This article was written by Stuart Elkin, who is a 3rd Dan karate sensei based here in the United Kingdom. This is Stuart's second article for the Guest Writer's section of this website and I'm very grateful to him for sharing this article with members and visitors to this site. Stuart's writing is very absorbing and informative and I'm certain that you'll enjoy his work as much as I have.
All the best,
Keeping the Faith
By Stuart Elkin
A number of years ago, I was assaulted so badly that my face is now held together by 5 metal plates. I questioned my training and belief in martial arts almost to the point of giving it all up.
Although I was running a club at this time, I was still training hard, real hard, I was fit, fast, motivated and energetic and my belief in my Martial Arts ability left me in no doubt that I could take on the world..and win!
After a lesson one day I found one of our students, who was around 14yrs old in tears. When I asked what was wrong, he explained that he had been the subject of bullying and harassment for some time and that there was a "gang" waiting for him outside. I told him not to worry and that I would wait with him until his dad came to collect him.
While waiting there it occurred to me that if I was to perhaps talk to these yobs, apart from being involved in karate, just being an adult might make them listen and maybe even leave him alone. I went outside and confronted a few of youths who showed absolutely no interest in what I was saying. One particular youth became rather "cocky", so I spoke to him in no uncertain terms, he became rather agitated and moved in what I considered to be a threatening manner, so I instinctively put up " the fence " (thanks to Geoff Thomson's teachings), and the lad swung a punch at me, after a small scuffle, I found myself waiting for a father, brother and mate, who were all coming down to "rip my head off".
I didn't feel too concerned at this point, I was back in the leisure centre, pretty public place, there were a number of people milling about and I had spoken with the duty manager about the situation. I naturally assumed that reason would prevail. To cut a long story short, I subsequently found myself surrounded by four or five people who all looked intent on "having a go" and although my stomach was doing somersaults, and I knew only too well that I if it " kicked off " I would indeed take a bashing, my mind was racing! I remember thinking, "just do it, have a go, go down fighting!" all sorts of things were racing through my mind. Instead of preparing myself, I just stood there, arms by my side, passive, reasoning that even at this point, we would simply talk it through.
How wrong I was! As one asked me a question, another hit me full on in the face and before I could react to that, I was struck from the side. The force of this second strike was such that it turned me and I knew instinctively that I had been badly hurt because the pain became numbness almost immediately. I think some evasion training must have automatically kicked in, because I was able to use the force of the blow to continue the turn and walk towards the mangers office to find safety.
It later transpired that I had if been "coshed" with an iron bar and after a subsequent operation, I was told by the surgeon who reconstructed my face, that my cheek and upper jaw had just been a " mush of broken bone " and that I was extremely lucky, not only to have recovered so well and that they had been able to reconstruct my face in the first place but also that the blow could have been potentially fatal. I look back and do indeed consider myself lucky as had I been knocked to the floor, I certainly believe I would have had "seven bells kicked out of me".
For longer than I care to remember, this episode haunted me night after night. Thoughts of ; I should have done something. I could have done more.. Why did I just stand there?..........Thoughts of revenge, what I wanted to do to these people, planning, scheming. But the thought that kept me awake most, night after night was... where was my training when I needed it ?!?
I had spent 12 years managing a privately run Homeless hotel, or "halfway house", regularly inhabited with drug users and heavy drinkers and confrontation was a weekly occurrence. Many situations were quelled by simply "shouting down" my opponent and using aggressive, but non violent body language. On the odd occasion that it did get physical, I would deal with it quickly and effectively, but I never really had to use Karate as such. No doubt my training and fitness helped at these times but usually a simple right hook or grabbing someone's throat would do the trick.
So why now? Why, when I needed my training the most, why wasn't it there working on auto pilot as I'd always assumed it would?
I had indeed trained hard for years, I had studied my arts, I felt comfortable that I could defend myself should the need arise, I had been in fights before and done ok, yet here I was having found myself in a situation that demanded action and I'd just stood there, did nothing. No matter how much I thought it through, I always came back to the same conclusion.. Martial arts didn't work, all my years of training were for nothing!
Simply put, I lost my faith.
I carried on teaching, but quite frankly my heart wasn't in it. How could I honestly teach a class, knowing full well that the arts wouldn't work? How could I look these kids in the eye and tell them that all the training they were doing was worthwhile? I felt a complete fraud!
I had become friends with the centre manager, himself a karate man, and he gave me a lot of support during this time. One day he told me how he himself had been attacked by a couple of yobs some years earlier and had took a bit of a bashing, being active in karate himself at the time, he explained how he too had experienced similar feelings and the doubts which I was struggling with. I was able to put the whole thing into much better perspective when he said, "you shouldn't be knocking yourself out like this, it's hard to defend yourself against more than one person, while you're dealing with the one in front of you, the other one's hitting you from behind" the more he talked about it all, the better I started to feel and for the first time in many months I started to feel very different!
This was obviously so true. For months and months I had struggled with the situation in my mind. Here I was, losing all faith in myself and my art because I hadn't been able to fight off 4 or 5 people, for heavens sake, who can!! What was I thinking?!?, I'm 5'6, 10 ½ stone and 40+, this wasn't some kung-fu film where the hero beats up an entire street, this was real life, and it's hard enough to deal effectively with one attacker, let alone more!
On reflection I can see that I had probably become over confident, possibly even a little blasé about my abilities. I had never properly, pressure tested my techniques, never knew if my so called skills would really work in a real situation. In previous confrontations, maybe I'd just got lucky, maybe my opponents never really had a fight in them in the first place. Maybe it was because previous encounters had usually been "one on one" and therefore much less threatening more likely to have a positive outcome for me..who knows. What I did know was this; in the years that I had been teaching, I had neglected my own training. I had put all my beliefs in; "that technique is good", "that would work for me" of course it would..in the Dojo!
The karate I was relying on, was stuff I had learnt in my early years, in the good old days when two blokes would square up, have a "straightener", buy each other a pint after and probably go on to become mates!! Of course it's not like that in today's society. People fight in groups, people carry weapons and although you wouldn't know it to look at me, my face will serve as a permanent reminder of that fact.
I re-evaluated my thinking. I reasoned that martial arts could actually be quite effective if kept in perspective and viewed realistically. I have always believed that "a good big 'un", will always beat " a good little un" but in a "like for like" situation, similar weight, height, etc, with the right training, the martial artist should have the edge. I spent more time looking into "realistic martial arts", techniques that could really work. I have to give much credit here to world renowned Self-Defence expert Geoff Thompson, who in my opinion has the most realistic approach to self preservation and awareness. I started to realise that I was looking at it all wrong.
Geoff spoke of all the emotions that I had experienced, and how feelings like "I should have done more" and the torment of self-doubt were only natural. From the advice in his many books I realised I could have used my awareness better, that there would have been no shame in walking away from this situation rather than feeding my ego by staying around to deal with it and how many of the techniques I felt comfortable with could have been used in a better way. I started to realise that maybe my karate could be more useful than I was giving it credit.
I looked at all aspects of my Karate differently. Instead of looking at Kata as a traditional set of moves, designed to defend oneself in set situations, Iain Abernethy showed that Kata can be so much more. That if one is prepared to look a little deeper, kata contains countless, effective applications that can be used in many different scenario's.
From Iain's teachings it started to become quite apparent that there are some extremely effective and workable techniques in the kata that I had been so practicing for so many years, but like so many, I had become stuck in outdated applications that in reality, were very unlikely to work in the way that they often taught! I began to see past the mist of tradition and found with Iain's and Geoff's guidance I could make much more of my karate. All I needed to do was look a little deeper, try a little harder.
I was starting to realise that after 20+ years of training, I really didn't know that much at all.
My karate hadn't let me down... just my interpretation of it had.
Slowly but surely, I found my faith.
Stuart Elkin © Copyright 2004