To achieve a black belt in the ancient martial art of karate, you have to have the highest level of skill, expertise, and an incredible level of dedication.
53-year-old Debbie Sturge, from Margate, isn’t exactly the stereotypical image of a karate master, but Debbie is keen to prove that you’re never to old to learn and conquer new and difficult skills.
Debbie, who is also a life coach and author, didn’t start learning karate until she was 40 years old, but learning the true meaning of the art has helped her through some incredibly difficult periods in her life.
‘When I sparred with a black belts, he told me to relax… Relax? I didn’t get it. how the hell was I supposed to relax?’ Debbie tells Metro.co.uk.
‘It took me a long time to understand what he meant. I realised that the more tense I got, or the more stressed or emotional, the more mistakes I’d make. And the more energy I’d waste.
‘A cool head, on the other hand, was far, far more focused, would conserve energy and result in a more positive outcome.’
Debbie’s fascination with martial arts started when she was quite young. Her brother practiced Judo for a while, but Debbie was irresistibly drawn to karate.
‘I used to watch karate films and loved the adrenaline rush from them, the power, the kicks and the almost dance-like katas,’ she explains. ‘But I also liked the discipline and the mindfulness side to karate, and the true masters of this art fascinated me.
‘As someone who struggled with confidence and bullying in my teenage years, there was definitely an element of wanting to be able to take care of myself. Ironically, it was that same lack of confidence that held me back from joining a class until I had turned forty.’
Debbie had convinced herself she was too old to learn, but she crossed paths with two amazing Senseis who convinced her she could have what it takes.
‘Despite the raised eyebrows and mention of a mid-life crisis from some, it only made me more sure,’ says Debbie. ‘This was something entirely for me and it was finally time.’
Karate was never only about the physical challenge for Debbie. It was an escape, a joy, a distraction, and something that helped to keep her focused even when everything around her was falling apart.
‘Karate isn’t just about fighting and getting tough. It’s helped me no end with personal growth and self-belief, and it’s also got me through some of the toughest times of my life,’ says Debbie.
‘It provided a much needed release when I was buckling under with work stress and then, again, when my dad was dying from cancer
‘I was actually going for my 2nd Dan (the second level of black belt) when dad became ill. It was two years after I’d achieved my black belt and I’d increased my training again.
‘There were times I questioned my own sanity, putting myself though such a punishing regime when I was devastated over dad. But it was a release. I needed to focus 100% in my karate classes and so it allowed me a brief respite from my emotional turmoil.
‘I had no control whatsoever over the fact my dad was dying, but I absolutely could control my training and preparation for another brutal six-hour grading.’
Thankfully, Debbie achieved her goal while her dad was still here, and she got to share that news with him.
‘I was so very proud when I told dad I had achieved my second black belt,’ she says. ‘Sadly he died the month after, but I knew he was proud of me too and my karate had helped me cope with one of the most difficult times in my life.’
Karate is everything to Debbie. It is so much more than a means to keep fit, it is an entire way of life.
‘Karate has taught me that I absolutely can achieve what I set my mind to and I am a lot stronger than I think,’ says Debbie. ‘It has proved to me time and again that I’m more capable than I give myself credit for.
‘Starting out was tougher than even I imagined, but then it turns out I couldn’t have chosen a more brutal style! Kyokushin karate is full contact, knockdown and is believed to be one of the toughest disciplines.
‘In my ignorance I hadn’t even realised there were different styles and by the time I found out, I was already committed. There was no way I was going to quit. That just wasn’t me.
‘But despite how challenging it was, I loved the fact it was rooted in philosophy and it gave me strength of mind equal to any physical gains. Hard training, definitely and mentally taxing too, but I have no doubt I’ve grown as a person since learning karate.’
Debbie has also met lots of incredible people as a result of her karate, people who she never would have met if she hadn’t found the confidence to go to that first session.
‘It was very daunting walking into my first class as a 40 year old woman,’ says Debbie. ‘But I was accepted into the karate family immediately and their continued support over the years has been unwavering.’
Debbie never set out to become a black belt, not at first anyway. In the early stages, reaching the very highest levels of the discipline felt like an impossible dream.
‘I’ve struggled badly over the years with self-doubt and despite always pushing myself really hard, it has often taken others to point out my strengths and abilities, long before I could see them,’ she says.
‘I remember my first real goal was to achieve my blue belt and even this was three gradings away. But I had a definite plan and my goal was clearly broken down. I knew exactly what was required of me and I set to work.
‘By the time I earned my blue belt, my goals and dreams had grown. I kept pushing on, setting new goals. Five years later and with ten other belt gradings behind me, the reality of achieving my black belt finally loomed before me.
‘It was a massive commitment and I trained at least four times a week, as well as building up my physical fitness outside of karate classes.
‘I worked just as hard on my mindset and limiting beliefs, using affirmations and visualisation. And I paid very close attention to my diet, to ensure I was taking in the correct nutrition and would be properly fuelled to cope with such an intense grading. I’ve never trained as hard for anything in my life.
‘And so, five years after having taken my very first class, and literally through blood, sweat and tears, I completed a six-hour grading (with a grand finale of about 50 back-to-back fights), to achieve my black belt.
‘It still remains one of my greatest personal achievements ever.’
None of these achievements came easily to Debbie, and there have been many elements of karate that she has struggled with. And self-doubt has always been her biggest barrier.
‘It took me forever to learn the formal katas (set sequences of very specific moves), stamina was never my strong point and it was extremely punishing on the body at times,’ she says.
‘Did I ever feel like it was too hard? Hell yes! But I would not admit that to anyone, least of all myself. Whenever it got particularly tough, I just dug in a little deeper, determined it was not going to beat me.
‘In competition particularly, very few women entered. In all the full-on knockdown fights I took part in, my opponent was about half my age. This was not an advantage.
‘Consequently, my training before these competitions was especially gruelling and I really pushed myself to the max.’
Debbie says that turning 40 is a transitional age for women, and that it is the perfect time to learn something new.
‘Karate helps with fitness and strength of body and mind,’ she tells us. ‘The discipline and focus is second to none, and when you train you are completely in the zone, shutting out the mind chatter and demands of the day.
‘Yes, it’s tough, but it’s also a release in other ways; a form of mindfulness. And it’s never too late to start.
‘I encourage women to take the plunge, to do something entirely for them, regardless of what anyone else may say or think. That’s what I did.
‘And for someone who had visions of only becoming a blue belt, I actually went on to achieve my 2nd Dan black belt, took part in numerous competitions and taught my own class.
‘Not bad for someone who was having a midlife crisis.’
Proud Of What We’re Made Of
This article is part of our weekly series, Proud Of What We’re Made Of, celebrating inspirational women with powerful stories.
Each Wednesday we’ll share the story of a woman who’s overcome challenges to achieve something amazing. You can read every Proud Of What We’re Made Of article here.
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