The essentials of traditional training

Front Kick - pictures courtesy and copyright Duncan GrisbyI have been training kickboxing since 1981 and in the few years before then I learnt Judo and Karate Shotokan. Over the last 20 or so years I trained a variety of traditional martial arts and appreciated some aspects of them. My approach to martial arts was always as Bruce Less suggested: “try everything, acquire and make yours what works and discard what doesn’t work and the inessential”. I previously wrote about my not too positive opinion about traditional martial arts and too formalised etiquette in certain clubs but I will spend today some time praising its pros.

Just a couple of days ago I was running a class with the Cambridge University Kickboxing Society. While I was teaching some basics to total beginners Phil, one of my assistant instructors, was coaching some intermediate and advance members. Among Phil’s group, made of about 20 people, 7 were regular members of our club with 6-24 months experience and the rest were experienced newcomers. When, later one, I swapped role with Phil and took over the advanced class just to assess their skills I realised how poor some people’s technique was, despite several years of training in other clubs and schools.  Some of them could punch and kick in a decent way but their combinations, coordination and footwork was appalling.

At the end of the class it was refreshing hearing from Phil that the footwork and execution of most beginners, after one hour with me was better of most of the advanced students we just acquired. I am not trying to undermine other coaches and instructors’ work; over the years I just realised how important are the very few basic, traditional exercises we do which apply to footwork, stances and coordination of arms and legs to ensure active and passive guard during both attack and defensive work. People who have never seen regimental training (what in Japanese would be referred as Kihon) simply have no mind set to simply de-construct techniques and postures in a way that they can be easily learnt, adjusted or corrected.

Great free EBook from Ikigaiway blog

Matthew Absokardu the author of Ikigaiway blog has recently released a free EBook titled “Surviving a Traditional Dojo” that I suggest to all of my readers.

The EBook describes in great details what a novice should expect when entering a traditional dojo with a lot of information about etiquette, behaviour that people in the dojo will expect from you, as well as what you should expect from them and from the master running the dojo itself.

I believe this EBook will also be interesting for people that are already part of a non traditional martial arts club to understand what and how other martial artists live their training.

If you are interested, and you should really, please go to the download page of the book and simply download it: as I said it’s free but it has a great value!

An encounter that made me think

The other day I bumped in MT, a former student of mine.  He joined my club years ago and trained with us for at least a couple of years.  MT is a guy in his late thirties, over 6 foot tall and well over 200 pounds of weight.  When he arrived he had a reasonable experience in Muai Thai (also called Thai boxing).  While he was not very fast and agile he could strike very powerfully and fight proficiently, being used and conditioned to be hit at full power.  I always like him as he was respectful and diligent; he was continuously trying to capitalize on each single advice I gave him while we were training.  Frankly, while he is a lovely and very positive person, he is not the kind of guy you would like to fight in the street.  When he stopped training with our club the reasons were two fold: he was struggling financially to cope with our monthly fee and his family committments were getting more and more demanding: his partner had a little girl soon after.  I met him a couple of years ago and he told me that he joined a traditional Japanese martial arts club in Cambridge and he was enjoining good part of the training he did and the new techniques he was learning.

When I saw him the other day I remembered his club and I was curious to ask him a few questions about it.  Over a recent Christmas party I met a woman that has been training at the same club for a few years: on one hand she looked hopeless as a martial artist and on the other hand she demonstrated to be full of illusions about what she could perform with her techniques so the curiosity was pretty high.  The main question that sparked to mind was: “how much sparring do you do?” and the answer was: “well, not too much, not a lot at all.  In fact when we did a few sessions time ago and I was paired with the sensei I was all over the place with him, he could not cope with my attacks: I miss sparring a lot.  That is a kind of training that I enjoy a lot and I am not getting enough of”. MT, as I said, is a large kind of guy but if as a sensei you cannot cope with one of your intermediate students in a friendly sparring this tells me a lot about what you teach and your proficiency in it.

Overall I am the first to state that a master (sensei, guru, coach…) cannot necessarily be the strongest fighter in the club: if that was the case every trainer of every world champion should be better then them: that is unpractical and quite impossible.  If you are training a world champion you should expect that he would be eventually better than you.  At the same time the world champion should be respecting you enough to understand that good part of his/her knowledge comes from you and respect you for that.

In any case here I am not talking about world class fighter, just an ordinary guy with some fighting skills. So, naturally, came my suggestion: “why don’t you come and join us for some Monday session when we are just sparring?”.  His facial expression changed he nearly turned sad in a fraction of a second and he replied: “I would love to” and then he added: ” but I cannot or I would get thrown out of the dojo”.  I was stunned while he continued: “I might do but if anybody in my dojo finds out I am out”.  I reassured stating that what happens in my club is private but nonetheless this conversation made me think a lot.

I can understand that in feudal Japan a master was training Samurais and pretending total, life time loyalty.  In the 21st century, in Cambridge England, when I hear this kind of stories I feel really strange.  My policy has always been for free world, free training: my students train in our club because they like it and they think that what we do is good for them.  Ultimately if people pay a fee for training at your club they are exchanging that money for the teaching they get…

I strongly believe that teachers that are adopting this kind of policy are in reality scared of confrontation and to be compared with other teachers or other styles.  From my point of view martial arts are a way of life and the way you train them should be a result of a selective choice of art and style once you feel you have found the one that suits you best.  Trying to hide to your students what other martial arts do and how they do it, in today’s society where videos and demonstration of just about any martial art can be found on YouTube, it sounds to me a mere illusion to protect your little territory that is not meant to grow very much.