Inspirational instructor Tom Colwill tells Shimbun how he found his commanding voice…
COURAGE comes in many forms, but it is a characteristic Sensei Tom Colwill has in abundance. Shimbun recently watched from the sidelines as he guided a busy GKR Karate class through self-defence drills and an advanced kata and bunkai. His instruction was word perfect and delivered confidently to a dojo full of engaged students. It was an assured performance that even the most accomplished of public speakers would be proud of.
Not bad for a “big lad” who, as a schoolboy, was the subject of barbed words, bullying and prejudice because of his stammer.
Diagnosed at an early age with mild Asperger’s syndrome, the Region 38 (UK) instructor concedes that he struggled to find his feet – and voice – during his formative years before discovering martial arts as an 11-year-old.
“The moment I stepped into the dojo I was hooked because the sensei I had was so patient with me and knew I couldn’t pick stuff up as fast as others,” Tom said of his introduction to karate in 2005.
“He went through everything until I eventually got it, and that was something I had never experienced before.
“At school most of my teachers had already seemed to have decided that I wasn’t going to amount to much, whereas at the club I was given the guidance I needed and I had found something that I was actually good at.
“When I was younger, I had a very bad temper but karate gave me the discipline to work through things and control my emotions.
“I was suddenly more comfortable, able to deal with my stammer and had more confidence in myself.”
A renewed sense of worth was not the only reward of Tom’s early efforts in a gi. The black belt credits karate classes with a means of positively channelling the heartache of losing his beloved 12-year-old sister, Victoria, to type 1 diabetes in 2003.
The 1st Dan, who is also diabetic, said: “I am not going to lie, you don’t ever get over something like that. You have to learn to live with it. She was two years older than me and my big sister – I miss her daily.
“We were like any other brother and sister – we used to bicker but if ever I had a problem she would have my back.
“She is always in my thoughts when I succeed in karate as she was very sporty and played football.
“When I was working towards my Shodan-Ho and 1st Dan, Victoria was at the forefront of my mind.”
Spurred on by the memory of his sister, the 26-year-old achieved his ambition of becoming a black belt in 2017 but cites the thrill of passing on his expertise to the next-generation of keen karateka as the highlight of his sporting journey.
Already a role model to fellow classmates, Tom began the junior sempai programme as a 2nd Kyu and – after a tentative start – has shone ever since.
“When I first started I found speaking in public very hard,” he explained. “Coming out the front and not having somebody else to rely on was such a big challenge for me.
“I had to get through it myself and after a while I slowly got more comfortable because it was more or less the same students every week and I just relaxed into it.
“Being an instructor has given me the confidence to interact with complete strangers and see how they learn and how they interpret what I am telling them.”
Tom’s dedication to training his students paid off in 2019 when he was awarded most improved instructor of the year in Region 38.
Reflecting on the honour, he said: “I wasn’t expecting it.
“Sensei Asmat [Nadiry] has been pushing us to improve ourselves because for our students to get better, we have to get better.
“I enjoy being a sensei and I am constantly learning – it helps me with my ailments and gives me a positive outlook everyday.”
This positivity has seen Tom put his skills to the test at tournaments and added a raft of regional medals to his kitbag.
And although national and international silverware has so far eluded him, he champions the experience of competing.
“I started entering the tournaments to show the training I had done and what my instructors had taught me,” he added. “I have never been fussed about the medals – it is all a learning experience. I try to take those lessons back to the dojo and the feedback you are given from competing is so valuable.”
With his sights now firmly set on attaining 2nd Dan and an ever-growing number of enthusiastic students to steer along their karate journeys, Tom concedes he has surprised himself with his progress in the dojo.
“If someone told my five- to 11-year-old self what I would go on to do, I wouldn’t have believed them,” he concluded. “I am so proud of myself, I never thought I was going to get this far and be teaching 20-30 students per class. I thought it was impossible and it makes me feel immensely gratified.
“I am in karate for the long haul. There are always ups and downs but I am still loving it.”
Whatever Tom’s karate future holds, his voice is already a source of reassurance, guidance and authority for many karateka. A big brother figure to many, Victoria would certainly be incredibly proud of the man her little brother has become.
This feature originally appeared in Issue 4 of Shimbun. Those with some catching up to do can order Issues 1-5 for:
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