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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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by Steve Morrell

The concept of zanshin is something that often takes years of training to even encounter, let alone understand, or master. Even if new karate-ka don’t encounter the phrase however, they tend to pick up the concepts from their senseis by example. Over years of teaching I have noticed some distinct patterns in the development of zanshin as people progress through the grades, which I believe shows some interesting aspects of the psychology of both the student, and the dojo.

To go from first principles, some quite good definitions of zanshin are “continuing alertness” or “remaining spirit” . In my own view, it means the ability to maintain your focus on an attacker irrespective of outside influences, and also the ability to “switch on” your mind to “fighting mode” as soon as required. I once knew a kung fu practitioner who was so alert that if you put your hand on his shoulder to get his attention while he as walking down the street, he would have moved away into a guard position, or have you in a wristlock before you could open your mouth. This kind of awareness only comes from regular practice in the dojo, specifically training with this psychology in mind. It’s worth nothing that despite being ready, he never actually hit anyone, since he always checked who it was once he could see.

One of the dan grades I train came back after the summer holidays one year, and had obviously decided to specifically train with this in mind. He had a very determined attitude that once he bowed, his eyes did not leave his opponent, real or imaginary, as appropriate. One of our regular training halls has mirrors along one end, and we used to joke that he was having staring contests with his reflection, daring it to blink first. This attitude started to pervade the club however, especially when people would partner with him for kumite. It is noteworthy that of the group of beginners we had at the time, a lot of them thought this behaviour was more than scary, and commented on it. One of them however said “If he’s gonna stare at me like that, I’m gonna stare right back at him”. That beginner has since gone on to have a very successful career with us, and is on track to be our first homegrown black belt in some time . The other beginners are no longer training… It is also worth mentioning that the dan grade in question has gone on to the national kumite squad.

This attitude is an important thing in training for both competition, but more importantly, for the street. Many times I have seen people psyching themselves up before competition, with whatever rituals they see fit. My personal favourite was one MMA fighter at a shotokan competition who had massive headphones on, obviously playing techno music (you could tell by the dancing), drinking about 4 cans of red bull before going on the mat. He went out in the first round… These rituals aren’t much good if you are attacked in a pub. “Sorry mate, I wasn’t looking at your girlfriend, and if you would just allow me to meditate for a few minutes, and psych myself up, I’ll prove it to you”. We all know the old gag about the martial arts expert who claimed in a bar that he could kill anyone in there with his bare feet, but then got beaten up because the regulars wouldn’t give him the time to take his shoes off. In this situation, you need the ability to “switch on” and “switch off” instantaneously, in the first case because you need to be able to react to anything that may arise, and in the second because you want to keep your friends.

This leads me onto my point about the development in the dojo. I believe I have identified 4 distinct stages of zanshin within the grade structure.

Stage 1: The “Oh Sorry!! Are you ok???” stage: This is the beginner stage. You can lecture them for ages on the importance of focus, and keeping their minds and eyes on the imaginary attacker. They then do a kata and cheerfully proceed to look at anything and everything APART from their attacker e.g. their feet, their arms, each other, the ceiling. Their kumite tends to be characterised by giggling and grinning, and when they are finally convinced to do 5-step with some spirit, they panic as soon as a punch actually lands (read, “vaguely touch”) on their partner. The nickname is because I’ve heard this phrase so many times where there should have been a kiai…

Stage 2: “Constipation”: Optional stage, which can be bypassed straight to stage 3. Usually begins around 7th/6th kyu, and lasts until just before a dan grading. They have got the concept of focus and determination, but they just can’t turn it off, so they stand ready at all times. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but someone in this stage also demonstrates far too much tension in their body, and seems very heavy when they move. While they are trying, they usually are still far too easily distracted .The excessive tension in the face gives rise to the name of the stage.

Stage 3: “Allowed to mess around”: Usually at around 1st dan. I used to think our club was quite light hearted, in that we are quite happy to crack jokes with each other during breaks in training for stretching off, and even sometimes when training. I have since seen this in other clubs however, and always around the same grade. It strikes me that the seniors are never told off for this, and other indiscretions, whereas the juniors are. The reasons for this, I believe, are that firstly, the seniors know the etiquette, and know what they can get away with. An off-hand comment and a giggle while stretching is ok, but a loud distracting chat while the sensei is talking to someone else is another story.

Another example of inexperience of the etiquette is that we try to keep classes very friendly, and make the seniors as approachable as possible, as we are a university club, and have different needs to a normal karate club. Thus we encourage all grades to go for drinks together after training, and come to socials. Naturally, the seniors are better friends, having known each other for longer, and seeing each other more often. It is interesting then that even when someone is teaching who is a close friend, the seniors still (generally) refer to them as “Sensei”, while the juniors maintain the informality, and often refer to them by name.

More importantly however, in the ability for seniors to relax, is the ability to be ready to go at the drop of a hat, and the trust in them that they will do it. While joking can be allowed, the sensei can trust that when they are asked to cut the bull and go for it, they will, they will do so instantly, and give 100% in doing so. The difference here is that the previous two stages need either egging on to do it, or need to keep it going constantly to get more of this attitude.

It is also worth mentioning that, in my experience, the ones who have this mindset, have it properly. For example, where people who are trying too hard (stage 2) can still be made to look around while doing their kata, someone with the proper mindset will not lose the desired focus unless explicitly addressed.

Stage 4:“Just taking the mick”: I’ve only seen this one in certain high dan seniors, but it’s very frustrating to fight against. Someone in this stage will joke, and take the mick, and pull faces, and grin at you; but they will do it DURING A FIGHT! Then, as soon as you move, they clobber you with a perfect gyaku-tsuki, or uraken, and then go back to being relaxed again. There is quite a difference between being able to switch on and off at the beginning and ending of a confrontation. Being able to do it for individual moves and combinations is a very handy skill.

This article is presented in a fairly light-hearted style, but the point is quite a serious one. Different people of different grades and experience need to be treated in very different ways to develop appropriately. Sometimes this means a strict regime, and sometimes people who have earned their stripes can be left to their own devices. On occasions, the behaviour of regarded members of a club can be misinterpreted by more impressionable junior grades, leading to poor training methods that don’t aid development as they should. I believe that the ability to switch focus and determination on and off is a vital aspect of any martial artists armoury, as it means that they are more likely to react when caught off guard. This distinction needs to be understood by less knowledgeable members of a club, or self-defeating training can result.