Boards Don't Hit Back. But...

by Alan Kandel

We all have our moments. Those times when things just don’t go as planned.

Who hasn’t, right?

So what would you have done if the situations described below happened to you? How would you have handled them? These questions may be a bit academic-sounding, but still, they prompt thought.

Visualize being asked to help out in a martial arts demonstration. At this demonstration there is  an audience. In this case, audience members consist of fellow martial artists and non-martial artists alike. Your duty, should you decide to accept that responsibility is to break wooden boards. The problem is you don’t yet have any board-breaking successes to your credit. So, how to proceed?

This is exactly the situation I got myself into once.

I was asked to assist in a karate demonstration helping an experienced practitioner. There came a point during the exhibition where I was called upon to break a two-inch-thick pine board utilizing a yoko geri kikomi or side thrust kick using the outside edge and heel of my foot. It was in the early 1970s when this undertaking transpired, so please forgive if I can’t exactly tell you whether my attempt to break the piece of wood was with my right or left foot. However, in making an educated guess, I would say it was with my right one. At any rate, the board, held by another –and I can’t tell you by whom – was about waist or chest high. Having gotten set in I assume an appropriate stance, I then proceeded to execute the side-kick technique. There was nothing. The board refused to cooperate and thus remained intact. It probably didn’t even flex. Okay, so what to do?

Again, I kicked and, like before, the board stayed whole. I can vividly recall hearing someone – in a whisper –advising me to first step through or side-shuffle and then lift my leg and kick. I was bewildered. It wasn’t registering. It wasn’t sinking in. I was caught up in the moment. Instead, what I was doing from my established stance, was just raising my leg and thrusting it sideways, half-expecting the wood’s splintery fibers would just obliterate due to the force of my kick. Wood fibers aren’t made of steel. I know this, but, still, what gives here? Finally putting two-and-two together and, after thinking things through a bit, the light bulb lit. Literally and figuratively following through just as I had been coached, I assumed my stance, crossed in a sideways motion one foot in front of the other, delivered a kick with what would be the leg that was farthest from the board and … success! If anything, the experience was humbling; not the humiliating one that one might expect.

Since one good demo deserves another, having achieved success, even if limited, it is understandable that more demonstrations would follow. Of course, more experience was gained along the way. But that goes without saying.

Then, about 15 years later I enrolled in a post-baccalaureate degree program at California State University, Fresno, majoring in education. At that level, academic requirements for many of my classes involved writing essays as opposed to taking tests. As it turns out, in one class in particular, I had to give a speech on motivation which was my topic. Of course I had to make my speech on motivation motivating. So what did I do? As part of the presentation, I decided I was going to break a board, but instead of using my foot, I was going to use my fist. Anyway, this was the plan, at least. Since I felt there might possibly be repercussions if I had asked the class instructor or a fellow classmate to hold the board for me to punch. So, I decided it was best that I hold the piece of wood in my left hand and hit it with my right. I also knew it would be inappropriate to kiai (a concentrated or focused yell) in the academic setting I was in, so I refrained from doing so.

Taking a few deliberate breaths, I executed the fist-blow and history repeats itself; the board refused to give. So, here I am trying to give a presentation on board-breaking as it relates to motivation and instead of doing a number on the board, the piece of wood in my presence, was getting the best of me. The knuckle of my middle finger swelled up like an inflated balloon.

Here again, what to do?

Call me crazy, but standing before my audience, and refusing to give in to defeat, not only did I focus on the board, but with intense thought processes I was intent on my fist going through the board, and not just hitting it. With the concentration of a laser beam now directed at the object in my left hand, after a couple of deep breaths, my right arm traveled forward from my side, fist closed and, lo and behold, a broken board. The saying: “you can do it if you put your mind to it,” definitely rings true.
Like in the account describing the earlier demonstration, the board of choice for the latter one was also two inches in thickness. But, unlike in the first account, instead of it taking me many tries to get the job done, it only took two attempts. Even so, I can’t be for certain, but I am almost positive there was a split-second’s doubt that I would break the board in question especially after the initial attempt at doing so failed to produce the hoped-for results. But, as it stood, in the face of defeat, there obviously was something there driving or compelling me to not relent, to not give up, in other words.
These two board-breaking experiences being what they are, with good reason, are ones I’ll never forget. Somewhat bewildering though these may have been, it is with fond recall that I remember these. It will always be this way. Interestingly, it is the other more routine or mundane of experiences, martial-arts related or otherwise, not only have vanished from thought, but are long forgotten as well.

So, in considering whether the experiences detailed above are UFO or unforgettable flummoxing occurrences as it were, I’ll say! After all, what would the human experience be without such? I’m sure many can relate.

Copyright Alan Kandel. October 28, 2012.

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