Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Some thoughts on stances...

I've been thinking a lot about stances recently. I like to see good stances: correct feet positioning, strong bend of the correct knee (or knees), correct weight distribution, good back posture, head held up looking forward etc. Good stances look strong and stable.

Beginners find stances difficult to master; they generally lean too much with their upper torso, don’t bend their knees enough, have their feet in a line, have incorrect weight distribution or look down at the floor. I've been there; it’s hard to get it right or for it to feel natural. It takes a long time and a lot of practice to get stances right and even longer to get the transitions from stance to stance smooth and quick.

A lot of people would argue that stances are for beginners or that they slow you down or are just too unnatural to be useful in real self-defence situations. I would beg to differ.

Stances are an essential part of achieving economy of movement when doing self-defence. Economy of movement is essential if you are to move swiftly around your opponent, getting yourself into advantageous positions to apply a technique, unbalance them or evade a strike. Good footwork is essential to achieving this; if you teeter around your opponent with lots of small steps, getting your legs crossed and generally wrong footing yourself you are likely to come a cropper.

Good use of stances helps you to:

…Shift your weight smoothly and quickly from one leg to the other as required.

…Maintain your own balance and stability by keeping your centre of gravity low but your posture upright.

…Unbalance your opponent either by directly using the stance to destabilise a balance point e.g. placing your knee directly behind theirs using a zenkutsu dachi (forward stance) or shiko dachi (sumo or horse stance) or more indirectly by using weight transference e.g. grabbing them and stepping back into a kokutsu dachi (back stance) or neko ashi dachi (cat stance).

…Quickly put yourself in the most advantageous and stable position to execute a restraint, takedown or throw.

…Move out of the way quickly and effortlessly if required.

Karate pays a lot of attention to stances. Most karateka will have spent many hours of their training going up and down the dojo in shiko dachi or neko ashi dashi with sensei picking up on the smallest postural transgression –“bend your knee more”, “stick your bottom in”, “turn your back foot in more”, “turn your back foot out more”, “put your weight back more”, “put your weight forward more”…….

It can all seem so picky sometimes and people will question the wisdom of needing to be so precise with your footwork and postures. After all, if you are attacked would it matter if you weren't in the perfect cat stance?

Well, yes it would matter if cat stance was integral to the technique you were trying to execute on your assailant. If your technique depended on you suddenly shifting your weight backwards, pulling your opponent off balance whilst allowing your front foot to follow through quickly with a swift snap kick and then be able to spring forward off the back leg to land a punch; then being able to instantly get into a perfect cat stance may be crucial. Failure to achieve it may leave you unable to pull your opponent off balance and with too much weight on your front leg you won’t be able to kick effectively either and if your back leg is too straight you may not be able to spring forward for that punch – that could all lead to disaster!  

Stances are more than just good footwork, they involve the whole body. Good upright posture is crucial to a good stance. Without good posture you cannot engage the core muscles properly and without the core muscles engaged you cannot get any power in your strikes. Also, with poor, bent over posture you are liable to lose your own balance and be easily pulled over by your opponent.

Stances aren’t always an integral part of a technique; sometimes the situation may require you to be lighter and quicker on your feet. Evasion may be more important than getting a technique on your opponent. The art of tai sabaki (body movement) is an exercise in good stance work, except this time the stances are higher and lighter allowing quicker movements. Tai sabaki still involves attention to posture, feet positioning, weight transference and good transitioning so it is still stance work even if you don’t choose to call it that.

I really feel that we neglect stance training at our peril. Without good stances our techniques will be weak and our movements clumsy. When you watch a senior black belt in action the thing that really stands out more than anything else is the way they move – it is precise and effortless. This is because of their use of stances; they always put their feet in exactly the right place with their weight distributed correctly and their posture upright and it all flows so smoothly and naturally.

So if your own or your student’s stances are poor and their movements clumsy get back to some formal stance training – up and down the dojo until their thighs ache; you’re actually doing them a big favour….

Sue is the Blog-Editor-In-Chief for Martial News. You can contact her at sue.wharton@martialnews.co.uk
Sue also writes a personal blog called  Journey to Black Belt

Sunday, 30 September 2012

What kind of self-defence should you teach to children?

I have been teaching children’s classes quite a lot recently. The children range in age from five to teenagers. In my school karate classes the whole class are complete beginners whereas in the club classes the children range from white belt to black belt.  This is a huge range in maturity and ability and makes teaching children very challenging.

For most children, particularly the younger or least experienced ones, it is enough for them to learn how to listen, behave and follow instructions; gain physical fitness and endurance; develop coordination and balance, and learn the most basic of karate moves and kata as well as find their courage with some light sparring skills. So, on top of all that should we be trying to teach some basic self-defence skills as well or is that expecting too much?

Can we realistically expect children to be able to defend themselves physically from a determined attacker (whether that is another child or an adult) by teaching them some escapes from grabs, strangles and headlocks; learning blocks and counter-attacks; or doing throws and locks/restraints? We don’t actually allow children to put locks on fully or grab another child near the throat anyway for obvious safety reasons so the idea that a child may actually be able to use these techniques effectively seems implausible.

My experience of teaching children suggests that they have neither the strength and coordination or understanding to effectively learn any physical self-defence techniques. In my opinion, most children are not capable of learning effective self-defence until at least in their early to mid teens; before that they are merely walking through some routines they have learnt by rote.

The problem is, to teach effective self-defence requires a certain degree of realism in both the attack and defence. This is neither possible nor desirable with children. As instructors we cannot order a child to try and hit or grab another child roughly and the child (as a minor) cannot give consent to allow this to happen to them. As adults we freely consent to both uke and tori roles and the inherent risks of injury that this entails – children cannot consent in this way.

Since we can neither teach physical self-defence skills to children in any realistic way and most children are not physically or mentally mature enough to learn them anyway, what is the point of taking children through the motions of learning such techniques?

You may argue that it is worth teaching children the basics of these self-defence techniques in the safe and unthreatening way that we do it because it helps them to develop some muscle memory and ways of moving that will make it easier for them to learn the techniques more realistically when they are older. Perhaps that is sufficient justification for doing it?

However, are there better ways of teaching children to protect themselves from harm? In my opinion most children could protect themselves from most harmful situations by learning about awareness and avoidance – ‘stranger danger knowledge’; knowing safe places to walk and play; crossing roads safely; learning to deal with playground situations non-confrontationally; anti-bullying tactics etc etc…. Most of these situations are dealt with by schools and parents anyway.

So, if a children’s martial art class isn’t dealing with awareness/avoidance strategies and doesn’t teach physical self-defence what should it be teaching? Well, in my opinion, there is much that a martial arts class can teach to children that is valuable: physical skills of balance, coordination, flexibility, and fitness; mental skills of self-discipline, perseverance, courage, respect and determination; social skills such as cooperation, friendship and compassion and sporting skills such as following rules, testing oneself in competition and learning to win and lose with good grace. These can all be learnt through the medium of some basic martial arts moves/techniques.
All we can hope is that we can maintain the child’s interest in martial arts long enough for them to grow up so that they can then learn to effectively defend themselves physically.

What do you think is the aim of a children’s martial art class? In your opinion what self-defence skills do children need?

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

Saturday, 15 September 2012

How much did your Black Belt cost?

Have you ever considered how much it has cost you to get from white belt to black belt in your martial art? Are you getting value for money or do you think your club overcharges – forcing you to jump through expensive but unnecessary hoops along the way, e.g. lots of intermediate belt gradings, compulsory attendance at expensive additional courses, lots of compulsory badges to buy, expensive grading fees, compulsory uniform only available through the club at extortionate rates etc?

I think that my club gives good value for money so I decided t sit down and calculate how much it has cost me to get from white belt to black belt:

The things I took into consideration were:

1.   Cost of lessons: It took me exactly four years to get my black belt which is 48 months. I paid for two lessons per week as part of a family membership scheme.  As there are four of us training on this membership, I divided our total fees bill over the four years by four to get the figure for just my fees.

2.   Licence fees: It is compulsory for us to pay an annual licence/insurance fee to our organisation. Again, we have a family licence scheme and so I divided the total by four.

3.   Grading fees: There were 9 kyu gradings and 1 dan grading. All grading fees include the new belt.

4.   Black/Brown belt courses: These are run by our organisation and are not compulsory except for the pre-dan course. These are run four times a year and I have attended approximately nine of them.

5.   Gis/ badges/sparring mitts/sports bag: I have bought 4 gis in total and 3 badges. We only have to wear one badge on our gi which is our organisation badge. We can order gis through our instructor who gets them at heavily discounted prices. He passes these discounts onto us so our gis cost approximately half to two-thirds the website price. I have only bought one set of sparring mitts, one gum shield and one sports bag.

Cost of lessons
Licence fees
Grading fees
Black/Brown belt courses
Gis/ badges/etc

So my black belt has cost £1577 (US $2525.25). This equates to £7.58 (US $12) per week!

However, I have been able to take advantage of generous family discounts for both my lesson fees and licence fees. So, since most people probably pay as a single member I have recalculated the figures below as if I were a single member of the club paying for 2 lessons per week:

Cost of lessons
Licence fees
Grading fees
Black/Brown belt courses
Gis/ badges/etc

As a single member in my club, training twice a week, attending the majority of Black/Brown belt courses, buying four gis and other necessary equipment and achieving black belt after 4 years (the minimum possible) it costs around £2360 (US $3783) or, put another way, about £11.35 (US $18) per week!

I think this represents good value for money, thank you Sensei! 

Have you tried calculating how much your black belt has cost?

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

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Training with injuries...

Do you train when you are injured? Should you train when you are injured? Of course it depends to some extent on the nature of the injury and whether surgery or other medical intervention is required to correct it.

I recently had an e-mail from someone who had fairly recently taken up martial arts but had sustained a shoulder injury requiring surgery and her doctor had advised her to stop doing martial arts. She was asking me what I thought and whether I had sustained injuries doing martial arts.

Well, who hasn’t sustained some kind of injury doing martial arts? Anything from bumps, bruises, sprains or pulls to ACL tears, rotator cuff injuries, fractured ribs, noses – you name it, it will have happened to someone.  It is almost inconceivable that you will never sustain some kind of injury when you train in martial arts – it’s an occupational hazard!

Surely if we gave up a physical activity every time we were injured we would soon become a world of couch potatoes. Being prepared to risk physical injury and endure the pain of it whilst training on is part of the mental and spiritual development that martial arts are known for.

I had a chronic ‘quad’ injury last year when preparing for my black belt training. I could barely lift my knee up let alone kick with that leg. It didn’t occur to me to stop training until it healed! However I was highly motivated to speed up the healing process (6 weeks from grading) and eventually got relief from a deep tissue massage. Now I have a chronic shoulder injury. I have had a course of physiotherapy which has brought about some minor improvement and I’m planning to try another deep tissue massage to my shoulder, neck and back. However, I have continued to train throughout, putting up with the discomfort and pain afterwards.

My husband continues to train with a chronic hip problem – he literally hobbles home sometimes. My husband is a doctor; if he were his own patient he would probably advise himself to stop doing martial arts. However, this advice would only help his hip (or maybe not – it might get worse with no exercise!) but it wouldn’t help him – he is a whole person, not just a hip. He would be miserable if couldn’t carry on with training – he’d rather put up with the pain!

How far should we be prepared to go training with a chronic injury? I am always impressed with the courage and fortitude of people who fight back to fitness after a serious injury so they can continue enjoying the activity they love. I’m sure you can all name someone who didn’t give up their martial art because of an injury and fought back to fitness, probably in spite of their doctor’s advice.

Of course there are things we can do to minimise our chance of injury. Injuries often happen because muscles are not strong enough to stabilise joints, or our posture is bad or our technique is incorrect. Keeping our bodies in tip-top condition is a necessary part of martial arts training. Good posture, muscle tone, flexibility, general body movement, as well as good technique – particularly for throwing where you need to bear the full weight of your partner- will help to reduce the chances of injury and help to speed up recovery if it happens.

In my opinion (and I’m not a doctor) unless it is actually fractured, dislocated, sprained to the point you can’t weight bear, bleeding heavily, just been operated on or has rendered you unconscious there is no need to stop training. Grin and bear the discomfort and train on. If it’s bad enough to put you out of action for a while then phase your return as you build up your fitness again – but don’t give up all together.

Remember!  You are more than the sum of your parts. You are certainly more than your injury so don’t be defined by it. What’s best advice for your injury isn’t necessarily best advice for your whole person – you just have to be more sensible about the way you train in future. There are people out there training from wheelchairs, now that’s to be admired!

If you are determined to succeed you will find a way …

Happy training! 

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The principles of unbalancing....

I have become quite fascinated recently about the use of unbalancing principles in karate. It seems to me that it is an art form in itself; something that can and must be studied in isolation as well as in combination with various techniques....

Unbalancing is about disruption and control: Disrupting your opponent’s attack and seizing control of them. There is both art and science in understanding balance and unbalancing methods. It requires a scientific understanding of how the brain and body work together to enable balance combined with a sense of creativity in assessing the many ways in which your opponents balance can be disrupted.

To understand how to unbalance an opponent you first need to understand how we are able to balance in the first place. I wrote a previous post about balance called ‘martial arts – a balancing act’ where I described the three main tenets of good balance as being having a wide base of support, having a low centre of gravity and maintaining the head and spine in a vertical position.  In this article I also discussed the importance of the ears, eyes and proprioception in the maintenance of good balance. 

To unbalance an opponent then you have to disrupt at least one on the main tenets of balance: pull them out of their base of support (or reduce their base of support), raise their centre of gravity or disrupt their vertical alignment. Of course you must do all this whilst maintaining your own balance.

So how do you do it? 

Ways of disrupting the base of support:

Pushing or pulling: pushing or pulling will move someone out of their base of support but you need to know which way to push or pull. This requires some knowledge of the “eight points of off balance” which relates to stances. Look at this diagram:

As a point of principle your off-balance point is generally perpendicular to the plane of your stance. So if your feet are positioned on points 8 and 4 on the diagram (this could be a left foot zenkutsu dachi (weight forward) or kokutsu dachi (weight back) and facing point 1 or even a shiko dachi if you were facing towards point 2 or 6) then you will be off-balance if pushed or pulled in the direction of 2 -6 or 6-2

So for example, if you are grabbed by the wrist by someone standing in front of you in a natural stance i.e with feet positioned on 3 and 7 then you only need to trap their hand and step backward to position 5 to unbalance them.  In order that you don’t unbalance yourself you need to use fairly strong, deep stances to ensure your centre of gravity remains low, your base of support is wide and your spine remains vertical. I never understand why people argue that stances in karate are no good and only useful for building leg strength – good strong stances are great for pulling people off balance. Of course taking just one step back many not be sufficient and you may need to take two or three long low steps backwards to pull your opponent over.

Reducing the opponent’s base of support: you can reduce the opponent’s base of support by taking one (or both) leg away e.g. with an ashi barai (foot sweep) technique or just a plain and simple ‘trip’. You may want to follow this up with a push, pull or even a throw.

Raising the opponent’s centre of gravity:

If a low centre of gravity assists with balance then a high centre of gravity will help reduce it. Getting your opponent up on their toes will make them seem lighter and easier to displace. Getting a good arm/elbow lock on can often get them on their toes. They won’t drop their weight back down to compensate because that will tighten the lock and cause more pain. You will now have them controlled and not fully balanced making it easier for you to apply your next technique – this may be a sweep or throw or just maintaining the restraint to march them off (always walk backwards with your restrained ‘prisoner’, I am told on good authority, it is harder for them to resist).

Disrupt your opponent’s vertical alignment:

Getting your opponent’s head and spine out of a vertical alignment will disrupt balance because it stops them from pushing their centre of gravity in a downwards direction. It is also very disorientating because it upsets the ‘balance sensors’ i.e. the eyes can no longer maintain a horizontal plane, the cochlear fluid in the ears may start to swirl and cause dizziness and the proprioceptors may have a hard time working out the body’s position in relation to the ground.

Techniques to disrupt vertical alignment include pushing the forehead backwards. This is especially effective if the other hand is placed at the lower end of the spine to create a push/pull effect. Alternatively you can twist the opponent pushing on one shoulder whilst pulling on their opposite hip.
These are just a few techniques you can use to disrupt balance, I’m sure that with a bit of creativity you can think of more!

Of course your opponent will instinctively try to correct their balance once they feel it starting to go. They will do this in predictable ways – the same ways you will try to do it. If you are pulled forward you will put a foot out to steady yourself. You will put your foot out in the direction you perceive yourself to be falling. If you are falling backwards you will try to step backwards. To stop your opponent from trying to correct their balance you need to stop them from putting their foot in that optimal position for regaining balance – you do this by making sure your foot is there first, forcing them to put their foot in a sub-optimal position and thus still being off-balance. 

To conclude: 

Unbalancing your opponent is a good tactical self-defence principle. It enables you to disrupt your opponent’s attack and gives you an opportunity to gain control of the situation. Good unbalancing is both a science and an art form. It requires some serious study into the physiological principles of balance and an exploration of ways of disrupting those principles. In any martial arts class it is worth spending time with a partner just manipulating and observing the effects of balance point disruption. Experiment with this in isolation as well as incorporating these unbalancing principles into various strategies and techniques and notice how much more quickly you are able to disrupt and control your opponent.

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

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Where does YOUR karate come from?

Don’t worry this isn’t going to be yet another treatise on the history of karate – we all know karate comes from Okinawa…

What I mean is where does YOUR karate come from in YOU?

You may be aware of the phrase Shin Gi Tai. This goes a long way to explaining where your karate comes from but in my opinion it misses one important ingredient. Before I reveal what that is lets explain what these terms mean:

Tai: This means the body (e.g. tai sabaki – body movement). It refers to the fact that to do karate well you must have a fit, healthy body that is flexible, coordinated and strong. Our body must be able to endure physical contact with another and react quickly to changing situations. We achieve this kind of body through hard repetitive training of the basics of our art as well as our own supplementary training.

Shin: This means the mind (e.g mushin – no mind; shoshin – beginner’s mind, seishin – positive mind, zanshin – an aware mind). It refers to the need to cultivate the correct mental skills to be a good karateka such as developing a clear and uncluttered mind that is fully focused on the task in hand whilst still maintaining a peripheral awareness of what is happening around. It also refers to developing a positive, confident spirit, one that will persevere with determination to achieve one’s goals.

Gi: This refers to technique. It’s no good cultivating the perfect body and mind if you don’t know how to do any karate! Obviously you need to learn and practice a range of karate techniques too.

We generally develop shin gi tai in parallel, improving in each one as we progress through training, so you might consider that your karate comes from your body, mind and good technique all combining together in a coordinated fashion . It’s a very holistic approach – the end result being greater than the sum of the parts; but for me there is an ingredient missing here…

I would argue that karate really comes from the heart. The Japanese word for this is kokora. The heart is the seat of passion, compassion, conviction not to mention courage. We feel all these things in our hearts and it is these things that drive us to be good karateka. We feel our karate in our hearts; it virtually bursts out of us if we are doing it well.

If you look around the students in your dojo you can see who has the heart for it and who doesn’t. Some will be sweating with the effort, appear to be concentrating, even have reasonable technique but their face tells you they have no heart for it, their faces expressionless and bored. Others may still be out of shape, getting a little confused with the technique but the look of joy and animation on their faces as they persist in trying to improve tell you they have heart.

Having the heart for karate may save you one day – if you lose heart you will lose the fight.

So where does YOUR karate come from – is it the heart?

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

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

A beginner's mindset....

Yesterday I read a comment left on one of my recent posts on my personal blog (My Journey to Black Belt), Joint locking – how useful is it really? by an anonymous commenter, which accused me of having a ‘beginner’s mindset’. I say accused because the tone on the comment was clearly an attempt to patronise or insult me.

This is the offending part of the comment :

“…….I find this discussion rather sterile and representative of a beginner's mindset: take this question to your sensei, if he/she can't show it follow my previous advice. 

I don't mean to be condescending but from what you've written it's clear your understanding of this subject is rather limited:

(This is just an excerpt from the comment; visit the post to read the entire comment)

At first I was a little taken back by the comment but after thinking about it for a few minutes I realised that being told I had a beginner’s mindset was in fact very high praise! It meant that I was open-minded, my cup isn’t yet full, I can still learn new things, gain new understanding….

Actually I don’t thing Anonymous meant that at all but he/she is wrong in thinking that a beginner’s mindset is a bad thing in a martial artist.

Maintaining a beginner’s mindset is a Zen concept called shoshin.  It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.

Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki said, “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.”

There are clearly many advantages to maintaining a beginner’s mind:  curiosity, openness, enthusiasm, creativity…… Unfortunately, the person with the ‘expert mind’ becomes the opposite of this:  un-inquiring, closed mined, stilted, un-creative – arrogant even.

Clearly the concept of shoshin has spread far and wide. A quick google on ‘beginner’s mindset’ found articles promoting the concept on a range of activities including swimming, software production, yoga and advertising. Each of the experts in these fields was promoting the idea of maintaining a beginner’s mindset to improve one’s ability in the respective field of practice.

All I can say to Anonymous is thank you for noticing that I have a beginner’s mindset. Clearly I am still on the right path in my martial arts studies.

Do you have a beginner’s mindset?

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