What Old Mar­tial Artists Know

( Psst! It’s Pre­cisely What Many Young Mar­tial Artists Need to Learn)

Black Belt - - SCREEN SHOTS - By Tom Koch

Of­ten stooped from age, lit­tle men hob­ble onto the mat, their thin wrists hid­den within sleeves of uni­forms held to­gether by frayed black belts. Their bows are per­func­tory but sin­cere, their faces calm with, some­times, a slight smile. Op­po­site them are younger black belts, men whose strength and speed should roll up these old­sters and put them out of their mis­ery.

And yet the strength and speed of these young black belts do not serve them well, and the re­sult is al­most com­i­cal. If it’s aikido, they seem per­pet­u­ally off-bal­ance, fall­ing like tops. If it’s judo, their falls ap­pear pre­or­dained, their at­tempted throws in­ef­fec­tual, al­most clumsy. If it’s karate, their kicks, swift and pow­er­ful, just miss. Most mar­tial arts have a few such

mei­jin, “ma­gi­cians” who seem to have traded phys­i­cal­ity for some­thing that re­quires nei­ther strength nor speed, some­thing es­sen­tial that younger folk are usu­ally lack­ing. On the in­ter­net, there are videos of these mar­tial an­cients do­ing im­pos­si­ble things: Mori­hei Ueshiba, founder of aikido, cheer­fully throw­ing all com­ers, two and three at a time, or mov­ing into a sword strike with noth­ing but a fan for de­fense; Kyuzo Mi­fune, the judo 10th dan whose op­po­nents ap­pear un­able to stay on their feet; and Jig­oro Kano, founder of judo, whose bal­let-like moves rou­tinely off-bal­ance op­po­nents who are, a mo­ment be­fore, solid and ready.

“Oh, those young guys are be­ing nice to the old man,” ca­sual ob­servers — and many mar­tial artists — will say. No. They’re try­ing hard and fail­ing spec­tac­u­larly in a way those skep­tics will never un­der­stand un­less they spend a life­time train­ing and then, when they find their power and speed di­min­ish­ing with age, reach the old­ster’s stage of be­ing.

For many mar­tial artists, this is un­der­stand­ably frus­trat­ing. Years of train­ing to build tech­nique, to build strength, to in­crease speed — all are worth­less against these old men. I re­mem­ber what that was like be­cause only now, when I am in my 60s, am I be­gin­ning to know what the ma­ture mar­tial artists of my youth un­der­stood.

Tokyo: Hombu Dojo

I was a fit aikido shodan with equal rank­ing in two styles of karate when, in 1982, Kis­shomaru Ueshiba called me for­ward to grab his wrist in a demon­stra­tion of a throw called mo­rote kokyu­nage. Ueshiba, son of the founder, looked ev­ery inch the el­derly ac­coun­tant in his 60s. Thin wrists and an al­most scrawny neck, his ex­tended hand — “Come and get it!” — had a few liver spots. If I’d been able to grab his arm, I would have crushed it. How­ever, a part of me said, “Be care­ful of the old dude,” as I rushed for­ward with all my strength, ready to en­gage.

In a heart­beat, I found my­self fly­ing back­ward and up­ward, spin­ning head over heels as if re­pelled by some force. I don’t think I even touched him. Look­ing up in sur­prise, I saw that he was ges­tur­ing for me to go again. I missed again, of course. But to make his point, he kept me from fall­ing, hold­ing me off-bal­ance on my toes with his shoul­der and body, al­most top­pling but not quite.

That was 30 years ago, and it has taken me those decades to un­der­stand. Os­teoarthri­tis has slowed me down, the ar­ti­fi­cial hips hav­ing be­come a limit I live with. My vi­sion, even with glasses, is medi­ocre, and with­out them, I’m pretty much blind. I’m not a mei­jin, not yet, but the young ones some­times think I am be­cause, well, they’ve yet to meet the real thing.

Here’s what I learned over the years, a few of the lessons that old­sters who have prac­ticed for a life­time know.


Strength and speed are a stage ev­ery­one goes through. They’re part of be­ing young, what you build when you don’t have any­thing else. And in that train­ing, one be­gins to gain tech­nique. Faster, stronger, more

pre­cise. That’s the train­ing, but in the end, it’s never enough. There’s al­ways some­one stronger and faster. What the old guys know is that’s OK. Let them be stronger and faster. Let them do the work.

What­ever the at­tack, let it come. Let the young­sters close the dis­tance be­cause all I have to do is step a bit to take the sweet spot of con­trol. If it’s a punch or a kick, it’s aimed at a very small part of my body. They’re bar­rel­ing in from 4 or 6 feet away, and I need move only 3 inches to avoid the at­tack. As they be­gin to close, I be­gin to counter. They’re think­ing feet, and I’m work­ing in inches. It isn’t that the young ju­doka can’t load Mi­fune for a throw, can’t lift him. It’s just that he can’t throw Mi­fune be­cause Mi­fune has al­ready moved. He’s al­ready be­gin­ning kaishi waza, the counter that rides strength and speed into a full ip­pon. Thanks, kid, for the as­sist.

The old man’s smile at the be­gin­ning of the match says, “I’m watch­ing” — not the tech­nique ( Will he kick or punch? Go for a foot sweep or a hip throw?) but the whole per­son. Ev­ery tech­nique has a “tell,” a rise of the shoul­der, a dip of the hip or the sound of a foot shift­ing on the mat. The old guy knows them all. In the split sec­ond in which a tech­nique is be­gun, it’s an­nounced and tele­graphed. As soon as an at­tack be­gins, a vul­ner­a­bil­ity ap­pears. When you can’t move much, you can move enough. Let the other’s speed bring him or her in; all you need to do then is move a few inches and the sente, or tim­ing, be­comes your own.

And so Mori­hei Ueshiba slips in­side the arc of a sword, his fan ex­tended. Jig­oro Kano glides past the arms of his part­ner to pull him back­ward. Sim­i­larly, the tai chi adept sim­ply rocks a bit back­ward and to the side, cradling the at­tacker’s arm or foot like a baby, de­flect­ing be­fore re­spond­ing.


Young men study bal­ance. Old men mas­ter the un­bal­ance, the physics of which are tele­graphed with each at­tack. The kick means you’re only on one leg, and grab­bing at a wrist puts your weight to one side at a down­ward an­gle. Send out a right cross, and your body’s bal­ance is in an arc you can’t en­tirely con­trol. What­ever the at­tack, it starts the old man’s counter, the sec­ond at which your bal­ance dis­ap­pears and your strength is trans­formed into clum­si­ness.

The old men take the brief un­bal­ance em­bed­ded in any at­tack and use it. That was how Kis­shomaru Ueshiba threw me all those years ago. He didn’t wait for me to grab his wrist; in­stead, he turned slightly off- cen­ter, en­ter­ing with his body as I was grab­bing. When I tried to plant my for­ward foot, his arm now slightly to my side, he had me in con­trol at the shoul­der and hip and threw me like a spin­ning top. Or as he liked to say, I was a young fool who threw him­self.

Train­ing Hard and Hard Train­ing

To be good, ev­ery­one has to train hard. The more in­tense the work­out, we think, the more we learn. Many con­fuse train­ing hard with hard train­ing, how­ever. Train­ing hard is a mat­ter of fo­cus and at­ten­tion, as well as ex­er­cise. Hard train­ing is the bruis­ing, bangs and knocks one takes in the dojo.

Peo­ple at ev­ery age can train hard, and learn. Many who em­brace hard train­ing learn very lit­tle for all their pain. No­body learns with a dis­lo­cated shoul­der, a bro­ken wrist or two cracked ribs. All that teaches is that tech­niques can hurt. Train­ing hard is about frac­tions of an inch and split sec­onds, about the ex­act right time and the ex­act right bal­ance.

Save the im­age of TV fights for the TV. Teach­ers who tell you “no pain, no gain” are mostly about pain and lit­tle gain. This doesn’t mean you should be a wimp; it means in­jury is al­ways around the cor­ner and the in­jured don’t prac­tice. Save its po­ten­tial for when the fight be­comes real. That’s why most good schools value con­trol above all else, in­sist­ing stu­dents take care of each other.

Train­ing hard is be­ing sen­si­ble and in­tel­li­gent, find­ing a way to

Young men study bal­ance. Old men mas­ter the un­bal­ance, the physics of which are tele­graphed with each at­tack.

un­der­stand the tech­niques and the weak points each one presents. Hard train­ing — be­ing proud of a black eye, a bro­ken nose or a frac­tured wrist — is be­ing proud of a mis­take, whether yours, your part­ner’s or the school’s. Once I thought of them as badges of honor, but now I know they merely an­nounce a ses­sion in which no­body learned.


Study­ing kata, the for­mal ar­range­ment of moves that were once cen­tral to the Chi­nese and Ja­pa­nese arts, has fallen into dis­fa­vor in many North Amer­i­can dojo. Even in judo, it’s at best a mi­nor study as one con­cen­trates on com­pe­ti­tion. But a se­cret old men know is that kata prac­tice is a bril­liant means of train­ing hard and, if done right, train­ing in­tel­li­gently.

Young stu­dents prac­tice kata as a way of learn­ing moves and their link­age. This block and that kick work to­gether; this foot­work of­fers that op­por­tu­nity. For them, get­ting bet­ter at kata means be­com­ing stronger and more fo­cused, more able to demon­strate that tech­ni­cal mas­tery you can hear in the uni­form’s snap­ping sound as the punch ex­tends, the stomp of a foot swung out and then back in place.

The old men don’t care about these things — been there and done that, you might say. In­stead, in the prac­tice of kata, they see and hear an imag­i­nary part­ner, that per­son’s moves and that per­son’s demise. Kata isn’t about you and your moves; it’s about any num­ber of part­ners, a wealth of po­ten­tial at­tacks and a va­ri­ety of re­sponses be­cause each tech­nique has mul­ti­ple po­ten­tials. At this level, kata be­comes in­creas­ingly in­ter­est­ing. To­day, this se­quence of moves an­swers a kick and a punch; to­mor­row, with a bit of change, it’s a grab and pull. Ev­ery kata is a li­brary with an­swers to mul­ti­ple sit­u­a­tions. And that’s why

A se­cret old men know is that kata prac­tice is a bril­liant means of train­ing hard and, if done right, train­ing in­tel­li­gently.

Jig­oro Kano (right) and Kyuzo Mi­fune

Go­gen Yamaguchi

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