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Monday, 11 December 2017 01:18 pm

Fitness for body, mind, soul – new kind of sports leadership

In a country where professional team sports make and break the standards for role models, a Wellington martial arts club is taking its own approach to teaching students about life, reports JENNIFER GILBERT.

BLUE DRAGONS: Brendan Morgan and Carol Kohl, teaching a different kind of leadership.

IT’S Friday night, and two men are sizing each other up.

They stand in a patch of sunlight, filtered by the windows of a non-descript building, whose windows are too high for them to be seen from the quiet street, just off State Highway 2 in Wellington.

One leans forward and aims a blow at the other’s face. He ducks, arms up in self-defence, and strikes back. That starts a flurry of punches and kicks to take place, until one of the men slips and falls hard on the concrete floor.

At which point two voices say in unison “Are you okay, Tony?” Tony, who is already half way back on to his feet, grins and nods. “Yep.”

Step back, blinking, out of the blinding sun, and you can see Tony and his partner are just two people in a Scout hall crowded with pairs of fighters. They are all there to practise Zen Do Kai, an Australian-based martial art.

Right now they’re engaged in non-contact sparring, working on technique, rather than strength. They could almost be dancing, moving in circles around each other, back and forth across some small unmarked piece of territory.

In one corner, two teenage girls take turns attacking and defending. In another, a smaller girl demonstrates a fighting stance to a 20-something man. Some of them have faces set with concentration. Others are throwing only casual punches as they talk and laugh together.

As the noise level rises above mere chatter, the voice of a tattooed guy with a shaved head cuts across the others: “Don’t talk – fight!”

The chatter doesn’t stop completely, but the room gets quieter. The man with the shaved head is Brendan Morgan, a 42 year old family man and the founder of this dojo.

Brendan is a man with a past. He’s a self-described former bad boy, who you could say found God, although he would say God found him.  Now he’s part of the Blue Dragon Club, which runs on the basis that martial arts can provide people with more than a fitness lesson – they can also provide life-changing confidence and role models for a better way of living.

The original Blue Dragon dojo was started in the Khandallah Scout Hall five years ago by Carol Kohl and her son Zac, then 19. Brendan was one of the first people to enrol and Carol is now his supervisor. He describes her as a quiet achiever – she has her full second dan black belt, which gives her the authority to run the club under her own banner.

Carol has a quiet manner. She looks too young to have a 24-year-old son. She has a serious expression, but she smiles easily. When she talks about Zen Do Kai she says little about herself, seeming more at ease discussing the club and the Zen Do Kai system. However, she is happy to talk about the values she brings to her teaching.

“Brendan, Zac and I are Christian and that affects the flavour of the club,” says Carol. “We don’t talk about our beliefs in training, it’s more that the way we live our lives comes with us.”

In Zen Do Kai there is no prescribed spiritual practice. No praying or meditating as in, what one (non-Christian) club member refers to as “those door-to-door martial arts.” This means that provided Carol, Zac and Brendan don’t use the dojos as forums to teach Christianity, they are free to incorporate their Christian values into their teaching style.

Carol says there are only two rules necessary to maintain discipline in a dojo. “If someone’s teaching, everyone listens. And we treat everyone with respect.” She firmly believes students learn most from the behaviour she and the other instructors model for them. There are consequences if you break the rules – you’ll be ordered to do extra push-ups, or in Brendan’s case, several laps around the field outside his dojo. But that’s it.

“There has to be discipline,’ says Brendan. “But there also has to be fun. There has to be love.”

The only club rule based directly on church teachings is that alcohol is banned from Blue Dragon social gatherings. “Any events – BBQ’s, parties and so on – we are strong on it being alcohol-free,” says Carol. “Zac is very aware of his role as a mentor.”

Tommy Wilde is a 17-year-old black belt at the Khandallah Dojo. He’s good friends with Zac and supports the no-alcohol rule. He plans to go into the army when he leaves school and he wants to be fighting fit. “I made a personal decision not to drink and it does help having a good friend who doesn’t drink,” he says.

Tommy says you only have to look at the club’s success at Senjo (regional grading) to see that Carol’s “do-as-I-do” teaching style pays off. “We’re just a small club, but at the last two Senjos we’ve won the most medals. It shows our approach is as good as the others.”

Friday night in Masterton, the next opportunity to build to succeed at Senjo seems far off. The warm-up stretches are punctuated by grumbling and stifled giggles from people as they contort themselves into awkward positions.

TAKE A BOW: instructors and students greet each other at the start of last year's Senjo.

“Some of them are still sore from Tuesday’s session,” grins Brendan, but there are protests from the floor. “No, no, we’ve just had two days of athletics at school,” calls a 16-year-old girl. A 17-year-old boy groans in agreement.

Brendan lists fun, fitness, family and fighting as the ingredients that make Zen Do Kai a good option for people who are looking for more than just a workout. He encourages further bonding at the Masterton dojo with activities like weekend tramps. “We have become quite a close club,” says Simon, a 17-year-old blue belt.

The concept of a Zen Do Kai family isn’t specific to this club, and it’s often referred to on the national website. But it’s an idea that is works especially well in a small community like Masterton and is particularly important to Brendan.

He says he grew up in a family which was missing a dad, and over-supplied with alcohol. He got into trouble with teachers, church leaders and eventually the law. He says a lot of the reason he got into trouble as a youngster was because he was looking for love and respect in the wrong places.

“When I was a young man I looked to gangs and thugs to be that father figure,” he says. He recognises similar behaviour in kids who come into the dojo and challenge him.

Speaking to him, it becomes clear that the gap in some people’s lives is a large part of what motivates Brendan as an instructor and mentor. “We support each other through grief, life’s trials,” he says.

Some of the younger students have lost parents, through death or absence. A number of the people I talk to have experienced bullying and have come to the dojo to learn to defend themselves.

Others struggle with something that runs deeper. When one of the students took his own life last year, the club was there with support for his family and friends, some of whom were also Zen Do Kai students.

Brendan attended his funeral along with other club members and it was a profound experience. “It was hard, but it was a privilege to honour him. He was a lovely guy. He just lost a battle.”

In Khandallah, Tommy tells me he used to get bullied at intermediate school. Until he started Zen Do Kai, he always responded with violence. “But that stopped once I had a physical outlet. It helped, getting to hit something.”

PROOF OF THE PUDDING: Tommy Wilde (at home with Henry) says the Carol is leading the club to success.

Simon, the 17-year-old blue belt in Masterton, agrees that once you’ve got that outlet, you no longer feel such a need to prove yourself.

He used to have a problem with bullies, too.  “Sometimes I used to get angry, but now I know it’s not worth it. You have more self-control as a person, but if the time comes, you can fight if you need to.”

When I mention these comments, Brendan says bullies are also less likely to target students who have confidence in their own ability to handle themselves. “When they’ve come in and fought a big, scary-looking guy, if you get picked on by some snot-nosed little punk at school, it’s not a big deal.”

The value of this confidence has broader applications. Sergeant Simon King is a youth worker based at the Johnsonville Police Station. “We have this little saying that gets knocked around a lot,” he says “Kids in sport stay out of court.”

He emphasises there are other activities – such as art and music – that help youth offenders get back on track, but says he’s noticed that a number of the troubled kids he deals with welcome a chance to get involved with a martial art.

“Many of them fight less once they’re training formally. It’s surprising how few of them use their new skills to cause any further problems.”

The concept of the second family can be especially important for youth, says Simon, because often kids will listen to someone else when they wouldn’t listen to their own mum or dad. “They might even realise their parents are right about some things.”

Senior Constable Dave Drummond is a Youth Aid Worker in the Wairarapa. He teaches boxing and has noticed that an involvement with a fighting style of any kind can change the course of a life. “We’ve had kids who could have gone either way, who ended up joining the police.”

He thinks part of the reason something like Zen Do Kai helps is that success is measurable. “If I’m wearing a black belt, I’m wearing it for a reason. And like in boxing, in that environment the bravado, the bullshit and the slap talk stops.”

For Carol Kohl, watching people’s confidence grow is one of the great things about her role in the club. “There’s huge satisfaction in having input into people’s lives.” She would like to expand the club so there is time and space to train children. She would also like to develop more of a leadership programme for the older teenagers coming through.

She is also positive about the impact training has had on her relationship with Zac. “Training with Zac has been the mother/son thing we’ve done. It’s really cool to see him grow up and take a leadership role.”

Both she and Brendan say that what started out as a fitness project has taken on a far larger role in their lives than they could have foreseen. Neither of them started Zen Do Kai with the aim of running their own dojos, but they enjoy their roles and can see the value it brings to the Zen Do Kai community.

WE ARE FAMILY: Carol and son Zac share a moment at Senjo

Zen Do Kai – where it began

ZEN Do Kai arrived in New Zealand in the early 1980s, on the back of the emergence of kickboxing as a global sport.

The first club was opened in Melbourne in 1970, to train people involved in the security industry. According to the ZDK New Zealand website, there are now more than 20 clubs running around the country.

Aspects of karate, judo, kick boxing and more are used, creating a free or “open” fighting style which can be adapted around new ideas and moves.

Students work their way up the ranks through a grading system based on Karate, swapping one coloured belt for another as they progress. Once they have achieved the level of black belt, they start training to add dans – the highest ranking is a full 10th dan black belt.

Club numbers rise as instructors add to the locations where they teach, or as trainees branch off and establish their own dojos (training spaces), always supervised by a higher ranking member.

As with other disciplines, Zen Do Kai is both physically and mentally demanding. Students are expected to attend formal training sessions twice a week. On any given night, trainees could be fighting each other on the ground, practising kick/punch combinations or receiving weapons training from a guest instructor.

There are always the sit-ups and press-ups. Almost always. On the night I visited the Masterton dojo, a boy wearing a blue belt suddenly broke off his push-ups with a slightly surprised look on his face.

“Why am I doing this?” he asked. The reply? “That’s right, you don’t have to – it’s your birthday.”

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