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  • Writer's pictureMatt Powell

Train the Main Brain!

Creativity and mindfulness essential in karate and life.

Back in 2009 I started a period of three years of working for myself. It was an intense period of learning, effort, and change.

In this time, I worked on some exciting projects, started a karate club, got married, had a baby and moved-house.

It was full on and now I appreciate that I was doing too much and was on a smooth trajectory to burn-out. However, for a period from 2009 to 2011 I programmed in some time for personal development that laid the foundation for my karate development over the next decade.

I had started karate in 1987 but stopped for a break in 1993. I was disillusioned and had lost sight of my goals. I returned in the year 2000 and as a young man was open to inspiration and I really threw myself back into training.

After two months back I was in a head-on car accident and suffered severe whip-lash. So, I slowed down a little for a short while. At the time I was really frustrated as I had to spectate rather than compete at the SEKU national championships. In reflection it was the best thing that could have happened. I had only been back training for a few months. I took more from watching than I could have if I had competed.

Sat in the bleachers that day burnt some images into my brain. If I close my eyes I can still see and replay the people and the events who inspired me to want to aspire to excellence.

Three individuals stood out as role models who served as an example to me of the person that I could become in a Gi. Lucy Ellis was the SEKU kata champion who was also the all-styles British champion and the definition of refined excellence. Mike Lynch was the Fighter emerging as a special talent and a dynamic and inspirational Athlete. Finally, there was Simon Staples.

I had not been at a SEKU event for many years, so I had not seen these people develop. On the day I was awestruck. Simon presented a confidence that I had never seen before. I remember watching him warm-up for his kata final with a slow UNSU that presented to me a precision and smoothness that I had never seen before. I watched so intensely that I can even remember Simon returning to Celia his partner who was looking glamorous in the first-row seats in front of the mats. It is amazingly fresh in my mind.

Simon appeared to have an extreme confidence, he knew people were watching and yet he was flawless. I had other seniors and instructors that inspired me, but I wanted to be just like that! (I still do).

Around 2002/2003 (this date is not so clear in mind) Mike and I had become friends and I would regularly train with him at the Hayling Island (Shima) dojo or on squad trips. One day Mike told me that it was not common knowledge, but Sensei Hazard was leaving his Brighton dojo and was likely to be moving away. Mike intended on training at the last class Sensei would host as the instructor of the dojo and asked me if I would like to come. Of-course I said yes!

This was before Mike found his vocation in the Police force and from memory he was working as an estate agent in Chichester. I snuck out of work early in Gosport and met Mike at the Tesco roundabout in Chichester and we drove together to Brighton.

Training that night was a blur. I have never, before, or since, witnessed such intensity before a class. Nobody spoke, everyone was quietly stretching. It was a real contrast to what I was used to. It was quite simply extreme.

As well as Mike and many formidable Brighton students, Lucy and Simon were both there and Sensei ensured that everyone paired up with everyone that night. It was an incredible experience.

I remember being shocked at the pace of learning. Sensei expected more from his own students than he did on the courses I had trained on with him. You had to absorb information and perform quickly and under pressure and duress. It sounds horrible, but it was invigorating.

That said, at that point in my career I was not accustomed to it, so I just did my best. My very last pair up of the day was Simon. Our first interaction in a Gi was me struggling and trying not to be sick. I thought I hid it well, but years later when Si and I became friends he told me that I was ghostly white, so he had held back in our exchanges.

In 2004 I started training every Tuesday at Simon’s Billingshurst dojo and back then I was too nervous to have a proper conversation with him. I had stuttered through the call when I asked if I could train and so I just stayed quiet (for a while) and trained. My personality must have started to come through as I remember Simon (who’s eldest son was a toddler at the time) saying that I reminded him of Sporticus the character from Children’s BBC.

I broke my arm in September 2004 so took a break from extra training for a while and returned to Simons dojo in 2005. I trained there as regularly as I could for a couple of years and in 2007 was thrilled to be invited into a group of like-minded karateka lead by Simon to meet and pressure test our karate. (Those sessions are a Blog topic of their own).

In 2009 I was visiting Simon to collect some Mats and I plucked up the courage to ask him if he would teach me privately. We discussed my goals and reasoning and we started training initially every Thursday in the padded Martial Arts room at the Mountbatten Centre.

What followed was the most intense and important period of my development as a ‘Senior’ black belt. We trained, drilled, paired up and then enjoyed a nice coffee afterwards. The training then moved to either mine or Simons home dojos and we became firm friends.

I am certain those training sessions had a profound effect on my karate, but one non-physical piece of guidance Simon offered me was probably the most valuable. I remember talking with Si about pace of learning and how I could sense my work with him was speeding up my ability to absorb and then perform. Simon simply replied;

“Yes Matt, it’s like I tell the Boys. You’ve gotta train the main brain!”

As I prepare my classes for this strange post-lockdown world, I hear those word repeatedly. I find myself working away in my home dojo preparing something different to engage the students that will still offer valuable development. I am challenging myself, thinking creatively and researching and developing new drills and content. Eleven years later I get it!

I am training the main brain!

Creativity is a fundamental attribute to aid human fulfilment and happiness. Strangely the innovation forced onto us while safe distancing is enforced is invigorating. (But you need to work on it). Personally, I have found I love the process. I enjoy the ‘Work’.

I wonder how many karate students and teachers pre lockdown, were to a lesser or greater degree ‘going through the motions?’ In reflection I am certain I was. Lockdown has made me a better teacher!

Of all the work I did with Simon the most valuable was how he taught me to appraise and refine. He encouraged me to think and explore. I remember working on Shuto Strikes from various angles to feel connection and be more effective. The class was on knife hand strikes, but the principle worked for everything. I use this principle and the learning from that class when I work on every new format or drill. I also respect Simons example and practice it thoroughly myself at home. No one I know trains more consistently and passionately daily than Simon. In my community, he is the leader of my generation (whether they know it or not). In 2020 he is a teacher of teachers.

As we all get back into dojo’s and seek inspiration for our students, I would encourage you to follow Sensei Staples example.

  • Focus on technical excellence and effectiveness.

  • Do not mindlessly do what you were taught or drilled.

  • Move smoothly and gracefully with Martial intent.

  • Train the Main Brain!

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