Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Back to white belt

Tekki Shodan Kata.
Here’s my latest daily self-training routine. I hope it finds you well. Osu, André Bertel.

(A)  Stationary practice: 1. Chudan choku-zuki (shizentai or kiba-dachi); 2. Chudan gyaku-zuki (stationary punching in both hidari and migi zenkutsu-dachi); and 3. Chudan mae-geri (stationary kicking following the format of gyaku-zuki practice or from heisoku-dachi).

(B)   Ido-kihon: 1. Kizami-zuki (jiyu-dachi) kara sanbon ren-zuki; 2. Jodan age-uke kara chudan soto-uke soshite chudan gyaku-zuki (blocking with the same arm); 3. Chudan uchi-uke (kokutsu-dachi) kara kizami-zuki soshite chudan gyaku-zuki; 4. Chudan shuto-uke (kokutsu-dachi) kara nukite; 5. Chudan shuto-uke (kokutsu-dachi) kara kizami mae-geri soshite nukite; 6. Mae-geri kara yoko kekomi, mawashi-geri soshite chudan gyaku-zuki; 7. Chudan mae-geri kara yoko-kekomi soshite chudan gyaku-zuki (kicking with the same leg); and 8. Yoko-keage ashi o kaete yoko-kekomi (kiba-dachi).

·         Repetitions: At present I am working with considerably lower repetitions in my kihon practice. Typically, this includes ‘one warm-up set of 10 slow repetitions’ followed by `30 explosive repetitions’.
Chudan choku-zuki.

Moving on from Nijushiho: After several months of focusing on Nijushiho, and extracting numerous technical gems, I have finally decided to move on to another jiyu-gata (free-choice kata). As I have said before, this formal exercise has been “extremely challenging” for me (and, consequently, very hard to maximise my strengths). This, in turn, has forced me to face my many weaknesses and better understand ‘my bodily limitations’. In sum, I believe my time focusing on Nijushiho has been very valuable and will undoubtedly contribute towards my next phase of development
My kata training updated: Probably, needless to say, the shitei-gata (Heian and Tekki Shodan) and sentei-gata (Bassai Dai, Kanku Dai, Enpi and Jion) remain as the foundation of my kata practice. The new jiyu-gata I am focusing on are Bassai Sho and Unsu.

·         Repetitions: A minimum of three for each kata; however, depending on the session, I sometimes only work on two or three kata from this list and do them many times.
Tekki Nidan... A occasional "treat" is good!

My focus at present is back on Gohon Kumite (Five-step sparring), Kihon Ippon Kumite (Fundamental one-step sparring) and Jiyu Ippon Kumite (Free one-step sparring). In particular, I’m concentrating on: (a) shisei (posture) in attack, defence and counterattack; (b) kokyu (breathing); and (c)  tachikata (stance)—namely, “more subtle transitional actions”. Technique-wise all of these points are primarily relating to jodan and chudan jun-zuki (oi-zuki), jodan and chudan gyaku-zuki, chudan mae-geri, chudan yoko-kekomi, chudan mawashi-geri, jodan age-uke, chudan soto-uke, gedan-barai, shizentai (hachinoji-dachi) and zenkutsu-dachi (shomen/zenmi and hanmi).
On the whole, this really is the beginning of a new phase of training for me. As always, and as it always should be, it’s back to white belt.

© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).

Friday, 11 April 2014

"Holistic Control"

Tobi mae-geri
 As I have always said, quantity is never a substitute for quality when it comes to technical karate-do practice; in particular, and most obviously, in kihon-geiko. However, quantity does count when top quality form is maintained. Now, here’s the problem…  If you are anything like me, maintaining high quality form is very difficult when high repetitions are executed—especially when exhaustion sets in. Moreover, “the injury issue” also becomes a significant concern i.e. – overuse strains, pressure on the joints, etcetera.

The golden question: So, how can high repetitions be `trained safely’ so that “good form is reinforced” and made second nature (intensely grooved into the subconscious)? The answer to this question can be found in one’s common-sense. Essentially, technical practices must be varied and ideally done according to one’s daily condition.  Now this does not necessarily mean that one does fewer repetitions on one day and more on the next—although, of course, it certainly might. Instead, it comprehensively means that one “controls the intensity of their training” on any given day—according to their physical (and/or mental/emotional state). I’d like to add here that controlling intensity is possible, however, duration is usually not—when you are participating in someone else’s class.
The bigger picture: This returns us to the title of this post `holistic control’ which, unfortunately, our common-sense sometimes blotches out: irrespective of how long we have trained. Accordingly, this meltdown can occur due to numerous factors; nonetheless, the most common include `competition with others’; excitement (i.e. – a charged up/spirited class where one gets `carried away’); a tough day at the office; insufficient junbi-taiso (preparatory exercises/warm-up); rushing ‘too far beyond one’s ability physical ability’; and `raising the bar too high’ etc.... 

Migi chudan choku-zuki.
Having, and more importantly maintaining, holistic control means that “we are really in touch with ourselves when we practice karate-do”. Returning to the specific issue of maintaining `high repetitions of quality techniques’, one (for example) could consciously attempt to reduce their power and increase their lightness of movement. Such focal strategies, based on concerted/conscientious self-control, can contribute towards developing the psychological regulatory skills needed to further refine one’s karate-do (i.e. - when participating in a spirited class of high reps and great intensity, “…if a karateka can `selectively block’ out certain environmental influences/stimuli, they can move according to their own condition”. In this way, they can potentially conserve energy whilst keeping up with the class and, in doing so, and maintain precise form). It is worth noting here that this skill can be significantly accelerated under the JKA rules of kata in the elimination rounds (where participants perform the shitei-gata and sentei-gata `side-by-side’). Doing well, following this traditional format, requires that the karateka present their kata “without being influenced by the person performing the same kata next to them”. In particular, this especially correlates to the waza no kankyu (rhythm of techniques), which again directly links to psychological control.

 On the whole, holistic control is essentially another way of explaining `SHIN GI TAI’; that is, the `Body—Mind—Spirit/Emotional’ connection. Each influences the other and, in doing so, impacts (to varying degrees) on our training. In turn, training influences our mind and spirit/emotions; again however, the level of positive influence is determined by our own conscious effort.

Making a full circle, I truly believe that people “…by proactively seeking holistic control…” can avoid a lot of imprudent injuries, increase their technical performance, acquire greater physical strength/endurance, become mentally sharper, and even gain more satisfaction from their training.
Lastly, putting this into practice… Next time you are in a class and your technique starts to wane (due to high reps, fatigue, taking a big hit, or any other factors), attempt to `better use’ your mental control to guide your body. If you conscientiously do this, your physical training will further transcend its bodily benefits. Taken as a whole, I hope this post underscores that “…in many ways, holistic control is what largely transforms karate into `Karate-Do’”.
© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).

Monday, 7 April 2014

The 2014 JKA Kumamoto Prefecture Championships

The JKA Kumamoto Prefecture Championships
Jodan mawashi-geri.
I really enjoyed the weekend, competing in the JKA (Japan Karate Association) Kumamoto Prefecture Karate-Do Championships. It was the first tournament I have entered in for nearly a decade, so I was very-very `rusty’. The last time I competed in men’s individual kata and kumite was in 2005 (and team kata 2006). I really have to say it was so much fun after not competing for so long; moreover, for those of you have who have entered traditional karate-do tournaments, there is nothing like competing here in Japan.
Chudan mawashi-geri to the back.
Another keriwaza... Having fun...
Above and beyond my own involvement in the competition, I was really happy to see the up-and-coming youngsters on their road to this year’s JKA All Japan Championships; also, to be able to encourage them at ringside. To see what Nakamura Shihan and Nakamura Sensei are doing with them is nothing less than awesome. The level of these young kids is outstanding. Undoubtedly, this is due to the high level training they are receiving on a daily basis. By observing this training and being regularly used to assist, I am learning so much—from an instructional perspective.

How I went... Insofar as my events went, it was a bonus for me to attain second place in the men’s individual kata. While I got the highest scores, two of the seven judges scored me extremely low. While one of the low scores was dropped, the second low score caused me to fall into the silver medal position. Based on my own performance, I think the low scores were very fair as they reflected current execution of Nijushiho: much more work to do!

In the men’s individual kumite, I lost in the first round. My opponent beat me fairly—as I wasn’t really there. To all of those who have fought me in the past, it was a typical case of my `first round jinx’… I either get defeated in the first round or `warm-up’ get to the finals… That being said, I would not have won this time, irrespective of any subsequent rounds—as my heart wasn’t in the match. I didn’t even warm-up before the match and just enjoyed it.... I played around... Accordingly, this was reflected by my use of kaiten uraken in the bout (as pictured below). Anyway, the instructor who eliminated me fought the eventual champion.  Unfortunately though, he was disqualified for excessive contact with a very nice jodan gyaku-zuki. It was just bad luck that he didn’t win through to the next round. I certainly would have given him an ippon and given his opponent keikoku (a cautioning) for muboubi (failing to rationally guard himself).

Kaiten uraken (spinning back fist)...

 Morooka San's awesome kumite: the personal highlight of the tournament for me
Morooka san's cool take down - virtually into seiza - and finish!
Again, Morooka San totally dominates his opponent.
My training partner and good friend, Morooka San, fought beautifully and was `by far’ the strongest in the tournament. But, as it turned out— what I would have scored as two `ippon’s’, were penalties. The final technique he executed, in my opinion, was by far the best waza in the championships. He threw his opponent down, like bowing in seiza, and dropped a large scale punch onto the back of his head. Going by the gasps, the audience was just as impressed as I was. Following this bout, his opponent managed to fight on to attain the bronze medal.

Morooka San's awesome punching attack. No point, even though I  was screaming "IPPON" from the side line.

Morooka San fought brilliantly, but lost the match. He exemplified my motto: lose magnificently. A true budoka and true karateka.
Clearly, due to the excellent training of Nakamura Shihan, and Nakamura Sensei, the dojo won numerous medals at the championships. Two of the juniors won titles in both their kata and kumite events, which was irrefutably an exceptional result. More importantly, the competitors all demonstrated excellent karate-do spirit and traditional budo karate technique. Lastly, I would again like thank Nakamura Shihan and Nakamura Sensei for their excellent training; furthermore, Morooka San (also Sachiko and Rinko), and my other team mates from the JKA Central Kumamoto Dojo. Oss, André 

© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).
Nakamura Shihan and me after the conclusion of the 2014 JKA Kumamoto Prefecture Championships. Nakamura Shihan was one year junior at Taku Dai under my late teacher Asai Tetsuhiko Shihan... Continuing a tradition!

Friday, 4 April 2014

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Technical categories

Enpi kata practice. April 2nd, 2014.
Jiyu-kumite - JKA Kumamoto.
like ning to avoid injury" f one leg exercises.  upsOne thing I like to do, and find to be very beneficial, is “…to practice not by technical categories (i.e. – uke, tsuki, keri, uchi) but, rather, by the biomechanical and/or musculoskeletal consistencies of the various techniques”. More pertinently, this might simply be ‘an area I am focusing on’. For example, more efficiently engaging the back muscles, snapping the shoulders, hip flexors etcetera.
Morooka San's superb kizami-zuki.
Ogasawara Senpai perfectly times his tsukiwaza.
What is most useful about training in this way is that one “can more tangibly link the various techniques on a physical level—as opposed to a theoretical/categorical level”. With little cerebral processing it is clear that such `category-based training’ has minimal relevance to physical training—especially after initially learning the fundamentals. E.g. - Practicing “like following `Dynamic Karate’, move-by-move, is fine at the start of one’s karate life”, but shouldn’t be ‘the be-all and end-all’. is fine at the start of one'following Dynamic Karateisingly limitedpplied, taIndeed, such categorical training seems to be stuck within the realms of theory: great for the initial stages, but without a meaningful destination if continued.
Sen no sen vs. Go no sen: opposite but interrelated strategies.
By linking techniques, by their related attributes in training, something really special happens. You get better at karate much faster… This is because you are no longer plodding through the syllabus—with the `periodic breakthrough’, but you are subliminally grooving the principles of karate-do. Furthermore, if you are an instructor, you will be able to formulate far more efficient lessons to help your students reach their individual goals.

Jodan mawashi-geri.
Some comprehensive examples: (a) Practicing `ascending techniques’ together. I.e. – otoshi enpi, fumikomi, kakato otoshi, kentsui tatemawashi uchi, sokumen otoshi uke etc; (b) Practicing all of the techniques in the kata that are applied with yori-ashi; (c) Focusing on utilising the seika tanden in linear blows; and so on.

For those wanting to really perform well—there is another major bonus—by training in this way. By isolating a certain aspect (or aspects) one can easily select/design supplementary training. For example, calisthenics; resistance training; partner drills etcetera. This, in turn, will further bolster skill development.
Heian Yondan movement 2: a variation of the rear arm (for a different application).
Ido-kihon geiko: hidari ushiro-geri.
I’d like to add here that I’m by no means a naturally gifted karateka; therefore, ‘training smart’ is utterly essential for me. Hence, the methodology generally outlined in this post, in my opinionhen self-t mmates)away from my dojo mates) imperative., is one of the best means of actively becoming (and “being”) a smart trainee.
 Needless to say, in karate-do, `the `present continuous’ is always the most important context… 

By and large, I am not saying that `going through all the techniques categorically’ is a bad thing; however, it certainly should not be the only way you train—if you really want to improve. It is imperative to also practice techniques together based on the common muscles or joints they use (or the one’s you are concentrating on), angles or trajectories in which they are applied, scenarios they might be used (in self-defence)… MAKE LINKS. The possibilities are endless, yet “…the underlying principles of `all karate-do waza’ are few”.

Ido-kihon training: hidari kizami-mawashi-geri.
© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).

Thursday, 27 March 2014

One leg exercises

Migi nami gaeshi: Tekki-shodan kata.
 For anyone who has attended my karate trainings, over the last 15 years (classes, seminars or otherwise), you will know that I use a large amount of one leg exercises i.e. – one leg squats, thrust, jumps and the like. This article aims to briefly explain the underpinnings and issues around my use/advocating of these forms of calisthenics. Best regards from Kumamoto-ken, André Bertel.   

Many people question “…why do you strongly emphasise these leg exercises over their two leg equivalents?” Well, the reason is simple. Just ask yourself “how many human actions use both legs in unison?” In budo (martial arts), especially percussive focused systems, such as karate-do, there is always a driving leg. In actuality, the same goes for most sports. For example, running, shot put, etcetera. Think of your back leg in a gyaku-zuki or jun-zuki (oi-zuki). Keriwaza (kicking techniques) are even more obvious. On the whole, exercises that isolate each leg separately are “more specific `for training the driving leg” and, thus, are biomechanically superior. 
Hidari chudan uchi-uke (migi kokutsu-dachi): Heian godan kata.

But that’s not all…  One leg exercises have another massive benefit for karateka, and athletes in general… Balance… Clearly, by working each leg in isolation one ceach leg in isolation one cor budoka and an, and will, increase their balance/stability; furthermore, the majority of this improvement will be attained subconsciously, and via the involuntary muscles of the legs. If you don’t believe me stand still on one leg and look down at the ankle of your supporting leg… Even though you are standing dead still there is a carnival of involuntary muscles involuntarily twitching: to stabilise your position. Of course, this is a somewhat oversimplified explanation, but I think it is enough to get my point across. I am not even going to get into micro muscle development here…

So, “goodbye two leg squats—you are a waste of time”?” Certainly, that is not my point… Two leg squats still have their excellent benefits for more generic strength training, and as prerequisite ‘base conditioning’ fouisite 'se conidtion benefits for more generic strength trainnig witching to stabilise your deadstr their superior one leg counterparts. A perfect comparison here is between these exercises and push ups… No one starts with one arm push ups, nor do they drop `standard two-arm push ups’ out of their routine. Rather, they use both exercises discerningly. That being said, consistent with the aforementioned points: “just like one leg exercises, the single arm exercises (i.e. - one arm push ups, or cable extensions) are superior beasts”.

Movement 28 of Tekki-shodan kata.
The downside and some words of advice: Last, but not least, it is important for me to present the downside of one leg exercises: “…the need of sufficient base conditioning—and the absence of pre-existing leg injuries—to avoid damaging oneself”. Just like other high quality calisthenics, such as plyometrics, incorrect training—and insufficient foundational strength—can readily result in bodily harm. For some, these exercises should be avoided or used in moderation. As always, common-sense and `listening to the body’ is everyone’s best friend.  My point is, it is essential to look out for your joints, ligaments and tendons. This brings to mind a saying, which I have always stressed to my students (and seminar participants) over the years: “There is nothing more sad, and senseless, for a person to damage their body in the process of strengthening it.” This saying is one that I believe all karate-do instructors should use and, indeed, follow in their own training. In sum, “Karate-do is Lifetime Budo”; correspondingly, by nature, this means that karate-do training must result in increased wellbeing.

To briefly summarise this article: firstly, one leg exercises (isolation training) is superior for karateka and the majority of athletes; accordingly, this is because “they more specifically condition the muscles needed for explosive athletic actions”; secondly, one leg exercises more effectively develop balance than their two leg counterparts; thirdly, one leg exercises while superior, pose a greater risk for joint and soft tissue injuries; therefore, like other tissue injuries; thereitionalathletic actions; Secondly, they devlintense/high quality exercises, they require sufficient base conditioning and sensibility.
© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Balancing hard and light training

Over the weekend I engaged in special training for the upcoming JKA (Japan Karate Association) Kumamoto Prefecture Championships. Unfort).rtel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto, continue.ould be easier quit karate-do. tes to overall developmentntunately, I couldn’t make the group practice in Kumamoto, as I was in Oita City, so I self-trained instead.

The first session was an intensive three hour dojo practice on Saturday, which really was hard-core. It was a case of “burning hot coals in the thighs”. The second practice, on Sunday, was intended to be ‘at the same intensity and duration’; however, my body couldn’t live up to that envisaged expectation… To be honest, I had `jelly legs’. So it became a light two hours of stretching, relaxed kumite techniques, and reviewing aspects of my, kumite techniques and me intensity.e All in all, I have to say, that this ended up working out very well.
I guess, what I’m trying to say here, is that “…balance is a good thing”. We must train as hard as we can—according to our individual conditions, but we must also listen to our bodies. When we are burned out, and we can’t train so hard, we can always choose to train lightly. Moreover, sometimes these sessions—in between the necessity of hard practices—can be utterly f cessity  ta.  practices--can s--in  are like me, invaluable.

© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Special Karate-Do training in Kumamoto-Shi

Jiyu kumite with Morooka San.
Here are some stills from the special tournament training in Kumamoto Shi this weekend. The class, brilliantly led by Nakamura Akiyoshi Sensei, included the JKA kyu-shinsa kihon (brown and black belts did the 3rd Kyu syllabus); stationary practice of choku-zuki, gyaku-zuki and mae-geri; jiyu-ippon kumite; `round robin' jiyu-kumite; and kata (the shitei-gata and tokui-gata).

Morooka San I went through all the shitei-gata via practice matches. We were then asked by Akiyoshi Sensei to do our tokui-gata... Morooka San performed Sochin, and I selected Nijushiho. The black belt juniors all performed either Kanku Dai or Jion, which was great to watch; moreover, to advise them on their kata performances and kumite.

Overall, the class was an excellent session of "budo karate in the JKA-tournament context."

© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014)

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Not trying is a serious failure to oneself

For a while now Nijushiho kata has been my main focus in my kata training, not my tokui-gata as such, but dreamed to be so: due to my history in karate-do. 
To be honest, this kata really intimidates me, as I find it so difficult to perform "effectively". The movements are easy, but VERY-VERY DIFFICULT... 
Many people do Nijushiho, but few can do it masterfully. In the past, as everyone knows, I always relied on Unsu and Gojushiho Dai as tokui-gata, however, for my JKA (Japan Karate Association) grading last year, I used Nijushiho for the first time. While I passed my grading, and initially learned Nijushiho "properly" in the early 1990s, I feel that my relationship with Nijushiho has only just begun. My point, yet again, is that karate-do is lifetime budo. In August I have trained for 33 years, and several of these have been intensive daily training here in Japan; nevertheless, I am still a total beginner. This mind-set I will always keep, and hope that, by chasing my target of Nijushiho, my aspirations will be achieved. Irrespective of that, like all things in life, not trying is a serious failure to oneself. Osu, André.

 © André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The micro adjustments of karate-do

Introduction: As you will know from your karate-do practice, there are very subtle adjustments one can make in technique, which ultimately make all difference. For the sake of this article I’ll refer to these hidden gems as `micro adjustments’. Accordingly, these micro-adjustments are—what are often referred to as—“the secrets of karate-do”. For many years I didn’t like the term “karate secrets”, however, we all know that they indeed exist.

These technical points are the subtleties that, generally speaking, are those things which are kept “in-house”; that is, they are taught "behind closed doors" so to speak. Whilst some deny the existence of secrets in karate-do, it is naïve and technically limiting to do so. They are a reality. With this in mind, before I go on, I’d like to emphasise that this dimension of karate (micro-adjustment) is utterly huge; that is, it is easily the largest technical field in karate-do. If you are interested in `upping your level’, this is the point that will be at the forefront of your physical training; put another way, they will be the skills/physical understanding that you will be constantly chasing.

Micro adjustments in karate-do: I’d quickly like to examine one micro adjustment as an example. This adjustment is “…just one of the pivotal points contributing to the tachikata (stances) of the top level Japanese karateka”; nevertheless, it makes a major contribution (in correspondence with other subtleties), which is overlooked by many karate practitioners: especially those outside of Japan. So here we go…

Brief example of a micro-adjustment (Ankle Flexion): `Ankle flexion’ is subtle skill of moderately pushing out/flexing the supporting ankle in your stances. To give a really simplistic example, consider the migi kokutsu-dachi (right back stance) in `movement one' of Heian Nidan, Heian Sandan, Heian Yondan and Heian Godan. In all of these movements (and especially Heian Nidan and Heian-Godan—where there are follow up hand attacks) the right ankle must be ‘flexed and set’ just as the knee is; thereby, keeping the right support leg in a plumb line under the hip. OK... "So what", you might be thinking…This is not such a difficult skill, nor, that much of a secret. Well, in reality very people do it; moreover, it needs to be second-nature (appropriately used or not used according to the movement/technique being executed). I’d like to add to this by saying “that this is far from easy, and is a major factor if one wishes to have rock solid traditional Japanese style stances”.

Micro-adjustments are links in chain—individually and collectively critical: Such micro-adjustments/skills are perhaps seemingly insignificant but, of course, they are critical for overall mastery. In actuality, it is no overstatement to say that “…they are largely what determine and `gate keep the technical divide’ between the top Japanese karateka and, most everyone else.
Large scale movements/positions: Contrastingly, the `large scale movements’ and positions are certainly no secret, they are visibly obvious (just as `surface level micro-adjustments' are, and those which have been `openly taught'). Namely, because of these points, these aspects of karate technique can be (and are) copied with relative ease.
Conclusion: In sum, “correct repetitive drilling of the micro adjustments”— the technical secrets of traditional karate-do—generically summarises the path to high level skill. Not only the appearance of one’s form but in effective application: via “the links in the chain all being strong and working harmoniously together”.

© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).