By Erica Staab
There is a room in Ambler Recreation Center that even the most ambitious gym rats probably have never stepped foot in. On the floor are red and grey mats, rubbery under your bare feet. Flags line the walls. Korean, Japanese, the U.S., and of course the Jayhawk flags are proudly displayed. In one corner you’ll find a ceiling mounted punching bag, and on the mat, you’ll find KU’s martial artists. Some in traditional gi’s, some in sweats, and all practicing a form of martial arts.
Jiu Jitsu, one of four martial arts clubs at KU, can be found practicing every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings in this padded room. The martial artists in these clubs may look like they are fighting on any given night, but in reality they are testing their strength, determination, dedication and sheer willpower against their teammates. And it’s thrilling. Just as thrilling are the classes offered at KU that allow students to train in a martial art not only for fun, but for credit.
Jiu Jitsu, Ki Aikido, Kumdo, and Taekwondo are the disciplines offered as club sports. Self-Defense for women and Taekwondo can be taken as 1 credit hour courses by any student. Martial Arts is an umbrella term, that all of these clubs and classes fall under. Broadly, martial arts are various sports and skills that originated from, and teach, self defense techniques that originated from many places throughout the world. Many of the styles that are popular today come from Asia.
Though all martial arts teach some form of self-defense, the techniques and styles differ widely between disciplines. Jiu Jitsu is mainly ground fighting, teaching takedowns and grappling. Ki Aikido and Kumdo both focus on the art of the sword, and Taekwondo is mainly stand up fighting that has a focus on punches, kicks and blocks. Despite these differences, martial arts as a whole boast themes beyond self-defense that are spurred from their practice. Some of these themes are humility, self-awareness, discipline, respect and dedication.
Stephen Ngatia, a junior from Kenya and the current president of the Jiu Jitsu club, happened upon the sport a year ago while watching a friend play soccer at Ambler Recreation Center.
Ngatia, who had been an avid rugby player for years, peaked his head into the martial arts room during one of the Jiu Jitsu club’s practices. The coach waved him in and told him to take a turn sparring with one of the members. Ngatia felt strong and thought he would have no problem taking down the smaller guy he was paired up with, but he was sorely mistaken. “It was a humbling experience,” Nagita says looking back on his first experience with martial arts where he was topped out at least five times during a 5 minute round. Despite this first loss, he has been coming back ever since.
“Practicing Jiu Jitsu has really taught me discipline and the importance of repetition,” Ngatia says. To learn a new move in Jiu Jitsu, you have to repeat it over and over again. He has really begun to apply this idea to his school life. If he doesn’t understand something in say, a math class, he looks for practice problems until he learns a concept, he says.
Though the mass of struggling, sweaty, straining bodies on the mat during practice may look intimidating at first, the club members are there to help guide, teach, and make eachother better. One member finds this camaraderie particularly important because she is often the only female at practice.
Taking a cue from one of the hottest mixed martial arts fighters right now, Ronda Rousey, martials arts is not only for the boys. Weather it’s Taekwondo, Ki Aikido or Jiu Jitsu, martial arts gives woman every chance to get in there and train with the boys.
“I walk in here, and I think, you’ve got to have a different state of mind when you’re in a room full of men,” Deanna Ambrose, a junior from Frankfurt, Kansas, and the club vice president says. Because it’s a contact sport you have to be prepared to let a lot of your boundaries down, she says.
Ambrose, who also has been practicing Jiu Jitsu for about a year, says she feels like a much more confident, self-aware individual than she was before beginning to practice martial arts. She feels safer now, because if someone tried to grab or attack her, she has an understanding on how to get out of that situation hopefully unharmed.
Ambrose got the chance to show off some of her skills in an unlikely test of strength in a hostel in Paris. “I was wearing a skirt, we had all had a few drinks and this Australian guy didn’t believe me when I said I practiced Jiu Jitsu. He believed me after I beat him in a friendly sparring match. The owner of the hostel had to inform the Australian that I had won,” Ambrose says. Though her scuffle in Paris was all in good fun, she realizes just how much she has learned since joining Jiu Jitsu.
Every skill builds on itself, Ambrose says. You learn the moves, but then you have to work on getting quicker and sneakier. “I practice to make my moves more polished so when I’m rolling with someone just as good, or better than me, I can try and get the advantage,” she says.
Moving up in rank in any martial arts can take years of hard work, training and dedication to the sport. Your coach determines when you are ready and have earned the right to move up in belt rank. Often this change in rank happens after a test, but not always. Taekwondo requires a belt test to move on to your next rank, Jiu Jitsu doesn’t. It all depends on the discipline of martial arts one is practicing.
Jiu Jitsu club practices are pretty laid back, Coach Calen Born from Olathe says. He realizes students are busy and have crazy schedules, so he doesn’t punish students for showing up late to practices held from 5 to 7 p.m during the week. He sits on the bench after a practice on a Friday night with me, as his students begin to file out of the room.
“How many of you, have ever felt humbled within this room?” he shouts when I ask him what is the most important thing students gain from practicing martial arts. Nearly every hand flew up in the air. When practicing a fighting art, you put yourself in a controlled, near death experience. This can humble a person, letting your weaknesses and humanity show through, Born says.
Humility comes in many forms. When practicing martial arts, you become aware of your own weaknesses and abilities. You may have all the confidence in the world, but if you are matched up with a more skilled opponent, you are humbled by the work you still have to do to reach your full potential.
Overall though, training in a controlled environment is safe. Your teammates on the mat aren’t out to kill you, only push you to be stronger. Everyone in the room is looking out for each other, even though accidents do occasionally happen. Most of the time, it isn’t anything more than a few bruises or a bloody lip.
Joining is as easy as showing up to a practice. Any interested students are eagerly encouraged to stop by and see what they think. Ambrose particularly encourages other girls to show up and join her on the matt. This isn’t a sport solely for the boys, she says.
Tae Kwon Do class is offered as 1 credit hour courses anyone can take. Taekwondo, utilizes standing techniques with more of an emphasis on striking, kicking and punching, than Jiu Jitsu does.
“We learn the fundamentals,” class instructor Randy Laggart says. “That includes blocking, punching and kicking. I stress that is a self defense class and not learning how to beat people up.”
Taekwondo also incorporates learning forms, which are sets of prearranged attacks and counter attacks that would mimic a student fending off multiple attackers. Students use these forms to better understand how to react in certain situations. Often times, students must master a set of forms before they can earn a higher belt.
“Later in the semester, after you have learned a little control we do some sparring,” Laggart says. “We wear pads of course, to be safe. This allows students to be able to see how they would react to a fighting situations, but in a friendly atmosphere.” The main focus of the class is to teach self-defense and increase student’s physical fitness. But the biggest thing a student can take away from martial arts training is self-control, Laggert says.
“Students learn to take time to think about situations and not just jump right into using their fists,” Laggart says. “Most fights you can talk your way out of in the first place.”
There is a lot of camaraderie that forms between the students in the class, Laggert says. Which is only strengthened when students take the class for multiple semesters in a row. It takes about three years, or six semesters, for a student to earn his or her black belt through KU. Though not many students end up completing the program, due to students losing steam about halfway through.
Even if you don’t plan on becoming the next Ronda Rousey or a modern day version of Jackie Chan, taking part in martial arts can be a rewarding and humbling journey of self discovery, self awareness and self control. It can also be a way to let off steam, and break up the monotony of classes and studying.
“It’s an easy one credit hour,” Laggart says in encouragement of students enrolling in Taekwondo. “It’s a good break from the rest of your classes. It’s a great way to earn credit, stay in shape, make friends and learn how to protect yourself.”
Photos by Erica Staab