Note from Adam: You can follow Matt Katch’s adventures in Japan on Twitter @under_obvious. The 2005 MTHS graduate posts cool pictures from his stay in Japan and has a variety of martial arts experience spanning more than eight years.
I trained with the MTHS program for about two and one-half years, if I recall correctly. It’s a little fuzzy, as I kept coming back while I was taking classes for my undergrad at Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington-Normal. While I was in high school I reached 二級, or in our terms, red belt with two stripes. While at university, I had four years of muay Thai, two years of boxing, two years of judo, and a year of BJJ (done as two classes: one in street clothes, one in gi).
As for the academic side of my life, I studied creative writing, which is what my undergraduate degree is in. I also had focuses in philosophy and Japanese culture; though I can say I re-learned a good deal of the latter of those during the most recent years of my life. I openly admit that in the early stages of my academic career I was skeptical more than anything, and I was very good at getting excellent grades without learning very much. Since Japanese was one of the first things I studied at college, I regrettably lost a good deal of what would have been a doorway for me into the language. However, at a certain point, life started expecting me to know things, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I could tell the difference between smart people and merely clever people. For any of you who’ve watched the TV sitcom Community, there’s a good bit where Jeff Winger says that the thing about being smart is you’ve never really had to study. Being clever wasn’t as great as it once was, and I now spend a good deal of my time legitimately learning.
What martial arts and Mr. Chianakas gave me was the beginnings of how I learned to be a better person. I can honestly say that I do not like the person I was in high school. And I also believe that without the martial arts program I would still be that person. I’m not saying I magically changed overnight, but what the martial arts – and especially Mr. Chianakas – taught me about what I could do, and how I could do it, has changed the way I live. Some of the lessons I probably should have learned back then, I am still learning now.
I am wary of saying I am ambitious because the contemporary connotations of ambition are not the qualities I value, though I do take pride in the ambitions of my friends. I prefer a model whereby a talent or ability is pursued and refined through use. I prefer to think of myself as driven.
I learned to read Japanese – fairly effectively, still refining – in about a year. That’s two 48-letter alphabets/syllabaries and in my case, around 3,100 Chinese characters. I did it through simple persistence. I’m not telling you this to boast; I bring it up because it is something many people think is impossible, or nearly. It typically falls into that mental category of too difficult or time consuming to be worth pursuing. Japanese students learn their written language over the course of about nine years. And even they learn about a thousand less kanji (Chinese characters) than I currently know. Dedication over time yields results but you cannot give in to the pressures of fatigue. Trust me, they are many, and I’m sure you’ve already encountered some in your life. When we think of five years, ten years, and so on, we have difficulty conceptualizing that kind of time. But what you can accomplish if you wholeheartedly pursue something for a year is amazing. I cannot conceive of what five years of honestly working at something will yield for me, but by that admission, it will be greater than I can imagine. I know that purportedly I’ve been pursuing martial arts for a long time, but never with the dedication I owed myself – to be fair, I was still learning what real dedication was, which is still time well spent.
I am predominantly a fighter by nature. I like fighting. When I was attending MTHS, the martial arts program was more focused on the acquisition of knowledge than implementation. Really, early on, this is what you need as a martial artist, especially since it gives you time to enjoy a great variety of things about the martial arts that you might never appreciate if you skip straight to an octagon and a steel cage. Of course, I had almost no patience at the time, which didn’t often go so well.
Let me say that I understand what it’s like for those of you who want a bit of a scrap, and now and then Chianakas sensei does curb the class more towards our type; still, remember that patience and honing your abilities is key, so that when you need a kick it isn’t there because you know it’s the right time to throw it, it’s there because you do it. My strikes don’t come because I want them to — they do so because it is the right time. If this is how you feel, you have an advantage because this extra energy is easy to channel into making your tools (bones, muscles, sinews, endurance) into the sharpest things in anybody’s shed. Get a punching bag. Run. Cycle. Lift weights. All these things will help you ease that excess energy and the desire to fight, and they’ll make you better at what you do. A large part of being a good fighter is about turning off a lot of the thinking and letting your training take over. One of my favorite quotations has always been “we do not rise to the level of our aspirations; we fall to the level of our training.”
This closing segment that Joe has asked me to prepare comes at an interesting point in my own life. Contrary to the confident impression I have often tried to give, after graduating from university I was mostly aimless.
I moved to Japan, where I have been working for the last two years. I made many new friends, and now have many friends from all over the world. But I was no longer refining those skills I had spent most of my life in pursuit of. Everything I did was off and on with long lapses of going through the motions without any real progress.
It is only now after a little over two years I can say I am back in the swing of writing, and that I have re-dedicated much of my life to the pursuit of physical health and fighting ability, becoming a better person as well as a better fighter. We can all falter, and for me it was very difficult to find my way back, to uncover the same kind of energy I had once had.
By the end of college, I would run for two hours in the morning, go and swim a kilometer to cool off, go to class, lift in the afternoon, and then go to boxing and muay Thai in the evenings. And yes I did have friends, and if you must know, a special someone (I drank a lot of coffee and didn’t sleep much). With work I don’t have quite the same amount of time, but I have regained my feeling for the nuances that I loved so much. I understand my passion again, and don’t simply go through the motions. I think a martial artist’s life is prone to doubt the same as any other life generally is. I think the key is to find those things that you enjoy most about whatever your thing is. Forget the big picture – it only brings extra stress and concern – and focus on what your passion is; once you have your passion back, the big picture will be an adventure again.
For the time being, I am living in Japan (and perhaps there will be more on that later). After I finish here in a year or so (the jury is still out), I intend to pursue my master’s and eventually a doctoral degree. I’ve been looking at schools in New York, California, and Ireland – I have this thing about sitting still.
I want to close on a note about the way we think about our futures and career-life. I know I was inculcated to believe in the need to start my career as young as possible, and I’m sure that has little changed in recent history. Every once and awhile, you need to think like a kid again: astronaut, president, marine biologist. It sounds a little cheesy but I bring it up because what I want to do isn’t on that list. Ideally, I would like to write, and as an accompaniment to that, I want to be able to keep on the move. I get a sense of unease and need to be getting on with things the longer I am in one place. Everything is out there: that’s why they call it everything. And I would still believe that after Japan my only choices were schooling or finding a more stable career path, except that I now have many friends who feel as I do. Friends who taught English in Japan for 3-5 years and now are teaching in Korea, Spain, China, a friend of mine moved to be with his girlfriend in Brazil, and so on.
Whatever your pursuits, your dreams, whether it be a career, the world, loved ones… don’t let people tell you it can’t be done. There’s nothing cocky or arrogant about truly believing in yourself. People will always be telling you that something you want to do is impractical, but if you have figured out how to make it work, what other incentive are you waiting around for?