Sensei Deb Cupples has worked hard during the past decade to dispel the “karate master” myth.
“People still have the idea that if they do something wrong they’ll get kicked in the legs or have to do pushups, and they’ll get yelled and screamed at,” she said. “That’s what people have long thought about martial arts. I don’t like when people yell at me. In fact, I do less when you yell at me.”
A fourth-degree black belt and owner of Community Karate & Fitness, Cupples spent most of her professional life in computer sales. The Massachusetts native moved to Colorado Springs with her family in 1997 and found a job working for Gateway. She went on to become an independent computer sales representative before being hired by a second company. But an unconcerned boss after an appendix surgery led to her leave the traditional sales world for good.
“I liked sales because I got to meet new people all the time,” Cupples said. “I got to be a rock star because when I say I’m going to do something, I do it. That’s the key to winning in sales.
“But when I quit, I was going to be a mom and play with my children and my dogs and garden and sew and cook and take pictures — that lasted about a month. At the time, I’d been training in martial arts for about a year. My instructor said he was looking for someone to take over his day classes and asked if I was interested.”
Kicking and screaming
Cupples’ new career came as the result of a family challenge. Hannah was a precocious second-grader. Cupples’ second-oldest of four children, now 20, was driving her teacher crazy.
“Her teacher said [Hannah] was hijacking the class because she was terrified of being wrong about anything,” Cupples said. “[Her teacher] asked, if she gave me the tools to help Hannah, would I work with her?”
The teacher said Cupples’ daughter needed to be put in situations where she might fail or make poor choices. She needed to understand that lacking natural talent in something was OK.
“So what can we do that’s a fun thing?” Cupples asked her husband, Greg. “We’d heard martial arts were great. I’d trained a little bit as a kid, my husband trained a little bit as a kid. We really enjoyed it. We decided to just put her in karate. She was very physically awkward and was learning there were people who were better than her at something.”
Watching classes, Greg and Deb recalled doing similar drills when they took karate as kids.
“Why are we sitting on the bench? We’re here anyway,” Cupples told her husband. “Let’s just do it.”
So they did.
“I found it wasn’t just kicking and punching and yelling and self-defense techniques. I felt like there was a community and I belonged,” she said. “The person next to me could have a completely different religious or political affiliation, but none of that mattered. We had a common ground, and it was in a safe and fun environment that was family-oriented.”
Now a decade into the business, Cupples says she’s learned to turn apparent weaknesses into strength. She’s admittedly a slow learner, for instance, but considers that a plus.
“If you talked to my instructor, he’d probably tell you I’m one of the worst students he’s had. … But because I struggle as a student, it made me a really good teacher,” she said. “I know people aren’t going to get it right away. … There are many different learning methodologies we use because I need all of them.
“I’d always wanted to teach,” she added. “I’d done a lot of public speaking when I was with Gateway because my sales were so good. They would send me places to just teach people how to sell better.
“ I realized that was what I wanted to do — I wanted to talk to people, and influence people and get people to understand you can be successful and have fun doing it.”
Cupples earned her black belt while teaching day classes for her instructor, the whole time thinking of things she would do differently.
“I told my instructor I wanted to open my own school and he said to do it. That was very bizarre,” Cupples said. “What happens is I teach for your karate school and, if I hate you, I open my own school, steal students and then everyone hates each other. I don’t have that kind of school. My instructor and I have a mutually beneficial relationship. I help him; he helps me.”
In 2006, Cupples conducted her first class as part of an after-school program in leased space at Fremont Elementary School. She had six kids in class, and two were hers. When she outgrew that space, more than 30 percent of the school’s students were taking karate.
In her 10th year and several locations later, Cupples has built a roster of about 70 students, but even through the growth, her business and teaching philosophies remain the same.
“I’m a mom first and a karate teacher second,” she said, adding that means students’ fingernails are trimmed, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are used liberally, homework is done before training can begin.
“If you come in and you have a dirty face, I’ll tell you the bathroom is right there,” she said. “I want them to take pride in what they do and who they are.”
Cupples offers kids classes for those under the age of 9, and family classes for adults and older children. But kids make up the bulk of her business.
“I want to get to the kids before they get to middle school,” she said. “I want them feeling confident about themselves before they hit the awkward middle school age and everybody hates everybody, but everybody is trying to fit in. This makes kids feel like they already are something. I mimic the message parents give — ‘you’re smart; you’re strong; I’m very proud of you.’
“When someone else gives that message, besides your parents, you really start to believe it.”
Community Karate & Fitness
Location: 5631 N. Academy Blvd.