Bonding Over Fisticuffs

During the last dozen years, I’ve been regularly punched, kicked, thrown to the ground, and had my arms folded into pretzels. Good times. How do I account for the fact that the nicest people I’ve met in the last couple of decades spend their evenings in dojos devoted to martial (literally, “warlike”) arts? It can’t be opposite day every day. I think that people enter martial arts dojos for physical conditioning and self-defense, but stay for a couple of other reasons.

Reason number one, is mental conditioning. If you’ve trained in a physically-challenging endeavor for years, you know that the physical part is easy compared to the mental part, that is, the part where you keep focused no matter how tired you are (and dare we admit it, even sometimes, bored), and the part where you return to train week in and week out, year in and year out. The physical conditioning required to train comfortably in a martial art takes months, a few months for younger people, many months for older people. The mental conditioning required to train comfortably in a martial art is marked in years, and I believe it would be a rare person who could make it through those years without reason number two.

Reason number two, is that the dojo is our third place. What’s a third place? Your home is the first place, your work environment (or, for children, school) is the second place. The third place is the place where you go to relax and see friendly faces, such as the mythical Cheers bar, “where everybody knows your name.” Both Howard Schultz, Starbucks founder, and Ron Sher, developer of (among others) the local Third Place Commons, set out to create third-place hangouts, but didn’t quite make it. How many times have you said to yourself: “I can’t wait to get off work so I can hang out at Starbucks for a couple of hours”?

I find that family-friendly martial arts dojos, such as USA Karate, fit the third-place ideal far better. People form bonds, not over easy times, but over hardships. And by hardships, I don’t mean making your way through a cup of Starbucks burnt-firewood flavored drip, I mean hardships that include pain, fatigue, and (mostly self-) criticism.

What do you think? If you’re a relative newcomer, do you find yourself attracted to the third-place aspects of USA Karate? If you’ve been around for a while, how much of the third-place aspects helps you to keep coming? Do you have other thoughts on why you and others continue at the dojo? Please comment below.

If you have a question that you’d like to ask USA Karate members, please let us know.

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5 Responses to Bonding Over Fisticuffs

  1. Pete says:

    I think you hit this right on the head! I work, I parent, I ski and I need something to work my mind, body and spirit.

    Spending time with my karate family does just that. It makes me hurt, proud and humble and I could live without it, but there would be a vital void to fill. While knowing that we have all endured together, there is mutual respect among dojomates that is fortified through the martial way. I’m sure any veteran will attest to the bonds of war and the comraderie earned. While we try to best each other with warlike means, we strive to do so without harming anyone in training.

    As a parent though, it amazes me to watch the children grow in the process. The inner calm, the level of responsibilty, and number of kids that excel in their education is remarkable.

    I am happy to have USAKarate as my 3rd place. In a crazy world, it keeps me that much more sane!

  2. Peggy says:

    As someone who qualifies on many levels in the category of “someone who has been around for awhile”, I think the concept of the dojo as being one of the primary influential places in my life in the same way that home and work are, is very accurate and a good way to explain the complex and indescribable process one goes through when studying karate. I believe that this journey is enriched at USA Karate by the “traditional” aspect of our instruction which reaches beyond simply physical martial training to incorporate spiritual and mental components of traditional karate, thus shifting “training” to the experience of martial “art”.

    When just starting out the idea that karate-do is a “way of life” doesn’t make much sense. But after training for awhile one begins to recognize the quiet but profound changes that karate has made on one’s life that go way beyond improved self defense skills or fitness levels, though those benefits are clearly to be celebrated. Just like the reference to karate-do as a “way of life” seems a little hokey to beginning karate students, the often noted term “karate family” initially seems like meaningless, social babble, but develops much deeper meaning over time. Just as families of origin are made up of members of various ages, abilities, experiences, and skills, so is the dojo. In strong families at different times people learn from and challenge each other, support and lean on each other, respect and learn to encourage each other’s development. Through shared experiences, sweat, tears, joys and struggles we get to watch each other grow, face frustration, and learn both from achieving our goals as well as from sometimes failing to do so just yet. Indeed, kicking, punching, and throwing each other around the dojo creates a unique kinship that prepares us to better handle life outside of it. The strength and confidence that is nurtured on the mat carries over into our individual and collective families and is reflected in the other important places of our every-day lives: home and work or school. Karate-do really is a way of life.

  3. Emily says:

    The dojo community we have going really IS rare; I feel particularly lucky to be a part of it. Within those walls, I’ve been more frustrated than any other time, and I’ve also had more fun. I learn something new from someone every time I attend class or work there — and that’s not an exaggeration, I really mean that. I’ve found my extended family that dojo.

    USA Karate really is an excellent example of the ideal “Third Place.” We’re so blessed to be a part of such a positive, supportive, and fun network of trustworthy and hard-working people. There’s hardly much to expand upon (I think Pete and Peggy really summed it up perfectly), but I will give a personal example:

    Having literally grown up in various dojos, there are certain times when it’s difficult to stay motivated about dedication, especially when there are so many alternate activities and experiences to explore. But I have found persevering those feelings to be completely worth the effort; there always comes a day when I’m reminded that karate is a principal part of who I am. For example, I had a horrible week last week, and when Thursday night came around I honestly was wishing I could just be asleep in my room. But after being bombarded by the smiles of fellow karate-ka, both newcomers and old friends, and after sweating and joking with them, I felt a sense of relief and of homecoming.

    Another thing I like about this particular fellowship is that it extends much further than Shoreline; when we travel to the Hombu Dojo in Grants Pass, for instance, I always feel a sense of familiarity. It’s amazing that people from all over the world can connect over a common passion.

    If my mom had never signed me up for classes when I was 5, I never would have met many of the people I hold dear to me today. Nor would I be anywhere near the same person who I am now — and I don’t necessarily think I’d be proud of that person.

  4. Jon Hie says:

    I find this post well articulated and spot-on. I can’t tell you how often I have had a tough day / week and after a simple hour or so of nothing but kihon basics and the company of some friends I feel mentally recharged. There is something to martial arts training that resonates with a few like no other activity – it’s definitely my ‘third place’.

  5. Joni Sharrah says:

    Being the co-owner of USA Karate, I find the comments on “bonding over fisticuffs” uplifting and encouraging.

    For me it is true. I began martial arts training primarily for self-defense purposes. Personally having been the target of would-be stranger danger for most of my pre-teen through young adult-hood, martial arts training began intensely the day after two guys that I did not know, followed me around a convenience store all the way to my car. I knew the situation was dangerous when after I got in my car, one of the thugs was tugging at the door handle to get in.

    The next day I began martial arts training with a serious attitude toward gaining self-defense skills. At first, practicing hundreds of straight punches, basic blocks and kicks did not seem to give me the confidence I craved to feel powerful enough to overcome the fear within me or thwart attackers.

    Only after 9 to 12 months of training did the subtle change occur. Working with a variety of partners was the key to overcoming my fear of personal assault. Partner drills of defense against grabs, strikes, kicks, and grasps first fueled my growing fear.
    Practicing the drills and skills seemed useless and frustrating.

    Then one day after many months of doubt, I was working with a partner who was heavily muscled, very intimidating, and unyielding in his attacks toward me. Finally, I executed the defense skill we had been practicing and in a blink of an eye I off-balanced my partner with simplicity and grace.

    This moment was one of the first of many triumphs which confirmed the truth in the strength that lies within developing a strong foundation through basic training.

    It also confirms the message of bonding through fisticuffs, in that my partner helped me develop a sense of accomplishment, by presenting a difficult situation for me to over come. Knowing that my partner was not simply cooperating with me which would have enabled me to develop a false sense of skill, allowed me to become confident at self-defense.

    The motivation to stay in training in the martial arts has been more about the comaraderie among my fellow dojo mates and associates. Over time, I simply feel like a white belt student who never stopped attending classes.

    Through the growth of the martial artists in our dojo, at the hombu dojo, and other places where we find ourselves training, personal growth continues and a deepening of understanding continues through training in karate-do.

    Training in martial arts is much more challenging and rewarding than a workout on the treadmill or a one hour run. It requires a mind-body connection and focus as well attention to how our actions affect others and vice versa. Yes, in martial arts training we will develop and maintain physical and mental fitness, but the benefits of bonding over fisticuffs are unique to each invidual and each day there is something new to be learned or shared with our fellow karate-ka. Thus, there is personal growth and development for all who are willing to submit themselves to the traditions of karate-do both on and off the mat.

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