I never saw it coming


“Hey, Dave, would you be willing to help test my first group of students?” The request came in the early 1980s from a fellow karate instructor who was teaching his first class. I was about 30 and he a few years younger. I had been involved with martial arts since I was 15 years old and had my own class. Actually, I had taught karate at one place or another since I was 20, so, for a young man, I was relatively experienced.

The test was for yellow belt which, in that system, was really an “incentive belt.” In other words, if the student had been enrolled in the class for 3-6 months and attended most of the workouts, he or she was almost certain to be promoted. They, of course, didn’t know that.

For the first hour of the “test” the 12-15 adult students went through their paces: basic stances, punches, blocks, kicks, and simple forms or “katas.” The remainder of the test was an introduction to basic sparring or “kumite.”

At six months, the students weren’t expected to know or do very much. This part of the test consisted of a white belt beginner “sparring” with a black belt — which really meant they threw a few techniques while the black belt watched them, blocked what they attempted, and throw a few half-speed punches or kicks to see what the student would do. It was supposed to be easy.

Someone forgot to tell that to the first young man I faced in the test. In his mid-20s, he was nervous and eager to make a good impression and to do well. The signal to begin the “sparring match” began. I never saw it coming.

He executed a full-speed, well-thrown roundhouse kick that easily broke through my defenses and landed, full-contact — with no pads on his feet and no mouthpiece in my mouth — square in my face.

My head rocked back and exploded with pain as I saw a cascade of stars. I could feel my legs instantly turn to jelly. “Good grief,” I thought through the pain and the fog, “He’s knocked me out!”

The instructor immediately stopped the action and ran over to keep me from falling flat on my face. My lip was split, my tooth was chipped, and my nose was gushing blood. My friend, and my opponent, were both horrified.

I was quickly ushered to the locker room to get my bearings, clear my head, and wash the blood from my nose and mouth. Afterwards, I went back into the gym and finished the test with the white belt that bloodied my face and the rest of the students. As I recall, they all passed.

The incident, of course, never should have happened. I made three mistakes that day. (1) I underestimated my opponent. I assumed that someone with so little experience would not be able to do what he did as well as he did it. (2) I overestimated myself. I was certain that there was no way that a novice could surprise me. After all, I had some 15 years of experience, much of it in tournament sparring with very tough competitors. (3) I let down my guard. Coupled with the first two mistakes, this third mistake had painful and embarrassing consequences.

Later, I would come to see that these lessons could easily apply to other areas of life. Business: Coca-Cola, on three separate occasions between 1922 and 1933 was offered the opportunity to buy Pepsi-Cola after Pepsi went bankrupt in 1931. Each time they declined.

Sports: In 2007, the powerful fifth-ranked University of Michigan football team was defeated by Appalachian State University 34-32 in what was hailed as one of the biggest upsets in the history of American sports.

Personal Life: Numerous people, some famous, have faced financial and even spiritual shipwreck because of these three mistakes.
The positive lessons to be learned are these: (1) Never underestimate any opponent or situation. (2) Never overestimate your own abilities, believing that you are incapable of defeat. (3) Never let your guard down.

Once in a while I am tempted to make these mistakes all over again. If I catch myself early enough, I can avoid the pain and embarrassment by just taking a look in the mirror. I still have the chipped front tooth as a reminder.