From the outside looking in, trying to make heads or tails of the world of competitive martial arts can seem like a lesson in futility — so many variations, so many different categories, so many governing bodies.
Seventeen-year-old Sudburian Sean Grech suggests it really isn't all that bad.
"The fundamentals of karate, and pretty much all martial arts, are basically the same," he said.
The Grade 12 Lockerby Composite student can speak with some degree of knowledge. In mid-January, Grech claimed a silver medal in the men's division of the kata (forms) competition at the Karate Canada Nationals in Richmond, B.C., earning the teenager a spot on the national team and a chance to represent his country at a variety of upcoming competitions, including the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland.
But Grech knows his success is built largely on his decade or so of training with Benoit's Martial Arts Studio in Sudbury.
"It's really where I got all of my basics, my structure," he said. "You need a strong core of basics to be able to jump into the sport of it later on."
Starting his path in martial arts at the age of six, the sport seemed to come naturally to the athletic Grech.
"The flow, the cadence of it, came really easy to me," he said. "I could watch someone do a form and then be able to mirror it pretty well."
By the time the Ontario Summer Games arrived in Sudbury in August of 2010, Grech was more than capable of finishing first on a provincial scale.
Suffering a nasty concussion competing in kumite (sparring) at the Ontario Championships in 2012 would see Grech shift his focus almost exclusively to kata, staying clear of fighting.
"A doctor recommended I not do combat anymore, because if I did suffer another concussion, it could affect my ability to do kata," Grech said. "I've always felt I was stronger at the kata."
Unfortunately, his upward spiral of success was about to be challenged.
"I had kind of a two-year slump," Grech said. "I was going up, up, up, but then didn't have the success and it lowered my confidence.
"You get used to coming home with the 'bling,' and then one year, you don't even get a medal. It kicks you in the butt."
By the time 2014 rolled around, he was feeling a resurgence.
"I kind of got fed up with losing," he said.
With nationals right around the corner, the drive and desire that marked the near perpetual haul of hardware in his youth resurfaced.
"When I went into the event, I wanted to get back up there, to get that Team Canada crest again," said Grech.
He had previously cracked the national team roster in 2011, competing in the junior classification.
"But I still had this lingering feeling that there was a possibility that I could lose."
Competing up one division (ages 18-20), that feeling persisted on day one in B.C. back in January, but a bronze in his natural grouping (16-17) on the second day sparked optimism. When it came to the men's category (20 and up), things really fell into place.
"I think being against the men helped bring out the competitor in me," he said. "I finished second — it was a huge surprise."
The result was even more rewarding given it was balanced against the backdrop of exam preparation, with the bulk of the 70-member Ontario team pulling double duty out West.
"It was tough," Grech said. "We were going there and competing, but everyone had their books out. I got back home, had a day's rest and then was right into exams."
Still, regaining that elusive sense of accomplishment made everything worthwhile.
Looking forward to the upcoming U.S. Open in Las Vegas (in April), an event that draws much of the international elite, Grech is taking something of a step backwards in terms of his preparation.
"It sounds funny, but the main thing I need to get is my basics," he said. "When I started out, I had really strong basics, but was weak with my power and speed. So then I really worked those two, but I slacked on my basics."
And given that everything flows from the basics, that sounds like a really good place to start.