Thursday, 29 December 2011

My Martial Art Aims for 2012...

I am a planner. I like to write down my plans; it works for me to do this. I’m much more likely to achieve my aims when I have written them down. Here’s what I’ve come up with for 2012…


1.To improve personal fitness and overcome repetitive shoulder injury
2.To continue to develop and improve martial arts skills
3.To improve teaching and leadership skills and gain further teaching experience.

How to achieve it….

1a. Develop a new personal fitness plan. When I was preparing for my black belt test earlier this year I developed a very detailed fitness plan which I followed very diligently (In fact I wrote a whole blog about it – Countdown to Shodan – some of you may remember!) I found that having a plan helped to motivate me to exercise and train regularly at home as well as at the dojo. Since taking my shodan test last June I have let my personal fitness training slip quite a lot and so I think a new plan is needed to get me going again.

1b. Get some physio for my shoulder. The one problem with exercising when you are older is that you don’t heal very quickly after injuries. This is a pain! I injured my right shoulder about 3 months ago during training and it still isn’t completely healed. It gets a bit better with rest but as soon as I train it gets set off again. Everyday activities can set it off as well such as housework, particularly activities that involve pushing or rotational movements of the arm e.g. cleaning windows. I can’t effectively do push-ups and excessive punching against a pad leaves my shoulder throbbing. Sometimes my shoulder aches even when I’m not doing anything. I have decided that some physiotherapy may be the answer – what do you think?

2a. Continue to train regularly. I will certainly be attending my twice weekly karate classes and weekly kobudo class as usual. In addition my instructor is planning some additional ‘higher grade’ classes in 2012. These will be smaller classes where we can concentrate on specific topics such as bunkai, teaching skills, weapons training, self-defence techniques etc. I’m looking forward to these more targeted classes.

2b. Take advantage of other training opportunities. I like going to seminars and courses so I’ll be on the lookout for some of these in 2012. My karate organisation will be hosting several of these during the year which I will be attending but I will also look for things outside our organisation. I know Iain Abernethy is doing a seminar in my neck of the woods in the spring-time so I may see if I can get onto that. I find seminars very inspiring and motivating. I like meeting new people and being introduced to new ideas and approaches to training, it all enriches the martial arts experience.

3a. Take a sports leadership award course.  Though I have been awarded my instructor’s certificate I feel this is a role that I need to grow into. I feel that I have the technical skills and knowledge to pass onto others (at a basic level at least) but I feel that my generic teaching and leadership skills need development.  Sports leadership awards teach those generic skills such as planning and organising lessons, motivating people, maintaining safety, adapting activities, organising competitions etc.  I think that developing these skills would significantly improve my confidence with teaching and leading karate sessions.  I’m currently enquiring about such a course.

3b. Gain further teaching experience and attend instructor training courses. To maintain my instructors licence I have to attend at least 3 out of 4 instructor training courses per year run by my organisation.  I’m not exactly sure what happens on these courses or what I’ll be expected to do but I’m looking forward to attending them.  

As far as teaching experience goes, I have already had my first experience of teaching a class- all by myself!  My instructor is currently on holiday in Vietnam and needed someone to cover the last class of the year in his absence, so he asked me (actually he asked our 3rd dan instructor to do it but he couldn’t so it got delegated to me.) This was a bit of a Baptism of Fire since the Saturday morning kids class is actually a triple class: 9.00 – 10 white to orange belts, 10-11 green to brown belts and 11-12.30 brown and black belts (mainly teenagers).  But I survived! I’m also teaching the first class of the New Year on 3rd January- just a 1 hour session this time. 

Hopefully during the year I will be able to continue helping my instructor with his schools programme which is good fun and very rewarding. However, I need to make sure that not all my teaching is with beginners or children so I am considering whether to volunteer to help out in one of the senior classes at one of our other clubs to get some experience teaching adults and senior kyu grades.

Well, that’s my proposed martial arts plan for 2012. Have you thought about what you want to achieve with your martial arts in the coming year or are you a ‘take it as it comes’ sort of person?

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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Why do we.........perform Mokuso?

Do you perform mokuso (moh-kso) during the opening and closing ceremonies of your martial arts class? Do you regard it as just a part of one of those quaint Japanese rituals that you’re expected to participate in when you practice a traditional martial art, or do you think it has real value in preparing you for training and enhancing your performance of martial arts?

If you regard mokuso as merely a traditional ritual then you are probably just going through the motions of performing it and are gaining no benefit from doing so.

So what is this mokuso thing about?
Mokuso is quiet reflection, concentration or meditation. It is generally performed whilst kneeling in seiza at the beginning and/or end of a martial arts class. The purpose of mokuso is to quieten the mind, stabilise the emotions and release tension from the body.

Quieten the mind: You can’t effectively practice a martial art if your mind is filled with the events of the day or things you’ve got to do later. Mokuso allows you to empty your mind of these extraneous thoughts and concentrate on the training you are about to embark on.

Stabilise the emotions: Perhaps you’ve had a bad day and are upset or angry with someone or perhaps you are worried about something. These negative emotions can impinge on your ability to train effectively. Mokuso enables you to let these feelings go so that you become emotionally stable and better able to concentrate on your training without distraction or excess aggression.

Release tension from the body: At the beginning of training, particularly if you have been rushing around to get there your muscles may be tense. Mokuso gives you a few minutes to relax and let the tension go through a process of slow controlled breathing. A tense body will not perform well and may lead to an increased risk of injury.

So, how do we do mokuso?
Effective mokuso requires good posture, correct breathing and focus on the task. Some will say that mokuso is performed to enable you to achieve a state of mushin (empty mind) but that is rather a tall order in the 1-2 minutes you are likely to spend doing it. To be able to put oneself into a state of mushin quickly takes years of training and prolonged periods of meditation, so don’t expect miracles after 2 minutes of mokuso!

Posture:  Mokuso is generally done kneeling in seiza when it is performed in a martial arts class but it can be done sitting on a chair or even lying down. The important thing is that the spine is properly aligned and you are comfortable, so if you are in seiza make sure you are upright and your arms rest comfortably on your lap.

Breathing: Correct breathing is important for several reasons – it fills the lungs fully with air, oxygenating the blood; it helps release tension from the muscles; it gives you a focus on which to concentrate which in turn helps you to rid your mind of extraneous thoughts and negative emotions.

You should breath in through your nose steadily, hold the breath for a couple of seconds and then breathe out slowly through the mouth. The whole cycle should take 10 – 15 seconds. The breaths should be deep, filling the abdomen. Counting the breaths is a good way of maintaining concentration on the task.

Focus on the task: You only have a minute or two in mokuso to prepare the mind and body for training so it is important to maintain focus and not let your mind wander. Remember you are not trying to empty the mind just quieten it and shed those negative emotions. Focus on your breathing and let your muscles relax. Visualise negative thoughts and emotions draining away from your body. Some people find focusing a soft gaze on the floor a couple of metres ahead of them a useful way to maintain concentration and not be distracted by other people in the dojo. Others prefer to shut their eyes completely.

To be effective mokuso takes practice. You can practice mokuso outside the dojo as well where you may have more time to spend on it. Over time you should find your practice of mokuso enables you to prepare your mind and body for training very quickly, allowing you to control the ebb and flow of your emotions and enhance your practice of your chosen martial art.

So, do you still think it’s just a quaint Japanese ritual performed at the beginning and end of class?

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Monday, 5 December 2011

My son's shodan success....

Yesterday my karate organisation, the SSK, held another black belt grading session. This time it was my son Sam's turn to grade for his black belt so how could I not go along to support him? In fact there were five people from our club grading, four for shodan and 1 for sandan. My husband partnered Bruce who was grading for sandan so three of our family trekked over the Pennines to the grading centre near Manchester.

As everyone in the UK will know, winter decided to make a sudden appearance yesterday, so it was in wind, rain and sleet that we gingerly drove over the Snake Pass to Manchester. There was snow and ice forming at the top of the pass, causing me to skid a little (I was the designated driver for the day) but once we were off the highest point it just turned back to rain.

We safely arrived at the venue at 9.20am only to be locked out for an hour. The caretaker had gone on holiday and had delegated opening up the building to his teenage son who was nowhere to be found. We decided to just sit calmly in the dry of the car and watched the organisers do the panicking as they tried to locate a key!

We finally got into the building and my son and the other grading students went to get ready and started warming up. 16 students were grading in total from a variety of clubs in the SSK.

This was the third successive dan grading session that I have attended (the first to partner someone else, the second for my own shodan grading and this one as a parent of a grading student) so I pretty well knew what to expect. I knew that I would not be allowed to sit in and watch the grading (even grading partners have to leave the room when not needed, unless they are also grading themselves) so I went prepared.

Any parent foolhardy enough to stay for the entire grading  (like me) is banished to the draughty corridor outside the grading hall with only a few plastic chairs to sit on and a small kitchenette to make tea/coffee. So I took a deckchair, my computer, a couple of books, newspaper and food. The only view I could get of the grading was through a small window in the door to the main hall. As this opened onto the grading mat rather than the training mat at the other end of the hall, I had quite a good view.

The day was organised with the usual military precision - it has to be; with 16 students grading the grading panel had to observe and mark 804 separate demonstrations in 7 hours - no easy feat. Dan gradings are a pretty formal affair for us - no talking, clapping, cheering or shouting encouragement is allowed at all so the mood tends to remain sombre and serious - like an exam!

I'm always amazed at the ability of the children to maintain focus and concentration over such a long time period; it's enough to tax most of the adults so I think the children do really well, especially as they don't have their parents with them. The youngest student grading yesterday was only 10 and she was very focused and self-reliant for one so young. In fact she attained the second highest mark of all the students, a brilliant achievement. In our organisation the children and adults follow the same syllabus so you can directly compare them.

Sam receiving his belt and certificate
 Obviously my main attention was on Sam, and our other club members. My son did me proud, just like he always does, and put on a great demonstration of karate. He is such a cool cucumber, no sign of nerves - just quietly getting on with it. He and his grading partner, Dave, have trained really hard these past few months and it really paid off for both of them yesterday.

We also had two other teenagers grading for shodan, Max and Ben, both of whom managed to pull some magic out of the hat and put on some of their best performances to date. Then their was Bruce, grading for 3rd dan. Poor Bruce's syllabus seemed to be twice as long as everyone else's and much of it was given to him on the day, so he really needed to know ALL of his karate techniques as he didn't know exactly what would be thrown at him on the day - he sailed through it with exemplary grace and style and has become the first 3rd dan student in our club.

Our successful club members: Bruce,
Ben, Steve (instructor), Max, Dave and Sam.
Basically it was a clean sweep - all 16 students achieved their respective dan grades which were all well deserved.

By now we had heard that the weather had deteriorated and the Snake Pass had been closed to traffic because of the snow; so tired but happy I drove my cluck of dan graders home - the long way!

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Thursday, 1 December 2011

Kenwa Mabuni books - now translated into English...

Just when I thought it was impossible to get hold of any books written by Kenwa Mabuni, founder of shito ryu, that were translated into English I came across - a self-publishing website. Here I discovered two books written by Mabuni and translated into English by karate sensei - Mario McKenna.

The first is Karate Kempo: The art of self-defense. Mabuni wrote this in 1934. Interestingly this book is about the art of 'goju-ryu kenpo'. It is one of Mabuni's early written works (he was a very prolific writer, writing several books and articles during the 1930s and 1940s, but none were ever translated into English). It is a work about the then fledgling art of karate-do and was intended as a general introduction to the art.

As McKenna says in the blurb: Karate Kenpo provides a rare glimpse of Mabuni's ideas about the history and development of karate-do on Okinawa. It also introduces the fundamentals of his art including warm-up, basic techniques, stances, training equipment and the fundamental kata san chin and the advanced kata seiunchin.

In the book Mabuni outlines the steps for sanchin kata and seiunchin using line drawings. He also covers bunkai for seiunchin. I'm always amazed at how well conserved many kata are. I could only identify one small difference between Mabuni's description of seiunchin and the way I have been taught it today - remarkable!

The second Mabuni book that was available was: The study of Seipai: the secrets of self-defence karate kenpo. In this book Mabuni chose to use photos (mainly of himself) to illustrate the steps of the kata seipai rather than line drawings. Again the bunkai is described and illustrated clearly.

The second half of this book reveals the (then) secret text and diagrams called the Bubishi. Kenwa Mabuni was the first person to publish this text which is now known as the 'karate bible'. In McKenna's translation of Mabuni's book he has left the Bubishi untranslated stating that there are now many English translations of this book available.

Mabuni writes this foreword to the Bubishi section of his book:

"On the recommendation of my friend, I made a copy of a Chinese book on kenpo called Bubishi that my venerated teacher, Anko Itosu, had duplocated himself. I have used the Bubishi in my research and have secretly treasured it, however in this current age of growth and popularity of karate kenpo, I am hesitant to keep this book to myself for even one more day. If this benefits even a little those researchers' passionate about karate, then I will be very pleased. Kenwa Mabuni"

What I particularly like about owning these books is that not only is it like hearing it straight from the horses mouth but I feel like I own a little bit of karate history myself. The book is obviously written in the present tense but it is about the practice of karate in the 1930's in Okinawa and Japan. Thus you get statements like:

"...The founder of our style, Goju-Ryu kenpo, Kanryo higaonna Sensei travelled to China to study Kenpo (mastering Chinese Fujian style Kenpo). Furthermore, my senior Chojun Miyagi travelled to China to conduct study into Kenpo and is presently still there."

and: "Presently on Okinawa young people freely practice in various systems such as Higaonna-ha, Itosu-ha, Maezato-ha, Shimabuku-ha, Ishimine-ha, Azato-ha etc."

Reading books like these very much makes karate history come alive to me, so thank you Sensei McKenna for bringing these translations to us.

I also have to praise the service: all their books are printed and bound after you order them and then shipped out. Both these books could only be shipped to the UK from the US but from initial order to receiving the books took less than a week, so well done Lulu!

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Friday, 18 November 2011

Another assessment sneaks up on me....

Just when I thought the testing was all over for a couple of years, Sensei suddenly announces that I will be taking my Instructor’s assessment on Monday!

Actually it was Monday just gone so I have already done it….but he did suddenly sneak it up on me with about a weeks’ notice. Though the date did arrive rather more quickly than I had anticipated I have actually been preparing for it for a couple of years.

As many readers will know I have been assisting with teaching in our junior class regularly since I became a brown belt.  This started with partnering people without a partner, to going through a junior belt syllabus with a couple of kids, to organising pad work, teaching break falling, to teaching kata and basic kumite skills.

The original intention was that I would be assessed for an Assistant Instructor certificate which at the time was available for brown belts who were assisting with the 9th – 4th kyu grades. However, my own black belt training and testing got in the way of thinking about an Assistant Instructor assessment, so it never happened.

Once I became a black belt I moved my focus back to teaching a bit more and my instructor started taking me along to taster sessions that he was giving at local primary schools. I got the chance to teach these young children and we started an after-school club at one of the schools. To give me greater experience my instructor has allowed me to ‘front’ these classes, planning and teaching the classes myself, with him assisting me -a strange feeling that!

Anyway, my instructor decided I was ready to take the Instructors assessment and set the date for last Monday. We decided that it may be best to go for the Club level Instructor (level 2) rather than just Assistant level Instructor (level 1). This will enable me to teach up to 1st dan level and teach independently at some future date if I want to.

The assessment involved teaching both the junior and senior classes on Monday evening. I had to demonstrate knowledge and skill at teaching an entire grade syllabus to the class, chosen at random by my instructor. For the junior class 5th kyu (blue belt) syllabus was chosen and for the senior class the 1st dan syllabus was chosen. Of course I was also being assessed on my ability to organise and control the class, meet individual children’s needs and deal with any discipline issues as they arose.

In addition to the practical teaching there was also a short oral exam where I was questioned about such things as our Association and Governing body structure, ethics and code of behaviour for clubs in the SSK, administration and record keeping, health and safety in the dojo, teaching children and people with special needs, emergencies and first aid and what I need to do to maintain my Instructor’s licence.

All in all I thought it was a comprehensive but fair assessment.  I was a bit nervous to start with but after doing a full seiza bow with the junior class and starting the warm up my nerves kind of disappeared and I just got on with it. The kids knew I was being assessed and were wonderfully behaved (as they generally are anyway). Most of the kids I had were red, yellow and orange belts so the blue belt syllabus was a bit new to them – adding to the challenge! This meant that I didn’t complete all sections of the syllabus in the lesson but I wanted to leave time for a game at the end to reward the kids for being so good!

It was then straight into the senior class with another seiza bow and warm up. Most of our 1st kyu students are preparing for their black belt test in December so after I had taken them through the basic kihon sections as a group they disappeared to the back of the hall to practice all their partner work together and with Sensei.

This left me with a group of about 8 children ranging from green to brown belt to take through the 1st dan syllabus – so another challenge! There was no way I was going to cover all 15 sections in the time available so once I had covered all the kihon and kata/bunkai sections, Sensei asked me to skip to the kumite sections. We then had about 15 minutes of jiyu and shiai kumite.  I’m not too confident with the refereeing of shiai kumite but I just had to do the best I could with what I know about refereeing, which quite frankly is not a great deal at the moment!

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I passed the assessment and I’m now a fully licensed club level karate instructor for the SSK – the first new instructor since the organisation was formed 2 years ago.  I feel in no way ready to take on the commitment and responsibility of running an independent club – I still have too much to learn myself.

So for now,  I will continue my own training towards nidan, continue assisting my instructor to build up my skills further, continue with the after school club (which I may take on independently next year, with my instructor as mentor, overseer and grading officer) and cover classes when my instructor is away…’s all an interesting and challenging part of the journey…..

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Monday, 7 November 2011

Kosokun Shio - 'To view the sky'

One of the kata that I am currently learning for nidan is Kosokun Shio. Whenever I learn a new kata I like to explore the origins and history of it. I think this is important because many kata, particularly older ones, have many cultural or historical references in them that may make them difficult to understand or interpret if you are not aware of the kata’s founder or the political/cultural situation at the time the kata was developed.

Kosokun shio is almost an exclusively Shito Ryu/Shukokai kata and is generally attributed to Mabuni Kenwa (the founder of Shito Ryu). This makes the kata comparatively modern (i.e. early 20th Century) but since this kata is almost certainly an amalgam of the kata Kushanku Dai and Kushanku Sho, it‘s roots are much older. We therefore, need to look at the origins of the Kushanku kata to truly understand Kosokun shio.

The Kushanku kata are attributed to ‘Tode’ Sakugawa (b.1733) who developed them in recognition and remembrance of one of his teachers – Kushanku (Also known as Kong Su Kung, Kwang Shang Fu and Guan Kui) who was a Chinese envoy sent to Okinawa around 1756. It is said that Kushanku learned the art of ch’uan Fa in China from a Shaolin Monk. 

Apparently Kushanku was a specialist in ‘night fighting’ and grappling. In Okinawa during the mid 18th century (during the Satsuma occupation and the banning of bladed weapons) military combat usually occurred during the daytime but ‘self-defence’ fighting between civilians usually occurred at night.  It would have been a fairly common experience to be attacked whilst walking home in the dark, perhaps beaten unconscious and robbed. Grappling techniques are ideal for dealing with an attacker in the dark when you cannot see to kick and punch.

Kushanku taught his night fighting techniques to Sakugawa, who was his student for 6 years. There is a story that Sakugawa, on route to China in a boat, was attacked by pirates at night as they approached Fuzhou harbour. The pirates' usual tactic would be to board the boat and throw everyone overboard to drown, thus escaping with the entire ship and any treasure. However, on this occasion, Sakugawa’s night fighting skills took the pirates by surprise. He was able to single-handedly defeat the pirate crew, grappling with them and throwing them all overboard!

It is not surprising then that the Kushanku katas that Sakugawa went on to develop were designed to be ‘night fighting’ kata. The opening move of the kata, where the arms draw a big circle in front of the body, is thought to represent the moon and is to remind you that this kata is teaching you how to fight in the dark.

According to Bruce Clayton in Shotokan’s secrets, the kata has three aims: (1) To avoid being caught by the enemy, (2) To locate and attack the enemy in the dark and (3) To remain in control of the enemy until he has been defeated.  In other words you need to touch the enemy before you can strike them and once you’ve got hold of them you need to finish them off.

It is said that the kata should also teach the enhancement of the senses, particularly hearing and touch both of which would be particularly important in the dark.

As I said earlier Kosokun shio is an amalgam of the two Kushanku kata or at least combines many techniques from both of them. Though Kosokun shio is practised only by shito ryu stylists, Kushanku kata are practised by Isshin ryu, shotokan (where it is called Kanku Dai) and possibly other styles of shuri-te karate.

If you are familiar with Kosokun shio or the Kushanku katas then you will have noticed that they have several combinations that appear in the pinan kata series, particularly pinans shodan, yondan and godan. It is thought that Itosu created the pinan katas partly from the Kushanku katas.
Here’s a video of Kosokun Shio:

Shotokan's Secret, the hidden truth behind karate's fighting origins. by Bruce D Clayton Ph.D
To view the sky:

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Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Victim selection: it's all in the way we walk!

There have been many research studies into what factors make a person a potential victim. Most of these factors relate to body language cues and psychological factors such as dominant vs. submissive personality types. However, one of the most distinguishing cues that separate’s a potential victim from a non-victim is the way we walk…

The most influential study into non-verbal cues was carried out in 1981 by Grayson and Stein. Briefly, they shot silent black and white videotape of 60 people walking in New York City, without their knowledge and in a single location. They then asked inmates incarcerated for violent crime to rank them for perceived assault potential.

The findings were surprising because ‘victims’ were not selected on obvious criteria such as size, gender, race, or age. Interestingly, the inmates themselves could not articulate why they chose some people as potential victims and not others suggesting that victim selection was an unconscious or intuitive process.

However, careful analysis of the videotape revealed that victim selection was dependent on the way people walked. In particular the following five criteria were important in identifying a person as a potential victim:

1.       Length of stride: Having too long or too short a stride for their height.

2.       Walking rate: Walking faster or slower than the general pedestrian traffic around them.  Walking too slow makes you look like you lack purpose, too fast can makes you look nervous.

3.       Fluidity of gait: Having a jerky or uncoordinated gate. Shuffling, staggering or just looking awkward.

4.       Wholeness of body movement: Not moving their body from the centre as a coordinated whole. Swinging arms in an uncoordinated way. This projects an image of weakness, poor balance and lack of confidence.

5.       Posture and gaze: Slumped posture and downward gaze. This suggests submissiveness and lack of awareness.

Though each of these factors in isolation may give out important subconscious cues to an attacker it also seems that all these factors taken together make you look different to people around you and therefore make you stand out from the crowd. Perhaps, just as we look for those differences in behaviour that makes a potential attacker stand out from the crowd, an attacker subconsciously looks for differences in walking styles to identify a potential victim.

Can we or should we change the way we walk? Well, according to experts it’s virtually impossible to suddenly change the way we move or fake body language. Positive changes in gait and body language have to be earned!

Knowledge is power they say – the way to develop ‘positive walking’ is to firstly develop better awareness skills– which require you to look up and engage with your environment, making eye contact with people. This alone will start to make you look more confident and give you a more upright posture.

Secondly, improving fitness will impact on your balance, coordination and strength which in turn should help you develop a more positive walking style.

Finally, learning some self-defence skills has been shown to actually reduce your chances of being attacked. This is related to the confidence and assertiveness cues you give out in your general body language.

So, it’s time to analyse the way you walk; don’t make yourself a victim through ignorance. If your posture and gait is found wanting do something about it – you can’t change it overnight but you can change it over time and the sooner you start……

Ref: Why is everyone always picking on me?
Body language and assault prevention
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Friday, 21 October 2011

Black Belt Testing – entrance or exit exam?

Revolving doors
People are often tempted to compare the abilities of a black belt student from one martial arts system to those of black belt students within other systems. In addition, people often have fixed expectations of what a black belt student should be able to do, this often results in much discussion or argument over the quality of a black belt test.

For some, the new black belt student should be entirely proficient in all aspects of their chosen art or be able to prove themselves in a fight. For others the new black belt student is considered to have just learnt the basics of their art and now their real training is about to begin. This begs the question – is the black belt test an entrance or exit exam?

In case you are not familiar with the concept of entrance and exit exams let me offer you some examples: A medical degree is an entrance exam; at the end of the course the student holds a degree qualification which then gains them entrance into a programme of higher medical training. A medical degree alone does not allow a person to become a fully qualified, fully independent doctor. Likewise a Law degree provides a standalone qualification but it does not allow the holder to practice as a lawyer; it is merely an entrance qualification to higher levels of training.

On the other hand, some training programmes lead to qualifications that allow the holder to go out and work as a fully functioning practitioner in that line of work. For example, qualifications in nursing, plumbing or electrics; these are ‘exit’ qualifications and the student has to pass ‘exit’ exams that prove they are fully competent in their subject and safe to practice. That isn’t to say that there aren’t further more specialist courses that the practitioner can take, there generally are. A junior doctor who has completed a programme of higher specialist training will take exit exams that allow him/her to practice as an independent practitioner.

So, this brings me back to the question, is the black belt test an entrance or exit exam? Does it merely allow you to enter into a higher level of training in your art or does it mean that you are a fully functioning practitioner who has mastered all the techniques your art has to offer?

It depends on the art and the system that you train in doesn’t it? In most systems of karate and other traditional arts I would argue that the black belt test is an entrance exam – it shows that you have learnt the basics and you are now ready to enter into a programme of more advanced training.

However, I think that in some reality based systems the black belt test is treated more as an exit exam and that there is an expectation that black belt students can defend themselves in a very confident and expert way and will have become proficient ‘fighters’.

It may be that the bar is set higher for black belt testing in some systems than in others. I don’t think that this matters too much as long as you are not making direct comparisons. In the same way that you can’t compare degree qualifications from one university with those from another, neither can you compare black belt qualifications of one martial arts system with those from a different system either.

So, if your system of training treats the black belt test as an entrance exam at what point of training do you exit? 3rd dan? 5th dan? If you are a traditionalist then you probably believe that there is no exit exam, that training and the pursuit of perfection in your art is a life-long programme with no end-point.

Then again, you may, for practical reasons, assume that there is an exit point at say 3rd dan. At third dan you may feel that the practitioner is sufficiently proficient in the full range of their art to be able to teach it as a fully qualified instructor. If you treat the black belt test as an exit exam then you may feel that the practitioner is suitably qualified to teach at 1st dan or 2nd dan.

The point though is that you understand what the black belt test in your system really represents in terms of achievement and proficiency in your art. It doesn’t really matter whether it represents a basic qualification or an advanced one as long as you understand where it fits into the entire continuum of your training system and you don’t make too many comparisons between systems without understanding where their black belt qualification fits into their system.

So, is your black belt test an entrance or an exit exam? Where would you consider the exit point to be in your system?

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Monday, 17 October 2011

Stephen L Brayton - guest blogger

I'd like to introduce you to my guest blogger, Stephen L Brayton. Stephen is a Fifth degree Black Belt Instructor in the American Taekwondo Association. In the following post, Stephen provides some class management skills.

Stephen is also a published author. His latest book, Beta, concerns a martial artist/private investigator who is on the hunt for a kidnapped child. You can find out more about Stephen and his latest book (and his previous publications) by visiting his website at

Stephen L Brayton
10 Class Management Skills

One of the first teaching aides I learned as a trainee instructor was the list of class management skills. I had to memorize all ten and demonstrate them in a classroom situation. During each of my recertification seminars, these skills were reinforced and practiced. These skills show how well the instructor is conducting the class and how much he/she cares about the students. The next time you’re in class, check off how many the instructor is following:

  1. Set mood and tone of class. Is the instructor happy to be there or showing what a bad day he’s having?
  2. Set a direct goal. Does the instructor have a game plan for the evening and does he announce it?
  3. Create positive environment. Does the instructor smile and share his enthusiasm?
  4. Personal approach/individual contact. Two examples of this are the instructor acknowledging the individual student by giving him a high five or touching them to make corrections in technique.
  5. Give positive feedback to questions. Does the instructor give intelligent answers to questions or ignore them? Even if the question is asked by a child and does not relate to taekwondo, how does the instructor respond?
  6. Reinforce positive behavior. Acknowledge the attributes for a successful class. Is a student standing at attention, paying attention? Does a particular student assist another having problems?
  7. Realistic praise. “That is the most awesome front kick I have ever seen in my life.” The student isn’t going to buy this and it’s wrong. Praise the student for improvements made from the last attempt or praise some quality in the technique.
  8. Positive correction instead of criticism. “That’s a bad stance, you should try harder.” How will the student feel after hearing this? A good formula is praise-correct-praise. Praise the student for the attempt and find a good quality about the technique. Then show the necessary correction to make it better. Then praise the student for the correction made.
  9. Refer to students by name. Everyone wants to hear his or her name and to be remembered, especially in a large class.
  10. Promote personal victory. As an example, don’t tell the student he needs to kick head high. Rather, give them a realistic goal, and count that as a victory. Even if the improvement is kicking two inches higher than yesterday, it’s an improvement and victory for the individual.

Many of these skills are designed to promote the individual, which is one of the best attributes of martial arts. Yes, there is a team atmosphere, but the individual is the key. I can’t play football, so I wouldn’t make the team. I can’t dribble very well, so I’d sit on the bench a lot. However, I can practice hard and after a few months be worthy of testing for a higher rank. Others may have moved up faster, but that’s okay. I’m concerned with me.

These skills show how the instructor cares about the students. In my book, Beta, my heroine, Mallory Petersen, is a private investigator and head instructor in her taekwondo school. She cares about every one of her students, from the black belt who’s won multiple trophies at tournaments to the squirrelly lower rank who has problems with a basic front kick even after eight weeks’ worth of classes. She has meetings with her staff about instruction techniques and concerns about the students. She knows every one of her students by name and how each is progressing through the curriculum.

Class management skills are vital for a successful club or school. If the instructor isn’t using these on a regular basis, then these are something to pass along.

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Monday, 10 October 2011

Awareness – let's not just pay lip service to this important area of training.

How often do we pay lip service to the skills of awareness in relation to self-defence training? Every self-defence course you go on will tell you how important awareness and avoidance are. Five minutes later you will be moved on to  learning some physical techniques (the fun part) - after all, isn’t that the reason you’re really there, to learn some self-defence?

Yet we all know that most physical attack situations can actually be avoided if we are truly aware and paying attention to our environment. So why spend so little time learning the skills of awareness? Perhaps you don’t think it is a skill. Perhaps you think it is something we can all do naturally and we just need reminding about it now and again.

Do you think you have good awareness skills? Watch this:

Did you notice it? This just shows that we are only aware of things that we are looking for. If we are not looking for something we won’t notice it. Do you know what you are looking for when you are told to be more aware of your environment?

Here’s another video:

This shows us that even when we know what we are looking for we don’t necessarily notice it all the time. This shows that good awareness is a skill that needs to be learned, honed and practised just like the physical skills we learn in self-defence training.

So what is awareness? According to Randy LaHaie of protective

 “Awareness is the ability to ‘read’ people and situations and anticipate the probability of violence before it happens. It is knowing what to look for and taking the time to notice safety-related aspects of what is happening around you…..your level of awareness should be appropriate to the circumstances you are in……….some circumstances call for a greater degree of awareness than others. Obviously, you would want to be more aware when walking alone to your car  at night than when shopping in a crowded mall with friends."

This poses some practical questions?  What is it about people that we need to ‘read’? What are the things in our environment that we need to be alert to? What are we supposed to notice about particular situations? How do we determine which circumstances require a greater degree of awareness?

Okay, so some common sense is required and we do have such a thing as a survival instinct which helps us determine when a situation or person is dangerous. We also have gut instincts that seem to instinctively tell us when something is not right. However, both common sense and gut instincts are learned from experience or training.  Our parents, school teachers and other people teach us from a young age not to talk to strangers, walk home alone at night or go down unlit alley ways. We eventually file away information like this under ‘common sense’. In addition, personal accounts from others or personal experiences we have ourselves of being followed, watched or even grabbed/attacked can internalise and resurface later as ‘gut feelings’ when we experience similar (pre-cursor) circumstances again.

But can we be sure that we have counted all of the ‘Fs’ and not missed the moonwalking bear without specific awareness training? I don’t think so. Why should we presume that we instinctively know what we should be aware of?

In other areas of our lives related to personal safety we expect or be taught or told what we need to know or even to do special training. As children we are taught how to cross a road safely and have numerous practices at it with our parents in attendance until we are deemed safe. Later, when we learn to drive we are taught about hazard perception and tested on our ability to spot hazards.

In both these cases we are taught the things we need to be aware of in our environment – where is a safe place to cross, how to observe the traffic before stepping into the road (speed and direction of traffic), observing for the ‘green man’ etc; or when driving we learn to anticipate the behaviour of people on the pavements (is someone likely to run into the road?), notice a parked car that is about to pull out in front of you and we learn that we must give special attention when approaching an unmarked crossroad or when the traffic lights are not working.  This learned behaviour eventually becomes internalised and we perceive much of it as common sense or gut instinct – we have learned to have an appropriate awareness of our environment for the task we are engaged in.

So if that task happens to be ‘preventing oneself from being attacked whilst going about our daily business.’ What are the things we should be aware of?

There are many very good articles (including the one I linked to above) that tell us about the importance of awareness and how to be more aware but they don’t specifically say what we should be aware of, except in the vaguest of terms e.g. ‘observe for predatory behaviours.’

I would like to put together a guide called ‘Awareness in self-defence- what to be aware of’ and I need your help to do so. Leave me a comment with your advice about what we should be aware of in our environments and why – be specific, not vague. Also tell us the things we can do to practice our awareness skills so that they improve. If I get sufficient comments back I will turn them into a guide  - similar to the ‘World guide to passing your black belt’, in which I will accredit each author with their comment and provide a link back to your blog/website/profile.  I received 21 comments to my request for information for that guide and hope to get a similar level of response for this guide.

Please help if you can….thanking you in advance……

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Monday, 3 October 2011

A visit to Count Dracula....

from Dracula by Bram Stoker, 1897

Is this the beach where Dracula landed?
Whitby harbour

This quote from Dracula  is actually a description of the town of Whitby in North Yorkshire where I have just returned from a short break with my husband.  Bram Stoker was inspired to write his book whilst staying in Whitby and the town still thrives on its Dracula heritage conducting ‘Dracula Tours’ around the town after dark and hosting a ‘Dracula experience’ attraction. The town is also quite a magnet for Goths who clearly like dressing up for the vampiric occasion particularly at the twice-yearly Goth festivals hosted here.

St Hilda's Abbey
The town is very old and atmospheric. The eastern skyline is dominated by an ancient Abbey (St Hilda's Abbey) which lies behind the church at the top of the hill and dates back to 657 AD. The Abbey fell to Viking attack in 867 and was re-founded in 1078 by a soldier-monk. It was finally destroyed by Henry V111 in 1540 and left to fall into ruin, which is how it remains today.

View of Abbey through the Whale bone arch
(on West Cliff)

Whaling used to be a big industry in Whitby and there used to be several of these whale jawbones around the town, though this is the only one left now. Whaling was introduced to Whitby in 1752 (ceasing in 1850) and the street lights were fuelled by whale oil. Whale bones were used in women's corsets as well as other things!

beach viewed from East Cliff (tide out)

Today Whitby is a tourist magnet, not just for its beauty and history but because of its beautiful unspoilt beach. I was amazed at how quickly the tide came in though. After taking this first photo of the beach from the East Cliff, we walked round to the beach and sat on the sand to read. After about 10 minutes my husband said we'd better move quick. I looked up and the sea was virtually lapping my toes. We headed for the cliff, where I took the second photo and you can see how far the tide has come in. 5 minutes later there was no beach to see!

Beach viewed from West Cliff (tide coming in)
Did I mention that I went on this break with my husband - and not the boys? Yep. We're finally at that stage where we can leave the boys at home alone! This was an experimental break to see how we all coped. At 16 and nearly 18 we decided they were ready to fend for themselves for a few days. We chose term time because we knew they would have a structured day at school and be kept busy.

They coped fine - even walking all the way to karate class one evening, what more can you ask?

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Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Knife awareness seminar - bridging the gap between traditional and reality training...

Image from Photobucket
Last Sunday my husband and I attended a KEWAP seminar (Knife and Edged Weapons Awareness Programme).

I was interested in attending this course because I thought it offered something different to our usual karate training - a course focused on the practicalities of personal self-defence out on the street, specifically defending against attacks with knives and other edged weapons.

I was a little surprised that only a handful of us turned up for the course but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise because those of us that were there obviously had a lot of personal attention from the instructor. Also, as a small informal group, we were able to have a lot of useful discussion together about various aspects of personal protection.

The course was different in many ways to the usual kind of courses we do. To start with we wore ordinary outside clothes and kept our shoes on. Secondly, the practical training was interspersed with mini lectures and power point slides. I thought this format worked well as it gave the instructor a chance to educate us on a variety of issues such as self defence and the law – what you can and can’t do to defend yourself; awareness issues; how to assess developing situations; how to use the environment to create and manage distance and a discussion on different strategies one can use.

The instructor also showed us some slides of weapons that have been used in real fights. Did you know that there are gas-powered knives that force the blade in further and knives that are also guns that fire bullets at you as the blade goes in? I was quite staggered that such grisly weapons existed!

In between these short talks we did some practical knife defence training. We learnt about half a dozen different ways of disarming a knifeman depending on how he was attacking with the knife, including situations when you have your back to the wall. What struck me about these techniques was that though I hadn’t specifically done them before the principles of movement and technique that I have learnt in karate and kobudo were being directly applied in these self-defence moves.

I thought that we all picked up these techniques quickly because we already knew how to move, evade, block and apply locks. So, applying what we already knew to this new situation of knife defences was not too difficult, it was just a case of relaxing some of the more stylistic aspects of karate in order to be able to respond more intuitively and naturally.

A case in point was when we moved onto the topic of pre-emptive striking. The instructor told us that in order to strike quickly and without telegraphing the move first we shouldn’t pull back the punch first. This made sense but since we have trained to punch from the hip it was hard not to instinctively pull the punching arm back first before striking. However, after a few minutes practice of punching a focus mitt it was starting to feel more natural. The instructor emphasised the importance of using the hip thrust to add power to the punch so this was very much still a karate principle being employed.

Apparently my punches against the focus mitt in this way were quite hard but I know this is only because of the gyaku zuki training I have had. The standard karate training has helped me to build up strength, speed and power in my punching and this was not lost when the punching technique was varied to omit the pullback.

I sometimes feel that there is a gap between the defensive moves we learn as part of karate training and the self-defence moves in reality based training but I also feel that this gap shouldn’t exist – it can be bridged with thoughtful and intelligent training. I feel uncomfortable when I hear people say, “this is the art of karate but in real self-defence we do it this way”, as if they are completely different things. To me they are just flip sides of the same coin – not different coins.

On this KEWAP course I think the instructor helped to bridge this gap. We learnt a lot of new self-defence techniques – techniques that have been tried and tested in real situations but we were applying many of the principles we already knew from our classical karate training. The instructor even showed us how some bunkai from Pinan Shodan and Seipai can be used in knife defence scenarios.

Overall, I thought this was a great course, taught in a very effective way. It was informative, practical and enjoyable.

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Friday, 16 September 2011

Eyes Wide Open...

A lot of martial artists, particularly instructors get very frustrated when they see a lot of crap being taught or talked about to students. They get frustrated when other instructors teach techniques that clearly don’t work or don’t push students hard enough to achieve a high standard because they are afraid the student’s will leave (taking their money with them).

In my view there are three types of bad instructors:

  1. Instructors who lack knowledge and skill and therefore teach to a low standard. 
  2. Instructors who are highly skilled but misinform you about what you are learning to do e.g. they tell you that you are learning self-defence but you are in fact learning sport.
  3. Instructors who are too indifferent or lazy to correct student’s mistakes and then allow them to pass gradings at a low standard.
However, no art, no club and no instructor is perfect so if you want to become a good martial artist yourself then you:

  •  have to train with your eyes wide open, 
  •  be objective in your assessment of the system you train in and 
  •  don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Let me explain a little more about what I mean:

Train with your eyes wide open
Don’t take everything you are taught at face value. For example, if you are training in a traditional art such as karate and you are told that you will be learning self-defence then think about how much time you are spending doing application work. Karate is composed of kihon, kata and kumite. These are initially taught as separate elements but at some point they need to all come together and that is during the application of principles to self-defence. If your club only ever treats these three cornerstones of karate as separate elements and does no application work then you are not learning self-defence.

Remember that ‘good technique’ and ‘good techniques’ are not necessarily the same thing. You may develop the technically perfect spinning hook kick but is a spinning hook kick a good technique to have in your self-defence armoury? Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t; the point is you may meet people who are technically perfect in the performance of all their techniques but the techniques themselves may be useless. 

At some point, as a student, you will have to make your own decisions about whether the things you are being taught are useful and effective. Some of what you will be taught will be excellent, some will be okay and some will be useless – take some responsibility for deciding yourself (this gets easier as you get more experienced) and  remember to train with your eyes wide open.

Be objective in your assessment of the system that you train in
No system is perfect or complete - whatever your instructor says.  A system in its infancy may have an incoherent structure and either a deficient or excessive number of techniques until it has evolved to a more coherent and optimal state. A mature system will have developed bias as its founders hone it to their own strengths and beliefs about what makes a good system. However, whatever evolutionary stage your system is in it should be dynamic, slowly changing, evolving and improving. 

If your instructor boasts how he is still teaching the system the same as it was 300 years ago in Okinawa or Japan you might want to be a bit worried if you are expecting to learn realistic street defence.  The world 300 years ago was very different to the world today, particularly in relation to the law. What was acceptable practice back then may leave you in prison today.  Though ancient fighting arts may have little contextual currency today they may still have cultural and historical value and so be worth practising in order to conserve them for future generations. If you’re interested in historical preservation then studying these arts may be for you.

Though a living martial art needs to avoid stagnation, you need to be sure that in a very new, contemporary system that the founder hasn’t completely thrown out the baby with the bath water and just made it all up. A good contemporary reality based system is generally still based on many traditional principles and its instructors generally have a lot of experience of traditional martial arts. Those that don’t often end up re-inventing the wheel but not managing to get it quite round.

So be objective in your assessment of the system that you train in. You have to get to know it and you have to give it a chance. No system will provide you with 100 percent of what you need or want, so try and assess its strengths and weaknesses. If it’s giving you 80 percent of what you need then it’s probably not doing badly.

There is no point in flitting around from one system to another either, trying to find perfection – you’ll never get anywhere. Find a system that gives you much of what you want and then look at how you will fill in the gaps. This brings me to my third point…

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
In my opinion cross-training between different arts is a good thing. Not everybody agrees with that. Some people think that cross-training confuses students because different arts often have a different way of moving and follow a different fighting strategy. This can be true but if you cross-train intelligently the two arts can work synergistically together.

So how do you cross-train intelligently? Well first decide which your main art is and stay true to the strategy of that art. Then choose a supplementary art that complements rather than contrasts with that main art. I do karate as a main art and kobudo as a supplementary art.  Some people would say that kobudo is a part of karate and in some systems it is. But then jujitsu could be considered a part of karate because the kata contain throwing techniques. All arts overlap to some extent and share some techniques or principles so you could argue that there is no such thing as cross training – you are just broadening you horizons.

To cross-train intelligently you also need to think what it is about the supplementary art that you want to learn – is it a more flowing way of movement, to learn some new techniques which can be integrated into your main art, or just gaining a new perspective about self-defence? Be clear on what you are trying to get out of cross-training and then it may work very well for you.

When you first start training in a martial art you will slavishly follow your instructors teachings, you have to and should do because you don’t know any better. However as you progress up into the dan grades you may start to (and should) become more objective in assessing and identifying your systems strengths and weaknesses and your instructors’ biases and beliefs. It is up to you as a student to decide whether this system is really working for you and whether you can plug the gaps with intelligent cross-training.

Learning a martial art is an active process not a passive one. It requires the student to think objectively about what they are learning, keeping their eyes wide open and working out for themselves how to overcome any deficiencies in their training.

So train intelligently – it’s your responsibility…

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