St. Louis Kokondo

Traditional style martial arts for self-defense

The Kokondo Karate system is very kata-heavy.  We have a large number of them as compared to most systems.  We practice them a lot as compared to others.  The reasons we do vs. the reasons they don’t are many and varied.  Some styles will omit them entirely or use them for “reference”.  Some will say they’re good for warmups but little else.  Some stress them for tournament competition, adding a variety of acrobatic movements or other dramatics in order to “enhance” the form in order to impress the judges.  Most all of those statements are followed by “but they’re useless for self-defense.”

Individual self-defense techniques can be found in the movements of the kata

White belts and black belts practice the same technique but from different points of reference.

I find this final phrase somewhat galling from my point of reference.  To me, it smacks of someone that has not been fortunate enough to have been exposed to a knowledgeable instructor or, in many cases, someone that is just not interested or not ambitious enough to listen, pay attention and practice enough or properly.

As I have mentioned in earlier writings, our techniques are not a “one and done” matter.  We do not (or, more accurately, should not) practice our techniques, be they kihon or kata, the same way we did a month, a year or ten years ago.  While we have a limited number of ways the body will move and a limited number of techniques, the learning of how to use those movements and apply those techniques are virtually unlimited.  We do not “return” to a particular kata as if in a circle.  It should be thought of more as being on a spiral staircase.  We are coming back to the same spot at a higher level than before.  We should be able to execute the technique better but in addition we should have a better knowledge of what we are doing with it and in what context.

We begin learning our kata by having our movements dictated to us.  “Move this direction in this stance and do this with your hands.”  That process is repeated over and over until the requisite number of directions and steps in the form have been completed.

Do we “know” the kata at that point?  Absolutely not!  And this, unfortunately, is the fatal mistake some make.  They get used to going this way and that, flinging their arms here and there, without any idea of what they are supposed to be doing.  They have not stepped on to that spiral staircase and instead will forever wander around in circles.

This is where the presence and input of an experienced instructor is critical.  It is also where the open mind and the willingness to learn of the student is equally, if not more, critical.  Once the “walking” version of the kata has been learned, there must be extensive examination of the movements to learn the myriad possibilities of those movements.  There needs to be a transmission of knowledge as to how to apply one set of movements to different attacks from different directions and angles.  The concept that a movement can be one thing in one instance and something altogether different in another (block/strike vs. takedown/throw) needs to be stressed.  Learning that the bunkai can be using movements 1-2-3 here, 2-3-4 there and 3-4-1 in another place, and that each instance requires a different speed and cadence must be understood.  The kata has to evolve from a series of Fred Astaire dance steps (yeah, most of you don’t know who I’m talking about.  Google it.) to a living, breathing battle against multiple adversaries.

Visualizing what you're doing with a technique ...

Visualizing what you’re doing with a technique …

 

There’s really no logical reason why we should continue to practice kata with the same punctuated movement or staccato rhythm used in first learning the kata.  If the movements of the kata are to have meaning, then you need to practice as if you are engaged in using them in actual defense situations.

Unfortunately, this is where many students fall off the path.  To fully develop one’s sense of what the movements are doing – to fully understand the bunkai of a kata – requires relentless practice.  More practice opens more windows.  You will start to see bunkai not only in the obvious movements but also in the transitional and/or “setup” movements.  You will see things being done with the retracting hand that augment what the other hand is doing, or possibly even being the actual defense movement and the “real” strike/block is the augment.  A punch is a strike, a block is a throw, a transitional movement in a stance sets up an off-balancing technique.  The combinations and possibilities are truly endless.

Sound hard? Yes it is!  This takes immeasurable hours of practice over a great number of years.  I was once in the presence Shihan Arel (the founder of our system) and heard him state that he was finally beginning to understand Taikyoku One – the very first form!!

....makes more sense than thinking you're just punching the floor.

….makes much more sense than thinking you’re just punching the floor.

Think about this for a second…….  Our founder, with decades of practice, was beginning to understand the kata that we teach to our newest students.  Keep that in mind when you’re on the fifteenth rep of the form you’re working on and feeling bored with it.

This kind of work, this kind of knowledge, cannot be spoonfed by your instructor.  They can point you in the right direction.  They can put you back on course if you start to wander off.  They can correct your technique or stance.  The bottom line, though, is that what you learn, how fast, how far and whether or not your technique is going to save your bacon if needed is purely up to you.

It boils down to two simple questions:  1) Are you practicing your kata in karate class – or – are you practicing your karate through your kata?

2)  Are you only practicing your kata in class?

Answer those two questions truthfully and then ask yourself who is responsible if you don’t understand what you’re doing.

Then get back to work.

 

 

 

………..or 7,305………. whichever.

For those that keep track of such things, as well as for those that don’t, today marks the twenty year anniversary of the first time I bowed in a class as head instructor.  I had, on numerous occasions, covered for our sensei when he couldn’t make it, but on June 1 of 1994 the class became officially mine.

Holy crap, was I actually that young once??

Holy crap, was I actually that young once??

It has been a very interesting ride over that period of time.  There have been days that make me want to scream my elation to the heavens and others that make me wonder why I still bother.  Quite often, both occur in the same month or even the same week.  I have no doubt in my mind that anyone that has taken on the responsibility of training others goes through the same thing.  It’s part of the game.

Over these two decades, I have seen dozens, probably well over one hundred, prospective students come and go.  Some only make a handful of classes.  Others last much longer.  Their reasons, if I am given one at all, are almost limitless.  We do too much of this, or not enough of that.  The dojo isn’t snazzy enough.  We don’t “spar”.  We don’t do MMA.  The fact that we’re a closed system doesn’t appeal to them.  So on and so forth.  Sometimes life just happens.  People move.  Job or family requirements are such that they just can’t make it.  Their body or their spirit give out.  Again, nothing that any instructor that has been around for any length of time hasn’t encountered.

If my memory is correct, eight of my students have reached the rank of black belt.  Of those, only three were ones that began with me as white belts.  The others were already dojo members that I “inherited.”  Of the eight, only two remain active and participate in class regularly.  One other black belt from the prior instructor is still with us and we recently had another join after moving to St. Louis from out of state.

We have held no less than 25 regional seminars in St. Louis that featured the head of our system – first Shihan Arel and then Kaicho Howard (there was a time when we were doing two a year.)  A goodly number of Kokondoka from around the country have participated in those seminars or have otherwise dropped by for a workout when in the area while travelling.  Two evenings a week, the door is open, and I can probably count on my fingers when that has not been the case.  We only “close” on Thanksgiving and when Christmas or Christmas Eve lands on a class night.  One of my favorite class traditions has been our New Year “Dustoff”.  We hold it on New Year’s Day or the next closest class.

One of the things I am happiest about is the extremely low number of injuries we’ve had over this twenty year span.  Bumps, bruises and bloody noses or lips aside, we have stayed pretty much injury free.  That says a lot for the people that bow in each night.

Some of our legends

I have had the honor of attending somewhere around 20 National Seminars, beginning a few years prior to assuming head instructor duties.  On top of those, I have had the pleasure of going to all four corners of the continental US to the regional seminars, as well as now being able to visit a couple of dojos that have opened in the Midwest.  During this time I have come across some exceptional individuals, both in terms of their martial arts abilities and as human beings in general.  I have never been able to fully and successfully communicate how much these events can mean to someone that is serious about progressing in our system in a serious fashion.  It gets them exposure to these amazing martial artists and shows them just how good a person can become with enough time, effort and practice.  To this day I still have a tiny little voice in the back of my head telling me I have no business in the same room with them, that I need more work, more practice.

The Karate Inversion has happened.  I have had my belt go from white to black and my hair go from black to white.  Amazingly, despite pushing 60 years old, I don’t feel all that much different physically today that I did way back when.  I have no doubt slowed down a little bit.  Those chin kicks are only effective on short people and I’m not nearly as enthused about falling repeatedly as I was in 1994.  I can still mix it up, though, and I still find myself getting jazzed when I get to trade some solid contact with a partner.  Most of all, I still find myself getting excited about putting on a gi, bowing in and going to work.  I strive to be first to sign up for Nationals (it’s an ego thing, deal) and I am fortunate enough to usually get to one or two Regionals each year in addition to holding my own each spring.

I have recently adopted a second dojo.  Their instructor moved on for various reasons.  Having had my instructor bail on my not once, but three times in my life (two were in other styles prior to me finding Kokondo) I know what it is like to be left in limbo.  I will not desert people that I feel want to learn and that have the loyalty to the system to want to continue under what will be unusual circumstances.  They are willing to put in the work.  It is my honor to be able to help them on their journey.

As I stated at the beginning of the missive, it has been a very interesting ride.  During that time I have had my children grow into magnificent adults and move on in their lives, my parents have passed on, jobs have come and gone as have spouses, friends and family.  There is one constant I have always had and that is to wrap that obi around my waist and practice kihon or kata or hang and bang with other students.  We’ve been together for over two-thirds of my life and hopefully, we have another fifteen or twenty years left in the tank.

I’m guessing a lot of the above could be construed as mildly complaining.  I hope that is not the case.  My years as instructor, and in this system, have been greatly rewarding and enjoyable.  I sometimes think about all the faces that have come and gone, but I must also leave them in the past.  My energies need to be concentrated on training – mine and that of my students – and that is where they are and will remain.

I am now going to load my bag into the car and prepare for a little drive.  Some of my St. Louis students are meeting with some of my Mountain Home students are we’re going to get in three or four hours of solid work.

It’s what we do.  It’s who we are.

Now to start thinking up what I’m going to write for the twenty-fifth anniversary.

Ossu!  Thank you everyone, for a great twenty years!

 

 

One of the things I enjoy most about my journey through the Kokondo system is the opportunity to travel and participate in our various seminars and workouts.  I have literally gone to the four corners of the continental US attending them and always come back with new things to practice and refinements on which to work.

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2014 Midwest Seminar – Mountain Home Arkansas

What impresses me most is that, no matter where I am at, despite any differences we may have off the mats, once we bow in, we are Kokondoka.  We are one group, practicing one system, whether we are in Florida or Washington state, California or Connecticut.

Another of my favorite aspects of these seminars is the opportunity to work with people from any and every walk of life.  The membership of our system includes people with advanced degrees in physics and chemistry, physicians, engineers, business owners, musicians, artists, and so on.  The same dedication and discipline that is demonstrated in the dojo translates into the everyday lives of our members.  There is always the desire to do more and to do it better.  This doesn’t end with the person in the mirror, either.  Every person on the dojo floor, regardless of where we are, stands ready to assist their fellow Kokondoka in developing and improving their technique.  That says an awful lot about a lot of people.

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2014 Seminar – Toledo, Ohio

 

We aren’t allowed to enjoy the hangover of a seminar for very long, either.  There is always another just around the corner, waiting for us to join in.   The head of our system is amazing in his willingness to share his time and knowledge with the various dojos around the country.  There is a seminar going on virtually every month of the year.  There are Yudanshakai classes held on the East Coast.  There are randori.  We hold our National Seminar every summer.  This is a demonstration of his loyalty to our system and to Shihan Arel, our founder and instructor to many of us in Kokondo.

 

As students of the system, it is our responsibility, as well as our great opportunity, to attend as many of these events as our time and budgets will allow.  This is our demonstration of loyalty to the system and the Masters and Instructors that have put so much of their lives into the protection and preservation of Shihan’s legacy.  Getting really, really nifty new techniques and kata and more is just the bonus.

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Florida Seminar – 2010

At this time, I am eagerly awaiting the posting of the signup sheet for the 2014 National Seminar to be held in Connecticut this year.  If my math works out correctly, this will be my 18th.  There’s been a lot of sweat, sore muscles and bruises over those years.  I’m looking forward to more of the same this year, as are a whole lot of others that will be joining in the fun.  It’s not just something we do, it’s part of who we are.  And when we bow in, regardless of where we’re from or what we do, we are one.

 

 

 

As some of you may know, I am the last person on earth who has the right to an invincibility complex.  For those of you unfamiliar with my history, I seem to almost invent ways to get hurt, or break things, or get weird and almost unheard of maladies.  Fun in some ways, with some serious potential for disaster in others.

The problem is that I’m also a martial artist, which means that despite a resounding body of evidence to the contrary, I operate on an assumption of invincibility, because – let’s be honest here – martial artists as a whole suffer from a Superman complex.  We flirt with being delusional.  Advice is what we give, not follow.  Injuries are what happens to other people.  Boo-boos may threaten our acquaintances who aren’t smart about their training but not us. 

We routinely forget that we are, indeed, mortal.  The world sees a limping Kokondoka and thinks “that person is hurt.”  Kokondoka limp around after a National Seminar and think “I’m amazing!”  It’s easy for us to confuse a limp with “swagger.”

Kokondoka are like a community of Supermen/women.  We run around in strange outfits, change clothes in odd places and rock joint braces and compression shorts with the best of the spandex-clad heroes in the movies.  It’s just that sometimes we are a little stiff getting in and out of the phone booth.

The past year has not been kind.  For that matter, I’ve spent the past few years with something bent, broken or otherwise damaged.  Occasionally, I’ve felt very, very tired.  As excited as I get about training in earnest, I’ve also had my breakdowns.  I’ve been a little less Superman and a little more Clark Kent.  My cloak of invincibility has ripped in a few places.  Okay, more than a few.  I’ve been vincible……. pretty darned vincible.

The realization that you’re not invincible is a jarring one and its not entirely pleasant, considering (in my case anyway) it takes a series of crash-landings to recognize the truth.  We start to think twice about things that previously wouldn’t have caused us to blink an eye.  We become gun-shy.  We feel like strangers in our own skin.

The good news is that vincibility can be used for good.  Namely, it can remind us that all the advice we dish out isn’t just hot air.  All those recommendations we give out about strength, endurance, sleep, hydration, stretching and eating right?  Yeah, its not just for other people.  It really works for us, too.

The next time you crash and burn, think of it as a physical Post-It note reminding you to be a little smarter.  Take your own advice.  Heal up, rest up and move on.  If we can do what we do while being vincible, just think what we could do if we really were invincible.

It almost wouldn’t be fair to Superman.

We’ve completed a great 2013 and now look forward to an even better 2014.

The weekend of March 7 & 8 will see us visiting our sister dojo, Twin Lakes Kokondo, in their home of Mountain Home, Arkansas.  The occasion is our annual Midwest Seminar featuring the head of our system, Kaicho Greg Howard.  These seminars are always a great learning experience for all Kokondoka, whether they are the newest white belts or the most experienced members of the Yudanshakai.  If you’re a member, or want to be a member, seminars such as these are an integral part of your education in the system and should always be attended whenever possible.

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On the subject of seminars, our National Seminar will again be held in West Hartford, Connecticut.  The Nationals are the largest gathering of Jukidoka and Kokondo Karate practitioners to assemble each year.  This weekend is packed with both large group exercises and smaller bunches of people gathered for more focused training.  It is also where all senior ranks – those above first degree black belt – are awarded.  Again, these should be attended whenever possible.

In addition to these events, members of St. Louis Kokondo will be visiting other dojos at their regional seminars and workouts whenever time and life permits.

And as always, we will be working hard on our class nights (and SHOULD be doing so on non-class nights) as well.

We’d love for anyone reading these words to stop by and try out a couple of free classes.

In my grownup job as an accounting manager, I visit different websites or otherwise take advantage of various professional publications in order to both keep my professional edge and, hopefully, get information about the economy, world politics and business in general that isn’t colored by the corporate-approved bias of the various talking heads in the media.  Some items interest me more than others, which I suppose is the same with most anyone.

One of the types of articles I never had much interest in have been what I refer to as the “rah-rah” pieces.  It has usually been my standpoint that if you can’t be motivated about what you’re doing it is time to be doing something else.  On the flip side,  I disdain the idea that I have to be perpetually “excited!!!!!!” about what I’m doing.  It just clashes with my somewhat Taoist way of dealing with life.

Recently, though, I came across an article that dealt with “Crafting Your Personal Core Purpose Statement.”  Again, this clashes with my views as to what I do and why I do it in the workplace but included in the article were the six questions you were to answer that were to help you shape your purpose statement:

*What things motivate me to get up and get out of bed every morning?

*In what ways am I of the greatest service to others?

*What things bring me happiness and contentment?

*What things do I find most fulfilling?

*On what would I spend my time, talents and attention if I didn’t have to work?

*At the end of my life, what things will make me smile when I look back?

These are really good questions.  The answers to many of them are answered “my family”.  Simply put, there is nothing on this earth that I enjoy more that being surrounded by the wife, kids and grandkids.  Those are my greatest moments, period.  That last question, though, has some bearing to something a dojo mate of mine and I did a few weeks ago.

Our sister dojo in Florida has an annual ritual on the Sunday morning closest to the anniversary of their opening.  At sunrise, they meet on the nearby beach for a two hour workout in the surf.  Its a great way for them to celebrate, to get in a workout that is far different from the flat, stable dojo floor and have fun in a less-rigid setting (i.e. tossing their sensei into the surf).

After reading about last year’s event and seeing the pictures they posted, a plan was hatched.  We would invade.  Operation Sand Crab was born.

It was a simple plan.  We would leave St Louis in a rented vehicle, drive in a straight shot to Florida and stay overnight at the residence of our “mole”.  The next morning, we donned our disguises and were dropped off about two hundred yards up the beach from where everyone was assembling and warming up.

Because it just wouldn’t do to simply show up……….

 Now imagine…..  You’re part of a group enjoying a nice little get-together on the beach and off in the distance, in the semi-darkness of dawn, these two characters are slowly but surely walking directly toward your group.  Fishermen stop fishing to watch you go by.  The parents that are there to watch the proceedings stop talking in mid-sentence.  The children in the group stare at first but slowly start easing their way behind the black belts.  The dark-clad individuals walk directly up to the group and stand there, unmoving.  Noticing that the sensei was on the other side of the crowd they walk around the perimeter of the assembly and take up their position directly in front of him, again taking an unmoving stance.  This is to say the least, unusual.  The group is unsure what is going on or how to respond.

The tension is then broken when these invaders do a deep bow and come up in the “Tiger Claw” salute (I will leave it to you to look up “Enter The Dojo” if you’re unfamiliar with the “Tiger Claw”.  You won’t be disappointed.)  They then unmask, yelling first “Surprise!!” and then, “Happy Anniversary!!”  Shouts and squeals erupt.  Handshakes and hugs are exchanged.

Then we enjoyed a great two hour workout.

This is where the business person separates from the human being.  It just isn’t “sensible” or “good business” to spend money on outfits you likely will wear only once, rent a vehicle, drive 14 1/2 hours each way, virtually nonstop, live on gas-station snack food, etc. for the sake of creating your own little surprise party.

Every once in a while, though, it does the soul good to do something, not because it’s sensible or good business, but just for the beautiful, pure, sweet hell of it.

So let’s revisit a few of those six questions………….

*What things bring me happiness and contentment?

*On what would I spend my time, talents and attention if I didn’t have to work?

*At the end of my life, what things will make me smile when I look back?

Now look at the faces in the picture.  This will be very high on the list.

“At the end of my life, what things will make me smile when I look back?”

When I arrived at the airport in Hartford and approached the baggage carousel, I flashed back 15 years.  I saw the Lady that would eventually become my wife enter through the doors, preceded by a tiny four year old girl in full sprint.  She cleared the space between her mother and myself in seconds then leaped into my arms, slapping on a hug that would last as long as there was strength in her arms.

Meeting me this time was one of the Masters of our system and the host of this year’s IKA National Seminar.  The greeting this time around was mutual smiles, handshakes, bows and an “Ossu” -  a word that rapidly becomes a substantial part of the vocabulary at these events.

The theme of this year’s seminar was “Henka”, or variation.  It was an apt description on a number of levels.  In our 25th year of the National Seminar, this was the first time it was held in a hotel.  It was the first time we were able to fully register online (gotta love these newfangled gadgets.)  We had our own rooms, bathrooms and showers.  We ate meals that weren’t carried on cafeteria trays.  The variations, though, went far beyond just the venue and the logistics.

No, this time around we worked entirely on the variations of the “normal” ways we practice our techniques, our kata and our art in general.  We explored new applications of bunkai, in some cases multiple variations of the same sequence of moves.  We practiced self-defense – Jukido and Karate – from oblique angles.  We were shown creative defensive uses of our belts.  Our learning and/or refinement of kata leaned very strongly toward five of our Henka series.  Groups were put together so that nobody was in their comfort zone.  Many were learning an entirely new form.  Those that thought they “knew” a kata were quickly brought back to earth just trying to keep up with technicalities of the moves.  Newer students that had never held a weapon before were now part of groups learning aspects of handling bo 0r sai.  The only people not stretched by the sessions were the ones that weren’t there.

For the first time in the 25 years, we included youngsters in the seminar.  They added a new level of energy to the event.  They asked questions that the grownups either hadn’t thought of or for whatever reason didn’t want to ask.  They kept us on our toes and that is always a good thing.  They also brought smiles to our faces just because they could.  Another experiment that hit a home run.

We finished Saturday afternoon bruised and exhausted.  This is no variation from past years but we still bowed out at the end of the event extremely appreciative of what we had experienced.

In the time between the final session and the start of the banquet a number of us gathered in the hotel lounge for some pain alleviation.  One of our number brought with him several copies of Sankosho – the official guidebook of the IKA – the oldest of the bunch printed in 1989.  Those of us that have been around a while shared stories of the people pictured in the various editions.  We exchanged remembrances of Shihan Arel and Master Longo.  The “whatever happened to…..” questions came up whenever we came across faces from days past.  I had to explain to some of our members that I had, indeed, possessed dark hair once upon a time, armed with photographic evidence.

The banquet was as special this year as in every one past.  We shared stories with others at our table, compared bruises and continued getting re-acquainted with people we only get to see at these events.  We witnessed new Shodans, Nidans, Sandans and Yodans receive their promotion certificates.  We welcomed two new Masters to our system – both very well deserved.  We saw Kaicho Howard presented with his promotion to 9th degree by the Board of Masters.  We saw how much this meant to every one of them and felt blessed to be able to share in their moment.

So Sunday morning I’m back in the airport.  As before, I was taken back 15 years and remembered how much it tore a hole into my heart to have to leave my eventual spouse and daughter behind when it came time to go home.  Our time was always too brief and I hated for it to end.

The Henka this time, though, is that I equally hated for the Seminar to end, for the time I got to spend with my Kokondo family was likewise all too short.

 

I had the opportunity this past weekend to travel to Kansas City with my wife.  She is a quite accomplished artist and wanted to see the Spectrum Fantastic Art Live expo.  I tagged along as driver, gofor and enjoyed the relatively quiet time we were able to spend together away from the normal day-to-day.  Even as a purely right-brain accountant, I was mesmerized by the exceptional level of talent at this event, both in terms of the extent of their imaginations and the subsequent ability to translate it to paper or sculpture.

There were numerous workshops and panel discussions in which to participate as well.  Mostly, I used that time to occupy myself either by reading or for several hours on Saturday, taking a hike to the National World War I museum and spending several hours there.  I did, though, sit in on a couple of the discussions just because I knew of the speakers or their work or because there was something in the subject matter that I thought might be interesting.

In one of those panels, a couple of statements really stood out.  She told the audience that, when submitting their portfolios, they were hired based on their worst work.  That got my attention.  She explained that the portfolio can contain all the best work of an artist, but that work may or may not be what comes out once they’re hired.  The worst work, though, gives them a good idea of the minimum they could expect.  If their product was of that level, then they knew that had something they could work with.

SHAZAM!!!!!

Boy did that set off some synaptic fireworks!  It took about fifteen seconds for me to get out my trusty Moleskine notebook and pen and get those ideas onto paper.  This was something I didn’t want to forget (I’m getting old…) and knew I’d want to start getting those associations rolling around in my head onto these pages.

See, the concept works out for us exactly the same in the dojo, or even more importantly, on the street.  We succeed in the dojo and survive in combat based on our worst techniques. 

Makes sense, doesn’t it?  If I’m set upon by somebody intent on doing me harm will I truly have the luxury of choosing what technique will be the one used?  Will my trusty eye-gouge-throat-strike-takedown-into-an-arm-break combination be what comes out and saves the day?  Will I get to deliver one of the femur-shattering mawashi geri that I practice over and over, making the heavy bag in the basement cry for mercy?  Boy, would that ever be cool!

But here’s the rub.  Mr. Bad Guy isn’t going to strike a threatening pose and let me dictate the method and speed of his attack.  In all reality, its very unlikely that I’m even going to know he’s there until battle is already joined.  That’s the trick about assault.  The bad guy isn’t interested in a fight, he wants a complicit victim.  Our response has to be hard, fast, brutal and effective.  It has to be almost from instinct.  It has to be what’s given to us, be it exposed ribs, an arm or leg left within reach or an attacker that’s presented himself in such a way as to be vulnerable to a throw or takedown.  We don’t get to choose, we only get to respond. 

What happens if we aren’t prepared to make use of the bad guy’s exposed targets because we tend to over-practice what we like and shun the more mundane?  If I am in position to finish matters with a solidly placed hidari gyaku tsuki, but have treated the technique with disdain because that’s not my strong side, have I just lost this battle?  If I’ve decided I would rather practice kata than throwing because I’m not in the mood to be taking falls have I set myself up for failure when things get close-in?  Is the inverse true if I’d rather throw than kick? 

We place self-imposed limits on ourselves when we give in to what we “want” to work on vs. what we “need” to work on.  Everybody has their favorite techniques and those that work best for them, that’s natural.  They cannot, though, be the sole focus of our training simply because we may not get the chance to use them when it really matters.  When that happens, we better be ready with some worthwhile alternatives.

And to those of you that have visions of testing in the future, do you see how this applies as well?

Last weekend gave me the opportunity for some serious introspection as to what I should be working on and how much, as well as realizing that I cannot depend too much on my “patented” or otherwise favorite or strongest techniques.

I’ve been given an education from an unexpected source.  Now I have to take advantage of it.

 

On Wednesday, April 10th, two members of the dojo made a presentation to the youngsters at Wyman Elementary School in Rolla, Missouri.

 

The theme of the event was “Confidence” and was part of their monthly student assembly.  Students in kindergarten through fourth grade listened as Kokondo Senior Instructor Charles Martin explained how confidence is a product of preparation and experience.  To illustrate the point, several self-defense techniques were demonstrated.  The assembled students happily observed as music instructor and Kokondo black belt Michael Martin was used as uke. 

 

The demonstrations included board breaking, much to the joy and amusement of the children.  In addition to the two Kokondoka, one teacher volunteered to attempt her first break ever.  After the physical details of the technique were explained, she was guided through the proper stance, hand position and targeting needed to complete the break.  There was never any doubt as the lumber was easily shattered.  Another example of having confidence and not allowing those pesky “inner voices” to get in the way.

 

We are honored to have been offered the opportunity to participate in Wyman’s assembly and thank them for considering us.

Friday and Saturday, April 12th and 13th, we will be holding another Midwest Seminar in St. Louis.

We look forward to again welcoming Kaicho Greg Howard, the head of our system.  We have attendees coming from both coasts and several other dojos in between.

This will be the largest seminar every held in the St. Louis dojo.

Pics and other information will follow shortly after.  Stay tuned!!

There’s a series of TV ads running right now for one of the major insurance companies.  By singing the company’s ad jingle, the policy holder can take advantage of cash savings, prompt and courteous claim service or some other bit of product differentiation.  This is followed up by the always-present counterpart making up a random musical entreaty to their insurance company, with the result being a comically (at least the ad writers think so) deficient result – a dollar bill being dangled from a fishing line or the insured’s mother letting him know they’re sixth in the queue to speak to a claims rep on the phone.  The theme is always the same, though.  You can go with the good stuff and come out ahead or “settle” and pay the price at crunch time.

 

I started thinking about this in terms of our training a couple of days back.  How often do we really work to nail down a technique or kata, to get it as physically perfect as we can?  How often to we “settle”, giving in to the little voice inside that says “That was pretty good.” or “That was good enough.”?

The thrust of this thought process didn’t really focus on how the technique looks, though that is obviously not only a priority but an indication of how well we are executing our technique.  No, I branched off into a consideration of the effectiveness of what we’re doing for defensive purposes.

Let’s put this into a simple technique – gyaku tsuki from zenkutsu dachi (an opposite side strike from the standard front stance.  Consider that we have, in any one of a hundred different ways, evaded or blocked an attack from someone intent on doing us serious harm.  We are now positioned to the right side of this person, his ribcage superbly exposed and waiting for our counter.  We are in a perfect stance – rear leg straight, heal planted into the ground, good bend in the front leg.  We have our left arm chambered perfectly at our side, tight fist ready to do what it does so well.  Our right hand is extended, both effecting the proper distance between us and our opponent and preparing to grab their sleeve or arm, forcibly retracting and pulling them to us, doubling the power of that soon-to-follow strike.  We drive from the rear heel, up the calf and through the thigh.  Going up the body, we rotate our hips as we begin the extension of the chambered left arm.  Our fist crashes into the attacker’s ribs, directly on his jushin (center line).  Everything works in perfect union just as we’ve practiced thousands of times in class and on our own (you DO practice on your own, right?)

Does anybody harbor any doubt that under such a scenario, our unfortunate attacker is not only no longer a threat, but is very likely a candidate for an extended stint in the intensive care unit?

Ah, life in a perfect world………………

So now drops that dreaded other shoe:  Something doesn’t go quite right.  One or more of the following list occur………..

  • We don’t have a willing person that is just standing there waiting for us to break their ribs and destroy their kidney and/or liver.  Hitting their centerline isn’t a sure thing.
  • We don’t have firm footing and our stance doesn’t get locked out or anchored properly.
  • We’ve misjudged our distance and the other person is too far/close for an optimum strike.
  • The adrenaline rush has disrupted our flow, so we rush our strike instead of letting the entire body get behind it.
  • The sun’s in our eyes……….

OK, I’m getting a little sarcastic with the list of excuses.  The point, though, is that it is very, very unlikely that we are going to be afforded the opportunity to land that perfect punch.  So instead of the perfect punch, we’re landing an 80% perfect punch, or a 75% perfect punch or whatever.  It is still a pretty good bet that, while we may not have the one-shot definitive ending to our confrontation, we have still caused enough pain and trauma to allow us the necessary follow-up techniques to bring things to a conclusion.

So now you’re thinking to yourself “I’ve just read through 700 words that haven’t done anything but tell me that if I land 80% of a perfect technique things are still going to work out OK.  I could have checked out a couple of more memes on Facebook.”

As long as you’re thinking it to yourself.  I’d seriously suggest never vocalizing it to your sensei.  Here’s why…..  When was the last time you performed any of your techniques perfectly?  Conversely, when was the last time you finished a series of kihon or a kata and thought to yourself “That was pretty good.”?  Can you truthfully say to yourself that you can consistently, perfectly execute ANY technique in our system?  Have you suffered these delusions for an extended period of time?

And just why is it so flippin’ important that we do these things perfectly anyway?  No matter how well you do something,  your Sensei or one of the Masters or Kaicho is just going to find some miniscule thing to rub into the ground anyway.  Never fails, right?  You’re doing your stuff way better than that guy over there and nobody’s picking on him.

There’s two responses that need to be considered to that whole line of thinking.  We’ll start with our scenario with the attacker from earlier in this missive.  Say, instead of practicing your technique to as close to 100% as you can, you allow yourself to be satisfied with 80% goodness.  That’s just fine, because I said that the 80% technique was going to buy you the time to follow through and finish things, right?

Well, only partially weedhopper.  See, I was saying that 80% of a perfect technique would probably bail you out.  Because of any or all of the excuses that I listed however, say your 80% technique is only 80% effective.  Basic math skills tell us that now we’re hitting the bad guy with only 64% of our full capabilities.  And if we’re content to practice at less than 80%, at what percentage of perfect are we willing to allow ourselves to risk our necks for a defense that is much less than optimum?  Do you really want to depend on 64%?  50%?  35%?  Let me know how that works out, because I have no interest in such experimentation.  If I find myself in a confrontation that has degraded to the point of violence, I want it over – as quickly and efficiently as I can possibly make it so.  There’s way too many variables to make it worth wasting my time on “good enough.”

That’s one thing.

Now as to being “picked on” (and yes, I’ve heard that term used) by the higher-ups………..  Here’s a little tidbit you need to keep in the back of your head.

The absolutely, positively most dreadful thing that can ever happen to you as a student (regardless of your rank) is to have a person in a teaching capacity notice that you are screwing something up and not be on you like stink on a cow patty.  See, instructors have a limited amount of time to work with people, be it in small groups or dozens at the National Seminar.  One person can only spend so much time with anyone and they don’t want that time wasted.  If you are giving off the vibe that a technique or kata isn’t worth your best effort, then you my friend, aren’t worth theirs, either.  There are people that want to be the best they can at what they do and the instructors are going to be there for them.  You don’t have to be the most physically coordinated, in the best shape or whatever scale you want to be measured on.  You do, though, have to be working at making the most with the tools you have.

So there’s two major reasons to give it your best effort, every time you practice.  One can keep you alive.  The other can have serious repercussions on how far and how fast you advance in your art.  Most importantly, though, is the consideration that if you’re giving it your absolute best on the dojo floor, then its also very likely that your doing exactly the same in your school or job, with your relationships and your family, and everybody is better off for that.

Train well!

Members of the St. Louis and Twin Lakes Kokondo dojos participated in The Warrior Dash just outside of St. Louis on September 29th.  In addition to having huge amounts of fun on the 5K obstacle course, we also raised just under $1,000 for St. Judes Childrens Hospital.

Now, to the showers!!

Dessa Blackthorn, Dave Hea, Chuck Martin and Chris Dodds, after completion of the event.

Two members of the Mountain Home dojo attended our regular Thursday class as well as a special Friday evening session.  The high point of the workouts was the testing and subsequent promotions of three Kokondoka!

Congratulations to Rob, Dessa and Nathan for your hard work and dedication!

This past weekend, on the campus of Seattle University, several dozen Kokondoka assembled for our annual National Seminar.  A range of individuals from new white belts to some of our most experienced Masters attended.  Ages that spanned over 40 years were on the mats at the same time, sharing and gaining new knowledge of our system.

I’m often the recipient of puzzled looks from friends and co-workers when I tell them I’m leaving town for “three days of severe beatings.”  They often tender some version of “you’ve got to to be crazy to do that.” Family members don’t bother any more.  I’ve been doing this for way too long.  There’s no doubt that anyone attending deals with any less in terms of  questions or comment.  The concept of spending several hundred dollars in seminar and travel fees, getting up at a ridiculous hour to make a flight, bowing in, going through anywhere from 18 – 21 hours of workouts in two-and-one-half days with just enough time for quick meal breaks, getting hit, kicked, choked, thrown to the ground – over and over and over – just doesn’t register as something normal in their minds.  It’s really kind of sad, though.

For those of us that live this life, we begin looking forward to the next Seminar about the time we bow out of the current one.  It is almost an insulting understatement to say Nationals are special.  It goes far beyond the meaning that single word can convey.

We get together for these three days, not just for the workouts but for so much more.  There’s the opportunity to leave the outside world behind for a few days.  We have the opportunity to forget the inane political ads that are unfortunately just starting to ramp up.  We let school or the office get by without us for a while.  All of the societal nonsense goes away.  We bow in to Kaicho and the Masters.  We bow in to each other.  We are part of a family working not only for our personal improvement, but to help improve everyone else with whom we have contact for the entire weekend.  Higher ranks assist the lower, while themselves gaining still more insight into the very techniques they are teaching.  We support and encourage each other.  The individual, as well as the System, grows with each session.

We share the joy and pride of those that receive rank promotions.  It was especially gratifying to see two Kokondoka that -  one in the very first session and one at the banquet – were surprised by unexpected promotions.  Their reactions and looks on their faces when their names were announced  had to be a highlight of the weekend for all of us in attendance just as it was for these very deserving individuals.  The humility of their acceptance of these honors was just as much a lesson to us as any waza we were shown over the course of the weekend.

We honored and thanked our host and all of the members that did so very much to make this Seminar happen.  Site preparation, airport transportation, registration, delivery of the mats and other supplies and more than I can fathom came together through the efforts of these selfless people.  Two more were recognized with the Bob Longo Award for their contributions to the system, one of the biggest honors we give.

The physical demands of the weekend are much more than most of us encounter at any other time of the year.  At the end of it all, we are tired, stiff and bruised at the very least.  Many of us move around in what is known as the “Kokondo Strut.”  People sitting next to us on the plane ride home seem a bit put off by the sounds we make getting into and out of our seat.  And we keep coming back.

We leave each Seminar better than we arrived.  Any less is nobody’s fault but our own.  There’s too much knowledge, too much support, to do otherwise.

I always have trouble finding a worthwhile ending for these little missives.  This time, though, I had the incredible good fortune of finding the following in my emails when I got home.  My thanks to Ms. Kristin Armstrong for the following words:

“I’m glad to be here right now, poking at my threshold.  I want to get more comfortable being uncomfortable.  I want to get more confident being uncertain.  I don’t want to shrink back just because something isn’t easy.  I want to push back, and make more room between I can’t and I can.  Maybe that spot is called I will.”

Nothing much to say after that.

Good training, everyone!  I hope to see you next year!  Ossu!!

My daughter graduated high school a couple of weeks back.  After the ceremonies were over, a large contingent of well-wishers headed over to the local Ruby Tuesdays for a celebratory dinner.

I had the pleasure of sitting next to a couple that we don’t get to see that often.  Conversation drifted back and forth over a number of different subjects when the lady of the pair mentioned a self-defense class in which she had recently participated.  Well, of course that got us into some real detail as to what was taught, what I thought could have been improved upon, etc.  I also mentioned that such classes tend to not really accomplish much, as neither the mind nor the body have adequate time to internalize the techniques and that having to consciously remember how to execute a technique from a class attended at some distant point in the past requires time that just doesn’t exist in a combat situation.

The husband, probably feeling a little displaced at this point, chirped “well, that’s all good, but my Sig would beat your karate.”  My response was the same as every other time this asinine comment is made to me……

“Maybe.  But where is your Sig at this moment?”  His sheepish shrug indicated that it was safe and warm in a nightstand at home 60 miles away.

This is indicative of what I refer to as the “Second Amendment Superheroes” that seem to be popping out of the woodwork lately.  They attend the necessary number of classes, pump the requisite number of rounds into stationary paper targets, get their piece of paper and now assume they are fully equipped to save the world from all sorts of evildoers.  Precious few ever get beyond that point.  There is no additional training and many will never again visit a range.  They do not understand that, in order for their weapon to be of use, it has to actually be present when needed.  There has to be adequate time and distance to draw the weapon, lock, load, aim and fire.  This assumes that the intended target for some strange reason exposes himself in some way as to demonstrate that they are a threat rather than take the more common and expedient route of attacking from ambush.

In addition, the defender is no longer dealing with the aforementioned stationary paper target.  The target is now moving, probably closing distance rapidly.  He is probably making his intentions known in a very loud and threatening manner.

Oh………  and he probably has a weapon of his own.

Then there’s the point that I consider the most critical:  The defender has to look into the eyes of another human being and pull the trigger.  For all the swagger and attitude our hero might carry around with his weapon, this one point is the most important in determining the outcome of the situation.  And too many will fail simply because they will not be able to allow themself to fire that round, or they will hesitate just long enough for the issue to become moot.  The other side of this coin is that they will indeed fire…… over and over and over……  somewhere in the general direction of the attacker, but not with anything closely resembling controlled technique.  They are now not only failing to effect a proper defense, but have instead become a danger to anyone else in the vicinity.

To use a firearm effectively for defense, there’s a whole lot more involved than going to those first few sessions.  They are the very first step, not the completion of the journey.  I would strongly favor the addition of combat firearm training as a prerequisite to being able to carry in public.  I know dozens of people running around with a handgun in their belt or under the car seat.  I can think of only a minute number of them that I feel comfortable around because I know they not only can handle their weapon, but they can also handle themselves in the bedlam that is an actual fight.  That is no faint praise I give these people.  The rest are running around with a false sense of security that is a serious and potentially fatal liability.

OK, so now that I’ve gone through all this, just what in the world does any of it have to do with karate??

Well, we can just as guilty of having a large, economy-sized overconfidence in our abilities.  Too many of us are only half-training.  All too often, I catch myself doing it as well.

See, we have an extraordinary martial arts system with masters and instructors that stack up against any other in the world.  We have a curriculum of karate and ju jitsu techniques designed for effective self-defense.  There’s noting wasted.  There’s no fluff.  We have the total package available to us.

So what’s the weak link?

It’s staring at us in the mirror.

We go to the dojo, bow in , warm up, practice kihon and kata.  We do ippon and sanbon kumite.  We practice blocks, throws, takedowns, kicks, single and multiple attacker situations.  We do thousands of repetitions of even the most rudimentary of techniques in order to achieve the body memory needed to execute them without having to resort to conscious thought.  We sweat.  We sometimes bleed.

But we also do all of this in a room full of like-minded individuals, fellow students and friends.  We bow to each other before practicing our assigned technique, signifying our mutual respect and understanding that we will place our partner’s safety as our first consideration.  We won’t be intentionally trying to maim the person across from us.  We back off a wrist lock when they tap.  We control our punches and kicks.  We pull up short of vital areas.  We have to.  To quote a line Shihan Arel used at the very first National Seminar I attended, “we all have to go to work tomorrow.”

The downside of this is that we tend to take all of the above for granted.  We sometimes go through the motions of practicing while at the same time discussing what the cat did last evening or the new movie we just saw.  We have become distracted (read: a target on the street).  Our partner has become that stationary paper target.  If we’re not careful, we’re every bit as much of a danger to ourselves as the barely-trained guy with his Sig.  What should be our weapon has instead become a liability.

Wow……  so everything we’ve been doing is worthless?  Not in the least.  What we need to keep in the mix, though, is enough mental “realism” to our practice to get ourselves into a state of mind that will most closely simulate the real thing.  This comes a whole lot easier to some of us than it does to others.  Some of us have been in fights, brawls, been bouncers, have jobs as police and/or other situational backgrounds that allow us to understand that the difference between the dojo and the street can be huge.  The other guy isn’t going to back off when we pat.  The upside is that we don’t have to, either.

Jiyu Kumite (translation = “free sparring”) is an excellent tool for developing our combat mindset.  In our class, we designate an attacker and defender.  After that all bets are off.  Any kind of attack is fair game.  We start slow, building speed and power as the experience of the participants increase.  If things start getting sloppy, we dial it back.  As the student progresses, we add multiple attackers.  Weapons will come into play.  Other distractions are thrown into the mix.  When time permits, we go from the dojo and gi to the outdoors and street clothes.  We work on taking advantage of natural weapons at hand and how to move on uneven terrain.  Overall, if it can happen in the “real” world, we want to get it into the training one way or another.

 

We have to be able to “pull the trigger” once the battle is joined.  Our mental and spiritual training is every bit as important as the physical.  Learning how to get ourselves into and out of a combat mindset requires just as much, if not more effort and should be part of every practice session in which we participate.

So next time you bow to your partner, treat them as such, but visualize them as the evildoer that’s trying to take your head off.  It may make all the difference in a real situation.