Monday, 30 March 2009

Self- disappointment

I entered a kata competition on Saturday - the Northern Open Classic, and came home feeling very deflated and disappointed. This wasn't because I didn't win my category, I didn't particularly expect to. I think the reasons are more complex than that. Firstly, it was nearly a two hour drive each way to get to/from the competition so I was pretty keen to do it and therefore had fairly high expectations of myself to put in a good performance. After registering (a tedious half hour stand in a queue just to get your name ticked off on a list) I was keen to warm up and practice my katas. It was about another 2 hours before my category was called and I was managing to stay pretty focused and warmed up in that time.

However, when my category was called and asked to report to area 3 I was quite phased by the fact that there were only 2 of us to compete. This was a category that covered women over 16yrs, 9th - 4th kyu grade and open to all styles! I started to lose my focus at this point as I realised I was going to get a medal for just turning up. I was selected to go first and it was all over before I barely realised what was going on. I then watched my opponent who, though very young (no more than 18 or 20), remained poised and focused whilst she executed her kata with accuracy, style and precision. She was a deserving winner. Even if I had done my kata as well as I could have, I would not have beaten her.

My disappointment therefore relates mainly to the fact that despite all my preparation and enthusiasm, when it came to my performance I allowed myself to lose focus and all energy out of my kata simply because I was distracted by my dismay at there only being 2 of us to compete. I had 'too many minds' as they say in The Last Samurai. I should have taken time to re-focus, regained my poise, taken a few deep breaths, been patient - whatever it took to be able to concentrate properly again. Had I performed the kata to the best of my ability I would probably have felt quite proud to take the silver medal home but performing it without full concentration and effort (I was lucky not to have made any mistakes - it just lacked energy) I don't feel I deserved the medal at all.

So what have I learnt about myself from this? Well, I've learnt that I value my performance more than I value the medal which I think is a good thing. I've learnt that I have a way to go before I have developed the mental discipline and attitude needed to consistently do my best. I have also learnt that I am not as physically good at kata as I would like to be for the stage that I am at (or as good as I sometimes think I am if I'm totally honest). I've also started to feel for the first time that maybe, just maybe, age is ever so slightly against me here - not something I've liked to admit to before! I was more than twice the age of my opponent and I think it showed. She was able to execute her moves much more crisply and quicker than I can (even at my best). I'm starting to think that older limbs just can't move as quickly as younger ones - or maybe it just takes longer to get them up to speed? If you have any tips or training exercises to help speed up muscle reactions please let me know.

Where do I go from here? There is no doubt that my self-confidence has been dented a little by this self-disappointment and I'm feeling a little negative at the moment. However, I will get over myself fairly quickly and think about what I need to do to improve. I certainly need to focus on both the physical and mental aspects of karate and perhaps have more realistic expectations about what someone of my age (mid forties) can achieve. So if anyone has any useful advice or can point me in the direction of any good books I will be very grateful.

Thanks for listening.

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Thursday, 26 March 2009

Kids and Karate

Sensei asked me to come in early last training session to help teach some kata to the junior class. When I arrived he asked me to take a young girl (aged 7) through pinan shodan as she is grading on Saturday. She basically knew the routine but performed it with a heavy heart and very little effort. She did it with me once and then refused to do it again. I asked her what was wrong and she said, 'karate's boring, kata's boring, I don't want to do my grading.' I asked her if her parents made her come to karate and she said yes. She had been told that she couldn't drop out until she had done two more belts. I actually felt very sorry for her (she's very cute) as she stood there looking the picture of misery.

Why do parents insist on making their children do hobbies that they don't want to do just because they think it will be good for them? I have seen several children in this predicament and they clearly get very little out of it. Many of them misbehave or talk when they should be listening and they often look miserable or bored. This is not sensei's fault , he works hard to keep the children occupied and varies the activities to keep the class varied and interesting. He is not afraid to rebuke particularly naughty children and will discuss their behaviour with their parents. But still these children get brought back to class week after week.

Martial arts is often sold to parents as 'instilling discipline', 'character building' or 'confidence building'. Lets face it, these claims are far-fetched. One hour per week is not going to instill discipline into an undisciplined child. Discipline has to start at home and any child coerced by their parents into doing a sport or hobby that they don't enjoy is going to have their confidence undermined, not promoted. Surely it's the characteristics that a child (or adult) bring into the dojo that determine their success. An eager, disciplined self-motivated person will do well in martial arts. They will bring life and enthusiasm to the class that may well rub off on less confident students and enhance the experience for everyone. The disinterested, poorly motivated student will be a distraction that can sap the energy from the whole class.

I had started to form the opinion that young children just weren't ready or mature enough to study martial arts and maybe shouldn't start training until they are about 11 or 12, but then you occasionally meet a child who is particularly good and inspiring - I have seen such children in competitions - and I think it would be unfair if these children had not had the chance. What is your experience of children in the dojo? Do you think 6yrs is too young to start?

To end on a positive here's some video of some excellent karate from some enthusiastic, well motivated children:

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Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Ways of life: Karate-do and Chado

Photo: Japanese Tea House. Supplied by

Like many martial artists I have an interest in 'things Japanese'. Particularly traditional Japanese culture. One of the things that fascinates me is the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. On reading about the ceremony I was struck by the similarites it has to karate (and no doubt other martial arts). Let me explain...

Both karate and the Japanese tea ceremony are 'do' rather than an 'art'. In other words they are ways of life rather than just a collection of skills. Karate is often described as karate-do (way of karate) and the Japanese word for the tea ceremony is Chado (way of tea). Both are learnt over a long period of time in a school under a master. Both are practiced in a special environment, karate in a dojo and chado in a chashitsu (tea room). Special dress is required for both, a gi for karate and a kimono for the chado and both are performed bare foot.

Both contain very ritualistic components, learnt from simple to more complicated forms. In karate we call these forms kata and in chado they are called chanoyu (tea ceremonies). Etiquette that involves bowing is very important in both kata and chanoyu. In both types of school there is a process of progression for students. In karate this is obviously the belt system where increasingly more complicated forms, stances and kata are learnt, each stage being rewarded with a different coloured belt. In chado students start by learning the very basic components of a ceremony, such as opening and closing sliding doors, how to enter and exit a room correctly, how to bow and how to prepare and wash equipment. They then progress to learning increasingly more complicated chanoyu. After each chanoyu is mastered the student is rewarded with a certificate.

The final points of similarity between karate and Japanese tea ceremonies rest on their surprisingly similar philosophies and principles. I say surprising simply because one is a fighting form and the other is a rather genteel tradition and you would not necessarily expect them to share common principles! Sen no Rikyu, the most well known and still revered figure in the history of tea drinking in Japan lay down these principles for the tea ceremony that are still followed today: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. In Shotokan karate, the 5 guiding principles believed to have been laid down by Gichin Funakoshi are: Seek perfection of character, be sincere, put maximum effort into everything you do, respect others and develop self control. I think there's a lot of overlap there!

I may continue my research into other types of Japanese ways to see if they also follow similar structures and principles - I'll let you know if I find anything interesting. Meanwhile, why not watch this video of a Japanese tea ceremony in progress:

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Monday, 23 March 2009

Competition results

Just a quick post to let you know how the competition went. Hubby and I were in the final category of the day so we had about a 3 hour wait before we competed, but this gave us plenty of time to practice! The sports hall was divided into two by a curtain and one side was the competition area and other side was a practice area. This worked extremely well as it meant that the people actually competing had no distractions from people walking around or sitting and talking - something that happens at the bigger competitions!

There were 11 people in our category, 3 black belts, 5 brown belts and 3 purple belts. There were 4 rounds: 11 to 8 to 5 to 3. We were allowed to do the same kata for each round if we wanted or we could do different ones. I chose to do Annunko in each round I was in.

It's quite nerve wracking having 4 judges watching you from all angles plus the rest of the competitors watching you as well. But I managed to do my kata without any mistakes which I was pleased about as I was making lots of mistakes during the practices! Clearly I focus much better under pressure.

So, how did I do? Well I was very proud to come 4th out of 11 - especially as I helped to knock out 2 black belts and 4 brown belts. I just missed out on getting a trophy, but my husband came 3rd so we still brought some silver home with us. Two of our teenage members took 1st and 2nd places ( black belt and brown belt respectively) which they deserved.

Sensei organised the competition brilliantly - it was the first one he has organised and so my congratulations go to him, everything ran like clockwork. There was a professional photographer at the event who will be uploading the photos onto his website. When I have been notified that they are ready I will put a link on my side bar so that you can view us in action in you want to.

The picture at the top of this post is me practising.

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Thursday, 19 March 2009

EKC - Inaugural kata competition

This Saturday is our clubs first ever inter-club kata competition. Sensei runs three clubs under the same name and has invited all 160 or so club members to enter the competition. I think 48 of us have accepted the invitation and registered to enter. This is a really good result for our club as generally only a handful of us enter larger regional or national competitions. I am hopeful that as a result of this experience more club members will be encouraged to enter the bigger competitions. It would be great to get a team together and have someone else to go with!

We have been busy the last two weeks preparing for this competition with lots of kata practice, including performing our katas individually in front of the class under competition conditions. This has enabled us to experience what it is like to perform under pressure and learn to control our anxiety.

I find learning new kata one of the most enjoyable aspects of learning karate. It requires total coordination of mind and body. You can't do it properly unless you give it your full attention which means shutting out the outside world and really focusing on what you are doing. In that respect it has a meditational quality to it and allows you be introspective and 'alone' with yourself. This contrasts with other aspects of karate, like kumite or self-defense techniques, where you need to be alert and aware of what is going on around you and cooperative with a partner.

That's not to say you practice your kata in some dream-like state. Far from it. The kata demands you to fight an imaginary opponent and so you need to try and imagine he is really there. Sensei is constantly trying to drill into us that each time we turn in a kata we must turn our head to look first at that 'opponent', then prepare to turn by moving the feet into position ready to turn swiftly straight into the correct stance. At the same time he gets us to prepare the arms ready to do the block as soon as we have turned. So it's a case of 'look', 'prepare', 'turn'. It reminds me of 'signal', 'mirror', 'manoeuvre' in driving! I think it's this attention to detail that turns a kata performance from an aesthetically pleasing 'dance' to a demonstration of an effective fighting form.

So between now and Saturday it's practice, practice, practice!

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Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Karate - is it really a martial art?

I don't know about you but whenever I am thinking about any of the different fighting forms, be it karate, jujitsu, kung fu, kendo or anything else I tend to lump them altogether under the generic title of 'martial arts'. But is it right to do so? When I wrote my last post about the origins of shukokai I learnt that karate was developed by bureaucrats in the Shuri castle - not exactly martial then? This got me thinking a bit more about what it means to be a martial art and whether karate is in fact one.

To try and get to the bottom of this we need to consider the precise meanings of the words 'martial' and 'art'. The word 'martial' is clearly a reference to things of a military nature. The Oxford English Dictionary defines martial as 'appropriate to warfare' and 'warlike'. We use the term martial law to describe a military government. The Japanese translation of the word martial best approximates to the word bu, a familiar prefix in martial arts terminology. We are familiar with the term budo (martial ways), bushido (way of the bushi) and bujutsu (a fighting school of the samuri). Specifically though the prefix bu only refers to Japanese fighting techniques. So if you study any Chinese, Korean or European fighting forms you can't technically refer to them as 'martial', at least not in the Japanese sense of the word.

So to sum up the martial bit - your fighting form has to be of Japanese origin and developed for warfare by military establishments. That puts karate out of the picture as being 'martial'. It was developed in Okinawa by civilians to protect themselves against the military - the Samuri.

Is karate an 'art'? Remember we are looking at Japanese definitions of words. The word art in Japanese is generally translated to jutsu, though the word jutsu usually refers to skills or techniques. This definition does not allows us to include the wider philosophical components of learning a fighting form. The Japanese have another word to describe fighting forms that also include a deeper spiritual or philosophical side to them, they use the word 'do', which translates as the Way. I have often seen karate described as karate-do and indeed from my own experience I have come to realise that karate is more than merely a fighting form. I established in my last post that Shukokai means 'The way for all'.

So to conclude - is karate a martial art? Using the above definitions of 'martial' and 'art' karate clearly is neither. It is not martial because it is civilian and not Japanese in origin. It is not an art because it is more than just a collection of fighting skills and techniques - it is a Way or a Do.

Is the fighting form that you follow really a martial art? I'll leave you to work it out - good luck if you do MMA!

Reference: Traditions by Dave Lowry.

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Thursday, 12 March 2009

Shukokai karate – ‘The way for all’

I decided it would be a good idea for me to write a bit about the style of karate I am studying, mainly for your interest and my education. Though I could find a lot of information about the history of karate’s development, I could find very little information about what actually makes the Shukokai style different to other karate styles. Well, here’s what I’ve managed to find out:

Early history of karate
For hundreds of years the natives of Okinawa would defend themselves against attack with a fighting system that was a pre-cursor of karate called Te. Te was then heavily influenced by the Chinese art of Chuan Fa– a form of white crane kung fu brought to the island by visiting Chinese monks and envoys from around the 14th century and developed into the art of Tode.

During the 18th and 19th centuries the art of Tode developed separately into three styles: Naha-te, Shuri-te and Tomari-te. The Tomari-te style essentially merged with Shuri-te, though there are still kata practised today that can trace their lineage back to the Tomari-te style, including Wankan and Annanku.

Naha-te versus Shuri-te
Shuri was the capital of Okinawa and the King of Okinawa (Sho Tai 1847 -1879, deposed by Imperial Japanese decree during the Meiji restoration, he died in 1901in exile) lived in the heavily guarded Shuri Castle.

The original Shuri-te style was developed by the keimochi bureaucrats, who were the government officials living in the castle and doubled up as the king’s bodyguards. Names of note: Sokon Matsumura and Yasutsune Itosu both worked as bodyguards in Shuri Castle. The keimochi were Okinawa’s traditional nobility class from whom Gichin Funakoshi himself was descended.

Naha was a seaport village on the west coast of Okinawa, about 3 miles from Shuri. As a deep water seaport Naha received visiting sailors from all around the world. Often these visitors would be armed with weapons such as knives, harpoons and clubs. Kanyro Higaonna (b.1853) lived in Naha but spent many years in China where he learnt the art of Chuan Fa. He brought this back to Okinawa and developed it into the Naha-te style of karate – but did not teach it until 1902.

At the time karate was being developed (1800s), Okinawa was basically under siege from both Japan and China. The Tokugawan shogunate operated a brutal military dictatorship in Japan for over 200 years and with the Satsuma Samurai clan it terrorised the Okinawans, making them defenceless by banning all weapons.

The Shuri-te style developed by the King’s bodyguards is also known as ‘hard’ karate or linear karate, and is considered best suited to people who are light and quick on their feet. It uses the momentum of the whole body to generate power and impact.

Naha-te style, on the other hand, is also known as ‘soft’ karate or circular karate and takes many of its influences from Chinese Chuan Fa. This style emphasizes body building, muscle power, stationary rooted stances and keeping your hands in contact with your opponent, with lots of grappling. It generally suited the larger, more powerful man. It was a useful style for fighting in the dark if you were attacked at night as you walked home after a drinking session in Naha!

Itosu developed the Pinan katas practised by followers of the Shuri-te styles, whereas Higaonna developed Sanchin kata (a body building kata) typical of the Naha-te styles.

So where does Shukokai fit in?
Shukokai is a direct descendent of Shito-ryu, one of the four main systems of Japanese karate (the other three being Shotokan, Wado-ryu and Goju-ryu).

Shito-ryu was developed by Kenwa Mabuni around 1929. Mabuni is an interesting character because he studied karate under two very different masters, Kanryo Higaonna who developed the Naha-te style of karate and Yasutsune Itosu (b.1830) who taught the Shuri-te style of karate. By studying these two very contrasting styles Mabuni created a unique system of karate that included elements from both the Naha-te and Shuri-te schools.

Mabuni believed that Katas are the most important part of karate-do, and that it is necessary to understand the meaning of each movement in the Kata and to perform the Kata correctly. He was the first to introduce the concept of Bunkai kumite and Hokei Kumite, which demonstrated the purpose and showed the correct use for each Kata.

Mabuni believe that the final result of proper Kata and Kumite training is the ability to apply karate-do techniques in free Kumite. Practice of Kata also helps to transmit the knowledge encoded in Kata to the subsequent generation. Shito-ryu, unlike other karate-do styles, has many more Katas.

As a descendent of Shito-ryu, Shukokai also has elements of both Shuri-te and Naha-te styles. We practice all five Pinan katas as well as Sanchin and the related Tensho kata. In fact, Shukokai has 22 kata in total.

Shukokai was developed by Chojiro Tani in 1948. He studied Shito-ryu under Manubi and brought pad work into karate training. Shukokai is known for its relatively high stances, speed, hard hitting techniques and scientific approach to body mechanics, blending it with principles of modern sporting dynamics. Although very traditional techniques are taught through the kihon and kata, Shukokai also puts a lot of emphasis on sports karate.

Shukokai was brought to England in 1968 by SenseiTani and Sensei Kimura. The Shukokai Karate Union was founded in 1969 by Sensei Stan Knighton who was graded for black belt by Senseis Tani and Kimura. Stan Knighton remains Chief Instructor of the SKU and last year achieved his 9th Dan.
So, now I know where I’m coming from, so to speak! Here are some Shukokai karate videos:

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Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Climbing the never ending mountain

Last night in training we went back to basics. Sensei does this maybe once a month or so to reminds us of correct technique and help us to get rid of any bad habits we may have picked up before they become too entrenched. Usually there is an emphasis on some aspect of the technique whether it be feet position in stances, keeping punches central to the body and at the right height for chudan or jodan, positioning blocks correctly or just encouraging us to put more oomph into everything. Last night the emphasis was on the hip twist.

The hip twist seems to be a real central theme in karate. Which ever karate book I pick up there is always something in it about the hip twist or thrust, usually in relation to power generation. Whilst in the lower grades there was very little mention of using the hips - it was enough just to master what the arms and hands were supposed to be doing let alone worrying about the hips! Now I'm in the middle grades it's very clear that my hips are as important as my arms and legs. However, knowing that you need to twist your hip forward as you throw a punch or do a reverse hip twist for a block and actually being able to do it in a coordinated way are two different things! Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I don't.

I find coordinating a hip twist with a punch much easier than coordinating one with a block. Thrusting the hip of the leading leg forward as you do an oi zuki is fairly intuitive but twisting the hip back as you perform an age uke block on the same side (i.e. block with right arm as right hip twists back) is a little counter-intuitive, especially if you've just stepped forward on your right leg as well. As usual practice will make perfect but I doubt my hip twists are adding much power to my punches and blocks at the moment!

Learning karate is a bit like climbing a mountain that just keeps getting higher as you climb it. When you are in the lower grades you feel that you are making quite rapid progress. You go from being a complete novice to becoming fairly competent in all the basic techniques quite quickly, and it makes you feel good. You can even convince yourself that you are starting to see the top of the mountain! However, once you reach the middle and higher kyu grades you realise that you've only just climbed the foothills and the mountain suddenly becomes much steeper. To get from being competent to becoming an expert is a much steeper climb. I feel that I've just started to climb that mountain. Techniques that I thought I had grasped I now realise that I wasn't even aware of the things that I needed to know about them. Now I'm aware of them, like the hip twist, I realise I didn't really know how to do the technique at all. Sometimes this makes me feel like I'm going backwards instead of forwards but I know that if I keep listening, learning and practicing I will go forwards - and upwards!

No doubt as I continue my journey to black belt, new tiers of knowledge and skills will be opened up to me that I am not currently aware of but I'm a pretty determined character so I'm sure I'll make it in the end. Excuse me now, I have a mountain to climb....

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Wednesday, 4 March 2009


I joined in with the junior class on Monday as I had another commitment later in the evening. It was great to see people from that class again and see the progress they had made since I moved up to the senior class just after Christmas. It was a good session, half devoted to kumite training and half to kata training. The kumite training was enjoyable covering some fairly basic strikes, blocks and sweeps. I was feeling quite good about things when we stopped for a quick drink. Then we switched to kata training and something just went wrong...

I don't know what it was but I just couldn't keep my brain in gear to concentrate on the katas. I had had a busy day at work and then came home mid afternoon and prepared a report I needed for my meeting after karate, then I had to do an assignment for my blogging course, cook dinner for my son and get to the karate class for 6pm. I found it very difficult to clear all the day's clutter from my head and just focus on the kata. Sensei asked me to take some of the juniors through all the pinan katas and usually I can remember them reasonably well. But not Monday night! It took about three attempts to remember pinan nidan, pinans shodan, yondan and godan seemed to merge into one and as for sandan - well words fail me! And it all felt much worse because the juniors were expecting me to guide them.

To make a bad situation worse (from my point of view), sensei decided to do a mock kata competition where he and two seniors (who were arriving by now) acted as 'judges'. In turn we each had to bow, walk into the 'area', announce and perform our kata in front of everyone and then wait to receive a mark. Though I normally like doing this kind of thing as it is good practice for real competitions, this particular night I wasn't looking forward to it. I hadn't had the opportunity to practice the two katas that I am currently learning, Jurokono and Annanku, and with the pinan katas still buzzing around my head I couldn't focus on the one I was about to perform (Jurokono). So in front of both the junior class and the now assembled seniors I completely cocked up my kata. I forgot the beginning and had to start again, then after the end of one combination I couldn't remember for the life of me what came next so I gave a rather long pause until it suddenly popped into my head, then I ended up rushing the end of the kata.

I ended the class feeling quite despondent. This was nothing to do with how the class was run, indeed it was an excellent class, the kind of class that I would normally really enjoy. The problem was entirely with me. The thing is now - should I just put it down to one of those things ( I'm sure we all have a bad class from time to time) or is there something I can learn from this? Surely I should be able to clear my mind and concentrate better than this but I'm not sure how to do this. If anyone has any tips or ideas on how to do this I would be very grateful.

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