Sensei La Royce Batchelor Details the Journey of Hisshou Karate
As many of you know, I write the weekly Positivity Post here on Martial Journal. Putting the Positivity Post together gives me great pleasure as I get to see and read about martial arts practitioners, schools, and organizations all over the world doing great things. Sometimes it can turn into more than that.
Because of an article featured in a previous Positivity Post, I was able to get into contact with Sensei La Royce Batchelor. She is a Shotokan Karate practitioner and the owner of her school, Hisshou Karate. In addition to all this, she is also a faculty member at the University of North Dakota. She detailed the successes and tribulations that her school has gone through to become what it is today. It has been an absolute pleasure getting to know about her, and how her school came into being. Read on to hear this wonderful story!
Let us start with your background first. How did you get started in the martial arts?
Like many parents, I started Shotokan Karate alongside my young son. My son had grown frustrated with team sports like soccer as many of his teammates were only there because their parents forced them to. A former student (I’m a University professor) gave us a free three-month membership to the dojo where he trained. My young son began and instantly loved it. He found it freeing to push as hard as he liked and to be treated well because of his effort.
As an invested mother, I sat and watched soon realizing I could do this too. My son and I trained five days a week at Charleswood Karate in Winnipeg Manitoba through to our shodans. We realize now how unique that was to train almost every day and to train with varied and amazing instructors. My son and I had direct access to Japanese masters routinely. We trained extensively with Yataka Yaguchi, Shihan Okazaki, James Fields, Robin Reilly, Gary Swain, Chris Smaby, Yataka Katsumata and many more.
What made you decide to open a Karate school?
It was never a goal to start a dojo. In the world in which we trained, senseis were at least 6th dan. Shortly after I earned my Shodan, I was recruited to the University of North Dakota in 2009 to help build an academic program there and found out there was no karate. I knew I could not thrive without karate. So, I asked my Sensei, Yaguchi what I should do. I expected he’d give some resources to train alone, but instead he put his hand on my shoulder and commanded I “Start dojo”. It took me days to fully absorb those two words.
Were you nervous to make that kind of commitment?
Yaguchi Sensei is not someone you say no to. Being an entrepreneur I began to consider how I might do this. I wasn’t so much nervous as wondering the best path forward. I had a serious imposter complex. The other senseis in the region were all advanced rank. But I must admit, what I started didn’t look anything like what existed at the time. I started with University students. I had access to facilities and could get information out quickly and easily. A few seniors from our dojo in Winnipeg came down and we did a demonstration and class. We had about 20 attend the demonstration and six stayed for the class. Two of those individuals stayed with me for seven years until one earned his Shodan and the other his Nidan. My connections afforded me supports.
One time at seminar Sensei Dingman heard one of my students call me “Sempai” and he said, they should call you sensei. I told him I was just a student. He said, “Nice attitude yes, but you ARE sensei.” That changed everything.
My understanding is that UND Hisshou Karate had a history prior to you being a part of it. Could you tell us more?
Shotokan karate has been offered in several iterations in the community beginning in 1962. But each time, the dojo failed. Also, there are other martial arts in the larger community. The previous Shotokan Karate wasn’t Hisshou exactly, but Shotokan Karate. When we launched, we did so with the idea that what we were doing was new. We aligned with International Shotokan Karate Federation as I was already a member and there are several ISKF dojos in the region. This gave us credibility and stability. I gave it the name, Hisshou, in 2009 after an inspirational kanji given to me by one of my senseis.
Grand Forks is a small community and it can be difficult to maintain membership. There were four different instructors and organizations at that time. Researching these made me realize that a dojo could not happen without university students, faculty or staff, and the community coming together. Also, it’s not a particularly wealthy community, so a for-profit organization would never work. Instead, we began as a student organization, begging for space in racquetball courts, gymnasiums, even ballrooms. Anywhere we could get space, we trained.
Since then previous members have joined us. They report a decidedly different feeling to the dojo community and the training. Rather than a strict dojo structure, we have created an agile organization where everyone is invested in the continuation of Hisshou. Everyone knows they have to bring all they are to each session of training and to be the best they can be in the larger community as they represent HIsshou.
Were there people instrumental in helping you get started?
I had a lot of help from my senseis in Winnipeg and of course from Yaguchi sensei. He waived the requirements for induction into instructor training so I could begin training when I earned my Nidan. Normally, a Sandan is required. This also aided me in that it gave me direct access to the senior instructors in the region and a high level of training. My family was amazing. I think a lot of people forget that behind a sensei, there’s an understanding family. My son often aided in teaching classes, unpaid as I was also unpaid.
If I had difficulty, all I had to do was reach out and there was a community waiting to help me. Most notably Sensei Phil Harris of WTKO in Winnipeg was and continues to be a huge support. The North Central Region of ISKF has also been amazing in helping our group survive and thrive.
Traveling and being involved in a broader Shotokan Karate network can be quite expensive. Several times we were hosted at dojos or in the homes of friends to keep expenses under control. This allowed us to take more members to more events. We rat at the dojo in Winnipeg and Bemidji saving hotel fees and when traveling to nationals, we have been hosted twice by friends and family.The people who hosted us, whether they know it or not, helped us grow and stabilize and offer travel and competition to the dojo where otherwise they would not have had the chance at that experience.
If I had to thank and list specific people they’d be:
1) Yaguchi Sensei, as without him there would be no dojo at all. He was always honest but encouraging.
2) Phil Harris Sensei, again is the epitome of what sensei should mean. Always thoughtful and constructive in his assistance.
3) Ron Porath Sensei was amazing in helping us with resources and encouragement.
4) Thomas Batchelor, my son, was and remains a great sounding board.
5) Philip Ragan Sensei was and is always ready to train, teach, guide, or whatever was needed for the dojo.
Did you encounter any difficulties/hardships in opening the school?
Starting was relatively easy, we just started training together. The difficulties happened along the way. Politics in the organizations created tensions as I don’t do politics. All martial arts come from the same text and are cousins. I don’t believe that one art is better than another. The original philosophy of self-preservation and the pursuit of peace is the goal.
This often makes others uncomfortable. The assumption is that those who don’t do politics are somehow less able to navigate organizations or political situations. I actually found it easier. I have found it easy to not entangle myself in opinion, but to try to see the martial artist in front of me. For me, I believe deeply in the dojo kun and when you follow that daily, it never steers you wrong. Senior administrators have approached me at competitions and scolded me for my cross-organizational relationships. I was scolded for asking questions. I was scolded for not charging fees. These were all scoldings at the hands of senior Karateka.
The University under a new budget model wanted us to charge fees as we were growing quite large, but we refused so they kicked us out. We found private venues and negotiated space, but property changed hands and the new owners wanted to change the agreement, so again we were homeless. I negotiated space back on campus in exchange for a couple favors, but within a year we had to give up that space. We now have a stable space and a firm agreement that sees the group in the same space weekly. So many things. But now, almost a decade later, they respect what we’ve built. We grew from a handful of students to an organization with national medals, exemplary black belts, truly reverent etiquette, and a cooperative sustainable model.
What made you decide to open your school as a non-profit?
The community is not a wealthy community. Similarly, locating on campus and being first a student organization meant that poor college students would be our primary students. There are other martial arts schools in the community that charge huge sums and guarantee a black belt. We cannot guarantee that; it must be earned and we do no testing in our dojo. We travel to regional seminars five times annually where seniors from ISKF conduct testing. This all creates a slightly tougher sell.
We started out not charging to avoid scrutiny by the university. But more importantly, philosophically, I never want to look at a student and see a customer. As sensei, I am responsible for their well-being whether or not they can pay for classes. Also, I never wanted a student to not attend class because they couldn’t afford it that semester. So many activities in the area are terribly expensive like hockey or football. It creates a feeling of haves and have-nots. In karate, we wear white dogis specifically to strip away that social distance. Shotokan Karate was a gift to my son and me so that approach was and is paramount in my thinking. The mission of Shotokan Karate is to aid the weak and underserviced and to perpetuate peace, and not just to those that can afford it.
Does being a non-profit school make things easier, or more difficult to run financially?
Being a not-for-profit makes some things easier, like accounting and accounts payable. But it complicates other things. I think a lot of people think it’s more complicated than it is. But there are many corporations that are B-Corporations or benefit corporations, or not-for-profits, or even non-profits. It’s about choosing the right structure for what you want to accomplish. I find most individuals that strike out to start a martial arts school have little business understanding. It takes a calm head, lots of research, unwavering scrutiny and analysis, and an entrepreneurial willingness to pay in sweat rather than be paid in cash to make it grow. In our dojo, we call it a “sweat debt.” That means you owe it to the dojo to give it all you’ve got.
Are there others at the school that is instrumental in helping you?
The first person who helped me out was my son Thomas. We earned our Shodans together. He was and remains my main training partner, even when he was away with the Marine Corps. He would teach some classes, help me demonstrate, and help me create classes.
Philip Ragan, whom I trained to Nidan before he graduated was a tremendous asset and became sensei himself before he left. He taught classes, organized special events, helped with testing, and so many other things. Philip was my primary training partner as I advanced in rank, agreeing to spar and train with me. Through the years, he’s one of the reasons the dojo survived.
Now, it’s the advisor Karen Katrinak who is the backbone of the dojo. She runs all the administration and keeps the dojo on top of things. She will soon be a Shodan and does an amazing job. There are others such as Dusty Larson who has trained in previous local dojos. He embodies humility and determination for the dojo. Mohammed Mahmoud is a senior rank that is our biggest cheerleader. He makes sure we stay on the administration’s radar and that we have exposure and opportunities to grow. There are many more but those are the ones I rely on.
What is the philosophy that the school is built upon?
Hisshou is first and foremost a community of inclusion. While we teach Shotokan Karate, not for a tournament, but for self-preservation, we also daily practice Karatedo or the way of Karate. Karatedo means adhering to the dojo kun. 1) seek perfection of character, 2) be faithful, 3) endeavor to excel, 4) respect others, 5) refrain from impulsive behavior.
Sensei Philip Ragan said: “Our philosophy is to pursue traditional study of Shotokan with an engagement in practical application for the real world, applying this approach from beginner to advanced students, meeting individuals where they are personally and giving them the self-confidence to improve themselves in character as well as body.”
What would you say is unique or notable about your school and makes it stand out?
I think what’s really unique about Hisshou is that it’s the students that do most of the building. Also, while we are fiercely ISKF, we train with other organizations and are routinely invited by other organizations because we are respectful and don’t play politics. Finally, we are inclusive. By that I mean we treat each and every member, regardless of any circumstance, as an equal part in the success of the dojo. As I look around the region, we are the most diverse and the most cohesive. I am proud of each and every student and call each one my friend, my karate family. I have absolute trust in them and we each know there is nothing they could ask that we each would not do. My philosophy is to teach the student, not the class and that if they are my student once, they are my student for life.
Do you have any plans or goals for the school going forward?
Hisshou is in the process of renewed strategic planning. I know this sounds rather corporate for a not for profit. I think a lot of dojos do this wrong. They put the dojo part first and business second, not realizing that the two can be intertwined. They make assumptions about succession and are content with an existence. We, as a team, are creating a new business plan. As university students don’t tend to stay in the community where they attended school, we recruit often, but really focus our efforts on the community and children. They will be staying longer and can provide much-needed stability in an otherwise constantly rotating student group.
Also, the connection to the community shows students the outside world. Many mentorships have been struck up through our dojo. We have begun to charge a small fee to cover incidentals such as some fees should we have to find a place for an event. We also award belts rather than have students buy them. It’s a small investment on our part but pays huge dividends as the students also see that they earned the belt and didn’t buy it.
More importantly, ISKF US nationals will be in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in November of 2018!! That’s in our region. We are working on plans to help with that huge endeavor. A national tournament takes a lot of work. A lot of our focus is on that event.
If anybody wants to reach out to you, how should they contact you?
Two former students also moved away and founded a dojo in Langdon North Dakota, their page is Dankatsu Shotokan Karate Group on Facebook.
Sometimes we martial artists seek out challenges to better ourselves. Sometimes those challenges are placed at our feet. Often, our instructors place these challenges in front of us to push us out of our comfort zones so that we can grow. Sensei Batchelor was challenged and responded admirably. She also responded in a way by starting a school that would flourish within the local community. Congratulations Sensei Batchelor on your perseverance. I also wish you continued success as you go forward!
Please leave comments below! I would love to know what you think about this interview.
Latest posts by Scott Bolon
- Positivity in the Martial Arts-02/14/2018 - February 14, 2018
- Positivity in the Martial Arts-02/07/2018 - February 7, 2018
- Martial Journal School Spotlight: UND Hisshou Karate - February 4, 2018