Terry Pottage 7th Dan
I recently had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Terry Pottage, The EKGB's Head Referee. This interview is published verbatim below. An abridged version will be published soon in the martial arts press.
Terry is the archetype of the karate paradox. Hard as nails yet softly spoken. Traditional yet radical. It was a real pleasure speaking and training with him:
MS: I guess a lot of people ask this, but was karate competition really that tough?
TP: Yes, I think it was really. I didn’t start karate with… it just happened. As a green belt it was about demonstrating whether you could beat the other guy. There were no weight divisions.
MS: So you just went out to have a “ruck”?
TP: You could come up against someone much bigger than you. You just had to whack them as hard as you could before they’d whack you. It became fairly brutal, even at international level. You look back and people will say “it was this” or “it was that”, but yes, karate competition was every bit as tough as they say.
Karate competition now is probably more skilful, more techniques. For example I was one of the first people to do axe kick. Jumping roundhouse kick- I flattened a guy in
MS: There were a few French and Americans,
TP: Yes. You had to get… creative. You had to. My first touch on the International squad, I was third or second kyu, with Steve Cattle, Terry O’Neill, Roy Stanhope, Ticky Donovan, Stan Knighton, Peter Consterdine. Top guys. I was watching. Eddie Daniels was there too.
MS: Had you scrapped? Had you boxed as a kid?
TP: I’d scrapped, certainly. I didn’t learn to scrap through karate. They were one short on the squad. Eddie said to Steve Arneil, “Terry can scrap a bit”. But Steve said “No. You have to earn your place on the England Squad”.
MS: And am I right in saying there was only one
TP: Yes it was the BKCC squad. No other associations and no juniors. And virtually no women. It was just… I was in awe.
My first international was called the Dempsey Cup, in
My first major international was the European Championships in
MS: Can we start with a potted history of the Refereeing scene?
TP: Yes, and I say to the new people on the scene.. I was very dissatisfied with the quality of the officials. I was never one to complain, or make a scene on the mat. I wasn’t happy with a bad decision, but I’d just take it on the chin. So I just got through the first stages of refereeing qualification, and I found I adapted to it very quickly. Then I moved on to
MS: So you were in charge?
TP: Yes, after that there were no more problems.
MS: The guys from the KUGB: Steve Cattle, Terry O’Neill, Billy Higgins. They were great guys, very open.
TP: Yes. I had a great honour a few years ago. Steve Cattle invited me to teach at his club. And I was very pleased, for someone of his stature to ask me. Steve and I became great friends we competed in the same weight division. He was dead honest a real straight guy and I have always been the same. He talked sense. Most of the guys have been great.
I used to get on with Billy (Higgins) very well. I feel the KUGB treated him quite badly, kept him downgraded. Of course you know what happened to Billy?
T. P: He got upgraded from purple straight to black belt. It was an international between
MS: Oh, the Japanese upgraded him?
TP: Yes, the Japanese did it. That was it.
Going back to the refereeing scene. With my European experience, I established the current set up. Other groups had a habit of talking down to you- competitors or fellow officials. I have never ever been one for that attitude. I won’t have them.
Doug James has been a great help to me, as has Billy Brennan. Anyway, I have a development programme; I bring people on with an attitude of encouragement, not confrontation. We now have 5 world officials: Dale Gamble, Billy Brennan, Brian Noble, Doug James and Nariman Jeddi.
MS: You started by saying, “I can do better than that, I will get involved.” How difficult was that?
TP: It was difficult, but I was quite determined. It has been that way with my whole life really. If I’m not happy with something I don’t stand out here and throw stones at it. If you want to change it, get in there, get involved at ground level, and gradually start to put my ideas in, and give reasons why, and get allies and eventually the people who were running the organisation badly get pushed out, and they also then see the way things are developing. At European level we now have 10 and we have never been that strong.
MS: How does that compare with the rest of the world?
TP: We are 5th in the world. And recognition came to me in May. I got elected to the Referees Commission. They changed the way the commission is appointed. They now select by secret ballot, and the reason they do that is that for the last 20 years the appointments have been political. When the election came up I had been on the commission for 2 years as a temporary member, and my time way up. I had been a tatami chief for 10 years and in that time I have never treated anyone badly. I have tried to help people with constructive criticisms. I work with people, developing them and as a result, I think, I was elected to the commission, and I polled 2nd highest number of votes. That was a great honour. In
MS: Of course you need a management board that is committed to cause.
TP: Yes and there are guys in the EKGB hierarchy who do not appreciate that sport karate is a shop-window to the world. And of course the appeal in sport karate is the values. Exactly the same values present in traditional karate; the respect; the bow, discipline, self-esteem. All those values of traditional karate are actually in the sport, because they have to bow, show respect. We are all doing the same thing. And what we have is a link to those clubs.
MS: And yes the alternative is to do just fighting with kids, which is morally dodgy.
TP: Yes it is, you can’t have kids ‘going for the throat’. When I started in Shobu Ippon it was very brutal, gouging… but you can’t do it these days, it’s got to be fun, and you have to make them understand values. There are ways of doing it. The old school would kick shit out of you for not showing respect, but that’s “tradition”.
MS: Yes that’s another issue again. What is “tradition” in a system that is arguably only 80 years old?
TP: Exactly, not everyone wants the martial art but it still gives them something to do.
MS: Yes, I noticed with your kids that at the end of the lesson you had them recite an oath and some sort of dojo kun. It wasn’t so much the recital which struck me, but the passion, the commitment from those kids and from you. And exude this sort of conscience in all you do.
TP: Yes of course, whilst we’ve got them all we can do is give them a message. At school, of course these days, there are so many restrictions on them to many parents who kick their kids into the streets. I admire the parents who send their kids along. I don’t care if the parents stop – although they have to stay for the first period of instruction – so they know what they are putting their kids into.
MS: I agree I always say the same to parents, but not all instructors do.
TP: Then the kids have to act in a particular manner, and you need the support of the parents. I had a young student, he was timid, shy and now is a medical doctor. He has people’s lives in his hands. He’s got loads of charisma and treats people so nicely. And another one – one of his family has done time. He is now M.D. of a company, a magistrate, his possibilities are endless. That to me is fantastic and he has come through all that. I look back and say, “I’ve done something”. And those kids remember you for it. They are all under pressure to have a beer and a fag. I think that in refereeing, as in traditional karate, these values are everything. Again I always say, “don’t treat the athletes as if you’re the boss” you are there to administer the rules in case they cross the line. It is not personal. You must not dominate the match. Allow them the freedom to let the match run.
MS: That raises an interesting question. If you as a referee are, “allowing the match to progress” that implies a subtlety of understanding that it would need you to know the match intimately. Do you think it is necessary for referees to have been competitors, and to what level?
TP: Having knowledge of competition is important; I don’t necessarily think you have to have been an international. There are people who have come through, who have done no more than dojo fighting. But if you look at the people who have come through all have competed at a certain level. Not all have competed at international level, not all have been successful. But they have all developed qualities that are honed in competition. I think there will be a level that some will reach where they can’t go to the next level because you need to sympathetic to the competitors and to understand how they react. This is the sort of thing I do on courses. If in a competition the competitor reacts badly, don’t jump on them. Give them the time to recover, to settle down. Don’t get on your high horse. Calm them down, let them know you understand, then maybe they will understand you better. You will notice that the guys on the circuit who have been around a few years, they are all “Hi Terry” if I had been more “do this, do that” with them they wouldn’t push people towards refereeing.
MS: In the old days, I guess, the chief instructor was the head referee, and his word was law. I’m impressed by the attitude you have.
TP: Yes, we are all in the same world: the admin, competitor, coach we all want the same thing. Good competition. We all want winners. Just because you haven’t won a trophy, you can still be a winner. It’s the same with the referees, even if you’ve had a bad time by being there, you’ve still “won” because you’ve learnt.
Because I always encourage my people to continuously give feedback. It’s a modern approach, but I really can’t see it being any other way. To me it’s wrong to talk down to people. Occasionally, very occasionally, I’ll give someone a bollocking, but they will take it on the chin because they’ll know I’m not doing it for any other reason than I was there, they’ve done something wrong. They must understand. I insist on all my guys putting on a gi and training. Because I say when the athletes get out there, they have been training, and you’ve got to be sharp. You have to move around the area fast enough, your eye must be fast enough and your reaction time must be (clicks fingers).
MS: Reaction time comes as a result of physical fitness.
TP: Absolutely. And when I do a kata judges’ course, everyone has to train. And I can tell if they are just a “Dojo Sensei”, or if they train, put their gi on regularly. If I can do a kata to a high standard, I can show them; “This is what you are supposed to feel”.
MS: Then it’s easier to be a hard taskmaster if you can set a high standard – lead by example.
TP: That’s right, and I’ve always been the same. I don’t expect people to do what I can’t do. I have to have a good understanding of what I am trying to teach: verbally or physically, so I can get the message across. That’s a responsibility I understand.. that’s why in all the years I’ve been Chief Referee, no-one has really gone against me. They’ve all enjoyed the environment because we help each other – we’re all a team. In fact we have planned in January a bit of a dinner for all the referees and their wives – a bit of a seminar with a night out after. This is to give them recognition because I’m very fond of them and what they have achieved.
MS: As a successful competitor, teacher, referee, you’ve taken on a lot of responsibility already. Now you are an administrator and manager too. How do you manage all these responsibilities? Do you ever feel you are compromised?
TP: No. I’ve never put myself in a position to be compromised. For example, with my squad, you never see me down by the area because that may be seen to be influencing the officials. Because of course I know people who have historically done exactly that. Like going to stand by the other referees, watching your country’s competitor, coaching side. In a way there are areas I feel I have a lot of influence on kata: one because I have competitive experience, but also because I have international experience. I have judged people at that level. I will say “you need to do it this way because that’s what the judges are looking for…"
(TP then discussed some criticisms of the existing coaching regime …)
But I think it’s very difficult. When you look at other countries, they are not restricted to one coach. Dave (Hazard)’s forte is Shotokan, my forte is Shitoryu. What you need is that balance. Work with those two. Forget Goju Ryu, forget Wado, because they don’t seem to have that… Goju’s coming in a little bit but they don’t seem to have enough….
MS: Can we dwell on that a moment? I have never been a great kata competitor and I don’t really understand what the judges want, but I do like to watch competition, and I am interested. For example, the notion of the shitei katas; the notion that they must be done this way. Do you think that’s positive development?
TP: There are various ways to look at it. I think the selection of the katas is the first stumbling block. I mean, historically, I went to
So, as far as those katas go, they are the katas. They have not changed.
I think there are still problems, but we are trying to push certain areas, so we Europeans have a chance to do something about it now. So what I say now is look at the variations. The rules say very very clearly there should be no variation, which is very difficult to deal with. So what I say is we must be one of two things: we either stick to those rules rigidly, or we make it so any kata is ok- you do not restrict it at all. To my way of thinking you really have to free those shackles. You allow variations, but you keep them minimal. You wouldn’t put a kick in where there was a punch. You wouldn’t change direction for example; don’t add flowery bits. So far as the shitei katas go it was a move in the right direction. But until you police it properly, and if someone does it wrong you disqualify them, it’s a pointless exercise.
MS: The way I interpret the current WKF rules is probably the best compromise. You do the shitei katas as prescribed, and in the tokui katas you can be as creative as you like.
TP: Of course you can.
MS: And what you are saying is that the rules are not being applied in that way?
TP: Yes and when you approach the hierarchy, they tend to be shrewd guys, and they have been around a long time. For that reason if you put it to them bluntly, you tend not to get a direct answer. But when it comes down to it, the powers; Spain, Italy & France, will see the referees make the decisions, and if those coaches don’t like it they will go to their head of delegation and get the decision changed! What I like to say to my guys is, if they make one mistake in the shitei kata, it’s against the rules. They are out. Don’t penalise them if they hesitate – there are guidelines for that. I think that the current restriction… It’s very critical that the judges learn the katas that are not theirs: so the Shotokan learn the Shitoryu katas and so on. But you need someone there who knows exactly how it should be done. So they are encouraged to speak out if they see something wrong. But the hierarchy sometimes gets in the way.
MS: I guess it’s true of any sport that the establishment have, and wield the power, but the sensei/kohai attitude in karate accentuates that doesn’t it?
TP: Oh yes. But I would like to think that what Tommy (Morris) is doing now is certainly changing the Referees Commission, because the countries that were there;
MS: Is that because they think they know what’s best?
TP: Yes. It’s like the English claiming to be the ultimate authority on cricket because we invented it. I think we are the forward thinking ones.
TP: I think
MS: I read recently one of the Wado instructors said that competitive kata is the domain of Shotokan (and I think to a lesser degree Shitoryu). But Wado and Goju scarcely get a look in.
TP: I love the Goju kata
MS: So why do you think this is? Is it in the eye of the beholder or is it a fault of the rules?
TP: I think you’ve got two problems here. Firstly in the current restrictive lists, Wado and Goju have a small list to draw from. And I just feel that Wado kata have never been pushed. In the early days Shotokan was dominant. When I did my first European qualification, I did Seienchin, and all these guys were going “What was that?” Because they’d not seen Shukokai. I think that Wado, and certainly Goju people do not think of themselves as.. They think “we are very traditional and competition is not for us”.
MS: There are very few, but there is the Yamaguchi GojuKai group doing very well. Their bunkai is impressive.
TP: Yes, weren’t they fantastic and their bunkai is…real. A lot of observers were giving it thumbs down, because it wasn’t explosive, but the standard of the guys doing it – they were very intense. I was very impressed. And I bet every one of those Goju lads actually understood what they were doing as well. And others may just play…
MS: Of course in Goju, kata and bunkai go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other.
TP: Absolutely. I think what we are looking for in competition is something explosive. Shotokan kata tend to be hard. Powerful. But look at, say Gankaku. We don’t have anything like that at all. But Shitoryu can be explosive, and intensive, because we draw on a whole load of influences. Whereas Wado, because of the nature, the tai-sabaki, nagashiwaza, can sometimes not be as visual. Maybe it’s a lack of education of the kata judges.
MS: But in theory there is no reason why any of the major styles-indeed any of the minor ones too- should not be able to get results.
TP: No reason at all. Get in there. Let them educate us. Indeed Siobahn Brunton won a World medal with Wado kata, but I have to say that her style was not pure Wado. She had clearly been influenced by Shotokan. But there are no closed doors. Get someone out there who is quality and they will always win.
I always say to the officials; “If you see someone who does absolutely everything but has got no heart, and then you see a guy who hits you between the eyes, then they have to win it every time.”
MS: But then on that basis, if you are going to determine whether the performer understands the kata you have to have a fair degree of understanding yourself.
TP: Absolutely. You need to have subject knowledge. But I love to watch quality kata. It does annoy me sometimes when we go abroad when the squad don’t watch the kata. Even as a kumite competitor what you are getting is attitude. The correctness of things.
I always used to compete with both kumite and kata and I am absolutely convinced that good kata helps good kumite; and when the kumite days are on the wane, the kata is still there. I have always believed that people should be encouraged to do both.
MS: My impression is that kata competitors can always give a good account of themselves in kumite….
TP: Absolutely. Look at Michelle (Hey)
MS: …but it doesn’t always work the other way round!
MS: I think I can guess the answer to this one. What’s your view of karate as athletics? The guy who excels in the competition arena, but could just as likely be doing football or basketball, and doesn’t take away the dojo values?
TP: They are just wasting time. People like that are just takers and should be taken out of the system. I don’t blame them too much. If they are allowed to get through the system the coaches are at fault.
MS: This is your “coach as guardian” notion.
TP: Yes. I’m not interested in keeping people in the dojo for the money. I am doing what I want to do. There are people who have gone. They are just mercenaries. What worries me is that these guys then go and open clubs. It’s then a downward spiral.
I have a guy who has been training since 8 or 9. He now has his own clubs and he has all those values. He’s probably one of the best coaches because his attitude is always fantastic. You never see him ripping people apart.
It’s not about self-gratification and self promotion. When we originally discussed this interview, it was about recognition for the referees. For the system.
MS: Anything else you want to put on record?
TP: Just that the refereeing programme is as healthy as ever, and that as long as the development continues we should never shut the door on innovative ideas.
MS: And does the IOC have any input on the rules. For example they changed the scoring in the table tennis for the Athens Olympics.
TP: Yes there is talk of introduction more safety measures, such as helmets. This is all an effort to get support by the IOC. I think they have probably gone over the top to a certain extent. Because what we are about in karate is the development of skill, expertise: and that means control. Which means that it is absolutely critical that we referees recognise that control -or lack of it- and we administer those rules accordingly. The problem is that the rules are too complex. Say Joe Public walks in off the street and sees there judges raise a red flag, and the referee comes back with some mystical signal, and then gives the score to blue. In such an instance he knows he has the best view, and he knows that ao scored first, so the referee is able to give the score to ao. All the public sees is the three to one majority- the democratic decision- is overturned. I think that the idea is that the majority decision like that should carry except where you may have a contact violation. I think what we need is a series of events where the public can be educated. You simply need a flyer which explains the scoring, how points are scored, and how the referees’ signals apply.
MS: I have to say I disagree. The public have proved with snooker and rugby, for example that they can cope with complex rules. I think in the example you give the referee with the better view should prevail.
TP: Absolutely. It’s just that it’s important for the public to understand. It’s better now than the mirror judge system where the ref could just call the mirror judge over and overrule him. I think the WKF, and particularly the EKF, have made more improvements, and have tried to make the rules better for the public. We are recognised by the IOC although it is looking uncertain for Beijing now. It’s a shame because if we had managed to get in in Athens there would be so much money in the game now, and the opportunities would be so much better. I don’t think it’s weakening. I think we should have that.
MS: Do you think that there is more to be gained for the art, sport, practice of karate from Olympic recognition, than may be lost through excessive watering down of rules concentration on winning etc.?
TP: I think that it would bring it more to the fore and bring it to the attention of a wider public, and providing that we have the right coaches out there who promote those values, then it is an education, and kids are encouraged to study first rather than get into trouble. One of the things I say to the kids when they start with me is; “Is your bedroom tidy?” and of course the kids say “What’s that got to do with learning karate?” I tell them that it shows respect. If your mum and dad are paying for your lessons then you have to help them in return, by keeping your room tidy. All of a sudden you create respect with the family. There is a discipline. I say if you can tidy your room, do your homework before you go out with your mates, even when they are already out playing, that’s self discipline. Sometimes the message sticks. That’s why we do the dojo Kun, the oath. And the reason they face the back is so they can declare it with pride to the parents and the public.
MS: Did you write that declaration?
TP: No, no. About two years ago I got involved with the
Over the years I’ve had loads of parents come to me and tell me about how they have grown in confidence in school, in exams. To me that’s far more encouraging than a grading. Better than a trophy in a competition. What they need is something to show what they have achieved. We have the basic grading system of course, but tabs, badges in between is giving them something all the time.
I told them the other week to go off and find out the numbers one to ten in Japanese. And one comes back and gets it. Then all the others want to learn. I always try to encourage. Never ever talk down. Always encourage.
MS: Presumably you weren’t taught like that!
TP: No no! It’s a gift really, to be able to express yourself. I was never taught that way. I was brought up… I left school at 15, no qualifications. My father left when I was young. My mother went out to work, and I had to learn to look after myself. We were brought up as Catholics. You have to learn respect for the family, the church and all that. I didn’t realise ’til I started karate that I had this.
My instructor, Steve Powell; not a competitor. A great karate man, now into the Chinese stuff. I will always give him credit. He had a stutter. But I think the values, maybe, came from him.
I used to run. I ran for Manchester. The mile. I used to cycle to the track and the coach told me “You can’t cycle to running because you train the wrong muscles.” (That’s what they said in those days. Try telling that to the triathletes today). And it was too far to difficult to get to by bus. And I couldn’t cycle. And that sort of stopped my athletics career.
MS: Why did you start karate?
TP: It was September 1973 and I was 23. At the time I was racing motorbikes, and I used to go circuit training at the YMCA. And my mate said; “Come and watch the karate”. And I just looked at it and (snaps fingers). But there was a waiting list. So while I was on the waiting list this guy used to teach me at lunchtimes. So by the time I started the class, I hit it running. Within three months I was training a minimum four nights a week, and it just consumed me. A friend of mine got killed racing bikes at the TT in the June ’74 and that really decided it. Karate just took over.
MS: What’s your training regime now?
TP: I don’t train at that level now. Mainly it’s getting involved with the class.
MS: Yes, I noticed you spar with the kids. I think that’s lovely.
TP: It’s good to have that involvement. I’ve never had a belief that you need to hide anything. I have accumulated an amount of knowledge, and I will give anything to anyone who wants to learn. (In the right manner of course. Not too much too soon.) It’s like refereeing- I will give as much as possible to my guys. You have to treat kids slightly differently. Not talking down to them. You give them as much knowledge as they can cope with. You give it back to them.
MS: I am encouraged to see that level of commitment from, dare I say it, the “Old School”.
TP: I have been successful within karate and it’s my duty to pass that back on and to give enthusiasm, encouragement and patience. I get frustrated sometimes, of course, and people walk away, but all you can do is give them encouragement. Joe Tierney, for example our mutual friend, walked away for good personal reasons, but I think he would still consider himself my student.
MS: I think he would. He always spoke highly of you.
TP: No, and he’s never disrespected me, just as I wouldn’t Joe. And good luck to him. And Les Carr. I still get emails from him, my old friend.
I don’t think I have any enemies in karate, because I treat everyone the same.