I had been eager to interview Alistair Mitchell for a long time, and in early 2012 I got the chance. I’d had several correspondences with him over the years, but finally got to meet him at the JSKA World Championships in Manchester, UK. Over coffee, whilst watching people fight in the background, he and I talked about Shotokan and his experiences training with some of the best in the world. Upon my return from the trip, I noted several questions inspired by our discussions, ready for the interview. It wasn’t until 2012 however that we started.
This interview was conducted over several months, and throughout this time many things changed for Alistair Mitchell. This interview, whilst being current, contains many questions that were posed at an earlier time, when his situation was slightly different. This interview was launched whilst Alistair remained a member of the WSKF, but in late 2012/ early 2013 Alistair moved to the JKS.
Within this first part of a two part interview, Alistair talks about his early days training in Scotland. He also touches briefly on his job within the Police Force, explaining the significant links between his Martial Art training and his profession. He talks about his competitive days, sharing stories about experiences he has amassed over years on the tatami. This interview was a slow and detailed process – resulting in a two part interview, but at the end I feel like I got to know Alistair and his karate far better, and I hope you do too. – Shaun Banfield (2013)
Please watch out for Part 2 next month.
Questions by Shaun Banfield
(Shaun Banfield) Hello Alistair, it has been a while since we have spoken, so I am looking forward to conducting this interview. Can I please say thank you for agreeing to this interview?
(Alistair Mitchell) It’s a pleasure.
(SB) In 2011, you retired from Competition after a 30 year career. What prompted this step away from the podium?
(AM) It was the WSKF 10th Anniversary World Championships in Tokyo that year and a fitting point and place to retire. I had originally retired in 2006, but with the training I am doing at the moment I feel better than I did, say, ten years ago. To enter the championships was a test at my age. With karate training, it is about facing an opponent and seeing if the training you are engaged in works or not. In particular, Shobu- Ippon for timing and speed, and the Jiyu- Kumite event for stamina and range of technique. I am also looking forward to using my 38 years’ experience to coach seniors for competition and teaching them the relevance of karate for the streets.
(SB) Stepping away from your competitive career, how do you envisage your training developing or changing now that you are not competing?
(AM) There is tremendous scope to improve and develop as we get older. That is if we have the correct foundation, built through solid basic training plus the advice and guidance from our seniors. Competition gave the edge in the fact that you have to be better than your opponent. Competition is just a test.
In real karate training the importance of technique, speed, timing and power takes on a whole different meaning. If we do not have the correct mental control in a real and deadly situation, it becomes useless. It is then only sport.
In my occupation as a Police Officer I have to deal with many different and potentially dangerous situations. If my concentration or technique is not adequate then I would find myself in great danger. There is no referee on the street to save you, only training.
In karate, our thinking should be more serious. For example the concept “Ichi Go Ichi Ye” meaning “one chance in your lifetime” is very important. Its meaning in the martial arts is - if we miss that one opportunity it may cost us our lives. With this type of mental concentration, training becomes much more exciting and you are able to attain a different level of practice.
Every 10 years, our body changes and with it our training must develop too. My instructor, Sensei Kasuya, is nearly 10 years older than me. If in that time I am somewhere near his ability I will be happy. He has given me guidance and it is up to me to put the work in!
(SB) You mention your job as a Police Officer. In what ways, if at all, has karate been beneficial to your profession?
(AM) Karate has been beneficial to me as a Police Officer in that it has given me a greater awareness when engaging in stressful situations. It has also given me greater degree of control and confidence to deal with violent situations whether they are directed against me or others.
We have a number of options at our disposal in the modern Police service to deal with Conflict Resolution. These range from empty hand techniques, baton, CS spray through to, ultimately, firearms. That said, I believe the most effective weapon in our arsenal is communication. This is where awareness and control play a great part in resolving stressful and dangerous situations.
Should it turn bad, this is when technique, speed and timing kick in to take control of the situation.
Things can be calm one moment and off the scale the next. This is the world we unfortunately live in and must deal with. In this respect Karate gives me the skills that will, hopefully, be able to help me survive these confrontations.
(SB) And what aspect of the karate journey do you think has most influentially equipped you for such situations; Competition or dojo training?
(AM) Both are important in preparing for real situations. Dojo is more real because there is no referee and no rule restriction, only agreement between you and your partners.
In dojo kumite you can use many different techniques, practicing them until you feel comfortable applying them freely in any situation. We can use training aids such as body armour, focus pads/shields and makiwara to check the power of our punches and kicks. In dojo kumite you develop a greater peripheral vision because of the frequency and range of techniques exchanged. Competition can sometimes become tunnel visioned. Also dojo kumite is non-stop, building good fighting spirit and stamina. You learn about yourself, how to overcome fear, how to carry on if you are in pain or injured. If you get knocked down twice, get up thrice. If someone is taking liberties with you, you have to defend yourself and reply with stronger technique.
Competition kumite gives us the engagement with an opponent. Win or lose. Make a mistake and you lose. It is a checking ground for your technique – was it fast enough, did I have the right timing, and did I have the right intent. All technique, be it dojo or competition kumite, should be applied with maximum power and speed, drawn short of target. If we didn’t have this type of control then serious injury would result. Sometimes I see today’s fighters with very nice technique and fitness but no intent or zanshin. This type of fighting doesn’t interest me.
If we have a balance of both we stand a chance of surviving a real situation.
I understand the true contrast between competition and reality, so in that respect I have developed my training and teaching to educate students on this difficult issue in karate.
(SB) It is often said that we, ‘react in the way that we train’. Would you say that you perhaps would not have been quite as equipped had the intensity of your training experiences been as extreme?
(AM) Definitely! The way we train is the way we will react and the intensity to which we train dictates how well we can react to the situation. Training should be intense and stressful. Hopefully training will be more demanding than the circumstances we will experience in a live situation. This way we can be more in control both mentally and physically.
I once heard a senior karate-ka, who shall remain anonymous, once say “If my karate doesn’t work, I’ll use the real thing” I’ve still to find out where he trains at this deadly “real thing”
(SB) Do you feel karate has lost a bit of that martial spirit, and how do you overcome this in your own dojo?
(AM) One of the main reasons is, the more commercialised karate has become, the more it has lost its way as a Martial Art. To be commercially successful in today’s market place the franchised karate we see springing up everywhere has to be friendly, easy and fun to retain membership. As someone once aptly put it “A social event involving dressing up as an Asian peasant twice a week.”
Karate, or for that matter, any true Martial Art should be a challenge to overcome our fears, whether physical or psychological. The process we engage in should develop technique, speed and power, something of value and from there the discipline and mental control to use these techniques in any given situation. This process will also be stressful and may involve a little pain.
In the dojo I believe you should experience lots of different emotions related to the study of a Martial Art. Fear, anxiety, control, concentration, exhaustion as well as confidence, intuition, strength, speed and even peace. When I teach seminars I try and tap into all these elements and see how students respond to each challenge.
I am very keen to teach the importance of intense training. Over the years I have learnt to tolerate and accept that people train for different reasons and have adapted my teaching accordingly. However, I am also keen to develop an elite training schedule for those who want to push the boundaries and test their limits.
I always encourage my students to give their best when they enter the dojo. Every time try and find something new. This is an instructor’s responsibility.
(SB) Going backwards some thirty years, could we please talk a little about your beginnings in the Martial Arts, how did you initially embark on this lifelong journey?
(AM) I had always been involved in athletic endeavour from an early age. I was the Scottish schoolboy’s javelin record holder and played schools rugby for the South of Scotland. On leaving school at 16, I was unable to carry on with athletics or rugby due to the location of the clubs.
My initial training was in Wado rather than Shotokan. The club I was going to start with only took beginners on once a year. I was told that there would be only one or two students starting with my intake.
The week I was to start training, Enter the Dragon - starring Bruce Lee - opened at the local cinema.
When I arrived at the karate club to enrol, instead of the one or two that were expected there were over 150 people queuing to join.
I started training in April 1974 with the British Wadokai under Ray Young. About 3 months later, the club joined the United Kingdom Karate-Do Federation under the leadership of Sensei Tatso Suzuki. I had exposure to some good Wado instructors including Senseis Maeda and Kobayashi from Japan. During my time training in Wado I graded to 6th Kyu.
In late 1975 I watched a Shotokan demonstration by Sensei Alex McGregor and the senior instructors of the Budokan Scotland Association. The ability of the instructors, including Sensei Gene Dunnett and Eck Duncan, was unbelievable compared to the karate I had trained in before. I immediately signed up and went back to white belt.
The Budokan was one of about 5 associations in Scotland at the time who were “members” of the JKA.
My instructors during this time were Sensei’s Alex McGregor, Gene Dunnet, Eck Duncan and Ricky Jenkins. They gave me a fantastic grounding in karate. I look back on those times and wonder how I survived the training. Alex gave me an appreciation of basics and Gene, Eck and Ricky made me the fighter I am today.Gene was also a tremendous kata exponent.
I remember being a sparring partner for Gene during his preparation leading up to the 1975 WUKO World Championships in Long Beach, California. This was when Britain became World Champions for the first time, beating Japan in the final. The practice during this time was severe. Just getting knocked down and having to get back up again for an hour!
The Japanese instructors I trained with during my time with the Budokan were Senseis Enoeda, Kawazoe and Tomita. Later I trained with Sensei Ohta when he took up residence in London.
I also had the privilege of training with the following visiting JKA instructors - Sensei Nakayama, Ueki, Oishi, Tanaka, Yahara, Osaka, Tabata, Mori and. Hasaguchi. From Europe there was Sensei Kase, Shirai and Naito. Each of these instructors, although having the same basic technique, had their own stamp on Shotokan karate.
I think the difference between the Wado Japanese and the Shotokan Japanese instructors in those days was the Shotokan instructors had mainly come from the JKA Instructors programme and were more professional in their teaching and technique.
Sensei Enoeda was fantastic to train with and gave you so much fighting spirit and loved kumite. Kawazoe was (is) a brilliant technician, inspiring you to look at your basics in a different light, always to seek improvement.
(SB) How would you say Shotokan and Wado-ryu differ, apart from the obvious kata differences – Is the emphasis different at all do you think?
(AM) Obviously the styles differ at beginner level with Wado using more tai-sabaki in their basics and Shotokan a more direct, powerful line. At a higher level most styles are similar. You can only punch and kick so many ways. The body can only move through so many plains of motion. If we get tied up too much with “my style is better than yours” arguments then I think we limit ourselves. For me Shotokan was a more natural style for me to learn.
Once you have the basics, anything is possible. For instance training weapons with Sensei Julian Mead of the Yoshinkai has given me a greater appreciation of body shifting and off line movement. These skills can then be transferred into kumite or self-defence techniques depending on the situation. I don’t think any style is better than the other – it comes down to hard training and good thinking in the end. No secrets!
(SB) The 1970s were an era of intense conditions, a sharp contrast to today’s politically correct, ‘health and safety’ regulated practices. Do you have any stories from this early part of your training career that could illustrate the karate you experienced?
(AM) I don’t think health and safety played any part in my early days of training!
My early recollections of karate classes were of going for a 5 mile cross country run in bare feet at the start of the session.
I always remember coming back from those runs and picking thorns, broken glass and other nameless objects out of my feet. If you were really unlucky there might have been a herd of cows in one of the fields you were running through. On those days you could really end up in the s**t!
After returning from the run there would be a 20 minute intense stretching session. This was followed by about 5 minutes of karate technique which consisted of choku-zuki and mae-geri. Kumite usually followed and this consisted of being beaten round the dojo by the seniors because we didn’t have a great range of technique to fight back with. At the end of the class we were subjected to hundreds of push ups and sit ups. When I changed to Shotokan the training was still very hard but of a more technical and progressive nature.
The Senseis I had at this time were very motivating. Sensei McGregor used to drill the class hard with basic technique and had the knack of being able to get the best out of you before you dropped with exhaustion. Sensei Dunnett was very technical in his approach to training. He was an inspiration to watch. During kumite he was lighting fast with both punches and kicks. During this time, the kumite was hard. If you didn’t block you got hit and knocked down. You got back up again, that was what was expected. You soon learned to fight in this type of environment, bearing in mind most of the seniors who taught me at this time were either in the Scottish or British All Styles Teams.
These were hard men. I can remember as a junior going to watch one of the Scotland versus England All Styles Internationals. Scotland had Gene Dunnet, Hamish Adam, Alan and Ricky Jenkins, Davey Coulter and Robbie McFarlane in their team and England had Terry O’Neil, Brian Fitkin, Billy Higgins, Stan Knighton, Ticky Donovan in theirs. This particular event was a blood bath! I always remember Robbie McFarlane clashing with Terry O’Neil and ending up with a broken leg. McFarlane was carried off only to reappear about 5 minutes later strapped to a stretcher, leg in a splint, wheeling himself to the side of the competition area to urge the rest of the team on.
When I was first selected to attend Scottish National Team training I was a 3rd kyu brown belt. In those days the National All Styles squad trainings were a survival game. They were a bloodbath, with heads of associations attending and egging their students on to damage those from other associations. This continued until Sensei Hamish Adam was appointed National Coach in the early 80’s. Hamish would only allow those training to attend the squad sessions. None of the blazer brigade were allowed to attend.
This was the start of Scottish karate’s greatest era. During this time the National All Styles Team won the European Championships twice. Individuals won National, Commonwealth, European and World titles. Besides myself, the fighters at this time included, Gerry Fleming, Davey and Michael Coulter, Pat McKie, Tommy Burns and Stuart McKinnon.
For me, today, there is a better balance of training. It is more progressive and productive, but I think if I had not survived the early days I would not be as focused and as mentally strong as I am today.
(SB) Whilst within the JKA, you graded up to 4th Dan. Could you please tell us some of the main highlights of your karate career up until this point as a part of the JKA?
(AM) When I started training with the JKA I was privileged to train under the best of the instructors who came from what was termed the “Golden Age of the JKA”. Sensei Nakayama was still alive at this time and the JKA had not split into the many organisations we have today.
The main instructors in the UK at this time were Sensei Enoeda, Kawazoe and Ohta. I was able to train and grade with them on a regular basis.
Each of them had a different personality – Enoeda Sensei with fine technique and tremendous fighting spirit – Kawazoe Sensei, a master technician and Ohta Sensei was an excellent instructor who seemed inexhaustible.
Twice a year visiting instructors from the JKA Honbu dojo came to Scotland. These included from Japan Sensei Tsuyama, Ueki, Tanaka, Yahara, Tabata, Osaka and Mori and from Europe Senseis Kase, Shirai and Naito.
The standard of these instructors was awe inspiring. All had fantastic basic technique and on top of this they all had their individual specialities.
The most important thing I observed during this period, although I didn’t realise it until I went to Japan, was that with good basic technique anything is possible.
I also had the privilege of training with Nakayama Sensei. He taught us how to move properly in stance. Because he was getting on in years he had Sensei Osaka demonstrate whilst he gave technical explanation.
(SB) You mentioned that the instructors had individual specialities, reflecting their personal outlook and personality. Would you agree modern karateka are a little ‘generic’, every karateka looking and moving like the next – without having their own karate identity?
(AM) Competition and so called “Sport Karate” may be partly to blame for this lack of individualism. Competitors have to perform to the criteria the referees are looking for, both in kata and kumite.
The modern All-Styles (WKF) appears less about budo and more about athletic performance - two different directions. I believe they can be combined, but this is the responsibility of the instructors.
Two good examples are Rafael Aghayev who started with the WSKF and Shinji Nagaki of the JKS. Both went on to become a WKF World Champions. Both have a solid foundation in Shotokan Karate. This combined with the athletic side of training has produced fantastic fighters with individual flare and a vast range of effective techniques.
I am fortunate that having competed at high level for over 30 years and now employed as a Police Officer, I feel well qualified to connect competition to traditional karate-do.
(SB) In 1991, you were invited to Japan by Sensei Hirokazu Kanazawa. What was the purpose of this invitation, and can you tell us about your experience with him.
(AM) In 1991 I won the Mens Individual Kumite and captained the winning RAF team at the Eddie Whitcher Memorial Tournament. This was the first time all Shotokan Karate organisations in Britain came together in a common cause to raise funds for Sensei Whitcher’s family.
In addition to a trophy the first prize there was an invite from Sensei Kanazawa to train at the SKI Yotsuya hombu dojo.
When I arrived at Narita Airport I was supposed to be met by a junior instructor called Tanaka. As I came out of arrivals there was no one there to meet me as arranged and on phoning the dojo I was informed by Tanaka I should make my way to the dojo and meet him there. This was a bit daunting as it was my first time in Japan.
On arrival at the dojo I found it locked up and no one there. The only hotel nearby was about £200.00 a night. I spent the night sleeping in the stairwell leading down to the dojo. Not a good start!
In the morning I was woken by the old guys going to the 6.30am class. They were quite intrigued to find a large gaijin sleeping on their dojo doorstep. On explaining who I was and why I was there they welcomed me and told me to get changed for training.
From that point I trained every day in the early morning, mid-day and evening sessions at the Yotsuya dojo.
Unfortunately Sensei Kanazawa was only in Japan for a few days during my stay and I only trained with him a couple of times. He was a very nice instructor.
The rest of the time the class instructor was either Ichihara sensei or the junior instructor Tanaka. I was not particularly impressed with either.
The 6.30am classes were always informative with a number of older karate-ka in their 60s training together. They always helped me and gave advice. I will always remember their kindness
(SB) You spoke briefly about Sensei Kanazawa being a nice instructor. Technically speaking, what were the most significant things you noticed about his karate, and what did you learn most from him in your exposure to him?
(AM) Sensei Kanazawa’s karate was very clean, very nice. Unfortunately I didn’t have a great exposure to his teaching.
(SB) Were you ever a part of Kanazawa’s SKIF?
(AM) No. The only involvement I had with the SKI was through the Royal Air Force Team. The RAF team at the time was made up of predominantly JKA and SKI members. We were seen as non-political and as such were invited to compete in the SKI National Championships as guests.
The only other involvement was when I won the Eddie Witcher Memorial Championship. Sensei Kanazawa invited the best all round competitor to Japan to train at the SKI HQ at the old Yotsuya dojo.
Part 2 in the next edition