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martial-arts-silhouettesI have a senior belt in Shutokan Karate. And although it was many years ago, the saying is, once a martial artist, always a martial artist, which is why I instinctively rei (bow), if I see any martial artist senior to me, even now.

Note the phrase, self-control (in the title) above.

Noun: “The ability to control one’s emotions or behaviour in difficult situations.”

Do you know a martial artist? Then you know someone with some of the strongest self-control you will encounter.

Let me explain.

In Shutokan Karate, the dojo kun, (code) simply the five guiding principles intended to frame practice within an ethical context are as follows:

  • I shall strive for the perfection of character
  • I shall defend the path of truth
  • I shall foster the spirit of effort
  • I shall honour the principles of etiquette
  • I shall guard against impetuous courage.

It’s a lot more complicated, deeper, and the etymology when broken down from its native Japanese is so profound you have to live it to understand it. We recited this at the beginning and/or end of every training session.

The first four were mostly intended for everyday life, but even though the fifth was also, it had added weight in the dojo (training place), and especially during Randori.

Randori is a term used in Japanese martial arts to describe free-style practice. The term literally means “chaos taking” or “grasping freedom,” implying a freedom from the structured practice of kata.

If you put Randori side by side with the  dojo kuns, you see where there is a bit of an inconsistency, an oxymoronic situation. Randori is free for all, but there is an underlying and overriding principle, the dojo kun. Few people understand this. Few people respect this. And so what is commonly practised is what we called Randori kumite – “mock-combat” in which both karateka move very fast, parrying and attempting acts of extreme violence, yet only ever making the slightest contact. Total control of the body is necessary and therefore only the senior grades can typically practice this.


After my Sensei left the town where I was, I moved from dojo to dojo but found an appalling lack of discipline everywhere I went. I once found myself in one of these dojos sparring with another senior belt karateka. I expected him to understand the spirit of kumite. Unfortunately, he was a product of one of these schools where discipline was not entrenched. He could fight, yes, but he was completely unfamiliar with controlling his techniques and had no discipline. The point is to tap, to glide, but everything is designed ‘to show what I could do IF I allowed myself.’ Perhaps he got carried away by the audience. Because our dojo was on the grounds of a sports complex so most times we had spectators.

To the uninitiated, he was beating me soundly. Imagine their surprise when the Sensei called Yame! And then facing him, berated him very sternly. They must have been thinking, ‘but they’re fighting now? And the idea is for someone to win.’ No sir. Maybe more surprising to them was that I did not respond in kind. It would have been easy and the temptation was strong. We were being watched. I was embarrassed. I may not have been the better fighter but I was extremely skilled and could hold my own. But! I reminded myself it was not about them at all. So despite the desire to impress, I reached inside myself, found something and held on. Just as I was taught. Of course I also reminded myself that I needed to work on my guard, learn to fight defensively.

Once I was in my Sensei’s room and thieves struck. I was in my first year of training and giddy with a sense of my own newfound abilities, eager to test them. I kept saying to him, Sensei let’s go, we can take them. I will never forget the look my Sensei gave me that day. Disappointment amongst other things. I was surprised because my Sensei was the swiftest motherfucker I ever saw. He fought like he was dancing and the only time I ever saw his back on the ground, he was randoring with a Shihan (these are the bosses yo!) and even then, he was angry with himself.  So this was not about strength. It was about dojo kun #5, impetuous courage. After that incident, I was made to do, as punishment, I think it was seventy knuckle press-ups.

Now, because self-control doesn’t always come easily or willingly, there was a trick to help us learn it. You know how a religious person would hardly ever say FUCK GOD, because heaven. Well, the present belt and the next belt were our heaven. We worked damned hard to get from one stage (belt) to the next. Endurance training, flexibility training, marathons, splits, we pushed ourselves to the limit and then beyond. Several times I went home crying, my blistered feet bleeding, and my sister would ask me why the hell I didn’t stop, nobody was making me. I remember a friend’s wedding I wore flipflops to because no way in hell could I wear proper shoes. And so you worked so hard for your belt, so that not only were you skilled and deserving, but so the thought of losing your belt because of momentary insanity became unthinkable. You learnt self-control in a crucible. But after some time, it became a way of life.

Now why am I saying these things? Other-people control is easy enough. It takes a bit of intelligence, oftentimes disingenuity, sometimes carrot and stick method, a small knowledge of human psychology – oh, people control is easy.

But self-control? That’s the real coup.

It takes a level of self-awareness, of introspection, of knowing your strengths and your weaknesses, of knowing your merits and your flaws. aid384924-728px-Learn-Martial-Arts-Step-2But one of the most deliberate things you do in the advancement of your ‘journey to self’-control is the choice of people you surround yourself with. You are a very unfortunate person indeed who surrounds themselves with people who agree to your everything. You are terribly endangered and don’t even know it. You will have to work  so much harder to stay centered.

So be grateful every day for the people who tell you truth. Hopefully they couch it nicely – it won’t always happen that way, it’s only a hope. But however brusquely it’s presented, sharpen the ability to separate tone from substance. And absorb the substance. Obviously (hopefully) you already have people whose judgement you trust where you’re unsure about yours. Have the honesty to ask, ‘could I be wrong here?’

Needless to say, with life, as with martial arts, the price for self-control is subliminal. It’s not about the belt. It’s never about the belt. It’s about… well, self-mastery. As you can see, there are no prizes. Except for self-approbation, and I daresay, it is the only kind that matters.