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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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My Son, My Gi and Me:
No Age Limit on Lessons Learned at the Dojo

By William J. McGee

Like many parents, I had three of the best reasons for enrolling my son in a Karate school: I wanted him to gain more self-confidence and control; stay healthy and fit; and meet the challenges of bullies. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would be enrolling as well, and that I would gain as much as he did.

Nick and I spent weeks discussing his attending a dojo. I was concerned because he is both younger and smaller than many of his classmates, and his other interests—music, theater, dance, skating—sometimes generated teasing. To his credit, Nick always stood up to bullies and defended his outside activities, without embarrassment or fear. I had attended several school seminars on bullying and I agreed that parents and teachers need to actively help to put a stop to it. I also knew, however, that sometimes - not always but sometimes - nothing can stop bullying like a good uppercut to the solar plexus.

My friend Jukka studied Shotokan Karate for years in his native Finland, and he told me about taking all three of his sons to a nearby dojo. Nick said he wanted to try it, so I agreed to bring him the following Saturday. Then Jukka said he attended the “father/son” classes as well, and suggested I join them.

Join them? Didn’t Jukka know that I was a parent? I mean, I gave Nick pointers on batting and throwing prior to Little League baseball games, but I didn’t join the other fourth-graders on the field. I also helped him with English homework, but that didn’t mean I accompanied him to class. Join Karate? Yet there was no valid reason for me not to attend. My own self-confidence and control weren’t so strong that I couldn’t use help. And I was out of shape so I certainly could use the exercise. What could I say?

That Saturday we each donned a KarateGi and together Nick and I, at 9 and 41, began a new journey together. I had envisioned a short class, with prolonged kicking exercises followed by instructional sparring from the sensei. Instead, I was dripping sweat after 15 minutes, as we were led through grueling calisthenics and an obstacle course. At one point I trailed everyone—kids and adults alike—and attempted to literally cut corners as we ran around plastic cones. “Hey, Dad!” Nick called out in front of the entire class. “You missed one!”

Later we paired off for one-on-one drills, and I continually flubbed because I was so concerned with how Nick was faring against his own partner. Finally the sensei pulled me aside, and offered advice that far transcended Karate: He told me to focus on myself, because while Nick was safe, if he was going to get hurt I would not be able to prevent it anyway. It was a helpful variation on the flight attendant’s admonishment to secure your own oxygen mask before assisting your child.

I heeded his words and quickly mastered my own drills and learned how to break down properly. Within an hour I could count to ten in Japanese: “Ichi! Ni! San! Shi! Go!”

There was one more surprise to come. Ours was a "full-contact" dojo and the sensei began pairing us off for what looked to be violent sparring sessions. Girls, boys, women, men: We all took to the mats. One five-year-old cried when his nose began bleeding, and Nick and I exchanged nervous glances. It seemed much easier—and safer—to be a parent who lectured, rather than one who led by example. Then it suddenly occurred to me: One way or another, for better or worse, I always lead Nick by example.

The sensei called Nick to the mat, to face an opponent who was younger but about Nick’s size and certainly more experienced. There’s little doubt I was more nervous than Nick, and I suppressed a cheer when I saw how Nick threw himself into the match. He flailed arms and legs simultaneously and eventually both boys fell to the ground. Exhausted. Unhurt. Triumphant.

Just when I thought the class was over, the sensei nodded to me and indicated a man about my age. I knew my opponent had years of experience but I couldn’t tell from his stony expression if he planned on using all of it. At the last moment before we bowed to one another, I glanced at Nick, who was wide-eyed in anticipation.

Due to my lack of Karate experience, I planned on taking the offensive early, and I stumbled across the mat and suddenly found myself flopping face-down. Not a blow had been struck; instead, I had failed to properly roll the pant leg of my Gi. I had immediately tripped, like a gunslinger stepping out onto Main Street at high noon, cool and poised until he drops his six-shooter.

I recovered amid some giggling and the match began again. My mind reeled as I tried to remember all that I had been told that morning. Amazingly, I did well. My technique was rough at best, but I had suddenly found an outlet—a safe, sensible, legal outlet—for an awful lot of tension, and channeling it properly was the key.

Focusing on both offense and defense seemed to be too much too soon, so I aggressively confronted my opponent with a multitude of punches. Later I learned just how wrong I was to ignore defense. He spent much of his time expertly blocking my blows, and then when I attempted a kick he seemed surprised. It gave me an opening and I took it, as I punched him in the center of his stomach with a short, hard thrust of my right fist. He grunted. Then he nodded at me with respect.

Suddenly, the sensei stepped in and ended the match and the session, but not before offering encouragement to both Nick and me. Jukka and his sons were smiling. I can’t remember the sensei’s actual words because I was too busy hugging Nick. For one rare moment, we were both leading each other by example.