Adapt, Improvise, Overcome

Many years ago, I met a Karateka who referred to his “Bobby Charlton book of Karate.” Suffice to say, he had had more than his fair share of “adventures.” When asked about this book, he simply smiled and said, of course there’s no such book, sometimes you just have to work it out as you go along.

2020 has a number of anniversaries for me. 40 years in karate, 30 years in banking, 20 years of Fife Shotokan. Seminars, courses and competitions planned, karate travels being imagined and so on. Then COVID arrived.

Moving to lockdown training was unusual. I am lucky that I’ve been using Zoom for work, so the tech wasn’t new. Everything else was.

I could have just trained alone, heavens knows there’s enough things to be worked on. But, I also have the responsibility to help others with their training. So, time to learn!

Many others have been more successful in their Zoom training than I have. That’s great, so I did what I normally do- see what others do well and replicate success.

No room? Work out how to do kata in a small space. Kata in a square became really popular. Then I thought – actually, using it as a diamond allows you to work the angles more. As Ger O’Dea commented, we were sweating the kata:

How to better engage the class over Zoom? I learned to introduce more Tabata, musical challenges. Kihon in Tabata works pretty well – we get the reps in, and with ‘Rocky’ in the background, you forget that you’re working hard. Plus, Grace got her musical knowledge stretched.

I recalled a seminar from last year, delivered by Prof Chris Cushion. You might not control your participants, but you can control the timings. So, I learned to structure the classes down to the minute. No more winging it, no more having an idea and letting it flow. Again, I watched other online sessions – some were just a dojo class online, others were much more engaging.

How do you run a class where the participants are white belts to 6th Dan? Back to layered learning, but in a much more structured approach. We’re lucky in the HKA to have had been taught by excellent communicators. So, same same but different. The layering got better, and again, done at a high tempo, which kept everyone busy and working hard.

Now, as lockdown starts to ease, my thoughts are turning to what I’ll carry forward into the dojo once we’re training together again. I have some ideas, and will asking the club members for their views. After all, they’ve been kind enough to listen to my Dad jokes for 18 weeks. I do suspect “Tubthumping” by Chumbawumba will be retired, mind you.

Like the rest of the planet, our karate has had to adapt to the circumstances. We’ve done this, and done this pretty well. A massive thanks to all the folk who have continued to train over this time.

We’re not going back to the way things were. We’ve moved to something different. So, adapting and overcoming will continue. So will the learning.

Anyway, happy training.

A Karate review of 2016

The blog is a combination of several things: a Thank You, a Christmas Card, a look back at a year of teaching and training and general reflection of what everyone has achieved. Think of it as a round robin letter about kicking and punching.

I started thinking about this blog a couple of weeks back – how best to capture all that we as a club and the HKA have done this year. Relying upon my memory is definitely not the best method, so I turned to Facebook to see what events Fife Karate have held and attended. So, sit back, pop a cold one and reflect:

January – Heian and Kanku Dai Kata Workshop. After a false start (centre was closed that morning due to a burst pipe) we relocated to Duloch, and with a packed hall, we spent 4 happy hours training. With thanks to a surprise guest appearance from some of our Inverness friends!
This was followed two weeks later with a Self Defence Workshop. I distinctly remember getting thrown, bitten and kicked in the groin by Mrs Slaney!

 

February -together with Kanzen Karate, we hosted Sensei Trimble on his first trip to Scotland for 2016.

March – Sensei Hazard course in Inverness. Sensei Phil Owen promoted to 6th Dan.

April – Sensei Ross course, focusing on the senior grades; ahead of a wee Dan grading or two later in the year.

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Andy & Colin with their Dan Certificates

June – our 15th Anniversary course with Senseis Hazard & Trimble. Of equal importance and pride, was seeing Colin achieving 4th Dan and Andy reaching his 3rd Dan.Both gentlemen invested years of work and research towards their gradings. For Colin, it must have seemed like decades!

 

It was a great weekend of training, finished off with the successful Dan grades and a great Kyu grading.

Two weeks later, we trained with our friends as Kanzen Karate, on the Jesse Enkamp course.

August – HKA Instructors course. I was delighted to be invited to teach at Charleston Karate club and run a competition class. Remember – don’t discuss the Ronnie Punch!

September – I think I hold the record for the longest travel to get to a class, when I trained in a Goju Ryu club in Perth – Western Australia! Many thanks to all at the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts for their warm welcome.
HKA Competition in Inverness – 60 competitors took part in a great day, which even ran to time!

October – HKA Brown and Black Belt Course and Sensei Hazard also returned to Inverness.

November – Fife Karate Kids Competition.
A few of the club seniors trained with Kaicho Amor, of Ryukyu Karate. A fantastic martial artist and true gentlemen; who was extremely gracious with his time and knowledge. And, we held our own First Aid training course, which was very well received.

A few new phrases have entered the club’s lexicon:
“Block with timing, hit with lighting”, “Educational Speed”, “Structural Integrity”
and we still get to roll out the ole FCAO from time to time.

One of my favourite memories will be seeing someone’s gran, crying whilst watching her grandson fight in the competition. “I didn’t know they could get hurt!” she blurted out, but you could see how proud she was of him. That was probably worth as much as his medal.

It’s December now, with only 1 class remaining before we hang up our gis for a couple of weeks. It’s only when I look back at the list – and you take into account the regular training sessions, the pre-grading classes, the squad sessions AND the occasional off-piste classes, that you appreciate how busy we all have been.

I am immensely proud of everyone in the club – the effort and commitment have been outstanding. I’ve also seen an improvement in the standard – as you could all see from this year’s competition results. All of this is down to a combined effort, from the seniors who help instruct, everyone who trains and of course, parents and family members.

And finally, a thank you to my instructors – for keeping me on the path and keeping me learning.
But most of all, to Larissa – for giving me the time to go off and play in my pyjamas as much as I do.

Have a great Christmas and New Year, everyone. Enjoy your break and Lang may yer Lum reek!  We’ve already started planning 2017 events and I hope to bring some news about this very soon.

Oh, and remember – we start back training on the 9th January!

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How it all began

PREFACE: I wrote this article almost 14 years ago, in case you are misled by some of the numbers quoted. It was my first ever article- and it shows. Still, I thought it better not to amend it – it was my view at that time.

How it all began

Whenever I have read articles or guides about learning to write, they often advise to write about what you know. Writing an article about karate is a daunting prospect, as there are many others out there who know more about karate than I do – or ever will.. There are also those who have a gift of writing.

There are even those who can do both!

Rather than trying to come up with a new article which basically covers old ground, I thought about writing about what I know – how I got started in karate and why I am still here, punching and kicking away – now possibly trying to do the same to a keyboard.

Eight years old and my mother was trying to find something to interest me. Her first suggestion was to enrol in the local Scout group, but I refused to do anything that involved wearing shorts – still don’t like wearing shorts too often. Then an advert in the paper appeared, saying that a children’s karate club was starting.

Picture the scene, February 1981 in a former Army drill hall in Inverness. First children’s karate class held, and the hall (size of a basketball court) was filled with two lines of kids, including my younger brother and I. Strange people in strange costumes, doing strange things at the front of the hall. My abiding memory of that night was seeing one child bring back up their dinner about half way through the class.

Second class, about half the number of kids, and yes, someone else bringing up their dinner – mince and tatties on both occasions for those of you who like the little details.

Skip forward three months and the first grading. First time to see Sensei Kato, who could even more strange, wonderful things than my instructors. First grading and I almost failed – a temporary grading (now called Mon grades for children) whilst Martin, lil’ bro’ passed with flying colours. If I had failed outright, would I have continued – probably not?

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I’m on the left!

The classes at that time didn’t take any recognition of the physical abilities of children compared to children. Yes, we were made to bunny hop around the hall, and once I had progressed into the adult class, by the age of 10 or so, we had adults walking over our stomachs, too. [2016 Note – in that way, times have changed to the good.]

I started helping out at a children’s class when I was 15 – and promised that I would never see another bunny hop done as long as I could. I still keep that promise.

Fast forward to 1987 and I am sitting my Shodan. One year before, I have changed clubs for reasons that are no longer important, but I am now back training with my original instructor, Ronnie Ross. Under the watchful eye of Sensei Hazard, a group of three juniors successfully pass Shodan – and I was the eldest at 15!

At that point, I started entering the competition circuit – mainly in the kata events. We were lucky that one of our instructors, Dolina Ross has been Scottish & British Kata Champion, and has represented Britain at 2 World Championships. Even though she was busy training for her own competitive career, she happily coached the rest of the budding stars. I was lucky enough to win some regional titles at the junior level, before moving up to the senior categories.

By the time that I was leaving school and thinking about getting a job, my interest in competing was starting to wane. After a couple of years of competing when every competition was a weekend’s travel – I lost the taste for it. Throughout this time, I was becoming more heavily involved in the teaching side of karate.

I don’t miss the competition side of karate – the camaraderie it inspires is something special and without a doubt, it can be an important element in your overall development in karate. However, to quote the old cliché, it is only one part of training.

In 1994, I took over an existing club, where the instructor retired. The club was not in the HKA at that time, and a lot of the students weren’t very keen on our training methods. I remember my first night at the new club – 4 children and 2 adults from a club that had previously around 30 members. This continued for about six months, until gradually the numbers started to climb. Students from the other clubs where I trained started to attend my dojo for additional training together with new entrants, and two years in the club was starting to blossom.  By the time I left Inverness in 1999, the club had grown to 40 junior members and 15 adults.

Moving away from my hometown with my wife and six month old baby took a lot more hard work than I initially envisaged – so training took a back seat for almost six months. In September 2000, I (once again) took over the helm at a club, which had folded. This getting to be a habit!

Two years in, I am back in the same position – the club is growing and along with some new students, I am very lucky to be supported by some experienced karateka who have returned to training.

So, why do I do it? Well, I’m too old to go to the Scouts these days, so that reason is out. I was never good at sports in school, but seem to have found a niche in karate. Apart from the physical benefits of training, I really enjoy the fact that it is a continual challenge – improving technique, deepening your understanding of kata and making the techniques work.

There are times when the prospect of going training fills everyone with dread – but a certain Sensei of mine always says, “Once you tie your obi – then things get better!”

I get a great deal of satisfaction from teaching as well as training these days – there’s nothing to beat the look of slowly dawning comprehension on a student’s face when they realise that they can now do the technique/kata which they have been grappling with for so long. It’s a bit like being a Dad to a large family; frustrating, hard work but incredibly rewarding all at the same time!

From not wanting to wear shorts to 21 years of training is a bit of a leap, but life’s funny that way, isn’t it.

Happy training

Just keep on, keeping on

One of the things which I’ve always thought made martial arts special is that the instructors are still students. By that, I mean, they still train. 

I remember watching swimming coaches at the poolside, waving one arm and a leg in the air, to simulate swimming techniques to their class. I’ve also seen football coaches, grossly overweight and smoking- shouting at their team to run faster, tackle harder. Before I go any further, these observations are for illustrative purposes; and I’ve seen brilliant swimming and football coaches at work, too. 

The aspect which I want to explore is once again, about karate. All my Sensei still train and it shows. 

At a recent Association competition, the senior instructors each performed a kata. They both got up and did it. The kata wasn’t for points, or medals, or a belt. The kata was their own, for themselves. And it was inspiring.

My wife has very fond memories of visiting New Orleans and watching musicians of all vintages play. Whilst the more, ahem, seasoned campaigners may have been less dynamic than their younger counterparts; the music was as good – if not better. More mellow, a better flow to it. Less for the audience and more for themselves. A bit like our training in fact. 

One of the martial arts floating around social media describes training in the following way: “As you get older, your training becomes more personal and internal.” I agree – but there’s also  times when you have to change the direction a little, test yourself. 

Likewise, the karateka who continuously strives for past glories, may only serve to cause injury to themselves, rather than learn to listen to their joints. It’s hard to improve when all you can feel is pain. 

I guess it might be the same for golfers. After a certain point, the handicap score starts to creep up. Some give up- others look to maintain what they can and adjust accordingly. Ultimately- it’s down to the individual themselves. 

Anyway, back to the competition. I watched my seniors and it was a timely reminder that we all age together. So, the kicks aren’t as high or the stances not as deep – but boy, was every technique effective and the understanding shone through. Like the jazz players, it was their rhythm and interpretation. 

So, what’s the point to this blog? Basically I watched my instructors and thought “well, I’ve got another XX years of training and I might get close.” Some of you might do the arithmetic if I quoted the  exact number of years! 

And the truth is – it won’t matter if I do or I don’t. It only matters that I keep training. The only thing for sure, is that if I don’t train, I definitely won’t get any better.

Sensei Ross performing Gojushio Sho. 

66 Steps – My Daily Kata

This is all Iain Abernethy’s fault. That is – the prompt to me putting words onto a screen was reading two excellent articles by Iain Abernethy and Noah Legel about kata, and why do people do kata.

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My daily route

Our house is on the side of a wooded hill, which proved to be an ideal playground for the kids growing up and dog walking.  In Autumn and Winter (i.e. today!), we can see deer coming down towards our garden, foraging for food.

It was over 3 years between losing  our first dog, Sam and the arrival of our new puppy  Zelda.  And with that, the daily walking recommenced.  The hill is relatively steep, but there are steps which take you to the top – hence the title. I’ve been using the path since first moving here in 2000, and I am not proud to tell you that, even now, I get out of breath climbing them.

In my younger days, I would run up them with Sam easily keeping pace and normally zooming past me. The steps are uneven, with differing heights and distances between each of them. As you may be able to see from the picture, there are parts of the path which are relatively flat.  So, with the constant changes in timing, pace, and even direction – does this sound like anything we do in karate?

Both of the above mentioned articles got me thinking about why I continue to train and, in particular, continue to perform kata.  Actually, the better phrased question which I posed to myself is “What do I get out of doing kata?” One of the feedback comments to Noah’s article was elegantly succinct on this – ‘you get out of kata what you put into it’.

You would think that after 15 years of going up this path, I would know each step intimately, and could navigate it blindfolded. Actually, I probably could at one time. However, without the requirement to go up there every day – when we didn’t have a dog –  it’s amazing how quickly you lose that naturalness (?). Of course, I’m 50% older now than I was when I first started using the steps – so my pacing has ‘matured’ a little.  I sometimes do put on a burst of pace every now and then; but that’s mainly to chase after Zelda, who has picked up a good scent and is haring off after something unseen.  When you add in the external factors such as weather and ground conditions, then you cannot really afford not to pay attention to what you’re doing.

I recently got the chance to do some private training with my instructor, together with a visitor from the US. She had asked to cover Gojushiho-Dai to which I thought “Oh goody, not done that one in ages” At least, that’s how I recall my reaction. Still, Gi on and I started wracking my brains to bring back the memories. It’s a kata I used to relative success in my competition days note the use of the past tense. We started training and with Sensei’s typical forensic approach to body movement and technique, I started to feel more comfortable in the kata’s skin.  At the end of the session, performing the whole kata still presented a challenge – but in a good way. It was also a useful reminder to me that there is no ‘winging it’ when training.  Who hasn’t started performing a kata only to find yourself morphing it into another one?

There is a fairly well-known model called the ‘4 Stages of Competence’ –4 stages see image.

Whilst the highest stage, Unconscious Competence, is aligned to mastery, does it equate to not having to think about it?  Going back to Gojushiho Dai, I had to consciously concentrate on every technique when training . The lesson for me here was the reminder that I don’t really know it – or it would be second nature.  If I extend the analogy across the Shotokan katas, then the question becomes, ‘How many katas do I really know?’

Back to my daily kata; eh, dog walk. I find it a great way to start the day – a little too early, granted, but apart from the fresh air benefits, it’s my time to think. I used to listen to music when out with the dog, but realised that I wasn’t really paying attention to anything then – not least the dog. It was one of those days when I was thinking about the question, ‘What do I get out of kata?’

My daily kata has a distinct purpose  – to walk Zelda – but I’m getting the benefit too. And whilst I may grumble about the weather , I now look forward to it. It may be a struggle to get out of bed, but once the jacket and boots are on, it’s all good. And funnily enough, thinking about the articles during the walk, got me thinking about kata, which got me thinking about the steps, which makes the daily walk more enjoyable.

So, what do I get out of doing kata?

Having trained for a fair bit of time, I’m lucky to have covered most of our katas to a fair degree. Actually, I am drawn to kata by the fact that it’s a strange combination of the familiar (I’ve done the kata before) and the novel (I’m still learning). Multiply that by the 26 katas we have (or whichever number of kata you do in your style or group), and for me, that’s a huge plain of training , learning and development to explore.  For me, whilst the kata ‘landscape’ is enormous, what’s really important is what’s right in front of me, or the actual kata I’m working on at that particular time.

I can only imagine it to be the same for a musician or dancer performing their favourite piece – each performance is unique and there’s always something to be improved upon. And I’m not talking about performing flawless technique (I can’t) – it’s about making the kata come alive. I can’t do that if I’m not 100% focused . The pattern may be second nature to me, but that’s not enough.

I appreciate that none of this is ground breaking and has been written about by many others better qualified than me. However, I asked the question to myself and this is my answer!

The day before the Gojushio Dai session, I had coffee with my Sensei and as you can imagine, conversation turned towards training and kata training in particular. We spend a lot of time improving our kata by taking techniques or sections thereof and working on these. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that the katas are there to be performed in their entirety – and it’s this that helps drive home the benefits. How would  Zelda like it if I walked 10 steps up the hill and  said – “that’s it, I’m only practising this section today.” I may repeat the section multiple  times, but a) she would be bored and b) I wouldn’t get to the top of the hill.

The days of competing and grading are long past me now, so I when I train – it’s only for me. I have a responsibility for maintaining my technique and knowledge as I teach, but in the main, it’s for me.

To conclude, why do I train in kata? I agree with George.

George

 

 

 

 

P.S. And you can always sneak in a cheeky kata when walking the dog!