Monday, 25 January 2010

Basic Skills are the Highest Skills

Neal Martin from Urban Samurai has been writing recently about the importance of practising basics and why he thinks people sometimes neglect to do this (Why the fundamentals of Martial Arts are neglected). He e-mailed me and asked if I would write a post on the same subject.

As I mentioned in an earlier post (A Drive on Basics) we have been having a drive on basics in my dojo and so this is a subject in the front of my mind at the moment.

Neal specifically asked me to address the question of why I think many martial artists neglect the basics of their art. I think there are several reasons:

Wrong language. The use of the word basic gives the impression of something being simple - something that is for beginners or less able people. When I worked as a nurse we had the same problem. The core skills of nursing were referred to as Basic Nursing Care and as soon as many nurses were past their initial training they often didn't want to be involved in giving patient's basic nursing care, feeling this was the domain of lesser trained care assistants or junior student nurses.

Yet these core skills formed the backbone of good nursing practice, enabling nurses to assess progress, prevent complications, identify problems at an early stage and make appropriate interventions. This required a high level of skill that junior nurses and care assistants don't have leading to mistakes and missed opportunities to hasten a patients recovery or prevent their decline As a Nurse tutor I advocated a change of the word basic to fundamental to emphasise how important these skills were to good nursing practice. The basic nursing skills were also the highest nursing skills.

I think the same is true in martial arts. Many people clearly don't realise that basic skills are fundamental to good martial arts practice - they are core to it, forming its back bone. But words are emotive aren't they? If the word basic makes you feel 'babyish' then it's time to change the word not the activity. And if the ego is too big to do basics then maybe it's also too big to be a good martial artist. Why don't we just refer to basic skills as core skills or fundamental skills or just kihon if you're practising a Japanese art.?

Lack of understanding. Drilling basics is a very indirect way of training for self-defence. Direct training would involve learning actual techniques such as escapes from strangles, grabs, headlocks, knife attacks etc. Punching and kicking the air, pad or punchbag; practising stances and turns; drilling combinations or practising 'sticky hands' techniques seems a very indirect way of learning self-defence. Yet it is through this constant drilling of indirect training methods that we gain the necessary control of our muscles, balance and timing, and develop our mental tenacity. We become masters of ourselves. This then feeds into the development of good direct training techniques - it forms the glue that holds our techniques together. Without it, all we learn is a collection of disconnected techniques. Indirect training offers us education that unites our minds and bodies and enables us to eventually function intuitively in all situations. Direct training methods merely provide us with technical level training. Do you want to be the 'Professional' or merely his 'Technician'?

Wrong mindset. I think many people shy away from basics because they have adopted  the wrong mindset. They are impatient - too much in a hurry, to eager to learn the direct things. This impatience seems to be mainly an affliction of youth (not just in martial arts!). I greatly get the impression from reading many martial arts blogs that many 'mature' martial artists now were inflicted with this impatient mindset when they started their martial arts training as boys or young men but have since come to realise that there is no escape from practising basics. However, not all young people have this impatience and with good guidance from a good instructor I'm sure many will be persuaded that drilling basics is essential.

I think that to be a good and 'rounded' martial artist we have to see ourselves as more than just bio-mechanical instruments that can learn to push, pull, lever, throw and strike. The manipulation and control of body mechanics is important but is only half the picture. Mental and spiritual strength is as important as physical ability. To be able to drill basics consistently in every training session (and in between) month after month, year after year as well as train in direct methods requires mental discipline and enriches the spirit. If you lack this spirit you will not be able to sustain this type of training.

Training in martial arts is circular not linear. It is always necessary to return to basic skills training now and again because the basic skills are also the highest skills.

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Thursday, 21 January 2010

Why do we.........say 'Osu!'?

Do you 'Osu!' in your dojo? Generally speaking, we do not 'Osu!' in ours except for one of our experienced black belts who regularly osus! I find it quite alarming (and intriguing) to hear him shout 'Osu!' up to 10 or 15 times a session. He osus when he bows announces a kata, starts a technique or whenever the instructor asks or tells him something. I presume his use of this word is related to his karate 'upbringing' over 30 years ago.

So what is this 'Osu!' thing all about? I decided to do some research:

First, let’s just say the correct pronunciation is 'oh-sss' rather than 'oo-sss', which is a common mispronunciation in the West.

Osu is a Japanese greeting word (aisatsu). It is a contraction of other greeting words such as Ohayossu or ohayoosu, Ohayo or even just Oh. The more contracted the word the less formal the greeting. It's a bit like going from 'Good Morning', to 'Hello' to 'Hi' depending on the context and company you are in.

In general parlance in Japan 'Osu' is a very 'rough' male greeting between friends in an athletic setting. It is a very male word - an expression of masculinity, something men may greet each other with in a football or baseball club. It is generally only used by children and 'macho' or rough men! In Japan, a woman would never use such an impolite word and a man would be considered rude to use it to greet a woman.

So why do we use it in martial arts?

It is a word mainly used in karate clubs, though some judo and taekwondo clubs have been known to use it too (possibly because the instructor has a karate background). It is not an Okinawan word so Okinawan styles of karate generally don't use it. The origin of the word is not entirely clear but it is thought that the use of “Osu!” first appeared in the Officers Academy of the Imperial Japanese Navy, in the early 20th century and later became common with karate students. This helped establish the rough masculine nature of the word.

What is its purpose in the dojo?

In some dojo's 'osuing' is a standard part of the dojo etiquette and all students are expected to use it, whereas in other dojo's it is actively discouraged because it is not considered very polite, preferring more polite expressions such as “Onegaishimasu.”!

However, if you consider another translation of the word, which is also a contraction of the two kanji symbols used to write the term “Oshi Shinobu” it means "to persevere while pushing oneself to the absolute limit.” The strength of character that develops from hard training is known as “osu no seishin” (the spirit of “Osu!”). It implies a willingness to push oneself to the limits of endurance, to persevere under any kind of pressure. This is the context in which it is being used in the dojo.

The word 'Osu!' has many purposes in the dojo. It can be used to greet fellow students instead of saying hello (at least among the men); to respond to a question or instruction instead of saying yes; if your instructor thinks you are weak or injured you can reply 'osu' to reaffirm that despite your weakness/injury you are willing to still try your best; you can say it to remind yourself that despite the pain you need to carry on i.e. show your 'warrior spirit' or you can use it to acknowledge your opponents skill at a technique or in a tournament. It seems like a very flexible and versatile word!

And finally! Some general 'Osu!' etiquette:

  • "Osu!" is primarily a greeting.
  • You use it toward other people, not toward an empty room when you bow onto the mat or before you perform a kata.
  • You cannot really use it for "goodbye."
  • It is never a question and does not mean "I understand."
So do you 'Osu!' in your dojo?

Click here if you want to read a comprehensive article on the use of 'Osu'.

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Friday, 15 January 2010

A drive on karate basics

Since returning back to karate classes in the new year we have had a real drive on returning to basics, and I mean basics. I think that Sensei, refreshed from his month long holiday in New Zealand and with a new found tan (do I sound envious?) whilst we have shivered in sub zero temperatures and 6inches of snow, has decided to rid us all of bad habits that have crept in over the months.

He has checked that we all know how to make a proper fist and that we do actually make a strong fist with every technique requiring one (or a rigid and strong open hand for open hand techniques). It is surprising how many people have become a little slack with this most fundamental of techniques.

We have been through the mechanics of  how to punch properly - twisting the fist right at the end, pulling the other arm back, relaxing the arm and shoulders and putting tension on right at the end etc. Again it is surprising how many people twist the wrist too soon or are too tense during the technique. The same with blocks. With each block we have covered the direction of movement with the block, the positioning of the block and the twisting of the hips and fist. I didn't realise that I twist my fist too early with an age uke block. Other people discovered different errors with their blocking or striking techniques.

Then we have moved onto stance training - not just the correct positioning for various stances but more practising the transitions between stances. This is quite hard to do, particularly avoiding bobbing up and down when moving between stances.

Using mainly pinan nidan, we have practised some of the principles of good kata performance - look, prep, turn. I have found that preparing my foot and hand positions properly before making the turn is enabling me to turn more sharply whilst maintaining my balance better - my wobble is disappearing!

This focus on some very fundamental principles of karate has been extremely valuable. We have become aware of our 'bad or lazy' habits and know what to do to correct them. We are learning to move more flowingly between stances and inject more power into our blocks and strikes by twisting the hips and fist correctly.

We are the senior class - mainly purple belts to 2nd dans. One is never too senior to return to basics, we all discover something new about ourselves and improve when we do.

Keep practising your basics!

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Juroku no kata

This has been a hard kata to research! There has been little information recorded about it but this is what I have been able to find out:

The word Juroku literally means '16' or '16 hands' and refers to the 16 different steps in the kata. There is no other meaning to this kata. It is a relatively modern kata developed by Kenwa Mabuni (1889 - 1952) with some help from his good friend Myiagi Sensei (1888-1953) founder of Goju Ryu karate. Mabuni Sensei is the founder of Shito-ryu karate which is the parent of Shukokai karate.

The kata has some elements from the ancient kata Wankan (Matsumora version) also known as MatsukazeIt also includes an interesting technique using a double blow with the palms of the hand  which is possibly extracted from the kata Jitte.

In our system of shukokai karate (SSK) the juroku kata appears on the 3rd kyu syllabus.

Here is the kata:

Here's another video of it:


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Monday, 11 January 2010

What is your martial art's mindset?

Do you have a 'bugei' or a 'budo' mindset?

Since I have been blogging and reading other martial arts blogs I have been struck by the different 'mindsets' that people have in relation to their martial art. By 'mindset' I mean their approach to studying martial arts - their aims, focus and priorities. It seems to me that people fall into two broad camps - those with a mainly 'bugei' mindset and those with a mainly 'budo' mindset.

Bugei simply means traditional martial arts, i.e. those of the samurai. Budo means martial Ways and is a more modern concept, where the definition of 'modern', in Japanese martial arts, refers to the period after the start of the Meiji Restoration in1866, i.e. post samurai era. Of course that doesn't mean that the concept of a Japanese Way is modern, just its application to the fighting arts. Indeed the idea of seeking self improvement through the pursuit of mind, body and spiritual harmony is an ancient Japanese and Chinese tradition based on Zen principles going back to about the 7th century. Once the samurai were disbanded after the Meiji Restoration, applying these self-improvement principles to their fighting arts was a way to retain a purpose to continue to study them now they weren't needed on the battlefield.

The traditional bugei arts such as jujitsu, kobujutsu, ninjutsu, sumo, kenjutsu, and others together with the more contemporary combat arts such as krav maga or reality based systems are very much about learning practical defensive fighting skills and training mainly involves working with a partner to perfect skills. Modern budo (karate-do, aikido, judo, kendo, iaido, kobudo etc), on the other hand, use the art of learning to ‘fight’ as a means to master control of one’s body and mind with the lofty aim of achieving ‘self-perfection’. In other words budo becomes the medium through which one strives for self-improvement. In Japanese terms one could just as easily achieve this through the medium of ikebana (flower arranging), chado (tea-ceremony), shado (calligraphy) or any other of the Japanese Ways.

In order to follow a bugei or contemporary combat art it seems that a very pragmatic mindset is needed. The primary aim is to learn effective self-defense and this is valued above all else. This means that training methods become direct and technique driven. Indirect techniques such as ippon kumite or kata are generally much less valued, particularly in contemporary combat arts. In my jujitsu/kobujutsu club the training is very syllabus focused. Students work on the syllabus for their grade, generally with the same training partner. There is very little whole class teaching or 'off syllabus' stuff introduced. Once you have graded you start on a new syllabus and learn some new techniques - the training is very linear. However, progress in achieving the aim of learning self-defence is fairly rapid.

The mindset of the budo practitioner appears very different. Indirect training methods are valued very highly because the primary aim is mastering control of ones body and mind rather than learning to 'fight'. Thus in karate-do the student sees merit in drilling kihon, practising kata and perfecting distance and timing through sparring practice. This does not mean that the budo practitioner does not value the self-defence aspects of martial arts it's just that they are not necessarily the primary focus.

In my karate class, training is not so syllabus or technique focused. Obviously each grade has a syllabus for grading purposes but these are often not looked at until a grading is coming up. Instead, most of the time is spent in 'whole class' teaching. Even when working with partners everyone will be working on the same thing whether it be from the red belt syllabus or the black belt syllabus.
The emphasis is much more on learning to move properly, react quickly and have proper control of your limbs.The only time we break into grade groups is to practice kata, which is grade specific. Working in this way means that techniques, combinations and various other exercises are met again and again - training is much more circular. However, this method of learning self-defence is clearly the slow route and requires much patience.

I am not for one minute suggesting that one mindset is better or worse than the other - they are just different and drive us to persue the style of martial art that suits our aims and needs better. However I do think that one should be cautious in judging a budo art with a bugei mindset or vice versa because they will always be found wanting. Of course we are not all so easy to categorise and many of us may change our mindset as we progress along our martial arts journeys or even weave back and forth between the bugei and budo arts in search of a more fulfilling and complete experience.  I expect our backgrounds, jobs and life experiences affect our needs and determine our priorities when it comes to choosing a martial art so it is fantastic that there is such a plethora of different arts and Ways to suit every conceivable mindset.

So do you have a 'bugei 'or a 'budo' mindset?

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Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Martial Artist's Block vs Writer's Block

This post is for Dan Prager (Martial Arts and Modern Life) who challenged me to write it back in November following a comment I made on his post: “You don’t have to be great all the time”.

Writer’s Block
I’m pretty sure we are all familiar with the concept of ‘writer’s block’. You may have experienced it yourself when writing for your blog. You sit down at the computer and can’t think of anything to write about, or you have a basic idea but not enough information to structure it properly. Maybe you’ve started a post but don’t know how to finish it – you’re not sure where it’s going or what it is you really want to say about the topic. So you make excuses not to write – other jobs suddenly seem more important and must be attended to first, you need more coffee to concentrate, you’ll come back to it later, you’ll just surf around other blogs first – oops! Now you’ve run out of time to write. We’ve all been there!

Martial Artist’s Block
What is martial artist’s block? Is it similar? Well I think I may have just made the phrase up but it makes some sense: you don’t feel like you are making any progress in your training, your motivation to train is diminishing – it’s become ‘samey’ and boring, you’ve lost sight of your training aims, you feel ‘burned out’ or worse – you’re thinking of quitting. So you make excuses not to train – other jobs suddenly seem more important and must be attended to first, you’ve had a hard day at work and feel too tired, you have a snivel and decide you’d better not go, it’s school holidays and your normal routine has gone to pot etc. etc.

It’s the same process isn’t it? Perhaps the solutions are the same or similar.

The need for structure
We all need a structure (framework, schedule or routine) through which we can organise our lives. We are more efficient, purposeful and productive when we have pre-planned what we wish to achieve each day. Often our routine is dictated by outside events – office hours, extra work commitments, school hours, children’s out of school clubs etc – these activities are ‘fixed’ for us. We often have to fit our own leisure activities or hobbies within this framework and this takes discipline.

If we don’t consider our martial arts training or our writing to be as important (or nearly as important) as our ‘fixed’ activities then we are not going to be committed to them and these things will always slip first. You might be thinking that it is rightly so that ‘hobbies’ should slip first but if you don’t assign some importance to them they will slip all the time or never really get off the ground! If you really want to commit to your martial arts and/or writing then you must turn them into ‘fixed’ activities and give them a solid place in your schedule.

To overcome ‘block’ we must therefore train and write regularly otherwise we will lose the habit. It is easy to make martial arts a fixed part of our schedule because the class times are fixed – you just have to commit to going along every week. Writing is more difficult and requires a lot of discipline to ‘impose’ it into our routines. Committing to writing a blog post twice a week (or more if possible), on set days, and sticking to it may go a long way to ensuring your blog is constantly updated with new and fresh ideas.

Being Creative
Okay, so you’ve committed to training and writing regularly to overcome ‘block’ but the training is boring and you’re still lacking ideas to write about. How do you inject some life or creativity back into these activities again?

Suitable space: Make sure you are training or writing in a suitable space. When you are not suffering from ‘block’ and are enthused and motivated by your training/writing then where you do it will not matter. You will be happy to train in a field or a cowshed or scribble your ideas on scraps of paper on your knee whilst huddled in the corner of the room with the TV blasting out. But if you have ‘block’ the environment assumes much greater importance if you are to get off your backside and train/write.

If your training has become stale and the place you train is cramped/cold/damp/poor mats/no mats/unfriendly/unsupportive then maybe you need to consider a fresh start in a new dojo. Likewise, you may re-establish a commitment to write if you have a nice place to do it. You might not have a spare room to use as an office/study but a desk in a corner of the bedroom/dining room/space under the stairs and a promise from family not to distract you during your ‘writing time’ may be sufficient to help you get your head in the right place to write.

Look for inspiration: Inspiration can come in many guises. Books and online resources can provide new ideas or knowledge which spark off your curiosity and make you want to learn more or write about something you didn’t know anything about before ( this happens to me all the time!) You may pick up some new training tips or exercises to try that spark off your enthusiasm again. Learning about the history or culture of your martial art may inject it with new meaning for you.

Join a like minded community: Writers often join Writer’s circles or Writer’s clubs to meet with like minded people and share writing ideas or give feedback on each other’s work. I belong to one of these and this gives me the opportunity to write about things other than martial arts – I write poems and sometimes short stories. In martial arts your club may provide this sense of community and support but what about training and writing outside of your scheduled club times? Some people can train alone with no problem – this is easier if you do karate rather than jujitsu or other art that requires a partner. But if you find it difficult to motivate yourself to self to train alone then why not ask a training partner to meet with you at your house/their house/somewhere else to go over some stuff you want to practice, or meet regularly with some martial arts friends in a social situation in order to chat about your training or martial arts generally – just talking to others can motivate you to want to train. Let’s face it – this martial arts blogging community we are all part of fulfils this need pretty well for both training and writing.

Try something new: You’ve grown bored writing about your training schedules, giving training tips or trying to think up new ways of saying the same thing. Your writing style has become static, ‘samey’ or stale. Challenge yourself to write in a different style or genre: if you normally write about your training why not try writing something inspirational instead? If you write inspirational stuff then why not write something cultural or historical? Write about a martial art you've never done before - people who practice that art may find they have a new perspective on it after reading the 'outsider's view'. Or if you are really adventurous why not try writing a martial arts poem – it could be deep and meaningful or just a comic rhyme. Or write a short story on a martial arts theme? Go on – you know you want to; we all have a novel inside us somewhere. Your readers will always appreciate something fresh and different from you occasionally.

The same applies to martial arts – if you’re bored with training and feel like you’re making no progress try a new martial art. You don’t have to give up your ‘main’ art to do this. In fact adding a second martial art can often enhance your enjoyment and understanding of your main one. If you do a striking art why not learn a bit of grappling in a jujitsu club. If you mainly grapple go learn how to strike properly. Why not add a bit of weapons training to your repertoire. You will learn new ways of moving your body and strengthening your muscles; learn a different perspective on the martial arts; broaden your circle of martial arts friends and have a more creative approach to your own training.

Avoid pitfalls
If you’ve overcome your ‘block’ then you need to avoid becoming blocked again. Train hard/write lots but don’t overdo it. Remember you are in it for the long haul. Don’t train so fast and furiously that you burn out quickly or get injured. Don’t write so much that your head is spinning. Progress and experience, by their very nature, take time to achieve – take the time!

Expect it not to be easy all the time – that way you won’t be disappointed when you hit a rough patch.

Don’t work beyond your ability – it will discourage you when you fail. Just take it a step at a time.

And finally, as Dan Prager’s post title said: “You don’t have to be great all the time”

So keep on training and keep on writing!

How did I do Dan?

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Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Dropping the 'Kick Ass'!

I hope you like the changes to my blog! Apart from a few aesthetic changes, the main change you will have noticed is the change to my blog title.

I feel I should offer an explanation for this change. In fact there are several reasons. First, I thought the previous title was a bit long - it was almost two titles in one! Secondly, I got the feeling that some people didn't like the 'kick ass' part of the title judging by the variations of my blog title in their blog lists. I've been listed as anything from 'kick ... SueC -Journey to Black Belt' to just 'SueC'! I think some of you just found my title to long and others just didn't like the 'A..' word.

However, my primary reason for dropping the 'Kick Ass SueC' is the fact that my blog frequently appears in the results for searches on pornography, particularly when the words 'black ass porn' are used in a search engine. I DON'T LIKE THIS. I don't want my blog to be associated with porn and I'm sure the people stumbling across my blog in this way are bitterly disappointed when they realise I am a clean living girl writing innocently about martial arts!

You might be wondering how I know my blog frequently turns up on searches for porn. Well, there is a stats program embedded in my blog provided by '' which not only monitors the traffic to my blog but is able to tell me what words people are searching on to find my blog. You can download this stats program for free if you want to monitor the traffic visiting your blog.

Things that haven't changed are my URL which remains as and my username which remains as SueC so you shouldn't have any difficulty navigating to my blog.

I hope you approve of this name change (or at least don't disapprove) and understand my reasons for making it. I have now called it 'My journey to black belt' rather than just 'Journey to black belt' to reflect the personal nature of a martial arts journey. We are all on unique paths. My blog description invites you to 'walk with me and talk with me as I follow the budo path'. I value very much the 'conversations' we all have through our posts and comments to each other and hope that you will continue to share my journey with me.

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