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The Art of Shotokan
Studying a martial art gave me confidence, strength, and calm
Otis Hampton

I was born with cerebral palsy (CP), which limits my movements. One of my legs is stronger than the other, so I’m not able to kick as high or run as fast as most people. In 10th grade, I was taken out of regular gym class and put in a class for kids with disabilities and special education students.

I never liked gym class, which was usually spent playing basketball. I was surprised and excited when the teacher told the class that we’d be doing martial arts. I imagined chopping bricks and kicking ass—I’d been picked on a lot in school.

We studied the art of Shotokan, which mostly deals with self-defense. Shotokan is developed from various martial arts such as judo and aikido, but mostly from karate.

There were three instructors, and they were all very strict. It felt like boot camp. Class would start with stretching, mostly the legs. Then we would do push-ups. Not the standard push-ups where your palms are on the floor. No, we did push-ups on our knuckles!

“Are you kidding me?” I thought. How was I gonna do this on a wooden floor? Because of the CP, my left hand is weaker than my right. The other kids did the exercises like they were nothing, and I felt inferior.

A Lot to Learn

I already worried that I was weak and lazy. Before I started studying Shotokan, I never did any physical exercise. If I got into a fight, it’d be easy to knock me to the ground because I had no balance. We did five sets of 20 exercises, (sit-ups, push-ups, and leg stretches). I had never been so exhausted.

The second week, we got our uniforms and belts. As beginners, we started with white belts. As you get promoted by passing a test, you get different color belts. Above white was yellow; then green; purple; brown; blue; then either red or black to become a master, which takes years of study.

The name for a karate facility is “dojo,” so that’s what we called the gym, and we called the teacher “sensei.” After stretching and exercising, the sensei taught us self-defense techniques. For instance, our fist and forearms raised horizontally in a salute would be an upward block for when the opponent tries to strike the upper body. There were also middle and downward blocks as well as strikes. You use your arms to intercept your opponent’s attack.

Compared to sports like MMA (mixed martial arts), Shotokan is more about relaxing the mind and self-control. In MMA, which has become insanely popular, fighters from all over the world combine different martial arts such as judo, muay thai, wrestling, and street fighting. Fighters in MMA regularly sustain serious injuries.

Shotokan allows you to practice techniques against an imaginary opponent and mirror those techniques against an actual opponent. You don’t get hurt when you spar with an opponent.

Gaining Control and Strength

Most of the kids in the class were in special ed, which meant that they had some type of learning or other disability. Most of them mocked the class. The only people who took the class seriously were a kid named Rodney and me. He was already into Shotokan. I befriended Rodney because I saw the way people were treating him when he practiced his moves in the cafeteria: like an outcast. Like me.

Even though Rodney didn’t have an obvious physical disability, we were often paired up to practice moves. The fact that I was sparring with someone I knew made it less like an actual fight. It was nice to have someone to train with who didn’t make fun of me.

image by Patricia Battles

Soon I was doing exercises I never thought I could do, like touching my toes while stretching my legs. It was very exciting to learn martial arts because not only was I getting stronger and improving my balance, I also was taming my anger. I did this by focusing on what I was studying and resisting the urge to retaliate. The philosophy of Shotokan teaches humility, respect, compassion, patience, and an inward and outward calmness. These teachings, combined with learning a new skill, helped me let go of frustration I felt while dealing with my mom or being bullied.

These teachings helped me stand up for myself rather than crying whenever I got beat up. They also helped me learn self-control and anger management.

Combining these ideas with physical movement also boosted my confidence. Strengthening my legs and my body in general helped me believe in myself. The feeling of being able to walk faster and even run (which I hadn’t done much because of my CP) inspired me to keep studying. I didn’t give up even when I was tired.

It’s On, Timothy

I was teased a lot, even by some of the kids that were in the class. A boy named Timothy was jealous of me because I got promoted before he did. He picked on me every chance he got.

One day, while kids in the class were choosing their kumite (sparring) opponents, Timothy stepped up to me, sparring gloves on, and punched me in the face, which is against the rules. Normally, I’d fall to the floor because I had no balance, but practicing Shotokan helped me maintain my stance. I just stood there, grinned, and mouthed to him, “You’re not even worth it.” I heard one of the girls in the class whisper: “Oh sh-t!” Then the class let out a loud “OHHHHHH!!!” which meant “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

Timothy went to throw another punch. Instead of responding in violence, I used one of the self-defense techniques from class. I stepped out of the way and grabbed his wrist. I then put my left leg behind his right leg and swept him to the ground, reciting the battle cry we’d learned. The sensei saw everything and instead of punishing us, she called both of us to the middle of the room.

“Kumite stance,” she said. Yes! We were about to spar in order to end this rivalry. “Rei!” she yelled for us to begin. As soon as Timothy’s eyes met mine, I gave him a kick to the chest that sent him across the floor. I won the match when he forfeited.

Within a year, I got promoted to yellow belt. While studying Shotokan, I’ve competed in a few tournaments where I’ve sparred against students on the same level as me. I even faced a brown belt once. He was good on his feet, which threw me off balance. The only way I could’ve bested him was to use my hands.

I landed a few good punches, but I lost points when I threw punches that were ruled “exceeded contact.” Ultimately, I lost the match.

Personal Success

That match helped me learn to use my attacks wisely when sparring and not lose control. I also learned that I didn’t have to prove that I was tougher than anyone, because that wouldn’t get me anywhere.

After doing Shotokan, I’ve gotten stronger both physically and mentally. I had gotten fed up with losing control of my anger and getting beat up at school. I hated that I couldn’t do anything about it.

I initially wanted to study martial arts to defend myself against bullies. Bullying has become a major issue, sometimes causing the victims to take their own lives due to the humiliation and embarrassment they feel. I didn’t want to be weak, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to kill myself just because some people don’t know how to make friends or accept people who are different.

I couldn’t physically do all the kicks the same as everyone else because of my CP. You’d think I’d let that stop me, but no. As long as I tried my best, I could succeed and I did. Doing Shotokan has made me more confident and gave me a clearer, more positive state of mind.

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