Posted by: trevormeers | May 21, 2011

Take A Bow. No, A Courtesy Bow.

Somebody page the minivans loaded with tar and feathers. If Master Wilson keeps publicly uttering the kinds of things he’s saying to this room full of kids, he’ll get run out of the ‘burbs faster than a mom passing out warm juice boxes at soccer practice.

“If you can’t tie your own belt, you’re just lazy,” he told a class of budding karate students with a firm glare last week. “If you can figure out how to earn 5,000 extra points on Mario”—then he twiddles his thumbs disdainfully in the universal gesture for playing video games, texting and other numb-brainery—“I’m pretty sure you can figure out how to tie your belt. If you advanced belts can’t keep your belt tied, we’ll just take it from you and give it to some of these white belts.”

Allison practices her kata (series of stances) while Master Wilson coaches a student in the background.

Master Wilson is a karate instructor with a hawk’s nose and Jean-Luc Picard’s haircut. He refers to his students, even those still sleeping with stuffed animals, as “martial artists” and expects them to do every last thing with speed, discipline and respect. Allison started studying karate at his dojo in an office park several months ago. And for my first few weeks in the parents’ observation area, I kept looking around at the moms and dads with their noses stuck in iPads to see if I was the only person hearing this stuff. I was pretty sure this self-discipline schtick had been banned from latte-ville along with public-school prayer and talk about hunting.

“You could do the minimum on all your physical tests,” he told the kids. “But how good are you going to feel about yourself if all you ever do is the minimum it takes to get by?”

He explained that every student would address their instructors as “sir.” And, in turn, the instructors would repay the courtesy, right down to the lowliest white belt. If any young instructor failed to add a “sir” or “maam” to every comment, then Master Wilson wanted to know about it because there were always bathrooms in the dojo that could use a good cleaning by a forgetful sinsei-in-training.

We came to karate in need of a break from youth sports. Little League parents may be the perennial boogey man, but Little Jimmy and Susie had zeroed out my patience all on their own. Raised on a steady drip of SportsCenter, today’s young athletes have clearly internalized the lesson that winning isn’t everything. Because if you don’t trash-talk your opponent, showboat for the crowd and whip out a choreographed celebration after any average play, you really haven’t accomplished anything. I got my fill of second-graders dancing to center court during Saturday-morning player introductions and cupping their hands to their ears, waiting for cheers from the 20 sleepy parents at courtside. I maxxed out on watching kids miss 16 straight shots, then run wild-eyed around the court when they finally bank one in, jawing at anyone they encountered about their Muhammad Ali-like greatness. Having learned to watch sports via highlight reels, they’ve decided that you don’t worry about your awful play during most of the game; the editors back in the truck will take out everything except you posterizing the dork on the other team.

Hastening our search for something new was the fact that Allison never bought into a fairly key sports aspect that provided much of my motivation in the 1980s: That there’s some inherent value in putting a ball through a hoop.

So we visited the dojo, where we found kids giving each other courtesy bows after practicing moves on one another. We heard Master Wilson advising students that when they get stuck on a technique, they need to find a buddy who can help them improve. “Team up, never give up,” he reminds them. The thing is so much about painstaking process rather than glorious result, that we’re still not exactly sure how the belt progression works. And, honestly, we haven’t worried about it.

One broken board down on the road to black belt.

Many of the classes are run by a pair of black-belt high-schoolers I’ve never heard addressed as anything but “Mr. Finch” and “Mr. Hatcher.” They’re polite. Authoritative but not arrogant. Strong but nurturing. And they seem somehow able to exist for hours on end without use of electronics. It’s a line of teenagers I was positive had been discontinued.

Misters Finch and Hatcher line the kids up for drills, advanced belts taking the front row. Orange belts in the middle. Whites in the back. A front-rank position isn’t so much about glory as about responsibility. Master Wilson tells them, “Think about who’s watching you and model what you think others ought to do. What would your school look like if everyone acted just like you?”

In every session, the message is to act like a champion. In other words, move with confidence and authority. Do everything with black-belt intensity. Because you shouldn’t be there unless you’re committed to the long haul. The school creed, shouted at the end of every session is, “This is a black belt school! As a student, my goal is to achieve black belt!” Allison shouts it along with her classmates, then tells me every time we leave how much fun she’s having.

I confess that I wish I could work karate into my own schedule, and I’ve been harboring a fantasy of going around arbitrarily signing people up for karate lessons, my one-man battle against a culture fat with individuals whose main life goal seems to be dragging everyone down into a non-threatening norm.

We live a strange dichotomy. As spectators of big-time sports, we forgive a winner almost any sin and virtually exile a loser. But when it gets closer to home, most people are nurtured on the affirming tonic that we really do live in Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average. So we’re all OK, no matter what the results say. Which quickly slips into deeming it OK to squirm out of anything that gets too hard because you’re just following your own path. Master Wilson, on the other hand, is standing on the premise that self-confidence born of performance rather than happy talk is the only anchor in a real storm. And it’s available to anyone willing to put in the work. As Allison’s favorite new T-shirt says, “A black belt is just a white belt who didn’t give up.”

The only person in the dojo you can treat with disrespect.

Some may wonder whether martial arts are really all that useful for a middle-class American. Admittedly, ninja attacks are on the decline in the Iowa suburbs. And I’m sure there are excellent coaches still bringing this same old-school approach in team sports, even if I haven’t run across many of them yet. But karate is where we’ve found our little oasis of self-discipline. And even if there weren’t self-defense, coordination and fitness in the mix, I’d keep writing tuition checks for Allison. In fact, if she were learning to peel potatoes under this kind of tutelage, I’d keep sending her. In the dojo, she’s learning drive and focus in pursuit of not showing up opponents, but building a better self.

The opponent, in fact, is pretty much immaterial. It’s a downright John Wooden-esque concept, or in the words of Italian mountain climber Walter Bonatti, “Mountains are the means, the man is the end. The goal is not to reach the tops of mountains, but to improve the man.”

I mean, “Improve the man, SIR!”



  1. you had to put up that piture

  2. Kudos! Discipline and character, respect and perseverance…our society could definitely use more martial arts students! Sounds like our school systems should add them to the required classes!

  3. You are the doctor!!

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