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This is an odd article to write, and not at all what I expected to be writing. After all, I’ve a fight scene break-down in the works, a post on chokeholds in the wings, and an interview set for after the first of the year.
But right now… Well.
On the morning of November 21, I sent messages of encouragement and excitement to a past student of mine preparing to test for her Sandan rank (3rd degree black belt), and exchanged cheerful notes with my own teacher, Shihan, of more than a dozen years, who’d be overseeing the test.
Then all my karate contacts on all social media platforms went quiet for a few hours, as one would expect during a long and demanding test. But what followed was not the outpouring of celebratory pictures and comments tempered with tales of hardship.
Instead, I found a smattering of brief comments, then a bunch of longer ones, expressing loss and grief.
Shihan’s sensei of four decades had died unexpectedly, and Shihan had found out ten minutes before bowing onto the mat to evaluate the efforts of almost three dozen students prepared to prove themselves worthy of the black belt. He made the announcement to students and observers, dedicated the day to Hanshi, and began the test.
Had it been Shihan who’d passed away, he would have wanted the same thing. And you know what? So would I.
This is not an article about my loss and grief. Truly, I met Hanshi only a scant handful of times so my sense of loss is removed, more of an empathetic reaction for those who were close to him. This writing is instead about continuity and legacy, understanding how those things contribute to the formation of a fighter’s mindset, and how a fully realized mindset creates an authentic fighting character.
The style in which I’ve trained for fourteen years is indeed a family style, founded in 2001 with Hanshi’s encouragement and approval. The founding couple have four sons, all of whom run at least one dojo. Three of the daughters-in-law also teach. Six of the nine grandchildren hold a junior black belt; two are still far too young. The eldest grandchild, who became one of my own first students way back when, earned his adult black belt at the last test I observed before moving to Colorado this year.
When the family gets together, a large chunk of time is spent adjusting details of form, sharing discoveries made through studying historic materials and diverse styles, discussing stories of martial artists who’d influenced them, and making modifications to teaching methods that improve student learning and achievement. There are in-depth discussions and physical demonstrations on a million other details that would eventually be handed down to thousands of students.
Ten skilled martial artists with collective experience exceeding 250 years… Believe me—when I was fortunate to be present at those gatherings, I knew enough to understand how much I’d learn, as a martial artist and a writer, by silently absorbing every single moment.
As you might imagine, such a tight group of primary instructors results in an amazingly high level of training consistency throughout the style. The angle of punches in Pinan Shodan is precisely the same for every student at every dojo. Every dojo teaches the same methods of utilizing body mechanics over brute strength. All students learn the same wrist control to deliver nunchaku blows.
That level of scrutiny is essential to preserving the best of martial arts study and evolution, and to ensuring every student is held to the highest standard. Truly, it’s pretty simple to make a student smack the top of their foot against their opponent’s head. It takes a trained and focused teacher to teach a student how the angle of the stabilizing knee will affect the kicking leg’s targeting and control, how the turn of the hip should be engaged, what the tension (or lack of) in the upper body will produce, where the hands and elbows should be during the kick, and what the body should prepare to do next. Establishing and demanding that level of exceptional consistency and results is also essential to the continuation of smaller family styles.
But after sitting on black belt review boards dozens of times over the last decade or so, after watching hundreds of students from all the dojos test side-by-side, I can usually surmise each student’s primary instructor after watching a single kata or a handful of self-defense techniques. The differences lie not in technique, but in style and bearing.
The rhythm of a fight. Whether the student most often breaks right or left. If the student strikes or throws first under pressure. It’s in the way deference is given to instructors, how confidence is shown in a fight or in answering questions, and how community support is expressed even in the midst of harsh competition.
And we discuss and reinforce the behavior we most want to see in our fighters, because we understand the strongest fighters have the potential to be the most resilient leaders.
So our students are the ones who lend their weapons to fellow tournament competitors who forgot theirs. They’re the ones who’d give up their own class time to help a struggling classmate earn the next level of kata, spar with students half their size in order to teach and encourage, hug a classmate who was crying over the death of a pet, or pull me aside for an awkward conversation of concern about a fellow student who was being teased at school.
And as we worked on strong a kiba dachi, or talked through the impact of weapons bans on karate’s development, or compared the way to throw a classmate to the way to throw a enemy, we talked of all those things.
Y’see, what we teach creates continuity. How we teach creates legacy. That’s why instilling values in a fighter is a fundamental goal of any instructor or any style at any level, even if the teacher doesn’t realize it.
In the writing world, influence matters. Sure, there are the “masters” of our genre, who are widely or narrowly recognized as ones who impacted the field, whose works are foundational to understanding the evolution of a genre.
But then there are writers who influence us in more personal and, frankly, more important ways—the writers whose support and encouragement pushes us to strive for improvement, who demand we do our best, who teach us how to interact with fans and other writers, who believe we have the ephemeral gift of storytelling that will move readers as deeply as they themselves have been moved.
Influence matters in the fighting world as well.
Yes, there are the masters most students learn of early on—those who founded their particular style, or whose identities have become more legend than fact. But, also as in writing, the most important influencers are the ones much closer to us in time.
The teacher who gives our first hard-earned nod of approval, who shows us how to deal with the pain of injuries, who teaches us how to interact within a rank-based society, who believes we can find inside us the grit and confidence to stand firm when faced with a terrifying fight.
To view the totality of fighting is to understand the interplay of continuity and legacy.
Just as surely as the body has been trained, so too has the person’s character. When we respond, how we respond, and why we respond is coached and modeled by those of higher rank and technical skill.
Students who are bullied and mocked throughout their training will come out the other side a wildly different fighter than one who is supported and cherished. A person taught to treat their attained skill as a new responsibility will behave differently than one taught to treat it solely as a personal accomplishment. New people are seen as potential community or presumed enemy. Interruptions are potential or possibility. Creativity is enthusiasm or disrespect.
So despite the impression given by certain how-to books or zealous students of the All-Perfect Superpower Martial Arts Style, technique and ability demonstrated in a fight are secondary—in both real life fighters, and the fighters in fiction—to the person’s character as a fighter. And that character isn’t formed by hours on the mat or studying old documents or watching (if they exist) grainy films of masters. It’s trained into the fighter by present and present-day influencers who provide context, purpose, and connection.
In other words, believing technique makes a great fighter is like believing good grammar makes a great storyteller.
Chances are you’re a reader. As a reader, you’ll have specific reactions to events or conversations because you’re reminded of a story or character. You’ll have specific priorities when you pack for a trip, purchase furniture, consider lighting, allocate your resources, and a million other things.
You’re a reader even when you’re not reading.
And don’t even get writers started on how writing permeates their lives!
It’s no different for fighters. And yet, writers tend to take on their fighting characters in compartmentalized ways.
Some of that comes from the great distance between what many writers know about fighters and fighting, and the level of fighting they want to include in their stories.*
Some is caused by the rabbit-like proliferation of “How To Write Fight Scenes” books, and the tons of articles that define a fighter’s “mindset” as what the character does and doesn’t think about in relation to a fight.
So writers end up creating characters who fight—and some who fight very, very well—but who aren’t fighters if they’re not fighting.
This is wrong.
There are all sorts of stereotypical “tells” used to attempt demonstrating a fighter’s mindset: Always know the exits, never sit with the back to the door and/or always sit with your back to the wall, take cover after a loud noise… While none of those things are inaccurate, they’re collectively as deep as signaling your character is a “reader” by adding glasses, a ragged paperback, and a tendency to ignore one’s surroundings.
That’s just not good enough, my darlings.
“Mindset” isn’t what comes and goes when violence is present or absent. Mindset is what the fighter understands about where she fits in the world. Mindset is constant and ever-present. Legacy and continuity—the way-back of knowing a fighting style’s origins and evolution, the present-day influence of one’s teachers—is what provides everything but technique.
And, no matter what those fight-scene books infer, technique is not mindset.
In Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee, you’ll find a martial artist whose fight training seeps into every aspect of life. The main character has been trained to be aware of every detail of his body and physical responses during a fight, and has been taught by example to be an example to others. Lee extends that natural awareness into every scene. She gives the reader an authentic fighter whose mindset is fully expressed and incorporated into the character’s life.
In Gemini Cell by Myke Cole, you’ll meet a highly trained military man who must endure impossible circumstances, and yet even his humor is that of a fighter determined to win. There is one moment, when the character chooses reading material, that encompasses everything about the character’s fighting mindset. His choice not only sticks it to his primary opponent, but connects him with his past and underscores the balance of his strength. It is a fabulous moment of deft craft that you’ll recognize the moment you read it.
So if you’re writing about people who fight—who have supposedly trained to injure, maim, and kill others—you’d best understand and determine how training and perspective will affect every single other incident, interaction, reaction, and decision.
The driving priority might be kill the enemy or it might be defend the weak. The ability to harm another human being might be taught in the context of attaining power or preventing harm. Personal achievement is a reason to expect the deference of others, or an opportunity to share something new. The world is presented as filled with dangerous people in need of constant vigilance, or a mostly peaceful place with occasional eruptions of violence.
Or all those principles, abilities, achievements and assumptions might be presented as opportunities to find the balance between what you expect from yourself and what you expect to teach others.
In light of all that, you’ll understand why “sits with the back to the wall” is an incredibly simplistic storytelling tool.
On November 21, Shihan made a decision to once more train the character of his highest ranking students, and members of his own family, who’d come to demand excellence, endurance, and determination from those who sought to be honored with a black belt. In doing so, he offered everyone present an opportunity to learn and understand a way to deal with personal loss when others are depending upon you.
Certainly many of the younger students and newer families would understand the outward reason, the stated reason, for dedicating their test to Hanshi’s memory. And they wouldn’t be wrong to accept honoring his memory as the reason to move forward with the testing of all their skill and might. That is indeed what fighters are expected to do for those who have passed on.
But the older students, the ones who’d been around long enough to understand the cultural priorities of our style and dojo, knew the reasons tucked beneath the surface and understood the day’s black belt test was a reinforcement of the purpose that connects past with future. They understood that continuing with the test despite their own shock, hurt, and wonderings of why was only in part about honoring the dead.
It was also about the students and families who’d worked hard, planned for the event, and were ready to prove themselves part of an unfolding lineage built on martial excellence and inclusive humanity.
Because we don’t fight for the past, and we fight just as much as we must for the present. What we truly train for, what we believe is worth risk and sacrifice, is the fight for the future.
And that mindset matters far more to a fighter’s choices than how well they can throw a punch.