Karate – The Third Way

There was a very good video blog post recently from Iain Abernethy discussing his take on the difference between so called 3K’s karate (a.k.a. “Traditional” karate in some quarters) and the modern (or ancient, depending on your viewpoint 🙂 ) styles of pragmatic or applied karate trained specifically  with the aim of practical self-protection skills. He is at pains to point out that his definition is “and never the 3 shall meet” as that does change the context of what he is saying.

Iain goes into some detail of his understanding of the differences and I have to admit that it reflects my view almost entirely and is very much the reason why I train the way I do.

After having been through the (not uncommon) bout of zealotry that occurs after making the change from “traditional” training to the more holistic pragmatic approach I have (sort of) settled into my path without feeling the need to educate those who think differently (and yes I know that sounds a bit rich coming from someone writing a blog for public consumption 🙂 ).

What I mean by that is that if you have spent many years training in one direction and suddenly have your eyes opened to the world of wonder that lays outside what is the very narrow focus of “traditional” training it is very easy to assume that everyone else is still living in the dark and it’s your duty to shine the light for them.

The truth is that the majority of karate students neither know nor care about your brave new world and are not waiting to be enlightened, rather they wish you’d stop banging on about it and just go away and let them get on with what they are perfectly happy doing.

I came to terms with that notion some time back and realised that I was not everyone’s Dad and that as adults they were perfectly capable of making their own decisions (and even if they were not it was not my responsibility to make them on their behalf 🙂 ).

So there are now two distinct forms of training (and a thousand minor variations) calling themselves “Karate”, there is the 3 K’s tradition and the pragmatic or applied path.

Although one has to be very careful about what the clear distinction between those two actually is as myself (and pretty well all the practical instructors I know) still teach the 3 K’s, Kihon, Kata and Kumite as part of our training, although we may have a difference in priority and the way we train them.

The distinction comes from the “and never the three shall meet” part of the quote as, from our point of view, it is the link that is broken in traditional karate rather than the parts per se, although the focus on long range duelling techniques (in 3k’s) is a fundamental difference in approach and goal.

There is however now a third path appearing and it is one to be aware of and have the conversation about.

Despite the way it may appear sometimes, I don’t deliberately set out to annoy people (it’s just a gift 🙂 ) but I do feel that if we are to progress we should be able to discuss things like adults without fear of causing offence or being shouted down because we don’t “understand the way!”.

It’s a nice idea but it doesn’t always work so just be aware that these are only my opinions.

The third way I see increasingly appearing is the study of what looks to be applied karate but with a 3 K’s mind-set, by which I mean that people are starting to study the drills and practices of applied karate but with the mind-set that “sensei says this is what we do” so we learn the drills and the syllabus without the need to understand of the underlying concepts or question the results of what we are doing.

This is pretty much what has happened in traditional karate which is what has lead it to where it currently is and there is certainly some evidence that this trend is starting to translate to applied karate as well.

This almost certainly isn’t the aim of the instructors. I have had many conversations with my peers regarding the fundamental aim of generating students who are “thinkers” rather than “followers” however this isn’t always as easy as you’d hope. I think it was Graham Palmer who said recently “there are Tigers and Tea Cups”, those who go out and actively hunt (for knowledge) and those who just wait to be filled up.

This is always going to be an issue when you bring your training down to drills.

Don’t get me wrong, drills are fundamental to good training, it’s how you present both the technical side and the underlying principles that drive the functionality of what you are trying to teach.

However this is where it starts to get difficult (particularly in a world of wide seminar availability and social media access where students can dip in and out).

The problem with drills is that they are portable, that is the point of them really, you can break the training down into chunks that teach a specific lesson and let the student take them away to learn. You (as an instructor) are trusting that the student will listen to all that you say and learn the lesson you are imparting.

Unfortunately there are always a percentage for whom the “learning of the drill” is the focus of their effort rather than the underlying lesson (it is very possible to do as we have seen from the way 3k’s has developed since the 1940’s). The drill becomes a “goal” rather than a “tool” and correct performance of the drill becomes a priority.

This is the “3k’s mind set”, it’s a combination of “sensei says” so I don’t need to think for myself 🙂  and “correct form at all times” because my measure of how well I am doing is how close do I look to the original, and once you start testing to how well does a student perform the drill as opposed to how effectively does the student apply the drill you have lost.

This only really becomes an issue as we start to move on now to second or third generation applied instructors (and this is where it starts to sound pompous) who have missed the point but are competent enough in the drills to go out and teach on their own.

It is (hopefully) an avoidable issue but it is one we have to be constantly aware of and not afraid to talk about as, as soon as we start with “don’t say anything as you might cause offence” you start to enable this behaviour.

Yes I am aware that is not the same as “just say anything and to hell if people take offence” (I try very hard not to do that, sometimes I even succeed 🙂 ).


So, what am I doing again?

Whilst a lot of people will no doubt have their own opinions on this it is really a rhetorical question, but one that has been brought to the fore again by a couple of recent conversations I’ve had with Karate-ka from different ends of the karate spectrum.

It’s an old chestnut and one rife with disagreement but it really comes down to what “karate” really is and there doesn’t appear to be a definition out there that satisfies everyone on that subject one way or another.

Assuming we are using the Japanese meaning of the words with the modernised (post move from Okinakwa) kanji then the term literally translates as “Empty Hand” which could mean virtually anything, so it really comes down to what to majority understand it as meaning.

This is why I believe so many people append words to their karate, in order to try and define some actual meaning to the term to describe what it is they do and differentiate it from what others do.

I am not referring to styles here. Although there are typically 3 or 4 widely recognised major styles and probably the same in historically established but less widely followed styles these do not really define the activity itself to any large extent, merely the lineage that they trace their original path back to.

It is interesting that the words that they chose typically are not necessarily accurate descriptions of what they do but do paint a (relatively) meaningful picture in people’s minds and therefore impart a measure of common understanding, or at least that is the theory.

“If it walks like a Duck and quacks like a Duck then it’s a Duck!”

Unfortunately however is seems that even within a simple definition like “traditional” karate that whilst some ducks are still ducks there are also a fair measure of pigeons, flamingos and sparrows masquerading as ducks (despite them all wearing the same feathers), and if you look close enough you’ll even find the occasional platypus.

I will leave “sport karate” out of the debate as, despite being “not real karate” in the eyes of many it is one of the few definitions that actually clarifies exactly what it is and those studying it know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it.

“Traditional Karate” is a more interesting and probably the most widely interpreted definition that there is.

My understanding is, in concept anyway, that “traditional” karate refers to the Japanese model codified and made popular through the JKA (other traditional groups are available). It uses a defined syllabus of Kihon, Kata and Kumite to teach a specific set of drills and body mechanics as a way of physical conditioning and as a way of personal improvement and development of character through discipline and rigorous physical activity. It requires the development of both physical and mental resilience through adherence to a strict structure of a defined syllabus and constant practice in the pursuit of perfection.

My experience was (although I came up via the SKI syllabus path, the differences are not, or were not, that significant), that this was very much the case. You worked until you were ready to drop, you paid total attention to what was being taught and occasionally (or often) came away battered and bruised, and were happy to do so.

Given the world has moved on it would appear that the term “traditional” has broadened considerably since my day and is now no longer what I understood it to be (although it may well still be in some places).

This is not to have a go at any particular approach at all as, if people are performing the activity as they want and with a clear understanding of what they are doing then there is absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t be doing what they enjoy and for the reasons that they enjoy doing it.

It would seem that the term “traditional” is now applied on the basis that you still wear the white Dogi and follow the coloured belt grading system and that you still perform some of the kihon, some of the kata and what appears to be solo kumite (no, me neither 🙂 ).

I can understand in this day and age, particularly where the student body consist mainly of 6 to 11 year olds, that students don’t want to train until they drop or suffer what can be quite painful injuries on a weekly basis (who in their right mind would 🙂 ), but in some circles we now appear to have de-risked karate to a level where nobody tries to hit anybody any more so the risk of injury is almost completely removed.

This in itself is again neither wrong nor right if students understand what they are doing and what it means (although I can hear the grinding of traditional teeth even from here 🙂 ).

What I do find unusual though is that, when talking to students who have experienced both sides, is that they genuinely feel that a black belt earned this way is still the equivalent to doing it the old way and there really is no difference between them (which says more about what a black belt really means that virtually anything else).

However, I do find it strange that this approach towards karate is still considered by many to be more acceptably traditional than the style of karate that I currently practice/teach (presumably because, although watered down, it is still recognisably the same thing).

My path diverged some years back into what we now think of by label as either “Pragmatic” or “Applied” karate.

This is not considered as traditional (despite being a far older model that pre-dates the Japanese approach) because, to a large extent, it does not carry the same cultural baggage that was bolted on when karate moved to Japan and is an art geared almost solely to practical self-defence. What I am teaching is a practical skill set using traditional techniques and not a “Way” or “Do”.

I cannot in all honesty claim that my version of karate has some ancient legitimacy due to being taught in a similar way to pre-Japanese karate however because I do use exactly the same kihon and kata as the traditional “traditional” model.

It is, in terms of body mechanics and my choice of kata, exactly the same thing. It is just that my interpretation of the meaning of the moves is significantly different and my kumite bears virtually no relation to that practiced in the tradition of JKA style karate.

So to go back to my earlier analogy, the pink flamingo version is what many are coming to understand karate as being (some of these schools have student numbers in the many thousands).

My version is almost certainly the platypus, at a quick glance at the head you could mistake it for a duck but if you take a look under the water you’ll find it is a completely different animal.

So this finally brings us back to the original question, if many thousands of students around the world understand that pink flamingo karate is what “karate” actually is (and with each generation that passes this continues to grow), then is what I do actually still karate at all? And if it’s not that then (despite my adherence to the traditions) what is it?

“Walking the Walk”

I was asked to write a short article on the back of a Facebook post I made a while ago based on the idea of a MA/Self Protection instructor having had to have “walked the walk” to have anything valid to offer.

To be honest I was only trying to rattle a few cages and see what popped out at the time but here goes.

Firstly (as no one will have any idea who I am) just a brief intro’ to myself, it is not just to talk about me but is to clarify the position I’m coming at this from.

I have been involved in MA since 1978 (with some breaks), mainly via Karate but with some short forays into traditional Jiu Jitsu and more recently the Gracie style JJ. Over the last 5 years or so I have also spent a significant part of my training time searching out instructors who have “Walked the walk” to expand my knowledge of the “real” world.

Having said that I have succeeded in reaching the age of 57 (in my adult life at least, we’ll leave my teenage years where they belong 🙂 ) without ever having been involved in a conflict that has turned physical. I am your typical bog standard karate instructor that you’ll find in any town with no pretentions to be anything more, I just happen to have an interest in the more pragmatic side of self-protection.

There seems to have been a move (at least in the UK) over the last 5-10 years towards practical martial arts, or perhaps I have just become more aware of it, and on the back of that there has been a big growth in schools offering “street lethal” martial arts.

As a part of this there has been a lot of talk about having to have “been there” or “walked the walk” in order to be able to teach anything worthwhile. The general statements being that if you haven’t regularly faced violent confrontation then nothing you say can be in anyway valid and this is used as a stick to beat us (the non-fighters) with if we dare to teach martial arts with any sort of self-protection element. The upshot is that the picture that is being painted is that we are a complete waste of time and only they (the fighters) are worth training with.

Now I am not trying to be disparaging with the “fighter” label, I do understand that a lot of people have to face violence, or the threat of it at least, on a virtually daily basis as part of their work and I have a great deal of respect for those willing to do that. It is just a differentiator for the two classes of instructor.

It is commonly stated that “If you’ve never faced real violence you don’t know how you will react” which I fully appreciate, pressure testing (no matter how hard) will never fully replicate real violence, you always know that apart from a few bumps and bruises and maybe a few cracks and breaks (now I have been there and done that 🙂 ) you are basically safe. You can go a long way towards replicating the physical but the mental side never really approaches the real thing (and if it did I very much suspect that students wouldn’t train for more than 5 minutes and that you’d never see them again).

We are also told that “everyone is different” in these situations which again I fully appreciate.

This, however, is where I start to struggle with the logic of the argument, if you “don’t know how you’ll react” and “everyone is different” then how can the experience of the fighter tell them anything other than how THEY THEMSELVES will react.

The logic appears to indicate that they can’t really pass on this knowledge and so are no better able to transmit this understanding than the rest of us.

It also, if you follow the logic, means that training with them is of no value to the instructor who wants to pass on this knowledge to his own students as, even if he teaches exactly what he has learned in the same way as he (or she) has learned it, their lack of real world understanding makes it a “waste of time”.

I don’t really believe this to be the case, if I did then I wouldn’t spend so much of my time seeking out these people and training with them. I’d much rather piggy back off of their experience and learn as much of the theory at least as I can. I’m quite happy to spend the rest of my life without ever having any real world experience if that is at all possible.

I am well aware that there are many schools, including those who profess to teach self-protection, who teach fanciful fairy tale self-defence, 10 minutes on YouTube will provide all the evidence you need, (in fact they seem to be in the majority there) but there are also many of us who take the subject seriously enough to do proper research so we can avoid passing on bad advice and comic book techniques. I think it’s more a question of honesty (on either side of the argument) and just being open about who you are and what you teach. My promotional line on my website is:

“Does this mean I can turn anyone into a “lean, mean, fighting machine”? No, obviously not. The unfortunate truth (or fortunate, depending on your world view) is that not everybody has the nature or potential. Can I give you a set of physical skills which will much improve your chances in a physical confrontation? Almost certainly.”

Not the snappiest tag line and probably not really what potential students want to hear but it is what I do.

My final word (in as much as I’ll ever stop talking 🙂 ) would be to question that, given that 90% of self-protection is in avoiding physical conflict and that a physical response is what you fall back on when all else has failed you, then would you rather learn your self-protection from someone who’s had hundreds of fights or from the guy who’s had none?

Just a thought 🙂

Silly boy

Again a bit (for “a bit” read “very” 🙂 ) self-indulgent this time but if you want to stick with it there is a point.

There once was a very stupid man (we’ll call him Bob for the sake of this tale).

Bob considered himself fairly self-sufficient in daily life and was a firm believer in sorting stuff out for himself, he didn’t like to make a fuss (honest 🙂 ) and just got on with life.

This included any health issues that may have arisen over the years. Bob was a firm believer in only going to the Doctor as a last resort (and, despite everything, still does to a large extent) rather than running to the surgery with every sniffle, fever, stomach bug or odd ache. He typically only sees a G.P. every 4-5 years on average.

Then one day the thing happens. One evening at the end of quite a stressful period at work, Bob is sitting in his chair and a strange feeling come over him, difficult to describe but it feels like a giant spider has got into his chest and is crawling around his heart, it then settles in place and gives a little squeeze. Bob’s heart then starts to race and pound like a badly played set of bongos.

So what does Bob do?

Does he phone for an ambulance and go straight to the hospital?

No, he goes upstairs for a bit of a lie down to see if it’ll pass. It doesn’t, so Bob decides to see how things are in the morning after a good night’s sleep. No real change but Bob is still busy and has things to do, as long as he takes it steady things will probably be ok.

The following night Bob sticks to his routine and goes training, despite a resting heart rate of between 120-140bpm (difficult to be more precise as it was fluctuating too wildly to get an accurate reading 🙂 ), He has an hour’s line work and kata followed by an hour of pretty intense partner impact work, he does at least make the concession of sitting down for a couple of minutes between the sessions.

Bob continues in this vein, teaching, training and working for nearly another 2 weeks before it finally occurs to him that this isn’t going away and goes to the Doctors.

The Doctor has a real paddy and is in two minds whether to have Bob admitted to hospital straight away or to medicate and wait for the results of the tests, she tells him “you can go home and take things (very) easy as, if it hasn’t killed you yet, we can probably wait until Monday for the results BUT at the first sign of anything changing get straight to the hospital!”

When Bob gets to see the consultant to discuss the results of his tests the consultant seems incredulous that at no time during this period has Bob suffered a loss of consciousness (enough to have asked the same question at least 3 times 🙂 ) and is functional at all.

The upshot is that if Bob had immediately called for help the emergency treatment would probably have fixed the problem then and there but as he hadn’t there were now all sorts of ramifications from the possible effects of letting to issue run.

Because of the delay it is possible that blood clots may have formed in the heart and when it is shocked they may get into the system and cause a stroke. This is a “relatively low” risk after sufficient medication (so low in fact that if you miss just one tablet in the 4 week period ahead of the procedure they have to cancel it and start the whole cycle again 🙂 )

So, whilst the problem is probably fixable (80%) Bob is now living on a raft of medication to avoid the clotting risk, to bring down the heart rate enough to minimise further ongoing damage to the heart, to reduce the blood pressure so the heart is under less stress, and a diuretic to stop him drowning on his own body fluids (oh, btw, apart from the blood clot/stroke risk situation it now turns out that “some of the other drugs can lead to kidney failure”, so more tests for that).

The point of this long drawn out tale?

There are two really, the first is the one that we constantly need to remind men of in particular, don’t take your health for granted and get help when you need it!

The second is general but does apply as well to self-protection as anything else in life

Every decision we take in life has consequences which we may not see at the time and picking the wrong strategy up front can lead to a cascade of increasing detriment.

There is nothing wrong with picking the lowest risk strategy as your first port of call in any situation.

There is nothing to be proved by or gained from picking the higher risk strategy based of a level of (perhaps over) confidence due to training, ego and self-belief.

Training and self-belief are major benefits of martial arts training and I am all for them, however, them becoming your first port of call in a genuine situation can have unknown, ongoing and possibly major life threatening consequences and, whilst tempting (and perhaps more satisfying 🙂 ), would very much be the foolish choice if a low risk, easy access exit strategy exists.

There are no actions without consequences so why not minimise the risks?

You may end up with a better story than “There was a problem but it go fixed” or “A guy wanted to fight so I left” but you may end up with a story you really don’t want or even no story at all.

Just sayin’ 🙂

It’s all Bananas

(Not an original tale)

So, by way of a behavioural experiment, scientist place 6 monkeys in a large cage, in the centre of the cage is a step ladder and suspended over to top of the ladder is a banana. Obviously one of the monkeys goes for the banana. As soon as he reaches for it all the monkeys in the cage get hosed with ice cold water. This routine continues until all the monkeys get the idea that the banana is out of bounds and none of them go for it.

At this point one on the monkeys is removed from the group and a new monkey is added in its place.

This monkey is unaware of what has gone before so goes for the banana.

It is immediately set upon by the other monkeys who have no wish to be hosed and, although the new monkey doesn’t know why, he quickly gets to understand the banana is out of bounds and learns to comply with the group.

Another of the original monkeys is removed and replaced with a new monkey and of course he goes for the banana. He is immediately set upon by the group, including the previous new monkey who, while he doesn’t know why, knows that there must be a reason for the rest of the group to behave this way so he joins in.

This cycle continues one by one until all the original monkeys have been replaced.

Whilst the behaviour is now fully ingrained and any monkey joining the group learns to comply with the groups actions, not one of the monkeys in the group has any knowledge or understanding of why they do what they do, just that it has become their “tradition” or “way” and it has been passed down “unaltered for generations” from the old ones who knew better and must never be questioned.”…

Sorry, I seem to have drifted again and got confused as the last paragraph is starting to sound like an entirely different (and obviously unrelated 🙂 ) story. That can happen when you get to my age.

Although it may sound familiar to some of the rest of you as well 🙂

It’s All about Me!

Putting the “self” into self-defence

Before I start I will own up that Andi Kidd already covers pretty much the same thing in his book “From Shotokan to the Street” (well worth a read if you haven’t done so btw). The difference being Andi gets you to question your own reasons whereas (as the title would suggest) this is just really about what I think. It is my blog at the end of the day 🙂

I have had some health issues recently that have caused me to sit back and spend some time evaluating my priorities in life and this covers the reasons for what and why I train as a part of that.

For those of us who have trained for many years (or decades in some cases) it is all too easy to forget why we are doing it, it is so much a part of who we are that we never step back and think about the why, it is just “what we do”.

My normal class is very much about the practical side of karate but is still very much a karate class, not just a fighting skills class, it is geared around how we attached valid meaning to karate techniques and apply them in a realistic and effective manner. Surprisingly (although probably not to everyone) I don’t really think of this as a “self-defence” class.

The skills are undoubtedly very useful if it should all kick off but they are the skills of last resort whereas the bulk of any self-defence class should be about risk management, awareness, avoidance, de-escalation, legal ramifications, post event verbalisation etc. All the “soft skills” that make up the bulk of self-defence and make the having to resort to physical violence to resolve a situation far less likely, which (despite what “self-defence” marketing posters would have you believe) is the last thing any of us really want to happen, nobody really “wins” a fight!

We do discuss these skills when the situation is appropriate and occasionally practice our post technique escapes but nowhere near enough for this to be considered a true holistic self-defence approach. Talking about these skills is all very well but, exactly as the physical skills, unless you actually practice and polish them on a regular basis they will not be there when you need them.

Saying, yes I understand the concept (so that’s enough) makes as much sense as saying “although we didn’t actually train it we spent half an hour talking about gyaku tsuki tonight so I’m confident I could make it work under pressure”, nobody in any training situation would believe that to be true so why would it be for the other skills?

I also run a specific Women’s self-defence group and the balance of training there is very different in deed and although physical skills are still a large part of it (nobody would come if they didn’t learn a few “tricks” each time), it is much more about providing information, building confidence, becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, finding what your limits are and moving past them, making personal choices about what is (and isn’t) worth fighting for, and being able to read a situation well enough to understand that that isn’t always going to be a constant.

It may be a bit of a cop out (and occasionally an obvious disappointment) but I never give absolute answers as they don’t exist and I won’t be there to evaluate a situation for you, (as if I’m an expert on these things anyway!) I just hopefully give you enough that you can take you “best guess” at any time. Obviously a good set of easy to apply (low skill, high value) well trained physical responses is an important part but it is very much a tool rather than an end in itself.

The prime example of obvious disappointment for me came in one lady’s first ever class where the question was simply “can technique overcome strength?” It was quite obvious that the answer was supposed to be “Yes!” but it wasn’t the answer I gave. I can’t just give a glib answer to what is a complex question (of course, that may also just be because I’m so fond of the sound of my own voice 🙂 ) so the answer went along the lines of:

“The answer is both yes and no (or maybe). It depends so much on the situation, if you look at the difference in strength between the average man and woman then you are typically going to be at a massive disadvantage. What training and good technique will give you is some percentage chance of evening of the odds. On a good day with everything in you favour it may tip the balance for you, it may give you the confidence to not be picked as a victim in the first place, at the very least it will improve your odds, but realistically you never want to be in a one on one fist fight with a man, it would be a very bad place to be (as it would for me or anybody else)”

“Yes” may have been a lot snappier but I am pleased to say she is still training with me 🙂

Unusually for me, I seem to have strayed off the topic for why I train the way I do and probably need to put the “self” in self-defence into context for me personally. For me the physical side of my training has always been about a personal interest in the “technology of violence” rather than a burning desire to be able to defend myself. It is both interesting and fun (when done as “play” fighting)

I am just fascinated by the subject itself. I live in a relatively safe area, I have long passed the 18-25 year old demographic where I would have been mostly at risk (and even in those days the “don’t be a dick” principle stood me in better stead that some good “scrapping” skills would have).

I am a 6’ 3” 220lb man in reasonable shape (or at least until recently 🙂 ) and not lacking in self-confidence and the skills to back that up so I have never really been an obvious target. As I pass 60 very soon and start to become “old and frail” I will start to move into another demographic and that situation may change again so it’s something to be conscious of, time passes and we can tend to miss the changes that happen around us.

However, what has been made plain to me recently is that the “self” in self-protection is about a lot more than a set of physical skills and an awareness of how to avoid confrontation (this is just the part we all see as “self-defence”).

It is all very well to train for “the street” and be ready should the worst ever happen but it really means very little if you don’t take a holistic approach to your life, understand what is important to you, which includes your health and well- being (both physical and mental) and of those around you.

You need to protect yourself in all aspects of your life otherwise training for hours a week in just one aspect can become pointless overnight. So personally, I need to expand my view of self-protection to encompass the entirety of my life rather than compartmentalising it as a thing in itself.

Certainly I need to expand the “awareness” side of my self-protection skills to include what’s happening within my own body and practice (and respond to 🙂 ) those skills.

Hindsight is an exact science and, as I say to my students, take the time to sit down with a nice cup of tea and think these thing through before you find yourself in a situation, make those decisions in advance so you don’t have to do it under stress and then make bad choices.

Time to practice what I preach, (and anyway, the kettle has just boiled apparently 🙂 )

Too Rough?

This is an interesting one (or to me at least) on how much contact in training is too much contact and what is appropriate for general martial arts training.

This question is on my mind on the back of some feedback I’ve heard from some recent events where people new to this type of training are under the impression some of the instructors take things “a bit too far”.

I think this is probably a forgivable misunderstanding if you haven’t experienced this sort of training before as it’s easy to miss read what is going on. Yes, the instructors in question train at the top end of what is acceptable (within my personal definition obviously, but then I am a bit of a wimp) but still within acceptable bounds.

This can look a lot worse than it actually is in part because an experienced Uke knows how to “play the game” and will react as if the contact had been full power and there are good reasons to do this if your training is going to be realistic (and it’s not just play acting to make the instructor look good! 🙂 )

There is, and probably always will be, a big divide on what is appropriate contact for martial arts training.

The first big issue being of course, what constitutes “martial arts” training?

There is a massive divide within the martial arts community itself on this question and the development of practical and realistic fighting skills seems very low on some lists or even non-existent in some places where they see “martial arts” as a personal development tool only rather than any form of pragmatic skill set (although strangely you will still very often see “and learn to defend yourself” in the marketing material for these types of club 🙂 ).

I’m not going to go into which of the modern or traditional styles is best and most realistic (basically because most of the arguments made on the topic are total horse sh*t anyway as it’s never been about WHAT you train but HOW you train it).

Obviously if you are teaching “martial arts” to 4 – 9 year olds then there is no such thing as appropriate contact and we can hopefully agree that what you are teaching is nothing about martial content but all about the many other perceived benefits of children’s training.

What I am really concerned with is adult training in martial arts and this really comes down to the honesty about what you are doing in any given group. If your target is to take part in a sporting activity then there are clearly defined rules and you should never really need to work outside of them so not really an issue. If you are taking up martial arts as a fun and cool fitness activity and just want to make the shapes and put on the gloves for occasional dojo sparing then again, the subject of appropriate contact will probably never become an issue because, baring accidental contact, it will never be part of your training regime.

Having said all the above, pretty well all the real injuries I’ve ever received (and it is an extensive list) have been during sporting/dojo play fighting activity, (and yes, all the ones I’ve given as well).

None of the above is any real problem at all until you add the words “and learn to defend yourself” into the mix. As soon as you do that then the whole game changes, big time.

Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that to learn self-defence (more accurately self-protection) you need to constantly be trying to beat the living daylights out of each other. Everyone needs to make it through the session safely as we all have lives to lead in the real world. However, if you purport to teach self-protection but none of your students has a real understanding of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a genuine impact technique then there is probably a big shortfall in your teaching.

It is perfectly possible to learn much of the technical side of applied karate (or whatever your chosen vehicle is) without ever really being hit but your understanding of what will actually happen in a real conflict will be, dare I say, virtually non-existent. Now that is quite a strong statement (although probably one the “walked the walk” brigade will agree with 🙂 ) Understanding the theory is not the same as actual experience. I’m not suggesting that anybody deliberately put themselves at risk but it is possible to build at least a measure of understanding via a gradual controlled acclimatisation process.

I will re-tell a story from my sporting days that I have told many times before but it does illustrate a point. I was in a competition bout shortly after having taken my Shodan against a 1st kyu guy from the same group who was just on the final run up to his. It was typical dojo tag style point fighting, anyhow, we squared off and after a bit of to and fro I saw an opening and landed a nice clean gyaku-tsuki to his sternum. Nothing excessive, just normal (or light by my current standards 🙂 ) dojo contact, enough to make a nice slapping noise but no real penetration. Much to my surprise the guy just froze, completely shut down on the spot. It took him what seemed like an age to gather himself (although probably only 5-10 seconds). Anyhow, we finished the bout with me taking it very easy and he came up to me afterwards to say “he had no idea what happened” but that “nobody had ever hit him before!” Bear in mind that this guy had been training for probably 4 years and was only 6 weeks away from Black belt (I think he was Nidan by the time I left and I don’t suppose anyone ever hit him again after either).

The point being is that all the training in the world is next to useless to you without context and at least some level of understanding of what is going to happen to your body if somebody hits it. This doesn’t have to be a knock-out punch to the head or even anything drastic by way of an injurious body shot, a simple pulled “slap shot” can just shut you down on the spot if you’ve never experienced contact before (and please, nobody try and tell me “but we train so that you never get hit” 😉 )

Learning to hit hard can be done with pads, heavy bag etc.. And is a good tool for physical development of these skills but I have still found people with good striking skills who just don’t have the mind set to hit another human being. You need to be able to overcome this if your skills are ever going to be any use to you but it needs to be approached safely and in a controlled manner, and this typically takes time to build.

I personally also feel that it is probably as important to be on the receiving end of impact on an occasional basis. I am not going to go into details of the drills I use for this, not because it’s any big secret but because it is something that shouldn’t be approached without experienced supervision in my opinion. There is a lot to be learned from impact, both in understand what it actually feels like, to overcome the fear of it and then learning to ride it and minimising the effects. It is also very useful to be on the receiving end occasionally just to understand how damaging your own technique can be when delivered effectively, both to develop a level of confidence in what can seem like really simple techniques but also to understand what you can do to another human body, and this may well inform the choices you make in the event of an actual confrontation (a very important point to understand).

That’s probably more than enough for one ramble (the subject really is a chapter rather than a blog post but hopefully you get the idea 🙂 )

The “Big Karate Picture Book”

We had a discussion in my Dojo the other week about the error of thinking of Karate technique as a set of snap shot pictures strung together and I noticed on Facebook today that someone else used a similar analogy to “just looking at the pictures” and trying to understand the intention.

The point we were both making is not exactly the same but the fundamental idea is, I believe.

If we accept the premise that Kata is a collection or catalogue of Karate techniques (and I understand that how you may use those techniques is open to a myriad of interpretations) and then look at any classic karate Kata text book it is quite understandable why students struggle to understand even the most basic of lessons contained within kata, or even the proper function of any given technique at all.

From the point of view of the style of karate I teach the classic techniques of karate as they are typically transmitted in “snap shot” form are actually not techniques at all and are virtually useless in any sort of genuine application. A style of karate has grown up around these snap shot techniques and is very widely accepted but only because a series of artificial concepts have grown up with them in order to justify the terminology and to give an appearance of functionality where none really exists.

That is not to say there is no value in practicing these techniques and the body mechanics they impart, you just need to understand what it is they are trying to teach you and that they are a means to an end and not the end in themselves.

To clarify, what I mean by “snap shot” technique is what you will see in virtually any classic text book on karate basics and kata. For a pictorial representation of a kata you will usually get a series of still poses showing one “technique” after another along with a representation (or map) of the embusen. If you are very lucky you will get a picture of the preparatory movement as well (but more often not).

Now obviously, there are limitations to what you can achieve on the printed page so it’s easy to see why this happens. This is not a modern problem, even in pre photography days the illustrations were still only of the snap shot variety and taken out of a direct learning context are fairly meaningless (or at least open to multiple interpretations).

The problem that I see on the back of this however (and what I was trying to explain to my students) is that a lot of Karate is actually taught using the “snap shot mentality” of technique. That is to say that we approach technique as if the end posture, that “Kodak moment” (a reference for any really old readers 🙂 ), were actually the technique we are aiming for rather than something that just happens as the logical conclusion to performing a solo technique to its end, and that we need to overcome that limited way of thinking to understand technique fully.

What appears to have been lost in translation over the decades of classical karate training is that the technique is the bit that happens between the start and end posture of any movement (the dynamic movement from point to point) and that the end posture (the static pose), that bit so many try to perfect as their “technique”, is not and never has been the technique at all.

This is why many struggle with trying to come up with logical and meaningful bunkai for their kata as they are starting from the false premise that the “techniques” (the pauses between movements) are what they are trying to find meaning for rather than looking at the transitions between these snap shots which is where all the real karate takes place.

So, if you are looking for practical meaning in your karate and its techniques then you need to take a step away from the snap shot mentality and take the time to explore the spaces in between the pictures in the “Big Karate Picture Book”.

Lineage. Why it’s important (and why it’s not).

Talk to the average person on the street or early stage beginner in Karate (or other arts) about lineage and they probably won’t have a clue what you are talking about.

This is hardly surprising, as far as they are concerned Karate is Karate, they seldom even understand that there are different styles of karate let alone the various sub-sets and diverse lineages within any of those styles.

Some of us like to think they are important but that tends to creep in later in our training careers.

Lineage tends to be seen as a measure of legitimacy within a given style. If you can trace your path back to master “x” then you can be sure you are learning the “real thing” (whatever that may be) and not just something some guy made up himself.

There is also the chance to be “special by association”, nobody in the karate world may have heard of you (I certainly fall into that category 🙂 ) but they will almost certainly have heard of the person you trace your source back to and that seems to be a path to acceptance in the wider karate world.

Depending on your reasons for training this can be seemingly very important or on the other hand totally irrelevant.

Now, if I were to follow this route then I could legitimately claim to be only 3 steps away (4 if I include myself) from Funakoshi himself and, if you understand these things, that starts to sound like a true and impressive lineage back to the founder of the style. However, there are probably many hundreds of thousands of karate-ka (if not millions) who could make the same claim and their karate varies wildly in both style and interpretation.

We think of Funakoshi Gichin as the founder of the Shotokan style but the karate we practice is actually very little like his karate and is really based on the karate of Nakayama Masatoshi and then modified under the dozen or so group heads who went their own way after him, each with their own subtle (or in some cases not so subtle) variations on the original version of JKA style Shotokan. On the plus side it does move me one step closer to the source (on the down side, it does for everyone else as well 🙂 )

To my way of thinking (and I’ll admit this is just a personal viewpoint and not a statement of fact) if you are more than one step down the ladder in any given tree then the lineage rapidly becomes meaningless. You may inherit a common syllabus and a membership of a group that traces it’s path back to the head but at the end of the day your instruction is only as good as the instructor who stands in front of you day after day and week after week.

Whilst I have hung on to the understanding of the basics of karate as taught to me by my own instructor (with some modifications from outside sources) and the kata as they were originally taught to me, the karate I teach on a day to day basis bears little relation to the way I trained with my own first instructor.

There are others who followed the same route as myself who teach a virtual carbon copy (within their understanding) of his karate. We all have exactly the same lineage but our karate and our interpretation of what karate is are wildly different. I know many karate-ka from other lineages who are in exactly the same situation so at what stage does lineage cease to mean anything? (Other than as a badge of supposed legitimacy).

These days I tend to look at lineage as an indicator on whether someone has been involved in a style that does the groundwork on the fundamental principles of karate before moving on to whatever path they have chosen to follow but then judge that person solely on their own level of skill and understanding (as if my opinion matters anyway 🙂 ).

At the end of the day the only person who really matters in your lineage is the one who stands out in front of you every week, what they understand and how well they can pass it on to you. You succeed or fail in your training goals entirely on that basis. Being 4 steps from Funakoshi won’t help.

“Good” Bunkai

(as has been said many times before, for “Bunkai” read “Oyo” 🙂 )

Just a short one this time and may well cause a few raised eyebrows in my own circle.

This has come about on the back of a chapter I was currently involved in writing anyway and a FB advert that came up today for an upcoming Iain Abernethy seminar specifically on this subject (plus the imminent arrival of this years “Bunkai Bash” event in a few weeks).

So it’s just some random thoughts on what constitutes “good” bunkai.

Bear in mind that this is coming from someone who’s main focus is on teaching practical and functional techniques based on kata as a fundamental part of my syllabus and you may think some of my conclusions are quite at odds with that viewpoint.

The short version of my thinking on this is that good bunkai is ANY bunkai which adequately demonstrates the points and principles that you were aiming to demonstrate with it.

Does this mean that it needs to demonstrate realistic self-defence skills based on sound combative principles in order to be valid? Strangely enough in my view, no it does not. If (and it’s a big IF) that is not what you were intending to achieve with it.

If you intention was to provide a set of drills or applications to demonstrate the body mechanics and basics of classical karate (typically long range, multi attacker, one at a time scenarios with no definitive finishing move for each opponent before moving on to the next one) and you achieve this then it constitutes “good” bunkai for the purpose and reflects what you are training for.

Was this the original intent of kata, almost certainly not, but it has become a fundamental part of modern karate as an “art” or “way” and as such is valid for that purpose.

Likewise, if your aim is to work practical and realistic skills and your bunkai reflect the kata, contain no “fluff”, are based on sound principles and lead to a logical conclusion then they are probably “good” bunkai in the context of what you were trying to achieve.

There is however that grey area in between, you can do all the same bunkai as the first group above but call it “self-defence” and it will immediately become “bad” bunkai simply by changing the context (choreography is not self-defence, not matter what Hollywood would have you believe).

There are worse “grey bunkai” out there than that of course. You can spend many a happy hour on You Tube (or similar) looking at videos of terrible bunkai that are neither one thing nor the other. They purport to be “practical” whilst sticking to unrealistic ranges, unrealistic attacks and a dependency on things happening in the correct order to work. These are the genuine “nonsense karate” that many of us work against but they are popular because they look like highly skilled applications and are still “proper” karate.

So effectively it comes down to the context and intent as to whether your bunkai is “good” or not (only in my personal opinion, obviously).

Those of us in the pragmatic or applied side of karate often get hung up in the notion that as we train for practical skills that everybody else does (or in our opinion should be doing) the same. This however is not the case and there are a large number (possibly even the majority) of students who have no wish to either face or try and understand the realities of violent conflict and are actually pursuing a martial art for the sake of the art (and the physical disciplines that entails) itself.

I have long ago given up on the concept that I am everyone’s Dad and should be trying to lead them to the “true” way. People train for their own reasons and it’s their own responsibly to make sure that their training is fit for purpose. To paraphrase “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it think!”