My nine-year-old son and I placed in our recent karate tournament. He placed in the white belt category, I, in the black belt. He demonstrated Itsutsu Uke, I—Jitte. He was pleasantly surprised at his own success. I was flabbergasted at mine.
My son doesn’t always try his best. In trying to motivate him, I apply the principle my first Sensei used to promote, that “when the student is ready, they will listen.” In other words, I have faith that my kids will eventually take in all those instructions I repeat incessantly to them.
I drill my son a little bit mercilessly, on the walk to and from karate practice.
“Which comments did you receive last week that you will apply to your practice today?” I ask him at the start of each karate class. After class, I reframe the question: “How will next week’s practice be better?”
I can assure you that he’s thrilled at my questions.
Sometimes he makes an effort at practicing. Sometimes he doesn’t.
I’ve taken the stance that my husband is to blame for my son’s lack of motivation. (It’s pleasant to veer from my usual tendency—cleverly aligned with social norms—to blame myself, the mother, for my children’s challenges.)
My husband tells me that he was not intrinsically motivated to study until he reached university. As he tells it, his motivation to work hard turned on abruptly one day in his late teens, and then went into overdrive.
I’m waiting for my son’s internal motivation switch to turn on, like it did for his dad. Because when he’s motivated, he succeeds. His kata was proof of that: precise, spirited.
Afterward, he was proud of himself—as was I.
As for my performance, I was flummoxed.
I used to be extremely competitive. As I age, my competitiveness has mellowed. I work harder, but I don’t worry about other people as much as I used to. Well, it’s possible that I’m exaggerating. Occasionally, when others succeed where I fail, I’m possessed by an enraged, jealous demon. Sometimes I want to use a little sparring technique on my competition. It happens.
The past two years have been dispiriting, karate-wise. After the birth of my third child, I suffered from a post-partum back injury. For two years, a bulging disc prevented me from training. Only recently have I felt like I’m regaining the musculature and technique lost to my injury. When I signed up for the tournament, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to practice a kata to a tournament-level calibre.
Plus, I’ll confess: I hate tournaments. Demonstrating kata seems harder to me than other kinds of performances. The opportunities to slip up are abundant. Your muscles can be so tense that your kata looks stiff. You can experience a lapse of concentration, and forget moves. I’ve seen advanced black belts begin one kata, switch halfway through to another kata, only to conclude on some variation of their own invention—a feat impressive on its own terms, but not something I aspire to.
Terror of failure is partly why I participate in our annual tournament. On a fundamental level, I think it’s important to do things that scare us. It’s crucial for me to perform at the tournament, simply to overcome my fear of kata demonstration.
On the day of the tournament, I had two goals. One: to get through the kata. Two: to obtain a score above eight (out of ten) from the judges. I was particularly keen on receiving a good score from my instructor. He’s an exacting teacher and judge, and he’d never scored my kata above an eight.
As soon as I got up that morning, I started saying a mantra. Mantras are said to work partially because they displace negative self-talk. So I started repeating my favourite mantra, the one I summon every time I have to do something terrifying: “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”
I repeated this mantra when downhill skiing for the first time as an adult. As a child, on a school trip, I’d been basically thrown down a hill on skis without any instruction, and this experience had ruined skiing for me. As an adult, I successfully skied by chanting my mantra under my breath.
And here’s the thing: For some mysterious reason, I had a great time with the kata. I enjoyed every moment of the demonstration. To paraphrase Elizabeth Gilbert and her theory of creativity, in that moment, my “genius”—that elusive demi-god the Greeks and Romans believed visit artists at their own whim—was with me.
Afterward, I stood in front of the judges and waited.
“Nine!” said the Sensei. “Eight point five,” said the rigorous instructor. I couldn’t help it—I beamed.
For the first time as a black belt, I placed in the top three participants.
I learned a few lessons that day. One, that mantras work.
Also, an already-familiar lesson: pleasure displaces fear.
Jitte, which means “ten hands” in Japanese, is a stunning kata. I love the contrast between the slow, Sanchin movements and the rapid-fire moves, erupting with power. In the end, the highlight of my tournament experience was the kata itself. For a few, rare moments, I became lost in the kata’s attack and defence sequences, in the timing of the moves, in the coordinated breathing.
The kata seemed to take place of its own accord. Performing it was like writing a poem and recognizing that you have found the dead-on word to say what you want to say. Each word, each line so adept that you think to yourself that you could not have written the poem in any other way.