“Are you a black belt?”
It is an accepted truth that this is always the first question anybody will ask upon finding out you practise martial arts. But what is the second question? I asked my clubmates to share their experiences.
If we refer to Shoto Budo as karate, then Kate being greeted with with “Oooh Ka-ra-te" and then a stereotypical “karate chop” will be familiar. Even worse is the startlingly unoriginal question of “do you do wax on wax off?”. According to Wikipedia, the Karate Kid was released way back in 1984 yet it seems to have cast a long shadow over karate in the public perception. I’ve no idea if any clubs or organisations subscribe to Mr Miyagi’s teaching methods but suffice it to say it’s not something we do.
Paul, Emma and I have all experienced this so how to change that view? Paul deals with this by explaining that whilst karate is the base, Shoto Budo is a wider study of many martial arts and that there is a desire for the skills to be practical in a real-world situation.
Furthering this, Emma finds that once she explains it's based on self-defence, most people ask to be taught something. Once people get past the whole wax on, wax off thing, they're genuinely interested in what we do.
Mentioning karate may evoke images of Joe Esposito belting out “You’re the Best Around” and I often avoid calling it karate, usually to avoid any wax based discussion. That brings up the next challenge of what to call it, with me sometimes saying “self-defence” and sometimes “mixed martial arts” but the latter has its own connotations of cage fighting. That in turn leads to explanations that we’re not involved in competitive fighting.
As Jamie comments, this can lead to “is it like Tae Kwon Do?”. Perhaps it is the recent Olympic exposure and Team GB success in the sport that has increased the awareness of this Korean art. It has become a frame of reference for the wider public. Indeed, I am often asked “are you still doing Tae Kwon Do?”.
Once the self-defence element is established, that leads into Jamie and Julie’s question, namely “could you defend yourself in a real fight?”, as opposed to in a fake fight I suppose. I wonder what people mean by this. Do they mean in a one-on-one confrontation? Any martial art skill should help if we are unfortunate enough to be in such a situation but of course there are limits. There are so many intangibles that whilst martial arts skill could win out, sometimes it would not, such as multiple attackers, surroundings or vast differences in size and strength between the participants.
If anything, the skill is to avoid the conflict in the first place and to be safe. If we had to engage in a physical confrontation, the aim is still to keep safe rather than demonstrating a series of technique or win a fight as if it were a UFC contest.
In a similar vein John gets asked “so what you do if I did this?” which is always a dangerous one. The temptation is to then demonstrate, or as Emma suggests, rise to their level. I will admit that I may have applied the occasional wristlock to colleagues at work when I’ve been asked this.
This may explain why, along with Susan and Emma, I get greeted with comments from colleagues like “I’d better not mess with you then”. Whilst it would be tempting to use this perception to my advantage in meetings, I’m not sure I would actually do anything. Having said that, in a previous job I had a manager who trained in Tae Kwon Do and I joined his class during a work trip which has since allowed me to say “you wouldn’t be the first boss I’ve punched”. That gets you some interesting looks…
Jamie plays on this and tells people “I have a saying that martial artists are the most likely pacifists, because they are aware of the destructive power that they wield.”
Emma argues that if she is feeling particularly self-righteous she will say something like I'd only use it to defend myself so unless you're planning on attacking me you have nothing to worry about…but only if she is in a bit of an arsey mood. Surely not!
So what conclusions can we draw from these questions? Karate maybe still has a bit of an image problem, partly stemming from the movies. It feels like there is still a mysticism around martial arts, as if training unlocks some magical powers. The nuances of different martial arts all merge into one so whilst the names Tae Kwon Do, Karate, Judo and so are known the skills are not. MMA conjures up a specific image about the UFC. Practitioners are considered perhaps to be “hard”. That’s a horrible word that again conjures up a specific image and if anyone in our club is not “hard”, it’s me.
Given so many pre-conceived notions, it will take some effort to get across the very real benefits of training. The fitness, the flexibility and yes, the self-defence skills make martial arts such a worthwhile endeavour and this is a message we all need to work to convey. By removing the mystic or hard perceptions, I believe more people can be encouraged to try martial arts and benefit from that training. It will be a long journey against stereotypes but our own experiences in BMAC with the women’s self-defence class shows that it can be done.
Now we just need to spread the word.
This movie has a lot to answer for!
I've said before that sparring and parrying feels like my weakest skill. It certainly is the area of training where I am least comfortable, despite regular practise. So the question is how to improve?
Well the last couple of weeks may have provided the answer. Ross and John have taken the class and we have looked at slowing the pace of the parrying down, keeping contact and restricting movement to a confined space, such as two or three mats. By slowing down, the focus can be on parrying an attack, moving to an attack of your own and dealing with being parried, rather than the somewhat frantic situation that can occur otherwise. A slappy fight, if you like.
I found this helpful. Initially training with John, firstly the slow pace of parrying helped with just the basic principle of staying safe. Not every parry was a majestic sweeping gedan barai but generally I was dealing with all of John's attacks.
Keeping as much contact with John as possible helped with an element of control. Whilst he was primarily attacking, keeing some contact allowed me to preempt some of his moves to get in some of my own.
Finally trying to remain in a smaller space started to address one of my weak spots - movement. In parrying I find I tend to move back and forth without much left and right movement, the upshot of which is I eventually run out of space or have to walk into an attack. In this scenario, I am force to adopt some side to side movement which again helps to avoid an attack and gain an advantegous position. I found myself getting more comfortable moving to the outside of John but when he started to counter this, forcing me to move in towards him, I was more open to attack. Still some work required.
However what was noticeable was how quickly the speed escalated whilst the parrying and movement still happened. The practice moved from being quite slow and deliberate to a pace that quite frankly surprised me. Interestingly when I then practised in a similar way with Iain, Scott and Emily, everyone found they were very quickly able to up the pace of their practice after starting slowly.
I am looking forward to further similar practices as this has made me feel an improvement in my parrying that I have not had in some time. It's still not my strongest skill but by starting slowly and deliberately, the light bulb has gone on about how to get better. Onwards and upwards!
A few weeks ago, I covered our first block of the Women's Self Defence Class. Due to the positive feedback, Emma and I ran a second block of six lessons which wrapped up on 31st May. So how did that go?
The plan remained the same - six weeks of simple moves that might be useful in a self defence situation. However, we did make some tweaks to the content based on both feedback and our own observations on how things went.
The first thing was timing. 45 minutes is not a long time to include warm up, a recap of the previous week and then the demonstration and practise of new skills. The amount of practise felt right most weeks, except for the wall defence so this time around each week would have three new skills. That seemed to work better, allowing for more practise time of each skill.
In terms of content change, in the first block the wall defence class included chokes. This time around we decided to drop the chokes from the class as, judging by the reactions of a few of our class, we felt it made a lot of the class uncomfortable. Whilst it is a very useful skill to learn and to defend, I think it would work better once people are more comfortable with contact and so we kept the focus on being pushed against a wall.
With this block extending into May, we took the wall defence lesson outside and practised against a fence in the car park of St Joe’s. As mentioned before, it’s always interesting to train outside as the surfaces are slightly different. I think this went reasonably well but let’s just say it was a bit colder and breezier than we were expecting before we started. And hopefully we didn’t do any damage to the fence!
Prior to the self-defence course, I would assist in teaching but did not put the actual lesson together so this has been a good learning experience for me. After two blocks, I’m happy that the lessons flowed from one week to the next. In the first block, we didn’t really know what to expect in terms of the class, fitness levels and how people would embrace it. With some experience behind us, I think we had a bit more confidence to deliver the course and did our best to keep it fun.
Our second block had 10 people rather than the 16 of the first one. Originally, we had 17 people sign up but there were a few no-shows and whilst that was disappointing, 10 worked out as a good number as it allowed Emma and I to give some more time to each group. This has been useful as we now know that 10 is a good number but equally that we can handle a bigger class.
It has been interesting to see the dynamic of the class. In our regular Shoto Budo practice, we change partners frequently so that we get to train with different people of varying shapes, sizes, ages and grades. In the self-defence class, we have tried this but people have generally stayed with the same partner. I wonder why this is. Perhaps it is a comfort element which I can understand as it is important to feel comfortable with your training partner. I must ask this when we do our next block of lessons.
As before, we wrapped up with a little demo of a typical Shoto Budo lesson which is fun. I did learn that trying to do some commentary to explain things whilst sparring and grappling with Emma is a bit of a challenge. Next time we need a narrator!
Feedback to the second block was very positive and there were some very nice comments about both the course and Emma and I as instructors. It is very flattering and regarding to receive feedback such as this. It is also cool that we have a couple of the class now joining us for the regular class and hopefully they will enjoy that. We will think about asking Hugh for commission!
With the school summer holidays upon us, we will run a less formal version of the self-defence course at the Allander Leisure Centre. This will be an eight-week period and each week, different black belts from the club will take the group. When we return to the schools we will run another block of the class – keep an eye on our Facebook page and the website for confirmation of dates.
With Bearsden Academy unavailable to us this past week, five of us took the opportunity to train outside at Lennox Park on a warm and sunny spring evening. Training outside is always fun. The wider space, different surfaces and obstacles all make for a different practice, requiring a different focus and increased awareness of surroundings.
We began with some pad work to warm up and loosen off. With the heat, warming up was quite easy but actually seeing some of the pads was quite difficult with the low sun. Obviously this is not a common problem in our training!
Our new 4th Dan Eric then led the practice, focussing on the kata Nijushiho and its practical application. I've practised this kata a few times but sometimes there are large gaps between the practices and eventually I forget the kata. This was one such occurrence so that first part of the training was just refamiliarising myself with the basic shapes.
From there Eric broke it down into chunks, with a few moves of the kata and the corresponding applications. Each of us then took a turn in the middle until by the end of the evening, we were getting quite comfortable with the moves.
We rounded out the evening with more kata, starting at number one, Taikyoku Shodan and finishing up at Kanku Sho (about as high through the katas as I know). By this point the sun was going down but more importantly, the midges were starting to find BMAC members a tasty supper so we called it night. It was an excellent session with some different terrains and circumstances and useful learning of Nijushiho.
The following night, with the sun still (mostly) shining, Emma and I decided to have our women's self defence class outside. I think this went quite well, with us using a fence in the St Joseph's Primary School car park to practise what is usually "wall defence". The car park surface is quite uneven which helps focus a little bit on balance. It's certainly different from a flat gym floor.
Perhaps the only downside was the sun went away a lot more quickly than the previous night so it wasn't exactly the warmest practice. Hopefully nobody got too cold! We'll be back indoors for the next self defence class this week.
During the school holidays we have one regular class per week at the Allander Leisure Centre but after this week, I hope we can have a few more outdoor sessions over what hopefully will be a long hot summer.
What? Not those Waltons? Sorry...
Hideously dated cultural references aside, I just wanted to say a big congratulations to Eric, Ross and Kate Walton on their grading successes at this past weekend's Adult National course in Larbert. After an intense weekend of training, Eric is now a 4th Dan black belt, Ross is a 3rd Dan and Kate moves up from brown belt to 1st Dan.
I've enjoyed training with all of them over the years, with Eric and Ross being part of the club since I joined back in 2007 and it's been great to see them advance through the grades. Eric has been a great teacher and has given me plenty of encouragement and tips over the years. Mind you, he is a sneaky so-and-so and you always have to be on your guard when training with him.
Ross would have been 14ish when I started training so to see him now as a third Dan is really cool. He's also a lot bigger and stronger than he was back then and has developed into an excellent training partner and coach.
Kate started with the club as part of her Duke of Edinburgh award and enjoyed it so much, she stayed with us and now is a black belt. As was the case with me back in November, she was delighted to get this.
Now you may be thinking, this is one crazy family. And you'd be right, but despite eight Dan grades between them and the photographic evidence, they genuinely are really good people. Well done all of you!
As mentioned a few weeks ago, the club launched a Women's Self Defence Course on 22nd February. Run by Emma and I, this was intended to teach some simple self defence moves, without the potentially intimidating atmosphere of a martial arts club.
We tried a variety of routes to publicise this, handing out flyers to parents at our junior classes, on the Bearsden Community Facebook page and an article in the local newspaper. This generated a good level of interest, with the most hits over a week that this website has ever received. Nevertheless, we were unsure how many people would actually turn up. What if nobody came? For a first attempt, we thought we might get six people and we would have been delighted.
Instead, we had 16 people join us for the six weeks. Wow! We'd better get to work.
Emma and I had worked on a schedule of beginning with pads and then teaching a couple of skills each week. The following week would feature a recap of the previous session before moving onto the new skill.
The first week took a little longer to get started, getting everyone registered and explaining the aims of the course. We started with some pads and then some basic contact and movement. Everyone was a little tentative, which is to be expected. We hit pads and have contact every week but when it's new, it can feel a bit weird. One thing that became apparent - 45 minutes was going to pass very quickly.
Week 2 focused on reacting to a wrist grab, making use of some of John's patented quick and effective moves.
The third seek featured being grabbed from behind and a variety of ways to escape. Also notable is by this time we were remembering everyone's names!
In week 4, a real life policeman joined us to give a talk on things to look out for and how some of these moves may be perceived, for example on CCTV. We also practiced moving through a crowd when you do not know where a threat may come from. This borrowed from an excellent practice that Pauline Walmsley has taught at courses.
Into week 5 and we covered being pushed against a wall and being choked. The latter element can feel quite uncomfortable and we advised anyone who did not like that to focus on being grabbed instead. This was the one session we felt had too much in it given the time constraints so we'll look to rework this a bit.
Lastly in week 6 we put it all together and invited Fraser and John to join us, to give everyone someone different to practise the moves on. We closed out with Emma and I doing a short demo of a typical club practice, with some pads, sparring and takedowns. Hopefully nobody was too intimated by this and might even come and join the club.
So that was our six weeks. Everyone seemed to really enjoy the session and we received some lovely feedback forms from the class. Emma and I had an absolute blast putting it together and running the course, so much so that we are going to run a second block of six lessons, starting on 19th April. We're looking forward to it and hope to see some of our originals return and some new people joining. See you on the 19th!
Take a look at the Skills tab and you will see the different areas of a typical Shoto Budo practice, with pads, parrying, takedowns and wrestling all featuring. However, I've often wondered how to move from one skill to the next. Recently our practices have started to fill in those gaps.
Hugh has used a pummelling drill from amateur wrestling before as a warm up, but we have been concentrating on the movement within this. It's a physically tiring drill, particularly when your opponent is bigger and / or stronger than you.
From there, we added attempts at trips and distractions which could serve multiple purposes. It might result in an opponent being on the ground, it might create some space to apply a lock or it could break contact allowing either an escape or reset of distance.
The next addition was to add some light strikes, with us wearing grappling (or MMA style) gloves. We are not practising for a competitive fight so the strikes are not intended to cause damage but they serve as a distraction and another thing to be aware of when defending. When we started doing this a few weeks ago, I was very much getting caught up in the grappling element and got tagged almost constantly. It was something new and an element that previously we did not need to be aware of.
The next building block was to try and break the grapple and move to a distance where kicks or punches would be effective , leading to a short period of parrying before moving back in to the grappling distance. Again this been something new and in some ways goes against instinct to keep at a "safe" distance from an opponent. However, once that notion was overcome, I found myself getting more comfortable coming back into close quarters. It is helping me find ways past people who may be taller than me and thus can fire out kicks to keep me at bay.
Last week we added another stage of taking this movement to the ground to allow a short period of wrestling. That is still going to need some work to flow and indeed I found myself more on the receiving end of takedowns. However one thing that I did find myself doing was quickly getting into a "technical standup", a Brazilian jiu-jitsu move. This is a way of getting back on your feed whilst still being in a defensive position and without turning your back to an opponent.
This is all still a work in progress but the gaps slowly are starting to fill. There are a lot of things to be aware of. The grappling and potential locks. The strikes when close in, which could be hands, knees or feet. There are distractions that could lead to trips. There is balance. It is a physically and mentally tiring practice but after a few weeks, I definitely am seeing the benefits of the practice and how it all comes together.
"So", said Hugh as he turned to Emma and I, "I'd like you guys to start working towards Second Dan.
After that initial reaction, I realised that I am excited by that prospect. Who knows how long it will take. After all I started the blog after getting my brown belt to document my journey to black belt, not expecting it to be more than three years until it actually happened. Whilst I hope it won't be another three years, I'm not going to make any predictions because all sorts of things can happen.
Work, injuries, life, distractions.....SQUIRREL!
Where to start? Well, a part of my First Dan grading diary was to rate my skill levels in various areas so let's look at that. We can come back to that over the next few months to see how I am progressing. Here are my self assessed scores prior to my last grading, as taken from my diary.
Firstly I ranked my ability to perform all of the katas I know
Taikyoku Shodan - 3
Taikyoku Nidan - 3
Taikyoku Sandan - 3
Heian Shodan - 3
Heian Nidan - 3
Heian Sandan - 3
Heian Yodan - 3
Heian Godan -3
Tekki Shodan - 3
Tekki Nidan - 3
Tekki Sandan - 3
Tekki Den - 3
Bassai Dai - 3
Bassai Sho - 3
Hangetsu - 3
Hangetsu Den - 3
Kwanku Dai - 3
Kwanku Sho - 1 (I had only started learning this one at the time of my diary.)
As the recent course showed, "learning" kata is a lot more than just learning a sequence of moves. I think my form generally is improving as I try to pay more attention to the movement, how everything links together and what are the moves trying to achieve. If I were ranking my kata now based on knowledge from the course, I would score myself lower. I think these scores reflect me knowing the basic shape of the katas but the next area to develop is the finer understanding of these moves and what they are intended to accomplish.
Following on from kata, I ranked my ability in a variety of areas
Kicks - 2
My kicks still need a lot of work. Left leg kicks are not great, right leg kicks are better but need more snap.
Hand strikes - 4
I think my power, accuracy and variety is improving on punches, elbows, hand strikes etc.
Defences - 3
My leg parrying is getting better and finding I use that now in parrying practise. Still a tendency to try and grab attacks.
Locks - 4
Getting better here, particularly working with John on some of his quick attacks and locks. Maybe need some more variety.
Breakfalls - 3
Comfortable with my breakfall techniques but cardio is always a challenge on the breakfall kata.
Parrying - 2
I feel this is my weakest area. Defensively I feel ok but when trying to attack, I'm not picking targets well and have a tendency to charge in and leave myself too open.
Takedowns - 4
Sacrifice throw needs work but I think my other takedowns have really improved lately.
Grappling - 3
Tripping and unbalancing is getting better. Struggle a bit with a larger opponent to get enough movement to do anything useful with them.
Wrestling - 4
I think my movement on the ground has improved. Still need some work on finishing and sometimes leave arms in vulnerable positions for chokes
Parrying continues to need work but more recently I have found myself getting more confident in the practise. However, I am still very linear in my movement and need to improve that.
My wrestling also needs more work than the above score suggests, particularly avoiding being pinned down and thus having to expend a lot of energy to escape from bad positions. I have been wrestling with Ross and Eric recently, both of whom are highly skilled and in Ross's case, very strong.
Looking back, I scored myself in the context of being a brown belt but if I want to progress to second Dan, then my ability will need to improve across the board. That's not a bad thing but I believe it is important to recognise how the expectations change and where I need to develop.
To this extent, I have found myself recently asking many questions of Hugh and sharing observations with the class. Whilst I have always asked questions, the Springburn course has really awoken a desire to understand why things work and the wider picture of how everything fits together. Hopefully nobody minds the barrage of questions and brain dumps too much (sorry everyone!). Also with the Women's Self Defence Class now underway, both Emma and I need to be able to answer questions from the class. It is an interesting development and shows that the long held idea that getting a black belt means the real learning starts is a lot more than just a martial arts cliché.
So, with both skills and understanding to develop, the journey to Second Dan is well underway. Let's enjoy the ride.
The first course of 2017 saw a good number of Shoto Budo practitioners descend on Springburn Academy over the weekend of 11th and 12th February. The theme of the course was kata, how to improve and how to use it.
The class was divided into groups and, as with November's National Course, we had 30 minutes or so with different instructors whilst the senior grades circulated to clarify both what was being taught and how it was being received.
I was training with the black belt group over the weekend and, obviously enough given that I only got my First Dan in November, this was the first course where I have been part of that group. Such was the level of information and practice within the group, I can safely say that my head was as exhausted as my body.
For example, on Sunday my group was working through the Tekki katas and using application of these in open space and against a wall. Graeme Muirhead and Richard Price (both 8th Dan) fed into the session about the movement, and timing of certain moves to generate power with Graeme effectively demonstrating what he meant. It really showed that "knowing" a kata is not just some vague sequence of moves but what the moves actually are doing.
Billy Haggerty (10th Dan and Shoto Budo's Technical Director) made a point during the wrap up that he still practises Taikyoku Shodan (the first kata) and it has all the moves need for self defence. I imagine that I was not the only person who was surprised by that, the (incorrect) assumption being that the higher the grade, the higher the kata would be practised. I think the value of all the katas is something everyone should remember.
Another valuable learning point from Billy was that kata in itself is not self defence. If one goes into a situation with the intention of using a specific kata, it will likely fail. He then framed it as "stay safe" rather than "use kata" and that simple phrasing visibly changed the mindset. After a demo of this, he asked if anyone saw moves from kata.
Lots of shaking heads.
But what about these steps he asked? What about these parrying moves?
There were moves from kata but since he hadn't framed it as kata application, many of us did not recognise it as such.
So much information, so much to process and so much to take back to the club for regular training. It was exactly what a course should provide.
It also was the first grading opportunity for our kyu grades and we had one member participating. Congratulations go to Scott McCallum who achieved his orange belt. Well done Scott!
As we enter February 2017, the club is branching out and launching a Women's Self Defence course that will run over six weeks. Given that Shoto Budo as a martial art is primarily about self defence and we have female members already, why introduce this course?
Essentially we recognise that starting a martial art can be quite intimidating, for both men and women, and progression through the grades, attending courses and is quite a time commitment. It may not be what everyone is looking for. However, the elements of our practise can benefit anyone and this new course aims to give some moves that would be useful in a self defence situation.
Therefore Emma and I have put together six lessons which focus on different types of attack, with counters for these. The moves are designed to be simple and memorable so that they can be recalled when necessary. We did not want to include some of our more complex locks - even after nine years of practice it can still take me several attempts to apply these which is not quite what we're aiming for here.
Emma has been very keen to start such a class, having trained as teenager, joined Shoto Budo when she turned 30 and now as a 1st Dan black belt, is looking to pass on some of her skills. She always encourages women to join a martial arts club but understands how daunting it can be. Commenting further, Emma added "the most common reaction I hear about when women are attacked is that they "freeze" so the idea is to give you movements that we practice so that they become natural reactions should the worst ever happen.
We've designed a 6 week course to tackle 5 different attacks and a variety of ways to defend against them". We'll hit some pads (a great stress relief!), try some moves and hopefully have some fun whilst doing it. A six week course won't make anyone a ninja but it might improve confidence, a little bit of fitness and maybe encourage people to join the club. The course is affiliated to our club so we decided to have a logo that was a variation on our triangle logo existing club logo. Many thanks to Laura Murdoch for designing this.
The first class is on 22nd February and we'll check back in here with updates on our progress. For more details, take a look at our Womens Self Defence page.
Scott has been training in Shoto Budo since 2007 and is a 1st Dan Black Belt. He is working towards his 2nd Dan grading.