Tuesday, 25 May 2010

SSK inaugural black belt grading

The karate organisation that my club belongs to, the SSK, held its first black belt grading session last Saturday. This was the first time that dan grade students have been tested against the new syllabus introduced last August. Our new syllabus is much more comprehensive than before and includes kihon combinations, kata and bunkai oyo, ippon kumite, pad work, goshin waza, break falling, ground techniques and sparring.

The ten students that graded (four for 1st dan and six for 2nd dan) had to cope with the hottest temperature of the year so far at 28 degrees! The grading started with a 1 hour course at 10.00am and then progressed to a 6 hour non-stop grading - pretty gruelling hey! Obviously they were allowed to take frequent short breaks to re-hydrate and fuel up with some calories but several of the student's declared it to be the hardest thing they had ever done!

Three of the students were from my club: Katrin Seamer (my usual training buddy), Chris Chung and Dave Mair so I'd like to publicly congratulate them. All achieved their 1st dan. Here they are, photographed with my instructor, Sensei Steve Hegarty who acted as one of the three grading officers.

The SSK president and senior grading officer Sensei Steve Nelson (5th dan) summed up the day by saying:

“True karate systems contain an understanding of self defence from realistic distance, groundwork, locks, chokes, strangles, restrains, pressure points, power generation techniques and balance points; all these are explained through the use of kata (the heart of karate-do) and its analysis - bunkai. Saturday’s dan Grading was a pleasure to watch as all candidates showed an understanding of true karate-do. All of the above ideas were applied by all candidates. Although it was a long day all 10 candidates passed showing good fitness levels. All candidates can walk away from the grading with a big smile sure in the knowledge that they thoroughly earned their respected belts. Congratulations!!!”

It'll be my turn this time next year - gulp!!
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Thursday, 20 May 2010

Different Grading Models - what are the pros and cons of each?

I have been struck by the many different ways in which martial arts students can be graded. In Ariel's latest post called 'Anxiously waiting for class tonight', she says that she is expecting to test any time now in one of her lessons. Apparently her instructors don't announce testing dates and she doesn't appear to have a defined syllabus. This got me thinking that there are indeed many ways to grade students in martial arts. I have come across a few different grading models and I'm sure they all have different advantages and disadvantages.

In my karate club we have club gradings. These are held monthly, at a weekend (not in normal class times). All students are provided with a provisional date for their next grading. If, in the preceding two or three weeks, you are considered ready to grade by this date you are invited to attend the grading session. If you are not quite ready then your grading is postponed to a later date.

In a grading session there may be anything from about 6 students to 16 students grading together ranging over 3 or 4 different kyu grades. You are tested against a pre-set syllabus and the grading officer will alternate between segments of the syllabus for each kyu grade present. Combinations are assessed in kyu grade groups but kata are performed individually. All partner work is assessed one pair at a time or sometimes in groups of pairs (if there are a lot of people testing). When you are not being assessed you either stand quietly at the back or you may be allowed to quietly practice. Gradings generally take around 2 hours to complete but my last one took 5 hours because there were so many of us.

We are graded by our own instructor, though this is not the case for all clubs in our organisation (SSK) as some of the instructors are not qualified grading officers. In these clubs the instructor invites an instructor with grading officer status to grade his/her students. At kyu grade, assessment is by a single grading officer. At the end of the grading all the students line up and the individual marks for each segment for each student are announced and students congratulated. New belts can be bought on the day or later and certificates are presented a week or two later in class.

For Dan gradings the situation is different. These are not club level gradings but are done at the organisation level in front of a panel of three high ranking grading officers, one of which may be your own instructor.

This way of grading is in complete contrast with my jujitsu/kobudo club. This club is part of the World Jujitsu Federation (WJJF) and follows a WJJF approved syllabus. All kyu gradings are done locally, but externally to your own club, by a high ranking grading officer who must not be your own instructor. Gradings are held quarterly at weekends and your instructor enters you for a grading when he thinks you are ready.

At the grading there will be several dozen people of all kyu grades waiting to test (in either jujitsu or kobudo). However students are called up individually to the 'grading mats' from the 'training mats', along with their uke and are assessed on their whole syllabus within 10 to 20 minutes. All students then wait for the presentation ceremony at the end where there grade is announced and they are presented with their certificates.

Again, Dan gradings are done at national level.

When my husband was training in jujitsu at another club the grading model was different yet again. Kyu gradings were done within normal classes. There would usually just be one student testing and the assessment would take place at a suitable point in the lesson. The rest of the students would sit around the edge of three sides of the mats and any black belts present would sit along the fourth side along with the instructor who would perform the grading.

The student testing would be assessed on their pre-set syllabus, then the black belts or instructor could ask for any techniques to be repeated. At the end of the grading the lesson would resume whilst the instructor considered his 'verdict'. The student testing would then be approached privately by the instructor and told of the outcome. At the end of the lesson an announcement would be made to the whole class and the certificate presented. Again, Dan gradings were done at national level.

Lets unpick what is happening in these different grading models:

1. Graded internally by own instructor vs graded externally by appointed grading officer.
2. Graded within normal class lessons vs graded in special grading sessions.
3. Graded individually vs graded in groups
4. Graded to set syllabus vs graded to unknown or individually set syllabus

What are the advantages and disadvantages of these methods?

1a. Graded by own instructor:
Advantage: Grading in a familiar environment by someone you know - less stressful.
Disadvantage: The need to maintain objectivity in assessment may lead to more stress for the instructor because he/she knows the students and may know of circumstances that lead the student to perform sub-optimally.

1b. Graded by external grading officer:
Advantage: Less stressful to grade students you don't know - easier to remain objective.
Disadvantage: More stressful to student - unfamiliar surroundings and people. Grading officer may have slightly different interpretation of the syllabus to student's own instructor so student may have to be adaptable (this might be viewed as an advantage of course!).

2a. Graded in normal classes:
Advantage: Easier to arrange. Familiar environment. Other students get a 'preview' of what to expect themselves when graded at that level.
Disadvantage: May be viewed as disruptive to normal lessons.

2b. Graded in special grading sessions:
Advantage: Can grade a lot of students together. Can focus entirely on the grading - not concerned with needs of non-grading students.
Disadvantage: Takes a lot more organisation. Grading sessions can take a long time to complete for the instructor/grading officer.

3a. Graded individually:
Advantage: Student gets instructors/grading officers full attention for whole of grading and the grading is comparatively short.
Disadvantage: May be more stressful for student as they are focus of attention all the time.

3b. Graded in groups:
Advantage: Lots of students can be graded at one time. Students very supportive of each other during the grading.
Disadvantage: Students and instructors/grading officers have to maintain high level of concentration for a long time.

4a. Graded to set syllabus:
Advantage: Student knows in advance exactly what they will be tested on and can prepare.
Disadvantage: No flexibility. Doesn't cater for students with special needs i.e disabled students who can learn some techniques effectively but cannot do others. Makes it difficult for these students to progress with training.

4b. Graded to unknown or individual syllabus:
Advantage: Unknown syllabus - tests student's ability to be adaptable and think on their feet. Student needs a broad range of knowledge and techniques. Individual syllabus - tailored to students strengths/needs rather than weaknesses. Enables students with disabilities to progress through the system.
Disadvantage: Unknown syllabus - harder to prepare for and more stressful. Individual syllabus - student may not receive training in full range of their martial arts system. Both - may result in variable standards of achievement for different students - no consistent standards or benchmarks across all students

This is not an exhaustive list of the pros and cons of different models of gradings. Do you know of any other grading models? What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of these? What do you think is the ideal grading model?

Photo above courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Jjskarate
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Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Is your club up for the challenge? Raising money for Cancer Research

I'd like to introduce you to a friend of mine - Peter Seth. Peter is a 4th Dan in Aikido and runs the University of Sunderland Aikido club. Peter is also the person who organises the The Great Northern International Festival of Martial Arts, which is the festival that I have recently reported on in a blog post. He has organised this festival for 10 years now and as you may recall, one of its primary functions is to raise money for the charity Cancer Research UK.  Here is Peter in action (he's the one with the beard acting as tori):

To enable more money to be raised Peter is setting a challenge to other martial arts clubs. Here in Peter's words is the challenge:

I have been trying for the past 10 years to spread the word to every martial arts club in the country. Hopefully this blog will help bring all clubs together to organize their own ‘event’, big or small to raise funds for Cancer Research UK. You could call it a ‘fight for life’.

More than 1 in 3 of us will be directly affected by this terrible disease so let’s get together and try and knock Cancer for six!

The Background....
After many years participating in demonstrations at the odd Fete to raise money for local charities. I often thought, that a more positive and organised approach for martial artists to become involved with raising funds for charities and also promoting the many positive benefits of the ‘Martial Arts’ was needed. So in 2001, I contacted friends from various Martial Arts groups in my area (some national, international and world champions included) and organised the first ‘Sunderland International Festival of Martial Arts’.

We demonstrated our arts, - Aikido, Aikijitsu, Judo, Karate, Jujitsu, Tae Kwon Do, Kickboxing, Jojutsu, Kenjutsu, before an audience of over 300, raising nearly £1000 for Cancer Research. (A friend of mine is Hon Secretary of the local area volunteer fundraising group). (In the past few years thanks to everyone involved the event has raised thousands of pounds for Cancer research UK).

From this start I have organised an annual festival at which many artists/groups from all over the UK, Europe and even from China, have demonstrated their varied arts, including: Capoeira, Gung Fu, Kung fu, Shorinji Kempo, Jui Jitsu, Jeet Kune Do, Escrima, Fencing, Kobudo and Wrestling. To find out more about the aims of Peter's martial arts festivals click here...

I recently organised the Tenth newly named Great Northern International Festival of Martial Arts, which was held at Seaburn Leisure Centre, Sunderland, Tyne & Wear on Saturday May 8th 2010.

A Challenge.......
I would like this festival of martial arts to become a catalyst for future events of this kind. But why not make it a much larger effort on the lines of ‘Children In Need’ and similar focused events? Where, on a nominated day every martial arts club/group/organization in the UK, participates in a sponsored event to raise funds for Cancer Research UK.

I am sure your local Cancer Research UK coordinators/committees would be willing to advise and even possibly assist in any fund raising event you may wish to organize. The many martial arts publications/magazines with their many contacts and sponsors could possibly get involved in some way. If a properly coordinated, media/TV publicised event was prepared I am sure a tremendous amount of money could be raised to help in the battle against Cancer.

In my experience, martial artists have a natural generosity of spirit and are by nature positive people who are usually only too willing to get involved in life. What better way than to ‘get involved’, raising money to help in the battle for life against what is now the biggest killer in this country.

Next step ‘THE WORLD’. Every martial arts group in the world could get involved, cooperating, to remove the curse of cancer. Now that would be a thing! If anyone could do it Martial Artists could! (Though ridiculously optimistic, I am serious about this paragraph). If you are up for this challenge, get weaving, contact your local Cancer Research UK people and get organizing.

Please spread the word – you can contact me for information etc. psethzanshin@yahoo.co.uk "
So, is your martial arts club up to the challenge of raising some money for this very worthy cause? Do you have any good fund raising ideas that a martial arts club could do?

To find out more about fundraising for Cancer Research UK visit their website.
To find out more about Peter visit his club's website: Zanshin Aikido

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Thursday, 13 May 2010

Do you speak 'Kata'?

I have reached a stage in my training when I feel ready to start learning bunkai, I mean really start learning bunkai. We have always practised some bunkai in my classes but I realise now that I haven’t really been ready to understand bunkai, or should I say - understand kata.

So far I have only learnt bunkai through a process of rote learning. It usually goes like this: we take a segment of kata, Sensei shows us an application for that segment of kata (sometimes two or three applications), we practice them on each other and then we may move onto another section of the kata and repeat the process. This is not an unreasonable way to learn some bunkai, particularly in the lower kyu grades, but I don't think I will ever learn to interpret a kata myself by this method.

In the higher kyu grades we have been encouraged to explore the bunkai for ourselves, to try and work out some possible applications and test them out on each other. I have found this process extremely difficult and I have finally realised why this is...

I don't speak 'kata'!

To read a kata you have to be able to speak its language. I don't mean a language like English or Japanese, I mean a non-verbal language - a system of principles and rules that are tied up in the kata along with the techniques. Rules and principles that tell you how to interpret the movements in the kata.

For example, one rule states that if you are moving forwards whilst doing a technique, say an age uke block, it should be interpreted as an offensive move, but if you are stepping backwards whilst blocking then it should be interpreted as a defensive move. So an 'offensive age uke' might be an upward rising strike with the forearm to the opponents jaw, whereas a 'defensive age uke' might be stepping back to receive and deflect an incoming punch.

A common move in many kata, particularly the pinan katas, is to step through with an oi zuki. Punches performed in kata have perplexed me for a while, for this reason: when we punch in a kata we always leave the arm out, particularly if the punch is at the end of a combination. However, in kihon practice, whether punching the air or punching a pad, we always pull the punching arm back. So why don't we do this is kata?

Well, I had a little eureka moment last night in class on this one. Sensei was demonstrating an unbalancing technique to us which involved the left hand grabbing the opponents right elbow and pulling back whilst simultaneously stepping through, grabbing the opponents left shoulder with the right hand and pushing forwards. The pull/push movement causes the opponent to rotate and unbalance. However, the pulling back with the left arm whilst stepping through and thrusting forwards with the right arm used exactly the same principle of movement as an oi zuki punch.

Eureka! I suddenly realised that punches are not retracted in kata because they are not necessarily to be interpreted as punches - they could be pushes or grabs. If the punch was pulled back in a kata then it might only be interpreted as a punch. I can think of a few examples in kata where double punches are performed and these are pulled back (but they are clearly intended to be punches) but I can't think of any examples of single punches that are immediately retracted. I felt that I had learnt a few new words in the kata language last night (even though I didn't do any kata!).

There are many rules like this that help us to understand how to read the kata. Others include, 'a hand returning to chamber usually has something in it' and 'touching your own body means touching your opponent' e.g. doing an elbow strike into the palm of your own hand implies that your opponents head or torso is sandwiched between them.

I have come to realise that kata are not merely a repository of techniques but also contain the rules and principles we need to know to interpret those techniques. Kata come with an integral instruction manual!

I feel pretty confident now that if I learn to speak 'kata' I will be able to decipher the meaning of individual kata myself.

Do you speak 'kata'? Are there any 'rules' you know that can help me understand kata?

Clip Art above courtesy of: http://www.cksinfo.com
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Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Sunderland Festival of Martial Arts 2010 - a great success

I made it to the martial arts festival I have been advertising in my sidebar for the last few weeks. It was a great success – better than last year even!

After getting up at 6.30am (ooh! bit early for a Saturday that) we were on the road just after 8.00am to drive the 140 miles to Sunderland. We arrived just as the introductory Lion Dance was finishing which was a shame as I enjoyed watching that last year.
The line up was great though, everything from aikido to capoeira to karate, kobudo, taekwondo, jujitsu, taiji , kung Fu and kickboxing.
The things I particularly enjoy about this festival is the fact that it isn't just about presenting professional performance displays with flashy sound and lighting. Impressive as these type of demonstrations are they don't necessarily represent martial arts as you and I know it. Instead this festival showcases many local or national clubs (the sort you and I attend), giving them a chance to show the public what real martial arts clubs are about.

Most of the clubs didn't, therefore, just handpick their 'stars' to do the demonstrations but allowed members of all ranks and ages to participate. The taekwondo club had members ranging from 5 years to 90 years performing in their demonstration. What impressed me most was the fact that this 90 year old black belt could kneel down in seiza on the mats and get up without having to rub his knees! A feat some middle-age martial artists have a problem with.

The kids are always great to watch. Some clearly have a lot of natural talent and enthusiasm and you can see that if they keep up their training they will one day make excellent martial artists. Others are just not with the program at all but never the less add the 'arrr' factor!

Of course one also wants to witness some impressive, advanced martial arts as well and there were some impressive high ranking artists performing as well.

The other thing that I like about this festival is the friendly, welcoming atmosphere. The instructors and members of the various clubs as well as the organisers were willing to stay around to chat and show you things. Several of them put on mini seminars that you could join in. I learned a few defences against knife attacks from the senior instructor with DFM martial arts. I'd have like to join in a few more of these 'taster sessions' but I was too busy talking to people or watching the demonstrations!

Of course the main motivation behind organising this festival every year is to raise money for Cancer Research UK, so there are raffles and auctions and various other side shows to help swell the coffers. Hopefully they raised money by the bucketful.
Anyway, here's some videos of some of the highlights of the festival:


Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Honouring technique

When practising martial arts with a training partner one is often told that you must ‘honour the technique’ that your partner is trying to practice on you. But what is exactly meant by ‘honouring the technique’?

In karate, partner work is undertaken during the practice of ippon kumite (1 step sparring), bunkai (kata application) or goshin waza (self-defense techniques). The main aim in all these training approaches is to learn good body and foot movements; develop strategies for dealing with certain types of attack and perfect individual defence/counter-attack techniques.

In the early stages of training a lot of thought needs to go into developing and executing techniques and so they are generally performed slowly, with many pauses, rewinds and re-runs as learning takes place. As training advances hopefully you do a little less thinking and begin to execute techniques a little more speedily and with greater intent. The very advanced practitioner will just act and not think at all and training should become much more ‘realistic’.

So if training becomes more ‘realistic’ as the practitioner progresses through the kyu and dan grades then presumably one’s training as an uke also needs to progress if the attack and response by uke is to simulate realism. It seems likely then that ‘honouring the technique’ will mean slightly different things at different stages of training.

However the basic principles of ‘honouring technique’ hold fast at all stages of training and include: not allowing your partner to get away with sloppy or ineffective technique, offering a level of resistance that is commensurate with your partner’s skill level and giving feedback to your partner about whether locks are on or pressure points have been effectively accessed. It also includes delivering attacks at realistic distances and with a speed that is commensurate with your partner’s skill level.

I think that good uke training is often a neglected component of karate. To be a good uke and to be able to follow the principles of ‘honouring technique’, one needs to have a certain set of skills and knowledge. To start with a good uke needs to know how to breakfall and to feel confident with this. But uke’s role also involves simulating a lot of responses and thus they need to have the knowledge of how to do this. Many techniques delivered by tori may depend on uke simulating the correct physiological response to a counter-attack. For example a groin strike should make uke bend forward, a palm heel to the chin should have uke throwing back their head and their weight moving backwards. If uke doesn’t simulate these predictable physiological responses then they are not ‘honouring the technique’.

However, uke should not confuse simulating predictable physiological responses with ‘going with the technique’. For example, if tori is attempting a leg sweep then he must sweep uke off his feet – you shouldn’t fall for him. If tori is trying to unbalance uke then he must actually unbalance him for real.

The concept of ‘realism’ in karate training often becomes very abstract. The only way of introducing concrete realism is to have a real fight but paradoxically a real fight is not the best environment in which to practice techniques in. So we have to train with abstract realism instead. Apart from the use of many simulated responses, abstract realism ought to include realistic types of attack.

Only if you have been in a real fight can you know what the experience is like. I, like many other martial artists have never been in a real fight so I have to rely on descriptions of others as to what a real fight would be like. Apparently a real fight is fast, furious, un-relenting but technically very sloppy. How do we simulate this?

One of the problems with martial arts training is that we train with other martial artists, yet we wouldn’t face a real attack from one. The person that may attack us is likely to be an untrained ‘yob’ who doesn’t know how to kick or punch correctly. We are not likely to have to defend ourselves against the perfect oi zuki or well snapped back front kick that is too quick to be caught. It seems to make more sense for uke to deliver an attack in a sloppy, unpredictable but more ‘realistic’ way.

If our aim as martial artists is to learn to defend ourselves against a street attack then we must ‘honour’ our partner’s techniques in both the way we attack and the way we respond to their defence. Only through this mutual cooperation and trust between partners can we develop and internalise the strategies and techniques that may one day save our lives.

What does ‘honour the technique’ mean to you?

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