Pokemon Trainers as People is a column in which Chalkey interviews well respected pokemon trainers in the community, but with one rule: they may talk about anything but the Pokemon VGC. Read about your favorite trainers as they talk about other aspects of their lives, and learn something new!
This week, we interviewed Zach Carlson, better known as ProfShroomish. Zach placed in the top 32 of the Massachusetts Regional this past spring at his very first event, and placed 3rd in Hartford’s fall Premiere Challenge and 2nd in Springfield’s first ever Premiere Challenge this fall as well. This week, he’ll talk about basic martial arts, which he teaches in his spare time!
Chalkey Horenstein: What first gave you the interest in martial arts as a whole?
Zach Carlson: I first looked into martial arts shortly after turning nine. While I had tried multiple sports before then, nothing really stuck with me. I was never really competitive, so the environment of other sports didn’t exactly capture my interest. However, with martial arts, the social aspect is completely different. Instead of being team and competition based, it was more of an activity that focused on the individual and self improvement. I wasn’t quite confident in my physical abilities, so this was something that I could participate in without worrying about anyone else relying on me.
CH: Which specific form of martial arts do you practice? What helped you decide on the right one for you?
ZC: The art I practice is American Kenpo, which translates to “Fist Law”. The system’s founder, Ed Parker, constructed the style in his home state of Hawaii, after training under William Chow. By the 1950s, he had brought the art inland and started the first schools in the United States. I was attracted to the art’s use of practical motions that could help in a realistic situation, as opposed to the graceful, yet less useful, form of other systems.
CH: How does practicing Kenpo work? How often do you practice or train, and what does the curriculum look like?
ZC: In Kenpo, we focus on four aspects: basics, techniques, forms, and spontaneous. Basics must be learned in order to have the materials for the rest of the system. This entails simply learning how to block, kick, strike, and so on. Forms utilize the moves learned is basics in a way that does not require a partner. They are used to illustrate the different motions the body is capable of, almost like an intricate dance. Techniques are used for self defense, each with an established attack. For example, one of the first techniques learned by white belts, Conquering Shield, is specifically to defend against a left hand grab to the lapel. Finally, spontaneous pits the student against multiple, unchoreographed attacks, in which they must pull motion from the forms and techniques in order to fend for themselves in a realistic fight.
Students are required to attend classes twice a week, and everyone learning the art is strongly urged to practice at home daily. We use a belt system, in which a stripe is earned every 5 week cycle upon successfully learning specific material. After a certain number of cycles, the student graduates to the next belt. For example, a white belt would learn Short Form 1 and the techniques Crossing Talon and Locked Wing for one cycle, but they would know 6 different techniques by the time they graduate to Yellow Belt.
CH: Do you view the curriculum differently now that you are a teacher? Are there things you would teach differently than those who taught you?
ZC: As a teacher, I definitely see the system in a different light. Whereas before, I was simply learning the material for the sake of knowing how to correctly run the forms and defend myself, I now realize that the whole system is connected in a complex way. As a black belt and a teacher, I’ve been exposed to the art’s perplexing use of connections such as opposites, reverses, and parallels. I could only see this through the guidance of the studio’s directors, Dr. Len Brassard and his son Lenny. After achieving black belt, classes tend to focus less on learning the material, and more on examining its components to find these connections.
And while I see the curriculum differently than I did as a student, I try to just demonstrate the motions for younger students. However, sometimes the questions older students ask lead to more in-depth explanations, and I often end up learning from their questions myself.
CH: What specific degree belt do you currently have? Did you have to reach the highest belt before you began teaching others?
ZC: I am currently a second degree black belt. The system goes all the way up to 10th degree, and Dr. Brassard is an 8th. I started helping out with younger students around blue belt, which is halfway between white and black, and attained a junior teaching rank. However, I didn’t start teaching older students until around brown belt, when I was promoted to an adult teacher around age thirteen. Then, after finally reaching black, I began to teach students up to first degree brown (the last belt before black).
CH: For interested people who are new to the subject: how many belts are there (in Kenpo or otherwise), and what are the differences between degrees?
ZC: There are ten belts in American Kenpo: White, Yellow, Orange, Purple, Blue, Green, Red, Second and First Degree Brown, and Black. Younger students also must go through “Advanced” belts, such as Advanced Orange and Advanced Purple, all the way from Yellow to Green. This is to account for the fact that most children require more time to practice than adult students in order to fine tune their skills.
Degrees for Brown and Black exist in order to show different levels of mastery within a belt. While a first degree Black belt would know the material required to graduate, a second degree Black would have a more extensive grasp on said material, including extensions for techniques learned in the past. By third degree, the student would know all the material in the system, along with a vast library of knowledge pertaining to how the material is connected. From third degree and beyond, one must not just know the “hows?” and “whats?”, but the “whys?”.
CH: Could you give an example of a “why” question that a higher degree might understand?
ZC: Well, in the technique Crossing Talon, the defender pins the attacker’s fingertips and steps to 1:30, bending the attacker over using their elbow. While most students would know this move is used in order to bring down the attacker and block off their body enough to prevent a kick, they would not come to the same conclusions as a more seasoned black belt as to where that motion fits into the system. There is another position in a different technique that can be seen as a parallel, but on the other side of the body. Another technique would hold a similar motion, but into a different corner, or onto a different quadrant of the body. Everything is connected, and a higher degree would be able to notice what multiple techniques have in common and how they all fit into the mystery that holds the system together, as opposed to simply knowing how to run them correctly.
CH: What are the groups like that come to classes? Do you find one age group or demographic is most regular, or are classes more for all ages and backgrounds?
ZC: While children around ages seven to twelve or so seem to be the most regular group at the studio, we offer classes for all ages. The Karate Kids class (my personal specialty) is designed specifically for children ages three to six, using language and movements that while simple, still teach the same material in an enjoyable way. We also hold an adult class for anyone thirteen or older. This class is focused more on practicing with other students or alone, as opposed to being kept occupied by teachers. Thus, the adult class is easily adaptable for people with physical challenges and injuries.
CH: In what ways would you say your life has positively changed since starting Kenpo?
ZC: Kenpo has completely changed my life, giving me the confidence that I never would have found without participating. I was a very timid child, but that changed, slowly at first. When I first started helping with the younger classes, I did not quite know what to do. However, after teaching a while, my personality practically transformed. I finally discovered the voice I never knew existed until then. I would have never thought I had a gift for relating the curriculum to children. Overall, my life took a new path of self assurance after realizing how I could affect someone else’s experience, while making a positive out of the respectful personality that developed through years of shyness.
CH: We’re almost out of time. Do you have anything you’d like to add before we wrap up?
ZC: American Kenpo, while focusing on the individual, isn’t an isolated sport. The social scene is wonderful, and the character development provided by the program makes life itself an easier experience. Also, be careful when looking for a school, to make sure you find one that works with how YOU wish to train. Once you do, martial arts can become a new, refreshing lifestyle!
[Editor’s note: Zach also created a mobile app for those studying Kenpo that want to improve their knowledge on the go. Click here to check it out!]