Have you ever been brought to a standstill during your training by worry and doubt? Have you ever thought to yourself “ohh no, I’ve found a serious flaw in my system! I think I’d better just keep my mouth shut.” Or perhaps, “I just don’t think this stuff is going to work for me.” If you have, don’t worry – you’re not alone. If you haven’t, just keep thinking and investigating – my guess is that it’ll happen sooner or later.
When this kind of guilty concern happens in traditional styles, there are two kinds of coping mechanisms that I invite you to avoid. The first is acceptance. Some people will simply accept the fact that they aren’t very effective and will continue plugging away at what they do to maintain the status quo. The other is denial. Some practitioners develop an overcompensated, knee jerk reaction every time someone mentions the possibility of traditional training being imperfect.
The problem with both of these coping methods is that they do not result in deeper learning or understanding of the art. I’d like to explain how to bring concerns to your training and work through them to become a better practitioner.
Identifying Your Concerns
The funny thing about martial arts training is that there is a strange dichotomy of appropriate behavior. On one hand, we are taught to trust and listen to our seniors, and perform as they do. On the other hand, we know through life experience that the best way to improve is to question, prode, and only accept that which makes sense. What’s a traditional artist to do?
The first step is to label exactly what is bothering you. Having an unsettled feeling in your gut during a kata or during sparring won’t result in anything productive; it will just produce stress and a feeling of dissatisfaction. You have to figure out what the problem is.
Instead of thinking “I’m not very good at sparring”, break it down:
* “I can’t seem to hit people fast enough”
* “My kicks never land”
* “I find myself backpeddling all the time”
* “I can’t muster any aggression and enthusiasm”
Instead of thinking “my kata stinks”, think:
* “My hands feel awkward”
* “I’m out of breath all the time”
* “I can’t remember the moves when I really get going”
* “This kind of practice doesn’t seem to connect or help me with my self defense”
The farther you can break yourself down, the better the chances of identifying your issues. Furthermore, you can help your teacher help you by being able to describe your problems. Remember, only you really know what you are feeling – teachers can only do their best to identify what you need.
Some students feel foolish or rude asking questions. This is problematic because teachers have to worry about a whole class, and if you don’t express yourself, it is possible your worries will never be addressed. Of course, asking questions must be done in the proper way. It is important to follow the rules of etiquette that your dojo lays out, and to never be presumptuous. Remember – just because a part of a kata or self defense technique is not working for you, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
One characteristic that many good teachers share is a willingness and even enthusiasm in answering questions. The reason why is because they’ve put the same kind of thought and worry into their arts that you have. They are pleased to be able to help you get over a hurdle that they have encountered themselves.
When Concerns Become Deeper
There comes a time during long-term training when some students stop wondering about their own performance of a technique, and start wondering about the technique itself. I’ll give an example.
Most students learn a version of the Age Uke – rising block.
At first this move is all well and good because it protects your face. As most people are told, an attack is coming in either straight toward the head or in an arcing motion downward and the rising block clears away the zone.
As time goes on though, some students notice that they never find a good time to use the Age Uke during sparring. They can force it of course, but more subtle slipping techniques tend to be better designed to cope with the speed of combat. And, when they do try to use Age Uke, they find that their ribs and midsection are very vulnerable, and that their rising arm sometimes obstructs their view of the opponent. Even the oft-utilized block-high/punch combo seems better served with a brisk knife hand block in order to keep the elbow down and protecting the body.
Why is Age Uke so harped on when it has such limited value?
Students who come to impasses like this have to make a choice. They can accept the technique as flawed and move on; they can tolerate it as part of tradition and never use it; or they can begin an investigation of why it is there and what it can do.
Of course, my opinion is that the arduous investigation is the best option (I’m a bit of a downer sometimes).
One might begin by approaching the technique from a practical perspective. Instead of a rising block, what happens when it becomes an attack? The practitioner could evade an oncoming strike with a parry, and then use his rising forearm to strike up underneath the chin and push the opponent back at the throat and crush the adam’s apple. Or perhaps the forearm isn’t the focal point of the strike, but is instead a rising hammerfist strike to the nose.
One might also look at it from a historical perspective. The old teachers and practitioners of karate were known to have adapted the arts to best suit their body types. Consequently, many of the old masters were quite short (think Chotoku Kyan and Gichin Funakoshi). Perhaps to these men many punches were coming in too high to use techniques other than Age Uke.
One might also mix in Kyusho when considering the efficacy of the technique. Even short individuals like Funakoshi Sensei left their midsections exposed during Age Uke. But what if that rising motion was the only way to expose certain vital points on the opponent’s body? It is feasible that the rising technique activated a certain meridian, which could then be compounded by striking points underneath the arm, into the floating ribs, or even into the upper ribs. Perhaps a simultaneous counterstrike while making the block made the inherent risk and exposure to oneself worthwhile.
These questions could lead to further questions, such as, where is it best to make contact on the opponent’s arm? How far do I need to rise until I can access valuable kyusho points? Does the block (or attack) have any pushing/pulling elements that I am not taking advantage of? If I make this move smaller and more condensed, can I use it to better effect during kumite? etc etc.
Your Answer Might Be There After All
As you continue your study, you may come to realize that there are answers you never expected to find. You may also begin to adapt your martial arts to better suit your body type and abilities (why should a 6′ 5″ person do an Age Uke? Is the reason different than a 5’1″ person?). You may even be able to chip away at things that are not effective or valuable to you.
It’s important to remember as you go through this process to not drastically alter your style or how you teach it. The kata and methods have been preserved through generations because they are repositories of knowledge, scaffolding upon which many practitioners can climb. If you change things perminently because they work better for you, you may destroy the qualities of the technique that work for other kinds of people. It is up to you to explore while preserving the essence of what is being taught. Remember: just because you’ve become effective, doesn’t mean it’s time to start your own style.
I have found that the areas in which I have been most worried are the ones that have elicited the most intriguing avenues of study. It’s important not to hide from things that you are subpar at, or make excuses for those shortcomings. Accept and understand your deep concerns and use them to fuel you. Always respect and preserve what your teachers give you, but don’t feel like you can never think a different way, or move a different way.
Finally, don’t be too quick to toss aside things you don’t like or don’t understand. You may be discarding more than you think.
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Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s karate was the hotness. It was just starting to come over from Okinawa and karate fighters were seen as some of the toughest hombres in town. People often spoke of karateka in semi-hushed voices as it was rumored they could punch through boards, shatter skulls, and rip out people’s still beating hearts (or was that Indiana Jones II)? Anyway, the word on the street was “karate is the bomb”.
That fame grew rapidly. Soon the first few teachers that had trained in Okinawa and Japan were opening schools in the U.S. Some of those schools achieved high visibility and grew quickly, often finding that many more faces were popping in and out than were expected. Some of the more business savvy teachers realized that they could make quite a profit by charging testing fees, and promoting people through a series of ranks.
That first generation of karateka were being watched closely by a different class of people – the financial opportunists. These crafty individuals took the notion of money making through karate and multiplied it ten-fold by creating contracts, a myriad of belts, and get-rank-quick factories. They then expanded out into whole federations and took their businesses nationwide. When that happened, exposure for karate hit a climax – you couldn’t walk down the street of any small town in America without tripping over a couple of 9th and 10th dans.
Unfortunately, while karate was riding it’s sugar high, many people forgot to stop and notice that the quality (on a nationally broad level, not to say ALL quality) was declining at a rate exponential to the increase in quantity. Eventually, just like any kind of currency that becomes too abundant, the value of karate rank plummeted. A black belt was no longer awed and admired, but chuckled at because Lil 12-year-old-Johnny down the street had one too.
But then…just a few short years ago…something happened. Karate’s reign at the top of martial arts attention (alongside Tae Kwon Do) sputtered. It had fallen for a common trap – it had struggled with its own success.
MMA – The New Hotness
“Have you seen UFC?” people would ask each other in semi-hushed voices. “Those guys go into a cage and just duke it out. It’s for real. None of that hocus pocus nonsense, just real fighting.”
MMA, or mixed martial arts, is what many of the cage fighters in UFC professed to practice. In fact, many of those fighters were inspired by Bruce Lee, who had taken the first chunk out of traditional martial arts in the late 70’s. After Bruce had died his eclectic ideas took a hit and were swallowed back up by corny Kung Fu and Karate action. But UFC was a resurgence, and one that was gritty and real like the action in Bruce’s movies.
The UFC started off small and underground but became a sensation in no time. It’s popularity skyrocketed as Dana White (owner/founder) proved to be a marketing and business savant. He parlayed his federation into extremely profitable Pay Per View events. And then, in a move that left many ‘big wigs’ scratching their heads, he created a show on regular television for free consumption.
Nowadays you can’t go to any athletic store without seeing Tapout or Affliction gear. Stars like Anderson Silva are higher profile than any current boxer, and more MMA fighters are household names than ever before. Truly MMA’s star has risen and exploded.
But…looming in the murky shadows…
The Profiteers Were Ready For MMA
This is America, and to quote South Park, “if you don’t like it you can just giiit eeeouut.” In America capitalism is the rule, and martial arts profiteers know that. The people that spotted the trend of karate and capitalized on it are still around, or at least have their share of imitators and proteges.
MMA’s high profile has made it the go-to style for many potential students looking to get into martial arts, and if more people are looking for it, more profiteers are looking to give it to them. The problem, as you might imagine, is quality. There are a lot of good schools out there that teach MMA, or BJJ with MMA, or even traditional martial arts with MMA infused. These schools are building good extension programs and good core programs. But, just like with karate, they have to compete with chains, franchises, and quickie wannabes that are looking to cash in on that hot MMA buck.
In fact, in many strip malls and other locations you can see a direct transfer of where a karate school was, and where an MMA/BJJ school is now. Some entire franchises have gone ahead and made the switch.
It’s a bit painful, but it’s reality.
So How is MMA Saving Karate?
When karate was the main game in town, there were tons and tons of voices trying to get your attention. Everybody was yelling about this style or that style and what amazing secrets you could learn there. The high quality instructors who were focused primarily on quality could rarely compete. It looked kinda like this:
A bit disorienting isn’t it? Even in just this little collage it is easy to miss Tsuyoshi Chitose, the mild mannered man sitting in seiza. In this way it has been easy to miss really good karate amongst the white noise on a national level. Just imagine this picture only 10,000 times larger.
All of that nonsense is still around of course, but MMA is pulling more and more of the voices away. The blabbering snake oil salesmen are pitching a new and more attractive product. Because of that…karate seems to be quieting down a little. Just enough to start letting through those voices that have a lot of amazing things to say.
I’ve Seen it Happening
Have you ever visited a martial arts forum? There are some high quality ones out there, but generally they are places for people to yell at each other with no one ever really listening. A few years ago the style wars were raging full force in karate forums. If you wanted a reasonable discussion with people who were deeply skilled and invested in the arts, you were going to the wrong place.
One of the problems was the newness of technology and the high learning curve. Many of the most experienced karateka were not tech savvy enough like the youngsters who were bombarding the message boards. Now new technologies have been put in place that are so smart and intuitive that anyone can use them. Twitter and Facebook, for example.
I’ve started a community on Facebook, and with only slight moderation, I’ve found myself interacting with a whole bunch of bright and skilled martial artists. It’s nothing special that I did – we all simply found each other and realized it wasn’t a crazy notion for martial artists to learn from each other. Many (but not all of course) flaming and trolling fanboys have moved on to arguing about MMA matches, which has cleared a gap for traditional martial artists. Not to mention more and more great martial arts bloggers have started up their own sites to make high quality information available.
In the real world, karate instructors who truly and deeply love their art are persevering despite the lower number of total students walking in the door. Since those high quality instructors are the ones sticking around, the odds are increasing ever so slightly that interested students could find themselves learning real karate. If that’s the case, they have a much better chance at sticking around and becoming thoughtful traditional martial artists themselves. As such, there is a chance for them to perpetuate the good kind of karate rather than the paper thin kind.
Until Next Time
To the BJJ and MMA practitioners out there who are deeply invested in their art – you should know that you have some brothers in arms over in TMA (traditional martial arts) who know about the struggle you are going through and will continue to go through.
Hopefully we can all meet on the other side when the next big thing hits…whatever that may be.
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Here’s to 2010! I’d like to wish everybody a happy new year. I hope you and your family are in good health and good spirits.
Although I’m not a big resolutions guy, I do make a promise to myself every year to try my best to learn and live the martial way as best I can every day. Although I’m bound to have bad days and missteps, I know I’ll be satisfied with my choices as long as I continue down this path.
As for the website, my resolution is to keep creating the best content and environment for learning as I can. I’ve got a new ebook coming on the near horizon, but i’ll talk more about that in a week or two. In the meantime, thank you for tolerating these posts which have been a bit thinner than I generally like to write.
Have you made any resolutions this year? Or perhaps you have another routine such as myself that you could share?
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