Overcoming Barriers…Mental and Physical
Nick Heald - 5th Dan Thesis
Karate at all levels involves overcoming barriers. They may range from the simple ones of learning Japanese terminology and developing greater balance and co-ordination through to facing and dealing with fears.
My own first experience of Karate came in September 1981 when a friend and I decided to answer an advertisement from a local club. Coincidentally another friend of mine was already training there and had told me on frequent occasions how good the training was. Having seen the advert and realising it was the same club, we decided to give it a go.
And so it was that one Sunday morning we took ourselves along to the local Sports Centre to join. We arrived early and watched a few of the members warming up. To our inexperienced eyes they looked fearsome! There were a number of people who had answered the advert and we were all gathered together for a Black Belt to give a short introductory talk to. At the end of this he asked if we wanted to start today. ‘No way’ I thought having seen their members warming up, but a few members of the group agreed that they did and so not wanting to be the odd one out I agreed. An hour and a half later I was hooked!
Like any beginner, I found the terminology difficult to grasp at first. Having already been a keen sportsman, I was relatively co-ordinated but still managed to get confused with which leg to move in conjunction with which arm technique. As for which direction to move during Kihon Kata no chance!
At that time, Leeds Shotokan had three different Dojo’s spread throughout the city. The one at which I had begun training was run by Geoff Fletcher, a 3rd Dan. I found him to be an excellent Karateka and very motivating. However when the clubs Chief Instructor, Bob Rhodes, then a 4th Dan, came to teach I found him terrifying. I remember numerous occasions when I would arrive at the Sports Centre to train only to see Bob’s car in the car park and promptly turn around and go back home again. It took many months to overcome my fear of him and stay and train when I knew he was going to be there. Of course I found that once I did stay and train, I enjoyed it and didn’t find it the terrifying prospect that I had built it up in my mind.
My first experience of Karate competition came in 1983 when I went to Leeds University to watch the KUGB Northern Regional Championships. I was amazed at the ferocity of the competitors and vowed never to expose myself to such lunacy. However, only four months later I found myself at Sunderland at the North of England Open, part of the Leeds ‘B’ team. The difference in my attitude was not particularly down to me but peer pressure. All my friends from the club were going and I did not want to appear to be the odd one out. The fear of looking weak in front of my friends overcame the fear of injury. Luckily one of my club mates, Randy Williams, won the Mens Kumite and I was very motivated by his success.
Competition soon became a large focus area in my Karate. It enabled me to find the motivation to train on the evenings when sometimes I couldn’t otherwise be bothered. The idea of breaking out of the Leeds ‘B’ team into the prestigious ‘A’ team drove me on. Around this time, in March 1985, I passed my 1st Dan grading under Sensei Sherry. As a result of my performance during the grading, I was invited to join the KUGB Junior Squad on a 3-session trial.
My first session was one that I shall never forget. The England junior team at that time consisted of such notable names as Elwyn Hall, George Best and Donald Campbell. These three alone were quite a scary prospect but this was intensified by the addition of the Senior ‘A’ team. Frank Brennan, Ronnie Christopher, Gary Harford, Ian Roberts and my friend Randy Williams were all present at that session. To say I was unprepared for what lay ahead would be an understatement. Kumite against an endless series of opponents who seemed intent on taking their ‘pound of flesh' out of the new boy. However by far the worst was the ‘Line ups’ and ‘Circles’. I remember being in the centre of the circle with the others all attacking me with any kick they chose. Ronnie kicked me in the head with a Mawashi Geri that knocked me clean out of the circle and flat on my backside. I desperately wanted to stay there but with Sensei shouting at me to get up and join back in, I had no choice. Later in the same session, Ronnie once again laid me out with a body punch that had me crawling on the floor, desperately trying to catch my breath.
At the end of the session, I could not believe what I had been through. My chest was a mass of purple bruises and I ached all over. When I got home, my Mother asked how it had gone. I could barely summon the breath to answer her. All I had in my mind was that it was only four weeks to the next session. I determined to get myself fitter as I was alarmed by the fact that all the other squad members seemed to handle the pace of the class much better than me. A fortnight before the session, the bad dreams started. The temptation to give it a miss this time became ever stronger. The night before I slept very badly but forced myself to go anyway. This was partially made easier by the fact that Randy was going as well. However all the fears were there in my mind. I was once again hammered, particularly by Elwyn who laid me out with an Ushiro Geri. Once again I was on the floor trying to get my breath. Sensei Sherry looked over and with a smile told me I had to work on my stomach muscles!
In all I was on the Junior Squad for a year and half. Funnily enough, the more my exposure to that type of training grew, the less I came to dread it. As time went on, I came to realise that all new boys seemed to get an extra pasting, they didn’t all hate me after all! And equally as time went by one was able to watch how others handled the pressure. Injury was a constant danger during these intense sessions and the temptation to exaggerate how bad a knock was, was always there. You could see people wilt at the slightest knock, desperate to get to the changing rooms and out of the danger zone. I remember one particular occasion when a young man burst into tears in the changing rooms during a break and refused to come out when training resumed.
My promotion to the Senior Squad brought the same type of worries. The training was perhaps not as violent but the people you were training with were all of a much higher quality. The problem I always found with the squad was that I built it up in my mind each time to be such an ordeal that thankfully the reality never quite lived up to it….except occasionally. The one session that particularly stands out in my mind was the team selection for the 1995 WSKA World Championships. Elwyn Hall returned to the Squad after a five-year absence with a strong mind on getting selected. Experience tells you how these sessions are going to pan out. Straight from the start I looked at the people in the line. Ronnie Christopher was senior grade with Elwyn behind him. I was third in seniority. I immediately thought that if we go into groups of three for kumite later on, I’ll be with them. Oh great! I battled to put this thought out of my mind and concentrate on the training. It was a brutal session with Elwyn determined to show everybody that he could still do his thing. He gradually hammered most of the people there although I escaped okay when I faced him. Then came the moment I had been dreading, the inevitable group of three. Me against two of the best fighters this country has ever produced. The reality was, once again, not as bad as anticipated. No injuries, and I didn’t spend all my time fighting in the usual ‘loser stays in’ rules.
My experiences on the squad have taught me that the mind can have a very negative effect if you let it. Perhaps my biggest battles over the last 14 years have not been with Frank, Ronnie, Elwyn etc but with my own mind. Constantly having to tell myself that I can cope with what lies ahead whether it is squad training or domestic or international competition. The realisation that whatever I am feeling, my opponents are probably feeling much the same has been a big help. Rarely now do I get the feelings of dread that haunted me ten to fifteen years ago. I still feel nerves, but I can cope with them now much easier.
My biggest barrier recently has been a physical one. Over my 18 years of karate training I have been very lucky. I have never experienced injuries serious enough to keep me out of training for more than a week or so. That is until March 1998. Whilst competing at the North West Open in Wigan, I fell awkwardly during a fight and felt what I can only describe as an explosion in my right knee. I thought straight away that it must be something serious. However I tried initially just to rest it and a week or two later I went back training. Very early on in the session, doing a Kata, the knee gave way. I repeated my rest theory again and waited another two weeks before going back only to suffer the same results, the knee gave way as soon as I tried anything approaching a dynamic movement. I approached my GP who thought it might be a Cartilage problem. He referred me to a consultant at the Hospital who agreed and booked me a date for what he told me would be a simple operation to snip out the torn cartilage and I would be fine in a few weeks. When I woke up after the operation however it was a different story. My cartilage was fine, it was my Anterior Cruciate Ligament that was the problem. It had completely snapped. I would require another operation to reconstruct the knee and the subsequent recuperation period before I could train again would be between nine and twelve months. I would also need to wait a couple of months to let my knee recover from the first operation.
So it was in August 1998 that I found myself on the operating table for the second time in three months knowing that when I woke up I would be in a lot of pain and face one hell of a battle to regain my fitness. And so it was. When I awoke I was given an immediate helping of Morphine to numb the pain, which was considerable. To repair the Cruciate Ligament they first have to get at it. This involves removing the kneecap. The trauma to the leg is tremendous.
Over the following months I was to spend three mornings a week at the physiotherapy gym, building back my completely wasted muscle. As I worked at the Gym, my constant motivation was to be able to once again stand in the line at the Red Triangle during a Senior Squad session. The one thing that had been a constant terror in my earlier years was now what I most wanted to be able to do again. Given the fact that I couldn’t even lift my leg from the bed at first, I often doubted that this would ever happen. However as the weeks went by, I grew stronger and six months after the operation, in February 1999 I was able to resume Karate training.
In May I made the phone call to Sensei Sherry to ask him whether I could come and train on the Squad again. ‘Yes’ was the answer and there I was later that day! Within another four months I was in Moscow competing again at World Championship level. This was only 13 months after being an invalid who needed constant help just to walk.
My involvement with Karate over the years has shown me that one can overcome both internal mental barriers and physical injury, but only if you really want to. Giving up is the easiest thing to do but never the most rewarding.
14th March 2000.