By Tom Robotham
Recently, I finished watching the fifth season of Cobra Kai, the Netflix series that serves as a sequel to Karate Kid. Its charm lies in its campiness—especially during the fight scenes, which are absurdly over the top. And yet, while I enjoyed it, the show brought back moments of mild irritation that I experienced during the five years that I trained at Norfolk Karate Academy.
The irritation had nothing to do with what happened at the school. On the contrary, the training itself was one of the best experiences of my life. For one thing, it whipped me into shape. When I joined in October, 2005, at the age of 49, I was just shy of 200 pounds—seriously overweight for someone of my height and frame. Within six months, I was down to 175. I also had a lot more stamina, flexibility and muscle tone, and felt stronger than I had in my 20s and 30s. Moreover, it did wonders for my self-confidence. For most of my life, I’ve had trouble sticking with things—especially fitness regimens. I can’t count how many times I’ve joined gyms in January and quit by March. For a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen this time. Year after year, I trained with almost religious fervor, for three hours a night, four to five nights a week. By the summer of 2008, I’d earned my first-degree black belt, and with that came a profound sense of accomplishment.
On occasion, when I told people about my training, they’d respond with a simple, “Oh, cool,” or “That’s awesome.” More often than not, however, the responses reflected cartoonish notions about karate. Many people, for example, would immediately throw up their hands in what they imagined to be “karate chop” stance and say, hi-ya!
One friend was even more mocking.
“When I was a teenager,” he said with a sneer, “this kid in the neighborhood started taking karate. One day another kid in the neighborhood said to him, ‘karate chop this’ and punched him in the face.” The implication was that karate is a joke. His remark was also based on the mistaken assumption that I was doing it with hopes of becoming some kind of bad-ass who could take down any assailant.
On the flip side were those who held the opposite view: that my black belt meant that I could take on any comers.
I blame the mass media for this. The original Karate Kid and many other movies and TV shows depict karate as something that will give you super-hero fighting abilities after a few months of classes. There’s also a tendency among many people to think of all martial arts as interchangeable. I remember watching a cartoon when I was a kid and hearing one of the characters refer to a “judo chop.” The trouble is, there’s no such thing: Judo involves throws, grappling moves and holds, similar in many ways to those involved in jiu-jitsu, which I began studying in earnest after I’d earned my black belt in karate.
Between the two, jiu-jitsu is a much more effective method of self-defense. Brazilian jiu-jitsu—or Gracie jiu-jitsu, named for the family that perfected it—is specifically designed to allow a person to survive against a bigger, stronger opponent. Having taken classes with three different members of the Gracie family, I can attest to the fact that it’s the real deal. But it takes a long time to master it. In my time there, I did learn techniques that might kick in from muscle memory if I were ever attacked—but that was never my primary motivation. For one thing, I’ve never lived in fear of being physically accosted—and if I ever were, my first impulse would be to resort to my number-one self-defense technique: run away.
No, the appeal of jiu-jitsu for me was similar to my interest in karate: the development of mental and physical discipline. Performing well-executed moves while grappling in the dojo is deeply satisfying in itself. It’s akin to outwitting an opponent in chess—an analogy I like because, after all, most people don’t play chess in hopes of someday commanding an army on the battlefield. Likewise, I never trained with the goal of self-defense. I did so because it was fun and taught me valuable lessons about life.
I remember one night, in particular, when I was grappling with an opponent who outweighed me by 120 pounds. Suddenly, I found myself on my back, with all that weight pressing down on my chest and abdomen. I couldn’t breathe, which brought on a panic attack, and I tapped out—tapped the mat, that is, indicating that I was giving up. In retrospect, I realized that I didn’t need to. The problem wasn’t that he was on top of me; the problem was that I’d panicked. Had I just lay there and taken little sips of breath while waiting for him to give me an opening, I might have been able to escape. The lesson I took away from that had nothing to do with physical combat; it had to do with a tendency I’ve had off and on since childhood to feel short of breath from anxiety—and to make matters worse by hyper-ventilating. To this day, when I’m afflicted with this condition, I try to remember that moment and take little sips of breath.
As much as I loved jiu-jitsu training, I loved karate even more. The training was based on katas—or “forms,” as we called them. Each kata comprises a series of choreographed moves, including punches, kicks, lunges and leaps. Many combat-oriented martial artists mock them as useless, but I loved them, simply for the way they made me feel. Doing these moves with precision and grace delivers the same sense of satisfaction has hitting a beautiful forehand in tennis or hitting nothing-but-net with a well-executed jump shot. You feel supreme control of your own body. And the truth is, that’s what I always enjoyed most about tennis and basketball when I used to play: not winning the game—I never cared much about the score—but playing at my best.
This, in essence, was the great value of my martial arts training: feeling good, physically, and learning to keep going when I felt discouraged. All of this came to a head during my black-belt test. It began with a series of calisthenics designed to exhaust you before you even started the formal sections: 50 pushups, 100 sit-ups and 500 squats. Next, my fellow candidates and I had to perform 13 katas in sequence. After that came sparring, then grappling—then a series of board breaks, executed in choreographed sequences. The test ended, at long last, with a demonstration that you could break a concrete block with your fist. Up to that point, I’d only broken wooden boards, and in the days leading up to the test I feared that I might break my hand, rather than the block. As I stood over it at that moment, though, I was so exhausted that my fear largely vanished. If I break my hand, I thought, at least I’ll be able to rest in the emergency room. Needless to say, when I smashed the block, I felt a tremendous sense of elation. To this day, I have that broken block in my apartment as a reminder that I can accomplish a lot more than I think I’m capable of and break through barriers that initially seem to be impenetrable.
Alas, in the years since I stopped training, I’ve fallen into bad habits. I smoke and drink too much, eat haphazardly, avoid household chores, and don’t get nearly enough exercise. All of this feels like a weight on top of me—something I can’t break through or get out from under.
I’ve thought many times about getting back to the training that did so much for me. I hope to do so in this new year, but I’ve lived long enough to know that New Year’s resolutions usually don’t stick.
But here’s the thing: My future doesn’t rest on that. It rests on remembering the lessons I learned while I was training. When I think about changing my life, for example, I usually fall into the delusion that I need to quit smoking cold turkey, cut way back on drinking, undertake a vigorous exercise regimen, go on a strict diet and whip my apartment into shape—all at once. I need to remind myself of what my teacher used to say: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. That and the companion lesson I learned from that concrete block: What seems impossible is often easier than you think.