Wednesday, 29 December 2010

My Martial Artsy Christmas, the year ahead and a new blog.....

One of the great advantages of being a martial artist is that you never run out of ideas for what people can buy you for Christmas or birthdays. There are always books, weapons or other pieces of equipment that you need. This Christmas was no exception…

My mum wanted to know what to get me so I suggested an umbrella stand. That’s a bit old fashioned she said, why do you want one of those? Oh, I don’t want it to put umbrellas in, I said, I want it to store my weapons in!

We have a collection of bokkens, a jo, a bo and several sets of nunchucks which have been lying on the floor of our gym, getting in the way and at risk of being damaged. An umbrella stand or something similar seemed the perfect storage device to me. Well, Mum couldn’t get an umbrella stand but found a great two foot tall vase made from moulded plastic and painted gold. It has that ‘Ali Baba’ look about it. As you can see from the photo above it fits its purpose beautifully and is keeping all our weapons neat, tidy and safe.

We also received a multi-weapon carrying bag so that we can now transport our weapons legally to and from the dojo! One of my sons’ bought me David Lowry’s latest book: ‘The Essence of Budo’, and my husband bought me a Kindle onto which I have already downloaded a couple of martial arts books from Amazon. So all in all it has been a very good martial artsy Christmas for me – I’m very lucky!

However, with Christmas gone it is now time to look forward to the year ahead and make some plans. One of the big events for us in 2011 will be grading for our black belts. My husband, eldest son and I will hopefully be grading together in May/June. I have decided that 5-6 months of solid, hard training will be needed to get up to the required standard and so I have started to think about how to structure this training over the coming months.

With this aim in mind I have decided to publically plan and document my training schedule as well as analyse my progress as I countdown towards my shodan. However, I will do this in a new blog called ‘Countdown to Shodan’ rather than in this blog. This is because the theme of this blog has never been to document the details of my training schedule and I don’t wish to change the theme of this blog. ‘My Journey to Black Belt’ will continue in its present form. I will link the two blogs together and hopefully update both of them on a weekly basis.

I’ll let you know when the new blog is up and running. Meanwhile I wish everyone a happy new year…..

Here's the link to my new blog: 'Countdown to Shodan' . You will also find it in my blog list.

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Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Black Belt Paradox

A couple of weeks ago I received a comment to one of my posts in which the commentator SCB said: "I hear "time in grade" references; I hear "syllabus" and other such things that cause me concern as to what black belt means so would like to see you post on that subject, "What black belt means to me?"".

I think that the subtext behind this comment is what do I think about the concept of a syllabus focused kyu grading system with the acquisition of coloured belts and the coveted black belt?

When I started this blog nearly two years ago I was a purple belt (4th kyu). At that point in my training the idea of ‘journeying to black belt’ seemed like a reasonable target to pursue in a martial art. Isn’t that what every martial artist wants? I then became aware through listening to other more experienced martial artists and through my own personal development that ‘it isn’t about getting a black belt – it’s about the training’.

I have also become aware that many people don't agree with the coloured belt ranking system and prefer a system that observes the more traditional training method whereby students wear a white belt until their sensei deems them proficient enough in the mental and physical aspects of their art to be awarded the black belt. Do I agree with these view points? Err..yes and!

Yes I agree that it’s not just about getting the black belt. I don’t want to follow some watered down syllabus that fast tracks me to shodan. I want to immerse myself more fully in the physical, mental and cultural aspects of martial arts and I need time to do that properly. BUT… I like my brown belt and I liked all the coloured belts I had before – they are markers of my progress, they help me put my new found skills and knowledge into context, they motivate me. They are like mini rewards for the effort I have made. And yes, I want that black belt.

Lets look at the origins of the kyu/dan grading system and what its inventor, Professor Jigoro Kano the 'Father of judo', was trying to achieve with his system. The kyu/dan grading system was introduced into judo in 1883. Initially it was just a white belt for ungraded students and a black belt for graded students.

Prior to this a student would train under a master for many years learning only the few techniques and kata that he wanted to teach. After several years a few trusted students may be taught some more dangerous 'hidden techniques'. Many students would train for years with a master, learning only a limited range of techniques and if they left they would have nothing to show for all their efforts. Occasionally the master may issue them with a scroll which listed the techniques they had learnt. It was very difficult for most students to learn a complete system of fighting - only the trusted and dedicated few would achieve this honour. Martial arts had a 'closed shop' mentality.

All this changed with Kano's introduction of the belt ranking system. He extended the white/black belt approach to include a range of coloured belts and introduced the concept of a systematised syllabus that gradually built up from elementary moves to increasingly more difficult concepts as the students skill and knowledge developed. Each stage of the process was marked with awarding the student the next coloured belt. Once all the techniques of the entire syllabus had been learnt the student was awarded the black belt to signify they now knew all the basics of their art.

The advantage of the belt ranking system was that all students now had the opportunity to learn an entire fighting method in a logical and systematised way. Judo had now become an 'open shop' allowing many more students to train. Gichin Funakoshi soon saw the potential of the belt ranking system for karate as he introduced karate to Japan. Adopting the belt system made karate more acceptable to the Japanese government and allowed Funakoshi to propagate it within the Japanese university network. From there it spread to the world.

If you are a critic of the coloured belt ranking system remember that without it Eastern martial arts may never have spread around the world and may still be the preserve of small secretive dojos training only handfuls of students. Instead hundreds of thousands of people around the world are able to participate and enjoy the benefits of learning Eastern martial arts.

However, I accept that the belt ranking system has its drawbacks. It has been abused by many clubs or organisations who have developed a very narrow syllabus that does not teach a complete fighting method. This goes against Kano's original aim of enabling all students to access a complete fighting system. A martial arts system is only going to be as good as its syllabus so if the syllabus is incomplete then so will the resulting martial art be. This does not mean that the principle of the belt grading system is flawed, only the martial arts system that is using it incorrectly.

The other problem of the belt ranking system is that it can focus the student's attention to much on the next grading rather than on the process of training. Again, if this is happening it is the fault of the instructor rather than the belt ranking system. In our club we are not syllabus focused all the time. Many students do not even access their syllabus from the website trusting that through their training they will be taught the things they need to know.

Karate often avoids the pitfalls of being over focused on syllabus by engaging in whole class teaching. In our club, the only time we split into grade groups is to practice kata but even then we often do kata practice as a class - revising more junior kata and trying to copy more senior kata from more senior students. Learning is circular in karate and this is reflected in our syllabus. We are tested on some of the same material every grade - obviously we are expected to perform it at a more proficient level as we progress.

I think the belt ranking system is a positive introduction to martial arts, allowing it to be accessible to a much wider number of students. Any faults that one can level at it are generally faults of its application rather than its principle. It is up to the student to find a club that applies the principle well so that they learn a complete and comprehensive martial art system. The belt ranking system does not mean that the belt is more important than the training - the training will always be the most important thing but students in the junior ranks need external motivators, need structure and order and this is provided by the ranking system. As you become more experienced then motivation internalises more and you become less dependent on rank. This takes experience and wisdom to understand.

When I look at who it is that tells me it’s not about the black belt or that we don’t need coloured belts, I realise that they are all (no dis-respect is meant here) – black belts! It seems to me one needs to acquire the wisdom and experience of a black belt to realise that getting the black belt is not important and only really represents the beginning. I can ‘know’ this but it remains precisely that – knowledge, not wisdom. I have to go through the process myself of converting this knowledge into wisdom through practice, learning and experience and to help me do this I need my belts, all of them! I call this the Black Belt Paradox – you need to acquire a black belt in order to truly understand that ‘it’s not about the black belt’.
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Monday, 13 December 2010

Iai-jutsu grading result...

What ever your views on the kyu grading system in martial arts (my views on this will be the subject of my next post), I am pleased to announce that my husband and I both passed our iai-jutsu grading on Sunday!
I was a little more nervous than usual about this grading. The requirements were much more exacting than for our other level one weapons and a higher standard of precision and etiquette were required. It took me a long time to master even the most basic elements of using a sword such as just smoothly pulling it out of the saya (scabbard) and returning it again (without looking). I nearly always had the saya upside down so that the sword wouldn't fit in! Eventually I got the hang of it and now it's hard to understand why I couldn't do it in the first place - but that's the nature of learning.
There were a lot of 'differents' associated with this grading compared to previous kobudo gradings: different venue, different grading officer, even different uniform (we had to wear our hakamas). There was also a lot of waiting about before the grading, about 2 hours, so it was hard to stay warm and it was too cramped to practice properly as you need a lot of space when you are wielding a sword and we had to wait in the hallway of a small infant school. 
Finally it was our turn to grade. We started with the reishiki ceremony which we did simultaneously. I'd been fretting about some of the details of this rather elaborate show of etiquette - do we bow before we swap the sword to the right hand or after? Is it left hand or right hand down first when doing the full seiza bow? Do we start walking with the right foot first or the left foot? All these details matter. However, on the day we both managed to perform it flawlessly so the grading got off to a good start.
After that we were graded separately (apart from partnering each other when required). The grading officer looked at us and said, 'How about ladies first?' chance for some sneaky revision whilst watching my husband grade first then. Amazingly I remembered everything, didn't make any mistakes and didn't stand on or trip over my hakama!
Then I knelt on the edge of the mat whilst my husband was graded, just getting up to partner him for his disarming techniques and wrist throws. His performance too was error free and looked really neat and precise. I felt very proud of him.
Then it was time to line up and get the results. "Pass with honours". Both of us. Wow!
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Thursday, 9 December 2010

Grading time again!

This is one problem of studying two different martial arts in different clubs - you subject yourself to twice as many gradings! In karate, as I have advanced along the kyu grades the gradings have become further and further apart: 3 monthly up to purple belt (4th kyu), then 6 monthly up to 1st kyu and now it's a minimum of 9 months before I can grade for black belt. This assumes that you train at least twice a week. For people only training once a week you can pretty well double the figures. Even after the minimum 9 month period you can only grade for black belt if you are invited to do so by the organisation and that will depend on how well you do at a pre-grading session.

In kobudo, however, my gradings remain at 3 month intervals and my next one is on Sunday. This time I am grading with the bokken. Our syllabus for bokken is based on Iai-jutsu and has 3 levels, my husband and I are taking level 1.

The level 1 bokken syllabus is much more demanding than the level 1 syllabus of other weapons and cannot be learnt to a high enough standard in just 3 months. We have been training with the bokken for at least a year now alongside the three weapons we have already graded in. The last three months have been dedicated to just training with the bokken.

The syllabus focuses on drawing the bokken in different ways, the five basic cuts, the basic stances, four disarming techniques in seiza, wrist locks with the handle of the bokken, 5 muto dori techniques (disarming techniques) using jujitsu moves, an elaborate Reishiki (beginning) ceremony and demonstration of decorative cord (sageo) tying to the handle of the bokken.

Learning to use a bokken effectively definitely requires you to learn how to relax into a technique until the last second when you apply tension. Without this ability to relax you look like you're hacking someone to death rather than smoothly cutting them! It is a skill that transfers well to karate where the ability to alternate between soft and hard is also necessary to generate speed and power. This is no coincidence - many ideas and training practices used in karate come from several styles of sword. I previously wrote about this in Karate and the Sword .

Iai-jutsu not only has some overlap with karate it also has a lot of overlap with jujitsu, as you might expect. The sword is the weapon of the samurai and so is jujitsu. If a samurai was disarmed of his sword he would have to fight empty handed and so the art of jujitsu was developed. Samurai were particularly adept at Yoroi-kumi-uchi: Techniques for grappling in armour which required the combatants to use their hips and limbs in a particularly powerful fashion, allowing them to lock onto each other without actually grabbing the armour.

So my bokken training has taught me many things that are directly applicable to my karate training - I have learnt to move more fluidly and have learnt several jujitsu techniques that have improved my grappling skills in karate. I think that some selective cross-training like this is an excellent way of perfecting skills and body movements that transfer across different martial arts. Cross training can give you a new perspective on a similar technique learnt in your main art.

Another challenge of training with the bokken is learning how to move in a hakama! The first challenge is just getting the thing on and then learning how to get into and out of seiza without treading on it.....well, you can imagine the problems that presents!

Anyway, all is ready for the grading.

Here's a short video of  a Reishiki ceremony (beginning ceremony). The one we have to do is similar but about 3 times as long and requires quite a lot of standing up and kneeling down again!

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Friday, 3 December 2010

A British winter!

My street
Much of Britain is under a blanket of snow at the moment! Where I live we have had 18 inches of snow - this is a lot for us, especially as early as November. As Britons we really are not geared up for dealing with these conditions. As this is a relatively unusual situation for us the local councils can't justify buying expensive machinery to shift the snow and there is no compulsion (or habit) for people to fit winter snow tyres to their cars - the result is that side roads remain impassable and cars that do venture out slip and slide around or get stuck completely!
icicle hanging from the eaves!
My sons' have been off school for a week, though they did go back today;  local shops have run out of food because they can't receive deliveries; all bus services in my area have been cancelled completely and life has generally ground to a halt! My local express supermarket had a queue of at least 30 people trying to buy milk that had just been delivered but there has been no bread for 3 days!
My car!
However, we are a family of troopers! Both my husband and I have walked to work (6 miles for him, 3 miles for me) and my youngest son has continued to do his newspaper delivery round. Many other people have done the same thing - nothing seems to dampen the British spirit for long! I have never seen so many people walking around, clearing snow, shopping locally and just stopping for a chat. It's been quite a nice atmosphere - difficult situations do seem to bring out the best in people.
my hanging basket!
However, I've had enough of the snow now - I'd quite like it to disappear though with temperatures below zero it's not likely to happen soon! All my martial arts classes were cancelled this week and I'm getting withdrawal symptoms. I have done some training at home but it's not the same as going to class.
My back garden
I hope you've enjoyed my photos - no doubt you'll be thinking that this is nothing compared to what you have to endure every winter and I'm sure you'll be right! Have you had snow yet this winter? How do you cope with it where you are?

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Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The black belt grading - 'an observer's view'

On Sunday I accompanied my training partner, Charlotte, to her Black Belt grading. We had to be at the venue by 10.00am so it was an early start. I was up at 6.00 and out of the house by 7.30. Fortunately the snow held off for us and we crossed the Penines without any problems, arriving early at 9.30.

Charlotte was nervous but composed on arrival. We changed into our gis and went into the main hall. This is such a great venue - a purpose built judo dojo with wall to wall matting! There were 5 candidates grading - 3 teenage girls from our club grading for 1st dan and a teenage boy and man from other clubs grading for 2nd dan.
Charlotte, Alex and Caroline looking relaxed before the grading commenced!

Our girls were all a bit nervous - it is a big occasion for such young people, and so I did feel a bit like 'Mother Hen' looking after her chicks! I just wanted to keep them calm and focused so we had a jog around the hall to warm up and did some stretching.

The senior grading officer then called us to the grading mats and explained how the grading would progress and what the expected etiquette was for entering and leaving the grading area. There were 15 sections to be graded on with short breaks between each section to practice or get a drink/snack.

The first hour was devoted to practising the kihon sections under an instructors guidance. This was designed to get the adrenaline pumping and get rid of any nerves before the grading started. I, and the other non-grading partners were then asked to leave the hall and wait in the corridor until we were needed for the partner work. In our system no one is allowed to observe the dan gradings unless they are directly involved. The candidates then worked through all their kihon again, this time being graded. By the time I was allowed back into the hall the candidates were all looking pretty hot and exhausted!

Once all the kihon is out of the way (first 4 sections), a partner is required for the rest of the sections. We then moved onto kata and bunkai - 3 kata with 3 bunkai demonstrations for each. Now I was feeling a little nervous! Charlotte and I practiced the bunkai demonstrations at the back and then we were called onto the grading mats. I thought Charlotte performed her kata very well - she put in the timing and breathing, she
remembered to look, prep, turn, and her technique was strong and sharp. In my humble opinion they were good performances.

As the grading continued more and more pressure was put on the girls, 'Do it stronger', ' look like you mean it', 'let's see that again', were common comments from the grading panel. As they became more physically exhausted the stress was starting to show. Half way through we started to get a few tears, a few doubts and few negative thoughts creeping in. It was time to get into mother hen mode and start encouraging and motivating the girls again! To their credit they held it together, re-composed themselves ready for each coming section and then gave it their best shot.

It was a tough grading, fair but tough. The girls were taken to the brink of physical and mental exhaustion - it was an emotional roller coast ride for them. They felt sick and ill with exhaustion but they carried on. They felt tearful with the stress of it but they composed themselves and carried on. They are young girls, still growing, still gaining strength and stamina. They put on a good performance, they couldn't have given more.

At the end of the grading everyone was asked to leave the hall whilst the panel discussed the marks. This was a tense time, the girls were relieved it was over but still tearful and fearful about the result. Their parents had arrived by this time and so we all tried to lighten the atmosphere a bit and get the girls ready to hear the results.

We were all allowed into the hall when the results were announced. The girls lined up with the two guys and were called in turn to hear their mark. Alex - passed, Caroline - passed, Charlotte - passed. (The two guys passed their 2nd dan as well). It was such a great moment. They had passed with respectable marks as well. We all clapped and cheered as they were each presented with their certificates and black belts.
From left to right: Alex, Caroline, Charlotte and me!

I think the girls could hardly believe it - they were pretty shell shocked by this stage so I think it may take a while for their success to sink in!

But girls, if you are reading this - this is black belt, this is the beginning not the end. You were not expected to be perfect, you were expected to show strength, spirit and stamina, and despite the stress and tears you did that in bucket loads. If it had been easy it would not be worth having. You had a tough ride and you survived! WEAR YOUR BLACK BELTS WITH PRIDE - YOU DESERVE THEM.

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Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Partnering someone for a black belt grading...

The last few weeks I have been busy training with one of our older teenage girls who is grading for her black belt on Sunday. I am to be her partner at the grading (though I am not grading myself). I felt very honoured when sensei asked me to be her partner, presumably he thought I would be good at it.

There are several sections in the grading where I will be required - ippon kumite, goshin waza, bunkai demonstrations, gobon kumite, pad work and to demonstrate a floor drill. I will not be required to participate in sparring as the candidates have to spar with each other for that.

It is quite common at our dan gradings, though not compulsory, for a candidate to take a non-grading partner with them and there are advantages to this. Firstly you can choose a partner that you are comfortable working with and you can trust to help you put on your best performance. Also, if your partner is not actually grading themselves then you do not have to act as a partner for their techniques and so you can concentrate fully on your own performance and not get tired out having to be on the receiving end of their throws/locks and take downs.

Agreeing to partner someone at a black belt grading brings great responsibilities. I do not want to let her down and the concept of honouring technique has assumed even greater importance. I feel that my job has been more than just 'attacking' her in the prescribed way and letting her demonstrate her techniques on me. I have also thought it important to give her feedback, suggest improvements to various defences and encourage her to be more aggressive with me. She has listened and tried to take on board things I have said. I also felt it is my job to help her prepare mentally and develop more focus - hence the motivation behind writing 'The World Guide to Passing your Black Belt Test' and 'The Official SSK advice to preparing for Black Belt grading'. I presented my partner with a hard copy of this in case she didn't read the blog!

Of course, all the credit will be hers when she puts that black belt around her waist. The grading officers won't be interested in my performance, they will only be watching her so the effort has to come from her. However, I hope on the day I will be able to encourage, advise and motivate her to keep going when she is practising in between sections. I want her to pass and to pass well. I know she has it in her to do this and I am working on her confidence so that she truly believes in herself too.

Helping someone else to prepare for black belt has been quite a journey for me. I will be in her shoes next year and so I now have greater insight into how to prepare myself and what it is that I will require from a partner when it is my turn. No doubt I will be almost as nervous as she is on the day.

Another advantage to me is that I get a preview of what my black belt grading will be like and how it will be run. This will be an invaluable experience for me too!

The only potential blot on the landscape is the weather forecast! It has been forecast to snow heavily across Britain this weekend and we have to cross the Pennines (see photo above) to get to the venue - fingers crossed we'll make it there!

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Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The World Guide to Passing Your Black Belt Test

I have been overwhelmed by the response to my last post calling for advice and tips on how to prepare for a black belt grading. I received over 20 responses from a range of experienced martial artists from around the globe. I have used all your comments and advice to put together, ‘The World guide to passing your black belt test’. I hope I have done justice to all the contributors’ guidance.

“Dan grading should be a natural progression and part of the journey not the end destination. Shodan is the just the beginning .” (Steve Nelson).

Physical /technical preparation:

• TRAIN HARD! “In all of my black belt tests I have noticed one thing that helps more than anything in almost every style – cardio.” (Nicholas Guinn)
• The trick to black belt belt cardio is that you need to train three different metabolic processes:
1. Aerobic (long term) – walk, jog or run. Aim to get up 3-5 miles. Vary speed but don’t stop.
2. Anaerobic (short term) - e.g. sprints or shuttle runs
3. Explosive/instant - e.g., get a stable box around 24ins high. Jump on/off several times or step up/down with alternate legs. Pick up intensity. (Nicholas Guinn)
• Mix basic training with pushups, squats and ab exercises. Train at least 5-6 days/week (including 2 classes). (Mathieu)
• Work hard on the basics of your art….”but don’t forget to work hard on your stamina, my black belt grading was long and gruelling, if you cannot maintain your form because you are totally exhausted, it really spells against you.” (James)
• Practice the basics in front of the mirror when you are brushing your teeth, use visualisation whilst waiting at the bus stop or in line at the post office – doing them over and over is the key. (Felicia)
• Practice all of your testing material regularly, but allocate more practice time to the stuff that needs the most work. (Sandman)
• Video tape your performances of basics, self defense, kata etc. (John Vesia)
• Videoing yourself is painful but informative…you’ll be able to see a lot of your problem areas from the tape. (Bob Patterson)
• Stay away from things like caffeine and alcohol a month or so before the test. (John Vesia)
• Make sure you can demonstrate proficiency in all your techniques (punches, kicks, stances, blocks, katas). Show correct positioning, alignment and hip rotation. (Denman)
• Polish your weak points – this is critical, it is the poor techniques that will sell you short. (James)
• If you do board breaking: Get good board holders. Having experienced students will help a lot. If they move, it will be very hard to break. (Bob Blackburn)
• Practice kata facing in all directions and then do them with your eyes closed. Pay particular attention to the stances as that is what the sensei will look for. Do each form with intensity, even when practicing. (Matt Klein)
• Go to class early (or stay late) and ask a black belt to take you through a practice grading. Sensei will notice the initiative. (Matt Klein)
• Don’t test injured! It will severely impact on your performance. Better to wait. (Bob Patterson)

Mental/Spiritual preparation:

“The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.” Vince Lombardi.

• Believe that you test every day – always perform your techniques as best as you’re able, each and every time. (Joseph Ansah)
• Martial arts are not just something you do for a few hours at a time, but something you are/become. Believe that you can and will make it through. Enjoy the journey, not just the end result. (Felicia)
• Believe in yourself as the test approaches. Visualize yourself performing flawlessly - see yourself moving and succeeding. (Journeyman)
• Spirit is really important. Yell your kiai each time you do a technique. (Matt Klein)
• Talk to yourself; tell yourself you are good enough. Try placing affirmations like ‘I am a black belt’ around the house and read them. Visualise yourself being handed your 1st dan by your sensei and everybody clapping and cheering. (Steve Hegarty)
• Tell yourself that you are there because your sensei has already tested you in the dojo. You would not be there except for that and the “FACT” that you have achieved black belt in your heart. The mental is the only obstacle, not theirs, not the participants, not family or friends but YOURS. Start with the type of self talk that is success. (Charles James)
• Try the Buddhist approach which is reflected in some of the combat teachings: No expectations. Also, remember Rudyard Kipling quote (also a Buddhist approach): “If you can treat success and failure as the same imposters, then you a man my son”. (John Coles)

Knowledge and Understanding:

• Make sure you know clearly what you are expected to do. Try to get feedback on your weaknesses (relative to the test). (Sandman)
• Find out what the order of events will be in the grading itself. Know your body and its limits and expect to be pushed past them. (Felicia)
• Know what standard is expected. Will the fighting be to see control and skill, or marathon style to test one’s mettle and endurance? (John Vesia)
• Ask questions! Things can vary from school to school, even in the same organisation. Find out what’s required – you don’t want surprises on the day! (John Vesia)
• Ask for a handout of the syllabus with all the techniques needed for grading. (Matt Klein)
• Once you know all the techniques have someone call them out one after the other. Now try to do it faster. Then do it in a random order. This helps prepare you for the stress of the test. (Matt Klein)
• Make sure your partner is happy with all the elements of the test.(Sarah Nelson)
• Try to practice with a partner outside of class. If not treat each technique as a mini kata and go through the steps until you are sick of them. (Bob Patterson)

The grading day:

• Get there early to warm up and stretch. This will help you get those kicks up and prevent injury. You do not want to pull a muscle on grading day. (Matt Klein)
• Perform your techniques with full power (Matt Klein)
• As it’s an assessment, on that particular day all sorts of things can happen, so concentration is a must. It’s a long day with many sections; however, you can only perform one section at a time so the best way to think about the task ahead is to take each section one at a time and then move on, putting that section behind you. This way you only have to concentrate on a smaller section of the grading and put everything into it. (Steve Nelson)
• You will make mistakes, it is human nature and no one is perfect. Do not let it get you down. Improve on the remainder of the test and you will still have a good shot. (Matt Klein)
• Don’t let other student’s throw you off with their mistakes. Keep a razor-sharp focus on you imaginary opponent, right in front of you. (Matt Klein)
• It is important for the testing candidate to know that they will make mistakes. The test is how the person deals with the mistake. (Michele)
• The material needs to be second nature to you before the test. Be confident in your knowledge of the technique, your ability to execute it on command and approach your test without anxiety. (Joseph Ansah)
• Keep your muscles warm and stretched throughout the test. If it’s not your turn focus your mind on the next task in hand. (Chris Robinson)
• Remember to take everything with you: yourself, your partner, gi and belt, sparring mitts, gum shield (and any other protective gear), slip on shoes, over gi top, drinks, food, confidence! (Sarah Nelson)

Here are three testimonials from shodan students:

Alicia: “I had a very hard test for my probationary black belt. I had to retake parts of it because I did not pass. Before that test, I spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about what I was going to do and trying to imagine being successful. When the test day came and things didn't go the way I had imagined them, I started to do worse and worse. I think I psyched myself out. So, for my black belt test I tried a different approach:

“Denial. I practiced every day, but (especially that last week leading up to test day) once I was out of the gym, I did not think about the test anymore. It did not overtake all my waking thoughts. I trusted that if I practiced every day then I would be prepared, but really I tried not to think about the particulars very much at all. Since I got my black belt, I've noticed that when you come to class regularly and show your instructors your enthusiasm for the material, you are really passing your next test every day.”

Tayla: “I just received my black belt before I left for the army back in June. I have a black belt in Shotokan, which is traditional. It took me about six months to get ready for my test, and it was  harder than all of basic training, not to mention I was the only female who tested. However, my test was eight hours long and it was worth all the time and effort I put in. For anyone getting ready to get their black belt, prepare youself. As long as you give it your all, know your material which is required for the test and you give 110% the whole time, there is a slim chance you will fail. Believe and Succeed and anything is possible."

Katrin: “When I first started karate five years ago, I never thought that I would still be pursuing this sport now, never mind be calling myself a first dan. The main idea was to accompany my little boy and to get fit myself, but it became strangely addictive and I found myself becoming more competitive as I progressed through the gradings. However, I still did not feel confident that I would ever manage to fulfil the requirements of a black belt grading, so as the day approached, I regularly asked myself whether I was actually fit enough, whether I would remember the 15 sections, whether I would be good enough… What helped me enormously was attending sessions at least twice a week, turning up for every extra session, practising at home and with my grading partner regularly, making notes during lessons, watching kata videos and going through the grading in my mind every night just before going to sleep. So, when the day was finally there, yes I was nervous, but I felt that I had done my best to prepare.

“The grading itself was the most nerve racking and physically demanding test I have ever had to take. With the day starting at 10am and finishing at 5pm I not only had to keep my concentration going and but also ensure that my body was not giving up on me. My notes came in very handy to remind myself in the short breaks between sections and my husband Paul was a great help as a partner especially because he had been through the grading himself. Last but not least, having enough water and energy drinks as well as little snacks was an absolute necessity during the day.

"So, how does it feel to finally be able to wear this black belt? Well, I am certainly proud of myself! All my hard work and practice have paid off. But also I can now fully appreciate what it means to reach this level and how you can achieve a lot if you just believe in yourself. Well, of course, practice makes perfect!!!”

A big thank you to all the contributors to this article. Each name links back to their own blog/website (if they have one). Please visit their blogs - they have decades of martial arts experience between them and all write excellent posts about their martial arts experiences.

Good luck to anyone who is grading for a black belt in the near future!
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Thursday, 11 November 2010

Are you a black belt? Can you help?

My karate organisation (SSK) is holding a dan grading on Sunday 28th November. As the manager/main writer of the SSK's blog I am planning to write a post for it giving advice and tips to those student's in our organisation who are grading for their black belts. The problem is.....I'm not yet a black belt myself and so cannot give this advice first hand!

Are you a black belt? Can you help? What would be your best advice to someone who is preparing to grade for their black belt? This can be advice for preparation prior to the grading or advice for coping with the actual grading day. It doesn't really matter whether your black belt is in karate or another martial art - your experience and advice will still be valid. So whether you have recently become a black belt or you are a black belt/instructor of long standing I would value your contribution.

I plan to compile the tips/advice I receive from you into a single blog post. Each piece of advice will be attributed to its author and I can provide a link back to your blog/website. The blog post will appear on the SSK's blog early next week as well as on this blog. You can send me your advice either by leaving it in the comments section below or by e-mailing it to me at:

Thanking you all in advance for your help........

Here's a link to the SSK blog if you want to check it out first: 

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Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Maai! Maai! How difficult this one is to learn.

Have you ever noticed that when you learn something new, as you progress with that learning, whole new tiers of complexity open up that you didn't even know existed when you started out? Just when you think you've cracked something or know everything about something someone introduces you to the next level and you suddenly realise that you know diddly squat about it! Education is a very humbling experience, perhaps that's why educated people remain intellectually curious about things - there is always more to learn about any given subject.

Martial arts is no exception to this; in fact, martial arts is a fine example of this. There are many complex and difficult concepts to learn in martial arts, concepts that are introduced to you in a very elementary way when you start out and then progress in their complexity as you advance through training. One example of this is 'distance' and 'timing'.

Even a white belt sparring with a partner for the first time may be told to 'keep your distance' and 'move in to punch then move straight out again'. A little further up the grades and you get advice like 'move in to disrupt a kick' or 'move off line'. The more advanced practitioner then starts to actually anticipate what there opponent is about to do before they've even made a move (sen no sen) and moves in to attack first or disrupt the opponents attempt. This is advanced stuff! We're still talking about distance and timing here but this ability is many tiers up - now we're in the realm of maai.

Truly appreciating and utilising maai requires a unity of mind and body. It is as much a mental skill as it is a physical one. The Japanese word maai translates simply to 'interval' and is referring to the space between two combatants during a fight. The wikipedia entry on maai describes it as: "a complex concept, incorporating not just the distance between opponents, but also the time it will take to cross the distance, angle and rhythm of attack." If one controls the space between then one controls the fight.

An analogy that I like that helps to describe maai comes from a friend of mine, Peter Seth, who is a 5th dan in aikido (maai is big in aikido!). He says, "Imagine music without the ‘spaces’ of silence between the sounds, the gaps between the notes. Without the spaces there would be constant noise, which may vary in pitch and intensity but would be chaotic and unbearable. These spaces set the time/timing, rhythm and beat of the music, which in turn affects/controls the whole composition. So influence in this area of the ‘space/s between’, effectively allows the leading of all these energies. You become the ‘conductor of this orchestra of energy’. "

Maai is a fluid thing, constantly changing as a fight progresses. Maai has a temporal element as well as a spatial one. It also pertains to the momentary lapses of awareness that are manifested in the opponents mind. Capitalising on these mental intervals (or lapses of concentration in your opponents mind) is also a way of controlling the maai. Being constantly aware of both your maai and your opponents as they constantly change and then being able to manipulate this to your advantage so that your opponents techniques are constantly disrupted requires an intuitive understanding of movement and timing. I am in awe of people who have mastered this skill because I am very much still operating in the lower tiers of elementary 'distance' and ' timing'.

How do you stay inside your maai (ie. your sphere of influence) so that you can land punches and kicks on your opponent whilst staying outside of theirs? How do you get inside their maai (to disrupt it) whilst still keeping them outside of your? These are currently one of life's mysteries to me. When I am practicing sparring I focus too much on what I am doing and don't really think about what the opponent is doing. I don't notice I've entered their space (well not until the kick hits me!). I don't necessarily notice when they've entered mine so I miss the opportunity to attack. I can remember to move off line or slide in for the punch and move back out again and I am often aware of the space between us but no way am I in control of it.

Controlling the maai - there is a steep learning curve to climb for this one. I have a long way to go!
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Tuesday, 2 November 2010

When does a question become a challenge?

Traditionally, in Eastern cultures, the transmission of karate knowledge from generation to generation required new students to follow and copy the movements of their sensei without question and certainly without challenge. In this respect learning was passive rather than active; the student allowing their ‘cup’ to be ‘filled’ by sensei’s (often) silent teachings. Verbal communication between sensei and student was kept to a minimum and was generally one way traffic from sensei to student.

This is essentially a description of a pedagogical approach to teaching which is also widespread in the Western world, particularly in schools. In fact, pedagogical teaching methods have their origins in medieval Europe when young boys were received into the monasteries and taught by monks using methods that required the student to be submissive and obey the teacher’s instructions without question, in order that the children learned to be obedient, faithful and efficient servants of the church.

However, since the 1960’s, research into educational teaching methods with adults, much of it led by M.W Knowles, has resulted in the learning theory of andragogy. This theory is based on several assumptions about the way in which adults best learn:

1. Adults need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking it.

2. Adults like to take responsibility for their own decisions and to be treated as capable of self-direction

3. Adult learners draw on past life experiences when making judgements about new learning experiences.

4. Adults are ready to learn those things they need to know in order to cope effectively with life situations i.e they prefer problem solving approaches to content learning methods.

5. Adults are motivated to learn when they perceive that learning to be useful to them in real life situations (and not so keen to learn things for which they perceive no value)

Essentially the theory of andragogy states that adults learn better when they are more actively engaged in the learning process and are able to take some degree of charge of it (self-directed learning)

However, martial arts continue to be taught in most systems in a pedagogical way i.e very didactic and teacher led. It is not surprising therefore that occasionally the androgogical requirements of adult learners will clash with the pedagogical approach of most instructors. This may result in much tongue biting, inappropriate questions or even challenges to the instructor’s authority.

This brings us to the main point of this post. What constitutes an inappropriate question or a challenge to the instructor? In most Western dojos these days I would imagine most instructors don’t mind answering students' questions, particularly of the nature, ‘Can you show me that again?’ or ‘I don’t quite understand why we are doing it like this, can you please explain?’

I have been trying to think at what point a question crosses the boundary from being appropriate and welcomed by the instructor to being inappropriate and unacceptable in a dojo. I think the boundary may be crossed when the question being asked is a result of ego on behalf of the student. By this I mean a question  the student is only asking because it is an opportunity to display their own knowledge/prowess. For example, ‘Why do we still do this technique like this? When I went on a course/read a book/saw a YouTube video they said it was better to do it this way.’ I think this is inappropriate because it undermines the instructor and the student is trying to display his (perception) of superior knowledge – ego motivates a question of this sort.

One of the ultimate goals of learning a traditional martial art is to free oneself from ego. It therefore represents a challenge for adults to learn martial arts in a pedagogical environment. To learn to ask only appropriate questions, the ones that actually aid your ability to lean martial arts and to refrain from those that are designed to undermine or challenge the instructor.

It’s not always easy though is it? I know that I have been guilty of asking slightly ‘challenging’ questions at times – questions I now regret asking. My instructor has always responded with good grace whilst at the same time putting me quietly in my place. On reflection, these questions have usually revealed my ignorance rather than my superior knowledge!

I think in a situation where ‘modern adults’ meet ‘traditional training methods’ there will always be some degree of tension between instructor and student. However, pedagogical training methods have stood the test of time in traditional martial arts and whether by accident or design offer a test to the student – a test of mental and spiritual strength in which the student must learn to control impulses, know when to stay silent, develop trust in their instructor, overturn previously learned bias/prejudice and rid themselves of ego.

On the other hand, the instructor must also recognise the tension or resentment that may result in the adult learner who is not allowed to express their desires or self-direct their learning according to preferences.

How easy is it to strike this balance between how the instructor wants to teach and how the adult student prefers to learn? What do you think are appropriate or inappropriate questions to be asking an instructor?
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Monday, 25 October 2010

Bartitsu and the Victorian Gentleman...

I went on a jujitsu/kobudo course on Saturday and one of the experiences on offer was the amazing art of Bartitsu! We only spent about 20 minutes on this as a taster, so we didn't even really scratch the surface. However it did whet my appetite to find out more about it.

Bartitsu is the Victorian gentleman's self-defence system. It is also the martial art of Sherlock Holmes. When you search around the Internet you find that there is actually quite a lot written about it and its founder Edward Barton-Wright so I won't re-iterate it all here (there are some links at the end of this post). Instead, I've found a great mini-documentary about it on YouTube which summarises nicely what it's all about:

The basic premise of Bartitsu is that it is a system based on four different fighting systems that are used together to enable you to cover all distances. The main emphasis is on the Vigny cane fighting system at the striking range and  jujitsu (and, secondarily, the "all-in" style of European wrestling) at the grappling range. Savate and boxing methods were used to segue between these two ranges, or as a means of first response should the defender not be armed with a walking stick.

Barton-Wright was clearly a man ahead of his time. One could easily argue that he was the original cross-trainer and the true father of mixed martial arts. He publicised his art through articles, interviews and demonstrations which he advertised as 'Assaults At Arms'. He also organised challenge matches against fighters representing other combat styles.

On Saturday, at our seminar, we learnt a couple of techniques with the 'swagger stick' which is a stick approximately 2 feet long and which was also used in the military as a 'pacing' stick to make sure soldiers were equally paced from each other when standing in line! These locking and striking techniques were similar to the techniques one might learn with a tanbo. We then had a go with a gentleman's cane, learning to stand in 'Gentleman's stance' and 'Swagger stance' before learning some stick defences similar to ones done with a jo. The sensei who was teaching us was very much into the culture of the art and looked very dapper in his waistcoat and cravat!

Then, of course, there's the Sherlock Holmes link. There is reference to the art of 'baritsu' in Arthur Conan Doyle's book, The Adventure of the Empty House. After years of research historians finally agreed that Conan Doyle was referring to the art of Bartitsu and had just misspelled it! Here's a video about the Sherlock Holmes connection and modern practice:

Here's Sherlock Holmes in action with some Bartitsu in the recent Sherlock Holme's film:

When Barton-Wright's Bartitsu club finally closed in 1902 the art was all but forgotten for the best part of 100 years. However, it is making a big revival in the 21st century. Following the discovery of Barton-Wright's original articles in the British Library by Richard Bowen, the Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences (EJMAS) web site began to re-publish them in 2001.  They soon attracted a cult following and in 2002 an international association of Bartitsu enthusiasts known as the Bartitsu Society, was formed to research and then revive E.W. Barton-Wright's "New Art of Self Defence". Bartitsu clubs are now popping up all over the place! Here's a video of a 'Victorian self-defence class experience day' , filmed in 2007 (to look Victorian):

I've been fascinated by this Victorian martial art and would love to learn some of the self-defense techniques for ladies with a parasol! I believe Funakoshi effectively defended himself with an umbrella once. Edward Barton-Wright sounds like a remarkable man - a pity he died a pauper, unknown and his martial art all but forgotten during his life-time...

If you want to read more about Bartitsu visit the Bartitsu Society at:

There is also a thorough article about it at Wikipedia:

Illustration at top from:
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Saturday, 23 October 2010

kids having fun!

I had this afternoon free (and all to myself), so I wanted to blog. Unfortunately I had a case of writer's block. So I read all your latest posts, looking for inspiration - alas nothing!

Then I remembered a post I had written a while ago called "Martial Arts block vs Writer's block". I re-read this and decided to take some of my own advice. I had suggested that if you are really stuck try writing in a different genre - a poem for instance.

I was also interested in Micheles latest post on "Should karate class be fun?" . Clearly what children think is fun is not necessarily what Sensei thinks is fun!

With this in mind I decided to write a poem! It's in the style of a Villanelle, though the structure is not perfect (I'm a beginner). Any way here it is:
Kids having fun
They just want to skip and run,
When they should be standing still.
Well at least they’re having fun.

Sensei chants the dojo kun,
Their cups he hopes to fill.
They just want to skip and run.

“Quiet now, the lesson’s begun.”
Their kiai’s are so shrill!
Well at least they’re having fun.

“Listen! Or my works undone,”
Says Sensei with a chill.
They just want to skip and run.

With blocks, strikes and kicks all done,
Sensei starts a drill.
Now at least he’s having fun.

One minute! Then they’ll be gone,
Having dragged Sensei through the mill!
They just want to skip and run
Well at least they’re having fun!

  Not brilliant, I know, but I hope it brought a smile!

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Tuesday, 19 October 2010

If I had a pound.......

If I had a pound for every time a martial arts instructor has told me I'm leaning forward when doing kihon or kata moves I'd be a very rich woman by now!
I have been told this by several instructors now so it is obviously a persistent problem. Unfortunately, I don't realise I'm doing it. I don't feel as if I'm leaning forward and when people straighten me up I feel as if my back is hyper extended!
When I'm teaching others I can see the same problem in some of them. In fact I got my young white belts to do some kihon with a bean bag on their head to stop them leaning! However, seeing the same problem in others doesn't seem to help me correct it in myself (perhaps I should try the bean bag trick!).
When I make a big effort not to lean forward when, say, doing an oi zuki, I make an error with my foot or hand position because I'm thinking about my back. Naturally Sensei notices the hand or foot error but doesn't seem to notice that on that occasion my back was straight! (Is there no justice in the world?)
Other errors that I have made along the way have been much easier to correct but this one seems pretty intractable at the moment. I feel very frustrated by this because it must seem like I'm just not listening or taking on board the criticism. I am, I just can't seem to correct it.
I went on a course last Saturday and lo'and behold my 'leaning' was pointed out at least four times. One instructor suggested that I try holding back the shoulder of my hikete arm more and stretch out my 'guard' arm a little further. Well, I will try this, it may work.
Do you have a specific problem with an aspect of your technique that seems intractable at the moment? How do you try to deal with it? Any tips for curing my 'leaning' problem?
If I don't sort this one out soon I may just have to start charging a pound for every time someone tells me........I may as well be a rich 'leaner' than a poor one!
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Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Self defence training - are you scared enough?

Do you ever think of why you are doing karate? I expect that between us we have a variety of reasons – general fitness, sociability, sport and competition or maybe we like the aesthetics of martial arts. Some of us may have slightly loftier aims of mental and spiritual development. However, all these goals can be achieved through other types of activity such as aerobics, gymnastics, dance, team sports, yoga or meditational practices. Therefore, there must be another aim that binds us all together – a desire to learn self-defence.

For some of us learning effective self-defence will be the main, overriding aim of training in karate and for others it will be a secondary consideration. How important the self-defence element is to you, may depend on your perception of your risk of being attacked and needing to use it. This will be related to your upbringing, past experiences, job and probably your gender.

If you were brought up in the rough end of town, witnessed or were involved in several street fights and/or work as a bouncer , or, as a woman, you’ve been the victim/witness of domestic violence, then learning karate may be all about self-defence and not much else. However, if you are a middle class housewife who’s never even seen a fight or ever felt threatened by violence in any way, or, a mild mannered man who knows how to stay away from trouble, then your motivation to really learn self-defence may be much lower.

Whatever your circumstances, learning self-defence must be in the back of your mind somewhere because you are reading this blog and you’ve joined a karate club; in which case, you will probably agree that there is no point in approaching the self-defence elements of karate in a half-hearted fashion. Yet many of us do!

However remote the possibility that we may get attacked, if it happens, it may be a life or death situation. You will either get attacked or you won’t – it’s all or nothing. So is there any point in only half-heartedly preparing for such an eventuality, however remote the possibility seems?

There is a Japanese phrase – Ichi-go, ichi-e, which means, “one encounter, one chance”. This is what it will be like if it ever happens to you – you will get only one chance to defend yourself, so you have to make your training count. Do you train as if you are preparing yourself for a real encounter? Are you scared? If you train half-heartedly then you are clearly not scared enough.

So, what is a real fight like? Obviously your attacker won’t hold out their arm or leg six inches from your body whilst you think about what to do with it. Neither will they casually hold onto your lapels and wait patiently for you to respond whilst having a nice chat about something. They won’t let go as soon as you attempt to put a lock on or fall over as soon as you start to push or pull them.

In reality, an attack is fast, furious and unrelenting – at least a man on man or woman on woman attack will most likely be like that. The attack generally consists of repetitive punching and kicking. There will no ‘thinking’ time, no time to use complicated techniques, no time at all. The person who seizes control first will be the winner. You will only seize control if you have trained to do so and practiced to the point where you need ‘no time’ to think.

A man on woman attack is a slightly different scenario. According to crime statistics, the most common ways in which a woman is attacked by a man is by being grabbed. The five most common ways of attack are by variations on the wrist grab or arm and wrist grab. This is followed by bear hugs and strangles. A man rarely starts the ‘fight’ by striking the woman, though striking may come later if the woman needs to be subdued.

So, how will you react if you are attacked? Well, according to the experts in self-defence training, “you will fight as you train”. They also say that, “You won’t rise to the level of your expectations but instead you will fall to the level of your training”. Depending on your attitude to training this will either sound encouraging or alternatively, make you very scared!

Perhaps this is a good time to examine you own attitude and motivation to your training. Take kata for instance. It is said that when a lay person watches a kata performance they should recognise that they are watching a ‘fight’ in progress. Not only that, they should realise that you are winning! Do you perform your kata to win the fight?

Then there’s kihon (basics). Do you ever get bored standing in rows drilling basic punches, kicks and blocks? Maybe you think that you’ve been doing this so long now you can do those kihon combinations with your eyes shut. Good! That means you’re reaching a state of ‘no mind’ (mushin). Remember, you’ll have no time to think in a real fight, a state of mushin is what is required – so keep drilling!

And what about kumite? We do light contact point kumite; it’s not fighting as such, it’s sport. So does it have any value in self-defence training? It depends how you look at it but I think it has a lot of value. It teaches you to deal with confrontation, control your fear, speed up your reaction times, deal with unpredictability and ultimately achieve a state of mushin. The best ‘fighters’ just spar and don’t think but you have to train extensively to reach this mental state.

These three cornerstones of karate: kata, kihon and kumite, all feed into the ultimate aim of self-defence training. So if you are giving your all to these elements of training then it makes sense to give your all to the self-defence element of training too. Remember itchi-go, itchi-e – one encounter, one chance…..make sure you will win.
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