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Changing Times – What Price A Black Belt

Changing Times – What Price A Black Belt

Following my resignation from the KUGB after 21 years of top class Shotokan training, I was persuaded to start my own organization, despite trying to run Legend Productions. The reasoning behind this decision was put to me by the late Danny Connor, one of the first karate-ka to go to Japan to train in the 1960’s - Danny pointed out that as I was still finding time to train, why not also continue teaching. So eventually the BSF (British Shotokan Federation) was formed and ran successfully from 1993 until 2004 when I closed it down.

I say it ran successfully because I used the same teaching methods I had used as a professional instructor while a member of the KUGB, running four of my own dojos. I initially managed to keep the standards at a level that I was used to – again based upon my previous KUGB standards. The BSF eventually reached a peak membership of just over two thousand members, but mostly based in the South West of the UK. The dojos’ resident instructors were allowed to do their own kyu grading, and I would visit each dojo to conduct a black belt course and grading, usually twice a year.

The grading syllabus, and standards, were again set to follow what I was familiar with in the KUGB, and as it turned out, the pass and failure rate percentage was about the same. However, I eventually noticed that the failure rate was getting higher, and I arranged a meeting dojo(s) the resident instructors. I pointed out that it was up to them to ensure that their students were at a suitable level, ready to take a dan exam, especially sho-dan examination. This clearly did not go down well, and it was pointed out to me that most of the students didn’t want to enter competition, and in the words of one of the instructors, “We like to keep it friendly, so that’s why there’s not a lot of aggression.” I in turn pointed out that although karate training was excellent for self-development and physical fitness, it was by definition a martial art and to become a black belt, at least some aggression had to be demonstrated even if in a ‘defensive’ roll.

The very next course (some six weeks later) had 21 people taking their sho-dan exam: this resulted on ‘one’ pass – 20 re-takes, some of the re-takes for the second time. This in itself would have been bad enough, but then I was approached by a rather irate parent telling me that he thought his fifteen year old son had done well, and this was the second time I had failed him. I pulled the lads grading records out and showed the dad what I had written on the first exam, and what I had written this time, both remarks pointed to lack of spirit and speed. This didn’t satisfy the man, and when he’d finished telling me that he thought I was being too hard on the student, I suggested that if the ‘black belt’ was so terribly important, he could go to a sports shop and simply buy one.

Following this rather miserable session, the dojo instructor asked could we have a chat before I left, and of course (guessing what was coming) I said yes. He said that the failure rate was costing him members and there was another dojo in the same sports centre that had a far higher rate of black belt passes; he was losing students to the other dojo.

Now then – the point of this article.

As Funakoshi himself stated, “We must cherish the old but embrace the new” – and of course that is perfectly true. I also fully appreciate that not everyone wants to engage in the bloodletting that was often a part of dan exams in the early years of UK karate. I further understand that to run a successful organization these days, a decent membership is required, but healthy membership needn’t be at the cost of lowering standards. There are still organizations in this country that are well respected for their standards, as well as the competition record – I needn’t name them, you probably already know them by name yourself.

So, what price do we put on a black belt in physical terms? Each of us will have our own opinions – but if the standards of basics, kata and etiquette are allowed to decline, we eventually end up with a poor imitation of the Shotokan we learned from Enoeda-Sherry et al. Health and Safety have already neutered the kumite side of Shotokan, and there’s little that can be done to alter that, even at dojo level. Attitude however is something that is absolutely a vital part of Shotokan, be it in the students fighting spirit; his/her respect for their opponent, or their behaviour outside the dojo, as well as inside. Let me expand on this a little.

For all my years on the KUGB I never ever witnessed any acts of bad attitude, even in the face of appalling and biased decisions: Frank Brennan is an excellent example. In all his victories I never once saw him jump up and down, throwing his fist in the air in victory. I witnessed him being hit very hard (loosening his teeth) well after the referee called Yame , Frank didn’t throw himself on the floor or protest, but simply stepped back and left it to the referee. This same behaviour pattern was part of all the main KUGB squad members, filtering down to the member dojos.

A former 80’s KUGB squad member who still teaches internationally said that he believed the emphases is now on health and fitness, and having a nice certificate on the wall, and a licence stating that the holder was a black belt. I share that view, and there’s nothing wrong with running a dojo as a business, but the danger comes when someone who believes that as a karate black belt they can fight well in the so called ‘real situation’ – comes up against an opponent who doesn’t fight to any rules. Peter Consterdine (Former UK team member and professional bodyguard) says, “The average martial arts student has very little experience of fear control, and that’s a recipe for disaster. The paralyses of fear hits like a train and freezes the unaccustomed person to nothing more than a standing target for the thug’s attention.”

At the very least, the original ‘hard school’ Shotokan did familiarize us with some understanding of combat fear (ask anyone who’s trained with the KUGB squad) and they could take, as well as give; a good hit. I’m pretty sure there will be many who would take issue with the above, and probably an equal number who agree with my thoughts: but that’s all they are, my personal thoughts on where Shotokan karate seems to be heading.

I spoke to two karate-ka (all JKA dan grades) and all former doormen, and asked their opinion on the change they see in Shotokan, their comments were, unsurprisingly in line with Peter Consterdine’s comments.

John Mitchell a third dan still trains and my question was simple: ‘How would you sum up the differences now, compared to 1984 when you obtained your sho-dan.’

“Well the basics remain pretty much as they were, but the dojo I train at don’t push you too hard on repetitions. When I was a kyu grade it wasn’t unusual to go up and down the dojo doing dozens and dozens of front kicks, side kicks and loads of basic clocking and punching. Although at the time I often thought ‘would these help in a real scrap’ – I believe that they were worth it. All those basics gave me a high level of stamina and solid punching power, and when I’ve had to street fight, it’s amazing how you adopt a stance that gives you strong stability. One thing I can certainly comment on as a plus during my door security work though, is that my reactions always seemed faster than the other guys. For example, where they would draw their fist back to ‘load the punch’ I could hit from wherever my fist happened to be – I didn’t have to ‘chamber’ the punch to get power, I could hit fast and hard without drawing it back first. Kata was an important part of my training, again teaching me fast body shifting and stability – now it seems kata performance is based on how it looks, rather than how strong it is. I’m naturally supple, not in the Frank Brenna league, but I can kick high – however, I see guys in the dojo kicking side, and round-house kicks that are beautiful to behold, but what the Hell use are they in the street? It you ain’t warmed up and have normal street type shoes on, you’re more likely to fall on your ass with a torn ham string than land a head shot with your kick. So, I’d say the main difference in training is that now it’s much less physically demanding and more about how fast you can do a snap punch, and high you can kick thin air – but I’m now in the USA and my formal training was with the KUGB so I can’t comment on the UK standards.”

Mike Barry – a Shotokan third dan, former doorman who still trains but now in MMA – same question - ‘How would you sum up the differences now, compared to 1987 when you obtained your sho-dan.’

“Ged, I wish you hadn’t asked me this question, especially as it going live, but I’ll be honest with my opinion regardless of who it upsets – basically there’s very little comparison, in my opinion. A session under Enoeda sensie left you in no doubt about where your weaknesses lay, both physically as well as in terms of combat. Likewise training under either senseis Sherry or Poynton certainly got you as close to the so called ‘real thing’ as it was possible to experience without going out in the street and looking for a fight to see if ‘it’ really worked. I recall one session under Andy Sherry where we did line sparring, the defender stood in the corner and had to block and counter each attack from the incoming, screaming mad line of 19 assorted black and brown belts. This line of attackers went round three times so you had to withstand 57 attacks. By the time you were half way through these attacks there was little you could do about countering, I was more concerned with staying alive and in the end I got hit with a back kick that just took all my wind and knocked me out for a few seconds. I was unceremoniously dragged to one side and left to recover on my own while the line sparring continued – no first aid, and once I was able to stand up, Sensie Sherry ordered me to ‘go again’..!

Now, could you image that in a modern dojo? My point here is that health and safety aside, I haven’t seen a dojo in recent years that trained like that. It now seems more akin to pre-arranged sparring and also lots of protection; mitts, foot protection and even head protection – I mean for Christ’s sake, what are you going to do in the street, ask the mugger to hang on while you get ready for the attack.

Where I train now, we have a ‘murder minute’ where it’s ‘anything goes’ except biting: head butts to the chest, drop you like getting hit with a bullet; wrestling, chocking – the whole lot. Now I know many of this stuff was in the original Shotokan training – head butt (atama utchi) axe kick, open hand attacks.. all now banished, so tell it to the mugger and the rapist.

The only way I can now experience that adrenaline rush that real fear creates, is training with Geoff Thompson – Ian Abernathy or Peter Consterdine. It’s sad that as human beings we have to resort to training in this way, but at least it gives you literally, a fighting chance; skills that were once learned in a good Shotokan dojo, and I don’t think there’s many of those left today.

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