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