Editors Note: Tamara was my student since she first put on her white belt in back 2013, she was my first consistent student and fast became my friend, workout buddy and helped me learn to articulate my teaching making me a better student, even as her instructor. For around 5 of those years we would work with one another 2 days a week, learn from one another and both of us grew. Words can’t describe how proud I am at how far she has come. Over the years she has persevered over her own obstacles and has come out on top. Congratulations Tamara!! Andree

The Mental Aspects of Karate and Techniques to Condition the Mind

November 2020

By: Tamara McClure

“If you want something in your life you’ve never had, you’ll have to do something you’ve never done.” JD Houston

The Mental Aspects of Karate and Techniques to Condition the Mind

Introduction

Testing for your black belt at Bob White’s Karate Studio entails writing a thesis as well as the physical test. I began thinking about what I would write long before I was even a brown belt. I kept coming up with ideas and was never satisfied. I would think of a couple of paragraphs while trying to sleep or during a daydream driving home from the studio, but nothing stuck. When I finally earned my third degree brown belt, the thesis was mentioned and the pressure was on. Great, I thought, I work best under pressure! Well, this is not just turning in your advertising project you’ve had all semester to do yet put off until the night before, this is your black belt test. It better be good.

After talking with my instructors as well as my husband, who also happens to be an instructor, I realized that my thesis should be an important lesson or lessons I’ve learned over the last seven years that have led me to this point. And it should also be a piece of learning and inspiration for future black belts and students of our art. 

I’ve learned many things. But, what has been the most significant lesson? What do I have to say that will truly make an impact? 

The mental side of karate has been my greatest obstacle. Doubt in myself and frustration have plagued my mind in the studio since the first day I stepped onto the mat. I have, however, come up with mental conditioning techniques to help ease my anxiety, enhance my learning, and has gotten me to the point of testing for my black belt. 

Mr. Parker says in book one of “Infinite Insights into Kenpo—Mental Stimulation” that mental conditioning is vitally important to Martial Arts training. Never have truer words been spoken, in my journey anyway. He talks about the three stages of learning: primitive, mechanical, and spontaneous and it’s the first stage—primitive—“where a student begins to understand that the Martial Arts is man’s quest to understand himself and obtain the maximum from his mind and body.” That by “analyzing each weakness, he strengthens his awareness and overcomes his awkwardness.”

The following pages contain personal anecdotes of my struggles in the karate studio and ways I’ve found to overcome them and persevere to the point of testing for my black belt. Specifically, these techniques have helped me the most: 

—Private Lessons

—Practice

—Meditation

—Yoga

—Training partners outside of class

—Sports Performance Coach

Karate Thesis

The Mental Aspects of Karate and Techniques to Condition the Mind

Karate is obviously physical but many people, I think, including myself have discounted the mental aspects. For me, these have played the largest part of my journey. I have wanted to quit so many times not knowing how big of an impact karate would play with my psyche; my ego being the most threatened. This is an important point I feel, as I never thought I had an ego, not one so pronounced anyway. Not one that would bring so many complications or wreak such havoc with my mind and emotional state of being. 

I have always had the utmost respect for martial artists and realized they had a strength beyond what they portrayed in the movies and on TV, it was greater than physical and I inherently knew that. Little did I know the depths of that strength. 

My husband is the one who got me involved, I willingly went along; for my acting resume and also because I knew he needed the studio and the studio needed him. In a short time, I would come to realize how much of a symbiotic relationship it was. As it is for most people who embrace the art and truly become a part of their studio. 

When I began I thought, “I got this.” I had been a personal trainer for six years, worked out a lot and liked it, so what’s the big deal? Ha, good question. As it turned out karate was, and is, a very big deal; it was confusing and much more than a physical workout. In the beginning it seemed like dancing; if only because I’ve never been a good dancer and could never pick up combinations. Karate is not dancing per se, but there are combinations and I was having a hard time learning them. 

Tack that on to my husband having been at this studio for thirty plus years with a reputation that preceded him—he was and is quite talented. I, however, was not. I couldn’t do a neutral bow correctly let alone pick up the techniques. Yet there I was, a white belt with no coordination and Mr. McClure’s wife. I’m also a highly sensitive person, extremely emotional and come to find out—a perfectionist. Now that’s a recipe for a perfect storm or a B movie on Lifetime.

After approximately the third time I cried in the Wednesday night beginning class taught by Mr. Gentosi and my husband (Jim McClure), Jim sent me to the locker room to ball my eyes out in private. But he also sent in an angel, Andree Scanlon. I call her an angel because she truly saved me that night. She spoke encouraging words, which I can’t fully remember; she listened, let me cry, empathized, and offered me private lessons. Andree was my first ray of hope and my first mental conditioning technique. Private lessons with someone who makes you feel validated and heard and offers patience with even the most elementary student is invaluable. 

I began my private lessons with Mrs. Scanlon nervous, yet felt a cautious optimism for my Kenpo future now that I had one-on-one instruction. And I was extremely grateful for her sharing her time and knowledge with me. 

My privates were going fine, Mrs. Scanlon was extremely patient and we clicked. However, my anxiety had not disappeared as I had hoped and my foot position still left much to be desired. None of this was the fault of the instructor, though, it was all me. I say this to introduce my second mental conditioning technique, practice. 

I was going to the karate studio twice a week, once for a 30-minute private and the second for an hour long beginner class. This simply wasn’t enough. One needs practice to learn a skill and I wasn’t doing that. What I was doing was spouting excuses for why I wasn’t good; I wasn’t athletic enough or talented enough, I didn’t pick up things easily, etc. This is what I told myself and my husband when I would continue to come home in tears. He was nothing but encouraging and told me none of these things were true. “You can do it, babe, you’re strong. I know you and I know your attitude. You have it in you to be really good.” I would smile and thank him through tears and feel a little more encouraged… until my next private and Andree had to re-explain the techniques from our last session that I hadn’t quite retained. She was ever so patient, still smiling, still encouraging. I felt bad for not remembering my lessons and constantly thought I was wasting her time. This is when I came to the conclusion I needed to be in the studio more often. If I was consistently practicing the techniques and forms in class at the studio, I could then remember enough to practice at home which I wasn’t doing before. I decided it was time to add more classes to my repertoire and fully commit—for me this meant coming to every class I could fit in my schedule. Mr. White has always said repetition is the mother of the skill and I was determined to find out if this was true for me as well. 

Though I was coming to the studio for more classes, I still felt uncomfortable and was embarrassed to practice techniques by myself, especially ones I couldn’t remember. And I just felt awkward, I felt everyone staring at me; they probably weren’t. If they were, I now know they just wanted to help. My perfectionist brain thought I should automatically know everything and felt bad for “taking up their time.” After months of just stretching, feeling self-conscious and out of place before class, I heard Mr. White’s voice in my head, “Don’t confuse what you can’t do with what you can do.” So I practiced my forward bows.

I also started taking privates from Mrs. White as well as Mrs. Scanlon. It was helpful for me to have private instruction twice per week.

While I was feeling a little more confident, I found myself encountering more roadblocks. One was concentration as there’s a lot going on at the studio at once, especially in the evening. It’s a packed house and not only I was I dealing with not being able to hear because a kids class was in session, I also had my anxiety-ridden, perfectionist mind to contend with. Since quitting was not in the cards, (I had something to prove—I thought to everyone but it was really myself), I needed another coping technique. That’s when I thought about meditation. I had heard about it and somewhat tried it in the past, was not successful in quieting my mind—it’s pretty loud in there—but thought it was worth another shot. Thankfully I found a couple of guided meditations on YouTube that proved to be invaluable, I listened to them during sleep and before a test or class. I also downloaded a 40-minute cognition enhancer; it contains Isochronic tones for clearer and faster thinking—so says the YouTube description. It totally worked for me! I would listen at home and in the car before every private and every class. It allowed me to quiet my chaotic mind, listen to the instruction, and focus on the present. I also began to focus on our own meditation; the one we do before and after every class and every form. Mr. Parker created a meditation for a reason and I was determined to explore it, use it in the way it was intended. “The purpose of this practice is to have the students clear their minds of all outside activities prior to starting their class… With a calm and serene mind, they will be able to absorb new material more readily, become more conscious of their every effort, and crisp in their actions. In short, it prepares the mind and body to receive or reflect on the knowledge obtained.” When performing this action with mindfulness rather than just going through the motions, I find it easier to practice karate in the way Mr. Parker intended—with purpose and passion; the way of a martial artist.

Yoga is another meditative technique that has helped me with karate. It has taught me breathing techniques, centered me, and helped me become more authentic. These are significant in the Kenpo journey as Ed Parker talks about in Infinite Insights into Kenpo: Mental Stimulation. In chapter three he says, “The essential ingredient in the development of mental conditioning is mental discipline.” I believe breath, centeredness, and authenticity are all important factors in mental conditioning/discipline, as well as putting aside your ego—the one you never thought you had. My yoga studio has a mat outside the workout room that says “Leave your ego at the door.” I started applying it to the karate studio as well. This statement does wonders for opening the mind to listening to your instructors and implementing their teachings rather than focusing on what the rest of the students, or people on the sidelines, may or may not be thinking. This is a lifelong practice, by the way, and one I think we all still struggle with; I do anyway. 

All of these individual coping/mental conditioning techniques I’ve discovered have helped me so much, but I would be remiss to discount my training partners. After employing all of these, for one reason or another (most likely I was preparing for a test), I called upon my friends in the studio. I asked whomever was available to meet me at the studio for some one on one karate time. Wow, what a difference it has made! My outside of class training partners have been invaluable. We’ve practiced techniques with partners, forms with partners, cardio, had discussions (both pertaining to karate and not) and here I am. Practicing outside of class has absolutely been one of the most important techniques I have found to condition my mind. Class and privates can be overwhelming and I feel like practicing outside of those things—on your own time, your own terms—is invaluable. 

As I’ve come along in my journey there are two mental obstacles that remain my toughest challenges, sparring and coming to grips with my emotions. I will briefly address sparring as the article I wrote for Women in Kenpo several months ago goes into much more detail. (https://kenpowomen.com/2019/10/09/staythecourse/

Sparring remains a point of contention for me—I don’t want to hit my friends, at all… ever. I would prefer to never spar. However, Jim McClure says the point of sparring is to get comfortable with circumstances you’re not comfortable with; to be prepared for situations in which you would be surprised. Here I am still learning and in class, Mr. White says the best defense for someone in my predicament is a zone defense—the universal block. Well, how do you do Mr./Mrs./Ms. Universal Block? I think we’ll be great friends. Mr. White also says you’re at your most vulnerable when thinking offense so this may offer me a huge advantage. 🙂 Stay tuned for my sparring journey. By the way, if someone were to threaten my cats, family, or friends, sparring would be out the window and it would be full on, adrenaline-spiked, no-holds-barred karate. This is the mental attitude, strength, and conditioning we have to build. 

Lastly, we come to dealing with our emotions. For me, it’s been a chore. As I mentioned earlier, I am an empath, highly sensitive, and extremely emotional. I say this again because I’m sure there are others in the martial arts world like me, and it’s okay; being emotional means you care and that’s a good thing. But it does come with its difficulties. 

Remember the tears I mentioned? They flowed and flowed when I was the only one who showed up for a Tuesday afternoon group class. Mr. White asked what I wanted to work on and I told him form four as that’s what I had so desperately been trying to grasp for at least the six months prior. I wasn’t getting it, became frustrated and my head spun out of control—I couldn’t tell my left from my right let alone follow along with the moves to form four, even as Mr. White called them out. After the longest 30 minutes of my life was over and I cried myself home, I told my husband about the whole horrifying incident. It was then we decided I should start taking privates from Mr. White. Perhaps so I would begin to see him as a mentor and not just the larger-than-life professor who taught my husband and many other talented Kenpoists, someone I never thought I could be. Mr. White also sent me to a sports performance coach which has done wonders for my mind. 

Learning to control my emotions has been one of the most, if not the most, important and hardest parts of my trek; it’s been frustrating to say the least. I feel everything, I’m a crier, but I’ve learned to deal with it and you can too. While some may be able to control their emotions from the very beginning, others cannot, and that’s fine. There are ways to put these emotions to work for you rather than against you. 

Yes, all the tools I mentioned above, but you also must fully feel these emotions—accept them. This also goes along with Mr. Parker’s preparatory considerations. He says you must “accept the fact that there are impending dangers and consider them seriously.” You may not feel danger per se in class or while you’re testing, but there are fight or flight emotions and you must accept them and let them pass. 

I remember testing for my brown belt, by myself, and my emotions began to rise. Minutes before the test began, Mr. White called the black belts who were present into the office. I was standing on the mat, alone with my thoughts, and my peers were on the sidelines. I remember feeling the familiar sensation of tears welling up and I immediately thought, “No, not today, not now.” But then I said to myself, “It’s okay, Tamara. Feel it and let it go.” And I did. I allowed the feelings to come and be fully realized, wiped the droplets from my eyes, and proceeded to have an awesome test. Once you accept your surroundings, your environment, you’re free to be you. You’re free to perform what you’ve been trained to do.

I sincerely hope that my personal stories, struggles, mental conditioning techniques, and newfound strengths will encourage not only a new generation of American Kenpoists, but anyone who dares to accomplish that which may seem impossible at first. Anything is possible. Mr. White always says if you encounter a problem, find a solution. I’m here to say there’s always a solution, you just have to find it… don’t give up. You’re stronger than you think.

Acknowledgements

Jim McClure—Thank you for taking me out of my comfort zone, for being my rock, my biggest support through this Kenpo journey of mine, and never letting me quit. Your encouragement is beyond compare; you have always believed in me, most certainly when I didn’t believe in myself. My love, you are my inspiration both inside and outside the studio. 

Andree Scanlon—Ah… you were my savior. I don’t have the words to adequately describe how much you mean to me; how grateful I am for your teachings, taking the time to understand me, your leadership, patience, and most of all your friendship. Thank you, thank you so much! I would not be here today if it weren’t for you. 

Mr. Scanlon—Thank you for taking the time to teach me. I know I require much patience and you had it. I appreciate you so much and thank you for your lessons; I remember them all and they help me to this day. 

Mrs. White—You are truly an inspiration. You are the epitome of patience and I think most people aspire to have your work ethic. You never quit, always strive to be your best, and are willing to help anyone and everyone. I am grateful for the time you have spent with me, your teachings, and your patience. I appreciate your support and am thankful to call you friend. Also, you can be my Director of Photography anytime! 🙂

Mr. Hardesty—Your Thursday lunch classes were fire, I looked forward to them every week and can’t wait for them to start again! You taught me so much in a short time and offered a different perspective, which I truly appreciate. You have been 100% real and authentic, always striving to make my crazy brain understand, thank you.

Mr. Shukla—Thank you for your unwavering support. You have always been there to offer words of encouragement and have been ever so patient in teaching me or helping with a technique. And sparring… thank you for being a patient teacher and partner in Mr. McClure’s Saturday morning sparring class. You most certainly made those classes much more bearable for me and I appreciate you.

Christine Moorefield, Mela Krueger—My Friday training partners. You have been such an important part of my Kenpo journey and I will never forget our workouts. You push me, inspire me to be better, and have made me delve deeper into the techniques than I probably would have without you. Mela, I will miss you and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for kicking my butt with all those kicks! Christine, our workouts make practicing fun and I appreciate you so much for being such an awesome workout partner and friend. You are truly inspiring.

Katie—You did the deed and I admire you. Thank you for being my partner, my friend, and for always being there to offer words of encouragement, I appreciate you.

To all the instructors and students at BWKS—Thank you for all of your help and encouragement. 

Mr. White—You are the epitome of what a coach and instructor should be. I have learned so much in all your classes and take your words to heart. You truly care and it shows every single day. Thank you for helping me get out of my own way and get to the point of testing for my black belt. I appreciate you finding ways to help me understand Kenpo, your encouragement, patience, and your unwavering belief in me.