in the martial arts
Why is it that
some people succeed in the martial arts while others give up after a few lessons,
and never really learn anything worthwhile? Obviously some people may not
like the instructor or the style, but I don't believe that these are major
factors. In my experience the student must have or must develop a number of
factors to enable him or her to make real progress.
One major problem
is that beginners may arrive in a dojo with a false impression of the martial
arts and expect to be entertained. As a beginner in my dojo recently said,
"they didn't do it like that in The Karate Kid!" The same individual has now
moved on to greater things, having decided after five or six lessons that
karate doesn't work!
Over the years
I have noticed that the senior representatives of all systems tend to display
similar attributes. This is not to say that they are the same in all ways,
indeed, they may hold totally opposing political or religious views, but when
it gets down to training, certain characteristics tend to stand out.
The first, and
to me the most important characteristic needed is dedication. It is interesting
to note that traditionally this was the characteristic looked for by instructors
in the past when selecting a student. Obviously such attributes as size, speed,
intelligence etc. were valued, but first and foremost they looked for dedication.
The stories of
the selection process for novices in the Shaolin Temple echo this. According
to tradition all those who wished to enter the Shaolin were first tested by
being kept outside the walls in terrible weather. Those who survived this
were further tested until only a small number remained to receive training.
is clearly displayed in the story of Bodhidharma's successor, Hui-K'o. He
was born in 487 AD and at the age of forty he journeyed to the Shaolin Temple
in order to meet the great Zen master, Bodhidharma.
The events which
followed soon passed into Chinese legend and were recorded by Tao Yuan in
the Sung dynasty (AD 960-1279). According to this source Hui-K'o saw Bodhidharma
meditating quietly and so waited until the master noticed him. As he waited
it began snowing, but he simply stood there, until the snow reached his knees.
Bodhidharma then asked him what he wanted, and Hui-K'o said "nothing, except
to become your pupil."
"what I have been practising asks for painstaking efforts. It is impossible
for one who does not have the will and the courage; to him it will only be
wasted effort and much suffering."
At this Hui-K'o
pulled out his sword and cut off his left arm and presented it to Bodhidharma
as proof of his serious intent. Moved by this Bodhidharma accepted him as
a pupil. Upon Bodhidharma's death Hui-K'o received his robe and alms bowl,
so making him the second patriarch of Chan (Zen) in China.
How true this
story is nobody knows, but certainly there are buildings in the grounds of
the Shaolin Temple which are named after the story. This form of student selection
became the norm, and the martial arts are full of stories of teachers testing
their pupils dedication, and only teaching them properly once this dedication
is well established.
I have no doubt
that many teachers of all disciplines can tell stories of students with outstanding
ability who failed to make progress due to a lack of real dedication. A couple
of years ago I taught karate to a man who I genuinely believe could have taken
European or World honours. He was big, over 6 feet tall, and strong with impressive
strength and flexibility. As an 8th kyu he sparred with a number of international
fighters and gave them a hard time. However after gaining 5th kyu he stopped
training, making up all sorts of excuses-no time etc. The real reason was
a lack of dedication and a desire only to practise sparring, which he was
good at. He didn't realise that to really progress, he had to work on his
weaknesses, and so ultimately his natural gifts were of no real use.
A great example
of true dedication is to be seen in the life and career of Jack Dempsey, the
famous "Manassa Mauler." Dempsey was born in 1895, and spent his youth working
in mines and logging camps. He began training as a boxer in his early teens,
his brother Bernie was already a prize fighter and he began to teach young
William Harrison Dempsey the finer points of pugilism. They had no money and
little equipment, but determined to succeed they made the best of what they
"He helped me turn a chicken coop into a gymnasium. An old battered mattress
was placed on the ground for tumbling and wrestling. We took a cloth bag and
stuffed it with sand and sawdust to make a punching bag.
"My younger brother
Johnny also got involved with our fighting. Johnny and Bernie would alternate
swinging a broom in front of me while I tried to hit it as it flew through
the air. We took turns skipping rope to improve our wind. We would even sprint
against one of our horses (naturally giving ourselves a head start). This
was supposed to improve our wind and our legs; at first it only improved our
appetites and our horse.
"What with my
normal boyhood scraps and the dedicated training at the coop, I actually felt
that I might someday become a good fighter. But one problem remained: I was
small and skinny and I didn't look like prospective champion stuff at all.
Bernie worked me hard. He didn't want me to have a glass chin. He taught me
to chew pine gum, straight from the trees, to strengthen my jaw. Then, after
a spell, he would test me to see if I had done enough chewing by throwing
a left hook at my jaw. Invariably I would be knocked down. After dusting myself
off, I would chew some more of the bitter-tasting stuff. I bathed my face
in beef brine to toughen the skin (Bernie called it pickling and said that
if I ever got cut, I wouldn't bleed). Once a day I would trek to and from
the butchers shop, carrying back pails of the stinking stuff. At first the
brine burned like hell, but I got used to it. Eventually my face got as tough
as a saddle."
went on to be one of the greatest boxers of all time.
the reference to "pickling" the skin seems to have been a normal part of the
training of the old bare fist prize fighters. It seems a range of materials
was used, including brine; the usual way to toughen the skin of the fists
was to urinate on them after training. When the English champion Tom Sayers
fought the American, John C. Heenan on April 17, 1860 observers noticed that
Heenan's fists became so badly swollen during the fight that they "were more
like boxing gloves than fists." Writing thirty years or so after the battle,
E. B. Mitchell made the following observation:
"By the by,
the puffed condition of Heenan's hands was commonly attributed by the professionals
who ought to know best about it to his refusal to to undergo one of the usual
preliminaries to a fight in the Ring. This is the pickling of the hands in
a strong solution of astringents, the effect of which is to harden and roughen
the skin. The lotion, which is often applied in a modified form to the face
also, gives to the skin a dark and curious look, which Heenan, who was said
to be rather a fine 'gentleman' in his business, appeared to dislike. Prize
fighting is, of course, one of those things in which the ornamental should
be subordinated entirely to the useful; and the American champion no doubt
saw abundant cause to regret his squeamishness if that was the real cause
of his useless hands."
is not yet dead. I was told by one karate instructor that he was once teaching
in a dojo and noticed a very powerful smell of vinegar coming from one of
the members. When he asked why, he was told that this person regularly bathed
his face and neck with malt vinegar to toughen it!
The need for
courage is obvious: if a martial artist cannot face any opponents or is unable
to accept any pain in training then progress is impossible. Courage is of
course not simply bravado, and it may be that in a fight it is the loser who
has shown the most courage, having been defeated by superior technique or
a stronger opponent. It is possible to see a number of martial artists whose
courage is such that they have struggled to overcome handicaps that may have
defeated others. I can remember when I was a beginner seeing a student of
Kanazawa sensei who had no arms-his kicks were tremendous, and I was very
impressed by the fact he was wearing a black belt.
A friend of mine
who teaches Wado Ryu Karate once had a female student who was blind-she also
achieved a black belt and displayed a lot more courage than I have in doing
so. In the Karate Union of Great Britain we have the example of Owen Murray
4th Dan who overcame the problems caused by the loss of his left hand to become
one of the strongest fighters in the North East of England.
Of course, for
professional fighters courage is a must, and an important aspect of training
is to develop a stoical attitude towards pain. In his biography, the Sumo
wrestler Takamiyama refers to this:
the minor aches and pains, my daily battles in the Keikoba left more permanent
scars. During the late summer of 1964, my left ear, constantly slapped and
cuffed in training, began to hurt, eventually causing so much discomfort that
I couldn't sleep on my left side for about a month. I asked the coaches for
a couple of days off, but only got a terse refusal: "Baka Yaro! (You idiot)
Train harder!" Gradually, after applying heat to the ear on a doctor's recommendation,
the pain subsided. But it was not until four months later that I saw the extent
of the damage. I had acquired a full-blown cauliflower ear, a common occupational
hazard of the sport and in one sense a kind of badge of acceptance into the
This type of
courage is not the prerogative of any particular system or nation, and Nat
Fleisher in his book Fifty Years at Ringside tells of a little known episode
in the Jack Dempsey-Luis Firpo fight, held on September 14 1923. Dempsey was
then the World Heavyweight Champion, and Firpo, the Champion of Argentina,
was a strong dangerous fighter, known as the "Wild Bull of the Pampas." In
preparing for the fight Firpo dislocated his left elbow, but didn't tell anybody
about the injury. A few hours before the fight Dr. William A. Walker of the
New York Medical Commission discovered the injury and wanted to call the fight
off. Firpo went mad-he hit a table with his left hand to prove he could fight,
even though he must have been in agony, and eventually Dr. Walker and William
Muldoon, chairman of the Commission, reset the limb.
The elbow was
strapped and three hours later Firpo faced Dempsey in the ring. The whole
fight lasted three minutes fifty seven seconds, and Firpo was knocked out.
During the fight though Dempsey was knocked through the ropes by a left hook,
followed by a right, a combination which almost finished the confrontation.
Firpo's fighting heart was limitless; Dempsey describes the action:
"I managed to
floor him seven times in the first round. But he wouldn't stay down-the lust
to kill was burning in his eyes and nothing was going to stop him." After
the fight Dr. Walker said that Luis Firpo had shown the greatest example of
courage he had ever seen in all of his many years associated with fighters.
In order to continue
to progress it is important to develop a positive, optimistic view of life.
Once the idea takes hold that further improvement is impossible, then a self-fulfilling
prophecy is created and regression begins. In karate, both Gichin Funakoshi
and Mas. Oyama have pointed out that constant practice is vital. With this
attitude the true opponent becomes our own weakness, a very difficult opponent
to overcome! Paul Anderson, long regarded as the world's strongest man (especially
in the back lift where he has lifted over 6,000 lbs.), has the following to
say on training when you are already at a high level:
"When you want
something, it will cost you. No gifts, no shortcuts. Sure, you can talk yourself
out of it. But then what will you have? memories of the way things once were.
The past glory somehow rings hollow when someone says 'I'll bet you wish you
could still do that'. My answer is always that I can still do what I used
to do and more. Much more. I'll push until nature says I can no longer improve.
Age will have to catch me, because I have long since won the battle with my
"When that inner
voice tries to convince me that it no longer matters, I just ask myself if
I still want to be the strongest man in the world. "When the muscles burn
with pain and the temptation hits to call it a day, I compare myself with
the men who have always had to settle for second place and I ask myself why.
How could my records stand for twenty years? How could I keep putting them
out of reach? Strong, young, supple bodies have come up since my youth and
they have aimed at my records, only to fall short. Ten or twenty men will
be within a pound or so of each others best lifts, but when they check the
record books, they see that the first-place lifter, the world record holder,
Paul Anderson, is still thirty pounds ahead per lift.
"So what makes
the difference? Determination. Will. Guts. Desire. Discipline. It's because
of the extra mile. The one more hour of work. The realization that the man
who worked hardest and strongest will be the man who excels."
cannot all be the best in the world, but this attitude when intelligently
applied to training can only bring positive results. Be careful not to confuse
an optimistic approach with an arrogant misplaced self confidence. I once
saw a number of individuals attempting a dan (black belt) grading. One man
was obviously not ready, but when he failed, he blamed everybody except himself.
He was certainly optimistic, but lacked the next factor I want to discuss,
All human beings
have a powerful ability to delude themselves, and to find "good" reasons not
to face up to their own weaknesses. This has been exploited by sellers of
"instant diets" and "miracle cures" which promise to transform a fat and out
of condition body into an Adonis or Venus without any work or effort. You
have all seen the "'instant black belt" systems which sometimes appear in
the magazines, promising to turn you into a "deadly killing machine" in a
matter of weeks.
In the martial
arts we should really try to rise above this kind of nonsense and look at
ourselves clearly and honestly. A friend of mine, and one of my instructors
when I began to train in Shotokan karate, John Holdsworth, once spent a great
deal of time preparing a brown belt to take his shodan grading. This man,
although a fair fighter had abysmal kata as he would not practice any of them
in depth, and so he failed his grading (Enoeda sensei tends to notice errors
in kata!). Instead of honestly looking at himself and changing his approach,
the brown belt joined a different association and was soon strutting around
in a nice shiny black belt. I felt a little sad for him as I quite liked him
as a person, but instead of solving his problem he avoided it and so limited
his paths to progress.
another area where a lack of honest appreciation of your own abilities can
lead to problems. Obviously referees make mistakes and sometimes people do
suffer from unfair decisions. However it probably averages out, but how many
times have you met somebody who had never been beaten? Of course he may have
lost a fight or two, but in every case it was due to a biased referee who
did not see his fantastic technique or did not like his style, or was from
a different association, or colour or.Shakespeare, in Alls Well that Ends
Well, says that "no legacy is so rich as honesty"-from a martial arts point
of view this is certainly true. Once you acknowledge your weaknesses you can
begin to change them with a view to improvement. Certainly people such as
Morihei Ueshiba, the creator of Aikido sought out a wide range of instructors
and methods to improve himself. When he met Sokaku Takeda and was easily defeated,
he accepted that he still had a long way to go and so stayed to receive instruction,
he didn't rationalize his defeat to mere luck on his opponents part.
the founder of Shotokan Karate-do, offers the following advice: "Try to see
yourself as you truly are and try to adopt what is meritorious in the work
of others. As a karateka you will of course often watch others practice. When
you do and you see strong points in the performance of others, try to incorporate
them into your own technique. At the same time, if the trainee you are watching
seems to be doing less than his best ask yourself whether you too may not
be failing to practice with diligence. Each of us has good qualities and bad;
the wise man seeks to emulate the good he perceives in others and avoid the
The last factor
I wish to look at is the development of an open mind. I never cease to be
amazed at how people confuse pride in their own style with attacks on all
other methods. Stupid, ignorant claims are made for their own methods while
uninformed negative comments are made about styles or techniques which the
speaker has never even seen. Often those who are most vociferous in attacking
other systems do so to boost their own. In the North East of England we have
a number of self awarded 5th dans and above in a variety of exotic systems
who regularly denigrate karate as ineffective and old-fashioned: some of these
people were brown belts or shodans in karate just a year or two ago, but by
adding a few boxing punches to their technical repertoire and dressing up
multi-coloured training suits they have suddenly discovered the truth. At
this point all other systems are dismissed as worthless. Their minds are closed.
Compare this to a man like Higaonna Sensei who although on 9th Dan in Goju
Ryu is always prepared to learn from any system which has proved itself.
idea that one system might be complete and somehow "pure" has only emerged
in the last fifty years or so. In the past it was expected that one part of
training was to examine and learn from other styles-in fact it was due to
Okinawans going to China and returning with various methods that modern karate
evolved. Shotokan is the result of a fusion of various Okinawan methods allied
to Japanese ideas, and like all systems is in a constant state of evolution.
I have heard people say that Shotokan or Wado or Goju or whatever style is
now perfected and should not be changed. This narrow view is simply a way
to excuse their own blinkered approach to the martial arts, where they can
be secure in their fixed knowledge. With this type of thinking all real progress
eventually comes to a dead stop and individuals get bogged down in pointless
arguments over fine points of technique.
We have all
seen the silly squabbles that emerge every now and then over which style is
the "best" or who is teaching it better or worse. Actually in a martial art
these problems are easy to solve-have a fight and settle it by a knockout.
I know that this is frowned on and people produce a lot of fine sounding arguments
about why we can't but this method would end a lot of the pointless arguments
that go on. The T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Wing Chun and other style arguments were
based on this closed mind approach. Personally I would love to see the various
groups settle the arguments by actual tests of their skills.
Blind faith in
anything is ultimately pointless. The Buddha was once asked by the Kalamas
(nobles) of Kesaputta for guidance on how they should choose between the sometimes
conflicting pronouncements of their many teachers, each of whom insisted that
his method was the only one leading to the truth. The Buddha answered:
"Do not believe
on the strength of traditions even if they have been held in honour for many
generations and in many places; do not believe anything because many people
speak of it; do not believe on the strength of sages of old times; do not
believe that which you have yourselves imagined, thinking that a god has inspired
you. Believe nothing which depends only on the authority of your masters or
priests. After investigation, believe that which you have yourselves tested
and found reasonable, and which is for your good and that of others." -Harry