karate is the silver lining

or: the side-effects of precept 13 of the niju kun

advertising for martial arts generally, and certainly the overwhelming portion of karate advertising that i've seen (and created), is keen to highlight the physical benefits of training: fitness, health, and the (improved, though never guaranteed) ability to defend oneself. it is also common, though notably less so, to see martial arts advertised on the basis of its less tangible benefits such as improved self-confidence, self-awareness, balance, and so forth. when we consider our day-to-day life, most of us aren't called upon to defend ourselves, and so the more indirect aspects of karate training can be argued to be more valuable; i am not anticipating an impending battle to the death, but improved well-being is something i can benefit from every day. (this movement away from direct 'combat' application to 'way of life' is similar to the shift from karate-jutsu to karate-do with the proliferation of firearms.)

another intangible benefit of karate has occurred to me in recent months; one that i have never seen advertised or heard mentioned. and yet in my experience, it seems to be true that over the years of studying karate, i have become more optimistic.


in some ways, i suppose it might seem odd to associate something generally regarded as aggressive, such as karate, with optimism. i can honestly say it wouldn't have occurred to me; it actually came as a surprise, when i recognised it for what it was, but on further examination, the idea of karate making someone more optimistic isn't totally absurd. i would say that for me it took a number of years of willing submission to shotokan training, and a dedication in doing so, and so maybe without these optimism as a benefit would be more elsuive, but here's my argument for it:

the problem with the shotokan 'single perfect strike' attitude

often the format of a karate lesson is that the instructor describes and demonstrates a technique, the class perform it numerous times in different directions and with/without a partner, and the instructor goes around telling people what they're doing wrong. it depends on the skill of the instructor (skill in instructing, not necessarily their skill in karate) how the whole thing is done, of course, but generally this could be seen as a fairly negative experience on the whole. it is easy to find flaws in techniques of even the most skilful practitioners, and when we are always 'seeking to perfect' our techniques (or character), are we not acknowledging that we will never achieve our goal?

on the contrary, i think that the philosophy of always striving to improve is a very positive thing - i am inherently suspicious of people that assert that "that's just how they are" and never seek to either improve themselves or ask if there is room for it - and even if it leads to the idea that you will never be perfect, that is only one side of the coin. [aside: i am known in my dojo for once having wistfully commented, when describing a punch, that 'nothing is ever perfect in this world'. i have not yet lived this down.]

the other side of the same shotokan coin is the idea that even if your techniques are not perfect, there is no reason not to do them anyway. i have never, ever, heard an instructor say to someone that since their punch lacks power, or speed, or accuracy, that they shouldn't bother trying it if the situation arose (and after all else failed, naturally). if you are always seeking to improve, you are always - always - operating at your best, your full, and more often than not that is more than good enough. i think perhaps the instructor has an obligation to make this distinction clear (by giving good feedback rather than simple criticism), else the students may well feel that they shouldn't bother trying, but if you can hold on to this idea then you are far ahead of the game: you may not be perfect, but that realisation in itself has already improved you, and opened the possibility of much greater improvement. a fortunate side-effect is that by seeking to improve your techniques by chasing an impossible 'perfection', your techniques will be that much better and that much more likely to fulfil the actual, realistic goal of being effective.

a fighting outlook

consider the opponents being faced in the two pictures here. at first glance, there are obvious differences between them. more becomes apparent on closer inspection, and when they begin to move and/or attack. how one might behave against such opponents will vary greatly on whether this is a competiton (and what the rules/scoring criteria are) or a self-defence situation, location, context, and so forth, but in general when i face an opponent i begin to size them up, and make observations about them. i am thinking how i can win, and i am looking for little advantages i can use against them. for opponent 1 (fig 1), who is much taller than me, i do not think 'he has much better reach than me', i think instead 'i can get underneath his arms, they are too high' or 'his long limbs are heavier and more obvious when they move'. if i want to win, i am forced to put a positive outlook on every observation. i cannot easily reach his head, so i know i don't have to worry about target choice; the choice is made for me! and so on, and so on. for opponent 2 (fig 2), i see a black belt and instead of thinking that he is skilled, i think that it is likely he has years of the same patterns he will stick to and which can therefore be predicted. if my opponent is older than me, i don't think that they have more fighting experience, but that i will move faster.

silver lining article - photo 1silver lining article - photo 2

in both cases, i am looking for the positive side of observations (as many as i can think of) that could easily be taken either way. and of course i may be wrong, but if i decide that i am faster and i go full speed believing i am faster, i am actually much more likely to successfully score. and so by repeatedly facing opponents with this desire to win - and from losing far more often than i care to advertise - i match the commitment of my body in my techniques with the commitment of my mind that i will correctly identify successful strategies, and adjust to my opponent appropriately. and as with all shotokan, full commitment is absolutely non-negotiable, and the mental evaluation of my opponent is a conscious act: if they are faster, then i am smarter. if they are faster and smarter, then i am more instinctive. if they are faster, smarter, and more instinctive, i am more unpredictable, etc. if i want to win, i will find that reason why i can win; i do not wait for it to 'just occur to me', i go looking for it. and if i lose, then i lose, but it will not be because i was not the absolute best i could be.

in competitions through the years, i have had opponents that were daunting to step up against. but i didn't have much time to think about it before hajime was called and everything kicked off, and i needed all of that time to come up with a plan of best attack. by repeatedly, and deliberately, putting myself in that situation where i needed to think of something good and/or useful right now, i have become better at it. the same way i learn other things by practising them until i do them instinctively, i have become adept at taking a pointedly positive view at things. i didn't realise this was happening at the time, but that tendency has crept into other situations and now i find myself dealing more quickly and positively with any problem that arises, whether it defeats me in the end or not.

-neil jerome, 2011

respond to or comment on this article! email to webmaster@kenmeikarate.org

return to the articles page