Monday, October 29, 2012

The Sensei

I'm a coach. No... Wait... You already know that. I'm a teacher. THAT'S what I meant to say. Not a teacher at the front of a classroom, but a teacher at the front of a Dojo filled with karateka. More often than not, very tired, sweaty karateka.

I am called "Sensei". Have I earned that title yet? I guess that depends on who you ask. People are calling me Sensei, and if I didn't want to be referred to be that title, I don't feel that it would be right to tell people not to call me that as they mean it out of respect.  I remember reading a post on a forum not that long ago asking "When are you considered a Sensei?", and there were a lot of responses stating that people should not be considered a Sensei until they are at least Sandan, but unfortunately, no one had any really good examples or arguments to back that up except for the typical "My Sensei says..." or "No one has the experience or skills necessary until they have been in Karate / Tae Kwon Do / Ameri-Do-Te for at least 15 years". I'm pretty sure that last one is bullsh*t. Anyway, I equate this argument with the "Kids under 14 shouldn't get a black belt" argument, which has it's own group of nay-sayers.

The term "Sensei" literally translates to "born before", and is generally used to refer to someone who has knowledge and experience in a topic, whether it is a martial art, or accounting, or useless TV trivia. Do a Google Image Search of the term "sensei" and you will find tons of pictures of old Japanese dudes (and non-Japanese dudes) sitting around and being wise, or throwing kicks, or helping others throw a kick. When did these old dudes (and some not-so-old dudes) become a sensei? Did they wait until they received sandan? For many of them, the Dan system wasn't even invented, and the belt was just something to hold your jacket closed. They were called Sensei because they taught their art, and their students and community respected them.

I instruct students on how to perform basic techniques. I am asked a question and I either respond with the answer, or I ask the student to stretch their thinking and discover the answer on their own. I help students prepare for their next belt test. I help students work on their technique. I help students set their own goals and push them to achieve them, as well as hold them accountable when they don't reach them. I do ALL of this, and I love it.

The argument of when someone can be called a Sensei is pointless. Students will go to a person they respect for answers and guidance, whether they are a sandan or a shodan.  Too many people are too concerned with semantics, and they are losing sight of the big picture.

Now, about those 14 year old black belts :)

Sunday, October 21, 2012


This article was a long time in the making. It started with a bit of research, which led to more and more reading, but I now have a much better understanding of a few things, which will undoubtedly come in handy. If you are interested in the results of my "more and more reading", you can view the on-going work  here.

I was recently told that Seisan is called Seisan because of Seisan Dachi. I'm pretty sure that this is not the case. I'm wondering if the person who said this was just a bit mixed up when they said it. If your sensei says this, just smile and nod.

Seisan is one of my favourite katas of all time!  When I studied Chito-ryu a few years ago (*cough*20*cough*), Seisan was taught at 2nd kyu. Now, Seisan is taught at 4th kyu. It was moved to a lower kyu belt as it puts emphasis on the basic forward stance that is so prevalent throughout Chito-ryu. It is also a great introduction to some more complex techniques, such as sabaki, proper transition from one stance to another, and more emphasis on the concept of ichi gan, ni suku, san tan, shi riki. As students progress through the ranks, they are expected to demonstrate a better understanding of Seisan. I know Shodans who still struggle with this kata because they are too focused on delivering the technique, and not paying enough attention to everything else that needs to occur before the technique. That's why I love this kata. It is easy to learn yet hard to master.

There is some discrepancy as to which kata O Sensei learned first. Some say Seisen, while others say Sanchin. I could quote Wikipedia, but the wiki article references O Sensei's book anyways, so let's just reference that, shall we? O Sensei learned Sanchin as his first kata, from Arikake Seisho sensei, who taught him Seisan as well, but that was after studying Sanchin for seven years.

What's that? You don't own a copy of O Sensei's book? Well here you go. Tell them Terry sent you. No, that won't get you a discount on the book. Just a blank stare or silence on the other end of the phone.

Seisan has two root versions in modern Karatedo: Naha-te and Shuri-te. The two versions are obviously derived from the same kata, as they have a large amount of similar patterns.

Naha (Practiced in Goju-ryu & Shito-ryu)

Shuri (Practiced in Issin-ryu, Chito-ryu and Shurin-ryu based styles, and is the inspiration for Shotokan Hangetsu)

SO, why the similarities and differences?  The two versions have very different paths through the Karate history, but the similarities hint at a common ancestor.  Let's work our way back.

Arikake Seisho was the teacher of Chitose Tsuyoshi, Funokoshi Gichin and Higaonna Kanryo (among others).

You can see the obvious similarities to the Shuri line of Seisan, but that signature ending is the same as the Naha version.

What about the Matsumura version?

That has a LOT of similarities to the version we practice in Chito-ryu, so we can see where O Sensei adapted his version of Seisan from.  There are similarities to the Arikake Seisan, but Arikake and Matsumura do not share any similar teachers, although both were considered Tote Masters (The 2nd and the 5th to be exact).

So where do the two versions originate from? I think it's safe to say that the ancestor of Okinawan Seisan is in White Crane Gung-fu somewhere. It is even theorized that Seisan originated from a style of White Crane called Yong Chun Bai He Quan (Yong Chun White Crane Boxing). I see no form from this style that looks obviously similar (not to say that I did an exhaustive search), but I did find a form called Shr San (Thirteen Treasures or Thirteen Defences).

The basic flow is there; three steps up, three steps back, some stuff happens and then it's over. But look at the "stuff happens" part at around 0:22, with the swooping blocks as the performer is moving backwards. Look familiar?  Look at the very end of the kata at 0:43. Is that a two-handed grasping block and a pull? Interesting. If you take this form and add a few turns, you have the basics of Seisan.

So if this form is where Okinawan Seisan originated from, how did it get to Matsumura? We know that Arikake Seisho learned Bai He Quan from Ryu Ryu Ko, and I found reference to the fact that Matsumura Sokon had learned Bai He Quan, but I'm not exactly sure where or when. Was it when he studied under Ason and / or Iwah in Fuzhou? Or maybe it was when he learned Chinto?

I have been completely immersed in searching for the roots of this kata for quite some time, and I have absolutely enjoyed the path this has taken me down. I can't wait to discover even more about this kata but in the mean time, I'll be learning the versions that I have outlined above, and looking deeper into the meaning and purposes of the steps. The one thing I can say for sure is that the research I have done for this article has helped bring me even further towards becoming a true Karate Nerd (TM).

Some resources:

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Coach

I'm a coach. NCCP Trained in Instructional Sport Karate and Community Sport Baseball. Here is proof.

I love to coach. Not because I think I'm good and I want to pass on my skills, but because I want to see kids excel in a sport that we all love. We may not always win, but as long as the athlete is improving, overcoming obstacles and enjoying themselves, then they will never lose.

I started this article because eight of my students participated in the recent (June 2012) New Brunswick Chinto-Ryu Tournament, and I was very proud of their accomplishments. They took home eight medals, and it was the first tournament for seven of those students. I wanted this article to focus on the importance of the coach in a young athlete's life and how enjoyable it is to be the person who helps a young athlete excel. A few things have happened this summer that have changed the original tone and intention of this article.

All of my kids play ball (and hockey, and karate).  My oldest plays Little League at the Mosquito level (9 - 11). I have ALWAYS been involved with coaching him, but this year I was unable to due to commitments with another age group for which I am the head coach.

My son's head coach is very intense. I have no doubt that his heart is in the right place, but I have personally witnessed him using intimidation and ridicule as a coaching tactic, and I have trouble expressing just how disgusted I am with him for that. It was not my son that was involved, but the kids who were targeted absolutely love to play baseball, and now, they have to be coerced by their parents to come out and play with the team. I feel horrible that this has happened, not just because there are kids who don't like to play ball anymore, and not just because kids are witnessing a person of authority bullying their teammates, but because I stood by and let it happen. I feel like I have let those kids down; those kids that I coached last year and had so much fun playing ball; those kids that still turn to me and ask "Hey Terry! Did you see that hit I made?" even though it has been two or more years since I coached them; those kids who I encouraged to work hard and celebrate their accomplishments. I have let them all down.

I won't let them down again. I won't let ANY of them down. Not the ball players, and not the karateka. Kids not only deserve a good coach, but they need one as well. Someone to teach them that just because they didn't win the match doesn't mean that they lost, and if they work hard towards a goal and be honest with themselves, nothing can keep them from achieving it. So far, the only thing my son's team is learning is that if they don't screw up, then they won't get hollered at on the field in front of the other team.

People won't remember what you did. People won't remember what you said. But people will always remember the way you made them feel.  - Unknown

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why I Train

Everyone should answer this simple question: "Why do I train?"

The answer might be as simple as "To get into shape.", or "To gain self-confidence.", or maybe "To spend time with my kids doing something we all enjoy.".  I like that one.  That's the reason I started training again just over two years ago.

These answers explain why you started, but fail to address why you still attend class. What keeps you coming back to the dojo after all this time? For me, there are four reasons why I train.

The workout

I could work out on my own, in the comfort of my own home, but I lack the self-discipline to pull that off four times a week. Working out in a group (or leading the workout) gives me more incentive to keep going and give just one more push-up or hold the plank for just 10 more seconds.

Another aspect of the workout is that there are some exercises that some people just can not do, and this forces those who lead the warm-up to think outside the box and come up with exercises that will benefit everyone.

In our Hampton Dojo, we have a 2nd kyu with two prosthetic legs.

Yes. You read that correctly.

This student is a huge inspiration to me and others in the class. I (and others who lead the work-outs) take this students needs and limitations into consideration when warming up and doing strength training, but we can't limit what we do because all of the other students will not benefit as much from the exercises. Everyone is different, and we are forced to think outside the box.

“Think outside the box, collapse the box, and take a fucking sharp knife to it.”
- Banksy

The Ah-Ha Moments

I remember working with one particular Sensei in Rothesay, reviewing some bunkai. I had a question about a technique regarding which leg to use for a kick. I had what I believed to be valid reasons for using each leg. Sensei told me to perform the technique and had me stop and then perform the kick with each leg, and then had me look at everything and tell him what I saw. There it was, just as plain as day. That moment cleared up not just that one question, but other questions for techniques that I didn't even realize I had.

Working with someone who can give you the answer is one thing, but working with someone who helps you discover the answer on your own is something entirely different. Everyone who has a sensei who cares enough to do this is lucky.

“Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.”
- Chinese Proverb

The People

Not everyone who starts classes will stay forever. Some won't even finish out the first year. A lot make it to 3rd kyu and hit a plateau, and that's where they unfortunately stop. Others push through that and continue on with their training.

Every single person who joins has some things in common: they want to learn. They want to get better.  They want to try something new. No matter the experience or skill level of the practitioner, everyone who enters the dojo is eager to learn new things, or help others learn, and this makes the classes so much more enjoyable. Practicing with people who are so dedicated to their martial arts training is a huge benefit for everyone involved, and makes people want to be at class.

On top of local practitioners, there are several million people around the world that share the same passion and dedication to the martial arts, and want nothing more than to share their knowledge with others, and learn new things to expand on what they know. We all share an immediate connection that makes us all part of something bigger and brings us closer together.

The Journey

I know why I joined, and I know what I continue to train. It is not to attain a specific belt. It is not to learn how to kick someones ass. It is the three reasons mentioned above that keep me coming back to the dojo, as well as the moments of discovery; discoveries about the art, about the people around me, about myself. The best method for me to make those discoveries is to push my boundaries, and teach and encourage others to push their own. I might sometimes be a teacher in the dojo, but I will always be a student, because if you think you've learned everything, you're missing the point.

“Karate-Do is a lifetime study.”
- Kenwa Mabuni

My journey has taken me to the point where I am no longer learning "how to do", but rather "how to use". I am so happy to be at this point, and I am looking forward to continuing the journey surrounded by great friends.

Me and Griffin, immediately after the grading.The smiles say it all.

“From white belt to black belt you shape the tool, at black belt you start to learn how to use it.”
- Unknown