Karate: Is it worth all the effort?

Endeavour

I have been training in Shotokan Karate for 23 years and 8 months at the time of writing this and I still have a lot to learn. I sometimes wish I had started earlier, trained harder, listened more, kept better notes, and endless other things. I am not, however, going to revisit My Regrets in this post. With the plethora of martial arts out there offering realistic fighting and self-protection skills right from the first class, why would you bother with karate?

Your first class in karate may be as little as one hour long (less after the warm up) spent learning how to make a correct fist and stand in an awkward stance with your arms in seemingly unorthodox positions, which may be a front stance and low block (zenkutsu dachi with gedan barai) and possibly a horse stance (kiba dachi) later on, both of which make no sense whatsoever to a beginner. Why would you return for more classes? For me, it was first and foremost the instructor, whom I grew to know as my Sensei and much more than that over the years, someone I highly respect to this day, a great friend and major influence in and on my life.

The club was new; we were all beginners from when I joined and the members were all my school friends and/or neighbours. We all knew each other. So secondly it was my club mates, whom of course were already my friends and neighbours that were an influence in my decision to stay training. It was an outlet for us to do something different and gain different experiences than just the norm at that time. Karate was certainly different from any field sport I had been doing and it captured my attention from the beginning. In an established club that you walk into for the first time, it is going to be different. A good indicator of the how serious the club is about its training, is how serious its students are about training. Another will be how the instructor interacts with his or her students.

In karate (whether traditional or sport karate), there are rules of etiquette that should be followed by all students and the instructor(s) in the club. These rules were set out long before we came along and as the ones who inherit the art of karate, it is our responsibility to make sure they are followed by ourselves as both instructors and students of karate. Most clubs will have varying degrees of how stringently these traditions and rules of etiquette are adhered to. I feel they should exist in all karate clubs. Going into what most of these are, is perhaps best left for a future blog post.

If you were to only train/study karate up to Shodan (first degree black belt) and then quit, you will only have started your journey and quit before the thousand mile stretch that lies before you. Sounds daunting! Any Shodan grade who has stayed training, will tell you that they really only find out how much they do not know by the time they have reached the much sought after black belt. That is a minimum of four years training. You will be competent at the art and craft if you have put in the work over those years, but for me, and I speak solely about myself, there was little I knew, and now as a Yondan (4th Dan or fourth degree black) 20 years later, there is still so much left to learn.

Whether or not I am a teacher of karate, I will always remain a student of karate. My hunger to learn, grow and develop my knowledge, limited as that knowledge may be, has rarely dwindled. We all have those times where we ask the question “Is the journey worth the effort?” The only way to find out is if we stay on the path. Sticking with something as opposed to quitting before you have taken more of those initial tentative steps will build a positive part of the character of the individual. Quitting those things that seem difficult at the start, will possibly have a detrimental effect on character. Quitting things just because the going got tough cannot be good for us. This applies whether or not we are doing karate or taking a college course or any other thing under the sun. Give time to something, choose a path to following and do not be swayed.

All paths and roads have bumps along the way. Do not be deterred. These bumps come in many forms. It may be injuries or other health related problems, you may move away, go to college, travel and see the world, work might get in the way, and family commitments will pull you in different direction. These are all important considerations and sometimes we have to go with the flow. The main thing is not to forget to keep a healthy mind and body. Eat well; get enough sleep and exercise to help maintain a balance in life where possible. For me, karate has helped maintain the much needed balance in the hectic 21st century world we live in.

Doing something with a group of people that all have the same interest and whom I consider friends and comrades inside and outside of the dojo has been one of the best reasons to stay training in karate. Karate will always be something we can take with us from the dojo and work on alone as well; however, we as human beings have a group state of mind. We generally work and perform better through cooperative and collaborative approaches to the things we pursue. Karate is not different in this respect.

Is karate worth all the effort? You have probably guessed by now, biased as I am, that it is a resounding yes from me. I have never been one to force my opinion on other people or push people into training if they do not wish to. As a karate instructor I wish to be a guide to those who want to find their own path through karate training. My Sensei would say to us, “Take the kata and make it your own”. Each kata should not be a robotic complete duplicate of your instructor’s or the other people you train with. It should be as unique as your DNA and fingerprints are to you. It will be recognisable as the kata we all know, but with your personality impressed on it. Karate, like all endeavours that require some effort or perspiration, blood, sweat and tears if you will, brings out the best in us as groups and individuals to excel. I won’t be giving up anytime soon. There is too much left to learn.

Karate: Where Do You Train?

Where do you train?

In this article, I am not specifically asking what dojo you train at, or what village, town, city, country you train in? It is more pointed than that. It is where do you train in between all the set scheduled times for training? I’m talking about those times outside the dojo when you are just “too busy” to train at a scheduled hour. Personally, when it comes to karate (or any pursuit you are passionate about), no time should be too busy not to fit a few moments of “free time”.

For me, karate training has always been a case of anywhere and anytime is convenient to get a bit of extra work in, even if it isn’t the perfect time. It could be anything from 30 seconds, to a few minutes training on a specific technique or “walking through” a kata or combination and it’s not always obvious to those around me. It doesn’t mean you have to stand up from your comfy office chair and break into Nijushiho (kata of the moment), though that can be done when no one else is present perhaps. Stances and technique don’t have to be 100% perfect. I am creating a mental picture of the kata and simply moving through it. I am creating a wireframe in my mind that I can build on in more formal training. In my mind I know the stance, how it should feel and the correct posture I have for each technique, but at this moment I’m not at the dojo, a tournament or grading.

The framework I’m building with my walkthrough, works for me with the images I build, however everyone will have their own way of approaching it. Once I have an image in my mind, I can visualise the kata by just thinking about the movements and never leaving my chair. This means that I have also, in reality, practiced the kata as it was intended to a point where it is muscle memory or like breathing. I have used the correct speed, power, timing and breathing in the kata. I also know the stances and the correct embusen (the line/direction the kata takes) of the kata, so I have a deep understanding of the shape of things. I’m working from this representation when I’m visualising the kata in my mind.

In order for technique to be effective it has to be practiced over and over again, but more importantly, it has to be practiced with training partners. I use the plural, partners rather than partner, as I believe we should always vary our training partners so that we do not become accustomed to one kind of opponent. Each opponent will always attack slightly differently, even using the same techniques. They will have different strengths, weaknesses and heights, not to mention limbs with different reaches, speed and the list goes on. Every drill using the same techniques with different partners will have different outcomes and present you with a different scenario to contend with. The point being from the above case, is that training alone will not prepare you for realistic times you might need to use your skills, though it has its own merits.

We require a visual context and a tactile one (working with a partner) for practicing combinations and techniques as well as being able to train alone. Visual cues help us with the learning process, so training in groups and in particular at our dojo with our sensei/instructor is integral to progress.

As much as we need to learn the techniques and drill them regularly, we should also know the terminology and be able to describe each technique. This will help with mapping the relationship between the technical terminology and what each technique does and also what each one looks like. Once we have learned the drills (be they kata or kumite or even kihon) and have been practicing them over months and years, not just weeks (a movie training montage doesn’t work in real life), the mapping between everything takes place in our mind. Movement becomes natural. It is easy to see the difference between an 8th kyu practicing Heian Shodan and a Shodan grade (1st degree black belt) practicing the same kata. The movement is natural for the black belt who has been working on this kata for 4 years or more.

To go back to my original question, “Where do you train?” You can train almost anywhere there is earth beneath your feet and even under the greatest of time constraints, it is possible to fit in some training. Kata, kihon and kumite are all great for providing plenty to work on; however we eventually need to train at dojo with our fellow karate-ka. Not only will the skills feel more relevant when practiced with partners, but we also gain other insight we would not otherwise find from training alone. Those moments where the dojo fighting spirit is high and the air is electric with the energy of everyone working hard cannot be replaced by solitary training.

When we are young and don’t have the responsibilities of a family and work, fitting in those extra minutes or even hours outside of dojo time is quite easy. In the world of an adult with a job that may involve commuting to and from work over long distances, realistically fitting in mere minutes can be a burden. One’s day may already be 12 hours long between home, commute and office. It is important not to neglect family time for training, but rather find a balance between both. Karate is not just a sport where you grab your kit bag and hit the dojo floor for 90 minutes to get your heart rate up, burn your calories and go home. Karate is a lifestyle and a journey to betterment of a well-rounded and productive human being.

Karate: Cultivation of the Art

Karate: Cultivation of the Art - train, practice, cultivate

The Oxford Dictionaries Online defines Cultivation as:

  1. the action of cultivating land, or the state of being cultivated: the cultivation of arable crops the economy was based largely on rice cultivation
  2. the process of trying to acquire or develop a quality or skill
  3. refinement and good education: a man of cultivation and taste

It is interesting that the definition for cultivation uses the word “trying”, which of course lets us know that there is a process involved in acquiring and developing the skills we pursue. This means of course, it is going to take work and lots of it in order to become a competent practitioner of karate.

As karate-ka (people who practice karate-do), we are concerned with cultivation of both the martial art of karate and ourselves; including our minds and our bodies. To quote directly from Funakoshi Gichin’s Karate-Do Kyohan, “Students of any art, clearly including Karate-do, must never forget the cultivation of the mind and the body.” Whether directly through training at our local club under the watchful eye of our sensei or through the work we do outside of class, the main theme is one of continuous self-improvement.

We all start training in karate for different reasons as beginners and the path each student takes can be as different as hurling is from football (GAA reference). The end goal of each student can be the same, i.e. achieving the much coveted black belt, getting more flexible, physical exercise through kicking and punching, winning medals, learning the next kata; the list is endless, however the path is winding with many forks in the road. As a much younger student of karate, I was mostly concerned with learning as much as possible from my sensei in each class I attended. I therefore turned up for class as much as possible (sometimes 4/5 times a week) and trained on my own or with friends outside of class, going through my Kihon, Kata and Kumite as best as I could do it. In short, I was mostly preparing for gradings, competitions and I didn’t want to disappoint my sensei.

Other students at the club started out on the same road as me, but in time, I observed that they were training more and more for competition Kumite (sparring). There is of course nothing wrong with this, however their standard in Kihon and Kata dropped drastically and grading results fared poorly. Training for competition in karate is fun and hard work all in one, but it can be a very narrow path to follow. Karate training is what you make of it. It is made up of many different parts and each must be given your attention over the course of years. I’m just “getting” things now that I could not grasp as a teenager or a twenty-something year old.  Just as with any sport (I’ll use the GAA analogy again), when you train specifically on hurling, this will be your greatest strength. You may be able to kick the football around, but you won’t have the particular attributes required to make a great footballer.

Cultivation of the art of karate means not just taking one part of it and developing your strengths in that area, but also honing your skills in the other aspects, too. None of us are such perfect human beings that we immediately understand the fundamentals of a new technique or skill from the outset. We need to practice it repetitively and diligently to get a good feel for what we are doing and then develop a deeper understanding of the skill. We can also achieve a deeper understanding by asking questions and seeking out knowledge from many sources, rather than just one. We need to ask our sensei and other senior club members, read books written by the great founders of the arts or their students whom we are lucky enough to still train with on occasion.

With the internet, sources of knowledge are even greater and more accessible than just 15-20 years ago. There are blogs, videos, podcasts and even social networks such as Facebook and Twitter where we can communicate with likeminded people on the same journey, or those further along the path. Bookshops are no longer confined to the cities, towns and villages where we live. Everything is literally at our fingertips. I still loan books to fellow students and more often than not, I get the book back and students tend to go out and purchase their own copy for their expanding bookshelves.

It is a never ending cycle of passing along our knowledge as both students and teachers of the martial art of karate-do. It is our desire that the students whose lives we touch will in turn pass what they have learned along in an even greater capacity than we have. If as teachers/senseis/instructors we were to hold back and not give all the knowledge that we can possibly give, cultivation and growth of karate will become stunted.

Learning doesn’t end when you get your next belt and we should not forget or stop training on what we have already learned. What is the point of have a fantastic Unsu, but a poor Heian Shodan? Karate can help us realise our weaknesses and through proper instruction and a resolve to learn, make us physically and mentally stronger in the dojo, on the street as we walk to catch a bus and at work in the office as we face the daily grind.

The stresses of daily living, creates in us that fight or flight rush of adrenalin at times when we don’t really need it. The dangers are not the same as in a warzone or in a jungle where you may come face-to-face with a wild animal intent on eating you, though the body’s reaction can be the same when we face losing a job and not being able to pay the mortgage. How we react to the situations that face us can determine the physical and mental stresses placed on us. The physical pursuit of karate training in many ways helps us deal with the daily stress that life throws our way. It is a way of positively venting, or better still, just leaving all of the daily grind at the dojo door.

Karate: My Regrets

Regret

As this is my first leap into the world of blogging in a karate sense, I think I better introduce myself. I’m Darren Fennessy, pleased to meet you (virtually anyway). Though I’m sure there will be at least some of you reading this that have met me in person over the years, some of you might not have. I’ve been practicing karate since March 1990. That’s approaching 23-and-a-half years as I type this. I’ve been doing karate for over half of my life.

I started out in a small village community centre under the watchful eye of Sensei Mick Power. I’ve continued to find inspiration in my sensei’s teachings from the memories of training in the “old days”; my old days, as they are. You see, my Sensei’s old days were much tougher, and training was far more brutal from the stories I’ve heard and so it goes that my students hear from the generation that came up with me that we had it much tougher than they are having it right now. If the old days were much tougher than the present day, is karate somehow getting “less tough”? What stories will the generation we are teaching tell their students? How will teaching have changed/evolved by the time they are running their own karate clubs and creating the next generation of karate-ka? Anyway, I digress.

Like many people in karate circles, I love to reminisce. Sometimes the age that came before seems like the golden age of karate to us modern karate people. The tournaments seemed bigger, not just in numbers attending, but it seemed like a far more significant event. Seminars seemed larger, too, and karate seemed to have a much larger following. Though I suspect this to be true rather than just my own perception of how thing might have been. There is far more out there in terms of choice in martial arts than just the local karate club these days. I think there are less people doing karate than in olden days of yore, but on the other hand, there are more people doing martial arts as a whole than when I first started. For such a small island on the edge of Europe, this country has such a vast array of martial arts to choose from and we all find the one that suits us best.

One of my reasons for starting to write this blog is recent inspiration from other martial artists that are doing just that, writing and getting their thoughts out there. Personally, I love what they are doing and by and large, it is a very positive thing for karate/martial arts to be in the blogosphere. It’s not my intention to inspire people through my meandering thoughts on here, however if I was to have such a positive effect on just one person, that wouldn’t be such a bad result of this. I have an overwhelming urge to get things down on paper, so to speak. I have found myself reading the thoughts of other karate-bloggers on their websites and loving how we all seem to think very much alike. I find myself nodding, smiling, sometimes even audibly chuckling and thinking to myself, “I could be writing this” or “I was just thinking this the other day” or “we discussed this in training at the club just recently”. The world is full of ironies and I’m spurned on to get writing, too. Whether I inspire or not, time will tell.

Now, regrets I’ve had a few and then some. I have always loved writing, which was something nurtured by a great English teacher in secondary school, but as times changed, so did my direction in life and I really never wrote outside of school. At college, it was all academic and research based, which I must admit I loved, but yet again, it was a means to an end and upon leaving college the writing did not continue. I did however read, which I’m glad to see lots of kids seem to do these days, with books like Harry Potter and such being big favourites of kids and adults alike in recent years. Some say what you read can influence your style of writing, so I read and I read and I read, but sadly never wrote that much. I’d forgotten one thing until a recent discovery. This recent discovery was down to my karate reminiscing. Looking through old photos and clippings from newspapers of stories about seminars, grading and tournaments, I came across a notebook.

You see, I had a terrible memory as a 15/16 year old and couldn’t possibly remember everything sensei taught us in class, therefore I kept notes, a diary if you will. Now, I’d forgotten about this training diary for years, which may be proof that my memory hasn’t improved all that much since I was a teenager. Friends say it’s still terrible. I say it’s selective. If it is karate related, these days I don’t (hardly ever) forget. This notebook/diary comes with notes and rudimentary sketches of kicks, punches and kata patterns done as stickmen along with very badly spelled Japanese/English terminology. Forgive me, but it was from the mind of a very quiet introverted teenager just finding his feet (quite literally) in karate. After all, there wasn’t a Google or YouTube in those days and books/videos were very hard to come by. It took me about 3 years alone (from when I reached Shodan) to get my hands on Shotokan Karate International Kata (Vol 1), Shotokan Karate International Kata (Vol 2) and Shotokan Karate International Kumite Kyohan. These books are of course books by the great Hirokazu Kanazawa, Soke and are still prised possessions and referenced frequently. My library has grown considerably over the years since then, as I believe that in karate as with other activities, cultivation of the mind is as important as training our body.

If I could go back to tell younger me one thing that is solely karate-related, it would be to keep that diary going. Keep writing things down. One of our greatest links with the past is the written word. I was able to see into the mind of 15/16 year old me and know exactly what I was thinking at that moment in time over 20 years ago, but more importantly; it was an insight in to what my sensei was teaching us all those years ago, too.

I regret not knowing what I know now, but hindsight is 20:20 and time moves on. Each decision affects the path we take and every outcome is different. I wish I had kept that training diary going for the 18+ years of training with my sensei and seminars with various other sensei from Japan and other parts of the world that I have been very lucky to train under. Each and every one has been an inspiration in their own way and approach to teaching what is essentially the same thing, karate.

Yes, I have regrets, but c’est la vie. It is human nature to think about what could have been. If I had kept a diary going I might have had my very own Tao of Karate-Do. Unlikely, yes, but we’ll never truly know. Every decision has in some way led me to where I am at this very moment in time. This, I don’t regret for a moment. I’m blessed with some of the greatest friends, both karate and non-karate, and a karate club of like-minded people, striving to improve our karate techniques and our character through tough training one class at a time. Time has moved on, but the art of karate is timeless.