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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Fighting For Young and Old

by Tommy Pressimone 

When we are 20 years old we feel strong fast and invincible. At 50 we may start to wonder if we can still defend ourselves against an assailant. At 60 we may look at our karate training as purely exercise believing we are too old and weak to fight a young attacker in the street. I am one who believes in the old saying; “Use it or lose it”.

I am a true believer in hard training as the answer to most problems, even the aging process as it applies to karate. If we played baseball I’m sure that at age 60 we may not be able to reach home plate with a throw from the outfield but I do believe that karate is a skill that can be adjusted to work for us even in old age.

A problem I see in today’s karate is the term athlete or karate athlete. In my opinion that starts the ball rolling toward putting a limit on ones potential. There will more than likely come a day when ones athletic skill will start to deteriorate and in the mind of the modern karateka your karate is no longer any good or at least not as good as it once was.

I believe this is taking the martial arts aspect out of karate and placing the emphasis on things such as aesthetics or winning a competition. Surely one can stay strong into old age as I’ve known men in their late 40’s and into their 50’s that can bench press 300 lbs. I think an adjustment in mindset and the focus of training can make the older karateka just as able to defend himself in a real situation as the young trainee with the added bonus of experience on his side. It’s important however to start your training and development of fighting skills early on in your training. It is more important to continue to sharpen and maintain these skills as we age, adjusting as we go, to adapt to our ever-changing body. For the practitioner who starts at a late age, a lot will depend on his physical condition at the time. Improvements can be made but personal attention to individual weaknesses may be needed. In either case, a strong body and proper defenses should be the main focus, along with timing and strongly focused attacks. In my opinion, this is Shotokan.

If we clear away the clutter of competition training and looking good we can devote more time to training our bodies to survive an attack. Quality training is what it is about and the training is focused on something I have always believed. I believe that a big part of the battle is being able to outlast your opponent. In my many years of training I have met and sparred with all kinds. Believe me when I tell you that I have fought with guys who I did not want to hit me a second time feeling I might crumble with another shot.

Over time I worked on my stamina and endurance, learning to pace myself and to control my opponent's pace. Another important ingredient in my formula was practicing my defenses. My blocks had to be good which meant my timing and reading of my opponent's moves had to also be developed. Awareness or seeing the big picture is a key element. A true fighting spirit can definitely help you in a street attack, no matter what age you are.

Here we are talking about an unarmed attack. Most of this holds true for armed assaults also. But there is a little more to it and that is not the purpose of this article. If this part of your karate is not in place then dealing with weapons will not be, either.

For any karate trainee to be able to defend himself he must first do away with the idea of “winning” or beating the opponent. What I mean by this is while you must fight with all you have and maintain the heart of a lion, you cannot go into a defensive situation looking for the “duel” and beating your assailant as if you were fighting at a tournament. Not getting beat or hurt is the goal. Remember that you may be 55 or 60 years old going against a crazed 20 or 25 year old. Maybe you cannot beat him outright but you can outlast him or protect yourself long enough to survive without serious injury. At the same time, this may also buy you the opportunity to take advantage. Here is where hard training and conditioning come in.

On the training floor, the karateka should be working on high repetitions of techniques and moving through stances. Low stances are stressed in Shotokan as training tools developing strength and explosiveness in the legs. In actual combat, stances should be higher for mobility but the stance principles of weight distribution and balance should remain intact. For the older trainee lower stances can be thrown in for strength training purposes but for the most part smooth transitions should be mastered.

Contact training is very important and should not be neglected. As is partner training. I have always believed that a fighter should be able to take a beating as well as give one. This is not to say you should get beat up. But to be the most effective in a realistic encounger you must have a hard body able to withstand blows as well as dish them out. Partner training may consist of things such as taking turns kicking and punching the torso with increasing intensity. Tackles and break falls are also something the trainee should become familiar with and accustomed to. Even face smacking can be practiced if you desire to take it to that level.

Blocking and countering from close distance and clinches is another important aspect, as is countering quickly anytime an opportunity presents itself. A quick eye should be already developed with the years of prior training, especially for the older practitioner. What I am stressing here is not a different way of training for the older crowd as all this should be part of everyone's regular training anyway. What I am stressing, however, is the importance of this type of training for the older practitioner also as it applies to keeping his karate as self defense up to speed. I am focusing on these points for the older practitioner because I see many who get caught in the grove of competition type training or Phys Ed (PE) once they believe they are “over the hill”.

Of course we can rely on specific self defense techniques or principles such as escapes, locks, grappling and throws. But our primary focus in Shotokan has been striking. For the older karateka some knowledge of these alternative techniques and tactics is definitely helpful but sometimes getting into a wrestling type of situation with a more able bodied opponent may be risky.

Strong techniques such as punching, striking and kicking particularly the lower extremities and joints will help soften your attacker for any grappling/locking or throwing. I believe that is what comes first in our brand of karate. What I am talking about here is possibly a last ditch effort when you know you may be out-gunned by your opponent. Hit hard, hit fast, continuously attack, good defense in the way of self protection and outlast him. Enough cannot be said for good fighting spirit also. In my opinion this is closer to what Shotokan practice is; strong, straight ahead karate, pure and simple. If you have time to lock someone up you have time to strike him or smash an elbow into the side of his head. A karateka should be relentless in his attack in a real-life encounger.

Outside the dojo, aerobic training such as running should be done, pushing toward maximum/ideal heart rate.

Also important is target training for kicks and punches; a heavy bag is ideal for this and should be your main training tool. A makiwara (wooden striking post) is another valuable tool for conditioning your natural weapons and developing that stopping power. If confronted with an unarmed assailant, as I have mentioned earlier, the aim should not be to beat him as if facing an opponent in the ring. I firmly believe that if you are truly in shape and hardened by your training, and you can outlast your assailant while protecting yourself, the battle can be yours. Any attacks made should be fierce and unrelenting. Once your assailant starts to tire and wear out you can now start to pick him apart. This is where makiwara and bag training come in. During the assault, while you are protecting yourself you should also be looking for openings and taking advantage of them with hard strikes or kicks to any targets that present themselves. The strikes must be meaningful and be able to be delivered from any position. Unbalancing should also be applied where the opportunity arises.

If we look at the various kata and the stances utilized we can see a variety of movements combining stance with technique, strategies if you will. Here we find a key to unbalancing our opponent and careful study in this area is beneficial to self defense outside the dojo. Are we shifting our weight forward as in a front stance, trying to gain control in a forward direction or force our assailant back? Maybe we are gently guiding our opponent toward us pulling his center off line by the subtle use of a back stance. What are our hands doing to work in conjunction with the stance? In either case sensitivity training is something to be explored. Working with a partner hands-on, up-close and personal, goes a long way in teaching us how to anticipate and react to our opponent's movements. In this way we learn to make use of these subtle stance adjustments by feeling his every move. We in essence become one with our partner and try to gain control by combining weight distribution/balance, stance and hand technique to set up the finish. I like this type of study because it adds a bit of realism to our training. Outside the dojo we are more likely to encounter attacks of this nature, attacks that are close in and competing for control. What we have on our side should be our tenacity, confidence, striking ability, control, and experience and above all conditioning.

In the dojo we gear ourselves to fight other karateka but an attack in the street will be much different. We will not be getting into a fighting stance, nor will we be told by our instructor to “get behind the line”. We will not be circling or “bouncing” waiting to counter with a gyaku zuki (reverse punch) or hear “yame!” (stop) after a hit. More than likely. the attack will be up close and unexpected. Our first objective should be to gain or regain the advantage and then never let it go. If the attack is a wild swing or haymaker, once again here is where your training comes in. If contact is made will you freeze? Will you be shocked by the pain or the site of a bloody nose? Is your body ready to react instantly even if you are hit first? If you manage to block such an attack your counter has to be a show-stopper. At this point you should be moving in and not away, gaining control to insure you have the upper hand in case there is a recovery from your counter blow.

Let’s return to sensitivity and control of our balance. If you are caught by the punch or if your assailant survives your counter attack now you will no doubt be in what I call “the dance”. What I mean by this is that your attacker will now likely attempt to grab you. The street fighter, although cunning in his craft, often lacks all the necessary skills to be a truly good fighter. He works on instinct and experience against others like him. He has no formal training and can be outgunned by someone with some real fighting skill. He is also scared, just like the person he is attacking. After his initial attack he usually has nothing else as far as strategy goes so he rushes and grabs or attempts to tackle, he may pull your shirt over your head and punch repeatedly, all on instinct and fear. If you do not know how to “dance” then you are in trouble. Once he latches on, you need to be sensitive to his movement and balance. Your knowledge of stances and their subtle changes in weight distribution come into play here.

There is no need for big stance changes or long, low competition-style movements. It is the knowledge of weight distribution and transitions that turn our basics into advanced movement. Feeling his movement and being in tune with it, gaining an advantageous hand positioning and shifting our stance/weight we can move him just enough to break his foundation. This lessens his control on his movements and takes his grounding away making it hard to mount a meaningful attack. It’s this dancing and vying for control that should be practiced in class. Once control has been established and his balance broken your weapons come into play. Using your arms like clubs can knock away gripping hands by smashing his forearms. Grabbing the head and cranking the neck, knees and elbows are all steps leading to that finishing blow.

We know that a block done in the traditional sense is sometimes thought to be unrealistic. It is thought by some that blocks can and should be used as locks, grabs or strikes. Some believe that it is the set-up hand doing the blocking by parrying the attack into the blocking arm. I surely agree with this and more but I also believe that a block can also be used as a way to clear the area. A soto uke (outside to inside block) can be used to strike down on the arms of someone who has hold of your shirt or jacket (once he has been unbalanced) to clear his arms out of the way. Again conditioning is a factor here and using your block as a strike can be like a baseball bat smashing your aggressors forearms softening him up for further counter measures.

It has long been my belief that conditioning and the ability to last as well as take a hit are some of the main ingredients for success in a fight. Hard training in your karate techniques, conditioning exercises and cardiovascular conditioning are all important. Learning to pace yourself and control your opponent (wearing him down) is another important element. Practice in getting hit, falling, rushed and tackled will aid in lessening surprises. Lastly, utilizing stances and weight distribution to out maneuver and unbalance an attacker has to be perfected through constant partner practice. “Learning to dance”. For the older karateka there is no reason why he cannot be a force to be reckoned with if he trains right and uses the right strategy. Train hard; develop the ability to last while also being adept at defending and making every strike count. Fight smart and make it work; it doesn’t have to look pretty.