Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Age and martial arts

I was recently browsing around the Download website and came across a video looking at students from different clubs testing for their shodan rank. The point of the video was to give you a flavour of what standard should be expected for a 1st kyu grade testing for shodan.

Here is the video:

I found the standard of the students good but also in line with what I would expect someone testing for shodan to be like. However, I was more interested in Jason Armstrong’s comments towards the end of the video where he states that in their organisation they have a different shodan curriculum for people over the age of 40 than for those under 40 (the students seen in the video are testing with the under 40 curriculum).

My first reaction to this was Hey, we’re not past it yet you know - no need to slow it down for us! Then I was reminded of my current persistent shoulder injury and the excessive aching I often get after training and realised that was my ego talking!

After thinking about it a bit more I realised that having a slightly modified syllabus for middle aged and older people is probably not a bad idea. In Jason Armstrong’s organisation the under 40 curriculum focus’s a lot more on ‘modern’ karate i.e point sparring, kata performance etc and slightly less on self-defence and bunkai. The over 40’s curriculum is balanced the other way around with more emphasis on traditional karate, self-defence and bunkai.

I think this probably works well. In my experience younger people are better at point sparring, can get their kicks up higher and faster and often look better in the performance aspects of kata . They are often more interested in the competitive aspects of modern karate than older people.

I also think (and I’m generalising here) that older people are more interested in the technical aspects of karate and have more patience to learn and experiment with them. They tend to want to discuss technical details more and often read to assist their learning.  Of course, many younger people are like this to and many older people still like competition but as a rule of thumb  I think that younger people get more excited by the thought of sparring and putting on a good kata performance and older people get more excited about delving more deeply into bunkai and self-defence issues – it’s certainly true for me.

I think that having different but overlapping curriculum for younger and older people can help them to play to their strengths and interests whilst still working on their weaknesses. I know some people might view this as a bit of a cop out for older people but is it reasonable to expect someone of 50 to be able to do the same physical activities as someone of 20? Anybody over the age of 40 or 50 will know that their body is not as flexible or capable as it might have been when they were younger. However, a young person cannot possible know what their body will feel like when they are older and so are in a more difficult position to make a judgement on this.

Some people would argue that everyone in a club testing for shodan should be tested on exactly the same material because that is fairer and ensures everyone achieves the same standard. This would be fair if the curriculum represents all aspects of karate equally so that older people can score more highly in areas that they are better in and younger people can score more highly in areas that suit them better. However, if the curriculum is biased towards areas that favour one age group then it isn’t fairer.

I know that this thinking may be a bit controversial. What do you think? Does your club have different curricular for younger and older people (not including children’s curriculum)?

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Charles James said...

Sue said, "... Some people would argue that everyone in a club testing for shodan should be tested on exactly the same material because that is fairer and ensures everyone achieves the same standard. ..."

The test for black belt, any black belt, is a unique and individual one. Standards are good as long as those who observe and judge take the uniqueness of the individual into consideration.

Even the master of my system/branch once spoke that if he had to take the tests given today he would not have earned a black belt.

To classify a test across the board without the human factor guiding the individual is not conducive to good black belts.

Age adjustments is only one small thing that must be a part of the unwritten evaluation of a person in martial arts.

Charles James said...

Maybe this would better explain my position - if two individuals of vastly different body types, strengths, etc. are working toward the black belt then if both apply a spirit that equals that level in budo then the cleanliness, exactness and form may be different but both still should be black belts.

I had a guy who just could not get it but stayed solid and diligent for ten years. Now, just because he could not get the kata exactly and perfectly (what ever that truly means) does not diminish his spirit so I allowed him access to a higher level/belt, etc.

Things must be viewed with a lens that does discriminate between individuals because we are NOT equal no matter what is said as to political correctness.

I feel strongly if we budo practitioners allow the size of our participants dictate how we guide and evaluate as a whole without taking the individual human into account we are giving disservice to our practice and to our deshi.

Sigh, not sure I am clear but you can get it that this is an important issue to me :-)

Denman said...

I suspect all will share anectdotal evidence of adult shodan tests. Here are my observations from training at a smallish dojo run by a female sensei. She has three separate classes based on the age of the participants: Adult (age 16 and up); youth (6 to 15); and, tots (less than 6).

She has awarded six adult black belts in the four years I have been training with her. Four of the six were no longer training within 6 months after receiving their black belt (a familiar story). One moved and another has continued to train.

Because I was testing for kyu rank at the same time, I observed each black belt test. Each test was different than the others. All tests were fairly rigorous physically and included tests on fundamentals of hand techniques (single and double), kihons, kicks (single and double), ground techniques, kata and sparring. If the students demonstrated ability in kata, that portion of the test was stressed. If the students demonstrated ability in sparring, that portion of the test was stressed. No portions were dropped, and the tests lasted several hours.

In a few months, I anticipate being asked to test for my black belt. In preparation, I'm training at home on all of the above.

I'm 46 years old. Because I don't know what to expect, I'm training on everything.

John Coles said...

Thought provoking post. One which I have been having reason to address.

Flexibility in attitude and thought is not a feature of most martial arts and most martial artists, even in jujutsu, the 'flexible art'.

This can be seen in Kanazawa's (a true marital arts (Shotokan karate) mater) comments in an interview about his training tai chi. He said that Shotokan is for young hard people, then as they get older they should do Goju ryu, and older still, tai chi. An obvious conclusion is that these martial arts do not accomodate different stages in ones life.

Jan de Jong had a flexible attitude. He stuggled to institutionalise that in the grading system, and his flexibility was sometimes criticised as 'lowering standards'. But I believe he looked beyond just setting one standard; he looked at what the grading is REALLY suppose to examine. Not the omote (outside), but the ura (inside)(see Friday, Legacies of the Sword).

I'd suggest a difficulty with many is that they have not thought about, and cannot articulate, specifically what the grading is suppose to achieve, and then to be true to the spirit rather than the letter of the grading.

Sue C said...

Some really thought provoking and well thought out comments - thanks guys...

Charles, I definitely get that this is important to you. I agree with you that the development and forging of a strong spirit (not just in the grading but during all training too)is more important and more indicative of shodan standard than demonstrations of perfect form. Every individual has strengths and weaknesses - being encouraged to maximise strengths and minimise weaknesses to create one's own unique martial arts ability should be paramount.

Denham, this sounds like an interesting way of grading - testing on everything but stressing those elements that the student is strongest on. I can see this working well in a small dojo where students may test individually for shodan. I can't quite see how it would work where large numbers of students (say 20 -30) may all grade together. Though I'm sure with a bit of imagination from grading officers it could be accommodated in some form.

John, that's an interesting observation about whether grading officers are clear about what it is they are testing. I sometimes feel that we are judged to much on perfection of form and not enough on spirit and effectiveness of techniques - perhaps good form is easier to judge?

Felicia said...

Hmmm...I vote for same standards/curriculum, differnt emphasis - based on ability and strengths, NOT just age.

I just turned 45. I tested for shodan at 42. Sounds old, but I was a nationally-ranked competitive athlete until I was 37 - which was a few months before I started training in karate. I'm also 6'2" tall with a 44" inseam, so kicking to most sparring partner's heads was relatively easy for me. That may or may not be the case for other 40+ karateka, but the age is not the sole determining factor. The path is meant to be far, far more individual than that, I think.

Just my two cents, though...

John W. Zimmer said...

Hi Sue,

I resemble that remark(I'm not past it yet)! You make some good points.

But sadly as we get older we do not bring the same fitness level to the table.

In our style we don't stylize differences in criteria for age. My guess is older people say past 45 to 55 (depending on the fitness level) cannot achieve a black belt.

When I was in my twenty's - I was teaching a 50 year old guy and I was having a hard time understanding why he could not get his kicks above his waist. He bought one of those 80's stretching machines and all it did was pull his groin muscle. (I've kept up my ability to kick high after watching him).

The last couple of years I tried to make a comeback sparring with my old buddies - found out that although I was marginally in good enough shape to go a few rounds - I did not recover from the injuries very fast.

I've had to give up the notion that I could keep sparring (we practice basically full contact) as part of my regular workouts. I'll try to keep some point fighting but other than that I'm focusing on technique now. It is kind of a cruel joke on me that I have to focus on what I used to call "fluff" as I am getting older. :)

You got me thinking again Sue!

Sue C said...

Hi Felicia, I totally get what you are saying - age is just one consideration and not necessarily the determining one. I appreciate that there are many very athletic 40 pluses out there (my brother's partner, aged 43, still competes in women's pentathlete events) but I think people like you and her are more the exception than the rule for the over 40s.

I don't think anyone should be prevented from participating in the more athletic sports side of karate just because they are older if they enjoy it and can still manage it but if the main criteria for a black belt is that you must show skill and proficiency at sparring and win competitions then a whole group of people will be excluded (mainly, but not exclusively, because they are older). These same people may be able to demonstrate a high level of skill in bunkai and self-defence - I'd argue that that's more worthy of a black belt than being able to kick someone in the head (not a good self-defence move!)

John, thanks for sharing your personal experiences - you really embody the issues I raised about the effects of age on martial arts ability. I hope you don't still consider the more technical aspects of karate as 'fluff' and that you are able to see this new approach to training as a worthwhile challenge... said...

Years ago, before I became a more mature martial artist (read: in my early 20's) I would have disagreed with changing the test curriculum for those over 40, from a purest point of view alone.

THEN, I got older. And it taught me that while I might not be able to jump high and kick an apple off the top of a friend's head a la William Tell, I have greater focus and can apply more force through proper technique than I can my equally ranked, but younger, compatriots.

So to tell a 41 yr old brown belt that he failed because he couldnt perform a tobi mae geri as well as a 21 year old ignores all the other qualities that make a great black belt and shuns someone who may have had something great to contribute to the art.


Sue C said...

Hi Brett, I'm with you all the way - there is a lot that older martial artists can contribute that younger people may not have the patience for. These things ought to be reflected in the curriculum. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Unknown said...

I think that however you do it, you need to be consistent. While the details might look different, the standards shouldn't have much give.

The way I look at it, I'm 41 and have earned my purple belt in BJJ. It took over 4 years, and I'll likely have it for at least a few more years to come. I'd rather wear the purple belt I've earned than a black belt I was given.

Sue C said...

Steve, I agree with you. I don't think anyone would want the standard lowering for them just because they are older, they just want to be able to play to their strengths and show what they can do well rather than struggle with things that age makes more difficult, such as kicking to the head, fast spinning kicks etc.

If a black belt grading is weighted in favour of demonstrations of youthful athleticism rather than realistic self defence applications then older people are just being set up to fail when what they can actually do is more useful and more realistic in the real world.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate this article, since at almost 70 years of age (I started at 48) I find myself struggling more and more to keep up (actually, to just keep in sight of that next to last practitioner ahead of me!).

It's finally becoming clear (or maybe I too have realized my ego is biting off more than my body can chew!) that most martial arts are a "sport" for the young and/or gifted, that is, until I discovered pressure point tactics "real" kata.

I have found that non-watered down kata are full of pressure point and tuite techniques to defend oneself without a high degree of athleticism. My study of the real martial arts from the early Asian days tends to show that kicks were waist level or lower, because the action just prior to the kick either lowered the head of the opponent or the kick was placed in the inside of the thigh, the knee, the calf or other pressure points within those areas. And, even I can do most of the techniques in these older kata.

As you suggested, the older I have gotten, the more interested I've become in the self-defense and bunkai aspects of the art. And for me, I'm thinking that in real combat, high kicks may not be all that useful.

There are other items I could point to as well, but I don't want to make this too long. So, as a 3rd degree BB, I'm facing whether or not I want to test (I've been offered the opportunity) for a 4th. Honestly? the belt doesn't mean as much to me as being able to actually defend myself if needed, because I do walk around a lot and meet some, well, "interesting" characters. Knowing I can defend by self quickly and without bloodshed lightens my step and exudes a touch of confidence that so far allows me to genuinely smile at my fellow travelers and continue on my way without the need for any conflict.

One old man's opinion. Jim

Sue C said...

Hi Jim, it's very impressive that you are still very active in karate at the age of 70 - just shows that it keeps you young! I'm also impressed that you are planning to grade again so I wish you good luck with that.

I started karate at 45 so I really hope I'm still going at 70. Your positive and inquisitive attitude to training is really inspirational so thanks for sharing with me...


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