Two-Black Stripe Paper 1

My next rank test for karate is coming up on August 8, 2009. One of the requirements for that test is to write a paper on any subject related to my experiences in karate so far. Here’s what I turned in today:

Almost There

On Saturday, August 8, 2009, I’ll be taking my two-black stripe karate test. For anyone reading this that may be unfamiliar with the intricacies of rank advancement in my chosen style of Cuong-Nhu karate, I’ll put it in simpler terms: this is the last test I’ll take before my black belt test. In a sense, you might say I’m “almost there.”

I’ve noticed a general rule over the course of my life that the hardest part of many activities is the last few steps. The most challenging part of reaching a major mountain peak is usually those last hundred feet before the summit. The toughest part of most multiple game sporting championships is usually the last couple hours (think Game 7 of the World Series or NBA Finals). The most dangerous and trying round of a boxing match is the final one. And the most frustrating stage of a major business negotiation is just before the deal closes, when even a seemingly insignificant detail can cause the whole deal to fall apart.  Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but this pattern emerges consistently enough, and across such a broad variety of situations, that I can’t help but believe that there must be some larger, overarching truth that helps explain why some things get exponentially more difficult when you’re “almost there.” Why are people statistically more likely to crash their car within the final 1.4 miles of their final destination? Why are the last five pounds of weight loss 9 times harder to take off than the first five? And why do so many students at our dojo quit karate at the brown belt rank (so often, in fact, that we’ve even coined the term “Brown Belt Heaven” to describe where they go) when they seem closer than ever to their goal of black belt?

I submit that there are three specific factors that help explain “Almost There Phenomenon,” which is my completely made-up term to explain the marked increase in difficulty and/or danger of an endeavor as you approach its termination. Identifying these factors is the first, and therefore easiest, step in overcoming them.

ATP Factor 1: Changes in Your Environment

The first factor in explaining ATP is perhaps the most obvious: as you approach a goal, the environment, conditions, or situation surrounding that goal becomes dramatically different than it was at the outset.

In the obvious example of mountain climbing, climbers encounter lower temperatures and air density as elevation rises, creating an increasingly difficult environment for breathing, walking, and surviving the higher the climber goes. In SCUBA diving, the inverse is true. At every 33 feet of depth underwater, divers experience an environmental change of 1 additional atmosphere of pressure compared to sea level, so that by 132 feet underwater, it requires 5 times the amount of air volume per breath to achieve the same air density intake as on the surface. Divers literally “feel the pressure” during the initial phases of a descent, as all air spaces (lungs, sinuses, ear canals, the air in their mask, intestines, and even pockets of air trapped in their teeth) are compressed to half of their sea-level size by 33 feet. As divers go beyond 100 feet, they face the risks of nitrogen narcosis and eventual oxygen toxicity as their blood chemistry changes. Still, the most dangerous part of any dive is the final stage of the ascent to the surface, when air trapped throughout the diver’s body can expand too rapidly in response to the changing environment as they approach the surface, causing decompression illness or death.

In both these examples, there are obvious changes in the environment as the climber or diver approaches his goal. Being near the top of a mountain, or the bottom of an ocean, is more difficult than remaining at sea level because the very nature of the new environment demands increased precision and exertion. This is also true in karate. The push-up requirements for brown belts and black belts are more physically demanding than those of white or green belts. At each successive rank, students are not only responsible for knowing all techniques, katas, and applications at their new rank level, but of all previous levels as well, thereby making the mental environment more challenging. The risk for injury also increases as board breaking, weapons use, and sparring are introduced at higher ranks. Teachers expect more from higher ranked students, and so they change the environment during classes and tests to make it more difficult for these students. And as with climbing and diving, the very nature of this new environment demands increased precision and exertion on the part of the student. As succinctly stated by Nietzsche, “That which does not kill us” (or send us to Brown Belt Heaven) “makes us stronger.”

ATP Factor 2: The Elimination of Easier Alternatives

The second factor in explaining Almost There Phenomenon is purely mathematical: as you approach a goal, the number of alternative options, methods, and routes for reaching that goal is forcibly decreased, until only the final (and usually most difficult) step remains.

While travelling to my vacation home near Wenatchee, Washington, I drive by thousands of apple trees, which produce millions of apples each year (half of the apples grown in the United States come from Washington State). In the fall, every single one of those apples is picked by hand. Apple pickers go about their task exactly as you would expect. Their job demands that they remove every apple from the tree, so theoretically, they could start with the highest apple on the tree and then move down – but they never do. They pick the “low hanging fruit” first, which is exactly why that term is a widely-used metaphor for things that are easy to accomplish. At the beginning of the task, the mathematical possibilities for the order in which to pick apples off a tree seem almost limitless. The picker can casually walk around the tree, removing easy-to-reach apples and placing them in a crate. It doesn’t matter if they grab this apple first, or that one over there, because so many are easy-to-reach options available to him. But as each piece of low hanging fruit is removed, fewer and fewer easy options remain, until the picker is forced to use a ladder to reach the higher fruit. Once the moderately difficult fruit is removed, only a few apples remain near the top, at which point the largest ladder must be used, and the choices of what order to removing the last few apples are drastically reduced. In the end, there is only one option remaining: the last apple. The picker can ignore the last apple for most of the task, choosing a number of easier alternatives. But eventually, even though the last apple will occupy no more space in the crate than the lowest of the low hanging fruit, the picker must exert the greatest amount of effort to complete the last step of his overall goal.

In baseball and basketball championship series, players universally agree that it’s easier to win at home. But in order to win a best-of-seven series, a team usually has to win at least one away game, and if they lose any of their home games, they have no choice but to win on the road. The easier alternatives are eliminated as the series progresses. From the base of a mountain, a climber has numerous options for gaining altitude, but as the summit approaches, the alternative routes are quickly eliminated, until only the most difficult remain.

The final steps required to complete a goal are almost always the most difficult, because it’s human nature to eliminate the easiest tasks first.  At the dojo, some students choose to focus on only their favorite techniques, weapons, or activities, while ignoring or postponing the more challenging ones. But, like the last apple, they must eventually focus on the hardest tasks in order to reach their overall goal. In some cases, the easiest tasks are a prerequisite for the more difficult, and must be mastered before attempting the higher-difficulty steps. Students must be able to perform a crescent kick, a spinning reverse crescent kick, and a flying crescent kick before attempting to combine those elements into a tornado kick.

Perhaps some of the students who quit do so because, after picking the low-hanging fruit, they are unwilling to take the challenge of reaching higher. Perhaps they’ve eliminated the easy routes up the mountain, and are too scared to face the remaining alternatives which they consider too treacherous, too scary, or too arduous. But building upon the foundation of the baby steps behind you and pushing through the difficult steps ahead is an inherent part of any lofty goal. If all the alternatives were easy, there would be no sense of accomplishment upon its completion.

ATP Factor 3: The Human Condition (Physical and Emotional Fatigue, Injury, and Age)

The third factor that helps explain why some tasks increase in difficulty and/or danger as you approach their termination is something that affects each of us to varying degrees:  the fact that we’re human, and that we are all affected by physical and emotional fatigue, injury, and age. Certainly, the aforementioned factors 1 and 2 can play a role in the rate at which the human condition sets in, but eventually it affects us all.

Physical fatigue is bound to set in more rapidly with any intense physical activity. Hiking, skiing, diving, karate, driving a car – each of these activities sees both a decreased level of performance, as well as an increased risk of injury, as a result of physical fatigue. The longer we work at something difficult, the more tired we get. With proper conditioning, we can increase the frequency, intensity, and duration of difficult activities while keeping physical fatigue at bay, but eventually we all succumb to the human condition. Almost any physical activity could be used as an example, but long-distance runners and boxers know this factor especially well. In the early stages of a marathon, the runner paces himself in the early miles so that he has sufficient energy to complete the later ones. In many cases, there may be no difference in the environment – in fact, if he is running laps on a track, the environment would be completely unchanged. Therefore, the only thing that makes the last mile of a marathon more difficult than the first mile is that the last mile follows 25 others. Boxers also experience this factor in later rounds. While crowds generally hope to see boxers land devastating knock-out blows to the head, it’s the body shots landed in early rounds that consistently pay dividends as the fight progresses. Later rounds are always considered the most risky for both fighters, because physical fatigue makes the activity more difficult in the final stages.

As we near the completion of a major goal, it’s impossible to avoid some amount of physical fatigue as a result of the steps we’ve already completed. This makes the “sprint to the finish” considerably more difficult than the “run from the gun.”

Emotional fatigue can spring from a variety of sources. Expressed as boredom, lack of focus or concentration, or complacency, such fatigue can demonstrably increase the difficultly and danger of the final stages of most major tasks. More climbers are injured on the way down a mountain than on the way up. It’s been my experience that racetrack-based auto accidents happen when a driver wants to go out for “one last lap.” The longer we remain in a risk-filled environment, our human condition naturally makes us feel acclimated to the risk, which is when we face the bigger risk of letting our guard down.

The risk (or reality) of injury and the irreversible process of aging can also contribute to the increased level of difficulty at the end-stage of major goals. The average age for athletes in most major sports is constantly inching downward, to the point where some athletes in their 30s are considered “old.” It’s been said that “youth is wasted in the young,” and to some extent, I agree. Youth and enthusiasm are eventually replaced by age and experience, but most would agree that as we age, strenuous physical activity becomes more difficult. Injuries can also affect the difficulty of competing major tasks, and the longer we perform any activity involving a risk of injury, the higher the probability that we will eventually have to face one. This risk is also contributor to the “almost there” phenomenon.

Methods of Dealing with ATP

Methods for dealing with the increased difficulty and/or danger of the “almost there” phase of a major goal are as varied as the people who pursue those goals. In my personal experience, I’ve faced each of these factors throughout my last eight years at Fairwood Martial Arts. As I gained more experience, more was expected of me by my teachers as they changed the environment to challenge me further. Because our martial art has a published curriculum, I can easily open our manual to see all of the techniques required for any rank level. As I’ve turned more of the pages, the number of unlearned techniques that I am responsible to demonstrate has decreased, like the apples on the trees, until I have no choice but to reach for higher levels. Finally, injury and aging have played a significant factor in my development through karate. Over the past eight years, I’ve had hernia and knee surgery, and have dealt with rotator cuff injuries in both my shoulders. I’ve seen my stamina and conditioning levels fluctuate in correlation with my efforts, and have begun to notice that some techniques aren’t quite as easy to do as they were eight years ago.

In the final analysis, the techniques to facing these factors may be complex, but the overall strategy is simple, and protected by a trademark belonging to the Nike Corporation: “Just do it.” When Master John Kay is teaching how to break boards, he always says “just step up there and break them.” When Master Ricki Kay is teaching Aikido holds and joint locks, she always says “just grab here and twist.” Any of us who wishes to fight through the “almost there” phenomenon just has to deal with the increased difficulty and danger.

Perhaps the best way to deal with it is to visualize the “almost there” stage of a difficult task as if it were the departure. If I imagine the final steps to the summit as if I were merely leaving the trailhead, my feet won’t feel so heavy. If I imagine the last mile of the marathon as if it were the first, my lungs won’t burn as much. And if I imagine that the bell of the closing round is merely the opening bell, I can come out, touch gloves, and fight refreshed.

The successful completion of my two black stripe will represent the beginning of my “almost there” stage in my quest for a black belt. And while I’ll be forced to deal with an increasingly changing environment, the elimination of easier alternatives, and face the conditions of my humanity, I’ll come to the dojo with the enthusiasm, focus, and thirst for knowledge of a white belt, while I work to build the stamina of a teenager.

So please don’t tell me that I’m “almost there.” I’d rather think that I’m just getting started.