ice Man is (by definition) a cool character, and he will work on finding another gear to overcome competitors with this much experience and mat time.
Tommy drew an opponent with exceptional kicks and lost to three well-timed head shots. There was no shame in that. His opponent had some classy moves. Tommy’s desire to go forward and his will to win were his downfall. Quite simply he needs to vary his tactics and adjust to those happy to fight from a counter position. This will come from experience, but he must learn to manage his own frustrations and stop being so hard on himself.
Meanwhile our star performer of the day (Jake the Legend Lander) found himself in the final where he lost to a couple of well-timed head shots. This was Jakes first competition outside our association, and I was thrilled with his performance and second place result.
Lucinda from SDKC was being coached by her Mum Jess and both were doing a great job. Lucinda was utilising timing and lead arm shots to progress, and it was working well. Unfortunately, in the semifinals her control was deemed a little heavy and under the pressure of the moment Lucinda was unable to adjust her tactics.
I saw in Lucinda the same tunnel vision response that had affected Brooke and I know that if she can process the pressure and adrenalin and remain able to listen to coaches during a match she will go from strength to strength.
Big Mike who missed the Legends due to illness was thrilled to be back in the mix and placed third in the veteran’s kumite after facing an opponent with excellent timing. Mike just loves being on the mat!
We took a young team up on the mini-bus who each had a parent or guardian with them and the atmosphere all weekend was great. It was wonderful to be joined on the day by Grace Cooper and her Mum Kate who drove up to spectate and Damien and Dawn Lander who having managed to get the day off work were able to witness Jakes moment of glory.
Thank you for the lovely support.
I am never ashamed when our students lose or under perform. Especially if they tried their best on the day. Nerves and lack of experience can play a huge part in performance and the value of new experiences whether good or bad should not be underestimated.
When competing and in the moment, we must listen to and trust our coaches.
However, focusing on the points that were missed, or the mistakes we perceive will not a champion make!
Instead, we must place emphasis on our own standards and effort while we keep pushing forward.
Winners train…… losers complain!