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  • Writer's pictureMatt Powell

Karate in Obsolescence

I wonder if it is the same for everyone, but for some reason I can remember my mistakes and failures with more clarity than my successes.

Perhaps this is because these instances offer the greatest value and the most teachable moments?

I sincerely hope so.

When I worked in Sales it was often the Sale-Lost or ‘the one that got away’ that is clearest in my mind and still ‘hurts’'to this day. When I trained my team, I would often reference these tales to add context to their development and reassure them that their challenges were not new or unique.

Back when I was studying at college, I remember revising for our A Level Design and Technology exams. We had a really dedicated lecturer called John who genuinely cared about his students. We have remained in contact and are friends to this day.

Before our examination we had a final lecture and John taught us about the term ‘designed in obsolescence’. I remember it clearly because I failed to absorb it and a question on the definition sprung up in the exam.

During our next lesson John talked with enthusiasm for the question and I was embarrassed to admit that I had been unable to answer that question in the test. John was frustrated and reminded us of the term and its definition.

“Planned Obsolescence”, can be defined when a product is directly designed to have a specific short life expectancy, so the customers will have to make repeat purchases (Bulow, 1986).

When I was growing up, we had a tumble dryer that lasted for approximately twenty years. My Grandad used to service it and replace fuses, belts, and other components where necessary. Finally, it gave up the ghost, but it served my parents well for many years.

Nowadays you are lucky if a tumble dryer lasts more than three years before you require a complete replacement. A switch will break or a bracket fail. These faults are often deliberate, and components are designed to last for several operations that will conveniently reside after the products standard one year guarantee.

Modern manufacturers are not motivated by the long-term integrity of a product. Instead, they are focused on year-on-year growth to satisfy sales targets and the expectations of shareholders. Consequently, their focus is short-term and their strategies finite. Infinite long-term direction and planning appears to be of a lesser concern.

Over the last twenty years or so I have witnessed similar short-term focus pollute karate and other martial arts. I refer to this as karate in obsolescence.

Near where I live there is a garage that specialises in the Swedish car brand Saab Automotive. I have driven past the garage daily for twenty plus years.

For a time around 2001 to 2010 the forecourt at the front of the garage would often have two or three cars parked outside waiting to be serviced or repaired. Nowadays they have more than ten cars parked neatly in three rows.

Saab went bankrupt and stopped manufacturing vehicles in 2016. One can assume that since then the number of specialists has declined. Therefore, those that survive have flourished.

However, the business I am familiar with has not appeared to grow, invest, change, or expand. Instead, it seems to be carrying on as it did before, happily servicing more vehicles and ‘ticking over’.

Once again, this strategy is finite! Whilst the garage is busy now, the future demand will inevitably decrease. As the years roll on stock replacement parts will become scarcer, harder to find and thus more expensive. The cars will become more expensive to run, break to points their owners consider uneconomical to repair and (aside from the classics that live on in the ownership of enthusiasts) ultimately also become obsolete!

What will the Saab specialist do then?

Outside of karate I have worked at a variety of companies. Some young and on the ascendancy, others established and stoic in their approach. I have worked for global companies driven by share value and month on month performance.

I have also worked for businesses stuck in their ways and unresponsive to change. These have always been the ones who decline and ultimately cease to trade.

Their old practises, products, systems, and approaches become obsolete. These businesses are often absorbed by competitors, or their assets sold off to the highest bidder. What was a surprise to me was that for some business owners this WAS in fact their strategy. They had grown older, tired and in some cases bitter. They were happy to let their life’s work fade away and drift into memory. They were ready to retire and ‘take it easy’. …… They had done ‘their bit’!

One of my original instructors who I still admire greatly used to invite my ideas and contributions towards planning and innovation. We used to have good discussions driven by our shared passion for karate.

However the conversations would finish with my then instructor saying ‘the trouble is Matty…. I’m a Dinosaur’. It used to frustrate me as I wanted him to flourish and continue to succeed and on one occasion I even said, ‘the problem is Sensei, the Dinosaurs went extinct!’

Karate Associations, Clubs, Instructors and Students MUST continue to develop, grow, and thus accept and embrace change. Otherwise, their practises break or become obsolete!

Also like the example of the Saab garage, if your product ages your customer base will ultimately decline and fizzle out.

As the Lead instructor of my Dojo’s, it is one of my responsibilities to design, revise and improve our structure, processes, and systems. This in addition to the duty to improve and develop my own karate and that of the students.

I am very conscious of my training in Design, and I must not either knowingly or willingly design our systems or training in a non-flexible manner that could encourage future obsolescence. This is a considerable pressure that I feel but also respect.

Last night an old karate friend of mine returned to training at Petersfield. We have known each other a very long time having been colleagues at Portchester Dojo. I have mentioned him in my blogs before. He has a great karate foundation and was full of promise as a young black belt.

Although we trained together as children, we did not really know each other until we were adults. After he was injured in the first conflict in Iraq he retrained professionally and returned to the dojo. Despite his injury, he adjusted his training, and we respected each other’s karate and became friends.

Inevitably for many karate-ka their lives get in the way and my friend drifted away from karate once again. However, he still lives close by, and we bumped into each other from time to time and he remained connected with my karate through my online work.

Last year he had to have an operation on another injury. This one he had sustained on a building site and the operation has resulted in a fused ankle with seriously reduced mobility.

When he approached me about returning to training, I was a little concerned, but we agreed that if he was sensible, listened to his body and did not immediately step up and try to perform as he once could, we would give it a go.

I planned a class around back stance, knife hand blocks and a variety of kick counters to the attackers spirited lunge punch attacks. My theory was that if I offered a variety of kicking options, we could test options for his ankle and appraise what he could aim for going forward.

The class was deliberately technically focused rather than a blast of spirit and aggression.

By the end of the class both my friend and I were pleasantly surprised. His Ankle had held up and he had worked up a good sweat.

One of my privileges as Sensei is to see the look on someone’s face who has just trained for the first time in a while and realised how much they have missed karate. It is also my responsibility to help them manage their way back into habitual training and adapt to their changed physicality through age, fitness, or injury.

In this way we can design an evolving karate for all. A karate that adapts to ensure that the art for them remains relevant, and whilst different to before, does not render their own karate obsolete or karate obsolete to them!

Much like the tumble drier that my Grandad would apply care to, and service the worn or damaged parts, we ALL must modify and develop our karate as we change, age, and develop.

If you are an instructor, I would encourage you to ask yourself.

Are you creating karate with a break point in systems or technique beyond which you or your students will not carry on?

If so, please take a moment to consider your legacy and the legacy they could continue to drive forward.

For then YOU will Design a karate that evolves and grows.

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