News & Blog

Peter Consterdine

Man or System

In various interviews I’ve talked about falling standards in martial arts which I feel is possibly as a consequence of the huge variety of competitions available these days and to which people are attracted and which, to a great degree, allow them to avoid the painful and often boring repetition of doing basics over and over.

The point I wanted to make, in defence of a single style traditional system, was that its students invariably practised basics ad nauseum, but to a point where they honed techniques to a very good degree. By contrast and by my own observations many people, who have had limited time to build strong foundations, have been drawn into one or another commercial competition group ‐ pride, shoot, vale tudo, ring, cage etc .

Nothing wrong in this you may say and with which I wholly agree. Where the danger lies, however, is to then refer to these competitions as if they were a martial art in there own right when, in reality, they are no more than a collection of varying competition rules. I’ll know it’s reached a dangerous development when if on asking someone what martial art they do they reply shootBighting. For those of us who have come to the point we are at now in our martial arts careers, via a long term involvement in a traditional system, or systems, the distinction between a martial art and a set of competition rules, which have been given a name, may be very clear, but my concern is that to someone who picks up a magazine and, with no knowledge, embarks on what they believe is a martial arts path things may not be as clear cut.

I remember some years back when Ticky Donovan, the Great Britain Karate team coach was being interviewed he made the same point that there were kids Bighting in competition who couldn’t punch straight, but who had been attracted to Karate because of the competition aspect not for what it really represented. Ticky made the point that competition was something that was additional to Karate not the be all and end all and that when he started Karate it was not because of competition.

What is most telling is the often poor standard of some of these competitions. It’s very clear that the competitors have simply not mastered the basics of whatever it is they are doing ‐ striking or grappling. They have progressed to stage two and by‐passed stage one which is the acquisition of basic skills. I’m not criticising their bottle, Bitness, enthusiasm or Bighting ability, simply the fact that they have missed out on the martial arts bit. It happened to in my early days of Karate. After only a few short months of training I was involved in club competitions at a time when I was still trying to differentiate between my left and right hand. The difference was that as time progressed the emphasis during each training session was the honing of basic skills ‐ single strikes, combinations of strikes, Kata, single step Kihon attacks and defences, power, focus, timing, speed and reaction development ‐ all done outside the competition arena. The training for competition was secondary to getting the basics right.

Eventually when, after years of training, competition success would depend on the strategy and tactics employed against an opponent, one never even thought about the individual techniques that went to Bill the two minutes of competition. A similar analogy is learning to drive a car. I also draw a parallel with Birearms training. Over the years I’ve trained hundreds of people on Bodyguard courses in Birearms work and to a man, or woman, the same development occurs and that is that in the early stages a student becomes consumed with the administrative functions of Birearms ‐ loading, unloading and making safe, remembering safety issues, holstering and all the other conscious, motor factors that seem to consume their attention.

Eventually, though, these issues fall into the unconscious layers of the brain and the shooter concentrates on the prime requirement ‐ hitting the target. As you know we are talking about the stages of competence and incompetence, either conscious or unconscious. Many of you are familiar with this concept and I don’t want to go over it here, my point being that one moves to a state of being unconsciously competent by one means only and that's by repetition! ‐ There’s no substitute and no short‐cut, just dogged application to hone basic skills to a point where we don’t have to think about them.

There’s a fallacy, however, at this point and this is that repetition of a technique guarantees skill and, sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Only repetition of correct technique guarantees a successful outcome. Herein lies the problem we have always had in the martial arts and that is that if the teacher is crap then inevitably the students will be crap! Strangely, though, I have seen some good students come from under poor instructors, but seldom.

Basic techniques are the foundation of everything we eventually build whatever our starting point, (be it from a striking or grappling background), but with the caveat that they have to be perfect from the start. For me the key to getting it right is precision; in other words, that neatness, control, balance and ability to understand the importance of Bine adjustments. It boils down to what the real result is of years of repetition and that is self awareness.

When I kick, punch or move I am unconsciously self aware of what every other part of my body is doing at that moment in time. If I left roundhouse I know, precisely, in which direction my right big toe is pointing and I know precisely where all the other bits of me are, because if I don’t not only will the technique I’m doing be crap, but and probably more importantly, the next one will be worse. It is this self awareness that I don’t see in many students these days, particularly as they clearly don’t know what various bits of their body are doing at any one time. They have no control over all their working parts and are concentrating on the speciBic technique to the exclusion of all the roles other parts of their body which has an integral and equal part to play.

There’s another fallacy at play, though, and I’ve fallen into the trap myself in this article and that’s to refer to the style based Oriental martial arts systems as traditional. Steve Morris, one of Britain's foremost Karateka made the point that we can’t refer to something that isn’t even one hundred years old as traditional. In this regard he was referring to Japanese Karate. With something that goes back only some eighty plus years and has been modiBied by countless people, there is nothing carved in tablets of stone when it comes to how techniques should be done. If I stay with Karate for the time being and use it as a prime example, there have been so many style variations on what arrived from Okinawa to Japan in the twenties and so many personal variations introduced by the Japanese instructors over that period that anyone could be forgiven for saying that however they execute a technique that it is correct way to do it!

It’s a valid argument, but can’t be one which excuses poor techniques. But if there is no strict right way or wrong way how do we say a technique is correct. In fact we shouldn’t ‐ a technique is never correct or incorrect it is only ever well executed. I’m not splitting hairs with terminology as something which is well executed means it was well done for the purpose for which it was intended. In many ways seeing and knowing a good technique is often subjective, in other words I couldn’t describe it but I’d know it if I saw it.

I see hundreds of variations of roundhouse kick, for example, all well executed, but all in some way different. Different because each person is individually, physically built which will bring about a change to the execution and each person may have a different purpose for throwing the kick. One may throw it to knock someone out and another to score with the kick. However, I see just as many which are crap and which are being poorly executed by people who have not analysed themselves honestly, have put little time or effort into the kick, or who have been poorly instructed.

When we’ve paid our dues, so to speak, we all have the right to make those changes to techniques which suit our build, capability, mental capacity and purpose. It’s funny how we often want history to Bit our narrow experience of something. I hear people defend the need to keep absolutely strict controls on not permitting changes to traditional martial arts. I’m going to pick on Wado Ryu Karate as an example and not for any other reason than it typiBies something which people are extremely precious about, yet it is a Karate style which was ‘manufactured’ by one person only just over sixty years ago. Wado was where I started in Karate and I hold it in some affection, but few people will remember that the person who invented the system, Hidenori Otsuka, never really considered it to be Karate. He was 30 before he began the study of Karate under Gichin Funakoshi, as up to that time he had been practising and had a teacher’s license in the Shindo Yoshin Ryu (school) of Jujutsu.

In 1939 he combined his Jujutsu with Karate and called it Wado Ryu. He said in an interview once “I don't think of Wado as purely Karate although it’s obviously largely made up of Karate”. It may also surprise some people that he always wanted the martial aspect of Karate to be played down ‐ he said “I have no regard to the martial aspects when training but rather adhere to the way of peace ‐ harmony and tranquility”. Wado became a much softer style as a consequence of his beliefs. These views were the reason for his sweeping changes to the Karate he had been taught and were right, he felt, for that very Japanese view on personal development via the rigours of martial arts.

This was one man changing a whole system, whereas these days one only has to change the angle of ones Bist to have people hissing from the sidelines. Otsuka had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve by change and with his skills and knowledge excelled at what he did sufBicient to get away with it. This is what always makes so futile the argument about which system is better than the other. No one is better than any other because all of them at some time have been radically altered to suit an individual’s needs and ideas. Without one person’s vision, most Korean martial artists would still be practising Japanese Shotokan Karate and not TKD which is what it metamorphosed into. Remember also that the Japanese altered drastically the true Okinawan Karate so as to introduce it into the high school system. We’ve all been doing a children’s Karate and never realised it! There is no right or wrong though about change and if we don’t have a dynamic approach to the development of martial arts they will be for the worse.

And here’s the link to the title. Those people who excel at what they do often exceed the limiting bounds of the system or art they are practising. Terry O’Neill, Steve Morris and Dominique Valera of the Karate world and the Neil Adams of the Judo world, for example, are not representative of the styles they practise, having far outstripped the constraints a style imposes. In other words the person is the martial art and not the style. Even factoring in differing people’s physical abilities a Karate style should produce a common norm and it doesn’t; there are huge divides in people’s abilities within a system. Personal endeavour and natural talent is what makes the difference, creating sometimes a huge gap between the best and worst. Each of the people I have mentioned above would have every right and legitimacy to make changes to what they practise and, in fact, some have.

People who have natural talent or who simply apply themselves more than the next person exceed the bounds of the style ‐ they are the martial art! That should be everyone’s goal, but the price to be paid is the perfection of techniques Birst.

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