ROCKINGHAM — Learning how to defend yourself isn’t the only benefit to practicing martial arts.
For both Sensei Ronnie Covington and Sensei Denise Watkins — instructors for the Ebony Dragons competition team in Rockingham — karate has taught them discipline, as well as built up their confidence, self-esteem and character.
“I never thought I would’ve been in it this long, because when I was in school, I was shy,” Covington said. “So for me to be teaching, that’s out of character for me.”
Covington, recently named a sixth-degree black belt, began practicing karate in 1974 under the tutelage of Lee Jenkins. After realizing that he had a strong passion for the sport, Covington began teaching in 1990.
In his 26 years as an instructor, there have been moments where Covington thought about stepping down — claiming that he has felt burned out. But the moments he saw as breaking points, were really just the beginning of another long stretch.
“Another child will come in and they’ll do something that will just catch your eye,” Covington explained. “So then you’re committed, because you know it’s going to take at least 6 to 10 years to get them a belt. And then before they hit black belt, somebody else will walk in the door. So, it’s hard to walk away from it.”
A notion that Sensei Watkins fully understands.
Back when she signed her then-four-year-old son up for karate lessons, in Covington’s class, Watkins had no idea that her decision would eventually lead her to becoming a second-degree black belt.
“I would take notes on what he was doing, so I could know how to practice with him at home,” Watkins explained, “not realizing that I was learning the kata myself.”
Gaining more knowledge of the sport and realizing the impact that it had on her son, Watkins decided to sign her daughter up. But this time, she actually participated in the practices in order to keep her focused — completely unaware that Sensei Covington had recognized her potential.
About 12 years ago, Covington decided to spice things up. He wanted to see how Watkins would fair against real competition.
“She didn’t know it, but I signed her up for a tournament in Georgia in 2004,” Covington said.
Watkins was unsure of what would happen, but gathered up enough courage to step into the ring and compete while in Georgia. Not only did she hold her own, Watkins won it all — and has been leading her division ever since.
“I think karate has built my confidence up. I feel like I can defend myself if I had to,” Watkins said. “And doing karate, I’ve learned that it doesn’t take a whole lot to defend yourself — as long as you use it effectively.”
The effective use of karate.
That is what Covington, Watkins and their co-instructors make sure to emphasize when students work on their kata routines, which is similar to shadow boxing — fighting an imaginary opponent. Students practice their basic blocks, punches and kicks as instructors look for confidence in their movements, eye contact, power when throwing punches and the ability to be loud.
“Power. Strength. Lock it down. Make some noise,” Watkins said. “I tell that to all my kids. I don’t want them to just flow through it, because in tournaments you might have eight rings going on. You want to talk out loud, so the judges can hear you. You want to get their attention and keep their attention. You want to represent.”
Something the Ebony Dragons have done well this year.
The Dragons have collected a total of 91 trophies in its last two tournaments — the Beach Battle in Myrtle Beach and the Phoenix N Tha Burg in Laurinburg. Since then, they have been perfecting their routines in hopes of bringing home more hardware from the Kang Sha-Bang Classic Tournament that is being held today in Lumberton.
This will be the last tournament before a two-month competition break, as some students get ready to move up in rank.
“Right now, we’re just doing the competition kata,” Covington explained. We don’t want them to get confused or mixed up by learning something new and end up working a different one.”
The Ebony Dragons welcome students as young as three years old to come and train at their facility — located in the lot across from the Food Lion on East Broad Avenue in Rockingham.
“We teach not to fight and to let that be the last resort. Try to resolve it any way possible,” Watkins said. “But heaven forbid, if they ever get attacked, I want them to be able to defend themselves. Your hands and feet can be a weapon.”
Lessons are $30 a month, practices are held every Monday and Wednesday and students aren’t charged if they do no show up for the month.
“We try to make it affordable for all kids and we try to work with the community as much as possible,” Watkins said. “Because for some of these kids, it’s a way off the streets. It keeps them busy, keeps them focused and keeps them active.”
Reach sports editor Leon Hargrove Jr. at 910-817-2673 and follow the sports section on Twitter @RCDailySports.