Success comes from being yourself and being fully present in life, according to Sunshine Coast Karate co-founder and owner, Sandra Phillips

by Liz Marchant

Sandra Phillips, co-founder and co-owner, Sunshine Coast Karate.

Sandra Phillips co-founded and co-owns Sunshine Coast Karate with her husband, Martin Phillips. Sunshine Coast Karate is a traditional karate school for children and adults based in Maroochydore on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

Sensei Sandra is the highest-ranked female karateka (karate student) outside of Japan in the Chito-Ryu style of karate. She holds the rank of Godan (fifth degree black belt) and Shihan (master instructor). Only three women in the world outrank Sensei Sandra.

Age: 42
Number of kids: 2
Age of kids: 14 and 12

From 1995 until 2017, Sandra has represented Australia at the Soke Cup, the world championships of Chito-Ryu karate, held every three years. She has won multiple gold medals and has trained numerous gold medal-winners; a measure of exceptional success at the highest level of competition in this style.

We sat down with Sandra to learn more about her perseverance in the face of challenges, her commitment to being fully present in life, and how she manages a busy karate school alongside a growing family.

What’s involved in doing your job day to day?

Every day is different as I juggle work, family, and other interests. It’s important for my life to not just be about work.
I spend a lot of time in the karate dojo, either teaching or assisting. Outside of that, I spend time on business planning, communications, planning events, managing finances, developing our leadership team, developing our karate programs, and focusing on my own ongoing learning.

Who or what inspired you to build a career?

A remarkable lady with tremendous wisdom, courage and strength who I am proud to call my mum. Throughout my childhood, I was not only being shaped by the education system to move me towards getting good grades and a traditional job, but also my mum was shaping me from within.

She opened my eyes and helped me see beyond titles, material possessions and what life can become if you allow yourself to be consumed by pleasing others, trying to fit in and chasing titles. Interestingly though, it was always about balance with my mum. As much as she guided me to not become a slave to a job, to money and to others, there was always another side of the coin to be as equally mindful of as you step out into your day.

Why karate?

At an early age, I was amazed by the power of a female martial arts instructor. She was clearly very physically talented but it was her presence and confidence that captured my attention.

When I first started karate, I was in a dark and negative place; I would cry myself to sleep most nights. Fear was controlling my life. I struggled with learning the simplest things at school and I could barely speak a sentence without stuttering. The worst part was that I was too scared to speak up and ask for help. I figured it was better to be known as quiet and shy than to reveal to the world how messed up I truly was. And, my family was already going through a mountain of hardship, so I didn’t want to unload all of my issues onto them.

Karate helped me feel happiness and fulfilment. I dealt with challenges more effectively. My mind was able to choose a goal and focus on it and I started to create results that I wanted to experience. I knew if I kept doing karate, I wouldn’t just survive; my life would get better with every day.

I’ve dedicated my life to karate because the practice of karate uproots every aspect of your life and helps put it back together in the most perfect way for you and in the perfect time. It also lets me live a life of contribution.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
I had a traumatic labour with our first child and this experience led to a feeling of depression and anxiety when I learned that our second child was on the way. My stress levels were ridiculously high, which led me into isolation. At one stage throughout the pregnancy I developed a rash on my stomach which soon covered my entire body. This would be the one time that my mind was erratic and out of control.

Losing my mum to cervical cancer was another significant challenge. When my mum passed, I was fortunate to have had many years of personal growth behind me which gave me perspective, inner strength and calm to take one day at a time. At my mum’s funeral, my younger self would have been crying uncontrollably and helpless. Yet, I was able to remain composed, take in the moment, see both the beauty and sadness, to celebrate life and to finally speak up and use my voice to give a eulogy.

When I’m in the karate dojo, it’s not just work in the traditional sense. I’m also trying to refine myself, which can be confronting at times because it takes honesty, time and effort to upgrade to a better version of yourself.

How important is it that you set an example as a working mother for your children?

It’s not really about being an example just as a working mother. I try to lead by example in all that I do by leading a balanced life with time dedicated to all areas that are important to me. This makes life more interesting as I live mindfully.

Our kids pick up on both good and bad habits and model them right back at us. For example, when I’m working at home, I tell my kids my start and finish time. But, I also let them know if they need anything to come and see me because, if it’s important to them, it’s important to me. When they interrupt me from work, I make it a habit to stop what I’m doing, turn and face them, and give them my fullest attention. Now, when they are playing on their devices and I knock on their door to get their attention, they will both put their devices down and give me their full attention.

As a business owner with competing priorities, how do you remain focused and directed?

I keep an eye on the bigger picture even as I’m moving forward with weekly and monthly actions. I plan ahead to keep life as simple as possible so I don’t need to make lots of decisions throughout my day. I schedule regular family holidays or adventures every four to six weeks which gives me a time-out and a chance to freshen up.
I also pay attention to life basics, which includes things like breathing, nutrition, water intake, posture, movement, fresh air and sunlight, and sleep.

How long did you take maternity leave/time out of your career with each of your children?

I don’t remember taking much time off at all with either of our children (maybe one week). I’ve been fortunate to have a wonderful support from my husband and he loves being a dad so I could get back into teaching pretty quickly.
Getting back into the workplace early for me was a deliberate choice. Our students are also a part of our family and I wanted to stay connected with them. At times, I really needed to draw off the strength, energy and focus of our karate family to help me move through some of my challenges.

Another reason I could get back to work so quickly is because the dojo is a place where we could take our kids. It was wonderful to introduce them to their extended karate family at a very young age and grow up in this learning environment.

When I was pregnant with my first child, Sami, I was at a Soke Cup and I didn’t know I was pregnant; I thought I was just exhausted from years of pushing hard to win tournaments. Feeling sick, I pushed myself to perform and managed to win a gold medal. However, this was a turning point for me.

Standing on the podium didn’t seem to look or feel as grand as it once did when I was younger. It was just a medal. I had only been chasing success, a title, recognition and acceptance from others. My mum had warned me about playing the game of life out of balance and the effects of feeding the ego. Yet, those shiny little objects caught my attention and I played hard to get my fair share.

However, I can say that it was the most monumental win of my early competition days. It was the day that I could finally see that what I really wanted was not a medal, or a title or people to like me. I wanted to know myself inside and out and I wanted to learn how to direct my mind and my body. I wanted to be able to control my emotions and not have emotions control my life. How was I going to truly bring out my best so that I could really contribute something special to this world?

With this in mind I continued to compete with a different mindset. In 2017, all the stars aligned for the most perfect victory I had ever achieved. It was a state that I will never forget and is something that I strive to reproduce in all areas of my life. But I wasn’t celebrating a medal; I was celebrating a journey that spanned 22 years of searching. I had not only found that presence and level of confidence that I had seen early on in my journey through that wonderful female karate instructor that inspired me, I was experiencing it.

What advice would you give someone before commencing maternity leave?

This is a truly delicate and beautiful time and I think it is something that needs to be determined by the person (and partner) taking maternity leave. However, I personally think it is important to give yourself time to breathe, re-energise, and connect with yourself and your baby, your partner, and nature. It’s important to create an environment that will help you embrace this moment and create some magic memories. If you can connect deeply with yourself and with the rhythm of your life, you’ll know what to do. Stand tall, breathe deeply and trust yourself.

What advice would you give someone returning to their career after having kids?

Be patient with yourself as you transition back into the workplace, smile big and laugh out loud often. Before returning, I would also take a moment to consider your actions and how they will impact others. You have a legacy to leave this world. This is your time to not only share your best work in the workplace, but to also lead by example and be a role model for your children. It’s important to think about what that example will be, and to dare to raise the bar and be the change that you want to see in the world.

It’s important to remind yourself that you are special and talented, and you have much value to contribute to this world. Be great, be yourself everyday (after all, everyone else is taken) and watch everyone around you rise with you.

Do you have a daily routine and, if so, what does it look like?

I give myself time before my family wakes up. If I can elevate my energy at the start of each day and keep it elevated throughout the day, I can give my work and my family me best. I also take the time to tune into my family throughout the day, not necessarily with words, but through getting into the moment and being fully focused on them. Their presence, energy level, posture, movement and words give me the answers as to how I can be a better mum, wife, and person.

I love routines. It keeps my life simple and everything gets scheduled in that is important to me. Life seems to flow better. I’ll chunk my day into blocks with regular timeouts to freshen up. However, flexibility is key.

My morning routine includes focusing on gratitude, my top three goals, learning, meditation, and movement. Then, when my family wakes up, I devote some time purely to them.

During the day I work on projects and bridging the gap between where I am now and where I’m going with my top three goals.

Often I start my day at 4am so I’ll often take a nap in the afternoon to recharge before heading into the dojo to teach classes throughout the evening. My husband and I juggle teaching commitments with family time.

Then, before bed, it’s about self-care, family time, and learning.

If you could do anything differently in relation to developing your career over the years, what would it be?

Over the last 10-14 years, I haven’t really extended myself beyond my family and extended karate family. This has been a deliberate decision as it has created a beautiful balance of time with others and time for myself. This has been especially important for me as I love being a mum and I wanted to be available for my kids.

Moving into my next chapter now that both kids are in high school, I would like to meet more people, learn about them, celebrate them and encourage them to break through to greater heights.

I would also like to benefit from the expertise of more mentors in various areas of my life. For now, I have three or four mentors at any one time and that seems to be a good number, but there are other areas of my life that I would like to take a deep dive into with the help of a mentor.