Rather than feeling defeated, both current champs Sensei Delio Senatore and Sherry Bower took all that they had learned from their individual setbacks and used it to fuel them all the way to the NAS winners' podium in 2011. With years of martial arts experience behind them, Senatore and Bower have a few secrets to share.
Delio Senatore began his martial arts career at just five years of age. You could say karate was in his blood with his father Ettore being an established and successful instructor at Senshin-Ryu Karate-Do Australia. "My father has always been very passionate about karate and he has bestowed that passion onto me," Senatore said. The pair now teach along with Sensei Khai Tran at their Queensland-based karate school. Sensei Ettore Senatore describes his son as very serious when it comes to karate. "Even when he started at five years old, anything he was doing he did with serious intent. Delio is very determined, he will never give up."
Ettore has taught his son that there is no easy way of getting what you want. "Delio knows you have to train not only often, but hard," he says. With this attitude, Delio Senatore has had his fair share of success in the karate scene. Among his recent achievements, he took out the state titles in Men's Black-belt Sparring two years running.
Also hailing from Queensland, Sherry Bower has been training in karate for 10 long years under Sensei Petrus Van Der Walt of JKA Shotokan Karate. Initially, Bower says her nervous giggling drove Sensei Van Der Walt crazy.
However, Sensei Van Der Walt says that over the years he has watched Bower turn from a giggling girl into a dream student. "Sherry is very dedicated, keen to learn and absorbs everything you tell her like a sponge," he says. Results show she has clearly come a long way; her recent karate achievements include winning the JKA Nationals and placing in the top 16 in the World Shoto Cup held in Thailand last August. The only giggling Bower does now is as she unwinds with teammates after the events.
Both active competitors within their own arts, Bower and Senatore agree that the NAS competitions offer something a little bit different, which is why they sign up for them every year. Senatore explains, "I like that the NAS has competitors from all different styles; for example, there's kickboxing, kung fu, karate and taekwondo. The styles are all so different you have to constantly adapt, you can't fight the same way all the time. I guess it keeps you on the balls of your feet, it keeps things interesting."
When up against different fighting methods, Senatore finds it difficult to say which art produces the most challenging competitors. "I find the other karate styles very challenging as they are so explosive, however, with different styles other than karate I might be caught off guard with a move I've never seen before," he says.
To avoid being caught by surprise, preparation is vital. While most might train to be a great martial artist every session, training to be a great competitor is often an altogether different story. Both Senatore and Bower know all too well the effort required to make a NAS champ, although each has their own method. According to Bower, her physical training for the recent NAS titles was much the same as for other karate tournaments. Her competition training involved "getting a hiding from my karate instructor and training at least nine sessions, six days a week." Bower hasn't changed her training regime much since her defeat in the previous NAS Championships; however, she managed to pack a little extra punch this time by working harder each session to improve, and hitting a makiwara (traditional striking post) to develop her speed and power.
Equally determined to take the men's title, Senatore also ramped up his training for the 2011 championships. "I had to cut down to teaching only one class per week and did a lot of training at home in my spare time," he says. "I went to many seminars as well, and looked specifically for seminars with karateka who were very good at sparring."
As well as increasing the frequency of his training, Senatore's workouts got more intense. "Last time I focused on doing mainly a lot of repetitive exercises, practising techniques. This time I decided to work on developing explosive speed and agility. I did a lot of high-intensity training and cardio, as well as the repetitive training."
Sporting competitions are essentially won or lost based on what competitors bring to the floor. Every fighter shapes up with a slightly different set of skills and experience, with different strengths, weaknesses and sometimes injuries, which all play a part in deciding who takes home the trophy at the end of the day. An important factor in all of this, which is often forgotten as part of the preparation for an event, is mindset. Those who can tune their thoughts to positive and keep them there are often the ones who reign triumphant. The NAS champs are certainly examples of this. After suffering a narrow defeat at the 2010 NAS titles, some competitors might have felt discouraged or lost their drive, but not Sherry Bower. She says, "I was motivated by my loss — all I wanted was the belt."
Senatore, who was also hungry for the win, put a lot of work into getting his mind fighting fit along with his body. "Whenever I was training I tried to put myself in the mindset of being at the tournament," he explains. "I did a lot of positive visualisation whenever I had a chance. For example, before I would go to sleep I would picture myself doing the kata perfectly, winning, going up to collect the trophy, doing everything perfectly. I did this to build my confidence."
Despite their ardent preparation efforts, the NAS Champion of Champions title didn't come easily or without its challenges for either competitor. Bower had the heavy burden of going into the competition with a serious injury. "I went into the competition with all of my lower back muscles strained [a lumbar strain] and wasn't able to train for a couple of weeks before the tournament," Bower says. While the injury hampered her training efforts, fortunately it wasn't enough to slow Bower down on the big day. "When I was fighting, the adrenaline took over so I didn't feel any pain. I was having too much fun!" she says.
For Senatore, the hardest part was balancing his training with other aspects of his daily life. "I have many commitments, including a martial arts business I run with my father, which involves me teaching a lot of classes during the week. I have also recently finished a university degree in Human Movement and Secondary Education, so finding the time to train hard for the competition was a challenge," he says.
Nevertheless, Senatore has always had a clear picture of what he wanted. "It was disappointing losing to Dean Gould [the previous year] because it was such a close bout, but after that I made it my goal that no matter what, I had to get the title next time. To be the NAS Champion of Champions has been a goal of mine since I was about eight years old; watching the older students bringing their trophies into class, I knew that's what I wanted to achieve when I was older."
The 2011 NAS Nationals were held on the Gold Coast on 3–4 December. After months of hard training, Delio Senatore and Sherry Bower were each looking at their second chance to claim the Champion of Champions title. Bower got off to a good start, winning the national title in her welterweight division. For the supreme title, Bower came up against lightweight champion Pania Casey-Williams and later the middleweight champion Nicki Kennedy. Both students of Kenshinkan Karate proved to be fierce competitors, Bower fighting hard and running into extra time before eventually emerging triumphant. Having worked so hard to leap the various hurdles in her path, the female NAS champ was an emotional winner. "I was so excited to win, I just started crying and couldn't wait to hug my instructor for all the time and effort he put in to help me achieve my goal," she says.
After fighting his way to the top of his weight division, Senatore's last battle for the coveted title had a touch of deja vu. It was in Senatore's final bout that a familiar face presented itself and the karateka realised that if he wanted the Champion of Champions belt, he would have to claim it from Dean Gould, who snatched it from his grasp only a year before. Facing Gould again didn't faze Senatore though, as he explains, "the fight was pretty close in the middle but then Dean lost mental control. I picked up on this and used it to my advantage. It finished with me two or three points ahead." Sensei Ettore Senatore remembers nervously watching the final from the judges' table. "Because I was actually a judge at the event I wasn't allowed to show any emotion; I couldn't clap or cheer. It was very hard," he says. Ettore was especially nervous seeing it was Dean Gould that Delio was fighting for the second time, and knowing how pumped his son was — but their hard work paid off. After visualising the win so many times in preparation for the fight, the victorious Senatore was now able to collect his trophy for real.
For both fighters, their rise from runners-up to supreme champions was as much due to their well-executed tactics on the day as the sweat dropped on the dojo mats beforehand. Bower's strategy was to keep using a technique that scored easily. If her opponent picked up on it, she would switch and do something different. Aside from a new strategy, Bower attributes her win to "having my sensei sitting in the corner, guiding me as he was having a heart attack — I think I gave him a few more grey hairs," she jokes.
Sensei Van Der Walt agrees his hair is a little greyer since the tournament. "It was nail-biting. I'm always nervous watching Sherry compete because sometimes it's like she falls asleep in the middle of the fight, but she always comes back at the end."
Van Der Walt believes it was his pupil's sheer drive to win that got her through the finals.
"She hates losing. If she ever loses, she comes back with a vengeance the next time," he says.
Having trained under Van Der Walt since the beginning, over the years Bower has received a wealth of advice from her sensei. Two pieces of advice that have really stuck with Bower and helped get her the Champion of Champions title are, "The only thing to fear, is fear itself" and "If you go backwards, you lose; go forward, you win".
For Delio Senatore, moving forward for the win all came down to strategy and confidence. Senatore developed his game plan based on an important piece of advice offered by his mother, who doesn't practise karate herself but has learnt a thing or two from supporting her husband and son over the years. "Mum has always told me you have to stay in control or you won't get anywhere," Senatore says.
So his strategy for the event was to get two or three points ahead of his opponent and then maintain control. Another equally important piece of advice Senatore used to his advantage came, of course, from his father and coach. Sensei Ettore has always told his son and other students to adapt to their opponents, a strategy which becomes especially relevant in an all-styles martial arts tournament such as the NAS.
Aside from offering strategy tips and good advice, Sensei Ettore has been working since Delio's near-win in the 2010 NAS finals to empower the karateka with increased confidence. "Since his defeat in the last NAS I have been giving him a lot of support and building his confidence. I knew he could get it this time, he's been training very hard. I told him he has to believe in himself," Ettore says.
It might have been easy for Sherry Bower and Delio Senatore to rest on their laurels after the 2010 NAS championships and be satisfied with very nearly winning the title. Instead, they both chose to keep fighting, only harder. Not only were their efforts rewarded with shiny belts and waist-high trophies, but the pair learnt a lot about themselves and what it takes to rise to a challenge in the process.
Both Sensei Ettore Senatore and Sensei Petrus Van Der Walt encourage their students to compete for this reason. Van Der Walt admits that competitive martial arts is not for every one of his students, but that for a few, like Bower, competition can be very motivating. Sensei Senatore believes that competitions like the National All Styles circuit, as well as other karate tournaments, have a definite and almost hidden value to students. "It's not about winning or losing, it's about gaining confidence," he says.
For Sensei Senatore, competition results are largely based on confidence and self-esteem. "You can have good karate, but if you get out in front of the crowds and judges and your opponent, and you allow yourself to be intimidated, you will lose. Confidence is key, winning is just an extra bonus," he explains.
As the 2012 NAS season rolls on, we are sure to see the current champs about. Delio Senatore says he will likely give NAS another go this year, as well as trying his hand at a few of the Australian Karate Federation tournaments. Whether he will be back at the end of the year to defend his title may depend on his other commitments; having just completed a university degree, his determination and eager attitude will no doubt be welcomed in a busy workplace somewhere.
Sherry Bower plans to continue her winning streak, competing at the Japan Karate Association (JKA) Shotokan Nationals, the World Shoto Cup in Paris and, all going well, will be back to give the next NAS Champion of Champions hopefuls a run for their reverse-punches when the NAS Nationals come around again.