Thursday, July 24, 2014

Black Belt Kayakers

I paddled today, actually for the first time since Alaska. It was lovely. In part because it was just nice to paddle, and even better that the boat didn't have 150 pounds of gear in it. In part because it was a beautiful day. But in part because I was paddling with family. Particularly my wife, who doesn't love paddling, it has been at least a couple of years since she has paddled with me.

As I was paddling something occurred to me. Everyone in the kayaks, from my 10 year old nephew, to his 13 year old sister, Their mother, my wife, son and myself are all trained in martial arts. Most of the people in the group were black belts. Here is something most people don't realize about the term Black Belt. When people hear that term, they immediately think expert. Something I found very interesting in the Dojo, was that isn't really what it means at all. It means you have learned the basic movements in whatever art you are studying, and now, with this knowledge you can really start to learn.

My wife is a 3rd degree black belt - A Sandan in GoJu Karate. I think she would have been higher, but she stopped testing for belts, which I will explain more about later. My niece is a 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and my Nephew a 1st. AJ, my stepson, is a Brown Belt, also in GoJu Karate, but was literally raised in a Dojo. He lost interest in his early teens, and stopped attending. My sister-in-law is a 4th degree black belt in Goju Karate and a 2nd degree in Tae Kwon Do. I am a lowly blue belt - two steps below black. I didn't lose interest. I still practice, and occasionally do Kata. I love to spar, and hit the bag. But I stopped because I was disenchanted with my Dojo. The teachers had great skill, but weren't great teachers, and as an educator that really bothered me. For years I have been saying (jokingly) that my wife, a psychologist, generally knows what I am thinking before I think it, and then, because she is also a martial artist can kick the crap out of me for thinking it. It is even more humbling to think my 13 year old niece could as well.

But here is the thing. They never would. If you spend enough time in a Dojo, you begin to realize that fights in the real world are to be avoided. You always lose, even if you are the victor. When some people reach brown belt they get an illness sometimes called 'brown belt-itis' A swelling of the ego, as they are starting to get fluent in their skills, and they start looking for fights. My son is at his core, a pacifist. He is very gentle, extremely loving, and will back down from any real fight. I weep for the person who backs him into a corner and forces him to act. It will not end well for that person. I know this from experience, when he was 10, on a beach in the Outer Banks, he knocked me on my ass with a punch to the chest. He is now 24. His lifetime in a Dojo inoculated him from brown belt-itis.

Today as I was paddling I was thinking about martial arts because of the group I was with. I have trained many martial artists to paddle, and I have known for quite some time that they make great paddlers. Many of the movements are the same, for example power comes from the core and the legs, the key is torso rotation. Martial artists are both comfortable translating their skills to the boats, and they are also skilled at following instructions to learn something physical. I of course, teach paddling as a martial art, and that technique came to me while in the Dojo, probably while doing my one millionth reverse punch.

Paddling, of course doesn't have a belt system of ranks, but we do have ranks of sorts. Certified by either ACA, BCU or Paddle Canada, we take classes and tests to illustrate and demonstrate our skill level. Some people wear these rankings as a matter of pride. I have never done a course like this, because I never had to. I was trained by the National Outdoor Leadership School to teach, and for everyone who has hired me, that has been enough. Most of the time, when talking to these people I am underwhelmed. Not so much with their skill level, but with the experience level, for example, these are the Prerequisites for the BCU Level 5 star sea kayak assessment, the highest offered.

Assessment Prerequisites:
Previous experience -
The candidate must provide documented logged evidence of a minimum of 24 varied,
quality, advanced sea kayak days in 3 different sea areas. This should include at least
one multi-day trip.
  • Recognised First aid award (minimum 16 hrs training including CPR) within the last 3 years
  • Relevant Leadership Training - 5 Star Leader Sea training within the last 3 years or ‘old’ style
    5 Star Sea Training within the last 3 years. Due to the nature of this award and its important remit for leadership it is required that candidates show 3 days (2 days and 2 nights) logged experience of training in leadership and personal skills, safety and rescue, and must include an overnight camp. It is also strongly recommended that further endorsed training be undertaken based on the candidates action plan in different sea areas and a variety of environmental conditions.
  • Relevant Safety Training: BCU Open Water Navigation & Tidal Planning Training or 2 days specific training on open water navigation tidal planning from a registered BCU 5 Star Leader Sea Provider.
  • Home Nation Registration (LR Form)
  • Aged 18 years or above. 
Now, when I look at this compared to myself, I have 24 days in 3 different sea areas all in one multi day trip, in just the last two months. Everything else on that list, not only have I done, but I teach them as well. It is important to understand, I am not knocking BCU at all. I think it is the premier program in the world - though I have very little exposure to Paddle Canada, but from what I have seen looks like a great program! - for kayak certification. I guess I never got BCU five star-itis. At some point, I won't get a job because I lack a certification, and then I will go get it, though I can't go right to 5 of course, I will have to work my way through the ranks. Part of the reason I don't like "certification hunting" is because when I was a Paramedic, it is all about certifications. ACLS, PALS, PHTLS, CPR, AED, etc, etc. I had a stack of cards saying I had passed tests, but none of them said how good of a medic I was.

I think that was why my wife stopped taking tests to advance her rank. She realized there was no point. She didn't need the rank for work - some actually do - She had no need to impress people. She continued to work out, and perfect her skill, but had no need to have her skill denoted by a stripe on a belt. My problem is that an ACA or BCU 1 star won't be enough. I will have no choice but to work my way up the ranks, in essence to match my experience. It will be time consuming, and expensive. I know I will learn things, we never stop learning, and for a couple of years I have been saying I want to take paddling instruction to push my skills. There are few people I want to work with though, and the two I do want to work with are both pretty far away. One, four hours, and the other in Scotland.

I like to think of certifications the way my Sensei described his black belt. He said to me once, "at the end of the day, it just holds up your pants"

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