'A Bad Photocopy'

I remember, as if it was yesterday when I started my martial arts career in Karate way back in 1964 at a club in Manchester. I didn't drive at the time, being 15 so it was public transport for a few years, but it didn't matter as I was consumed with the whole thing.

I was lucky in that Karate in those days was still almost a secret society and it was a real adventure to be one of very few involved in what was still a very mysterious pastime. I've always said that getting on the British and England Karate teams was easier back then as the competition, numerically, at least was a lot less, even if the opponents weren't. The training was very raw, unsophisticated and simply a mirror image of typical Japanese warming, stretching and training techniques. Over the years I don't think it has physically caused me problems but many of my peers from those days have knee or hip problems - or both!

We slavishly followed what we were told and shown and when I look back, being a good karateka was more about being a good mimic than really having a true understanding about how techniques, movement and transitions between techniques were constructed. Sure, we were shown where to put our feet how shapes looked - by which I mean we looked at Instructors and copied posture and tried to duplicate the manners and methods of movement. At no time, that I can remember, did anyone really de-construct a technique into its constituent parts and show how all these built up into a complete movement.

People started walking like the Japanese Instructors and talking in some 'clipped,' far eastern manner. It was the start of what I term the 'photocopy revolution'! Worse than any of this was how the English instructors adopted the very worse aspects of the early Japanese, “I’m in charge, don’t question what I say or do.” Sadly, this ethos is still with us today and we see it not just in Dojos, but within martial arts organizations and Governing Bodies. It’s arrogance by any other name and it’s founded, often, in character defects within the people themselves who, in any other walk of life would be somewhere down the bottom of the ‘greasy pole.’ It’s the “call me sensei, or master” syndrome.

I digress, however, as this article is about the physical development of people, but if we don’t get the hierarchical ethos correct, the methodology of teaching will be flawed. No other sports instructor could get away with the arrogance when teaching that some martial arts instructors do.

By the ‘photocopy revolution,’ I mean that every succeeding generation of students simply became a copy of their instructor, but as with a real life photocopier, each copy has a slightly poorer image than the last. I see it now in today's Karateka, in that they have not worked out for themselves how techniques actually work or more importantly how they work for their particular body dynamics. It’s like the difference between looking and seeing; we don’t walk around with our eyes closed, but equally we seldom actually take in what’s going on around us. For most students of Karate, they have the shapes correct, but have no innate understanding of the fine details.

For me the realization came when I changed to Shukokai Karate under Sensei Shigeru Kimura. The only way he could deliver the complexities and dynamics of the system was to break down techniques into the individual parts so that we could see the links between what may have seemed remote connections within the body, but which were fundamental to us getting the explosive, non-telegraphed speed and massive impact he could generate, but for ourselves. Anyone familiar with the system may remember the extensive use of 'matchstick' figures he would always draw to illustrate angles between legs, body and arms.

It needs mentioning here, however, that we could ask him questions and he welcomed them, and I’ll come back to my earlier experiences.

What we learned was core, fundamental principles about body dynamics that we then brought back into techniques, but techniques that we had made our own through an understanding of the relationships of the constituent parts. Its not so easy now, but at one time I could tell just by looking a fighter or student who his or her teacher was. We all learn by copying. It's a very natural part of learning physical movement and by emulating someone whose has great technique, we have a 'moving picture' in our heads that we can play and by some process of osmosis this way of moving seeps into our muscle memory.

Emulating (on its own) how someone moves, however, means we never get to personally own the techniques - it's analogous with renting them as distinct from buying them. I also think that by simply copying and not breaking down techniques to see what makes them ‘tick,’ reduces the intellectual content of the arts. Accepting blindly what we are told leaves no room for individual expression. The problem is that the Eastern martial arts, particularly, Karate was set up with the ethos that no questions would be asked. It was “accept what we say and if you do question us about anything we'll go all enigmatic and fudge the answer.” So the culture was set not to question how things worked, or how we, as individuals may adapt techniques to suit our physical capabilities - it just wasn't on!

The ‘no questions to be asked’ rule also meant that we took for granted that what we were learning as an art and sport would work in the street and we were soon disabused of this. I remember Dave Hazard, one of the UK’s top Shotokan Karate Instructors, replying to a question during an interview about his training in Japan and whether, over there, the Shotokan that was practiced was consistent? His reply was that it could never be because every Instructor is built differently than the next, so whilst the principles remained the same individual treatment would always be different. We need to take this thought and look more closely at how we approach our practice of the arts and our teaching of them.

There are no absolutes. This week I was watching a video interview with the late Sensei Kimura who was describing his early years in the game, saying how he won competitions and was pretty good until he came to test his impact and his words were "nothing there." But that became the spur for him to start the long road to becoming, in my money, the hardest hitting Karateka we will ever see - no argument. I've talked before about the 'empty box' concept, which is where someone has the shape, knows the techniques and looks like they are well versed in the system but, in reality they have a 'hollow' art and don't really understand, nor can they explain to others how something works.

The problem we are left with in the UK is that the ‘box’ has taken over from ‘effect.’ Everyone talks about how something must look right and conform to ‘the shape,’ but it’s a pointless exercise if there is no effect, for instance impact. If a technique wouldn’t put someone down, then why are we doing it? I’m personally paranoid about getting the aesthetics of martial arts correct, but it has to be allied with ‘effect.’ It’s like getting beautifully wrapped box as a present for a birthday, opening it and finding nothing inside and then being told that it’s the box that’s the present! Well that’s what most people are getting from their martial arts – the shape, but no content.

Peter Consterdine

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