• Inclusion.

    One of the aspects of the club that we have been proud to build and develop over our first three years is the fact that anyone can walk through our doors. This past year the open-door policy included welcoming a local Karate club whose students were going to compete in an "Open" tournament (a tournament that features multiple styles of martial arts) who wanted to train with us to learn how to fight kick-heavy fighters. 

    That same open-door policy also allowed someone who has been unkind to the club and specific members to come to our club and support someone that they are close to during their grading. How can I set an example as a teacher if I cannot forgive?

    This policy extends beyond simply letting anyone share The Floor. It extends to how we teach. In the past, I have sat with other "black belts" who have said that someone is "never going to get a black belt", as if that person is not worthy of such a lofty position, or such a trophy. 

    Conversations like those are a huge part of why Phoenix Martial Arts exists today.

    Of the five people you're going to read about, two of them were people who I had been told in the past would never make it to black belt, never make it to this day. 

    For the second year in a row, we were honoured to have five students grading for ranks that ranged from black belt all the way to 3rd Dan black belt. Last year, Greg led us out. As our emotional leader (if you were there, you knew), he was the person to lead. This year, it was Colin.

    From Day One this year, Colin lead the black belts on their journey to 2nd Dan. He took virtually every class, all year. Through sheer force of will he took over part of the warm-up routine (which if you know my teaching history, you know I respect that). His physical skills improved by leaps and bounds; more than that, his mental game went up several notches. Without question, this was Colin's year to lead.

    Greg, who runs our L'il Kickers program for kids age 3-6, and Sydney both excelled in their training this year, and easily earned the opportunity to step on The Floor once again and move up to another level.

    The open-door policy extended to Josh Self, owner of Dutton Taekwondo, who we welcomed to class for two months to help him prepare to grade with us for his 3rd Dan. A fine young man who has great potential in the most important aspect of martial arts - teaching - Josh brought a lot to the table toward helping everyone get ready for their grading.

    Finally, we come to Max. At 13 and having trained since he was 4 years old as a part of the YMCA's former L'il Dragons program, he is only the second person to ever come out of that program and grade for a black belt. Max had a few obstacles on his journey to this day, to say the least.

    Being only 13 years old, Max had to live up to the grading that Sydney had at the same age last year. I am not big on people that young grading, so if they do they have to excel at a level beyond what most their age should be capable of.  Sydney set the bar very high.

    Last summer, Max moved out of town, so his training was not consistent throughout the year. At the same time, he grew 7" and gained the weight that comes along with such growth, meaning that he first had to re-acclimate his body to his level of athleticism, and then had to surpass that level to a point where he would be ready to test at his age. 

    From one club's open-door policy to anothers', The Phoenix kids were lucky enough to have the opportunity to train on multiple occasions at Black Tigers Taekwondo, in London. We were incredibly lucky enough to have Master Seung, owner of Black Tigers Taekwondo in London (and Thunder Bay) sit our grading, and he was kind enough to allow me to run my first-ever black belt grading. Which meant that on top of everything else the students had to concern themselves with, they also had the human variable of whether or not I could run a proper black belt grading. 

    As usual, we started the grading with poomsae, or patterns. The interesting thing about having varying belt levels (and ages) is that the lowest belt and youngest - Max - has to keep up with the highest belt, and the oldest - Josh, 23. Can you show that you are at the level of these black belts on the floor? Can the three 1st Dans show that they are at the level of someone they looked up to as children? It is an absolutely fascinating sight to behold. 

    Most of the poomsae were performed quite well by everyone, in sync and crisp, strong. That it was so in sync was especially impressive because at no point were all five on the floor together during training. If someone made a mistake, or if someone wasn't quite at the level of everyone else, they all performed the poomsae again. We perform as a group, we succeed as a team. Redo's were a rarity, as we all saw power mixed with the artistic smoothness that is part of what makes martial arts beautiful. Max in particular showed a level of gracefulness that wasn't evident in his training, which speaks to how well he was able to think through and understand the poomsaes.

    Josh has had a few years to learn realistic self-defense, whereas the black belts have only had two years to develop the self-defense skills and mindset that goes along with a reality-based training system (Max completed his self-defense in Part 1 of his black belt test). So I watched with great joy as everyone demonstrated a surprisingly high self-defense IQ, having created legitimate techniques that I had never seen before their training this spring, and with Master Seung leaning over to me and expressing how impressed he was with everyone's skill level. Also, no one got hurt, which is important because we teach the real thing. Black belt control kids.

    I have both taken part in and seen several different black belt gradings in the past, and I have never truly enjoyed how sparring was handled. It's either been a torture session, or simply not enough to be considered challenging/to show any skill. So I decided to take a different approach this year. With five students grading, we held a sparring round robin. Everyone fought each other once, guaranteeing each student four matches. Also, because the traditional 60 seconds that I normally see for one-on-one sparring in a black belt grading is only long enough to start to get a flow, I decided that for the four older, higher belts they would all have 90 second matches. For Max, he still had 60 seconds guaranteed for his bouts, though if he or anyone else was having a better-than-good bout, I would let them go long. Also, Max had the required 3-on-1 sparring match, and Josh requested the same, even though he'd already done it in a previous grading.

    The fun thing about this grading was the high skill level of everyone involved led to great anticipation for the sparring. Josh is a lightning bolt with obvious power. Sydney is a young lightning bolt with surprising power. Greg can fight you like The Terminator or a chess player. Colin has excellent defensive IQ and has developed some incredibly powerful, fast kicks with full reach. And Max, well only Greg knew what to expect from Max, who had been training privately with me in Kickboxing and who had a decidedly different approach to show everyone.

    (To that end, Max dropped considerable weight leading up to the test, to the point where Master Seung repeatedly remarked about it to the crowd and how impressed he was.)

    For the second year in a row, Greg was part of the best sparring bout in black belt test prep, this time with Max, as they had a 3 round, 7+ minute battle where Max let everyone in class that day know that he was indeed on the black belt sparring level. The two young men turned in an instant classic.

    During the sparring, we had several matches where I let them go long, as their cardio held up (it's a staple of our training) and they fought both hard, and intelligently. Many bouts indeed resembled chess matches, as the respect everyone had for one another showed through. 

    Sydney fought the best that I've seen her fight since she was very young. She relaxed, and her feet moved like she could fly. Greg was more the chess master than The Terminator, though at one point during his match with Colin they both let it fly and put together an incredible 30-second sequence that was an astonishing end to their bout. As advertised, Josh showed tremendous speed, controlled power, and a great mental game. Both he and Greg had excellent matches with Max (Josh vs Max blew my mind), as well as Josh vs Greg was a next-level match that I hope to see again. It's safe to say that Max shocked everyone he fought (except Greg), with his well-rounded defense and floor control, as well as his ability to string together multiple strikes and quickly put together several points at any time. And Colin...

    At one point during a bout, Colin slipped throwing a high-angle kick (it happens to everyone). In the past, it would have taken a minute for him to get up. When I went to check on him, he had already exploded off the floor and back into fighting stance, and as respectfully as an adrenalized 16 year old in the middle of a fight is capable of, asked me to get out of the way and let him fight. Thinking about it now, I shake my head in astonishment as to how far this young man has come. 

    Near the end of the round robin with the group finally starting to look tired, Master Seung asked me if they should stop sparring. I went and asked the group and it was like a scene out of a comedy where everyone sprung up quickly and came to life, adamant that they were good to keep going. These are my kind of people.
    After the round robin, we went to the "survival sparring". Instead of the traditional 3-on-1 sparring, I (again) took a more realistic approach to things. Max had spent the past three months training extensively with me in preparation for the grading. He had gotten himself into the best shape of his life, and was now capable of things that most adults are not, let alone 13 year olds. As their teacher, I love the opportunity to spar with my students during their black belt grading and see them put their tools together up close. So, for the first 20 seconds, Max and I had a short, intense match before John and Jodi (John is a black belt in Karate and Jodi has over 20 years of martial arts experience) jumped in from either side and it became survival, which Max did quite well.
    Josh, being the adult, got the brunt of it. Same format, so he knew that after 20 seconds with me that he would be jumped. What he didn't know is that by now, John and Jodi were adrenalized, and I will without hyperbole say that it was the most intense sparring match in St. Thomas in the past 20 years. Any club, you name it. It was something else. With control, no less.
    Book-ending the multi-board breaks that the black belts were doing, Max and Josh broke their bricks on the first attempt, though not before I accidentally broke a brick (via the devastating brick breaking technique known as dropping it on the marble floor), which lead to five students and crowd members playfully helping me bring another brick up and ensure it's safety. Even though it's a black belt grading, we still enjoy ourselves.

    The black belts really challenged themselves with their board breaks, which means that there were a few second attempts. As with Colin earlier, everybody falls down, it's how you get back up that defines you, and this group of black belts showed that they are worthy of their rank with how they get back up.

    All in all, it was an incredible test, an incredible night that even I won't soon forget. 

    One final thought before signing off...

    On this night the two people who were written off by others achieved something special. They worked, they put in their time. They battled through adversity. From my perspective it's not even about accepting a challenge as a teacher, because these kids are incredible human beings. They are a delight to teach, plain and simple. As is the case with EVERYONE EVERYWHERE, all they needed was a chance to reach their potential. Then it's up to them. 

    They earned it, they achieved it.

    Three weeks later, after having not thrown a kick since the grading, Max threw a roundhouse kick better than any kick I've ever seen him throw. And then another. And another. 

    I think we have a long way to go before this story is done.


    Iron Sharpens Iron