Big John’s Blog

17th February 2020

However………..following on from last week, an apocalyptic position is all very well, but theres usually two sides to every story and so the ‘glass is half full’ side to this one is that mass media awareness has never been more prevalent, even intrusive, some might say. Consequently, the reporting of every single extreme weather episode is a cast iron certainty, globally, and feeds into the collective consciousness in the same way that potential pandemics will. We even use culture to hold up a mirror to these events through film. Think ‘Contagion’ or the one where New York freezes over, or The Walking Dead. Moreover, perpetual media anxiety surrounds us and informs our daily thinking, in relatively the same way as the atom bomb in the 1950s and the World Wars did before that. Fear sells, and its easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Meanwhile, in the world of Karate, Sensei Mark took the first session this week and a wonderfully dynamic one it was too. The class was built around two pieces of kumite ‘drill’ which began simply but became more complex. I shall try and recall them now and refer to partners and Bas the training pairs. 

We began by facing, left foot forward. A delivers a gyaku, shifting forward, B shifts back and blocks, before returning a gyaku and shifting forward. 

then delivers a stepping punch and B simultaneously switches feet and creates a right footed sweep which is assisted with an inner forearm across the chest, (which could also be a ridge hand strike or open hand throat grasp/strike).

In the second drill, again facing with left foot forward, A begins with a mawashi to ribs, stepping in to land. 

B slips to the side brushing away the kick using gidan bari throws gyaku to head at almost at the same moment as is landing. 

blocks this with a high soto, followed by a low gyaku of their own with left hand, which B blocks by dropping down the punching arm, before following up with another low punch off the left. 

scoop blocks this punch, sukui uke, while spinning by switching stance to deliver a high back fist to the head of B

Finally, B covers and uses feet to sweep and take A down. 

Before finishing attempts to kick from the floor, which B deflects before the finish.

By breaking this down into half a dozen steps, the sequence was fully understood and by emphasising the ‘flow’ of kumite, it was allowed to grow and develop into something quite beautiful as opposed to a simply robotic attack and response routine.

To finish, in pairs, we had A mount a continuous attack of non stop punches and kicks, much as you would a bag, with B being asked to simply defend and not step back whatsoever, before switching to repeat. This drill had an intrinsic beauty which was dependant upon not retreating and not simply issuing a crazy flurry of blows: but simply acknowledging the onslaught of blows and reacting, using the insides and outsides of forearms, open hand, elbows etc. 

This obviously requires a degree of control from the attacker, (once distance was confirmed this would be relatively easy), matched to a confident ‘no retreat’ position by defender. I thought later that it must have been very interesting to watch as a class leader, and given more time might be something to repeat and analyse closely, if only to help people who do not have much experience of close contact and need to build confidence in that area. 

10th February 2020

Week commencing 10.02.20

Some of you may be old enough to remember 1987, many will not. During that year, there were gales, not just strong winds, but real gales. Trees were uprooted. Kew Gardens sustained terrible damage and people awoke to find heavy branches crushing parts of their property in surreal juxtaposition. It was as though the gruesome giant at the top of the beanstalk had turned up on earth, and started pulling up trees before tossing them around casually.

Those of us who remember, recollect that time in a similar way to the collective memory we have of the ‘long hot summer of ’76’, the two events stand out in the national consciousness in a way that they simply would not in the present day. Indeed, as I surveyed the damage of yesterday’s Storm Ciara, through the medium of my TV set, I was struck by the similarity between the outcomes of ’87 and now. Unfortunately, I then began to wonder if the generations after us would have their own stand out dates of climate extremes, and I came to the conclusion that they probably would not, simply because they are starting to happen on such a regular basis.

Consequently one might be forgiven, were you one of this target age group, for taking an apocalyptic position, considering the flooding and burning of the northern and southern polar directions, the Coronavirus and the apparently weekly storm sessions. But hey, lets hope it all gets back to normal soon, and in the meantime, theres always Karate!!

3rd February 2020

Week Commencing 03.02.20 

A conversation began after today’s Saturday morning class. It centred upon last week’s opening question, “just what is it that constitutes the ideal or perfect session?”. We all quickly realised that what had just occurred was another ideally balanced session. One in which, if you were some sort of external examiner doing a teaching observation (and there are a few people at the club who used to or still do that) you might say “yes tick, yes tick, yes tick, etc etc” as you run through the specific objectives that constitute a benchmark of quality teaching.

There was the classic Karate warm up, borrowing from Yoga. There were some attack/defence step drills utilising arms and then legs and focusing upon hips to generate “Kime” or explosive power / focus. Kime is the ability to synchronise breathing with technique.

Then with one step kumite in pairs, we concentrated upon pausing between techniques to create emphasis on quality of execution: using formal interjections like bowing or returning to exact standing positions related to the floor. Rather than rushing to ‘get through’ the drill, we paused and framed the whole movement, making each drill clearer to analyse in terms of purpose or intent.

Almost seamlessly we progressed into a sequence of bunkai derived from the kata Heyan Godan’s opening moves. The drills were seemingly plucked from the air as we understood and then practiced them.

It was at this moment that I realised, yet again (having forgot once again) what is meant by “The Secrets of Karate” which I think is actually a book or several books. One of the secrets is that those Sensei experienced enough to do it, can create bunkai almost effortlessly, and because everyone is unique, the bunkai will be unique or “secret”.

So we had the use of the opening uche uke block, with a punch then same hand shoulder grasp and reverse sweep take down to begin with. This was followed by a kick defence composed of the double handed cross block, which morphed into a double handed knife block, reach around, pull down and knee to the chest.

These drills were contextualised by us repeatedly performing the full kata, thus emphasising the power and meaning of the bunkai. So there we have it, another exemplary session, delivered so casually, but with real mastery, Oss!!

20th January 2020

Week commencing 20.01.20

Saturday’s session was one in which, at the close, I got that familiar feeling of “that was pretty much a perfect lesson”, which is tremendously satisfying. I tend to ponder on the ‘perfect lesson’ quite often, wondering just what might constitute such a thing.

Is it all about planning? or is it partly to do with how we react to the direction or teaching? Because our Sensei has decades of experience and exemplary knowledge and skills etc, he is able to plan and deliver a lesson off the cuff, which comes from a lifetime of doing it. He makes it look easy when it is anything but, and this comes from the experience, knowledge and skills. Teaching is a two way transaction, the imparting of meaningful knowledge from one to another in measurable elements. However, the response of the class is a part of the success or not of any particular session, and quality teaching reacts to this response and so the two way process rolls along with the teacher tweaking up the pace or intensity as it all develops.

This particular session was composed of one step and three step attack and defence skills, followed by our current kata (Kanku Sho) and concluded with ‘speed kumite’. The balance of pace and intensity was exactly right and this is where the deep sense of satisfaction came from.

Kanku Sho is a smaller and more advanced version of Kanku Dai. Three of our katas have two versions: Kanku, Bassai, and Gojushiho. Each has a sho (small) version and a dai (big) version. Kanku sho has 48 steps in contrast to the 65 in kanku dai and yet it is a more intensely demanding kata involving two jumping techniques instead of one, each similar to either Empi or Unsu. Apparently, the kata is unique as it is the only one to include tsukami - uke in which one’s hand grabs one’s wrist to create a locking application. Some say it is a kata for the younger advanced student and certainly, although it is demanding and requires a level of proficiency that comes with age and experience, it of course becomes harder with age to perform!!

Either way, it has been rewarding to have the entire class attempting such an advanced kata, just don't forget to practice it - use it or lose it!!

6th January 2020

Week commencing 06.01.20 New Year!! 

Well folks!! here it is!! A new year and a new blog. All that remains is a quick round up of the end of year activities both globally and locally and its onwards into the new decade, the second of the Century, and surely the most important one, some might say, in the entire history of the world!! 

We are simultaneously cursed and lucky, it would appear, to be living in a moment when the future of the entire planet is perhaps in our hands. Whichever way you slice it, any scientist worth their salt appears to be saying that if we do not act now, in terms of our emissions, we are living through the beginning of the end. 

However, its not all bad news, we could turn this around, but we have to act now. If you look at the planet, the deep south is burning (Australia) while the high north (ice cap) is drowning. One has too much water, one has not enough. If people don't believe the scientists, and there are people out there who dont, then listen to David Attenborough. Surely those of you who are sceptical of the climate impact, (and I listen to your opinions daily) will heed Attenborough’s sombre warnings. To quote a more prosaic source, er, The Bible no less, You reap what you sow. Industrialisation and globalisation led us to this position and it is up to us to listen to the people who have conducted the research and are pointing to the ‘writing on the wall’.

OK, soapbox moment over, as I write this, training begins today, 

the first Saturday after the Xmas New Year period. We are settling in to our new spaces quite nicely. Congratulations to those who attended and successfully negotiated the last grading session at The Spires. Welcome back to those who have been away, good luck to those who are travelling and for everyone else, lets throw everything into our training because its a busy year coming up. Check the website for dates of courses and competitions, gradings etc. Don't forget, in an uncertain world, our Karate gives us meaning and purpose. It is an interesting coincidence that Saturday’s sessions are in a church because for those of us without traditional religious convictions, Karate fills a certain type of spiritual space!!


16th December 2019

Week commencing 16.12.19

Having taken a bit of a rest from the blog due to work and home commitments, your author is back with a post Annual General Meeting bulletin. There was plenty to discuss, with all of the changes that have occurred during the year. 

Senior members of the club have had work/family commitments of the most challenging nature and in addition, the club suddenly had to find itself a new home after many years at the Winners Gym. 

I’m not sure if anyone really appreciated just how demanding the relocation was for Senseis Dave and Mike to negotiate. Finding somewhere to train at three specific times each week, including a Saturday, poses a very particular set of problems, but somehow, they did it, and we seem to have settled in at both Spindles and St Peters.

The AGM covered a number of subjects entered mainly upon the sustainable development of the club through attracting new members and setting challenges for existing ones. 

Combat sports clubs don't make money, its all done for the love. So we've all got to do our bit to keep it running, whether this is through regular attendance or attracting friends and colleagues, we need to be proud of what we do and spread the message. On this note, it was heartwarming last Saturday to see a new level of effort and seriousness displayed by a number of our younger members during the dojo kumite  element of the session. The more senior amongst us notice everything, its part of getting old, so remember, we know when you are making an effort!! 

Finally, best wishes to Stevie P who has set off on travels around the Philippines, and personally, I’m looking forward to my own Son Max coming back the other way, after his own travels around South East Asia. Lets make the last few sessions before Christmas enjoyable, especially as Tuesday includes a grading session, Good luck to all taking part.

18th November 2019

Week commencing 18.11.19

Back in the real world, this Saturday was noteworthy for a couple of reasons. The day kicked off with an advanced training session for a couple of hours and was followed by a Black Belt grading for Lucy, and 3rd Dan gradings for Roger and Lee.

IMG 2828

The session was, as usual, a brilliant example of how to apply kata moves (in this instance Jihon) to real life simulations, otherwise known as bunkai. This is an opportunity for Sensei Dave to reveal how he thinks about the science of combat in the context of attack and defence using hands and feet. 

One of the many interesting points for me, is how the response to a particular attack hinges almost entirely upon whether the attack is initiated from a left leading arm or right, or whether one chooses to block with left or right. One small element changes everything. Of course, all of this is beside the point when it comes to kumite, because everything is happening so much more quickly. But what if this is not the case? Perhaps as we become more proficient we begin to subconsciously make those tiny adjustments like switching the leading leg or showing fake ‘tells’ to mislead the opponent. This is perhaps an example of why repetition of drills is of such importance.  When the body finally has to act instinctively, there is a chance that the reaction to the attack might just be  sufficient to take the aggressor by surprise, and allow us to overcome.

Watching the subsequent grading, I was struck by how performance anxiety affects physical tiredness. Because the participants were being scrutinised, their stress levels were higher than usual, even though they were not really performing a great deal more activity. Not surprisingly, because of the high quality of teaching, all three rose to the occasion and pushed themselves to that extra level, as did the other students present, who were required to make up the bunkai and kumite. Consequently we witnessed some fiery sparring which was really exciting and made the event more ‘real’ - special thanks to Daz, Corbes and Steve……..

So, congratulations to you all! It is great to have another Black Belt on board in the form of Lucy, a truly dedicated student - remember, the Black Belt is a beginning and not an end, so we expect great things from you in the future! (no pressure then!!).

Roger, you are an inspiration and a credit to us all. Lee, I always prefer watching you to fighting you!! your speed and athleticism is a joy to behold.

Well done all of you, see you next session! Oss!

Enviro Blog Extra

Week commencing 11.11.19 

Talking of water, the weather seems to be deteriorating, or rather, our perception off what constitutes temperate weather appears to be becoming more difficult to manage. Once again, it is a matter of perception. We seem to struggle when weather strays outside of ‘the norm’ Decades ago, a downpour of rain would just happen, I remember clearly, heavy rainfall in various places around the world, but it never made the headline news. These days we have roving news crews beaming at us from under umbrellas, anxiously reporting the rising water levels in towns and cities unfortunate enough to be flooded. This of course is awful and alarming when you consider the consequences of water systems overflowing. Unfortunately it would appear that it is not simply a result of the media capturing more data and reporting it, statistics are telling us that we are encountering record breaking levels of rainfall.

Simultaneously, there seem to be more and more reports of fires from all over the southern hemispheres giving the impression of the planet being drenched and parched at the same time. 

We reap what we sow. The industrial revolution and population explosion have led us to the position we are now in. Unfortunately a large proportion of the human race have been in denial about this to the extent that even Prince Charles, hardly a left wing revolutionary or member of Extinction Rebellion (to my knowledge) has said that we have approximately ten years to turn the whole thing around. 

If I may be indulged a flight of fancy for one moment, the analogy I would propose might be that my Grandparent’s generation went to a hotel with a restaurant and booked in. Later on they gathered at tables and gazed at the menu, then ordered loads of expensive food and proceeded to eat it. They repeated this every night for decades, without paying the bill, ever. Simultaneously they had  children, who went on to do the same. Fights broke out amongst the children and all the other species of animal in the grounds of the hotel were slaughtered. The children, in turn, had more children, all of whom continued to gorge upon the food, whilst throwing the same amount away because they couldn't eat it all, and continuing the slaughter of the animals, all at no cost. 

That final group of unfortunate children were woken up one day last year by a 16 yr old schoolgirl called Greta, who calmly informed them that the hotel was burning down and they had a bill to pay, which was so enormous, that no one knew of a number that could describe it. 

4th November 2019

Week commencing 04.11.19

Big John in action at St Peters Centre Central Dojo's new saturday venue

Training recently has been aimed at an advanced level in preparation for a black and brown belt course in two weeks time, which is followed by a Dan grading. A template has developed in which we begin with drills, move on to one step kumite and end with kata plus some light sparring. Variations include alternating the one step with three step, in which an attacker delivers a high punch, a mid punch and a kick, which are deflected and finished by a counter attack of some sort. Something I have learned over the years is that it is best to keep your one step responses simple, unless you are asked to display a variation of responses. The more complex responses have to be regularly practised until they feel simple but flow quickly. Any hesitation, and then they will look poor and attract another attack. More importantly, if you ever did get attacked with a nice simple straight ahead kick or punch, you would forget that amazing fancy dan takedown unless it has become embedded in your muscle memory.

Theses drills and one step, three step, or jiu ippon kumite have to be practised so much because if it ever came to that one life defining moment, you would hopefully at the very least, respond, rather than freezing, and any response is better than none. With that in mind, it is good to have a little script of responses that you practice each time we come to that point in the session when Sensei will say “right, pair up”. More often than not, it will be either three step - jodan punch, chudan punch, mae geri, counter attack. Or it will be two jodan, two chudan punches followed by mae geri, kekome, mawashi, ura mawashi, ushiro geri kicks, each demanding an appropriate response. If you plan what kind of response you would like to make, and ask if you aren't sure!!, and then do the same every time, straight away you have at least a dozen responses, ranging from simple to fancy. The seniors usually practise very similar responses each time and thats why they can sometimes look sharp. Its not some kind of ‘ninja genius’ that the more experienced of us have, its simply about memory, conditioning, timing, footwork, breathing, balance, speed, effort and “Ki” (universal energy or spirit, hence “Ki Ai!” - the shout you make on contact).

So, next session, choose the responses you want to make and stick to them and practise those. Think about your kata and choose things from them to see if they would work in one step. The more you practice, the better you will become, but also, you wont stay good without practice. Remember what Bruce Lee said, “training is like water in a kettle, you have to keep heating it to make it boil, if you want to make tea”.

28th October 2019

Week commencing 28.10.19

Remarkably, the Rugby World Cup finally ended today. Six weeks of almost military logistics and several years of preparation. It was almost thwarted by a natural disaster which would have closed down the UK completely, let alone seen it continue to host an international sporting event. Imagine if we had been hosting it, like we did four years ago, and we had endured a typhoon, in which nearly a hundred people died, many became ‘lost’ and thousands had their homes destroyed. How would we have coped? would we have continued with the competition? Crikey, look what happens when it snows here!

Anyway, it continued despite the typhoon and we almost had a northern hemisphere final,of two neighbouring UK countries! As it was England were given a masterclass in destruction, a strategic battering, a proper duffing up and hanging out to dry. England went into it as favourites, but by the end, the Boks were toying with us. We were almost unrecognisable from the team who last week beat the then favourites, New Zealand. However, thats the beauty of sport, when the unexpected occurs, with big change hingeing upon little twists both physically and psychologically. The Boks sowed a seed of uncertainty amongst our forwards early on and we never really recovered. As someone once said, “Its not the fight, its what you bring to the fight” and South Africa brought an intensity, passion and brutality that simply shocked us into delayed submission.

Shortly afterwards I came training, feeling slightly nonplussed but eager to get in the dojo and ‘give it some’, which is exactly what we did. Sensei Dave decided to focus upon one step sparring, offering a few excellent takedown responses. Specifically, in defending a mae geri, he suggested a step back on right foot from yoi (ready stance), by the defender, with a sweeping forearm block. Then, by jumping and switching feet, and using the arms, the defender uses their right foot sweep the attacker and finish.

Another response was to a side thrust kick, in which the defender uses soto uke to block, stepping back. Then by simply walking forward into front stance past the defender and simply straightening the stance, the take down takes care of itself. Assistance can come from the arms, or by grabbing the thick edge of the gi to put the final touch, before the ground finish. Finally, the old favourite of blocking a reverse roundhouse, thus appearing behind an opponent, then grasping both shoulders and ‘creasing’ the back of the knee to take down and finish. We all seemed to be ‘on point’ today and the focus and delivery allowed one or two of us to let out some frustration built up from witnessing the early morning sporting exertions in Japan. 

21st October 2019

Week commencing 30.09.19, 07.10.19, 14.10.19, 21.10.19

Apologies for the slacker attitude from your weekly blogger, if i’m not careful its going to be a monthly blog at this rate, but sometimes there just don't seem to be enough hours, days, weeks etc. So what happens when what is meant to be a weekly blog drags its heels in this fashion? its not as if I’m sat doing nothing. Its more a case of the list of things that need doing, from organising doctors and dentists to shopping and vets, or planning visits and changing lightbulbs, cutting keys or remembering to buy washing up liquid and poo bags for the dog; all get reshuffled and de prioritised to the extent that one has to begin again with lists and priorities, inevitably forgetting some things, remembering others and discovering new ones as one goes along. 

Simultaneously, the spectre of Christmas looms on the horizon…………if you are a student or work in education, it usually means so much needed downtime, however, these days students end up trying to make ends meet to cover exorbitant rents, by working ridiculously hard in zero hours contract jobs, the so called ‘gig economy’. We have found that with our two children who are now adults, we actually see less of one of them who is just finishing full time education, because she is trying her hardest to cover her rent and bills, whilst the other one is unable to make the break from home yet for the same sorts of reasons.

And this is where Karate comes in. Whatever life has to throw at you, you come training and all that slides to one side as you try to refine your drills and kata etc. You simply don't have time to worry about all the other stuff. Having said that, it was quite extraordinary coming training today, Saturday, straight after England had muscled their way in to the Rugby World Cup Final. What a game! they only went and beat the reigning champions, New Zealand, who were favourites to win the competition. It just goes to show that no matter how much a favourite is expected to win, there is always the chance that someone, with the right planning and execution, has a chance to beat them. It happens in sport and in life. I have heard countless tales of people in Karate and in Rugby who have snatched victory away from the favourite in what seem unbelievable or even dream like circumstances. Take the boxer Anthony Joshua, an odds on favourite to beat his last opponent John Ruiz Junior. Ruiz knew it was just two men in a ring with two hands and two legs and of similar size, so who knows? what if a little luck goes your way and all your meticulous planning comes off? anything can happen, and it did, he won. There is an old saying about young players being put in with adults when the youngster is yet to reach their peak. “If he/she is good enough, he/she is old enough”. So when you step up to the mat to face an opponent, or you walk into a room to face an interview panel, there will be a reason for you being there, and that reason could just make you victorious in winning the bout or securing the employment position. 

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