One step at a time: keeping the kettle boiling

Recently I found myself passing a few days under observation in the specialist surgery ward of one of the local hospitals due to an obstruction in my airway. While I was there one of the young nurses who had moved to the UK from Portugal came to talk to me about karate as she had seen my occupation on my notes and wanted to ask about training in Oxford. The problems the young lady faced were finding a club with a similar atmosphere and training regime to the Shotokan she had practiced in Portugal, and finding a way to train that could accommodate her varying shift patterns as a nurse.

I think both of these represent common issues for many martial artists, and in many respects her first ‘problem’ is probably more prevalent in the martial arts than in any other form of physical exercise.

The young nurse had trained to a 6 Kyu level in Shotokan in Portugal and was looking to continue in England. This should in theory not be a problem, after all Shotokan is one of the most popular and widespread karate systems in the world. The difficulty lay in finding the ‘right’ type of Shotokan.

I have trained with Shotokan karateka from eleven different associations in the UK that I know of, probably more besides at a few ‘big’ seminars back in the 1990s, and I’ve also been fortunate to train with American and European Shotokan karateka during my travels. Like any modern karateka of this age I’ve also been privileged to be able to see many more members of the same system (or indeed any system) share their training through video media on the internet. While there are many things that unite these karateka, it would also be fair to say that they are all different, in a myriad of subtle ways. A karate style so big and so widespread cannot be like a single set model of a car, absolutely standardized throughout the world (or even a single country). To continue the analogy, different ‘same style karate’ organisations have different interior trims, different in-car media platforms, different paint jobs, different brake and wheel types, different engine sizes running unleaded or diesel, and different fuel management settings programmed into the computer. There’s probably one that even has a Neil Diamond cassette tape in the glove compartment (you know who you are). Beneath all this they are still the same car, they are still ‘Shotokan’, but even then within different clubs in those associations the way you learn to drive that car (and how you are allowed to drive that car in class) will vary according to the instructor, as will whether different models are recognized as ‘the same’ and allowed to continue, or forced to change to their ‘default factory settings’.

It is a hard truth that every club (even within the same system) is going to be different. It is the sum not only of the style, but of the pedagogy of the instructor (team), the venue, and crucially the membership. The age and health diversity of the members, the mix of ages and sexes in class (or not), the aims of the students in training: all of these put yet another spin on the class. You cannot step into the same river twice: you have to accept that in training with someone else things will be different, but that different is not necessarily better or worse (for you) and the onus is on you to make the most of it. In moving from one area of the world to another it is rare that you will see something that looks ‘the same’ straight away, even in the same style of martial art: the important thing is to observe, choose something to try, and accept the potential offered by the change. As I have written in short blog posts about contact in training, six things you should do in your training and speed in training, variety and different training methods can all bring benefits.

Attending a new class can be daunting, whatever your grade, because those pesky belts can carry expectations. That can especially be true if work and family patterns mean that despite your enthusiasm and best intentions, actual attendance is irregular. The less you attend a class, or the larger the gap between lessons, the harder it can become to return. Self containing walls of comfort, fatigue and apathy are surprisingly easy to build.

Irregular training is the death knell of martial arts participation and progress, but it is not the same as infrequently attending class. As Gichin Funakoshi observed in his 20 precepts,

“Karate is like boiling water, if you do not heat it constantly, it will cool.”

  • Not being able to get to class does not mean you cannot train.
  • Not having the time to build a sweat doing karate (or any other martial art) does not mean you cannot train.
  • Training is cumulative: regular short practices will maintain (and can improve) your technique (and flexibility, and concentration, and strength, and resolve to continue to attend class) if not your aerobic or anaerobic capacity.
  • Short intensive bursts of non karate exercise for aerobic and anaerobic benefit can complement slow methodical karate training with results that are on a par with (or superior to) long ‘treadmill’ aerobic karate (or other martial arts) classes in a club.

Since I first began training in karate I have taken a rather literal leaf from Gichin Funakoshi’s precepts. I almost always do karate while I’m boiling the kettle, or if not boiling the kettle then while I’m keeping an eye on something that’s cooking.

This is an easy free time to train. I’ve trained in kitchens big enough to do entire forms, but actually all I really need is the space to stand in a stance and rotate my hips. Good quality training does not have to be complicated or require lots of space, or even lots of continuous time: repetition is the key. On the spot (whether for a minute or five or twenty between other little jobs) I can work on almost anything. Even if I can’t make someone else’s class, or set aside a full hour for training on my own at home, I can still manage anywhere from five to sixty minutes in a day in short stints if I really want, and it does all add up. This keeps the kettle boiling and the water hot. It is not a substitute for paired training or attending classes, but a complimentary way of maintaining and refining elements of your skillset so that when you do work with other people you get more from the experience.

Keeping training does not have to be hard if you take it one step at a time.

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