Becoming a Black Belt – The Dream and The Reality – Shodan Essay By Stella Edmundson

6 January 2022, Thursday

Black Belt Grading as a Spiritual Journey

Through out the world, traditional societies instigate a period of instruction which culminates into a trial by ordeal; a young warrior’s initiation. This is the oldest drama/ritual in the world; death and resurrection. Having gone through this trial which takes strength, courage, and endurance; the young man is welcomed as a full member of his fribe. Of course the day of a hundred man kumite are over; we are karate students do not risk death or injury but humiliation if we should fail. Showing up for a dan grading is an act of faith. A successful black belt grading is like catching the perfect wave. We train, focus and hope and then the day comes. It takes effort, and confidence to paddle beyond the breakers. Then the surf board takes off as we ride it to shore. What we experience is not only promotion into the dan ranks but also transcendence.
Being a Black Belt: The Reality: It is the dream of kyu students to earn their first dan. Being a black.belt is considered an accomplishment even to the outside world. However, it is just the beginning of serious study of Shotokan karate. In Japanese, “sho” means first, new, or beginning. “dan” translates as step or level as the next step going up a cliff.

When I think about being a black belt, I envision five year increments, The first years to be devoted to accruing polish and refinement. It would take another half decade afterwards to become an outstanding black belt, then another five years to help teach and preserve the style of Shotokan in its purest sense.

What I has discovered while studying Shotokan Karate is it entails a depth of knowledge far beyond the basics. Karate is like an iceberg. Kihon, kata, and kumite are only the surface. The next level of understanding is the bunkai of each kata. For the serious student, it is essential to learn the application of locks, sweeps, throw and take downs. Originally karate was most wrestling until kicks and punches were introduced from China. The purpose of the development of the art of karate was self defence that is why during bunkai demonstrations, every sequence of a kata involves some kind of throw. Originally karate was not a pugilistic sport. The study of karate in this club is also enriched by our instructors teaching us about Japanese etiquette, the Code of Bushido and an appreciation of the rich cultural heritage Japan has gifted the world.

What I Can Contribute To Our Club

I would like to become a good example of this style. I have learned after years of self examination, that knowledge exceeds athleticism, I can not perform the jump in Unsu but I can contribute enthusiasm and a joyous attitude towards training. It is the job of black belts to maintain esprit de corps of our club. Hopefully, I can be a skilled and accommodating partner. Outside training, I can give my full support for fund raising and assist during tournaments.

Karate is a life long pursuit. I only wish I had more years ahead of me to devote to karate.


Karate and the Mature Aged Student

Benefits to the Club

The population of mature aged retirees is an untapped resource when it comes to running a full time dojo. In the case of most martial arts clubs, the majority of students and their instructors work or go to school which means they attend class after school or during the evenings. We older students can fill the morning n•aining niche because we love day time classes. We have time not only to take many classes but also to contribute towards the running of the club such as fund raising and helping during tournaments.

Older students comprise what is called ‘a self selected sample’. In other words we have a certain affinity and hopefully prior training, before taking up karate. Life has taught us motivation, discipline and perseverance. Our attitude and enthusiasm contribute even though we can not perform every jump in karate. It has been shown time and time again that ordinary people can learn karate and become proficient. Mature karateka can, in time, become kindly and patient assistant instructors.

Benefits for the Mature Aged Student

It is fun from day one! What has prevented me from learning other new sports or social activities is that my cohorts are already experts. Sports like tennis and golf requires a certain expertise to become enjoyable. What is worse is that nobody wants to play tennis, golf or cards with an absolute beginner. In martial arts there are other white belts to train with; novices to share the journey.

Karate confers the grand triad of physical benefits: fitness, balance and flexibility which are extremely important for the health and well being of old people. What of the satisfactions through training is to perceive a noticeable improvement in these areas. Another perk that goes with karate training is that karate clubs are social. There is coffee after class and deep friendships are made. Finally, the lifelong study of karate offers us a window into another world that goes beyond kihon, kata and kumite. As we progress through the ranks we are exposed to the long history of karate as well as attaining deep respect towards culture and mores of Japan where karate originated. The study of martial arts is enriching for mind body and spirit.

The Bad News About Ageing

If we read the textbook descriptions of ageing based decline, we would not get out of bed to attend aerial Pilates, zumba or I dare say, karate. We can overcome or compensate for many of these but some are inevitable.

Senescence causes irreversible arrest of growth and decline in physical function. There is a decrease in elastin and collagen in all tissues and organs. We loose subcutaneous fat which along with loss of bone density means or bones are more vulnerable (arm pads are essential for older females). Not only do we loose brain cells, we actually loose muscle and those we have left are compromised. Loss of elasticity and efficiency in our lungs means that we get out of breath before younger students. Our vestibular systems are effected by ageing especially if accompanied with hearing loss; meaning we find it harder to balance and get dizzy during repeated spins.

The two factors I consider the most important to take into account when teaching mature students is we are affected by heat and humidity during karate training. We may need more water and rest breaks. Secondly, we loose our tolerance for anaerobic intensity. Prolonged anaerobic causes a build up of lactic acid which can destroy the mitochondria (organelles that produce energy within the cell). How we can overcome this is to to to build up our aerobic threshold before our bodies convert to the anaerobic system. We can and do rise up to meet the challenge of an extra hard training session but we need more time to recover.

Instructing Older Students

We all need a lot of feedback and assurance in the beginning of our karate journey. As older adults we feel embarrassed, inhibited, and self conscious which often prevents us from trying new endeavours. We need time, patience and sometimes simplified instructions. It is easy to forget who much white belts have to learn before their first grading. Every mature age student, especially those with no prior background, who achieve their first promotion, deserve the accolades.

After a few weeks when we begin to feel like “one of the mob” as a karate student, there is less need for encouragement or special attention. We become used to correction but when we are praised, it makes our day. Modem society tends to segregate groups according to age. One of the best aspects about training in karate is that we ü•ain with all ages under conditions of dojo equality.

My generation is re-writing the book about ageing. It would be wonderful to advertise the benefits of karate for older people. If, for instance, a club gives public demonstrations, it would be educational for the public to see older karateka perform. Being allowed to take karate classes at my age, is a gift and I thank all instructors.

Ushiro Geri


Ushiro geri is the most penetrating out of all the karate arsenal of kicks. Striking with the heel (the hardest contact part of the body), it employs the full weight and strength of the leg; further increased by the torque of the spin. When executed with speed, correct technique and kime, this is a devastating kick and very hard to block. It would be very effective during the beginning of a bout or towards the end.

If a spinning back kick penetrates at belt level, the opposing player is either thrown off balance or even knocked to the ground. If a karateka is surprised by a higher ushiro geri at the breast bone, not only does the player thrown to the ground but winded as well. Having to take time out to restore breathing as well as being knocked to the ground would be demoralising during tournaments.

How To Execute Ushiro Geri

The player steps forward to get closer to the target. Spinning back kick technique demands that the martial mist spins on the supporting leg whilst the kicking leg is cocked in crane stance, then, in one fluid motion, the leg propels forward leading with the heel. To increase peneffation, the kicker could hop forward while delivering the kick. To be able to pivot and balance on one leg while looking backwards while assuming crane’s stance first before delivery takes balance, practice and skill. This would be excellent training for the kata Gankaku.

Blocking A Spinning Back Kick

Because of the many moves necessary to execute a ushiro geri, this is not a kick for the unskilled. This kick is easily telegraphed when the kickers turns away. A good deterrent is to rush in towards the opponent’s back, just as the kick is starting. Or a player can do a pre-emptive mei geri once the back is turned. If the kicking leg is not straight on delivery but at a mawashi position, one can jam the kick and catch the leg. Once a player commits to doing a back kick, he or she can not change the technique. Slow back kicking players are vulnerable to being jammed and then counter attacked.

Possible Blocks (Jiyu Ippon Kumite)

This kick can not be stopped by using one arm blocks such as gedan bari. Instead the block should continue in the direction of the kick and guide the leg safely away. For instance using a low sweeping block would deter the kick away (same as against yoko geri). Or the front foot steps back while the front hand presses and forces the kicking leg down. Probably the safest defence is to quickly advance forwards to the opponent’s side and then pivot for the counter attack. This was taught as a defence against a mei geri but would be effective measure to avoid a ushiro geri.

The necessary skill to perform an effective ushiro geri is a real test of prowess on the part of all karateka.


By Stella Edmundson