Sunday, 14 August 2011

New Beginnings....

I hope you like the new blog platforms that we have. Much more ‘blog like’ don’t you think? You may have already surmised but I am the new Blog Editor as well as a blogger for Martial News. This means that I am managing and editing all the blogs that we host so if you want to give any feedback on our new look then please send it to me on the e-mail at the bottom of this post.

A few things to point out about our new blogs: you can now leave comments at the bottom of each post.  We would really welcome your feedback on what we have to say but please observe our comments policy which is written above the dialogue box on the comment’s page. You can also link easily from one blog to another by using the blog list in the left hand column – you will notice that all of our blogs are listed on all of the other blogs, so it is easy to navigate between them. Each blog also has an internal search engine so that you can search the blog to see if a particular topic has been written about. The big red HOME button will link you back to the main Martial News home page so it’s always easy to get back to where you started. Finally, if you are a regular reader of our blogs why not sign up as a follower?

The new blog platforms are not the only new beginning; you’ve probably noticed that my blog title has also changed from ‘Student Eye’ to ‘Black Belt Adventure’. Why? Well, it’s probably obvious but I’ve now attained my black belt!

Holding the rank of 1st Dan also feels like a new beginning to me. Well everybody likes to tell me that black belt is where it all really begins. I suppose it shouldn’t feel any different to be a new black belt than it did to be a 1st kyu, after all I don’t actually know any more than I did just before the grading but somehow it does feel different. I feel as if I’ve just spent four years walking along a narrow corridor and now I’ve just passed through a door and entered into a really big room. A room without walls.

The long walk through the corridor kept me focused on learning the skills and techniques of the karate system that I belong to. I occasionally glanced through windows to see what was going on outside my own dojo but I knew I had to stay true to my style until I had grasped the basics. Now that I have entered the large room….well, so much more is opening up to me.  Freed from the shackles of regular gradings I feel liberated. There are just so many different things to learn out there. Though I intend to continue training within my existing system, improving and extending my skills, I feel that I now have time to look outside my dojo door into the big room and see what else is going on out there!

I’ve always enjoyed going to martial arts seminars and festivals, learning new things with new people but you get so much more out of these things once you’ve attained a basic level of skill within one system.  You can more easily see the similarities and differences between different arts and relate things back to what you already know. You are better at deciding what works for you and what doesn’t, what compliments your existing skills and what detracts from them.  Existing skills start to internalise, freeing up your brain to learn new skills more quickly – and remember them!

At the moment I feel like a kiddy in a sweet shop, not sure what to sample next. I’m looking forward to accessing training opportunities outside my system as well inside it and seeing how I can assimilate new knowledge and skills into the mix. The journey now is about working out which way I want to go next and planning how to get there. I am working hard towards my assistant instructor certificate as I would like to do some teaching within my club but I’m also interested in learning more about women’s’ self-defence training. It feels like I’m embarking on a big adventure – a Black Belt Adventure….. 

Sue is the Blog-Editor-In-Chief for Martial News. You can contact her at Sue also writes a personal blog called My Journey to Black Belt

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Shodan - my black belt story...

Do you remember your first black belt grading? Perhaps it was a long time ago for you or perhaps it was quite recent. Either way this post may bring back some memories because I have just graded for shodan in karate and I’m now the proud lady owner of a black belt!

Here’s my black belt grading story……

We woke up at 6.00am on Sunday 12th June 2011 to a gloriously sunny day and looked forward to a pleasant drive across the Pennines to the SKK Judo centre in Newton-le-Willows where the grading was to take place. By the time we got there an hour and a half later it was pouring with rain and stayed that way the rest of the day!

I have been preparing for this grading for, well four years in total, but a good six months of pretty intense training. I have worked on my fitness, strength, flexibility, endurance as well as my black belt syllabus. I have had to deal with injuries and endure a ‘deep tissue’ sports massage on my quads -ouch! Definitely not for the faint hearted. I have had set backs, particularly at the pre-dan grading course, where I seriously doubted my ability to pass. However, after much support and encouragement from instructors and some serious introspection and positive self-talk I got myself back on track.

My negative pre-dan grading experience had taught me that I had made the mistake of putting the ‘black belt’ grading on a grand high pedestal where it didn’t really belong. Once I’d knocked it off its pedestal and realised this was just another grading a lot of the stress melted away.  Having got my sense of perspective back I cut back on some of the additional training I had been doing. I think I was overtraining a bit and getting tired and a little exhausted, this is probably why I was becoming injury prone.

We were expected to be on the mats by 10.00am to receive instructions on how the day would proceed and to warm up and have some practice time. The grading actually started at 10.30. Nineteen of us were grading, 17 for shodan and 2 for nidan, from various clubs within the SSK. This is a much larger cohort than usual so I was a bit worried how they were going to manage us all logistically – I had a feeling it was going to be a long, tiring day.

It turned out that the day was organised with military precision. We had 15 sections to get through, some of which could be done in groups but others needed to be graded individually. The first four sections were all kihon combinations – 6 punching, 6 kicking, 1 stance combination and 1 combination set on the day. These sections are designed to test fitness and endurance as well as correct technique so each combination is repeated several times on both the left and right side. We did this in rows of 6 or 7 people and it took about 1¼ hours to complete these sections. I made one major blunder during the stance combination – I stepped left into shiko dachi instead of right. Obviously it stuck out like a sore thumb in the lineout!

Next came the kata/bunkai sections. We each had to perform 3 kata and demonstrate bunkai from each.  These sections were tested individually, which meant 57 individual kata performances each with 3 bunkai demonstrations – that sounded like it was going to take a long, long time! However, we were split into two groups and one group (my group) were sent out to take an hour lunch break whilst the other group graded. I was glad to be in the group taking the break first as I needed to re-fuel and re-hydrate myself after the kihon sections.

The atmosphere in the waiting area was very upbeat. People seemed fairly relaxed and confident about what they were doing and there was a lot of camaraderie between people. It was almost starting to be enjoyable!
For me the kata demonstrations were the most nerve wracking part of the grading. Good kata performance is very exacting – the slightest mistakes will be noticed and marked down.  Technique, timing and intent are all important to the kata performance. This is followed immediately with a bunkai demonstration.  This is the section where you need to show that there is substance behind the form. The applications chosen should be to a single attack, which must be delivered realistically, and the defence should shut down the attack completely.

With the kihon and kata sections over, we were about half way through the grading. Next up was pad work, this is always guaranteed to get you hot, sweaty and out of breath again! After a quick drink break it was time for ippon kumite (one step sparring) and goshin waza (self-defence techniques). These were graded individually with partners. These sections generally went well for me; they usually are my strongest sections. However, I did make a mistake and ended up repeating the same ippon technique twice to different attacks; of course the sharp eyed judges noticed!

We were then onto demonstrating a floor drill (ground fighting) and a breakfalling drill. Finally we got to the last two sections – sparring. First up was jiyu kumite (free sparring) where we just do light continuous sparring with a partner to demonstrate a range of punches and kicks. Then we had a round of shiai kumite (competition sparring).  I was drawn against a 15 year old girl who was testing for 2nd dan. Despite her tender years she was far more experienced in sparring than me and her youth gave her a speed and agility that I no longer possess. However I wasn’t going to make it easy for her. 

According to onlookers I held her off pretty well and didn’t give her many openings. I managed to score a half point with a reverse punch but then made the fatal mistake of delivering a round house kick to her head. She deftly caught my foot, spun me around and punched me in the back to score a full ippon. She won the round but it didn’t matter, the grading was over.

It was now 5.30pm, a full seven hours of grading. After the judges deliberations we were lined back up to receive our scores. Seventeen of us passed, sadly two did not.

I was worried that it would feel like an anti-climax, that I’d be too exhausted to enjoy my success. But it wasn’t – I found it an amazing feeling to be finally wearing my black belt. It represents years of continuous dedication and training. I’m still on a high days later but no doubt my feet will soon land on the ground and the next leg of my martial arts journey will begin…..

Sue is the Blog-Editor-In-Chief for Martial News. You can contact her at Sue also writes a personal blog called My Journey to Black Belt

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 playing ‘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?

Sue is the Blog-Editor-In-Chief for Martial News. You can contact her at Sue also writes a personal blog called My Journey to Black Belt

The benefits of training solo...

Though martial arts is essentially about learning self-defence, a process which requires at least two people (attacker and defender), it is also an art that can be practiced solo. I think that all martial arts have at least some elements that can be practiced solo. I love doing solo training at home and karate lends itself better than many martial arts to this end.

So what things can you do on your own that will enhance your overall performance of your marital art?

Here's my top ten list of solo training activities:

1.General fitness training. Which ever martial art you do, you don't need a partner to work on your general fitness and all martial arts require a relatively high degree of general fitness and strength to be done well. Fitness training should encompass endurance, strength and flexibility exercises.
2. Specific fitness training.  Depending on the art that you do and your objectives within that art you may need to do specific fitness training. If you do competition sparring then a higher than average level of cardio fitness may be needed. You may need to strengthen specific muscles to improve kicking height or do flexibility exercises that specifically open up the hips. Or you may need exercises that work on fast twitch fibres to increase punching speed. All martial artists will have specific fitness needs over and above their general fitness needs. The trick is to identify what those needs are for your art and work on them.

3. Kata/Forms training. Not all martial arts include kata but many do and the advantage of training this in your own time is that you can do it at your own pace; choose the kata you want to work on and repeat sections you have particular difficulty with. There are all sorts of ways of practicing kata that you may not do in normal classes e.g. you can do kata as a flow drill with quick but soft flowing movements; you can practice with your eyes closed; facing in different directions; just do the leg work (that's really hard if you haven't tried it) or train it with full power and correct timing. If you are at home or in the gym you are in full control of how you do it.

4. Kihon training. All arts will have a set of fundamental principles or techniques designed to get you moving your body correctly and working on basic body mechanics and alignment. In karate much of this kihon training can be done solo though in other arts I accept that a partner may be required. I spend a lot of my solo training time practising kihon, often in front of a mirror so that I can see if my limbs and trunk are aligned correctly for the various techniques. Again, the advantage of solo training is that you are in control of which techniques you want to work on and how you want to do it.

5. Sparring combinations. Sparring combinations can be worked either against the air or against a heavy bag. Working it solo is a great chance to put together new combinations or practice old favourites. Obviously this is not a substitute for sparring with a partner but it is a useful adjunct that helps lay down a few memory maps for specific combinations.

6. Self defence with an imaginary partner. Yes, you can do some partner work without your partner being there! If you are trying to commit certain self-defence combinations to memory, such as ippon kumite or goshin waza techniques, then you can walk through these with an imaginary partner. You won't know how well you can get them to work until you try them on a real partner but at least you'll remember what you're supposed to be doing.

7. Mental martial arts. Solo training doesn't all have to be physical. You can spend valuable time just thinking through kata or combination techniques to help fix them in the mind. 

8. Reading. Reading about martial arts, whether it be about history, culture, technique or philosophy, should also be thought of as a form of solo training because it all enhances your general understanding of martial arts. Reading makes you think and broadens your martial arts horizons. By understanding your art (and others) in a cultural and historical context you become better able to interpret kata and look at how techniques can be transferred to a more contemporary context. 

9. Writing. Writing is not everyone's cup of tea I know but it can be very useful. Writing can just consist of making your own private notes about techniques or keeping a training log. Alternatively writing can include researching and producing articles for a blog, if you are so inclined. For me, writing is very much a part of my solo training and my blogs are the place where I do most of my thinking about martial arts as well as communicating with other like minded people.

10. Meditation. Some will say that learning to meditate is an essential skill for every martial artist. You may or may not agree with this but having some quiet time alone to clear the mind and relax the body or to practice correct breathing can be as valuable to the martial artists training as any physical training. Martial arts are a mind-body thing so training the mind should have some priority in your training schedule.

Sue is the Blog-Editor-In-Chief for Martial News. You can contact her at Sue also writes a personal blog called My Journey to Black Belt

Reality based systems - whose reality are we talking about?

As you know, I train in traditional martial arts, karate and kobudo. Traditional martial arts are often lampooned for not be ‘realistic’ in their approach to self-defence but I’d also question how realistic ‘reality based’ systems really are.

Now, I don’t doubt for one minute that many of these systems are highly effective, taught by skilled and experienced instructors and ‘do what they say on the tin’, which seems to be a common phrase in reality martial arts. However, I do have one doubt about them – I’m very dubious about their interpretation of ‘reality’. 

Bearing in mind that these systems are targeted at ‘ordinary citizens’; apparently the perils they tell us we all face on a daily basis in our ‘reality’ are: bombings, armed robberies, drive-by shootings, carjacking, gang violence, sniper attacks, multiple attackers, knife attacks, gang rapes….. the list goes on. Okay, these things happen in a modern society but they are not everyday scenarios and they do not accurately represent reality for the vast majority of ‘ordinary citizens’. 

As you go about your daily life you are much more likely to encounter a bit of road rage, an argumentative or threatening customer/client, an opportunistic bag snatcher, a belligerent drunk, an intimidating beggar, a potential distraction burglar or face a daily battle with domestic violence. These types of events are much more a part of reality for people than the former list, and even then they are not encountered every day. 

These ‘reality based’ systems are often designed and run by ex-military people, people who seem to think they have a better handle on reality than the ‘ordinary citizens’ they are instructing. But modern society is not a theatre of war. Modern society may have its criminal element and is occasionally (though rarely) subject to an act of terrorism, most people will never be involved in this or even witness it in their entire lives.

According to Wikepedia, the definition of 
reality is: “The state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or may be thought to be.” This is actual reality but there is also ‘consensus reality’. Consensus reality is “when two or more individuals agree upon the interpretation and experience of a particular event. This being common to a few individuals or a larger group, then becomes the "truth" as seen and agreed upon by a certain set of people. Thus one particular group may have a certain set of agreed-upon truths, while another group might have a different set. This allows different communities and societies to have very different notions of reality and truth about the external world.”

I would advocate that ex-military people who have seen active service will have a very different notion of reality and truth about the external world than ordinary civilians whose daily self-protection needs are very different. Thus ‘Reality based systems’, or at least the more militaristic ones are only really of any value to people working in situations with a similar consensus reality i.e the military, law enforcement and the security services. They are of very limited practical value to us ordinary citizens. One 
website I looked at promoting reality based self-defence boasted that it was, “Born in Battle, Christened in Combat” and promised that: “The Self Defense Training System is everything there is to know about man-on-man violence. Once you complete your training you will be an extremely dangerous person, feared and respected by all.” Is this really what ordinary people need? Do I really need to learn ‘counter-terrorism’ techniques or how to avoid a sniper? 

I just think that some of these reality systems create a ‘fantasy reality’ that they then design a program to defend against and teach it to a high standard. The whole thing is very internally consistent but it doesn’t represent the actual reality that most people live in. Even reality based systems aimed at women focus on dealing with violent confrontations such as stranger rape or knife attacks. Though these may represent 'common crimes' at a society level, on an individual level a woman’s life time risk of being raped or attacked by a knifeman is very low, particularly if she learns about avoidance and awareness. However, her chances of feeling threatened by an irate customer/colleague/boss/neighbour/partner are much more common - how many reality systems deal with this? 

No doubt there are many self-defence courses and systems out there that do teach useful, everyday self-protection techniques based on avoidance, common sense and conflict resolution. They probably don’t call themselves ‘reality based’ but actually represent a much more common civilian reality than so called ‘reality systems’ do. 

I just wish these macho ‘reality’ based systems would re-brand themselves as ‘situation based’, or ‘contextually based’ self-defence systems and stop marketing themselves to ordinary civilians as they simply do not address their true needs but instead create a fear of violent confrontation when none is warranted. This type of training may be suitable for people working in law-enforcement, security or the military but in my opinion they are not much use to anyone else. 

Okay, I’m off my soap box now and awaiting the fall out…….

Sue is the Blog-Editor-In-Chief for Martial News. You can contact her at Sue also writes a personal blog called My Journey to Black Belt