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  • Shihan Kendall

Beyond the Board


Whether you think you can

or think you can't,

you're right.

-Henry Ford

You’ll notice a lot of violent battles being waged in our Dojo these days. The combatants are dedicated martial artists taking on their own self-doubts and preconceived notions of their abilities. The fields of conflict are 12” X 1” pieces of pine.

Some of the board-breakers you will observe practicing are preparing for their Black Belt test in just over two months back. Others are participating in the Board Breaking competition at the Karate International Spring Tournament next month.

The physical demands of smashing through a solid piece of wood are in fact not that strenuous; I’ve often seen some of our smallest young warriors do it. The mental challenge, however, is another thing altogether. For many people, striking at solid matter with their hands or feet is an act of faith akin to bungee jumping--only more difficult. In jumping from a height, a person only needs to will themselves to leave their perch; gravity takes over from there. In board breaking, a person needs to complete the action with as much force and determination as they begin it, and a lot can happen in the milliseconds in between to test that resolve.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a person strike with speed and power, only to recoil their strike at the exact moment of impact. The have only touched the surface, not the invisible target an inch beyond it. In that very last moment, the striker’s underestimation of their abilities and overestimation of the challenge facing them overcomes their resolve. The result is an unbroken board, a frustrated striker and a smarting hand; it hurts far less to hit a board hard enough to break it than it does to strike at a board without splitting it.

Many times when this has happened, it’s taken a student a long time to summon up the courage to try again, only harder. But then there are other times -- and I love these moments so much -- when just the opposite happens. Determination is renewed, frustration and anger channeled, and the striker hits harder than ever before. The change on a student’s face in those instances is priceless. One second is a look of fierce resolve, followed in short order by shock and then joy. Something far more solid and formidable than a piece of wood has been broken. That person has also just smashed through their notions of their own limitations.

When all is said and done (and smashed and split), board-breaking is just a physical manifestation of the challenges we face every day. It’s a simple but powerful reminder that success lies in finishing as strong a we start, in reaching beyond just the surface of our goals, and in the indomitable power of the simple thought: “I can.”


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