Letters: Burn your gi

13 June 2005

Some letters came in to the site about a month ago from a karate teacher here in Britain. This one responds to a letter about karate posted by Steve. The author’s name is withheld to protect the identities of his young students (TS).

Unfortunately, Steve does seem to hit the nail on the head, And for most people in karate that is not nice. Ahh, diddums! I have in the past been involved with some people who did “pressure point” work. Unfortunately some of my comments like “can you do it while someone’s doing their level best to beat the crap out of you?” have not gone down too well.But they never seem to want to demonstrate while someone’s taking a few pot shots at them, I cannot understand why? Now I seem to be out of favour with them.

Steve’s work on fitness and conditioning are some of the things I find most interesting. From a personal viewpoint I do not consider myself to be very fit. I have over the years had repeat injuries, (achilles, knees, torn tendon on rotator cuff etc) very often caused through bad tuition (what a surprise!) or just simply over enthusiasm. But even so, I remember being asked to take a warm up by my former chief instructor (we are talking about 10-15 mins at the beginning of the lesson). All I did was basic running on the spot, starting with a light jog and working up to a reasonably fast pace with short intervals of slow down before each increment. Following that just some basic stretches and strength exercises. The line up was anything from beginners up to 5th Dan. And they were Knackered! After two weeks of letting me do warm ups, the black belts were coming in after the warm up was finished and I was basically told by the head man to “pack it in, its too hard” as they were incapable of doing the lesson after the warm up. Crikey, the lessons were only 1 hour long!

When I tried to explain that I was simply trying to improve fitness and bring in new exercises to help all the students, I was treated to “light sparring” by an instructor who outsized me by five stone and ten inches in height. I (under the assumption that it was light sparring) was introduced to a double leg sweep that lifted me about five foot in the air put me on the floor (oh to have been given a lesson in breakfalls!) and ended up not being able to move for about 15 mins. After 10 years of training, teaching, helping out at gradings (for no pay, just out of “respect”) I never went back. So I can totally sympathise with Steves attitude towards the “bullying behaviour” of many instructors.

I spar with people who have never sparred before. Some of them hit me, some don’t. Sometimes I get caught because I let them have the opening, just to see if they are awake, some just have a gift that nature gave them and they use it. The ones who don’t see it I try to help and encourage. The ones that do catch me I praise and tell them to try and do it again. Beating the hell out of them just because they hit “a senior grade” seems to defeat the object. I hope that my students will be better than me, otherwise why teach?

But you have probably heard all this before. Nothing new under the sun eh?

We do some heavier sparring for older students, involving wearing protective gear etc, and also working going to ground. There seems to be differing opinion however on the age at which heavier or “full contact” should be introduced. You have the extreme in thailand where children seem to do full contact just out of nappies, or the UKs attitude which is that children shouldn’t fight at all and we are bad people for even getting them involved! I just wondered what Steves thoughts are on the subject.

—Name Withheld

Here’s what I suggest. Get all your stuff: gi, belt, books, magazines, whatever. Get some mates to do the same, have a few beers and have a ‘burn your gi’ party. You do that, and I’ll help you in whatever way I can to help you sort out your personal training, and if you get some mates, how to form a group and train. Just send me a picture of the fire and tell me how good it felt. There comes a point in your life where you’ve really got to say, ‘Up yours, pal.’ Make a stand.

Steve Morris

Thanks Steve. Its a nice offer. The real problem is that I think I would be a waste of your time, and I personally feel that too many karate people have done that to you for me to be yet another one to do the same, makes me as bad as them. I look after my kids which means that a lot of my time is taken up with them. And as you would no doubt agree, you cannot exactly bring kids (4 years old, and a 1 year old) along to training!

I also feel I have a responsibility to those that train with me now. It isn’t the money, unlike many that you know, I don’t have enough students for that. It is the fact that I have too many kids who are fantastic and enjoy training to just change drastically what we do. It is unfortunate that many karateka (and I include myself in this) have become involved in something that has such far reaching effects. I have young students that have mental and physical disabilities, that have without any doubt been improved by the use of their karate training. Confidence, co-ordination have both improved. In the case of one boy, the problem is that other clubs wouldn’t even let him in (too difficult for them). He trains and love it. The companionship is something that he does not get anywhere else, and the other kids are fantastic with him.

In the case of another boy who has been through a critical illness, one of the things that kept him going was the thought of going back to training. Changing everything would be very easy if it just affected me, but it won’t. The thought of closing up would be harsh. And frankly I feel certain that if I changed too much, to soon, many children would be tempted to go to other clubs, and if you saw the way kids are being taught by some of the clubs locally you would despair. Calling them money making machines does not even come close. £20 membership, £30 per month training, £25 licence, £40 gi, the list goes on. And we are talking about huge memberships, 1000 plus. I met a young girl who is Sandan grade who said that she didn’t do any sparring until she was a brown belt, and that was just competition stuff! They don’t even work pads! I can’t in all honesty let students leave and then go in to this sort of environment. This is something that probably won’t make you happy, but it is very personal to me that I do the right thing by my students. I personally do not believe Karate is bad. You might as well say that a bike is bad if you fall off it. Karate isn’t something that made itself bad, people made it that way. Corrupted and changed to fit an image of what fighting “might” be like.

And I don’t know how much notice you take these days of the politics in karate, but it is even worse now then in your day. The big Governing bodies (esp the EKGB, who are now EKGB Ltd) are trying to organise everything under the umbrella control of Sport England, they want to be in the Olympics so bad they are trying to get together. Which will mean God knows what for small groups like us. We will be swallowed whole. If you look at the EKGB they wont even consider you for membership unless you have over 600 students (money).

The thing about burning your gi is meant to be symbolic with regard to karate, not so much about the gi as about the practices that the gi implies. I’m working on another reply to another letter which will provide more insights about the history of karate practices when that goes on the site.

But speaking briefly, when you say, ‘You might as well say that a bike is bad if you fall off it,’ the ‘bike’ of karate was never a functional bike—at least, not under the name of karate. The movement patterns are all wrong. It’s the wrong template; the structure of the movement patterns are in contradiction to natural body movement patterns, not to mention the dynamics. And teaching those robotics or motor-orientated to children is detrimental to their development. The patterns are wrong, full stop. That’s why they bear no resemblance to boxing, Muay Thai, judo, jiu-jitsu, or any other genuinely combative sport or practice, nor in fact ANY athletic endeavour. Karate is in direct contradiction to the way nature designed your body to move through the evolutionary process of trial and error. That difference sometimes makes people think karate is ‘better’ than nature, when in fact it’s a perversion of nature. Karate movements are literally deformed. Why anyone would want to inflict that on a kid, I don’t know.

It’s great that you’ve been able to help these two individuals, but you could do a lot more with them if you dumped the robotics. What you teach kids must enhance their natural movement patterns and coordination of natural processes. It must be based on the inherent reflex and behavioral patterns that they engage in anyway. You don’t have to teach a kid to throw or catch a ball, just give them the situation and they’ll do it because those patterns are already in there. As a result of training, the kid should be able to throw better, run better, kick better. Unfortunately, in karate, what usually happens is that the movement becomes very stereotypical and unnatural and can only be used in the controlled environments of karate. About the two cases you mention: you’d be able to help these kids a lot more if you got rid of your shotokan motor-orientated responses and learned about natural movement. Movement should occur naturally in response to a stimulus in the context of a situation, not be prescribed. And the alignments of karate are more about obedience and taking directives, physically or psychologically, than they are about becoming a more physically or psychologically functional person.

As for grades, gis, etc., the reason why grades in karate are meaningless is because they don’t measure anything real. After all, BJJ has belts and gradings and it’s a great system, but their syllabus has been clearly defined and proven, and the testing of it is directly linked to the competitive environment. And that’s where you seem to be on the fence. You need to get out there and train in BJJ/boxing/Muay Thai/etc., or you have to research them through videos and books, to get your information right. All the information is already out there, all you’ve got to do is untangle it and make it work for you and your students. You seem reluctant to get personally involved in making a change for yourself, but that’s the only way forward for you. And you’re never ‘too old.’

What you would have to do is set goals. Set a personal goal for yourself to get your shit together, so that you understand how you want to make the gradual modifications in the class. And it really isn’t that difficult. Padwork can be simplified and it’s pretty easy to do. It’s nothing magical. Same as bagwork. Fighting can be made conditional and competitive. It doesn’t have to be ‘a fight’. The whole point is, the training syllabus is either in this macro form for the professional, but even when you take it right down to the easiest level, it should still be the same components in the micro form. You just might have to customize them in different ways to the individual’s needs.

The trappings of competitions and belts and all of that might be superficially appealing, but there has to be something more substantial behind the ‘rewards.’ And you need to be creative about offering the students something that is going to be constructive for them and meaningful later on in their life, but to put it across in a way that’s fun and natural–after all, playing is what they do anyway. You’ve just got to give it some direction, so that the playing is relevant to combat and not in contradiction to it.

When I start to train Ty more formally than what we do right now, I’ll train him in grappling and safe submission first. As he gets older, I’ll include within that, striking. But all of that will be perfectly safe; it has to be. The training is the same; it’s only the intensity that changes. And that goes for adults as well. Some trained athletes can train at higher intensities than others. What you’re always trying to aim for is to give that individual the opportunity to become the best he can be, whatever that is. And you have to inspire him to do that.

Interestingly, when I’ve observed disabled athletes at the Olympics, they’ve been a huge inspiration to me. On TransWorld Sport I saw a severely disabled wrestler (I think he had only stumps for arms and legs) who was defeating able-bodied men. I was stunned. And totally inspired.

What I’m saying is, you never know what an individual is capable of until you challenge him and inspire him. Someone obviously helped that wrestler to achieve his goals despite all the odds being against it. They could have easily said, ‘no way’, but they didn’t. His training partners and trainers had not only their own personal goals in mind, but also his. They knew where he wanted to go and they helped him get there. The guy is a fucking hero–I wish I knew his name, but it came on so quickly I couldn’t catch it. (By the way, Jean Jacques Machado is arguably one of the greatest submission fighters in the world, and he has a disability. Check out his videos and his book BRAZILIAN JIU-JITSU BLACK BELT TECHNIQUES.)

Your heart is obviously in the right place. But as a starting point, you shouldn’t give up on yourself. Writing yourself off only sends the wrong message to your students. You don’t have to become a fighter, all you have to do is become a trainer. And a trainer is somebody who can adapt his fighting and training methods and the principles that underlie them, to anybody.

And you have to gradually raise that bar. Be sneaky about it. You can’t suddenly make the transition with kids; they’d be devastated.

As for the future, I’m all about the now. You can’t leave it for the next generation or next month or next week. Start now. You’re going to be old anyway. Do it now. It’s now. This is your only fucking life.

These kids should be insiring YOU to get better. Pull out all the stops. Go for it. And that doesn’t mean you can’t have other obligations in your life. As I’m dictating this letter to Trish, I’m holding the baby and doing my Muay-Thai knee drill! Some days when we’re working on the site for an hour, I get a good workout.

Sometimes, you’ve just got to jump and see what fucking happens. See where you end up. You can’t always play safe. And the truth is, you don’t hand the responsibility over to somebody else–your master, your system, or any of it. YOU’VE got to be responsible for what you teach, particularly to kids. And the great thing about martial arts is that you can become somebody through it. They can inspire you to do great things.

To be a martial artist, for real, that’s been my quest in life. And when kids walk in the door wanting a piece of the legends, you’ve got to be able to give them something authentic that isn’t cheating them in the long term. They don’t know the difference between Power Rangers and the real thing, but you do. It’s up to you.

And that’s what I’m here for. I’m not here to do it for you, I’m a resource for you to use. In my day, I fucking jumped, for real. You’ve got to do the same. I can’t do it for you. You’ve got to put yourself under that pressure to find out what you’re really capable of. That’s why I’m saying, burn your gi.


Thanks for the reply. To say the least it is food for thought, and I really do appreciate your taking the time to reply to me. I will be working on changes to my syllabus etc over time so that things are not to radical a change for the kids, as you say the movements should be as natural as possible, and thats the way I want to go. I must admit I found your comments on the website regarding viewing animals fighting very interesting, and its something I will take a look at myself. And I am going to do a session this month with my adult students that will be no belts or gis, just padwork and sparring with none of the usual trappings and see how they go. Again, don’t want to shock them too much.

And a small PS from Steve…

In response to the other bit of the question about ‘people I trust to teach my method,’ to date, nobody has really taken what I do and run with it. They haven’t fully understood the concept of teaching yourself. There are guys who have trained with me who are credible at what they do, but from my observation, there’s nobody I’ve taught who has understood the fundamentals and adapted them, not only for themselves, but for other people.

This question seems to imply a kind of lineage. There’s no lineage in what I do. There’s no actual bloody system. I’ve never wanted ‘students’ or, as some put it, ‘followers’. I don’t accredit people, and the whole idea of that goes against what I do and how I got where I am. So if somebody claims he trained under me, well, bully for him. But you’d have to suck it and see for yourself whether he’s credible, and if you have the criteria by which to determine that, then why are you going to him? You might as well train yourself.

The only thing I can say is that if his basis of instruction is karate, then I know there’s something wrong.

I provide information for people. It’s up to them what they do with it. The greatest process of instruction is trial and error, learning by your own mistakes. You have to jump into the pool. You have to do it. The solutions are inside you. They’re right there, right under your nose.