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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Blame the weather or the weatherman?

Shaun Banfield

Shaun Banfield

Last night it rained. It rained so hard that I could literally do nothing other than lay in bed. It was raining too hard to sleep, too hard to concentrate on a book, too hard to fully relax. So I got out of bed, switched on the TV, and there was a Van Damme movie playing, Double Impact.

As I sat in bed watching Van Damme knock opponents out effortlessly with head kicks, and a variety of other athletically exuberant displays of physical skill, I got thinking about the other action movie stars that had used the Martial Arts to craft a career. I used to love Cynthia Rothrock’s China O’Brien, Seagal’s Out for Justice and not forgetting Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. Within the exaggeration and unrealistic settings, whilst knowing just how far from reality and how far from their original Arts they are – we find ourselves wishing that our Martial Arts training would lead us to looking that good. We get drawn into the activity, even knowing on a deeper level that it is not real – dramatists call this ‘Suspension of disbelief’.

As my insomnia seemed intent on going nowhere, I went to my trusty Martial Arts library and pulled out a workshop DVD by a very well known Martial Artist. I had watched the material years ago, but thought I’d give it a closer examination.

Now, before progressing further, I must add that this Martial Artist is incredibly inspirational, someone I consider to be outstanding and who speaks great truth and reality. I did however find his discussion of ‘Traditional’ Martial Arts to be a little misguided and inaccurate – perhaps not so, in accordance with HIS experience of it, but certainly within MY experience of it.

I have an issue with stereotyping, and possibly the ‘tarring of people with the same brush’. This well respected Martial Artist – again who I think is awe-inspiring – went on to criticise the Traditional Arts (of which he did not solely refer to karate, but others too) for certain technical features…or should I say features he believed to be typical of that Art, and he went on to share valuable alternatives to fixing these features.

Now, in my experience I have learned that you should not criticize the Art; it’s the practitioner that renders it useless. If you heard a piece of terrible rock music that was lyrically and musically flawed, would you blame the band or the genre? Would you suddenly visit your CD collection and bin all your Black Sabbath, bin all your Stones’, bin all your Zeppelin? No, you’d just knock the radio off.

In my opinion, I feel there is often a tendency to throw the baby out with the bath water. Is Karate perfect? Of course not, but there is certainly lots within that makes it an incredibly valuable and functional art…IF it is taught and practiced in such a way.

Returning to this DVD, within, there was an explanation for why traditional karate punches do not generate much power, explaining that if the body is used in such and such a way, power cannot be generated. Now, I have been practicing karate for 21 years, I would like to think I am relatively decent at it, and I don’t punch in the way that he explained. In fact, I do, and have been taught to use the body in the exact way that he went on to suggest.

So what does this tell me?

One of two things, either this person did not fully understand the karate he was being taught or that the instructor teaching him was not using the best method for generating power. NEITHER are the fault of the Martial Art.

The way I see it, Karate is like a piece of music. It does not exist until someone picks up the instrument. What you do with that instrument could be as monumental and epic as a Bach or as trite as the Cheeky Girls.

The truth is, it is the martial artist that makes the Martial Art work. The martial artist makes the Martial Art, not always or necessarily the other way around.

In my training career, I have been blessed with some outstanding opportunities that have opened my eyes to no end. As a part of the ASK (Academy of Shotokan Karate) Sensei Dave Hazard 7th Dan – as you will all know – is incredibly instrumental in teaching karate that is functional, effective and relevant to a realistic context.

Therefore, when I am hearing that Karate does not work, I do get a little disappointed. Not because I want to defend the art I practice, but because I realise just how misunderstood, misrepresented or unfortunately taught (by some) karate often is.

Misunderstood, misrepresented and unfortunately taught

I can see how this happens. If I look at the dojos in Wales alone, I could compile a list of karateka that are new black belts, relatively fresh to the art within the wider context, but are bestowed the opportunity of passing on karate to others. Now, we are not in the 60s and 70s any more, surely we don’t need people barely past the black-belt line teaching karate? Surely, associations aren’t in such dire need for instructors that they must have a newbie run a dojo to bump up association numbers?

Question is, should everyone be entitled to teach karate? Why is there a certain entitlement that naturally accompanies being a black belt? I don’t exclude myself from this, why do I feel I am entitled to teach others?

I suppose the point I am making is that this is not a question of grade, or years training, this is a question of ability and suitability.

I happened to be in a sports centre the other day, minding my own business and I happened to pass a karate class being taught in an open windowed hall. I watched for a few moments. He told them to keep their base foot pointing towards the target when kicking mawashi-geri, as it makes it slower if you pivot. When those poor people coughing up money every week for karate lessons are walking with a stick or are on crutches after knee surgery, then tell me the kick is better that way.

Would you have someone teach your child how to read, write a story, or even study Shakespeare if they had only learned how to read 5 years ago themselves?

No way, we expect our school teachers to be qualified, have gone through rigorous tests, examinations, having to be internally and externally observed to ensure standards. ONLY then are they allowed, provided they pass, to teach children. Yet we are ok with the joints of our children being in the care of someone with 5 years experience?

With the best intentions in the world, if you have an unsuitable person teaching, they will teach badly…it’s logic. So what happens when students of this unsuitable instructor ditch karate and go to a Muay Thai class? They realise what they were doing was useless and claim ‘Karate is s***’.

Yup…the karate they were practicing was probably s***. But is karate necessarily s***? Of course not.

Of course, all of the above related to bad instructors. In other cases of course, the student may misunderstand the point of the instructor. The student perhaps could misunderstand a training drill (something developmental) for real fighting. Both could skew the student’s perception of Karate….but is the Martial Art at fault? No, of course not.

Karate is by no means perfect. But just because you have seen or had bad experiences with it does not mean that it is useless.  I have heard probably every criticism in the book about karate, all of which I can absolutely see is correct in the context of their situation or experience. Never however have I encountered a criticism that relates to my experiences, particularly upon the path I am currently on as I have had outstanding influences in the past and particularly now in the present.

If you are going on a day trip and are caught in a rain storm, do you blame the weather or the weatherman that told you to leave your jacket at home?