Three and a half years after starting this blog to track my progress, I am absolutely delighted to say that I am now a first dan black belt! My grading took place at the recent adult national course, held over the weekend of 4th to 6th November at Carronvale House in Larbert.
Although this year has been mostly injury free, going into the weekend, I was worried about my body holding up to the rigours of 14 or so hours of training across six sessions. Preparations had gone well, my fitness felt good, my grading diary was complete but still... would I just get through the weekend?
At these courses, formal grading takes place in the Sunday morning session although performance is being assessed over the weekend. In the other five sessions, coaching with taken by the third and fourth dan black belts, teaching small groups in 30 minute chunks. This rotation between instructors, allowed us to get coaching from a wide variety of very talented martial artists, with the Meijin grades chipping in, to add guidance and fine details. The theme of the course was kata and how we use moves from kata in so many elements of practice without necessarily thinking about it.
I really enjoyed the different sessions, with personal highlights being a Friday night pad work session which then lead into a Saturday morning parrying practice with Markus and Marko from Finland, outdoor takedown practice on Saturday with Kenny and outdoor kata and movement in a confined space with Chris and Alexis.
Sunday morning came and it was time for grading. First up we had a good number of kyu grades going for new belts. I will admit that whilst I held pads for them, I didn't see too much of the grading as I was trying to psych myself up for my own grading. The good news is that amongst many successes, our very own Diana and Iain jumped up to blue belt and orange belt respectively.
A large contingent of brown belts and junior black belts was up next. Much of the next hour is a blur so you're not going to get a blow by blow account of my grading.
We started with pad work where the challenge is to not set off at 100 miles per hour at the beginning of an hour or so of grading. I did manage that and benefitted from reminders to breathe (and smile, by Eric) from the pad holders. We then moved onto having a static target to demonstrate technique in our kicks and hand strikes. I was paired up with John Gallagher and he coached and coaxed me through this and provided good targets. I think my hand strikes are ok but my kicks still need work. Once complete, it was back to pads with the targets moving around.
There was not a great deal of mat space so we split into two groups. My group was on first for two runs through the break fall kata, the first of which I messed up, but then recovered for the second. We got a break whilst the second group had their turn before coming back on for another two (I think) break fall katas. The interval helped here, four of these in a row and the room would have been spinning!
Next it was takedowns and again with limited mat space, we paired up with a single opponent which in my case was Jamie from our club. It's funny but we practise so many takedowns yet when it comes to grading, I instantly forget about 90% of them, which is always annoying in hindsight. However, I was really quite chuffed with myself for being able to use a John Marley special for one of my takedowns. A small fist pump may have happened!
We got a breather whilst Billy gave instructions to the rest of the group about the next test. From a sitting position we were to defend whilst opponents tried to punch, kick or grab us. This was a new practice but one I really enjoyed. I do remember exclaiming "Liam, you can kick me better than that" at one of the third dans. Adrenalin can do funny things to your thought processes! I did manage to get some success using an X-guard takedown which we haven't practised in the club for some time but has always been a favourite.
Wall defence was up next, dealing with opponents as they try and get you against a wall. This was going quite well until I accidently kneed Laura on the nose. I felt terrible about this. Even in the heat of the moment, I need to be able to maintain a better level of control. Sorry Laura!
Parrying was next, with I think four or five rounds of this. At this point, I was really tiring and this section of the grading is pretty hazy. Andy and John were opponents but I'm not sure who else. This always feels like my weakest skill so combined with fatigue and I don't think this was the strongest part of my performance
As we lined up, I realised we hadn't done any kata, which had been the first item of all of my previous grading so as the penny dropped, my thought was "oh no, are we going to start at Taikyoku Shodan and work all the way up to Kwanku Dai?". My legs were jelly so the prospect of this was not good. As it turned out, we did four katas, the exact ones now escape me but only as high as Heian Godan. Phew!
From there, rather surprisingly, we moved onto practical application of the first kata, Taikyoku Shodan. Given that the weekend featured so much free form application of kata, I wasn't sure if this was intended to be the formal application that we had learned previously. It was, and I paired up with Jamie and Kenny to run through this for a few minutes.
And with that, grading was over. We bowed to the group and, exhausted, sweaty and emotional, exchanged a variety of hugs and high fives with each other. We had done it!
Markus and Marko were grading for fourth and fifth dan respectively, and all second dans and above were put through the grading with them as a trial run for their next grading. After 30 minutes or so of watching and recovering, I jumped in to participate in their wall and ground defence and sparring sessions. The healing powers of Lucozade clearly had worked their magic.
After lunch, we had the Sunday afternoon session and despite being tired, I really enjoyed this. Third dans Paul and Chris put together an excellent session involving parrying, kata and multiple attacks that was perhaps my favourite of the entire weekend.
A group kata and stretch followed and then certificates were handed out. Receiving my first dan certificate and 1st dan patch for my belt was just such a high for me. Is it the right thing to hug the line up of Meijin grades handing out the awards? I don't know but I did it anyway. I owe so much to so many talented people who have coached and developed my along the way.
Perhaps the best feeling for me was the privilege of grading alongside several of my club mates. In addition to Diana and Iain, our club also gained six new black belts. Robbie and Carla attained junior black belt level whilst Ashley, Emma, Davie and I all received our first dans. I have enjoyed training with this club so much over the years, made some very good friends along the way and to share the experience with some of them was just awesome.
A few club photos later and it was all over. A great weekend, a lot of learning and a tough, rewarding grading. I loved it. My body ached for the next few days but nothing could wipe the smile of my face.
One of the many joys of our martial art is there are no limitations on who can join. It doesn't matter if you are male or female, big or small, young or old, hairy or bald; everyone is welcome. One of our members, Iain, joined us in March 2015 and started his Shoto Budo journey after the age of 50. This is his experience so far...
I decided to join Bearsden Martial Arts Club in March 2015. For some time I had harboured a desire to learn a martial art but had always found an excuse not to attend, safe in the knowledge that there was always next week. I had previously participated in other sports and achieved moderate competence in some of these. Was I apprehensive that I might make a complete fool of myself? Did I really want to do this at my age? Would the television not be preferable in winter and the golf course in summer?
Finally, aged nearer fifty five than fifty I plucked up the courage to go along to St Joseph's Primary School in Milngavie on a wet Wednesday night and make enquiries about joining BMAC. No commitment, you understand, just a tentative enquiry. I had a quiet, confidential word to those close to me about what I was doing but all were warned not to mention this to anyone else.
In no sense was I joining the club. I was just going along to see what it was like. However, from the minute I wandered in and made enquiries of Jackie about prospective membership I was warmly and enthusiastically welcomed. A senior club member took me aside and basically gave me private tuition for half an hour. In so doing he was sacrificing his own training schedule. There was not a suggestion of anything other than encouragement and patience demonstrated and I quickly forgot my earlier misgivings.
Eighteen months on and I am still there. I have managed to progress a couple of grades, having attended three national courses with the club. More importantly, and above all, I have discovered a new and compelling interest and broadened my horizons hugely. I now feel that a week is not complete unless I have been at least once to BMAC.
The highlights for me have included a young man sporting a very dark coloured belt who announced that I was four years older than his dad. "Well done", he said to me. Not "are you daft??!!" or "are you not a bit old for that??!!" as had been the theme of some of my less broad minded contemporaries upon discovering my new interest.
That theme of encouragement and support is prevalent at every practice. The instructors, led by Hugh, Eric and John, have truly remarkable ability, a deep knowledge of the art and apparently an endless supply of good natured patience. No technique is ever too much trouble to explain and further demonstrate, no matter how often it has previously been meticulously and comprehensively shown. The constant support, friendship and encouragement from other members have been like no other I have experienced.
There is always present the constant of a strong and underlying recognition that we all want to improve our skills and everyone will help everyone else to achieve this, no matter the level which each member has achieved. The practices are focused and layered learning is a recurrent theme. Smiling is obligatory!! While I suspect that I am certainly one of the oldest novices to have joined the club nobody cares about my age, ability or background.
For those concerned with the quality of training, to watch our lead instructor Hugh demonstrate techniques is to watch a true master of his art. At the most recent Adult National course in Larbert, six club members were awarded a black belt. No other club within the wider Shoto Budo organisation achieved this remarkable distinction. Of those earning their black belt, three were female and three were male, with ages ranging from 14 to 60 (sorry Davie!!).
Lest, however, you should be under the impression that enjoyment is sacrificed for achievement. I emphasise that the focus is predominantly about enjoyment of the practice, and while the acquisition of the tutored skills is clearly our principle purpose, the shared humour amongst us is always demonstrably present.
I am writing this to demonstrate that this club is not simply for teenagers or the young. If you have a notion for martial arts, no matter age, sex or background I can only tell you that I am delighted that I overcame my initial apprehension and decided to join BMAC. I have developed skills I thought were beyond me, I have made deep and enduring friendships and I have had an absolute ball. If you are looking for a new interest, if you want to spend the time between dropping your own child at the club and the later uplift more constructively I urge you to consider joining us. I can guarantee you will not be disappointed and like wine through water it will change the colour of your mind.
Thanks Iain, and congratulations on your recent success in grading for your orange belt at the course!
The BMAC blog began in 2013 to chart one member's journey to black belt.