In a recent Radio 4 essay, the writer Will Self, paraphrasing an American Novelist, Richard Ford, declared the phrase “Sports Personality” to be oxmoronic. He went on to state that by definition, the nature of sportsmen as a group is that they spend their time in the single-minded relentless perfection of otherwise dull repetitive, pointless tasks. Ford, and Self, declare that this is the very reason that sports performers in general make for dull people, and, in particular dull interviewees.
It struck me then, that is why so many interviews in the martial arts press are at best uninspiring and at worst mind-numbingly tedious. For many exponents, “Traditional” means hours and hours of endless kata, kihon and what could be described as kumite, if you take the translation as, literally “ a meeting of hands”. (What I mean is that if you’re lucky, hands do just about meet, but that’s as far as it goes). If all you ever do is karate, and all your karate consists of is repetitive drills, it stands to reason that if you weren’t dull to start with, you sure as hell soon will be.
The point of karate, surely, is that it should be a multi-dimensional discipline, with elements of the physical, the spiritual, intellectual, social and aesthetic all embraced. If this were so, the karateka should be the most inspiring, interesting, engaging of interviewees, surpassing all those “mere” sportsmen, with their one-dimensional minds. Alas, oftentimes, this is not the case.
The reasons, I fear are these. The nature of karate at face value is that it is a violent pastime. In order to protect the average participant from risks of injury or disfigurement (or the coach from damaging litigation), and to make the whole issue more attractive to the masses in a commercial context, karate has been changed. Its practice has been sanitised, prettified and bastardised. Its whole point has been lost. But that’s not the whole of it. All this has happened whilst a pretence, indeed often a belief, prevails that the original karate ethics remain.
Let me explain. The appeals of karate are those listed above, but with something special added. The threat of failure in everyday practice brings, not merely the frisson of fear-excitement we all know (a valid enough phenomenon in itself, but a shallow one nonetheless), but something far more profound. Certainly to strive for efficient, effective, beautiful movement, and all the concomitant health and social benefits this brings is a laudable enough aim, and genuine benefit of karate. But if that were all there was to it, karate would be no different in essence to dance, table tennis or aerobics. BUT IT IS. What sets it apart is that all the benefits of sport or exercise are taken to a new level by superimposing upon them the ever-present knowledge that an error could result in injury to either practitioner. This is not some weird sado-masochistic ideal, but a fundamental element contributing to the do becoming a true whole-person improvement system. How many of you have seen, or even better, experienced the end of a tough, bloody kumite session where the protagonists, almost on a reflex, lunge at each other with a warm handshake, beaming smile and maybe even an embrace! Each participant knows that they have given of their best, and, win or lose, have walked away richer for the shared experience. Similarly, your thousandth repetition of maegeri from a thigh-burning deep zenkutsudachi is not just the realisation of some sadistic sensei’s power quest, but the point where you really know what karate is all about.
Furthermore, that point of fear or fatigue is when you start using desperate measures – such as your imagination! When a fifteen stone third dan is spreading you all over the dojo, and you think you’ve tried every trick in the book, and suddenly, in a moment of desperation, or inspiration, you find if you step this way, at that particular point, you can avoid his killer uramawashigeri, and get inside his guard, you’ve truly learned something. Similarly, when your muscles and joints are so fatigued that you have to find a more efficient way to generate that power, or you’ll simply pass out, your brain really starts to work, and that previously-unintelligible thing about hip movement sensei said five years ago has profound meaning. It’s at this point in your development that intelligence comes into play. You’ll find yourself reading sports psychology tracts, attending physiology lectures, playing other sports, going to art galleries, watching other coaches, and indeed communicating with other people. Heaven forbid!
The problem is then, that many instructors, for laudable reasons, decide not to subject their charges to the brutal training regimes they suffered. They try to distil the essence of karate from the whole training package, whilst making the whole experience more civilised, and civilising. Ironically, they not only end up removing the essence (throwing away the baby, and leaving the bathwater behind), but they deprive their students of some of the rewarding experiences that help to create civilised beings.
So, to ensure when your invitation to that interview comes, your moment of fame is not destined for the ignominy of a flick of the page in favour of the clubs directory, by this writer at least, remember two things when you train. 1. Being frightened, and in pain, and real danger will only enrich your life both in and out of the dojo. 2. Having experiences outside the dojo will enrich your life and your training, bringing new relevance or new angles to old problems, and introducing brand new ideas from the most unlikely of fields.