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’ 🙂

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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!”

Respect, the tie that binds us or the stick that beats us?

This is a subject that has been much on my mind lately for a variety of reasons, some personal, some not so much. I have recently been accused (by a friend) of being a bit controversial on occasions and this well may be one of those occasions, this is not an intentional attempt to court controversy however and I understand that this is a (very) sensitive subject for some. Having said that, despite what some seem to think , I am as entitled to an opinion as any and so all I would say is that by reading further you are intentionally asking my opinion, it is based on my personal experiences and ongoing visibility of some parts of the larger karate world, take it as what it is.
Respect or should I say “Respect ™” (for reasons which will become obvious) is much touted as one of the main virtues of traditional karate (and I believe that same can still be said for most traditional arts).

Look at pretty much any advertising aimed at kids classes and you will see courtesy, discipline and respect touted as one of the main benefits of sending your child to partake in a martial art (although why these things are not being taught at home still mystifies me slightly). Be that as it may, participation in a martial art at a young age does tend to bring a number of benefits in attitude and behaviour, if the feedback I used to get from parents and teachers was anything to go by when I still ran children’s classes.

I have no issues with proper dojo etiquette for both children and adult classes, karate (if you follow what has become the “traditional” model) has become a very formal and formalised art and there is a culture that has become part of that tradition which is followed to a greater or lesser extent in pretty much all dojos. This can be a positive thing if it brings a feeling of belonging to something more than just a sporting activity or hobby (even if the reality is that it is actually nothing more than that for many participants). Part of that etiquette is the notion of respect. Respect to your sensei, respect to the seniors, respect to your peers and respect down the line. This is a very fine notion and one which I am all in favour of (and I labour that point specifically because of where I am heading with this particular article). The problem is that, in some places (and I do emphasise the “some”), respect has become a thing in itself rather than a feeling.

Rather than being something that is earned, offered and given freely it has become instead part of the dogma of modern karate and is demanded as a right, whether deserved or not. It may well be culturally appropriate if you are of Japanese origin, I cannot say, my understanding of actual Japanese culture is very superficial and all I have to go on is the mock culture transposed onto Western karate as if it were some sort of 14th century feudal system.

  • “Thou shall respect thy sensei and everything he says”
  • “Thou shall respect thy seniors”
  • “Thou shall respect anything attributed to the old masters”
  • “Thou shall respect any accepted “truth” of karate history” without question (despite how much of it is just made up)

Now, like most of the (slightly) strange things many people do in their karate training I have no issue with people playing at being the “new samurai” and considering themselves to be “warriors” for an hour or two a week if that’s what floats their boat (despite the fact that the “old samurai” had nothing to do with karate anyway and punching fresh air in a pair of white pyjamas doesn’t make you a warrior) and do the pretend stuff in dojo while dressed from the “dressing up box”, as long as everybody understands that is what it is.

Should you respect your sensei? Well hopefully yes, otherwise why are you training with him at all? However, should your sensei demand your unquestioning respect as a right? That is a different question entirely.

I am not going to go into the rights and wrongs of adopting the term “sensei” as if it were a conferred title (it isn’t and never has been but Westerners particularly seem to like the phrase “I am a Sensei” just to make themselves a little more special than anyone else).

As a word to use in dojo for your instructor, fine, we use Japanese terminology for everything else so why not that? On your business cards or Face Book profile you start to sound a little more pompous but if it is used in the context of communication with your students it may still be valid.

If you insist on being referred to as “Sensei” by students outside of the dojo, and the parents and family of students who don’t even train with you (and anybody else who has a tenuous link to you via your karate activities) then you should just stop it. It may be ok to treat 6 year olds as 6 years olds (although I have my doubts on that even) but when you are treating grown adults as 6 year olds then that’s too far. Please take your mock “lord of all” persona off with your Gi when you leave the dojo and go back to being just another bloke (because that’s all you are).

The truth is that in many dojos and organisations (both big and small) “Respect ™” has become nothing to do with actual earned respect (or mutual respect) but all to do with control and making sure that people “know their place” in the hierarchy.

I have seen it first hand and find it very sad that grown adults fall for the “Yoda principle” and assume that some bloke on minimum wage in the real world is a life coach on all things (karate related or not) because he happens to bet a bit better at punching and kicking stuff than the rest of us. This is a direct result of the “sensei knows all and must never be questioned” culture found in many dojos (and I do realise this does not mean ALL dojos but these guys are out there in numbers).

Now I don’t want to put anyone off sending their children to karate classes, there are a lot of positive benefits. They will behave better, they will have more focus, they will have more discipline and they will be physically more active and confident BUT be aware that they are not learning this in a culture of real mutual respect but in a culture where “Respect ™” is about knowing your place, “you will bow to me because I am better than you” “you will not question my truth (even if patently absurd) because I am better than you” “you will bow to my black belts and treat them with (almost) as much reverence as me because they are also better than you” “if you work hard and do not question you will rise to a place where others will have to bow and listen to you because you are now better than them”.

I’m not saying that as a system it doesn’t work, it obviously does and it achieves results (particularly with children) but it sounds a little less attractive when put in those terms. So if any of that makes you uneasy, then take the time to look around at the culture of any group you consider sending your children to, or even joining yourself.

So, as I’ve said previously on many subjects, if you are doing what you enjoy in a culture you enjoy and do so knowingly then more power to you but do take a step back occasionally and look at what you are doing with a critical eye, just so that you know.

Respect!

OSS!!

(sorry, couldn’t resist)

Spirit First, Technique Second!

A slight diversion from my on-going bunkai stuff but this came into my mind on the back of a recent training session.

It’s a very old karate cliché and you hear it said often by the traditionalist, not so much by the pragmatic crowd because many of us have distanced ourselves from the clichés of the past tradition in order to differentiate the focus of our training, which is about effectiveness rather than self-improvement after all.

The problem is that there is still a lot of truth in these old clichés (as there is with most) and we need to examine how they really apply to the way we (the “applied” karate-ka) train and teach our students.

From our point of view “spirit” doesn’t mean marching in line until you drop or ki-ai-ing louder than anyone else (tongue in cheek, I’m aware that it doesn’t for a lot of traditionalists either, but we are discussing clichés), but the idea is very relevant, dare I say, even fundamental to what we do.

There has always been an issue in modern karate of any flavour that learning a martial art is somehow “magic”, if you know the right techniques (and practice them enough) then when you need them they will come and all will be right with the world. There is as much of a measure of this in modern applied karate as there is in traditional as our sort of training is becoming more mainstream but modified so as not to scare off potential students.

There are a lot more people now training at realistic ranges, hitting pads, doing partner based drills etc… which is all a good thing, however there is still an expectation from this that your knowing a technique to deal with a certain situation makes you able to cope with that situation irrespective of the physics involved.

However, with the best will in the world this still comes under the heading of “charms to ward off evil” unless you really take the time to pressure test these techniques in unpredictable, messy and (within certain safety limits) full on power.

What will invariably happen in these circumstances is that techniques that you’ve practiced successfully over and again with a partner will start to fail under pressure and the random chaos that more accurately reflects a real situation (and it is still only play fighting, so if you can’t make stuff work here…).

If you partner is now no longer playing the drill game but just coming on until your technique would have stopped them (you still have to “play the game” to a certain extent or people will get seriously hurt) and your technique fails to stop them because they are no longer being nice then you need to start to understand why.

First and foremost we need to acknowledge that there is no magic in technique, it will not work for you just because you made the right shape. All you are training with technique is efficient use of the resources you have (your own body), understanding the potential weaknesses in your opponent and modifying the odds of your surviving a confrontation to be slightly more in your favour.

This is where we come back to the question of “spirit first”. Once you start to really pressure test a technique you will quickly find a student with mediocre technique but full commitment (what we used to call “heart”) will fare far better than a student with good technique but no commitment.

Now you have to be careful when pressure testing techniques with students as for those who (may currently) lack the “heart” they can very quickly become disillusioned with their training (and they are typically the ones who need it the most) so you have to walk the line between reality and building (and rebuilding) their confidence until they develop a level self-sufficiency (I think a large part of this is still about being honest and setting a level of expectation up front).

So, “spirit” is not just about shouting loudly and sweating a lot, spirit is actually a large part of the cycle of training and something we as instructors should actively be trying to consciously develop through specific exercises in confidence building, pressure testing, showing what works and (more importantly) knowing what to do when it doesn’t (just shouting “more spirit” at students doesn’t cut it in my book).

Whilst I acknowledge the ideal is both spirit and technique and that’s what we should be working towards if the sh*t ever hits the fan for a student in the real world then “spirit” will be what sees them through, effective technique is just the vehicle to carry it so I’m perfectly happy to stick with “Spirit first, technique second!”

Bunkai – Change the range

I made a bold boast a while back in my “Learn Bunkai” post about each of the topics I quoted being worthy of a post in themselves.

In reality this is probably not true as each of the subjects is so inter-related with the others that you can’t really split them out, but if you were to try and cover everything in one shot it would require a whole book to do it justice and there are better writers (and more experienced karate-ka) than me already offering that.

Having said that I’m going to take a stab at it anyway, just because I said I would.

“The first, easiest and most fundamental idea is “change the range”, genuine confrontation takes place at a far shorter range than conventional karate so don’t try and work applications from karate range with karate techniques.”

The problem of trying to get into kata bunkai work whilst sticking to the traditional karate ranges used in Gohon, Sanbon and Kihon Ippon kumites and the conventional explanations of what the meanings of the techniques are is that it very quickly becomes apparent that they make absolutely no sense (in a self-defence context) within a kata worked with a partner.

Just as a short example, a very commonly seen “classical” bunkai from kata will be the turning 180 degrees on the back foot to block a Mae geri with a gedan barai (as seen in move 3 in Heian Shodan, and many other places). It looks very nice in a choreographed demonstration but even the least critical mind would spot that if you just stood in place the kick you are blocking would in fact fall 4 to 5 feet short of the target (in fact, in a self-defence context you would actually be at far less risk by doing nothing at all)

So the first step is to do some research on to what is typically known as habitual acts of violence (or variations on the term), a quick google search will give you a short list of the most typical acts of violence that most of us (outside of law enforcement or the armed forces) are likely to encounter. If the list is much more than a dozen items long the chances are that you are entering the realms of the made up (and if it includes rear bear hugs then you definitely are).

I will insert one caveat here (as being as good a place as any) that I am talking about bunkai as a tool for self-defence against common attacks, I am not talking about the “just step outside” one on one duel in the carpark where two protagonists square off against each other to prove who’s best, or defend their honour (or any of the other B.S. reasons typically used for fighting).

Once you have an idea of the sort of attacks you are likely to face you can start to evaluate the ranges you and your partner will need to work at.

There will be a couple of long(ish) range attacks (e.g. a shove to the chest immediately followed by a punch to the head) but even these will not be at “karate range” as the attacker is already within touching distance and the range will close very quickly indeed from the initial contact. Most attacks will be initiated from medium to close range, they will not be single attacks and they will not be done to a count.

My experience has been that it’s very difficult to get karate-ka with many years of training to be comfortable with training at very close range (it’s very often easier with beginners who have no pre-conceptions) as they always want to leave themselves room to move, this seems to be true even with styles that train at a closer range than the Shotokan base I come from. You will need to get used to this.

Whilst there are situations in which you will need to open a space to make room for a technique to work or to make a strike or to make an escape (important idea to hold on to), most fundamental work on bunkai (at least using the approach I prefer) is to be close enough to control your opponents centre, balance and structure, if you can disrupt any or all of these (which are just aspects of the same thing) whilst keeping control of your own then you are in (some) control of the situation and will have options. You cannot typically do this at arm’s length where you are relying on muscle power over long levers. Again, this is a generalisation (there are always exceptions) but is predominantly true.

Once you start working at this range using the HOAV attacks you will find a lot of you uncertainties of the effectiveness of “bunkai style karate” will resolve themselves.

It may be unpopular amongst bunkai practitioners to say this but this is not “proof” that our way is right and everybody else’s way is wrong but just that this approach will work better for you IF self-defence against common attacks is the main aim of your karate training, not everybody’s is and there is nothing wrong with that (as long as they understand the difference).

Next time “Bunkai – Don’t be looking for technique”