Monday, 23 May 2011

What kind of martial artist are you?

When you step into a dojo for the very first time you are often unaware that you have just opened the door to a very big world. You may not realise initially that ‘martial arts’ are a very broad ranging group of activities. The term ‘martial arts’ is often banded around to include activities that aren’t strictly ‘martial’ in origin e.g. karate (karate is civilian based not military based) or aren’t ‘art*’ because they are either ‘sport’ (e.g. MMA, boxing or wrestling) or they are pure ‘self-defence’ systems (e.g. reality based systems).

Some systems may be a composite of all three elements – art, sport and self defence with greater emphasis on one or other of those elements whereas others may concentrate either entirely on just one of those elements possibly paying ‘lip service’ to another.

Does it matter? Shouldn’t all martial arts be about self-defence? Well, it matters a lot if your aim is to be able to defend yourself in a violent encounter in the street and you must realise that not all martial arts will provide you with the skills you need to do this. If you want this you will need to choose a reality based self-defence (RBSD) system or a traditional art that is working very much at the ‘jutsu’ end of the scale.

However, effective self defence may not be your primary aim or motivation. You may prefer the world of sport and competition, a place where extreme physical fitness combined with martial skills is the order of the day. You can choose from traditional systems such as judo, sport karate or sport taekwondo which may encompass ‘art’ as well as sport or you can choose a more contemporary or purist martial sport such as MMA or boxing.

Maybe you’re not interested in the sports side of martial arts. Perhaps, like me, you are a little too old for competitive sport!  If you prefer to study the aesthetics, body mechanics, power generation, focus, self-awareness and various other esoteric qualities associated with martial artists then you may prefer a more traditional martial art such as karate-do, kung-fu or aikido. To what extent these more ‘artistic’ qualities of martial arts are combined with practical application will vary enormously from system to system and from club to club.

It is quite obvious that ‘martial artists’ come in as many guises as people do themselves. Is one type of martial artist better than another?

The RBSD martial artist will no doubt have the edge on understanding and dealing with the brutality of street violence but will win no competitions and have little empathy for body aesthetics or any of the esoteric qualities of traditional martial arts.

The sports martial artist may be at peak physical fitness, experienced the glory of winning and have a shelf full of trophies but he/she may or may not handle themselves well in a street fight or have any understanding of the true meaning of a kata they have just demonstrated so beautifully in competition.

The traditional martial artist may have mastered control of their mind and body, learned how to harness their own power, found greater success and fulfilment in their lives through the application of budo principles but own no trophies and have varying abilities to defend themselves in a real life confrontation.

So there we have it: you can train to be master of the ‘street’, master of the sports arena or master of yourself. None is better than the other they are just different, but they can all use the title ‘martial artist’.

How do you choose what kind of martial artist you want to be? Well you must first analyse your needs and your wants. Do you work in an area that regular deals with confrontation with members of the public or live in an area where street violence is a fact of life? Then you probably need a RBSD system to meet these needs. If you fantasise about being the next world champion in a martial based sport then a good judo, MMA, boxing or sports karate or taekwondo club may provide what you are looking for. But if your bag is more about a journey of self-discovery and self-perfection through the study of budo then a traditional martial art may be the best choice.

What is important is that you understand what it is that you want or need and what it is that a particular type of martial art is really offering. You need to match up your expectations with the objectives of the martial art chosen. Some clubs, particularly traditional MA clubs, may offer a combination of art, sport and self defence. This may have many advantages but remember you will learn to be a ‘Jack of all trades’ and ‘Master of none’ if you are not careful.

What you want from your martial art may vary as you go through your life so it is okay to change as you go along. For example, when you are young martial sport may be your main requirement. Once you are too old to be competitive you may decide to hone your self-defence skills more and opt to train in a reality based system. As you get even older you may get fed up with the focus on violence and the more brutal nature of training and wish to explore the more traditional arts that may lead to improvements in health and well being. The kind of martial artist you become may therefore change as you go through your life.

Once you have decided what kind of martial artist you want to be you need to find the right martial art, club and instructor. There is no such thing as a bad martial art only bad clubs, bad instructors and bad students! To find the right club you need to assess it against the right criteria. It is pointless judging a RBSD club through the lens of a traditionalist – it will be found wanting however good it is at providing self-defence training. Likewise, don’t judge a traditional martial art through the lens of a RBSD system, again it will be found wanting. If the club you are assessing is offering the kind of martial art that you need or want, you like the instructor, the environment seems appropriate for the art, other students seem to making good progress and it doesn’t seem like a financial rip off then it is probably a suitable club for what you want.

A final word of warning! Some martial arts instructors can be like ‘false prophets’ – they may offer things that they cannot deliver on. This may be unintentional because they believe in what they are saying (they've not looked outside their dojo door for a long time) or they may be true charlatans just after your money. Let the buyer beware – do your research!

So, have you worked out yet what kind of martial artist you are? Is it the type you expect or want to be?

* I have used the word 'art' throughout this article with a more Western interpretation as in art being about form and aesthetics. Strictly speaking the term 'art' in martial arts refers to 'craft' in eastern interpretations and is used to describe the 'jutsu' crafts rather than the martial ways. 

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Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Competition judging - my first experience...

I had my first experience of competition judging last Saturday. It was a club level kata competition mainly for the kids in our club and for most of them it was also a first time experience. Sensei was having some difficulty getting sufficient numbers of black belts to help so he asked me and my husband if we'd give it a go.

Always one to support club level activities I jumped at the chance to have a go. I also thought it would be useful to be on the other end of the marking scheme which was the same scheme that will be used in my grading.  As it was just a fairly small competition (around 30 competitors) we just had one area in use with 5 judges. Most of the competitors were our youngest students (6 - 10 year olds) with a few older children and young teens. Though we had a full range of coloured belts represented the majority were still in the very junior ranks.

Sensei gave us a briefing on how to assess and score each competitor. He told us not to worry if our marks seemed a little higher or lower than other judges - scoring consistently within the category was more important.

Things I learned about judging:

  • It's a lot easier to judge a kata performance if you know the kata. Since most of the competitors performed one of the pinan katas or a familiar kyu grade kata this wasn't a problem. However, we had one senior category with 2 competitors performing 2nd dan katas which I don't know yet so I just had to look at the details of stances, hand positions, general tidiness and precision of moves. I've no idea if they made mistakes!
  • I'm a hard marker. I seemed to consistently score between a half and one and a half marks less than other judges. It's not always easy to know how much to add on for a particularly good performance and how much to deduct for mistakes. I was starting to feel embarrassed that watching parents would see me as the 'mean old woman' of the judging panel! 
  • Different judges notice different strengths and weaknesses in a performance. This is probably partly due to the fact we each see the performance from a different angle and a mistake may not be noticeable from a particular judge's angle. It may also be because each judge has a slightly different set of criteria. I have a particular thing about stance work - I spend so much time in the junior class getting the kids to bend their front knee in zenkutsu dachi or bend their back leg in cat stance that any straight legs seen in the competition lost them a half mark! (I'm so mean). Other judges may have had their own particular 'thing' that they looked for.
  • You have to concentrate very hard and not let your mind wander - you have to be in the moment. Most of these katas take around 30 - 40 seconds to perform so if you let your mind drift you've missed it! 
  • The standard was more variable in the very junior ranks than in the more senior kyu ranks. This made the purple and brown belt category much harder to judge and we did have a few tie breakers to decide who went through to the next round. The winners were a lot more clear cut in the lower ranks.
I was really impressed with the standard of our kids. A few on them were particularly outstanding even though they were only very junior belts. I thought they all rose to the challenge very well - it must be very intimidating to a 6 or 7 year old to perform their kata in front of judges and watching parents. I was very proud of them.

I really enjoyed my judging experience, it has helped me understand the marking scheme a bit better and given me a better overview of the standard of the kata performance of our junior students, and I was impressed!

Do you have any judging stories to tell?

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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Pre-dan grading course - a dose of reality!

Movement from Bassai Dai
On Saturday I attended a pre-dan grading course. This was an opportunity to go through the syllabus with the dan grading officers and iron out any remaining problem areas before the real grading on June 12th.

There were around 30 people present on the course, mainly 1st kyu grades but also a couple of 1st dans ready to grade to 2nd dan. I hadn’t expected so many people because I know at the last dan grading there were only five candidates and at the one before about nine. I had a nasty feeling that a huge cull might happen following the session!

Applying a leg lock
After the warm up we were given some guidance about how the grading day would be structured and what the required etiquette would be. The marking scheme was also explained in quite a lot of detail and we were each issued with a sheet of paper containing the syllabus and a marking grid. We were told that we would be given a score for each section of the syllabus as they came around and observed us. We were also given feedback and guidance about our performance. The idea of this was that we should end up with a realistic picture of our strengths and weaknesses and have a plan of the things we needed to work on.

We started off with all the kihon sections followed by kata and bunkai and received scores and feedback. The starting point for awarding a mark is the basic pass mark of 6/10. A six represents the performance of a good average student. If you show exceptional ability in a particular section you may get a 6.5 or even a seven (8, 9 or 10 are for the truly gifted!). However, if you make mistakes or don’t perform the technique to the required standard then marks are docked, which puts you below the pass mark for that section. You then need to make up marks in other sections to keep yourself at or above the overall pass mark.

This gives you the feeling that you are standing on the edge of a cliff – gaining marks pulls you back from the edge but losing them can topple you over. After the first 6 sections I was clinging to the edge of the cliff by my finger tips having scored five 5.5s and one 6! I was starting to feel my stress levels rise as my heart sank into my stomach. Was I ready for this? Was I going to be ‘culled’?

How to throw your husband!
 We then moved onto the sections that require partners – ippon kumite, goshin waza and a floor drill. These are generally my stronger sections so I was hoping to make up marks here. Unfortunately most people did not have their grading partners with them so paired up with each other. My grading partner (my husband) was there so we could still work together. However, due to the large number of people to observe and the fact most people were working with unfamiliar partners, the grading officers gave some feedback but no marks for these sections.

Now this shouldn’t have mattered to me because I know these are my stronger sections but as I was already in a downward spiral emotionally I finished the day feeling that everything was negative and nothing was positive. In fact I was feeling pretty despondent and worried about my ability to pass.

I found it really hard to shake off this negativity all weekend and initially I wanted to blame the scoring system for my failures. It seemed so easy to lose marks for relatively minor transgressions but very difficult to gain marks. My dream of getting a black belt was starting to seem a lot less attainable.

However, since then I have had time to do some serious introspection! The fault is not with the system it is with me – I need to work with the system, not rail against it. I need to worry less about my scores and concentrate more on just doing my karate to the best of my ability on the day.

How to throw your wife!
The technical feedback I was given was relatively minor – my right kamae position isn’t quite correct; I need to extend and lower my arm more. I need to grip the floor more with my feet; my shiko dachi stance is a bit too wide; I need to show a bit more aggression and I need to make sure I don’t twist my hand to early when punching. Not a lot to get het up about really is it?

I realise now that the main thrust of my preparations now need to be mental. I need to get my head in the right place and control my emotions more so that I go into the grading with the right spirit and don’t let early negative experiences affect my performance of later sections.

I learnt a few unexpected things about myself on Saturday – some uncomfortable truths about my character. I have too much ego – I had wanted and expected higher marks (just sixes or six point five) so I was disappointed not to achieve that, but hey, I’m no spring chicken so why should I expect that? I don’t look like a teenager so why should I expect to move like one! I suppose that is another thing I’ve had to come to terms with – getting older. I’m usually in denial about middle-age but I have to face facts, my body can’t perform like that of a young athlete - I need to lower my sights a little. Let’s face it, not many women take up a demanding martial art in their mid-forties and stick with it all the way to black belt (and beyond), perhaps I’m not doing so bad after all. There you go, some positive self talk for a change!

Okay, so I’m getting over myself a bit now. I am regaining my perspective and feeling more positive again. I have had personal feedback from my instructor as well as the senior dan grading officer and both are happy that I am ready for this grading. I have been told to relax more and be more natural in my movements but no one seems to have any real worries about me – just me (we really are our own worst enemy sometimes!)

And that cull I mentioned? 30 down to 18!
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Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Karate belt issues!

How should a female martial artist wear her belt? I don't mean how do I tie it but where exactly should I wear it?

Natural waist
Most of my karate career so far I have worn my belt fairly snugly around my natural waistline. It is comfortable there, generally stays done up and helps to keep my gi jacket together. A few months ago I was asked by a senior instructor in my organisation to wear my belt lower, just above my hips. To make it sit on my hips I have to loosen it. It no longer feels comfortable and when I'm grappling my gi jacket rides up and comes apart so I am constantly tugging at it.

Hip level
Last night at karate my husband and I were demonstrating our self-defence techniques to the class and I was forever tugging at my gi to keep it in place. My instructor commented on this and told me to leave my gi alone.  Though I wear a sleeveless top under the jacket for modesty I still feel embarrassed if my gi comes apart too much. In my mind, tying my belt higher and tighter would solve the problem. This is only really a problem when I am grappling or throwing, during kihon and kata work it's not such an issue.

I just wondered if other women experience the same problem? Have you been given guidance on exactly where to position your belt or is it left up to you? Perhaps you prefer to wear your belt lower, in which case how do you keep your gi jacket in place? Do you tug at your gi a lot or does it not bother you when it comes apart? I would really like to know how other women cope with this.

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