There are two cinder blocks standing side by side on a scrap of carpet at the front of Galli’s Fighting Chance, a karate school in Pennsylvania. An instructor gently lowers a one-and-a-half inch thick cinder cap onto the blocks. School-bus-yellow number two pencils are placed at each end of the cinder cap to act as spacers. Another cap is layered precisely on top of the pencils. The stack will stand eight high. I am preparing to break them.
I am sixteen years old. My black belt is new, bright and starchy. I earned it six months earlier after I broke six caps to conclude my promotional exam. It was the most I’d ever broken. Master Galli, my teacher, holds the school record: seven. Rather than match him, my goal is to do one better.
I pace slowly. Four caps are stacked, then five. I regulate my breathing. I establish complete control of my muscles. Six caps are stacked. I inhale deeply through my nose and fill my lungs to capacity and exhale out through my mouth slowly, calming my nerves. Seven caps are stacked. My mind finds a single focus. I am one. I exist solely to break the caps. Eight. It is time.
I step onto the carpet. My left foot is forward, almost touching the cinder block. My right foot is back. I am in a front stance with my right hip closest to the stack. I place my right palm gently onto the top cap. I press against it to feel its resistance. I press harder and the abrasive cinder scratches my palm. With a smooth, full-body motion I draw my hand back and up and I slowly trace the trajectory of a downward palm strike. I breathe in when I draw my hand back, I breathe out when I push the strike down. With each slow-motion practice strike I am syncing my breathing to my movement, tensing and relaxing the appropriate muscles, focusing on the target and dissolving my identity into the act of breaking.
Pressing firmly against the top cap, I exhale completely. I expel every last bit of air in my lungs. And then I exhale just a little bit more. I look up, slowly and make eye contact with Master Galli. I am aware of individual beats of my heart. My hand draws back suddenly, my lungs surge with fresh air, my hips shift and I release all of my breath with a piercing ki-hap (spirit yell) while driving my palm down, dropping my weight into the stack.
The adrenaline passes. I feel stinging pain. There are cuts on my wrist and a little bit of blood. I failed. I hit the stack too far towards the front. The energy of my strike travelled into and out of the caps, not through them. I failed.
The caps do not lie. The caps do not recognize, nor reward, a good effort. They either break or they do not break: this is the simple truth (and beauty) of breaking.
Breaking is a true measurement of ability. Breaking requires perfect form, technique, focus, precision, coordination, breathing, commitment, courage and strength. To fail at performing a break is to gain a clear idea of one’s weaknesses.
Master Galli does not allow me the time to indulge in my dejection. For the next two months he has me stay behind after each class to run through drills designed to improve my breathing, coordination and form. I strengthen my hands by striking wooden practice blocks, I perform slow-motion drills to build and focus my ki (inner energy, chi).
I am sixteen years old. My black belt is new, bright and starchy.
The memory of my failure fades with each nightly practice. I will try again during the breaking portion of the next belt promotion test. I am confident, almost elated. I can almost feel my hands pushing through the eighth and final cap.
The caps are stacked eight high. I step onto the carpet, my left foot forward, almost touching the cinder block. I rehearse my break. I breathe out completely and I scream a ki-hap from the depths of my core and I strike with commitment and intensity, but not precision. I fail. Again.
All of my best effort, my commitment to succeed are not enough. I am not good enough. I doubt the value of my quest. What do I earn by breaking Master Galli’s record? Bragging rights? A photo to impress girls? The whole exercise seems so pointless. What value is breaking prowess anyway? Like the saying goes, “the bricks don’t hit back” right? What an unworthy opponent is a stack of cinder!
Undeterred, Master Galli has me resume the breathing, coordination and ki drills after our very next class. In spite of my doubts, I train. I focus on my unworthy opponent. I practice until the drills become routine; until the practice becomes an end unto itself.
It is six months since I first tried to break Master Galli’s record. And, it is test day again. My fellow students sit indian-style on the floor, exhausted from their test, watching as I prepare for my third attempt.
I stand in front of the stack, left foot forward, almost touching the cinder block. I am not nervous. I press my palm onto the top cap and feel its resistance, its universal disregard. I don’t care about winning a record. I don’t care about impressing anyone. Utterly calm, I breathe out completely. My heart beats. I smash all eight caps with a pinpoint-precise blast of energy and body mechanics. I don’t even hear the applause.
I look up to see Master Galli smiling with pride. He doesn’t care that I broke his record. He knows that the caps don’t matter; that success is found not in the actual break, but in the cultivation of an indomitable will and the depth of character to stalk down a challenge with courage and conviction. The caps were not my opponent, they were merely a focal point to reveal my true challenger as a martial artist: myself.
I did not defeat Master Galli by breaking his record; I committed myself even stronger to being his student. The lessons I learned about persistence and self-discipline when I was sixteen years old are with me everytime I take on a new challenge and find the inner strength to follow my dreams without fear. Even as a teacher today, with my own school, I am always and will forever be Master Galli’s student.
As he trained me to follow the Way of the Warrior, so I train others. Fighting Chance Seattle is a school where we train in the tradition and the philosophy of the martial arts as intensely as we work on our kickboxing and self-defense. Come join us.