Age Appropriate Training
Over the weekend I had a chance to train with Bill Hayes Sensei, and as usual my brain was quickly overheated. I try my best to retain more and more, but it is certainly an ongoing endeavor.
One of the things he covered was the idea of training for longevity and realizing how your martial arts have to adapt over time. Hayes Sensei is in his 60s, and his instructor Eizo Shimabukuro is in his 80s. It is no freak accident that they are both in excellent condition and can still train regularly.
Maintaining longevity in the martial arts is a complex endeavor. It is a combination of stress reduction, persistent physical activity, proper diet and nutrient intake, and making sound choices on how to push your body. A lot of “normal” training is designed for individuals in the mid-part of their lives (20-50 or so). But a man/woman of 70 should not press their bodies the same way as a 20 year old (and the same is true for a child of 9 or 10).
When considering training children, one of the top priorities has to be how the training methods will ultimately affect their physical development.
I’ve never been a big supporter of object breaking as part of a child’s training regiment. The bones are still developing and the muscles are not properly conditioned for that kind of impact. Repeated hard contact can make for severe problems later on, and could even lead to fractures and slight bone deformities (in rare cases). Children have to be introduced to contact gradually, utilizing soft materials at first and padded materials for years as they grow up.
Another example of traditional training for young students involves stances. Deep, wide stances are perfect for developing leg muscles and improving balance. By practicing elongated stances combined with large movements the body increases it’s range of motion and can be used in ways both understandable and suitable for children.
From there concepts can be refined, shortened, and improved after the body is put on the right developmental track.
Once relative adulthood is reached, training can begin its maximum intensity. Power generation becomes extremely important, and people often engage in practices such as body hardening, weight lifting, hojo undo, speed training, etc etc. This is because the body is at its peak potential for physical exertion.
Ironically, even though the body is able to take surprising amounts of abuse at this stage, it is important to set good habits here. If you allow yourself to over-indulge in body hardening, abusive full contact fighting, and snapping techniques with stress on the joints, you can set your body down a path of degradation.
Training into mature years requires adaptation and thought, even if you’ve successfully integrated into a “style”.
An excellent example given by Hayes Sensei involves sanchin kata. During sanchin we often see an intense tension and breath throughout the kata. This helps build muscular endurance and strength. it also teaches the practitioner how to use breath and increase power/energy in certain parts of the body. However, if a person continues to train with that same vigor as they get older, it can actually lead to heart, muscular, and cardiovascular problems.
A skilled, mature practitioner of sanchin will adapt the tension so as to maintain the health benefits while avoiding the physical risks. This is a complex process, and should only be done under qualified instruction.
Another example is the use of the makiwara (or breaking and hard-object-hitting in general). Even though makiwara training can help a person learn how to transmit power and develop excellent conditioning for striking, constant pounding on the hands and the conjoined meridians can slowly wear down a person’s health. Depending on which meridian is being abused, the internal health of the person can be degraded as well as the immediate joints and ligaments in the limbs.
Mature training also speaks to stance work, height of kicks, and other matters.
It is important to realize that when you see a skilled practitioner doing kojin kata (old man’s kata), it should not be because their body can no longer handle “real training”, but because they’ve refined their technique and have made wise choices on how to make their training appropriate for them.
Being able to identify the difference between kojin kata and a person who has simply lost skill is an important ability to develop.