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  • Writer's pictureMatt Powell

Kindred spirits up the rood.

When I was at college studying for my A Levels, I can remember going to bed but not being able to sleep as I pondered my projects and deadlines. Back then I was studying design and had a small bedroom in my parents’ bungalow.

To work in my room, I needed to clear my desk and set up my drawing board. To do so the contents of my work area had to be shifted onto my bed. It wasn’t unlike a game of Tetris.

The consequence was if I got out of bed to work, I had to shift things around. So, it was only worthwhile if I then put in a decent shift. Having originally gone to bed around ten, it wouldn’t be uncommon to then work till two or three am.

My Dad (an electrician by trade) had installed a shelf above my desk with spot lamps to illuminate my drawing board. Laptops and desktop publishing wasn’t part of the work back then. Everything was hands on, mistakes were permanent, and I enjoyed the craft of the work.

In Reflection my conditions were a bit cramped. If I lifted my head too high, I would often smell burning. It was the result of my hair getting too close to the spotlights.

Underneath the shelf I had a poster of my dream car, a Ford Capri 280 and a picture of me doing a high sidekick. The car was the thing I desired most to own one day and my motivation to study hard and get a ‘good’ job. The kick was inspired by my karate hero but was not as impressive as his well-known poster at the time. This image served to remind me of what I was working towards with my karate. I was aware of the technique and skill I desired but I was a way off at that time and both images motivated me to push on with the night shifts.

I would work until tiredness took hold and the threat of mistakes kicked in. Then I would clear the work from my bed. Put it back on my desk and fall into a deep sleep.

Last week I didn’t really sleep well. Not because I was overworked, stressed or dreading deadlines. Instead, I was consumed by ideas, thoughts, and concepts that I wanted to share with my friends while I taught for Sensei Slaney and the Highland Karate Association.

Being a creative is in many ways a blessing, but the curse I navigate is the inability to predict, control, or moderate when and where an idea appears and demands my attention. The consequence is that when I am looking forward to working, I will be up late early or late while I curate, organise and refine my ideas.

I am now sat on the plane at Edinburgh airport on the other side of a full weekend’s work. Reflecting on my performance and the experience and slightly frustrated that I tweaked an old injury. Having finished teaching I will now probably struggle to sleep while I reflect and ponder what I could have improved or performed differently.

On Friday I had time to complete the school run before I jumped into my car and headed for Gatwick airport. This being my third trip to the highlands to teach I was aware of my preferred route to the airport and my favoured parking level in the short stay. After a small delay loading baggage, I took my customary inflight nap and was soon disembarking the airport at Inverness.

Ironically while I can’t sleep when I am preparing, I can always sleep on a plane.

Sensei Slaney was waiting at the airport, and we were soon on route to meet Sensei Phil Owen at his house to have a wee catch up over a welcome cup of tea. Both Kevin and Phil are my Seniors and I respect their karate as much as I enjoy their friendship and company.

It was great to experience Phil’s home dojo and we were soon talking shop and I could feel myself getting excited for the evenings work. Ironically, we didn’t train in Phil’s dojo, but instead discussed some kata points and were playing with form and concepts in the living room.

The topic of the Friday class was the kata Sochin, one of my favourites from my competition days and the kata I graded for third-dan with. The class was ninety minutes long, so I needed to keep the pace fast, my demonstrations concise and the atmosphere buzzing. I had planned my timings when I couldn’t sleep and I was clear in my intent to focus on commitment, stable power, sincerity and a forward attitude.

I believe Sochin represents the acceptance of the inevitable and thus committing to the ‘fight’. My goal was to get the students to perform with this feeling.

Unfortunately, ‘Cuthy’ (David) who is studying the kata for his grading was taken unwell. But I am sure his friends from the dojo will enjoy taking him through my applications, thoughts, and interpretations. (Groin guards are recommended).

Josh was kindly on hand to be a willing partner for my demonstrations, and I enjoyed our pair ups. He has clearly been working hard and the increased maturity in his karate was evident. This made my job easy.

After the class Kevin and I returned to our hotel where we kindly asked to leave the restaurant at midnight as the staff wanted to go home and were clearly not interested in our karate conversations.

Saturday was a nice early start and we arrived at the dojo promptly at ten am. Kevin and I tweaked the format for my last visit and split the group on Saturday and taught different groups alongside each other. We repeated this format and while I coached the kyu grades in kumite principles and concepts, Kevin taught the senior grades the kata Wankan.

For the next session we switched, Kevin taught Empi kata while I worked on the principles of Jiyu-Ippon-Ni, a set kumite drill our associations have in common. Principally because it was conceived by our shared mentor. (The instructor whose side thrust kick had inspired my poster choice for my desk all those years ago).

My theme and focus during this class were deliberately consistent with Sochin the night before. I wanted to attacker to commit forward with their attacks. To be resolute and deliberate and not accept that their opponent would defend and counter.

They should try to ‘win!’

Once the class was working well, I introduced principles of angles, line, and distance to favour the attacker and increase the workload of the defender. I encouraged the class to consider the purpose of this drill to their training. Those who compete can use it to improve their competition movement, distance, and attack. While others can use the effective use of distance and strategy to improve their sparring and self-defence strategies.

The class flew by and I soon realised I was sweating as much as the students….. clearly, I had been getting ‘involved’.

Kevin and I had discussed a ‘different’ type of class for the third session of the day to leave the students enthused, happy and tired. We were also keen to collaborate, and team teach to test our creativity and respond to the energy and themes on the day.

Consequently, we devised a way to split the class into four sections with us alternating coaching for fifteen-minute slots. We each aimed and hoped to build on the work of the other.

Kevin started working on pair drills focused on speed, commitment, and the use of the hips.

With the class buzzing I took the next slot and considered deflection of strikes, counter response, speed, and hips.

Kevin then shortened the distance with a drill evading jabs and crosses. Working on footwork, movement, and evasion.

For the final fifteen minutes we worked on Free flow randori, adding grabs and then escaping from them. Finally, we sparred with unusual techniques found in kata as a live bunkai practice and threw in the odd leg sweep too.

We then said our goodbyes over a coffee at Starbucks as Kev and I needed to detour to find some white pudding for my grandparents. Suddenly I witnessed the strategic masterminds of my Scottish friends come together.

Kev and I had collaborated to creatively ‘bounce’ off each other’s content in the last class. Now, Neil, Jolie, Phil, Brian, and others combined to source white and black puddings from Neils family butchers and coordinate collections and deliveries on route to Dunfermline on Sunday.

What a team! (Thank you!) 😊

The first time I taught in Scotland I realised that I had underestimated the distance between dojos, venues and thus courses. I had also not appreciated the devotion of the students as many of them do not baulk at the travel and attend each day regardless of the commute.

Special mention here goes to Julie and Steve who travel up from Morpeth and Blyth where they teach their thriving dojos. I love having them in the dojo and appreciate their effort and energy.

Kev and I drove the three hours plus down to Fife and the time flew by as we discussed all things karate. (Meanwhile mission pudding was ensuring that my Granny would have enough stock to last a year!)

After a lovely meal Kev surprised me with a wonderful gift. A poster of the kikomi (thrust kick) that had inspired my attempt when I was a student. It will hang with pride in my dojo and it will continue to inspire me to chase the form and feeling.

Sunday’s training had a later start and Phil and Brian delivered the biggest (and I’m certain best) white and black puddings I have ever seen. The jokes were free flowing, and I sensed the good spirit would continue in the class.

Again, Sensei Slaney and I split the class in two. For the first hour I worked with the children on fundamentals, Heian Nidan and my karate alphabet. I was also keen to give them an upgraded holographic sticker.

The hour flew by and after the children had left, I joined Kevin’s class as they worked through the kata Meikyo.

Many years ago, I was injured in competition and dislocated my knee. Last year the same injury came back to haunt me when I trained on a mixed martial arts course in June but being older and wiser (ahem) I had rested it well and nursed the injury and my kicks back to health.

As I joined the senior grades for the kata, I completely forgot that I hadn’t attempted the jump in Meikyo since before last years injury…….. I soon regretted that.

As I landed, I felt my knee destabilise and the world slowed down. I stood up, knocked my knee back into place and walked it off. Slightly disrupting the class. (Sorry Kev 😊). In that moment I was filled with fear and embarrassment, frustration, and concern.

I still had the last hour to teach, and a wise man once told me you should start and finish with a bang!

I briefly iced the joint, strapped the knee as tight as I could and re-joined the class for some debate on Meikyo, its performance and feeling. I then managed to perform the kata…… without the jump!

The group on Sunday was a smaller one than the previous two days and it had an inherent workshop feeling. A sense of collaboration and mutual trust.

As I have matured in karate, I have found myself drawn to others with the same principles, aspirations, and drive in the martial arts. It is no surprise that we have shared a common teacher and source of karate inspiration over the years. Now we are drawn to working with each other and it is inevitable that we reference his teaching and do our best to honour it.

My final class focused on the threat of a good old haymaker.

Over the last year I have worked on a drill to familiarise and desensitise my students from an assailant who principally throws a right hook punch. I wanted to ‘shotokanise’ our response by exaggerating form within the Shotokan template and then stitch moves together in a drill that is aligned to how we learn basics and kata.

The goal is to program and refine response in a way that we as karate-ka are programmed to perform. Start big, refine, polish and then the performance under duress (whilst smaller) will be dynamic and effective.

Thankfully there is only one kick counter in the drill, so my knee did not compromise my performance too much.

This was the first time we had extended my highland tour to a three-day gig, and I really enjoy working with Sensei Slaney and the Highland karate Association on these courses. Not least because a theme seems to evolve and resonate deeper over the weekend.

In the best karate series Nakayama Sensei states that

‘in Sochin we find grandeur, strength and stable power. A great deal of karate skill can be fostered by these magnificent techniques, which help to develop the imperturbability of mind necessary for the way of the martial arts and for life itself’.

On Friday I had mentioned my interpretation of the essence of Sochin. Accepting the inevitable, pushing forward regardless, being strong and resolute.

This theme prevailed as we navigated fatigue and in my case injury and accepted that in the absence of our shared mentor, we can push forward to honour his work. Rooted!

Now I need to study the side kick once again in my new poster and recommission my Capri 280 to go full circle.

What a great trip up the rood! (Thanks for the pudding) 😊

Matt Powell Karate
Chasing the form and the feeling!

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