John Titchen's Blog
Environmental awareness is a crucial attribute in self protection.
The majority of self protection lies in the assessment, avoidance, deterrence, and de-escalation of aggression and situations where conflict is likely, but regrettably this is not always possible.
Training your physical skills against habitual acts of violence increases your understanding and recognition of their telegraphs, an attribute that can increase the likelihood of reacting in time to a physical attack. Scenario training can increase your comfort in dealing with verbal aggression and increase your ability to identify the behavioural precursors to a physical attack.
Unfortunately we can often miss these indicators due to our focus on trying to resolve the situation peacefully. Our brains can become overloaded by the tasks of watching the person in front of us, trying to hear what he/she is saying, trying to think about whether to talk or hit or run, wondering what our friends will do, or what our partner or children will do, working out what to say and watching other people etc… This means that despite our knowledge of the telegraphs – we often miss them.
In this video students and instructors from a range of different styles get caught off guard and hit by role playing aggressors. I hope the footage proves useful to you in your own training.
Your instructor’s class isn’t designed to improve your skills.
That can’t be right surely? Your instructor’s aim is to help you improve.
Yes and no.
In theory your instructor’s aim is to help you improve, but he’s also trying to do that for all the other students in the class, and their needs aren’t going to be the same as yours. As a result every instructor makes compromises. Every time they try and help one specific person, other people aren’t going to be training what they need the most. So training with your instructor will help improve your skills, but not as fast as if you also work on them alone.
You can’t drill your technique enough in class.
Most people who’ve trained for any amount of time with a good instructor will have memories of one of those classes where you did one technique over and over for 60 – 90 minutes, so surely this can’t be right. You drilled that technique for a long time. You got lots of practice. So surely what I’ve just said is wrong?
Yes and No.
Lots of repetition of a technique is good and performance enhancing. Lots of repetition of a technique for a sustained period of time however can lead to fatigue which means adaptation (or sloppiness) and can create poor technique. As an instructor I still do long classes where I focus on one technique, but I try not to do them in such a way (ie different speeds and intensities and/or thin air/partner/pads) that the technique itself deteriorates. For all the time a student is drilling that one technique the instructor has chosen they’re not drilling others, which takes us back to the original statement. If the class is working a technique in which you have an average to good ability and not addressing one in which you are poor, you need to train alone to make up for that.
Your instructor’s class is too fast.
In a lot of classes techniques are drilled at a steady medium speed pace, but as I explain here, that isn’t necessarily the best approach – it’s a compromise to enable the whole class to cover as much as possible in the time available. When training alone you don’t have to compromise this way, you can set best the pace to achieve your goals.
Your instructor’s class is too slow.
See link above.
There’s too much impact in class.
Impact is good. But it isn’t always what you need. Sometimes you have to step away from the pads and look at your biomechanics, work through the movement at varying speeds and make adjustments. If there isn’t enough impact in class then by contrast you need training time elsewhere against a bag to develop those skills.
There’s too much paired work in class.
I’m a great fan of paired work and in fact there’s very little time in my own classes outside the warm up and warm down where students aren’t paired up or working in groups. Pairing people in martial arts training is logical, we’re not practicing something that is designed to be used against thin air (except you martial artists in certain styles, you know who you are).
Once you are paired up to a large extent you are playing someone else’s game: even when you are dominating the situation, it is the other person’s position that dictates the fine detail of your timing and position. Training at home alone allows you to break down movements and refine them so that when you next do them paired your performance is improved.
Training alone is not a replacement for training with other people, but it is one of the best ways to ensure steady improvement. It doesn’t have to be for a long period of time, it doesn’t have to make you sweat, but it will make you a better martial artist. So the next time you put that kettle on, wait for that toast to cook, or just have a few minutes to spare, why not work something slowly on the spot?
Those of you that have ever moved house and had to find a new place to train, or advised newcomers to the martial arts on a forum, will be familiar with the need to ‘find somewhere good to train’. What is often interesting, particularly when reading threads on forums, is finding out how other people believe you can judge a good club.
There are naturally many different factors that make a martial arts class good or not, no matter what style is practiced. One aspect that springs to mind is the value often placed on the intensity of the training experience in a class. The speed at which students drill within class, and the physical demands placed upon them by this, might seem to be an integral factor to the intensity and quality of training. However the implications for each student’s development through the variations that can be made in training speed are so fundamental that they are rarely given even a moment’s thought.
No matter how long we train, whichever way we turn, the roots of our progress lie in our attention to basic principles, and the level of our understanding as to why we train in the manner we do.
Static Training – Non moving Visualization
Recreates the feel of a movement
Allows injury recovery with reduced performance deterioration
Time and location efficiency (can be done anywhere, any time)
No aerobic/anaerobic benefit
No strength benefit
Limited value for techniques that rely on tactile feel unless practitioner is extremely advanced
Does not work/test timing or reactions.
How slow can you train? Static visualization is not necessarily a training method associated with being in class, and yet is an extremely valuable method of improving performance. Muscle memory is a myth, your memory is the result of electrical patterns in the brain – and your brain creates and stores those patterns from the information it receives from the body. The brain does not distinguish between visualized actions and actual actions, thus mentally rehearsing a drill can strengthen the neural patterns in much the same way as actual physical practice. One of the greatest advantages of this form of training is that mental rehearsal allows the ‘perfect’ reproduction of a movement. Watching another person performing when you know the movement they are doing triggers the same patterns in the brain as actually doing the training. This is one reason why coaches should encourage injured students to watch lessons for free since it reinforces their existing skill level while making it less likely they will quit (because they are still reminded of what they are missing and remain immersed in the social scene of training). The greatest disadvantage to visualized training for beginners is not the lack of aerobic/anaerobic load, but its reliance on prior proficiency in the trained skill set.
Slow Speed Training
Ensures skilled technique
Can be used as a strength, balance and flexibility workout
Can be used as part of an injury recovery workout
Limited value for increasing aerobic and aerobic fitness
Limited value for training timing and reaction speed.
Slow speed training allows trainees to focus on ‘getting the movement right’. There is a common saying ‘practice makes perfect’, but as American Football Coach Vince Lombardi observed, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” Training in slow motion allows trainees to perfect the biomechanical movement aspect of a technique, failure to train in this manner will result in far greater time being taken to achieve an equivalent skill level – if it is ever reached at all.
One of the great advantages of slow training is the degree of precision and control it allows over movement. This is of particular importance for trainees recovering from injury since it allows a technique, strength, balance and flexibility workout while lowering the risk of aggravating the existing problem.
The disadvantages of slow training are obvious and important. While slow training can assist in the identification of the minute telegraphs that give away techniques, it does not test the ensuing reaction speed, or work the timing of how early or late to respond to an attack so that the other person cannot recommit. While you will burn calories during slow training, you will not work your aerobic or anaerobic capacity due to the lack of pressure involved – a disadvantage if you are training for an event where greater efficiency in this regard is essential. Slow training can be used to perfect technique, and in some respects may be the most beneficial (and safest) way for new students to train, but can be very boring for inexperienced trainees and put them off attending class.
Medium Speed Training
Training can be sustained for long periods
Good for the development of aerobic fitness
Good for maintaining interest.
Training can lack psychological pressure
Sustained practice at this level reduces the opportunity to develop refinement in the execution of techniques
Can reinforce bad technique and hamper skill development.
Medium speed training is the half way house. Good for many things, bad for many things, excellent at nothing and terrible at nothing.
By training at a medium speed students are able to keep going for a long time, thus gaining an aerobic workout. The pace allows a coach to get the students rehearsing a broad range of techniques or combinations throughout the class, thus reinforcing a large number of neural pathways and stopping the students from becoming bored. In terms of keeping students training (ie preventing them from quitting) this is very beneficial because from the perspective of the average martial arts student, it ticks a large number of the boxes that match their expectations in training. For the instructor it seems beneficial because training at this pace allows the class to cover the majority of the techniques they may need to know for their grading syllabus, thus the class can practice and the instructor can assess.
The downside of this method of training is that as students tend to focus on speed more than precision, if the movement is not already ingrained precisely, the technique performed will be sloppy. Faults in performance will naturally increase as a student begins to tire. If this forms the majority of training then what is being rehearsed and drilled into the neural pathways over and over again is likely to be incorrect technique. Since the speed is not quite full tilt, the benefit of training for things such as timing is reduced. The greater risk of performing sloppy technique due to fatigue increases the risk of injury.
High Speed Training
Only real test of practicable ability
Develops anaerobic fitness
Excellent for developing reaction speed
Develops distancing and timing appropriate for the activity being trained
Places students under psychological stress.
Over use will reinforce poor technique
Generally does not allow for refinement as fine motor skills will be inaccessible if placed under real pressure
Can only be sustained for short periods of time.
Full Speed training – the holy grail. Whether you are training for the competitive arena, or for self defence, the ability to execute techniques with precision at full speed under pressure is surely one of the most important aims of any trainee.
There are many advantages of training this way, both psychological and physical.
Training at full speed, whether with or without any form of protection, brings with it the danger of being hit – and the natural fear in many people of pain. This in turn puts an element of pressure in the performance that cannot be matched in training at any other speed (unless students are engaged in static drills where they have to be hit). Successful execution of techniques under the conditions of high speed training builds real confidence appropriate to the arena being trained.
In physical terms, only high speed training can assess the accuracy of students’ abilities in reading body movements and spotting the telegraphs of techniques in time for threat avoidance, and put their reaction time and speed of movement to a real test – whether in attack or defence.
The disadvantages of high speed training are ultimately linked to the limitations of human performance and the nature of the training regime. A student cannot work at high speed all the time as they will quickly fatigue. Real high speed training is the equivalent of a 100m sprint, something that can only be sustained for seconds rather than minutes. The obvious answer is to intersperse high speed training with training at other speeds, but there is another issue with working at high speed – technique. When a person moves fast and are under pressure, they tend to make mistakes – a posture that is not quite optimal, over-extension, greater telegraphing, not enough torso or hip rotation to give a technique as much power as it could have. How well a person performs under pressure is dependant upon a number of factors, but two very simple ones are:
1. How familiar they are with working under pressure.
2. How good and ingrained is their existing technique.
Repeatedly working under pressure will address factor number one, but spending too much time working under pressure can be exceptionally detrimental to factor number two, since the more you rehearse a technique sub optimally – the more likely you are to perform that way consistently. As was said earlier “practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”
On the face of it the speed of training may determine the visible intensity of training, but in actual fact is often a false indicator of the quality of training. Consistently fast and hard does not necessarily mean good, and slow training while less visually impressive may be both technically and physically demanding. Too much of any type of training has the potential to be detrimental. Ideally training should be balanced, with different emphases on different speeds according to the health and level of the student, but it would be helpful for both students and coaches to know what precisely they are aiming to achieve with each training method when they do employ it.
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.
Whoever came up with that particular saying might be shocked by how false it seems in the modern world. I’m sure that every coach / instructor / teacher or businessman/woman reading that phrase is only too aware of how damaging words can be. In theory reputations can be salvaged through litigation, but a word once uttered flies away beyond recall.
My opening phrase is not about litigation though. It is the adage that verbal abuse cannot harm compared with physical abuse. In this day and age of psychological study we can see the fiction in this as well as the truth, and those that work in any form of education or group workplace are keenly aware that verbal bulling can be as great a problem as physical bulling. What may remain a closed book to a number of martial arts instructors is that suffering verbal abuse can lead to an increased risk of physical harm.
I’m not talking about psychological trauma and self-harming here, but the damage that verbal abuse can do to our immediate physical state in a self defence situation. I train my students to make appropriate physical responses to physical attacks. I also teach my students pre-emptive striking techniques based upon their assessment of the probability of violence – in other words if they are unable to make a retreat and sense that their attempts to verbally de-escalate the situation are failing, and it is their honest belief that they are about to be hit, I train them to hit first. In this approach I may fall into a smaller group of instructors. In addition to this (where my surroundings permit) I have my students verbally abuse one another in role play simulations prior to the physical drill – and here I imagine I fall into a tiny minority.
So, why add in a verbal element to physical practise? This comes down to your training rationale. If you are training in a martial art for the love of the competitive element involved, then you would naturally spend the majority of your time learning to fight or perform within the rule set of your chosen competition – drilling and sparring in the attacks, defences and tactics used there. If however you are training in your chosen art for the purpose of self defence you should want to spend your time drilling and defending against habitual acts of violence (haov). That is a logical step to take. But a large proportion of violent incidents do not start with a push, a haymaker, a grab or a headbutt – they start with a verbal attack in the form of an argument, a misinterpreted glance or jostle, a torrent of unwarranted abuse, a demand or a con tactic.
As an example I used to do a drill where a person was pinned against a wall by their throat and threatened by and attacker’s fist. Students quickly became able to break out of this position using a combination of high and low movements. When the exercise speed was increased, and their attacker protected with body armour so as to take full physical contact, they continued to be able to do it. Then I had the attacker put their face only a hand’s length away from their ‘victim’ and shout “What the f*** are you f****** looking at, you f****** piece of s***. I’m going to f****** smash your f****** face in!” Suddenly the drill fell apart, the victim froze and the technique was executed after a delay and with less conviction – if at all. The impact of the verbal abuse reduced the ability of the target to access the gross motor skills they had previously been employing and left them vulnerable to physical attack.
Some people might note the over-use of the F word in the above phrase and I stress that the students chose their own language. We have become used to this and other words and probably use them ourselves under our breath or out loud, but rarely up close. We see and hear aggressive language in television drama and it doesn’t really affect us. Up close it is a different story. I suspect that the F word in particular is powerful up close because of the contortion it gives to the face, exposing the teeth in an unaccustomed way and shortening the nose. The combination of the volume of the shout and the primal (almost gorilla like) visual display gives it power and its aggressive use can sap confidence, awareness and conviction.
Gradually my students became accustomed to the verbal posturing. After they experienced it about five times on the trot they were back to about 50% effectiveness, a percentage that gradually increased with more exposure. But imagine what might happen to you if you never trained this scenario. What if you only did your techniques in a sterile environment? How certain are you that you would cope, that you wouldn’t ‘shut down’, that you would remain calm? The impact of words on our mental state should not be under-estimated.
What became clear from the performance of these drills was that although the majority of students had a low level of adrenaline running through their system during class, and had experienced high rushes of adrenaline in other activities, they were simply not prepared for the impact such intense verbal pressure had on their physiology. In this and in other drills many were caught out by the fact that their unconscious reaction was to step backwards and away from the noise, others by the difficulty they had trying to speak whilst their digestive system had temporarily shut down. As with normal physical drills, repeated exposure brought acceptance, confidence, and an increased ability to maintain dialogue – a key factor in trying to avoid conflict.
In the years since I have run many heavy contact scenario training days for my own students and for visiting trainees from a broad range of other systems. In these events it is not simply the contact and the use of haov that ‘de-skills’ the majority of first timers below their normal performance, it is the novelty of experiencing a personal verbal assault and the difficulty of making a decision under such pressure as to whether to pre-empt or to continue to attempt to talk. With each exposure trainees become desensitized and improve, and crucially it is not simply a matter of their physical skills improving but their physiological state improving. If the training is done well then they will experience some adrenaline, but not as much as before, which means that their heart rate is lower, they can access a slightly greater range of motor skills, and they are able to make more rational choices.
The Kiai used in paired kumite incorporates an aspect of this verbal assault, but I would stress that its effect at close range is insignificant compared to personal insults and threats. Some instructors might feel that they can’t do such things, even if they would like, because of the youth element of their classes. You will find that it is possible to work these scenarios without using ‘swear words’ per se; “Get back to where you came from!” is an unpleasant thing to say with the proper inflection, as is the challenge “what are you looking at?” I would actually advocate the use of such drills with classes involving children along a carefully designed word and intensity continuum, simply because although we might try and pretend it doesn’t exist, verbal bullying of this kind does occur and can frighten young people. Preparing young people for verbal aggression can help prevent problems and fights (at that age). There are a number of tricks that can be employed to encourage normally reticent people to shout at their friends and to depersonalise both aggressor and target. Whenever you are doing this form of psychological training it is important to be aware that if you are not careful in your methodology you may harm vulnerable adults and children, and while we want our training to be realistic and effective, it should not cause damage.
Whether you incorporate drills of this kind alongside your physical practise boils down to a simple question – do you want to teach something that is useful for self defence? Our physical skills are of no use for self defence if they cannot be accessed under pressure, and that pressure can come as much from having to process the visual and aural stimuli of a sustained verbal assault as any physical assault.
Train safely and have fun.
I’d rather be judged by twelve than carried by six.
It’s a common dictum that I don’t like.
I don’t like it because it indicates a casual, often sloppy approach to training and rules of engagement, one that is bad for the trainee and bad for others in the environment they enter. To me the phrase implies an acceptance of uncertainty and a faith in the correct judgment of others, and I don’t like that at all. I don’t want the people I train questioning their decisions or ability to act or wondering whether they are going to go to court – I want them to be so clear on their self protection rules of engagement that there isn’t any doubt clouding their minds or confusing their actions.
That may sound rather trite. After all, real violent incidents are not as clear cut as television or the movies would have us believe. In many countries the law allows preemptive striking – but when does a preempt become an assault? The man or woman who preempts is rarely calm and collected but has a system flooded with adrenaline and (hopefully) a brain and a mouth (not to mention the all important body language) that is trying a number of de-escalation techniques to avoid violence. You can prematurely decide that these de-escalation attempts have failed and that a physical response is necessary, particularly if you are unused to violent situations, and end up appearing to be the aggressor. At that point in time two things will help you:
- selecting an appropriate physical response to the perceived threat, in other words one that is proportionate,
- knowing how to describe why you acted in appropriate language should you subsequently be interviewed by any law enforcement personnel.
If you design and train your responses to fit the legal rules of engagement for self defence in your country, and you drill these, you should never be in a position where you feel you are making a choice between life or death for you or a court case.
I’ve deliberately avoided going into the details of specific laws here as I know that this blog is read by people in America, Europe, the Far East and Australia. It’s up to you now. Train safely and train appropriately, so that if you do have to use your physical skills you’re not carried by six and you’re not judged by twelve.
Sometimes I wonder if the kata I’m seeing and practicing are the same as the near identical ones I see my fellow karateka doing and describing. To sum up my feelings I’d like to play a little game.
When I first began karate I learned a number of different forms. I didn’t learn them all at once mind you, I had to spend a long time working on a single form before I was allowed to move on to another. The training was repetitive, sometimes boring, often hard, but it helped me build up strength.
I got the opportunity to train with more than one teacher, for which I’m grateful. They all had their own unique take on things, and would often do the same kata differently. To be honest I don’t think I always understood the differences initially, that came later, after a lot of training.
Eventually I reached the stage where I wanted to codify my knowledge in the form of a kata of my own that I could teach my students. Obviously I could teach them the kata I knew, and in the past I had taught those with my own unique twists, but they were at their heart another person’s kata. I wanted to create something that embodied my favourite techniques and summarized the principles I felt were important.
My kata not only needed to reflect my favourite techniques and core principles, it needed to reflect my heritage as a martial artist. Obviously the vast majority of the movements I chose would be found in Kata I knew and had taught in my own way: Kosakun, Passai, Naihanchi, and some of the Tomari Te forms. I would structure those combinations my own way, to teach my lessons.
One extremely important thing I’d learned that I wanted to encapsulate in my kata was simplicity in technique. The more complex something is the more likely it is to fail under pressure. My favourite techniques have always been the ones that are so simple that beginners could do them; in fact I wanted beginners to do them. It’s very easy to put together something complicated; it’s far harder to strip things down to their most basic levels. Beginners are the most important people in karate: they are the future. Added to that if a beginner can’t do something easily then I doubt that experienced practitioners will be able to do it under pressure. I don’t want to create something that only experienced karateka can do, I want to create something that’s effective as a form of exercise and effective as a means of self defence. That is the legacy I want to leave. One of the biggest lessons I have learned is that simplicity is the key to success.
If I could do that it would give me great peace of mind. To think of large numbers of students made safe and sound through training in my kata.
Who am I?
The legacy he left us is not only the wealth of systems that have evolved from his teachings, but also the Pinan kata. Just because a kata can be taught to beginners does not mean it is not an advanced kata.
I had some space cleared in my schedule today for some training at home. Not a particularly unusual thing as I train every day, but rather than grabbing a few minutes here and a few minutes there, today I had one of those nice long stretches of unbroken time. With that luxury I knew I could work on my strength with some weights and work on my balance with some kicking exercises, but what I really wanted to do was pick a few forms to use as visualization exercises for the delivery of a number of my techniques. In case anyone wonders why I haven’t mentioned that important training facet impact work, I’m currently between kick bags and I know I’ll be hitting the pads in class tonight.
While thinking about which particular forms I wanted to train I remembered something interesting regarding two books in my little martial arts library. In one of my editions of Funakoshi’s Karate Do Kyohan he gives an approximate start to finish time as if the Kata was to be completed in one go as an unbroken exercise. In another book I own, written in the 1990s, the performance times of three highly ranked UK Karateka were given for the same kata. Although they varied slightly their times were generally half to two thirds of Funakoshi’s times.
Funakoshi’s times were not those of an old man. They were the amount of time that it took, in his opinion, to go through the kata. So why is it common to see modern Karateka go through the forms at a greater speed?
Your focus determines your reality.
Unless you are deliberately moving slowly, when you practice a strike, you do it fast. When you practice blocking another person’s attack, you also have to move fast. But wrestling for control against resistance is something that slows us down, and manipulating limbs in grappling even at full speed is a slower form of movement than striking, as is throwing another person.
The modern fast pace of kata is a result of a different vision of the same movements. The shorter times are a result of more movements being executed as fast as possible, as if each was striking or deflecting a strike. The longer times given by Funakoshi are a reflection of a different emphasis.
Those of you that have watched some of my bunkai on my youtube channel, or read my first book, will know that I see most Uke receiving techniques in kata as strikes or limb manipulations, and that often I see Tsuki techniques as thrusts used to control, not necessarily punches. A number of my kata steps are viewed as leg attacks, as are some of my turns. My kata are close quarter struggles that utlise the movements effectively to escape from habitual acts of violence (haov).
So how fast will I be doing my kata?
How fast I go through a kata will depend upon what I am visualizing. Good Karate allows for multiple applications of the same sequence and the majority of kata are made up of good karate.
There is no set speed for a kata. I’m not going to rush my practice. I’ll go through at a pace where I feel I am accurately practicing my application. That is the luxury of practicing karate at home as well as in the dojo.
I don’t know the origin of this text, but it was given to me by my Aikido teacher John Tidder in the late 1990s.
It’s never let me down.
Sometimes nothing seems to go right, you feel
sluggish and uncoordinated -
Sometimes the practice will appear confusing
- no worries – train
because you will understand when the time is right.
Sometimes bits of a technique go well
- good – keep training.
But when you try to put the whole technique together it
falls apart – this is natural, be patient – nobody juggles
seven balls in just a few months -
Sometimes the practice is so brilliant that you can’t wait
until next time – be patient.
Next time you don’t feel like going because you’ve had a
tough day and you are tired -
You will always feel better for training.
RECEIVING CONTACT – A RATIONALE
Receiving contact in training is useful for the following reasons:
Physical conditioning is actually only a minor aspect of being hit. It may be obvious that the tougher you are, the more resistant you may be to receiving impact to some areas of the body, but the actual act of being hit does not really strengthen the body in this respect. There is an element of physical conditioning that occurs in training with regard perhaps to changes to skin thickness on striking surfaces and, as many Karateka who have used Makiwara will attest, a slight increase in knuckle size; but I would regard these developments as conditioning from making impact, not receiving impact.
Our bodies are strengthened, toughened if you will, through the combination of physical exertion, rest and appropriate diet. Well structured exercise and diet ensure that we have a stronger skeleton, combined with powerful muscles, tendons and ligaments, all supported appropriately by healthy organs and a good vascular system that can cope with the stresses of extreme heart and lung activity in the event of a combative situation. Being hit does not improve our physical conditioning, rather it tests it. It shows us how much we can take, and where we can sometimes afford to take knocks and where we absolutely cannot. If receiving hits is not physical conditioning per se but actually physical testing, its actual purpose is psychological conditioning.
Psychological conditioning is the key basis for engaging in any form of training where you actually experience being hit. In fact one of the key aspects of what people perceive as physical conditioning, pain tolerance, is actually psychological conditioning. The pain of being hit does not disappear, instead the mind becomes accustomed to it as little more than a signal that something is wrong. If you hold a person in a wrist lock or a finger lock for too long, they become accustomed to the pain and find they recover a degree of movement – which is why such techniques are generally best applied with faint pulses so that while the technique is never ‘off’’, the mind never has a chance to get fully accustomed to the pain. The more often we are hit, experience the pain, and realize that we can in fact carry on, the less attention the mind pays to the actual pain of receiving the strike. Now this obviously is extremely important for anyone who is training to be in a fight, whether they are preparing themselves for self defence or for a competitive fight, because the majority of this process of pain acceptance and stimulus rejection is subconscious. Our natural response to pain is to shy away. Think of when you first (or last) made the mistake of putting your hand on something hot and found that amazingly your hand had flinched off it without any thought. The pain tolerance that comes from the experience of being hit will not stop a natural unconscious flinch away from the impact, but what it will do is allow a person to continue to act rather than stop to consider or assess the pain because the mind is no longer rating the warning signal so highly because of the experience that it can continue and that the damage is not severe. Without such contact the likelihood that a person will freeze when their defences fail and they get hit is increased. The ability to carry on despite being caught and having your balance and rhythm distorted (in addition to feeling pain and possibly being winded) is an essential attribute of a successful fighter, and an ability that is best developed by careful and gradual exposure to receiving contact in a dynamic situation.
At the same time as the mind develops this ability to process yet set aside stimuli, another equally important mental process is being developed by experiencing contact. The process I have described above concerns the mental processing of the tactile stimuli of being hit, but fighting also touches on other senses such as sight, hearing, and potentially even taste and smell (the latter perhaps more so in real life than in competition). These senses assail the conscious mind more often because (with the exception of the latter two) they are the means through which we communicate, and fighting actually does involve a tremendous amount of communication through sights such as facial expressions and incoming attacks, and sounds such as threatening shouts, grunts, heavy breathing and screams.
Unless introduced to sparring at slow speed, many people in static no contact sparring have difficulty staying still when a counter strike is coming towards them, even if they know it will stop before hitting them. This desire to move out of the way is no bad thing, but sometimes the confidence that you are not going to be hit can pave the way to a dangerous over-confidence in the ability to evade an attack that is really intended to strike home. When the training regime involves contact, there is no uncertainty as to whether the strike ‘would have hit’. You learn to accept when you have been hit, how it became possible, how it made you move, and what you can do to change that outcome,
Receiving contact also teaches a very valuable lesson about the techniques that we use. Experiencing the force of a well executed strike through padding a trainee can truly appreciate how much pain and damage it can cause when no protective steps are taken. Such knowledge may have a positive influence on a student’s appreciation that outside of training, martial arts techniques are less for show or minor squabbles, but only for situations of real need. Contact in training can therefore be a movement to responsibility.
Some people use body armour, other people use heavy gloves. If you are making contact what you use (or do not use) for protection will determine the length of time you can take impact, the level of impact and the location of impact – as well as who trains with you.
Unsupervised and untrained use of padding and body armour can result in the very injuries that their use is designed to prevent. The head and the spine are particularly vulnerable to dangerous injury and the latter should never be struck in training. The golden rule to reduce injury is, as always, start training slowly, strike lightly in a static fashion before increasing contact, and when first transferring to mobile targets, again start slowly with a progressive force continuum. Always ascertain how much contact you and your partner are prepared to take in static training before moving to dynamic training.
In the videos on my youtube channel you can see people from a huge range of martial arts styles making contact with varying intensity in my scenario training. Before they do this they have examined the armour, read safety briefings, and exchanged strikes in pairs to get a feel of what they can do safely. It’s easy to forget that while the simulated fights only last a few seconds, the participants can be in armour for hours and can take lots of solid hits throughout a day’s training.
I would advise anyone undertaking contact training where both parties are making contact to always have a non-participating safety observer present to stop the training at any time.
Have fun and train safely.
MAKING CONTACT IN TRAINING – A RATIONALE
Contact in training is useful for the following reasons:
Prevention of joint injury
Development of correct distancing
Development of power and stability while executing a technique
Conditioning of striking surfaces in order to be able to execute a technique in reality if necessary
Prevention of joint injury
Executing techniques at speed against thin air, particularly in the early stages of martial arts training, can lead to the hyper-extension of joints. The knees and elbows are particularly vulnerable to this. Similarly incorrect alignment of the ankle and wrist joints (so that they would buckle and result in strains, sprains or even broken bones) can be grooved into the memory when training against thin air, or continuously pulling techniques. Progressive contact along a force continuum eliminates alignment problems at an early stage and the act of making contact significantly lowers the risk of hyper-extension.
Development of correct distancing
By striking against pads (and people in body armour) students gain a completely accurate picture, both visual and tactile, as to how close they need to be to a person to execute a technique in order to get the desired result. By using a pad, shield/bag you get immediate feedback on just how close you need to be to a static object to get the desired amount of penetration on each type of strike used. There is no doubt that point contact sparring works many useful skills, but it does neglect two fundamental principles of combat:
- When you hit a real person, as opposed to just make no contact or light contact (about 1 inch penetration), they move, and this movement affects the nature of any follow-throughs that you may or may not have to do.
- You get good at what you train for. There are many point sparrers who would have no difficulty in transferring their skills to a contact arena at the drop of a hat. The majority of these have probably had to hit somebody for real at some point in time while growing up and have a practical knowledge of the difference between training, competing and reality based upon experience. Alternatively they may have extensive experience of kicking through pads. There will be a large proportion however who, without necessarily intending to do so, will execute beautiful techniques in real life that fall just short of their target, or fail to connect with sufficient power, because that is what long hours of training have programmed them to do.
Development of power and stability while executing a technique
By striking against pads (and people in armour) students quickly learn if their technique isn’t working. Impact exposes flaws in body alignment, stances, and general biomechanics directly to the student. A good instructor can spot flaws in the practice of techniques against air, and attempt to explain the correct positioning. Through impact a student can feel that something isn’t working, and also feel the difference when it is. This form of direct feedback adds an entirely different dimension to the efficacy of the coaching process. When making impact students can start to quantify the power of their strikes to a greater degree. They receive tactile and visual feedback of improvement in a manner that is not gained by striking the air. Touch contact training, or no contact training can help develop speed, and increases in speed and accuracy can be observed, but speed does not necessarily equate to power, stability, or penetration – in those key areas contact does not lie.
Impact training does take on a different dimension with regard to stability when a student switches from striking a static target to hitting a moving target such as a person in body armour. Unless training solely for a fight that begins and ends with a sucker strike to a static victim, in a real fight (or competitive fight) the targets can be expected to be in motion. This movement will again have implications for the platform stability or otherwise required to land an effective strike.
Most people have been hit at some point in their lives, whether accidentally or deliberately, sometimes indirectly by objects and sometimes directly by other people. We tend therefore to have an idea in our minds that being hit hurts although we may not have a full appreciation of just how much different strikes hurt and how much damage they can do (of which more in the next issue). Fewer people though have a realistic appreciation of the fact that hitting something hard can often hurt. Depending upon whether you are training for competitions or training for self defence, you may be training to hit using just your fists to any part of the body, and you may need to prepare to use anything from full padding across your striking surfaces to no protective equipment at all. Here in making contact in practice we are looking to desensitize the striking surfaces of the body slightly so that pain is either minimized, or at least not shock and recoil inducing on the part of the striker. There is a significant difference between striking a target with the fist while wearing wrist wraps and 16oz gloves, and performing the same strike with the bare hand. It is easy to forget how the aforementioned tools can be slightly more forgiving of imprecise hand and wrist alignment than the bare flesh can tolerate.
There is a difference between striking the air, striking pads and striking a real person. Many people do have difficulty with the latter, and I have actually known people to have difficulty in hitting pads knowing that they are training to hit a real person. The vast majority of people, unless supported by a group, or overly practiced through group absolution and upbringing in the infliction of physical violence, are more inclined to gesture, posture and shout in an attempt to ‘win’ without fighting rather than engage in physical violence. Although there are factors that are conditioning increasing numbers of young people to be more comfortable with the execution of violence, which combined in some societies (particularly the UK) with increased availability of alcohol and social indifference to drunkenness make an unpleasant mix, many people have a natural aversion to hitting things. Just as the genetic impulse for adventure, risk taking, danger and fighting in some has led to some of mankind’s greatest discoveries and advances, the genetic impulse to avoid danger and hide has been responsible for the survival of the species as a whole.
Training to hit pads develops the factors listed above, all of which are required for practical application. But all of this is to no avail if the student cannot actually bring themselves to hit a real person. While physical practice on its own is not an absolute cure for this situation, training to hit a suitably padded person can begin to break down any barriers that a student may have in their mind.
The above points all illustrate the many advantages to making contact in training, the weaknesses they can help eliminate, and the injuries that they can help avoid. Unsupervised and untrained use of pads and body armour can however result in the very injuries that their use is designed to prevent ‘thin air strikers’ from receiving when first encountering resistance. The golden rule to reduce injury is, as always, start training slowly, strike lightly in a static fashion before increasing contact, and when first transferring to mobile targets, again start slowly with a progressive force continuum. If a professional boxer such as Mike Tyson can break his hand through throwing an unprotected punch hard at a hard target when not wearing gloves or wraps, then there is every possibility that you or I could do the same.
Warning. This post is going to be legen…
A call to arms with which anyone who has watched the American sitcom ‘How I met your mother’ will be familiar. The character Barney Stinson (played by actor Neil Patrick Harris), a suit aficionado, often tries to get his friend Ted to don a suit and head out with him to chat up the ladies of New York city.
For Barney Stinson the suit is like a superhero’s costume. To him it is a symbol that separates him from the pack. When he is suited up he is in the zone, on top of his game and ready for action.
Do we as martial artists suit up?
I frequently see a change in attitude when Karateka don their gi and belts. The gi is a symbol that separates the activities and attitudes in the dojo from the real world. It helps us focus and often the presence of our peers also in uniform around us reaffirms and reinforces our sense of purpose and awareness in training. The man standing in the gi is more alert, sharper, and radiates a greater sense of confidence than the tired man in the changing rooms at the end of the working day.
I see the same mental shift in gear when participants in some of my training don full body armour. There is a frisson of nervous energy, the sense that someone really is going to be trying to hit them, the level of awareness increasing as a result.
I’m sure that even in classes or training where no set uniform is required, the donning of training shorts, the wearing of a particular type of clothing, all help the wearer focus their mind on the serious business of having fun through training, even if it doesn’t seem like fun at the time.
wait for it…
The thing about Barney Stinson is that it doesn’t matter whether it was a real suit, a flight suit, a penguin suit or even his birthday suit, the suit was merely a facade – he was the superhero he believed himself to be all along. His action of suiting up was a mental not a physical process.
One of the more popular action movie series of the last decade has been Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy. One thing that was highlighted at the end of the first movie, Batman Begins, and throughout the trilogy is something that fans of the comic book hero have known for some time: Bruce Wayne is the mask, the false identity. Throughout all three films we see the character engaging in espionage, fighting, training and saving lives without the suit or mask. When Selina Kyle dances with Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises and asks him who he is pretending to be, his answer “Bruce Wayne” is both tongue in cheek and honest. Batman became who he was through a traumatic event, his reaction to it, the training he sought out and his experience ‘in the field’. The bat suit is a symbol, a tool, and a form of protection for him and those he cares for, but whether he is wearing it or not he is always the Batman.
We are no different.
Whether we wear tracksuits, doboks, Gi or shorts we are always the people we become in those uniforms, we just need to give ourselves the permission to ‘suit up’ at will. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we must be able to step up, change gears, switch on or suit up in an instant. If our clothing is our trigger then we need to disassociate, and not only choose new external visual or aural triggers, but also internal ones that we can activate ourselves at will to create that altered mental state.
As Barney Stinson might say
“When you stop believing the suit makes you who you are, and realise you’ve been that person all along, you become awesome. True story.”
Targets seem to be the bane of anyone who works these days. Whatever line of work you’re in, I’d be surprised if you haven’t been set either a sales target, efficiency target or an energy saving target and so the list goes on.
Targets have been around for a long time in the martial arts too. What are gradings, certificates and belts but targets for students to achieve – indications (in theory) of progress. There are a number of students who covet their belts and focus all their training towards them, students who love the gradings, students who covet belts but fear and dread gradings, and students who couldn’t care less about rank and just want to train. After all, isn’t the journey more important than the goal?
What is the goal?
If your goal is to become fitter or healthier, then the set targets of gradings can help you achieve that aim by pushing you harder. If your goal is to gain ‘a black belt’ then gradings and their targets are pretty essential in that you can’t achieve your goal in most systems without them (although you could just buy a belt). If your goal is to become imbued with self knowledge and self discipline there are possibly better ways of spending your time, but the targets set by your syllabus and the lengths you will have to go to achieve them will certainly improve your self discipline. If your goal is to become a zen warrior – you probably need to get out more.
Are you training Kata to know its meaning or to look good? Both can benefit your confidence but only one can benefit you in self defence.
What if the goal is to become a better fighter or improve your ability to defend yourself?
I separate these two because to my mind they are distinct entities that can overlap. The psychological and physical training needs and goals of a person wishing to successfully fight in a ring or competition differ from those of someone wishing to successfully negate, survive and escape violence. Both actual events, when they occur place physical and mental demands on the individual, but the emotional, psychological and physical environment and consequences of each are very different. There are elements of training common to both, but there are also significant differences and this is where the goal becomes more important than the journey. If you aren’t fixed on where you are going, how can you select the best route and means of transport to get there?
You must decide if karate is for your health or to aid your duty. Anko Itosu
If you are training for a fighting competition then there are a number of targets that you will set for your physical techniques when determining your repertoire:
- competition appropriateness – there’s no point in you drilling an item that will get you disqualified.
- attack specific – the rules and previous fights mean that you know what is going to be coming your way, you can thus take steps to drill how to evade and counter combinations of these techniques.
- adrenaline tolerant – physical movements that your body can do using predominantly gross motor skills,
- Initiative – keeping/gaining this until the round/fight is over
- speed – how fast can you execute a technique
- power – is the technique going to do what you want?
- redundancy – does the technique leave you with options if it doesn’t quite go to plan?
- transferable skills – when learning one thing helps develop something else you are doing,
- unbalancing – taking control of the other person’s balance,
- multiplicity – learning individual things that can work against different attacks,
- multi range – being able to use your body to hit and escape no matter what position you find yourself.
Ground fighting is more commonly trained by a broader group of martial artists these days and most rule sets make it a sensible strategy. But rolling on the pavement with someone who might take the fight to a new level may not be so effective. It’s an important part of a rounded self defence arsenal, but generally we should be training tactics that are proven under pressure to enable us to avoid it.
In addition to this as a fighter you will have combat related targets such as your strength, stamina, weight, diet and conditioning.
If we now look at the technical physical development targets you would set yourself for a self defence repertoire, we see overlaps but also clear differences:
- habitual acts of violence – training is focused on what are statistically the most likely attacks,
- adrenaline tolerant – physical movements that your body can do using predominantly gross motor skills,
- speed – how fast can you execute a technique
- power – is the technique going to do what you want?
- predictable response - the knowledge of how people think and talk and move,
- initiative - keeping/gaining this until the danger has gone,
- redundancy – knowing and training what to do if something doesn’t work,
- low maintenance – easy to learn and easy to do without much practice,
- transferable skills – when learning one thing helps develop something else you are doing,
- unbalancing – taking control of the other person’s balance,
- multiplicity – learning individual things that can work against different attacks,
- ballistic response – predominantly using striking as your physical means of escape if verbal strategies fail,
- multi range – being able to use your body to hit and escape no matter what position you find yourself in,
- vital points – knowing the weakest points of the human body.
- verbal strategies – appropriate speech, tone and body language and behaviour patterns to negate danger or distract,
- legally underpinned – appropriate responses that keep you and others safe, but reduce the likelihood of post event prosecution.
Force on force threshold and pain management training is important for both competition and self defence training. If you haven’t experienced it you don’t know whether it will challenge or threaten you. Is pain management on your list of targets?
Compared with the competition fight your strength, stamina, weight and diet are less significant. A real encounter is not likely to last as long as a competition one. Although there would seem to be many similarities between the two sets of targets, the first target in each will separate the paths considerably.
These are merely targets to help you chose what to train. You can then just pick some techniques to work with, but again – if you want to get the psychological benefits of realising improvement, you need to set yourself targets. How accurately can you hit? How much can you stretch? How much can you move the bag? How long can you sustain a high aerobic level? Your targets should always be SMART, that is: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Rewarding and Time limited.
- Specific: Make clear and unambiguous statements about what it is you are going to achieve.
- Measurable: There must be some way to determine when the objective has been met. Make a statement that describes how you will measure success or failure of the objective.
- Achievable: It must be possible to reach the objective. It is important to understand in advance whether or not the objective is achievable. It is important to remember, however, that many tasks when first approached seem impossible, so it is important to set the bar at the right height initially, you can raise it once you’ve achieve it.
- Rewarding: The goal should bring sufficient reward that it is worth undertaking. There is always a cost / benefit ratio to consider. Every task has its cost. It is always important to consider what the cost and benefit will be before initiating a task.
- Time limited: There should be a clear time frame set out for when the target will be achieved. It is important to approach tasks consistently rather than sporadically. Breaking the goal or target down into sub-targets and estimating time frames is essential if you are to understand the cost of the task.
Sometimes I wonder whether the lack of clear goal setting by instructors and students is responsible for the high drop out rate in the martial arts. Without clear objectives and recognisable, understandable and achievable targets towards that objective how do we measure our success and gain mental satisfaction and confidence from our training?
Kata is often viewed by both detractors and supporters as a dead beast. Supporters respect its usefulness through the technical repertoire it provides while detractors point out (and they do have a point) that the same skills could probably be learnt more usefully, effectively and efficiently through the dynamism of sparring. There are of course many Kata techniques that are never seen in sparring (the majority of them I suspect), primarily because the rules (and the range and limitations they enforce) do not permit it, but also because the techniques themselves are either inadequately understood or too hard to control in the struggle of close range combat.
It is through bunkai (and oyo – if you really want to distinguish between the two) that we attempt to realise the intent of the techniques of the Kata. Bunkai is often very different to the sort of sparring described above, adhering more to a beginners one step or two step dance than a challenging dynamic exchange of techniques. I often see tremendously contrived bunkai where an attacker has to make several specific techniques in sequence in order to the assigned bunkai to work – fine if these reflect techniques or combinations of techniques that the defender in question is likely to face (whether in self defence or in sport) but pathetic if they require a rigid sequence, technique combination, timing and distancing that match no plausible attack. Then we have the current flavours of our time: bunkai involving the use of pressure points and bunkai utilising grappling techniques. I have no problem with either of these (since both have a traceable past in early Karate texts such as the Okinawan Bubishi); they do however need to reflect attacks and positions that both defender and attacker could find themselves in (again either in a sport or self defence situation) and are reliable under extremes of pressure and adrenaline.
So can bunkai be brought alive and applied in unpredictable training? This does depend upon the definition we choose to use for alive. I’d say it’s where either practitioner has the freedom to use whatever techniques they want (with no pre-arranged technique type (for example punch or kick) or range, but I do wish to add a caveat. Much of traditional Karate technique relies on impact. By this I refer to the fact that when you hit a person, their body moves and their posture changes. The movement of the target as a result of impact will naturally affect the choice of any following technique and thus alive training should either be almost full contact with both participants wearing good quality body armour or touch with both participants endeavouring to move as if they had been hit. The latter action takes some training and fast reflexes in static and dynamic bunkai practise and is probably near impossible in alive training – hence for me if both are to deliver powerful techniques then protection is required – that way each person will move naturally since all they will have to consider is the fight (well – almost, but I’ll get on to that) rather than how they should move if hit.
There is a further catch, and this comes down to the purpose of the bunkai. If the bunkai is solely being practised to become a better Karateka or sport competitor then all that I have said above is fine, if however the bunkai is being practised for self defence then the situation above only applies to the defender since the attacker should predominantly be constrained to the use of habitual acts of violence.
If you look at the make up of Karate Kata you can see that there are comparatively few punching techniques overall compared to other body movements. This may come as a shock, it may not be something you’ve really considered, but if you don’t believe me – go ahead and count. In close proximity many of the techniques that seem too cumbersome to utilise in ‘real’ sparring take on a new dynamic as they push and unbalance and turn other people both before, during and after making contact. Distance changes everything. It’s difficult to use a straight or reverse punch when you are almost chest to chest with someone (or if you are), the so-called blocking techniques come into their own. Start a trend – call them receivers and alter your student perception of them from day one.
Can we make bunkai alive? The answer is yes, but we do need to decide what level of compromise we are prepared to accept. If we want to keep techniques directed towards the eyes then obviously a visor is needed. If we want to use controls then some form of verbal safety escape cue is required (if you train to tap on the street what happens if your attacker taps you while in a lock?). If you want to hit to the head then you need to pull techniques on impact and wear gloves and head protection, otherwise you won’t be training for long, but if you want to be able to grapple you’ll need to restrict the padding on your gloves.
Once you start exercising Kata in this way you’ll be amazed at how the movements can take on a life of their own – how in many cases the precise sequences of existing forms actually do work (in many different ways) in their precise sequences. The training can be done dynamically without safety equipment, and I have taught my flow drills in both the UK and the USA in this way, but I would advise anyone wishing to take the big step to aliveness to get some high quality body armour – and given the techniques of Kata, I’d advise coverage for the legs, knees, groin and back, in addition to the normal head and torso protectors.
Should Kata bunkai be trained alive? If you are training for self defence or for any form of close range combative contest my answer would be yes. Alive training pressure tests you and your ability to apply techniques and keep thinking in a manner that no other training can. Alive bunkai carries a relatively high risk of injury compared to other forms of practice and thus, in my opinion, should be restricted to students with sufficient experience (and previous pressure testing) to exercise control. Dynamic bunkai training in set drills is a reasonable alternative until students reach that level. In general in Karate we are used to seeing three levels of sparring, pre-arranged static sparring, pre-arranged dynamic sparring and freestyle. Why don’t we train bunkai in the same way?
Kata doesn’t have to be dead.
This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
Morpheus, The Matrix
Kata is a form of training that divides the martial arts community. As martial artists our obvious focus is on paired activity, with its immediate feedback on our strengths and weaknesses and clear benefit for the development (and ‘measurement’) of fighting spirit, timing, reaction time, telegraph reading, distancing, power and speed. Against this the solo exercise of Kata on the surface seems to develop little that is not already worked by Kihon drills. Even amongst Karateka whose systems drill kata as a core syllabus requirement, there are experienced people who view them as no more than a traditional ‘chore’ to be trained for the purpose of passing gradings.
Kata can be studied and trained for many different reasons. What I’m discussing below are my thoughts on personal Kata training with a view to improving close quarter combative ability, rather than attempting to improve the look of the movements to conform to an aesthetic ideal, or using Kata as a vehicle for recovery and injury management after an accident.
When engaged in solo training you need to visualise your opponent(s). Visualisation is not necessarily the best term since it only implies seeing, whereas what we should be doing is imagining an event. See the attack, hear the attack, imagine how the impact feels on your body, how your movements affect the other person. You should try and build from your strengths into your weaknesses. Start with the strongest perceptual sense that you can recreate – be it sight, or sound, or touch, or smell – and create that memory. Each technique, each sequence should be practiced in context when training solo. Don’t do a move for the sake of a pre-determined sequence, you move to create an effect. Visualisation is not difficult, but it requires practice to become an effective training tool. One of the limitations of visualisation is that it generally requires experience. What I mean by this is that to effectively create a memory and reinforce that memory you need to have had real experience of the physical practice of elements of that training. For example it would be difficult to recreate an arm bar in the mind (even if doing the physical movement concurrently) if you do not have the visual and tactile framework of reference of applying the technique.
This is controversial. I recently had a long conversation over some liquid refreshment with a friend in the early hours of a morning about conflict management. He was convinced that his past training, in a martial art which will remain nameless, enabled him to snap another person’s arm with a simple crossing of his arms, despite the fact he had never done this for real. In fact this seemed to be his solution to any form of violence against him. There is an issue between the disconnect between practicality and student gullibility when it comes to many of the ‘too deadly to spar’ techniques in martial arts. It is very easy to give a compliant training partner an unpleasant injury by applying a locking technique with too much force, too much speed, or a poor angle of attack. The reality of causing a fight ending injury against an actively resisting (and striking) opponent under pressure in an adrenaline fueled environment can be very different. You will get good at what you train for, and if you want to get good at striking or grappling, you need to get your hands dirty and work those physical skills. Tactile memory is vital for building accurate and useful visualisation skills.
Speed is a variable, not a constant. Work slowly as you create your visualisation. When it is strong in your mind, you can move fast, but there is little pressing need to move fast when you are creating such important pathways in your mind to reinforce appropriate behaviour. If you run before you can walk here you will begin to dance rather than shadow box. One further aspect of slow speed training with regard to visualisation is that many people experience ‘slow time’ under the influence of high adrenaline levels. Time does not actually slow down, it is merely a perceptual distortion, just like ‘fast time’. Given that this perception of slow time is relatively common in high stress encounters, rehearsing in slow time and imagining things in slow time can actually help make the rehearsal more beneficial. Training at high speed is an important part of training overall, but it should not characterise all your training. Speed can instead be used for the supplementary impact training on pads and bags, which in turn helps create tactile memory.
Treat Kata like an exercise book, not a short children’s book. People tend to want to do a Kata from start to finish, because that is how the memory of the movements is taught in class. When you train Kata solo, treat it like a school exercise book, working methodically on a page at a time rather than reading quickly from cover to cover like a simple picture story book for young children. Pick and choose exercises, and work on them. A single short exercise done for 5 minutes well is better than 3 rushed repetitions of a whole Kata. This is a crucial element of good quality solo Karate training. Too often people feel that they need to set aside 30 minutes or an hour to train properly, or that they need to sweat buckets and elevate their heart rate. I do not dispute the value of longer periods of aerobic training, but for many people it can be difficult to fit these regularly into their daily lives. Furthermore, the key benefits of such training are the development of the grit to carry on and the aerobic capacity to sustain a fight. I would suggest that these qualities do not necessarily have to be developed through Karate practice, and that in many cases running/rowing or swimming could have similarly beneficial effects (and be easier to do). Returning to the concept of short periods of training, the vast majority of people cannot effectively focus intently for more than 20 minutes at a time, so training for short periods of time is not necessarily a bad thing. A focused five minutes can not only have greater value, but also be easier to fit into a daily routine.
In class each Kata performed as a whole takes up a fairly large amount of space in a particular shape. The advantage of breaking down the Kata to focus on small sequences (as described above) is that far less space is required, which in turn makes it easier to find a moment to practice. Combinations can often involve little more than a shuffle in terms of footwork and can be practiced in an area smaller than 1m squared. More complicated applications that involve moving and changing direction can be done in areas of 1m by 2m. The recognition that less space is required may seem to be common sense, but it brings with it (as does working for smaller amounts of time) a greater freedom to practice. Visualisation training with Kata does mean that space and movement can be unnecessary, and indeed studies have shown that even the muscles (as opposed to the mind) can gain a small benefit from visualisation without movement.
Kata as performed and learned in class is a generic model of techniques that hint at applications and tactics. Kata is often executed and taught as a group activity in the Dojo (students moving to a called count, or doing the same Kata at the same time) and as such is rather like a stretchy T shirt on a shop manikin. When you train at home you are wearing that T shirt, not the manikin, so it now conforms to your body. Essentially this means that while the fibers and colours that make up the Kata remain the same, the content is now free to vary. Your body has different strengths and weaknesses to that of the average Karateka, and so in solo practice you should allow your body to begin to shape your personal interpretation and application of the movements that make up that Kata. Through rigorous training you can shape your body to make that T shirt look good, but the T shirt ultimately conforms to you. Solo Kata should be your Kata.
There is a natural form of evolution to intensive, visualised solo Kata training that has to be accepted if the individual Karateka is to truly make a Kata their own. If a Kata is regularly broken down into individual exercises, trained according to visualised (and practised) application, technique preference, space and time, it will change. A movement trained by a class generically, but designed to suit an ‘original’ martial artist’s specific intention, will change as an individual adapts it for their own purpose and build. The student might happily practice a Kata that looks almost identical to those of the other students in class, but ask that student to perform the same Kata as they train it alone in front of the group, and the sequence, repetition and shape of many of the movements will have morphed. Taking this perspective into consideration the sheer number of the overlaps of sequences and subtle variations in movements between many of Karate’s Kata begin to make sense.
The question for the individual student is how far do they wish to go down the rabbit hole? Do they wish to explore further and in greater depth and see where their personal Kata leads them? Finally, from that stage of development and insight do they wish to save their personal Kata for themselves, teaching only as they were taught, or teach the revised material to their own students as others have done before them? The further the path of detailed individual Kata study is trod, the harder it becomes to use the older more established generic path. Both paths have value, but there’s only one way to discover which is actually the best for you.
Reflexes can be a tricky term when discussing martial arts and fighting as a large number of martial artists do not distinguish between actions that are under their conscious control and actions that are not, or responses that are learned and responses that are not. A reflex action, also known as a reflex, is an involuntary and nearly instantaneous movement in response to a stimulus. If we automatically use a trained response without thinking (such as a parry) in response to a stimuli we might describe it as reflexive, but a true reflex is a behaviour that is mediated via a reflex arc, a neural pathway that controls an action reflex.
When you go to the doctor and have a medical and he/she taps your knee with a hammer and your leg twitches, that is an example of a somatic reflex arc (affecting muscles). When your tongue is depressed and you gag – that too is a reflex. You are not consciously controlling it and you cannot stop it. Do we have similar reflexes applicable to combat? The answer is yes. A working knowledge of withdrawal reflexes and tendon reflexes can improve our combative ability. I’d like to briefly look at something that is the combined result of a number of different withdrawal reflexes, the ‘flinch reflex’.
The body has autonomic mechanisms to protect itself from injury and given the right stimuli, your flinch reflex will kick in. You eyes will shut briefly and your hands and forearms will attempt first to move to cover the head (or perceived area of vulnerability) and second to push away danger
I use the term ‘right stimuli’ here because the body only flinches when the brain consciously or unconsciously perceives danger. You might note that after you have been training for a while you rarely flinch in sparring or hardly ever see flinching in the ring. This is because your brain recognises the telegraphs of the techniques and moves into a trained response – it is when you don’t spot the telegraph in time for the brain to consciously or unconsciously activate a trained appropriate response that you are startled and as a result you flinch. A simple analogy is that most of us can catch a tennis ball with one or two hands: the more time we have to prepare for catching a ball coming towards us and can see its arc the more likely we are to catch it. If however someone were to shout “look out” and on turning our head we were to see a ball flying straight for our face, depending upon our skill level, the speed of the incoming object, and our reaction time, we would do one of the following:
- Scrunch our face up to brace for impact and shut our eyes
- The above while turning the head away as much as we can
- The above while covering the head with the hands and ducking away from the object
- Turning slightly but also pushing out with nearest hand while the other covers the face
- Intercepting the object with a previously trained skill
A person just off the line of flight of this bat with sufficient observation and reaction time to apparently access the complex motor skill of catching, but even he’s flinching.Dealing with attacks, whether in a competitive consensual fight, or a surprise attack or an escalated argument is no different. If you do not spot the telegraphs then your reaction is likely to be at the top of the list above, the earlier you see and recognise the telegraphs (not necessarily on a conscious level) the further down that list your response will be, particularly if you already have your hands in front of your face or body.
The less familiar you are with the telegraphs and the environment, the less likely you are to access a trained response. If you are unused to dealing with verbal aggression or the stimulus of multiple people moving and not knowing which one is likely to attack, then your brain will be more occupied with this along with ‘fight/don’t fight’ questions. As a result of this extra neural engagement you may be less likely to spot telegraphs that you would have identified with ease in a ‘cleaner’ competitive environment. The net result is that you are more likely to flinch.
Hands coming up so fast he drops his drink… but can you spot which common ‘uke’ technique is instinctive?
The good news is that you do not need to train the flinch – it is built in. The bad news is that if you are spending time working other more complicated methods of intercepting attacks then in the one instance when you will truly need them, when you are caught off guard by the ease of the attack (entry angle of attack, attitude of the attacker, speed of the attack and the environment in which the attack takes place), you’ve spent a large amount of your time honing a fairly redundant skill because you will flinch rather than perform that complex motor skill.
Now if there are movements in Kata that mimic the flinch – will practicing them improve your ability to flinch? No. Practicing them will improve your ability to fight because following the ‘fake’ flinch in the Kata you move from that position into a combative application. Thus what Kata can do is help you make a transition from a natural protective movement into a trained combative movement so fast that it seems reflexive.
This could be one of the most important things that Kata gives us. There are clear differences between the movements in sparring and those in Kata, and the key to those differences is that both are reflections of differing scenario and attack specific skill sets. The environment of the sparring and sport arena make redundant the employment of natural movements that the body will use in a ‘real’ arena (and if you’ve pulled off your sport techniques in that arena then either you hit first or the other guy telegraphed his intentions so clearly or attacked so weakly the ease of the attack was incredibly familiar and did not stretch you out of your comfort zone). Kata by contrast often mimics (though now in stylised form) the flinch and then practices moving from that to a combative strike. If you look at the extended arm set up common in various versions of kata for all of Karate’s receiving techniques – Age Uke, Shuto Uke, Uchi Uke, Gedan Barai and so forth you can see a protective motion to ward away danger and in many cases a hand attempting to shield the head.
In Karate Do Kyohan Funakoshi said that Kakewake Uke could be done palms open or closed, hands facing towards you or away. Does this look familiar?
If we are to make Kata a reflexive exercise then we need to be able to use its initiation point in reflex based techniques. As a result we need to mimic the flinch. To train the almost-reflexive movement from a flinch to a combative counter the Kata training needs to be paired. All the Kata drills I use initiate from either a flinch based movement against a habitual act of violence, a ‘failed’ Kata attacking/controlling movement following a flinch based movement, or a common mid fight redundancy position such as a clinch. As a result back in 2004 with the Heian Flow System I created an extensive Kata based sparring repertoire where techniques fitted together like lego and students began to unconsciously shift between techniques and strategies according to stimuli.
My current work on the Pinan and Heian Kata takes this a step further with the benefit of the experience of heavy contact scenario simulation training and hours of footage of watching how martial artists respond in such pressurised environments. When you consider how much time you’ve spent drilling your Kata solo, you may find it’s time you did them justice by taking them to the next level by experiencing their use as two man training systems. Paired Kata training might not look as beautiful as kumite or solo Kata, but it’s fun, it develops new skill sets, and it could prove to be the most useful element of your karate repertoire.
I suppose it is possible to practice a kata and not think at all about its application, but that’s never been an approach that’s appealed to me. As a result through analysis and experience I’ve gathered quite a lot of applications for individual karate techniques and combinations over time.
Almost a decade ago I drew a number of my then favourite applications together into the Heian Flow System, and three years later I published the majority of those Heian drills to share with others. Nine years is not that long a period of time in training terms, and yet to me the environment in which I now write and train seems very different.
When I first wrote the Heian Flow System the concept that kata might be focused on HAOV, or involve close range grappling and throwing did not seem to be mainstream. While perhaps still not the most common approach, these views, espoused in recorded sources by significant figures in Karate history such as Itosu, Mabuni and Funakoshi, are now reflected in research and good quality bunkai material emerging from Europe, the UK, North America and Australia.
At the same time it would be an understatement to say that the adoption of high quality body armour and the ability to safely run force on force simulations of real violence has not had an effect on the continued development of my own perception and interpretation of Kata. As a result, while adhering to the same principles, if you compare my favoured bunkai for a movement in 2013 to that in 2004, the two are likely to be quite different.
With this in mind I made the decision a while back to put together some more material on the Pinan/Heian kata to share with people who haven’t had the opportunity to train with me at a seminar. Over the last few weeks I’ve been trying to make decisions on which bunkai drills to include, and that’s been an excellent excuse to do more training while I make up my mind.
The training has formed an interesting pattern: perform the solo kata as an aide memoire, work through all the kata bunkai drills in sequential order as best as we can in paired training, revise with the solo kata, then repeat with the next form. It’s been… beautiful. For me it’s almost the perfect way to train the kata, and almost the perfect session.
The problem is, as a regular format for training, it’s missing a few things.
I want impact. I’m not really hitting my partner because then he wouldn’t train with me, so I’m doing the moves in the paired drills with just enough force to move and unbalance him, but not enough to seriously hurt or injure him. Neither of us therefore are working our ability to make solid contact.
Because I’m not trying to hurt my partner with my applications, I’m not really working on developing speed. We could do the solo Kata really fast, but that works our ability to move fast against no resistance, which isn’t the same thing. It also makes it hard to properly visualise intent without breaking out of ‘proper’ form. Obviously my partner punches, pushes, headbutts or grabs me fast, and I have to move fast to cover. But my response technique is pulled.
We could pop the Spartan Training Gear body armour on and increase our contact, but then realistically we’d need to lose the Gi for the amount of contact and body armour we are wearing (to avoid heat exhaustion and to have optimum mobility). That’s not an issue for me, but it might make someone watching us through a window not realize we’re doing karate – because if you were to see close range striking, trapping, locking and throwing in response to HAOV would karate be your first thought?
A cheaper solution is to do the techniques against appropriate pads. Now we can work our speed, distancing and contact without fear of hurting our partner. It may not have the mobility or contextual realism of the armoured training, but we can hit harder and faster and improve our technique.
So the use of pads and armour was what was missing?
In two and a half hours I performed each of the five Pinan kata twice and my training partner and I each did one repetition of each application drill that I have decided to share. If I’d been less ambitious and picked a single kata with its drills, run through it as a solo aide memoire, donned armour and drilled the bunkai with moderate impact, then isolated the striking techniques and worked them against pads, then revised with a solo performance of the same kata, I reckon I could have ninety minutes of well balanced training. The perfect kata lesson.
Wait a second, was that kata, kumite and kihon?
Oh well. If it works…
Reality Based Self Defence is an umbrella term for a training methodology that seems to divide the martial arts community. On the one hand no sensible person seems to dispute that bringing realism to training can improve its value for self protection, on the other the means by which that realism is created divides people both inside and outside the RBSD umbrella, an umbrella that includes people from a broad variety of training backgrounds.
For me scenario training is where the thin line between worthwhile training and irrelevant fantasy is trod. I am very much in favour of putting (suitably trained) students into role plays simulating real assaults (and depending upon the students, situations where they may need to control or arrest resisting people) – but how this is achieved separates to my mind those who are doing something worthwhile from those who are living in a fantasy world. Describing some people who are either self labeled or externally branded as RSBD as living in a fantasy world may seem harsh, but if the material taught isn’t pressure tested as a means of quality management – then it’s my honest opinion that this is what they are. In Budo Sportif quality control is very much in evidence: it’s seen in sparring and in any number of contact and non contact competitions. Martial artists in those arenas have no doubt as to the efficacy of their techniques in their competitions because they are continuously pressure tested for that medium.
Unfortunately there is a booming market for techniques that are ‘to deadly to train’. Some of these are valid, many are not. Stabbing someone with a blade to end a fight, or shooting them, are valid (though not always legal) methods of ending fights (providing your aim is good under pressure and you have trained to access your skill sets under pressure). Unless you have the financial wherewithal to have access to appropriate protective equipment, environments and ammunition types the latter training method cannot be taken off the firing range – it is too deadly to train. There are certain debilitating techniques that can often be effective: eye strikes, groin strikes, neck strikes, baseball bat strikes – but while some of these are too risky to train full contact, none of them can be guaranteed to negate a threat and so claiming that you cannot practice your techniques because ‘they are too deadly’ is living in a fantasy world of your own creation. As none of these techniques are 100% fail-proof, and anyone who has trained these techniques in full contact scenarios or used them for real will vouch that they are not, at the very least you need a repertoire of companion and redundancy techniques that aren’t too deadly to train (and we know that because of their use in the sporting arenas, from real life experience/observation, or in scenario training) that you are pressure testing.
Having taken the decision to pressure test studied techniques in scenarios, there are various steps that any professional instructor needs to bear in mind before allowing training to take place. RBSD Scenario training does not just happen, or rather it shouldn’t just happen, it is a process.
A. The training environment. Your environment might be suitable for regular training – but is it okay for a scenario? When the proverbial hits the fan it is amazing how quickly people can end up on the floor, up against the wall or in a corner. It’s very important that the training environment risk assessment that you’ve done for normal classes has been reevaluated. How solid is that wall if people crash into it? How close are people to the windows – are there going to need to be safety supervisors blocking the way? What about notice boards and fire extinguishers? Is the floor soft or does it need padding – or do the people need sternum and knee padding? Do those pillars need padding?
A carefully prepared training environment:
I may sound like an over-protective mother here. If you bump your knee or backside on the ground it’s part of the learning process right? You’d do that in a real fight wouldn’t you? Right?
Wrong. If an injury could have been prevented – you are liable for it. And yes getting a bump may be a learning experience, but getting a serious long term knee or coccyx injury that might be ‘acceptable’ while saving a life in a real fight isn’t acceptable for a student who has a life to lead and a job to go to. Your job is to make the student safer – and part of that is making sure he is fit and well enough to go to work tomorrow as well as taking part in your next lesson.
Light and sound are also factors in your training environment. You may want to have bright light so that you can see, but you may also want the facility to dim the lights to create a visual effect – if it is safe to do so. You may want bright sunlight streaming into the room so you can teach maneuvering and positioning to get the sun behind you and not the other person. You might want quiet so that you can hear any conversations that are taking place in the scenario, and any safety words (see below), but you might also want noise as an aural distraction tool which makes focusing much harder. All these factors need to be accounted for.
B. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). If you are making full contact I’d regard this as a must, and you need the right tools for the job. There is a balance to be struck here between the psychological conditioning of receiving contact (for the defender if there is one) in the scenario, the psychological conditioning of making contact against a real person, and the duty of care to protect all concerned. Certainly head gear that fully protects the face is a must – people who have jobs cannot afford to go to work missing teeth, or with facial bruises – it’s that simple. Ultimately wearing armour is not a cop out – you still feel pain, still get winded, but you reduce or negate the chances of bones being broken and you allow people to train at greater intensity for longer without serious injury. PPE is really a subject that deserves an entire article of its own. There are the various bits and pieces made by innumerable companies designed for specific sparring arenas, and then there are the RBSD specific products such as the Bullet Man, Redman (and Redman WDS), FIST, High Gear and Spartan Training Gear. Personally I increasingly use Spartan Training Gear because of its unique slim fit and versatility along with the attention to design and utility detail with each new product. Alongside this I use a lighter non plate flexible slimmer armour for more experienced trainees that I have developed myself and is not available for sale.
Participants in Spartan Training Gear:
It is important to be aware that head gear does not prevent knockouts or brain injuries, it reduces impact but does not remove it. If full contact strikes were always made to the head with the combination of MMA gloves and sparring head gear then each scenario would be like asking participants to enter a full contact UFC bout. All training is a compromise and armour use expands how far training can be taken, but it does not remove all the risks: attention to detail and clear rules are important if you are to make the most of PPE.
A good job this preemptive defence was pulled:
C. Rules. There’s no such thing as no rules – even when simulating the rule free environment of real assaults. Have a safety brief, and a medical brief – these should be formal, not informal. Everyone needs to know what the training framework is – what things should (and will) cause a cessation of training. Have a safety word and make sure everyone knows it. In DART we use “Zero” since “stop” and “halt” are words that are likely to be used in the dialogue of any scenario. Are you utilizing weapons? If so – what sort, who is controlling them, who is checking them, what safety measures have you in place to ensure training and real items are never mixed? This may sound silly to UK readers, but it’s not so silly to Police Departments abroad where people have lost their lives due to real ammunition causing fatalities in training scenarios.
D. The number of safety supervisors. You can’t be everywhere. You can’t see every angle, and your brain isn’t fast enough to track everything. That’s why having more than one set of eyes is always best. In an ideal world I’d have a safety supervisor for every person taking part – all positioned at different angles – all with the power to stop training. Most environments don’t make that possible unless you have observation walkways above the training area. Every participant (especially the role players) should also be looking out for positions where someone could fall badly, put a joint too far through a range of motion etc, and all be briefed to call a halt to training if necessary.
E. The skill level of the participants. One size does not fit all. You cannot place a student (or a simulated attacker) in a scenario for which they have not been equipped with the appropriate mental, verbal or physical toolsets. When briefing an attacker you need to ensure that the ‘technique repertoire’ that they are going to use is appropriate for the student for whom that scenario is being created. The educational value of attacking a student in a manner that requires something they have not been taught is minimal, and to do so runs a greater risk of injury for both attacker and student that is unacceptable. Ultimately – the skill levels of the participants restrict the ferocity, contact and techniques of the situation – and at the same time determine it’s aim.
F. Techniques. I talked above about techniques that some consider ‘too deadly’ to train. You need to risk assess your repertoire. If it’s not safe to do full speed in a real time real force scenario – then it shouldn’t be there, and everyone should know. If it is not effective in a real time real force scenario, it shouldn’t be there either since you are risking injury by attempting it.
A. Physical Development/Assessment. Though not necessarily the most important of training aims for scenario training, this is the most obvious. A well executed scenario simulation enables both the instructor and the student to see the quality of their physical technique under pressure. In terms of feedback, for RBSD students this is the equivalent of a fighter going into the ring in MMA – with a well constructed scenario this is as good as it’s going to get.
Students at the end of a DART Sim Day in their different coloured T shirts; the variety helps with identification on video feedback:
B. Psychological Development. There are many strands of the psychological development that can be gained, for both attacker and defender in taking part in scenario based training.
(i) Aggressive Mindset. Before striking a mobile attacker full contact in a scenario a student should normally first have learned power development through hitting pads, shields and bags. Next I would expect a student to have progressed on to hitting a static person along a force continuum, since not everyone is naturally programmed to be able to hit another person with ease. Once this mental threshold has been passed I would expect a person to have been trained to hit an appropriately armoured training partner in a more dynamic context – such as the strict routine of a drill – becoming accustomed to striking in context. Both of these situations are different from finding the aggression and the willpower to strike a person in an ‘alive’ training context where their attack will not stop until ‘you’ stop it. The aforementioned situations lay the foundations to overcome inhibitions, but it often takes the scenario to release and test those inhibitions fully. Benefit is not solely limited to the defender. In fact role playing an attacker can often help release aggressive inhibitions too, and make it easier for a timid person to become a successful defender.
(ii) Pain Management. As I have described previously in Iain Abernethy’s Jissen Magazine, the conditioning gained from hitting and being hit by another person is psychological, not physical. Prior static training builds up the ability to accept pain and an appreciation of what certain blows feel like (in muted form). Role playing as both defender and attacker in contact simulations develops the mindset to carry on regardless.
(iii) Verbal skills. The ability to think – and talk – under pressure is something that distinguishes scenario training from lots of basic sparring. The conditioning to ignore verbal abuse, to be less affected by physical posturing, shouting, facial contortion and swearing, and the development of the ability to speak with a greater degree of calm. In many scenarios I purposely build in language phrases that the attackers will take as a cue to change tactics – whether to go directly to physical or to allow themselves to be talked down. The rationale is simple – if every scenario you encounter in self defence training turns physical, are you really training avoidance and de-escalation? No. Students need to practice working their skills in an environment that simulates reality – and that means employing verbal tactics when things may or may not go physical, and to have success in employing those verbal tactics that will encourage them to use them for real without compromising their physical position.
(iv) Fear Management and Confidence. This is linked to all the psychological items listed above. One criticism that I have known some martial artists make of RBSD is that it panders to and creates paranoia. I am not personally a fan of exaggerating crime statistics to gain students, nor do I believe that people ‘should expect to get attacked’ at every turn. What I suspect to be the truth though is that the vast majority of people who take up a form of martial arts training do so with self protection being one (if not the only or the most paramount) of their reasons. Do I think that RBSD creates paranoia? No. Paranoid tendencies create paranoia. What RBSD does, or rather should do, is train people to defend themselves against the most common violent situations, inform them of steps to avoid these, educate them as to their likelihood, and pressure test them. In doing that you create a fear management tool both for everyday life and for real situations. The former because having done everything you can feasibly do for what is (for the majority of us) an unlikely situation, you don’t need to worry about it. The latter because having experienced replications of such situations again and again you are more likely to retain a degree of psychological control and take the most appropriate course of action depending upon the situation.
An argument in a DART Simulation Day:
Every training scenario should have at least one core aim. Even basic training is so complex that you cannot isolate one of the above from all the others, but training without a clear objective of skill reinforcement, skill development, skill assessment is unstructured, wasteful, and potentially dangerous.
I run several ‘open’ simulation training days a year at my local venue and travel to deliver the same training too. It’s great fun and surprisingly tiring for the participants given the actual amount of time they are physically active. One thing I enjoy about running such days is that even when people have struggled initially, they always enjoy themselves, they always improve, they appreciate the feedback, they can make their own decisions about what works and what doesn’t, and the camera (unlike our memories) doesn’t lie.
In this day and age there is a great deal of Karate on offer to potential students. In different countries and different counties/states there are perhaps greater concentrations of particular styles, and some have gained a greater following than others, but they all have a lineage (even if it is through a differently named style) of teachers that can be traced back to a fairly small number of individual teachers in the mid to late C19 on Okinawa.
If we consider the many styles that have come from these individuals – what a heritage they have left us. Is it possible to count all the styles and be sure you do in fact have them all? Then there are styles within styles or different associations of the same style – still using the same ‘brand name’ but with subtle differences and often their own independent grading systems.
Today there are many pressures on karate teachers that may not have existed for those men in Okinawa so many years ago. A modern instructor may not necessarily be running a club to provide himself or his association income, but he/she still has to bring in enough students to cover the hall rental if there is to be any training at all. Whether we like it or not, each club is a business to a certain degree, even if its aims are solely charitable. Prospective students are faced with far greater choice than ever before between different dojos and other systems, and the amount of information available to them is at once both helpful and confusing. Did the question as to ‘what’ karate is for – self defence, personal development, fitness, flexibility and so forth – vex students and teachers then as much as it does now in our ‘on demand’ and ‘alternative service’ world? In 1908 Anko Itosu wrote
You must decide if karate is for your health or to aid your duty.
but I wonder how many people who have trained in karate have truly established what they are training for, and in what order of priority.
A natural response to this competitive world has been for many instructors to adopt terms to describe the way ‘they’ practise karate as opposed to other styles. Over the years I have seen terms such as ‘practical’, ‘modern’, ‘classical’, ‘sport’, ‘full contact’ and ‘traditional’ used as a means of simplifying core principles and methods and creating distance with competitors. The question I want to raise here is – what is traditional karate?
It seems such a simple question. I wonder how many of you immediately pictured a shiny wooden floor and beautiful plain white karate suits? Tatami mats anyone? Makiwara and traditional strengthening tools? A shrine? Did you think of a teacher with just one or two students, or a nice big class moving as one to the Sensei’s shout? Was there linework or techniques practiced by number in your mental picture? Were the commands in Japanese? Did the students spar? Did your mind go to Okinawa, Japan, or the tales of how Karate was in your country when the pioneering instructors introduced it?
I don’t wish to sound glib, but the thing about tradition is that once you’ve done something more than once – it can be classed as tradition. You may want to describe your precise replication of the way your teacher taught you in ‘1970’ as the definitive tradition for your style – but what would you say if someone observing it said “well actually he was quite a modernist and this is how they did it where he came from and how it’s still done there.” Is that just as traditional or more traditional?
What I would like to raise here is that we could say that there is more to traditional karate than physical actions, language, drills or even kata – there is intent. What was the intent of those men who sought out other teachers and trained and passed on their knowledge? There is no way that you can be Sokon Matsumura, Anko Azato, Anko Itosu, Kokan Oyadomori, Kanryo Higaonna or Chotoku Kyan: you cannot train precisely the way they did or replicate their experiences – but you can aim for the same thing they did. Isn’t that traditional?
Must there be Japanese in a traditional karate class? The Japanese use Japanese because it is their native language. When a Japanese announces the name of a Kata or technique they are thus experiencing something quite different from a non-Japanese speaking occidental doing the same – even if you have a good translation in mind. The use of the Japanese language can lead to confusion over technique (such as translating the word Uke as ‘block’ instead of something more appropriate like ‘receiver’), particularly when discussing items with those practising Chinese or Korean styles. English, on the other hand is a great leveller and promoter of accurate communication between English speaking practitioners of an art. “But it’s traditional to use Japanese!” many might cry. Is it? I don’t think so. Karate has only been the ‘preserve’ of the Japanese since the second decade of the 20th century – not even 100 years. For the second half of that century it has been practiced by non-Japanese speaking individuals across the world, in fact there are more non Japanese speaking Karateka than native speaking trainees. If we choose to look at the preceding 100 years, from the time period where most of the Kata that Karateka practice were developed, we find that Karate was Okinawan and Chinese, not Japanese. In how many Okinawan dojos were Karateka using the local Okinawan dialect and pronunciation rather than Japanese? These trainees used the language they spoke – they didn’t keep the Chinese names for Kata or techniques, they changed them to their mother tongue. Even the name Karate is fairly modern. How many traditional schools translate this as (and use the Kanji for) the modern ‘Empty hand’ instead of the older ‘China hand’? According to tradition Anko Itosu remodelled (or created) and renamed the Channan kata ‘Pinan’ to make it easier to pronounce. If we wish to follow tradition then we could use our native tongue for Kata names and technique names to ensure an accurate transmission of ideas and knowledge rather than mimicking the Japanese. I’ve had fewer problems using the term ‘ball of foot roundhouse kick’ than ‘Maewashi geri’ when discussing techniques or sharing information online, but someone who only talks ‘karate’ with karateka might find the Japanese term more widely accepted.
Is a Gi a symbol of traditional karate? It is a useful hard wearing garment and students do tend to like uniformity – it ‘gets them in the mood’. When combined with a coloured belt system It is also convenient for displaying rank – which helps the teacher in mixed ability classes. It is essentially the ‘underwear’ of traditional dress from an age and culture where people did not have specialist sport/training clothing. The idea was to wear something that came close to everyday dress but allowed you to move and it didn’t matter if it got dirty. The Gi and belt are symbols of the Japanization of Karate, but Karate predates them. If you put on a tracksuit and sweatshirt you are adhering to some principles behind the adoption of the Gi, if you all wear the same tracksuit or t shirts (think of MMA clubs with brand loyalty to a particular logo, or indeed their own club logo) then you are following the same ‘club uniform and group identity’ principles that underwrote the beginning of the modern karate uniform.
Let us consider spiritual teaching. This is a very blurry aspect of martial arts practise. The study of the Karate has, due in no small part to its Chinese background, long been linked with the teaching of self-control. Many of the praised mental values of the martial arts are simply facets of the oriental background culture, some of which while uncommon in the West today would have been part and parcel of pre mid-twentieth century English society. The merging of these teachings as part of the Japanese pursuit of Do, ‘way of the empty hand’ rather than ‘China hand fighting system’, is again a relatively modern phenomenon. I do believe in endeavouring to impart through the medium of martial arts training the qualities of humility, respect, self-discipline, and the ability to keep a calm and level mind. The question that springs to my mind is not so much whether their teaching is designed to produce ‘better’ people so much as to produce people less likely to get into fights – the first and most important stage of any real self-protection programme. I do not feel that the teaching of these aspects can be helped at all in any way by using a foreign language. Having taught in schools, dojos, university tutorials and in the military I would say that communication is one of the most important elements of teaching – I cannot see as many benefits in using Japanese terms instead of appropriate English translations.
What about training equipment? The Makiwara is an interesting training tool. I had one between 1994 – 2004 when I decided I couldn’t be bothered to dig up the 7 foot pole for yet another move. When you think of what used to be available in Okinawa – it is very clever: it provides resistance – but not so much to damage the joints, provides solo target training and bone/skin conditioning. You can use a Makiwara for more than just punching – but it is limited compared to a bag, or a bytonic bob, or a partner with a good shield, thai pads or focus mitts. I am certain that if those training tools were widely available in the mid to late C19 and of comparable price and quality then they would have been used and recognised as better. The various strength tools that come from China, Okinawa and Japan also show ingenuity – but they are also an example of doing the best you can with the resources available. There are better ways to work now and we would be in keeping with tradition to use them. Would you say that someone isn’t traditional because they use focus mitts or punch bags? Would you say that people are not traditional because they don’t use Makiwara? It is the development of power, stability and accuracy through striking a target that is traditional – not the target used. Few people would choose straw tatami over modern easily cleanable purposely designed martial arts mats.
A subject that is quite close to my heart these days is that of armour and physical contact. I accept that in karate it is difficult to safely make contact – that is par for the course and the curse of the percussive element of our art. Some styles discourage paired work as too dangerous, others practice it now but with ‘no contact’, others still work full contact to limited areas. Some say that in Shotokan sparring is non traditional because Funakoshi disagreed with it, though Funakoshi himself was interested in the possibility of armoured karate. I’m not aware of evidence that shows his teachers disagreed with it and in this instance a personal preference seems to have started a short lived tradition. If you look at this picture of Okinawan karateka Kenwa Mabuni about to do paired work you can see that he is trying the best armour he could piece together to enable him to make his paired practise as ‘real’ as safely possible.
Doesn’t the picture of the students in Spartan Training Gear show the same intent? We are lucky that we have much better gear to allow us to use contact safely. For many years I rejected the use of armour because of the limitations on movement that I perceived it to have, and the areas of the body still left unprotected, but there is armour available now that protects the majority of the body and allows free movement. As a result of this progression in PPE I use armour regularly depending on the levels of contact within my classes, and those that have followed some of my videos on the DART youtube channel will know that we have used it to good effect in multiple person self protection Scenario Training.
Another element of training that I personally find interesting is the predominance of line work. I trained in a ‘traditional’ Shotokan school for over a decade and found that this form of training accounted for well over a third of all training time (the other elements were pre-arranged sparring and Kata practice. The parrot-fashion line work that forms so much of modern Karate was a method engineered for the huge University classes of the early C20 onwards (although it is possible that this method may have first come about when Karate was introduced to Okinawan schools by Anko Itosu in 1910). It has strengths as a training method but It is hardly any more traditional than the Sport Karate championed by Nakayama (in Shotokan).
Kata. Kata is a very important part of tradition. Kata is so important that many karate styles make their students learn it for no obvious reason than to have learnt it. Does that interpretation of much of modern kata practise shock you? Are you one of the lucky trainees who spends most of their Kata practise actually applying the moves against a partner? Actually doing something with the kata? When I think of all those anecdotes of the ‘master’ who knew only one Kata or the person who spent five years learning one Kata, I wonder to myself – how much time did they spend practising it solo and how much time did they spend working it paired? When they did practise it solo, did they do it the same way and same speed over and over, or did they vary the speed and movements many times according to what they were visualising as the application? What is more important – the application and intent of the moves or the rehearsal of the moves? When books and videos were hard to come by, solo kata practise as a teaching tool made sense. It makes less sense now because we can transmit that knowledge in different ways. That is not to say that the lessons and techniques contained in Kata are not still important or useful. My only question is this – shouldn’t we always strive to give the student the best method (for them) possible to help them train and remember their drills? Isn’t the Bunkai and Oyo ultimately more important than the solo Kata? Wasn’t that what it was all about? Isn’t that what it’s for?
Let us take this train of thought a stage further. If the Kata represent a repertoire of combat principles and techniques, and we drill those techniques and teach those principles, but never actually spend any time training away from the teacher or the class – do we still need the Kata? The Kata isn’t going to die out – we are still using all its movements and they are all stored together in books and films. If the solo form is simply a mnemonic, and you are practising the subject of the mnemonic, do you need to learn the mnemonic if you are never going to train alone? What is its use if you are never going to use it? Is the tradition of how we remember techniques more important than the techniques themselves? Didn’t the techniques come before the Kata? If the movements predate the Kata then isn’t the Kata just a learning tool – it may be traditional to do it, but it is equally traditional to use the techniques. By this logic you could still be traditional without doing any Kata at all. That may be too much of a jump for many people, but some Karate styles have found their method of practice so distanced by their current pedagogy from their ‘original’ kata that they have created their own that reflect their training drills. It’s quite likely that this practise is one of the reasons why we have not only so many different forms today, but so many variations between styles on the same forms.
If a Karate style was recognized as having been created in 1890 there are few who would not describe its modern practitioners as ‘traditional’. What about if it was created in 1920? 1950? 1980? 2013? There was a precedent of students cross-training and forming their own styles after 10 years of training just as there now is a tradition of students imitating their teachers and never progressing further other than biomechanical efficiency or passing on personal study. The latter case is unfortunately typical of the more shallow nature of much of modern Karate, the result of the Jitsu (practical fighting) teaching being dropped in favour of sport and moving Zen emphases – the real martial element becoming superficial at best. Although the number of students in Karate has increased the number of serious innovators seems to have remained relatively constant – partly due to the pressure of the ‘market brands’ and partly due to the fact that few can dedicate enough concentrated time to the furtherance of their art. If we look at three of the foremost figures in the history of my own lineage of ‘modern’ karate, Sokon Matsumura, Anko Itosu and Gichin Funakoshi it can be seen that:
all three of them cross trained,
all three of them set up their own schools,
all three of them made alterations to Kata,
all three of them had students who followed in their footsteps and created their own styles,
none of them had what we would recognize as Dan grades awarded in their own styles from masters in their own styles.
It is odd therefore to condemn students who cross-train, study hard and develop their own integrated method of training with its own philosophy, or to claim that they are not ‘traditional’. Like their predecessors they are living in the present. A new system of Karate can still be traditional – in fact depending upon the methods and outlook of its instructors it could be more traditional than its ‘ancestor’.
As students and teachers we develop. We learn new things and gain new insights. There is so much more information available to us in the realm of sports science and human physiology. So much more available to us on the subject of war, crime and psychology. There are so many good teachers of other martial arts that we can learn from. Why is cross training frowned upon? It is traditional. Cross training can bring new ideas and changes and of course these can lead to changes in kata and training methods. If you look back to the C19 you can see that happening then. I would not support change for the sake of change, but I would not oppose change as a result of new insights. If there was no change and no growth we would not have such a rich Karate heritage or such diversity today.
Consider the training methods at your own dojo and return once more to the question of the nature of tradition. You may be fortunate enough to work on a nice sprung wooden floor, the club may have many knowledgeable and skilled dan grades and teachers. The spirit of the club may be high and the uniforms pristine (at the start of each training session anyway). All these things represent elements of particular Karate traditions. But I ask this – what is the intent behind your training? Is that traditional? Does your teacher seek what the karateka before him sought? Do you?
If you were to walk into one of my normal lessons you would hear no Japanese. You would see no lines of white suits. If you see our solo form work then you’ll see it put into paired practise move for move. You would see the best body armour I can buy being used and evidence of up to date research in physiology and psychology. You would see plenty of work involving focus mitts and kick shields. You might recognise movements from your kata, but you would see them in action. I will quite happily don a Gi to teach in your dojo, but it’s not suitable for mine (not least because body armour doesn’t fit over it very well). Through all of this I see myself as a very traditional Karateka: I am trying to provide the best self-protection teaching and training I can based upon the culture I am operating in, aimed for the culture and time that my students are living in, using all the facilities available to me – and that brings a tremendous peace of mind. That is traditional karate.