Growing up it used to be a thing to compare the strength of our Dads. I remember getting into a heated debate with some kid about the fact that “my Da”, (you need to hear this in a Dublin accent) “can lift a car”. I had no data to back this statement up, and not enough imagination to answer the escalating retort “…well my Da can lift a car with his finger”. Such was trash talk in Dublin primary schools around the 1980s. 😊😊 To my mind, my “Da”, was invincible, until he wasn’t, but this is not about that.
Growing up our wee (Shotokan) dojo was, well just that. A dojo on the outskirts of Cork City in the South of Ireland. We had, pretty much, the same crew showing up for training with the odd visitor every now and again and occasional trips to our parent dojo. As a kid I learned that classes there were of another level, the black belts were all lovely, until they stepped onto the floor and then, well, they were just brutally honest in their approach. Not brutal in that you got hurt, but you knew you needed to step it up and yes, OK, you did take a knock every now and again. With each class there was a joyous sense of “survival” and looking back, it was great training, we took that feeling back to our dojo and everyone learned. If a block was late you got enough of a reminder to block faster and to be fair when improvements were made they were recognised.
By the time I was in my 20’s I’d trained in a range of dojos and had added experience of other styles as well as kobujitsu. All gained from visiting instructors and/or a group of us getting our act together and seeking out different training opportunities. This was something that was really encouraged in my early training the rules were simple, first, stay true to your home dojo, but second, new experiences and knowledge are never to be passed up. Of course, not all of these were good experiences, I distinctly remember one instructor taking an approach that didn’t see a return visit, but all in all, we gained knowledge from a range of sources.
In one Gasshuku I remember a load of English attending, they were great fun both in the dojo and I heard, because I was way too young to join in, in the pub also. We didn’t really know each other, so we kind of lined up as best we could, I ended up working with some guy in his early 20s who didn’t seem best pleased to be with me. Steve Cattle was teaching and the hall was packed. Oh, the nerves, anyway, we got going and before long I could feel that my partner was struggling with the bunkai we were studying. Thank all the stars for my stupid ability to learn patterns quickly.
That was one of the first times that I realised image is not equal to ability. Rather horrifyingly about 4 years ago in Sterling during a European Gasshuku I had a Danish colleague remark after a session working together “you don’t look fast, but you are OK”. That is a statement I will never forget that to this day gets my anger going. But I digress.
Confirmation bias. That’s really what I want to talk about specifically in martial arts. There are a load of definitions, but here’s one that’s good enough “describes our underlying tendency to notice, focus on, and give greater credence to evidence that fits with our existing beliefs.” This is where I believe that instructors have a responsibility to ensure that they are being careful in not transferring or creating a maligned belief or opinion in their students that becomes… well their understanding and opinion. I remember one example during a Gasshuku (in Cork) with Sensei Frank Brennan actually, where one of the participants answered a question about the bunkai for Manji uke – 卍受け, for those not aware of this there is a diagram below.
I was probably 20-something at the time and the answer that came back was that the front hand was blocking a kick and the rear hand a chair to the head. Now on the face of it, this might seem a stupid answer, but for the Karateka who offered it up, well, that’s what he had heard. Some of the group started to laugh and I have to say that didn’t sit well with me. He was the only person who put his hand up and had the courage to answer. You could argue…he wasn’t wrong…
On leaving my home dojo, moving to Dublin, then London and travelling for work I had to seek dojos that had at their core, a drive to learn and progress. Always entering with humility and respect for the environment whilst at the same time offering my efforts and sincerity to the training. As a new entry to the dojo I could always feel the eyes, the usual wonderment, who is this, what are they about and what can they do. Along the way I’ve met incredible Karateka. At one point I had a role that took me to Sweden regularly and I trained in a dojo that focused on Kumite for competition. The group was full of a mix of colours but red, blue and black were in high numbers. Another blackbelt was also visiting and voiced his dissatisfaction that there were not so many senior grades. He quickly figured out that these were in fact all very experienced and capable 😅. (Karateka were wearing their competition belts, they were not junior grades)
As a competitor I used to be really afraid of those who wore their hair braided. I’ve no idea why, it was something that I had to work hard to overcome. In fact, I used to feel incredibly intimidated by the warming up of those in my group, often times convincing myself these were some sort of super women. That’s a blog post of it’s own though.
There are people though who stand out over a career, I remember meeting Ann Rose in competition many many years ago. She dispatched me quickly although I will add that I was stepping up to the +18 group at the time, in my defence. Perhaps the most strange experience I had was in an open competition. The “rules” were supposed to be pretty well understood, but because anyone could enter, well you can imagine. Out I go at one point to fight a lady who is dressed as a Ninja. I’m not making this up, head to toe (in lovely forked shoes) in full Ninja regalia. Turns out her mother had set up a school and here she was representing said school.
Each and every encounter I believe is therefore an opportunity to (sometimes very quickly) gauge who I was training or competing with and how my skill level matched theirs and in doing so, to see what I could learn. To this day, a move that my Da taught me is one of my go-to randori techniques… and it still works! He’s not a man of many words and I remember him talking about “fighting clever”, and encouraging the study of others (competitors) to gain as much advantage as possible. Back then, we didn’t have different colour competition belts, we just put a wee red ribbon on one competitor’s belt and hoped that the judge didn’t forget which was which.
I’ve therefore learned that good is good, no matter the origin. Whilst one does naturally gravitate to defending their own style, there are plenty of great styles and dojos as well as terrible ones. I certainly found a few dodgy ones in London when I first moved over. Those of us who walk in the martial arts world are part of a huge web of history and lineage and above all we should respect the path and experiences of others. That’s my tuppence worth anyway!