Thursday, 27 January 2011

Six things I'm looking forward to post black belt....

I was inspired to write this post by Michele’s post, “Things I only understood after Black Belt”. Of course I don’t really know what things I will come to understand after attaining my Black Belt as this is in the future for me. However, I know the things I’m looking forward to!

1. Being liberated from grading. Though I support the coloured belt and grading system and our club is not focused only on training for your next belt I am looking forward to some respite from it. Once I achieve 1st dan level it will be at least 2-3 years before the subject of grading rears its head again. This is a lot of breathing space to just enjoy the training!

2. Consolidating the basics. I think post black belt will be a good time to reflect on what I have already learnt and identify and improve on the basics that I am still weaker on.

3. Learning to spell! I’ve been told that all pre black belt training is about teaching you the alphabet and post black belt training is about teaching you to spell. Well, I’m looking forward to learning to spell.

4. Learning some ‘off’ syllabus stuff. This could be things learnt within the club or externally through attendance at seminars and courses. I always like the chance to meet new students and new instructors and try new things.

5. Spending more time dissecting and understanding the kata and bunkai. As kyu graders we learn some bunkai from each kata but I don’t feel we really get our teeth into them properly, mainly because the syllabus is so packed there just isn’t time. I’m hoping to have more time to study the kata after black belt grading

6. Spend more time teaching. Though I currently help out as an assistant instructor with the junior class I’d like to eventually take on more. Hopefully I’ll have more time to work with my instructor on improving my own teaching skills and knowledge.

I’m really hoping to avoid the ‘black belt blues’ that many new black belts seem to suffer from. I don’t feel that it is an inevitability that one should feel like that after grading and maybe thinking about what you want to achieve after black belt is a good way of avoiding it. Too many people drop out completely after achieving their black belts; I don’t intend to be one of them.

Did you think ahead to what you wanted to achieve post black belt? Has post black belt training been all you expected it to be?

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Friday, 21 January 2011

Some martial arts reading......

The most popular post I have published on the SSK blog (by far) is one I wrote a few months ago where I provided a reading list of martial arts books (Do you read about martial arts?). Since the SSK students seemed to have an appetite for reading I have just posted a new list of books for them that I have found good reading material. I thought you might like to see it too!

The title of each book links directly to Amazon (UK) in case you want to purchase it or find out more about it. (I do not receive commission for any books sold via this post).

Getting fit for martial arts.

My new year’s resolution was to get fitter and more flexible to enhance my ability to do karate. My ultimate goal was to get fit enough to endure my shodan grading in the summer (assuming I’m invited to grade). I’m no real expert on fitness training so I have looked to a few books for help. Here are the ones I’m finding useful:

Ultimate Flexibility – a complete guide to stretching for Martial Arts, by Sang H. Kim

This very comprehensive book covers all aspects of stretching from the basic physiology and science behind stretching to easy to follow exercises for all areas of the body. It has chapters on body mechanics, the effects of aging on flexibility, muscle recovery and developing the right mindset for stretching. It then takes you through how to plan your own stretching program. The exercises themselves are ordered into areas of the body such as legs, back, hips, arms etc. There is then a series of suggested workouts depending on what you are trying to achieve e.g. a light contact workout, kicking workout, boxing workout, grappling workout etc. I am finding this book invaluable so I’m sure you will too.

Fighter’s Fact book: Over 400 concepts, principles and drills to make you a better fighter! By Loren W. Christensen.

If you want to improve your endurance, speed, reaction times and power then this is the book for you. It is packed full of training ideas and drills that you can work on at home alone or with a partner. It also looks at ways of improving punching, kicking and sparring techniques and provides tips of how to pass a black belt test. Part two focuses on mental training – alleviating stress, mental imagery, coping with pain and conquering fear.

Solo training: the martial artist’s guide to training alone, by Loren W. Christensen

Don’t have a training partner at home? Then you need this book! Again, this is a collection of drills, techniques and exercises specifically tailored to the needs of a martial artist. This book is designed to add a bit of spice and variety into solo training routines so that you don’t get bored. It aims to help you get the maximum results from the shortest training session, so if you don’t have a lot of time to train at home this book could become your best friend!

Martial Arts After 40, by Sang H. Kim Ph.D

If, like me, you are now on the wrong side of 40 then it may be worth getting this book. It outlines the changes your body undergoes as you get older and how this affects your training. It is also full of common sense tips and exercises than enable you to continue to train safely and effectively as you age and how to prevent injury. The book is very positive and motivating and will help the older practitioner get the best out of their training.

Martial Arts Instruction books

Fancy yourself as a future instructor? Helping out as an Assistant instructor? Or, maybe you just want to feel more confident about teaching when sensei asks you to show a junior grade how to do something or explain something to them. I bought the following books when I started helping my instructor in the junior class. I have found them very helpful:

Martial Arts Instruction – applying educational theory and communication techniques in the dojo, by Lawerence A. Kane.

This book deals with understanding different learning styles and assessing your student’s learning style preference. In fact it is quite useful just for helping you understand your own learning style and preferences even if you are not interested in teaching. It then looks at different methods of teaching, fostering a positive learning environment, lesson planning and class management. The book is very practical and readable and doesn’t get too dogged down in educational theory, despite the title. Worth a read if you are interested in teaching.

Martial Arts Instructor’s Desk Reference – a complete guide to martial arts administration, by Sang H. Kim, Ph.D.

This book has something for every budding instructor from assistant or new club instructors to experienced instructors looking for new ideas to liven up or refresh their teaching methods. There is a lot of information and ideas about teaching children, including children with disabilities or behavioural problems. There are lots of suggestions as to how to deal with the unruly or non compliant child and how to keep all students motivated and enthusiastic. If you are serious about starting a club then there is information on how to go about it including how to promote and market a martial arts club. This is a book that can be dipped into when you need some teaching inspiration!

101 games and drill for Martial Arts, by David and Elizabeth Lee.

If you are looking for some fun ways to spice up a class then this book is full of games and drills. Using stick type drawings it guides you through each game or drill, outlining its purpose and what level of student it is suitable for. There are games and drills to improve balance, reaction times, speed, kicks, punching, sparring, pad work and more. There are team games, solo drills and partner drills. Many are suitable for warm ups, warm downs, end of class games or as serious training drills. A great book to dip into for ideas!

Martial Arts and general life:

For many people martial arts are not just about fitness and fighting but are about self-improvement and a guide as to how to live a better life. If you are into the Way of martial arts then this next session may interest you:

Living the Martial Way – a manual for the way a modern warrior should think, by Forrest E. Morgan, Maj USAF

This book is fast becoming a modern classic. It is a comprehensive guide on how to integrate the lessons learned in the dojo into everyday life. The book is designed to be a systematic, step-by-step approach to applying the warrior mind-set to martial arts training and daily life. It is divided into three sections: The Way of training – how to approach training and how to gain the most from it, The Way of honour – an approach to ethics and how to develop a powerful sense of character and will, and finally, The Way of living – a guide to a ‘warrior’ lifestyle; living a healthy life with dignity and wisdom. The book aims to provide you with a road map for determining your own martial destiny.

The Essence of Budo – a practitioners’ guide to understanding the Japanese Martial Ways, by Dave Lowry

No martial arts book list is complete without a David Lowry book! This is his latest book, following a familiar formula for which his books are well known and loved. This time in his explanations of what it means to live the martial Way, he focuses on issues that a martial arts student should consider as their training develops. He looks at fitness and gives some practical advice on improving posture and movement. He questions what students and teachers should expect from each other, the meaning of rank, how to train with less experienced students, the importance of dojo etiquette, teaching children and much more. It is all written in Lowry’s easy going, plain speaking style. A good read as usual.

What are your favourite martial arts books?
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Friday, 14 January 2011

Martial arts - a balancing act

One of my weaknesses when executing martial arts techniques is the inability to maintain consistent balance. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not falling all over the place as if I were drunk. In fact, I can stand on one leg just as well as the next person. I have no real problem with static balance; it is moving balance or dynamic balance where I start to get problems. I sway a little when executing a turn or I have to make small corrective foot movements to regain balance. Sometimes my stance is unstable and I can’t execute a throw correctly or I’m easy to push over.

I decided that to get to the bottom of why I have these problems (and therefore know how to correct them) I needed to understand a little more about what balance actually is and how the body controls it.

Wikipedia describes balance as: “the ability to maintain the centre of gravity of a body within the base of support with minimal postural sway”. The maintenance of balance requires sensory inputs from three physiological systems:

• Eyes: The visual system detects changes in the position of the body in relation to its surroundings.

• Ears: The vestibular system (inner ear) detects movement in different planes. It works in conjunction with the visual system to detect direction and speed of rotation, linear acceleration and helps us determine whether or not we are moving in a straight line.

• Muscles and ligaments: Located near the joints are sensory receptors in muscles and ligaments called proprioceptors which help us to know where our body parts are in relation to each other. Proprioceptors work in conjunction with the visual system to help us understand our orientation and position of limbs in space.

When these balance mechanisms detect that our centre of gravity has moved away from our base of support and we are starting to sway then corrective action is taken to bring us back into balance. Nerve impulses are sent to the muscles where corrective action is needed and they contract and/or relax, continuously tweaking themselves until balance is restored. For tiny losses of balance most of this correction occurs in the ankles (assuming you are standing up). The further your centre of gravity has moved outside your base of support then more and more muscle groups are called into play to correct balance – knees, hips, arms, torso…

So, where is our centre of balance and what constitutes our base of support? To put it in martial arts terms, our centre of gravity is in the centre of the body (about 2 inches below the navel) often referred to as the tanden or dantian region. The base of support is the area of ground beneath our feet that our body is centred over. If you are standing in a wide stance, say a forward stance or back stance then you will have a larger base of support than if you are standing with your feet together or on one foot. The larger the base of support then the further your centre of gravity can move from the centre point before it moves outside your base and you become unbalanced.

Our balance is best when our base of support is wide and our centre of gravity is low and pointing vertically down. This is achieved by using a fairly wide stance, with the knees (or one knee) bent and the back straight and perpendicular to the ground i.e. no leaning.

When moving between stances, particularly if that involves turning, then to maintain balance during the transition one has to remember to keep the base of support wide (move the foot into a good position before turning), keep the back straight and vertical – this requires movement to come from the hips and don’t allow your centre of gravity to move outside of your base. Keep your centre of gravity low during the move (so no bobbing) and keep the head up and looking forward so as not to confuse the visual system. When rotating 360 degrees, keep focused on a point in front of you whipping the head around quickly at the last moment (all ballet dancers know this). This will stop the vestibular system from receiving too may inputs which can result in dizziness.

Some of the techniques or stance transitions we need to do will require us to compromise one of the three stability elements (base of support, low centre of gravity or vertical line of gravity). If this is the case then we need to compensate with the remaining two. For example, if your stance transition requires your feet to be brought close together then you must ensure your back remains straight and vertical so that your centre of gravity doesn’t move outside your (smaller) base of support. If your technique requires you to lean forward then you may need to widen your stance for stability. If you need to have your feet together and lean forward (I’m thinking hip throw here) then you must bend your knees a lot to lower your centre of gravity further.

You know what? The more I’ve thought about this and researched it the more I’ve come to realise that good balance means good basics! How many times has your instructor told you to widen your stance, bend your knee more or straighten your back? It’s not just about aesthetics – it’s about balance too.

I’m now getting a clearer idea about where my balance problems come from. I am a ‘leaner’ – this unbalances me because my line of gravity is not vertical. Also, during some stance transitions, particularly ones involving turns of 180 degrees or more I don’t adopt a wide enough stance first – my feet end up less than a shoulder width apart, so my base of support is too small. Together with my leaning tendency I probably keep moving my centre of balance outside my base of support – causing wobbling and swaying!

Okay, I’ve identified the problem, now I need to fix it. The good news is both the vestibular system and proprioception can be improved with appropriate exercises. This together with improving basic movement techniques in karate should fix my problem.

On my other blog – Countdown to Shodan, I will be discussing some balance exercises that I am incorporating into my training regime….
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Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Should a kyu grader be cross training?

By cross training I mean training simultaneously in two or more martial arts. Is cross training a good thing for a kyu grader to be doing? I suspect there are opinions for and against a kyu grader cross-training in different martial arts so I’ll make my confession early in this post: I am a cross trainer!

As you know, I do both karate and kobudo (with some jujitsu thrown in on a need to know basis). But should I be doing this so early in my martial arts career? The arguments against often ring in my ears: You need to focus on learning the basics in one martial art first (at least up to shodan); your time and attention will be diluted and you’ll end up doing both arts badly; or stances and techniques will be similar but different and you’ll get confused as to which to use.

These are all potential pitfalls but I genuinely don’t think cross training is creating any problems for me at the moment. In fact I think that cross training is actually enhancing my performance in both karate and kobudo. This is what I feel are the advantages and disadvantages of my cross training:


Core principles: When you have been training in a martial art for a few years and you are starting to understand its principles; and then you look at what other martial arts are offering you start to realise that there is a lot of overlap between them, it’s just the emphasis that is different. Most striking arts include some grappling and most grappling arts practice a bit of striking. Core principles such as ‘block/evade, counter, finish’ become much more apparent and enhanced when you witness them in use in more than one martial art.

Attention to detail: In karate there is a lot of attention to detail in teaching us how to punch and kick correctly. The bio-mechanics of striking is explored in detail and we spend a lot of time practicing our combinations to get this right. The exact position of hands, feet, shoulders, hips, stances etc is criticised and corrected to help us perfect these techniques. However, the attention to detail for learning grappling is much less. On the whole this makes most karateka better strikers than throwers. In my kobudo (jujitsu) club there is very little attention to detail on how to strike but a lot more detail on throwing and locking techniques. The result is that jujitsuka are better grapplers than strikers. Since I have been training with weapons in a jujitsu club I have become a better and more confident thrower (and learnt to be thrown). In the jujitsu club we do break fall practice every session and so I have become a more confident faller than many of my karate peers.

Different perspective: Karate is often labelled a ‘hard’ art and jujitsu a ‘soft’ art. Beginners in both arts can often misconstrue what is meant by this. Junior grade karateka often interpret ‘hard’ as ‘tense’ and assume muscular effort means more power. They are often told that they are too stiff and rigid in their movements. It is only with experience that you start to see that to achieve ‘hard’ one must relax in order to gain speed only tensing at the last moment. The beginner jujitsuka often interprets ‘soft’ as slow and without power. With experience he comes to realise that the ‘soft’ flowing movements of jujitsu come from being relaxed rather than slow/powerless and that this, together with an understanding of the dynamics of throwing creates strong, fast and powerful throws.

By cross training I have come to realise that both karateka and jujitsuka are trying to achieve the same thing: soft flowing movements (through relaxation), to achieve hard powerful techniques. They just approach it from a different perspective.

One of my weapons is the bokken . To use a bokken you have to develop soft flowing movements in order to ‘cut’ quickly and powerfully. By training with the bokken I am learning to relax. This is a skill I am transferring to my karate training. Utilising the principle of ‘soft’ my karate techniques are becoming more powerful. I am benefiting from the different perspective that jujitsu gives.

Enhanced understanding/transference of certain principles: Sometimes when you are training in a martial art it is easy to become a little complacent about your performance of a particular technique and think you are doing it well – take blocking for instance. You know all about twisting your wrist at the end of a block and assume that you are doing so correctly. Then you take up a weapons art and have to block a strike from a bo or jo with your tanbo or tonfa. If your forearm does not twist out correctly you do not block the bo with your weapon, you block it with your forearm – and it hurts! You soon learn to do your blocks correctly and snap out of your complacency.

When you are applying a wrist lock to your opponent using a tanbo (short stick) you do not get any feedback about how hard you have applied it unless your opponent tells you. Partners get good at giving each other feedback about technique (it’s self preservation really) in a way we sometimes don’t in karate. Weapon’s training can teach you to be a more careful and considerate partner because the damage you can do to each other is potentially more serious.

To block a downward strike from a bo or jo you need to block it whilst the bo/jo is at its slowest point i.e. whilst it is still fairly vertical and has not picked up a lot of momentum on its downward swing. Perhaps this is also the best time to block an otoshi (hammer fist) strike in karate? When you cross train you start to see parallels between similar techniques and can transfer this knowledge from one art to the other.


I have found a few disadvantages to cross training but these are relatively minor and do not outweigh the advantages. Some of the break falls are performed slightly differently in karate compared to jujitsu so I have to alter which way I do it depending on which club I am in, but that is not a major problem. Altering stances is a little more problematic. In karate the stances seem to be an integral part of the technique, often used to unbalance your partner and to shift your weight quickly and dramatically from one foot to the other or from front to back. In jujitsu the higher, lighter stances enable you to move around more quickly but most of the technique is performed using the arms, upper body and hips. There are exceptions to this such as body drops and inside hock (but then these techniques are not dissimilar to some take downs in karate). Sometimes I find that my stances are too deep and rooted for some of the jujitsu techniques to work well and occasionally in karate I have started to forget to bend my front leg enough when in zenkutsu dachi!

My overall experiences of cross training are very positive and I would recommend it to anyone. However, it is important to remember which your main art is. For me it is karate. Kobudo is an adjunct, an art which gives me new insights, a different perspective and helps me enhance skills which are relevant to karate. It’s also great fun.
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