Thoughts, stories, and ideas from Sensei Steve Gottwirt

Thoughts, stories, and ideas from                  Sensei Steve Gottwirt
Some of these thoughts, stories, and personal history appeared in our newsletter, "Dō Gakuin News". Few members have been with us since our first issue in 1993. As such, ideas on this page may have been printed before, but are worth telling again.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Attendance and Priorities

The school year just ended and I’m re-thinking some ideas on dojo attendance.

Years ago a student frequently missed classes.  Each absence had a valid excuse like work got in the way or family emergency.  He was concerned that I wouldn’t believe him, or think less of him for poor attendance.  I reassured him that I respected his taking care of priorities.  In light of giri and gimu, he should put more important things ahead of Karate training.  If someone missed class to laze around, watch TV, or just didn’t feel like it … that’s when I’d have a problem with them.  The same holds true with school children.  I will never say that Karate is more important than studying, homework, and family responsibilities.  That said, I now believe that Karate is more important than studying, homework, and family responsibilities.  What??!?  Here are two important points:

1- A student cannot get hurt if s/he makes a mistake in Social Studies.  A student does not risk hurting someone in a Math class.  A Karate student who does not train diligently runs the risk of injuring himself/herself or other students if their skills dull due to lack of training.

2- Parents often face various dilemmas - the child’s homework is not finished, or there’s an upcoming test, or a special project is due.  Of course the solution is simple; don’t go to Karate class tonight.  While I realize that school work is a priority, the parent fails to take advantage of a major Karate training benefit.  We teach students how to be more efficient and effective in physical motion and mental acuity.  A good Karate student learns how to prioritize and get the job done.  Parents should assist their children in fitting homework, study, chores, family responsibilities, etc. around the fixed Karate class schedule.  We should not be the first thing to go because of poor planning.  Shaky attendance is frustrating for the student as their skills are slow to develop, holds the class back as some cannot keep up, and puts all in danger as the irregular attendees’ skills are not honed.

Most attendance problems can be solved in three words: Come. To. Class.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Karate Training is Like a Tree

This article appears in our Spring 2017 newsletter.  It is also posted here because I humbly believe it important enough to warrant a wider audience. 

Look at a tree.  Look at Karate.  See any similarities?  Your Karate training is made up of different parts, same as a tree.  Let’s compare the two.

The most important part of a tree is the root system.  The tree doesn’t get nourishment, it’s not grounded for stability, it cannot grow or even survive without strong roots.  In Karate, this is your Kihon (basics).  Your kata (form) is just groups of basics set in specific patterns.  Kumite and Ippons (sparring and pre-arranged self-defense) uses your basics on another person.  Kihon is the root of your Karate.  Some people argue that perfecting kihon is not necessary; perfection is not needed in a street situation.  This may be true, but we strive for near-perfect kihon for two reasons:

1- Karate-do is an art designed to help the practitioner towards self-betterment.
2- With surprise and adrenaline, you will do a rushed, sloppy version of your techniques on the street.  Careless practice in the dojo means in a street attack, you will do a rushed, sloppy version of already sloppy techniques.

The trunk of the tree supports all branches and foliage.  It is usually thick and sturdy.  In Karate, this is your Kata (forms).  As it was once explained to me, kata is like a living encyclopedia of your style of Karate.  All moves can be found in your kata.  Working kata reinforces your basics, and develops muscle memory for assorted combinations of techniques.  Almost all tree trunks are wider at the base and gradually taper as you approach the top of the tree.  Kata works the same way.  As you move up to higher kata, some combinations are more complicated, but stances-punches-kicks remain constant.  Movements in higher level katas rely on movements developed in lower katas.  For example, you cannot be good at Bassai Dai if your Heian Godan is shaky.

The branches extend out from the trunk.  Each branch looks a little different, but clearly look like part of the tree.  In Karate, this is your Bunkai (analysis; explanation; meaning of moves).  Every movement or group of movements in each kata has at least one meaning - usually more than one.  We give students the simplest, most basic meaning for each series of movements.  As the student progresses, they learn that the same group of movements can have several different meanings.  Shotokan has many hidden grabs, locks, chokes, and takedowns in each kata.  ‘Hidden’ is not quite right; the meanings are there, you just have to look for them.  I’ve heard martial artists argue that bunkai is a lot of bunk; they’ll punch, kick, and block a lot sooner than they would grab an opponent and twist him to the ground.  This is partly true; you will use these basic (kihon) moves a lot sooner than you would do something more complicated.  That’s why these moves are called ‘basic’.  It’s just good to know that you can do something more complex if the situation calls for it.

The foliage, whether leaves, flowers, or needles, grow on the branches.  In Karate, this is your Kumite (sparring).  Just like foliage, kumite is the flashiest, most colorful, most noticeable part of Karate.  Your fighting techniques stem directly from your bunkai.  People see your kumite, but often have no idea how much work goes into bunkai, kata, and kihon to develop these sparring skills.

A tree needs water, sunlight, and nutrients to grow and thrive.  Without these elements, a tree can soon die.  Your Karate works the same way.  Without regular, diligent training, your Karate skills will suffer.  Feed your soul.  Feed your Karate.  I’ll see you on the deck!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

20 Corrections Apply to Other Activities

Last week we talked about the running gag I have with one of my Black Belt instructors: There are only 20 corrections in Shotokan.  How can the same correction apply to so many different situations?  Whatever the technique, the same body mechanics apply.  It therefore stands to reason that many of the same corrections can also apply to movements in other sports and activities.

When moving stance to stance, beginners often stride with their feet.  Advanced practitioners know this is incorrect.  One moves with the hips; the feet just come along for the ride. More distance is covered, center of gravity is lowered, power and mobility is achieved by opening up the hips rather than stepping longer.  This correction is made in basics, kata, and even kumite.  Let the hips move the body instead of the feet stepping.

Several years ago I lived along the route taken by the high school cross country team on their daily run.  I noticed one particular runner who had a short gait, head bobbing up and down as he ran.  One day he stopped and asked what I was looking at.  I told him that his stride was ineffective.  He asked about my background in running and scoffed when I told him my background was martial arts.  I asked if he had five minutes to spare, that I would show him one technique to improve his running, that all he had to lose was five minutes of his time.  He agreed.

We went two blocks to the library and stood at one end of the parking lot.  Side by side, we then walked across the lot in 60 paces.  I then had him follow me back across, opening up my hips and lengthening my stride, covering the same distance in 45 paces.  He appreciated the idea, but said he couldn’t take such long strides without negatively affecting his gait.  I understood and asked if he could open his hips up by just one inch.  He said he’d try, so we walked across the lot again, just slightly opening up the hips, covering the distance in 58 paces.  He was impressed, but didn’t feel it would make much of a difference.  He said he usually runs 5K and 10K races.  I asked him how much ground he normally covers with each step; he guessed about a meter.  OK, just lengthening his stride by one inch, over 5,000 steps, he saves 5,000 inches, or 127 fewer steps to the 5K finish line.  He saw how significant that would be.  I then told him, once he’s used to the extra inch, he might try lengthening his stride by two inches, further reducing the number of paces he’d need to complete the race.  The next year this runner became team captain and won an all-county conference award.  I won’t dare say my advice helped this runner achieve so much, but I don’t think the advice hurt him at all.
It seems a sure-fire way to score in tennis is to hit the ball to one corner and when your opponent returns the ball, hit to the opposite corner.  Your opponent will find it nearly impossible to change directions and get to the second ball in time.  I know nothing about tennis, but know a bit about body mechanics.  I mused that the player is trying to turn around, which probably wouldn’t work.  He should plant his front foot and whip his hips around, pivoting on the ball of his foot.  This would move his body along a 180 degree diameter, rather than a 180 degree semi-circle.  My fellow '20-corrections' instructor told me of one tennis player, James Blake, who often did that technique quite successfully.

Whether Karate, Judo, wrestling, running, tennis, swimming, or almost every activity, we still use our human body.  Musculature, skeletal structure, range of motion, etc. enter into almost everything we do.  Perhaps my Black Belt instructor and I should change our little joke to be: 20 corrections for everything.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

20 Corrections in Shotokan

One of my Black Belts and I have a running gag that there are only 20 corrections in all of Shotokan.  Is this an accurate statement?  Probably not, but it’s interesting to see how often the same few corrections come up in a class.  For example: 
-   A student might lean his upper body forward in front stance; we’d walk over and tell him to straighten his back and push his hips forward into the stance.  Another one of my Black Belts might say to tuck his tailbone forward under his hips (same idea).  I find that a quirky explanation often sticks better in the students’ minds, so I’ll say, “Push the tush”.  Same idea.
-   I might then walk over to a student having problems with Tekki kata, with his head forward and his back hunched.  I’ll tell him to straighten his back and ‘push the tush’.  It usually works.
-   Another student might have a short front kick, with little reach or power.  He’ll then be told to ‘push the tush’ - thrust his hip forward with the kick and then yank the hip back as the leg snaps back.  Again, the same idea.

How can the same correction apply to so many different situations?  It’s really pretty simple.  It’s not so much a matter of correcting the technique, but understanding that, regardless of the technique, we’re all using the human body.  If your body works mechanically correct, you can’t help but have good technique, power, speed, and mobility. 

One of my Black Belts had a long hiatus due to injury, and came back filled with concepts, ideas, and theories he thought about while ‘benched’.  One question he posed was: We say that front stance and fighting stance should be one shoulder’s width, fudo dachi one-and-a-half shoulders' width, and kibba dachi should be two shoulder’s width.  Should width be determined from instep (arch) to instep (arch) of each foot, mid foot to mid foot, or outer blade to outer blade?  Simple question – some may even say it’s a petty issue.  He wasn’t aware that we addressed this question long ago while he was out.  Proper width should be measured from outer blade to outer blade.  Your feet should be within the shoulder’s width.  Mid foot to mid foot is only about 4” wider and instep to instep about 8” wider, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but if your stance is a little too wide it puts unnecessary lateral strain on your knees.  Outer blade to outer blade keeps your feet directly under your knees, allowing the knees to bend forward and backward (as they’re designed to bend), and not flex side to side, which causes weakened stance and potential knee problems in the future.  We’ve seen students with long legs who could step much wider than the prescribed one shoulder’s width (or two, in the case of kibba dachi).  I’d tell them that that just because they could step wider doesn’t mean they should.   I’d stand them in front of the mirror and they could see for themselves that their feet are farther apart than their inward-bent knees.  This one correction comes up many times in class during basics, kata, etc.

Next week I will blog about a time I helped a high school cross-country runner improve his time by using one of the ’20 corrections’ in Shotokan’.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

How Low is Low?

While leading basics in class, Sensei Hatgis would bark out, “Get lower!”  Students whose stances were high would get lower; advanced students who were already low would . . . get lower.  I continued this practice at my dojo, calling for students to get lower in stance.  One night after class, a mother came up to me and asked how low her son should be.  I answered “Lower than he is now”.  “But how low?”, she insisted, “I want to monitor his practice at home.”  We all have an idea of how low stance should be; we know it when we see it, but may have difficulty expressing it to others.  This mother forced me to think and come up with a specific guideline.

A few quick thoughts first:  Low stance lowers your center of gravity, stabilizes your balance and increases power of your techniques.  It also allows you to unbalance your opponent.  Training with low stance in the dojo allows you to be quicker, smoother, and more supple with slightly higher stance in a street situation.  ‘Low stance’ is often misunderstood by kyu rank students.  They think that squatting down, hunching over, and spreading their legs too long or wide is how to get low.  This does physically reduce their height, but they must learn how to lower their hips.  Low stance actually means deep stance, but new students have difficulty understanding the idea of deepening their stance.  I’ll ask students what is the root word of ‘stance’ and they’ll correctly tell me ‘stand’.  I then tell them the proper way to stand is to sit down!  Even if they can’t physically do it yet, they understand the idea of dropping their hips with a straight back and ‘sitting’ lower in stance.

Back to the mother:  I told her to imagine a horizontal line across her son’s belt parallel to the ground.  The angle formed by the thigh and the horizontal line should be no greater than 45 degrees.  Ideally, I’d like an angle of 30 degrees.  Some younger or more agile students can make an angle of less than 30 degrees.  Fine, but too low might make it difficult to move effectively.  Photos below show stances of 60 degrees, 45 degrees, 30 degrees, and thigh almost parallel to the horizontal belt line.  I hope this gives you some ideas on how low is low enough.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Taikyoku Shodan "corrected" ?

When it was announced that Toyotaro Miyazaki would permanently move back to Japan, we arranged to spend as much time with him as possible.  Most students treat him with reverence; we seniors who know him for decades recognize his dark sense of humor.  For example: during frequent after-class conversations on bunkai he’s been known to say that kata moves may not have practical applications.  He has said that some katas may have even been designed incorrectly.  Is he serious, or is he forcing you to think and analyze for yourself?  The only way to tell is if he has a faint smile and slight twinkle in his eye.  Those who aren’t aware to look for these signs are stunned to hear negative talk about kata coming from one of the top kata grand champions in four decades!

New students are taught the proper way to turn around in stance (mawatte): look over the rear shoulder, step across with the rear leg, and shift the weight as you face the new direction.  This is drilled into newbies with constant repetition.  Fine, now let’s learn the first White Belt kata, Taikyoku Shodan.  From yoi, turn left, step out with the left foot into a left front stance/left down block.  Then step forward to a right front stance/right forward punch.  Now turn around and block by looking over the forward shoulder and stepping around with the front leg… Wait a minute!  New students were just taught to turn by the rear side and now their first kata breaks the rule!  What’s going on here?  Maybe this is one of those "incorrect" katas Master Miyazaki talks about.  I showed my senior students a "corrected" way of practicing Taikyoku Shodan using turns (mawatte) done with the rear leg just as new students are taught.  All blocks are on the left side to counter an opponent’s right-side attack.  It should be noted that old Japanese culture didn’t recognize left-handed people; everybody used their right hand, so your opponent would most likely use a right-side attack.  The kata now ends by stepping forward to the starting point, rather than stepping back for yame.  Problem solved.

Am I serious about "correcting" Taikyoku Shodan?  You didn’t see the slight twinkle in my eye?  Of course not.  Taikyoku Shodan is fine as is.  Mawatte by turning the rear side is practiced daily in kihon (basics).  Taikyoku Shodan practices ¼ turns, ½ turns, and ¾ turns; it lets you practice left and right blocks and counterpunches from either side.  Kihon and kata together teach the student to turn either way.  New students practice kata patterns to learn movement and simple combinations.  Strategy is taught in kata, even though new students are not ready to understand it.  We block moving forward in Shotokan, jamming your opponent, stopping his momentum, and gaining your forward momentum to counterattack.  The top and bottom line of Taikyoku Shodan close in on the new opponent as you turn traveling four shoulders length in the new direction.  Another posibility: after the right punch, you grab your opponent's gi and toss him with the momentum of your 180-degree turn.  These basic strategies can be explained to new students when they’re ready for kumite (sparring).  Until then, the turn in kata develops muscle memory as the body trains to turn either way with either side.

Kenkojuku (our root organization) began in 1942 as Kenkokai Karate-bu, a Karate research club.  Influenced by Yoshitaka (Gigo) Funakoshi and others, research had Okano-soke’s teachings a little different from Nakayama-sensei and the Japan Karate Association (JKA), pre-dating it by seven years (JKA founded in 1949).  My dojo holds monthly Black Belt classes where in addition to advanced practice, we examine different ideas and research their values.  I often tell students, “First you learn your kata, and then you learn your kata.”  Confusing?  Not really.  You first learn the sequence of movements.  As your Karate abilities and knowledge develop, you can re-examine kata movements, technique, combinations, theory, and bunkai (meaning and application).  The Facebook video link below posted December 26th hopefully provides food for thought sparking a greater understanding of our Karate strategy and theory.  Osu!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Shu-Ha-Ri - Entering my 50th year of 'mastery'

Yesterday was my 49th anniversary in the martial arts.  Some may ask how anal I am to remember the exact date.  Yes, I am anal about certain things, but I kept a training log at my first Tae Kwon Do dojang.  I came across it years later when moving and noticed that my brother Rick married Rita on December 13, 1970.  Now I can never forget the date; it's my brother and sister-in-law's anniversary, just 3 years earlier.

A couple of people mentioned shu-ha-ri to my 'mastery' of Karate.  Does 49 years indicate a certain level of mastery, or just too stubborn to quit?  So what is shu-ha-ri?  There are slightly different interpretations, but it basically means:
SHU: Learn the rules.  Follow your instructor's teaching as closely as possible.
HA: Bend or break the rules.  See what works for you.
RI: Leave the rule.  Personalize your Karate to your specific body type.

I believe a martial artist is like a shark - you must continually move forward or you will drown.  Are there any 'new' Shotokan techniques for me to learn?  Probably not at this point.  So what's new for me?  As one ages, the body is less responsive than it was in youth.  No surprise here.  I now move forward by adapting my techniques to work as well as possible with an aging body.  This is not a negative thing.  Many people have the unfortunate misconception that Karate is that adorable activity a 4-year-old does, or an acrobatically demanding activity that is only for teens and young adults.  Karate is for all ages: older adults benefit from exercise, flexibility, balance, coordination, stamina, improved health, self-defense - all while learning a traditional art form.   

This past summer's Olympics in Rio saw older trainers with their young international competitors.  The trainers may not be physically able to perform techniques as well as their young athletes, but they can coach their athletes to greatness.  I have had the good fortune to teach/coach/train some wonderful students, many of whom became tournament champions and grand champions.  Several have entered the military or joined law enforcement where their Karate training has proved invaluable.  They have become highly respected in the martial arts community.  This is where I feel, if not mastery, my many years in the martial arts has been a success.

As I enter my 50th year of martial arts today, I add another foreign phrase to this blog entry: וי! ... Oy!