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Success in the martial arts
by Harry Cook

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.

This attitude 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."

Bodhidharma answered "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 had.

Dempsey recounts: "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.

"Nevertheless 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."

Jack Dempsey went on to be one of the greatest boxers of all time.

Incidentally 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."

The tradition 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:

"Along with 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 Sumo fraternity."

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 mind.

"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."

Obviously we 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, honesty.


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.

Tournaments are 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.

Gichin Funakoshi, 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 bad."

Open Mind

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.

Actually the 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 Cook