Black Belt Candidate Paper 1

I’m scheduled to take my black belt test in Cuong Nhu karate on May 28, 2010. One of the requirements for this rank is that I write a paper about anything karate-related. That’s a pretty broad brush to hand someone like me, so I took advantage. Here ya go:

Cuong Nhu Black Belt Candidate Paper

by Stephen J. Jenkins, Komokuten Dojo

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved playing video games. Many of my favorite memories growing up in Portland, Oregon were due to that state’s “bottle bill:” all carbonated beverage containers require a five cent deposit at purchase, which is then refunded when the empties are returned to any store for recycling. There was plenty of litter in my neighborhood, and a Minute Mart right around the corner from my house. I’d search the streets for a few minutes, pick up five cans, redeem them for a quarter at the Minute Mart, and then promptly deposit the quarter into whatever arcade cabinet happened to be occupying the space just inside the Minute Mart’s door. To this day, I still hate litter, and I still love video games.

I grew up playing PONG and Pitfall on an Atari 2600, graduated to Donkey Kong and Defender on a Commodore 64, and continued to own every major video game system ever produced, including the current Xbox, PlayStation, and Wii. For a very long time, video games were my life. Now, they’re my career. And although I’ve never quite been able to figure out how to pay my bills playing video games, I’ve spent the last ten years of my career helping others play video games – by publishing hints, tips, cheat codes, and strategy guides for every video game ever made on every major video game system. Every day, my company helps millions of people from all over the world get higher scores, unlock new levels, and defeat new enemies.

My prolonged exposure to video games has led me to conclude that most of them are formulaic. Generally, you play as an individual, responsible for your own individual score, and focused on your own individual objectives. Some games may provide artificially intelligent allies to help you accomplish your goals, but your influence over them is limited, and the responsibility to use their help wisely is yours alone. Most games are based on “levels,” and once you’ve mastered a lower level you can move on to a higher one, with greater challenges, requiring greater mastery of the skills you learned in the lower levels. And at the end of nearly every video game I’ve ever played, you face a final challenge, featuring an ultimate opponent referred to in gamer parlance as a “boss.” The final boss is usually far stronger than any of the other opponents the player has faced up to that point of a game, and defeating him generally requires the use of all of the moves, weapons, reflexes, and instincts you’ve practiced throughout the lower levels. Beat the final boss, and you’ve beaten the game.

As I compare my experiences with both video games and martial arts, it’s not difficult to find correlation. Many of the most popular video games throughout the industry’s history fall into the “fighting game” genre, such as Tekken, Karateka, Street Fighter, Dead or Alive, and Kung Fu Master. But even the most basic and beloved games, such as Nintendo’s 1985 classic Super Mario Bros., follow a formula that parallels the natural progression of the martial arts.

Press START, and Mario, an immigrant plumber, finds himself in a strange and unfamiliar world. This is how we all start in karate. Initially, the dojo is an unfamiliar place to us, filled with foreign objects, strange sights, and new sounds. It may take a while for new students to get comfortable in this strange new world.

When he starts the first level, Mario’s abilities are somewhat limited. He can only stand, walk, run, or jump, and even early attempts with those skills can be awkward. He can easily stumble, fall, or bump into things. His prior skills as a plumber are of little use in his new environment. Similarly, the skills we learn as beginning karate students are also simple, but they serve as the foundation for all future techniques. Forward stance, lower block, punch, and reverse punch are essentially all we need for our first kata, but like Mario, our early attempts with those skills are usually awkward. And just like Mario’s plumbing experience, being an airline pilot, accountant, stay-at-home mom, doctor, or a even plumber won’t help us in our new environment. Inside the dojo, what we are in the outside world (along with how much money we make, or what kind of car we drive, or how we appear to those around us) isn’t important. Once inside, we all dress the same, work toward the same goals, learn the same techniques, and seek the same path.

Mario’s initial challenges are straightforward: stand right there, walk over here, run over there, jump over that. However, as he practices his limited skills with basic challenges in this first level, he gradually faces new and more difficult challenges. In the same manner, as we practice beginning karate techniques at the white belt level, our teachers will trust us with new techniques and more difficult challenges. Once we learn how to properly stand, walk, run, and jump, we can eventually apply those basic principles to a wide array of martial techniques.

Early in the first level, Mario receives the first tangible reward for the new skills he’s acquired: a Mushroom. Eating the Mushroom causes Mario to grow, and doubles his ability to take damage from enemies before dying. Of course, we should be careful not to take this analogy too far… I certainly don’t condone the use of mushrooms to give one the illusion of great power and size. 🙂 Mario’s Mushroom is merely a metaphor of merit. When we work hard in karate, we are also rewarded with growth: in body, mind, and spirit. We are better able to face enemies without getting hurt. Our increased capacity opens the door to increased challenges, and we receive our first tangible reward of a single green stripe on our belt.

Eventually, near the end of the level, Mario jumps as high as he can, lands on a flag pole, then slides down the pole, claiming his flag. This ends the level, and Mario receives the reward of more points. Most importantly, he earns the right to move on to the next level. This pattern repeats itself throughout the game: Mario faces new and greater challenges by demonstrating greater mastery of new skills based on the same basic principles, and then moves on to the next level. With each new level, his margin for error decreases, and Mario must be more precise in his movements, more deliberate in dealing with enemies, and more dedicated to reach the flagpole that marks the end of the level. It’s no different as we reach new levels in karate. With each rank, we must demonstrate greater mastery of new skills based on the same basic principles, with lesser margin for error and greater precision and focus. Near the end of each level, we are tested, and we respond to that test by putting forth our greatest effort and reaching as high as we can. If we are successful, we earn the right to pull down a new “flag” and tie it around our waist as a symbol of our current level.

As Mario reaches more advanced levels, the game gets more serious. If he maintains the growth granted earlier by the Mushroom, he can unlock the even greater reward of the Flower, which not only further boosts his resilience against enemies, but also allows him to wield Super Mario Bros’ ultimate weapon: the Fireball. This weapon gives Mario greater ability to disarm and defeat his enemies, thereby making it possible to navigate greater challenges and reach even higher levels. In karate, if we persist in our training long enough to reach more advanced ranks, we can also begin to train with weapons, which give us greater ability to protect ourselves from attack, and better disarm and defeat our enemies.

Eventually, if Mario endures long enough, he’ll complete all the lower levels and voyage to a large castle in a far-away land, wherein waits his greatest challenge to date: the “final boss,” named Bowser. Bowser guards Mario’s most desired reward: the alluring Princess Peach. To prevail, Mario must face Bowser, avoid his attacks, smash the wooden planks that supports him, and watch him fall to defeat. If he is successful, Mario can claim his prize, win the game, and end his epic journey.

My castle is the Carmichael Gymnasium, located on the NCSU campus in Raleigh, North Carolina. On May 28, 2010, at the Cuong Nhu International Annual Training Camp, I will mount my assault. Inside waits my greatest karate challenge to date, my “final boss,” a three-day challenge in which I must demonstrate my understanding and mastery of a wide array of skills and techniques, based on a handful of unchanging principles of how to properly stand, walk, run, jump, and move. I will show that I have grown in body, mind, and spirit and that I can perform any of the techniques required from any of the levels I’ve completed. I will prove that I can wield a variety of weapons to increase my resistance to attack and allow me to disarm and defeat my enemies. I will defeat any “enemies” that confront me, and I will smash no fewer than 12 wooden planks that stand between me and my ultimate goal.

And finally, when I am successful, I will be called forward to kneel and receive a new “flag” of black cloth to tie around my waist as a token of my victory. I will stand, claim my prize, and end my epic journey!

Or will I?

Unfortunately for Mario, Super Mario Bros. wasn’t exactly the end of his journey… it was only the beginning. Between Donkey Kong in 1981 and Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games in 2010, Mario has appeared in more than 200 video games, and shows no signs of slowing down. Perhaps there’s something still for us to learn from this persistent protagonist plumber.

Just as movies are in Hollywood, successful video games are destined to turn into sequels, and successful sequels are stretched into series. No matter how “final” the ending cut scene of a video game may appear, it’s always possible to find a new challenge for the main character. And while I still do plan to mount an epic assault on Carmichael Castle this May, there will be nothing ultimate about my goal, nor final about my journey.

Just as anyone who has mastered Super Mario Bros. will tell you, if you put down the controller for a month, a year, or a decade, picking it back up and immediately being able to still play at the same skill level is an almost impossibility. Timing, reflexes, intuition, stamina, and focus will fade quickly. You’ll likely get the hang of it more quickly than starting back at zero, but it will still take a great amount of effort and practice to regain your former level of performance and match your previous high score. Karate is no different. As with any skill, maintaining is far easier than regaining. Too many black belts achieve that goal and treat it like the end of an epic journey. I have no plans to let mine end. I will turn this success into a sequel, and then I’ll turn that sequel into a series.

Just like Mario, I have no plans to slow down any time soon.