13 Years to Seiza – Perfect Form and Pain Open the Horizons of Technique
A Clinic and Interview with Sensei Randall Hassell
by Jim Stahly
Randall Hassell stands in front of a group of about 50 karate students and teachers, beginner through black belt. He raises his knee and demonstrates the snapping action of a front kick.
It’s a basic action, though the speed and smoothness reminds one more of a 30-year-old than a man with grown children of his own.
But after a football injury as a 16-year-old, doctors told him that knee would never bend again.
“The doctors told me I would lose 75 to 80 percent of my flexibility in my right knee,” said Hassell, now 8th dan and Chief Instructor of the American Shotokan Karate Alliance. But Hassell had a diagnosis of his own.
“I just decided I had to be able to do it,” he said.
His track to recovery was like many things in karate – at the same time simple and incredible – and, of course, painful. Even the ceremonies at the beginning of class were an awkward hurdle, he told the group, and it was 13 years before he could sit in a proper seiza.
“I was just pushing, pushing, pushing … and now I can kick just fine.”
Hassell’s statement was as much about everyday training as recovering from injury, and is at the center of his teaching philosophy.
“I try to encourage students to believe they can do anything they want to do – if you’re willing to pay the price,” he said. “I really believe that. I don’t care if you have the natural talent and ability or not.”
But in between basic exercises and partner drills in the gym at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois, he stressed that often, that price is pain.
Not injury, but pain.
“We have an injury rate that's lower than golf,” he said. But the key lies in knowing the difference between pain that comes from injury and hurt that’s simply discomfort.
In Hassell’s case, the injury had already occurred, and after three surgeries, all that was left was pain he forced himself to overcome. And for most karateka, the bumps, bruises and burning muscles are the same, he said.
Sessions throughout the afternoon included beginners and intermediates, while other sessions were aimed more at black belts.
In one session, he used the movements of Heian Shodan to drive home the importance of precise technique. The opening gedan barai, for example, was shown first as a block, and then as a twisting flurry of arms that brought the attacker, literally, to his knees. Another turn from the kata could potentially break an attacker’s neck.
As students worked through the technical points of these drills – often with difficulty – the points that brought them closer to success were things like the proper hand and hip position as the turn begins and the proper path of the technique.
The point, Hassell said, wasn’t to learn the “secret applications,” but rather to improve fundamentals for any use they might have.
The opening of Heian Shodan could be used as the basic downward block – or “maybe that’s an arm lock, maybe it’s an escape, maybe it’s a throw, but none of that will work well if the basics aren’t strong,” he said. “The more precise the basics, the more applications there are for those basics. And that does not work in reverse.”
In the more advanced session, Hassell used kumite drills to stress stable emotions under pressure. As students and instructors used increasingly complex timing in the face of hard attacks, He stressed that learning to stay calm and persevere is something that comes in your approach to day-to-day training.
That session also worked through foot sweep repeatedly at different distances, and from there, setting oneself up to follow through quickly with an attack.
He notes that the training doesn’t eliminate fear and stress. “You’re still going to feel fear, but instead of (having) the shoulders raise the eyes, fly open – the startled effect, in other words … you do exactly the opposite … and it becomes a fighting position.”
“You train yourself to react in strong committed way, rather than jumping back, gasping and shrieking," he said.
Ultimately, that concentration, awareness and calm in the face of it all is key toward successful self-defense, improving basic technique, coping with other life challenges – or even making proper seiza,
"I always teach that no matter where I go," Hassell said. "It is really a process of going through the hard training and persevering and getting through to the other side."
Randall Hassell, 8th dan, is the chief instructor of the American Shotokan Karate Alliance and president of the American JKA Karate Association, an organization he helped form in 1984. The author of more than 100 articles and 28 books, he is a renowned karate instructor and historian and is senior editor of Tamashii press, a book and video publishing company. He lives and teaches in St. Louis, and travels extensively to teach. This seminar, from September 2005, is among the Shotokan Master Series offered by Tamashii Press (www.tamashiipress.com).