Many years ago, (probably around 2003) my good friend Dave Galloway and I jumped into my sky-blue Toyota MR2 and headed down to the West Country for a SEKU referee course.
We had agreed to attend the course as competitors to be used as practice for the referees and judges.
I hadn’t had the car very long, so I was happy to drive it, but I remember not having much cash at the time, so I had made Tuna wraps for our lunch. Sometimes I wonder why my brain can retain such useless facts but struggle to remember what my wife told me two seconds ago. 😊
When we arrived Paul Uren from the Plymouth dojo was also there along with Steve Hollister who at the time was with FEKO and had a highly successful dojo in Saltash. We all stretched and warmed up before being briefed by Sensei Dewey on how we wanted us to support the events of the day.
After simulating some elimination rounds, we were asked to perform a mock kata final for the judges to sharpen their skills. As I remember Dave opted for Gankaku, I chose Unsu and Steve was asked to perform Anan – a kata from a different style. Paul smashed out an awesome Sochin and to this day I still use his performance as a benchmark of this kata.
I didn’t know Unsu very well at this point, but it was a kata I wanted to be good at, so I simply gave it my best shot. After I had ‘performed’ it Sensei Dewey addressed the referees and explained that whilst it was a senior kata, I hadn’t performed it very well and they should score accordingly. Sensei was correct of course but the feedback bothered me. Not because it hurt my ego, but because people I aspired to be like were excellent at this kata. I knew I had significant work to do if I wanted to be like my role models.
I began working on the kata more at my home dojo and Sensei O’Donnell helped me refine my understanding and performance. At the next Portsmouth Invitational tournament, I reached the kata finals and chose Unsu. There was strong competition that day and from memory I placed forth.
Earlier in my karate career I struggled with relaxation. I was often too strong. So, I decided to play to this default and switched to working on Sochin, knowing that it would probably suit my karate at that time, and I focused on this kata’s performance for my third dan grading in 2006.
As Lao Tzu said in the ‘Art of War’
‘If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles’.
Once I passed third dan I consolidated my kata performance for a while until sometime in 2010 when I started looking at Unsu in detail once more.
At this time, I was working for myself, and I had moved to teaching my own dojos in Petersfield. I converted half of my garage to a home dojo, and I started practicing daily. I was enjoying the study, but I wanted to take my understanding to the next level.
At this time, I was training privately with one of my Karate Hero’s Simon Staples. To this day his performance of Unsu is my personal benchmark for excellence. I decided to bite the bullet and ask Simon if we could focus on this kata in our weekly work.
Sure-enough Simon agreed, and I remember being nervous for the first class. We had changed venues from the padded ‘cell’ martial arts room at the Mountbatten Centre to my tiny home dojo. There was nowhere to hide when Simon said ‘Okay Matty, lets see what we’re working with’. ‘Pardon’ I replied. ‘Unsu Matt…. Show me the kata’.
Now those who know me will profess that I am a confident guy. But I cannot remember feeling more nervous or self-conscious than when asked to demonstrate a kata in its entirety to the person I considered the best of the best at its performance.
I gave it my best shot ……. And then we went to work.
Simon introduced me to a new way of working through kata. Practicing in small sections at slow speed, challenging myself to smoothness in medium speed repeats and then allowing myself one go at full speed. If I failed to achieve the performance or ‘feel’ then I would repeat the section from the start. I remember comparing the process to a 1980’s computer game that if you died would send you back to the beginning of the level.
We were working through the spring and summer, and it was sweaty work in a converted garage.
Simon encouraged me to practice on my own between our classes and I asked him for insight into how he practiced for competitions back in the day. He explained that he would train in section exactly as he had taught me to but would do so listening to the U2 album Joshua Tree.
To help me stay motivated in my practice I decided to do the same and bought the CD online.
As I practiced one track started to really help me get into the right ‘headspace’ for my practice. I remember popping ‘Still haven’t found what I am looking for’ on repeat for an hour at a time and working on Unsu week in week out for an extended period of a few months.
At a SEKU instructors in early 2012 class both myself and Dave Galloway were approached separately by Sensei Dewey who told us he would like us to grade for forth dan at the next Instructors class in May.
We both accepted the invite and upped our revision and preparation. I now had a young baby boy, Dave had a daughter and we had both stopped competing to concentrate on our families and our own dojos.
I temporarily matted the garage of my new home and Dave and I met up a few times to run through all of the 26 Shotokan kata we needed to know for the exam. I decided to perform Unsu as my chosen kata and continued my work with Simon on performance while I studied Bunkai and interpretation with my student Mike Smallpage.
Once again U2 filled my ears. I still remembered Sensei Deweys opinion of my kata at the refereeing course years below and I still couldn’t find the performance I was looking for!
After lots of preparation and a gruelling grading day I performed Unsu and both myself and Dave passed forth dan in May 2012. I remember feeling very proud and emotional when Sensei Dewey told me I had passed. Dave and I had battered each other in the kumite and it was a good day!
At the beginning of this year my Student Ionut and I discussed his desire to grade for third dan later this year. He had chosen Sochin as his choice kata but we knew he needed to have experience of Unsu amongst other forms.
Suddenly I found myself practicing the kata with my senior students in our breakfast club classes just as I had with Simon. In-fact I enjoyed the practice so much that I started working with the Wednesday and Saturday classes on the kata and this time even treated them to U2 through the sound system.
Somehow when the song is playing, the last ten years slip away and I remember my Yondan training as clear as if it were yesterday.
Last Saturday we had our first children’s competition since 2019. After all the challenges of COVID and the pandemic it was wonderful to have so many of our students under one roof.
The energy was fantastic, and the children did themselves and their instructors proud. It was a great day!
After the presentations Sensei Chris Carr stepped up and announced that both Dave and I had been promoted to Godan (5th Dan) Black Belts. The hall erupted into applause and we both stepped up to accept our certificates and gifts. It was emotional and I wished my Dad had been there to see it. It was awesome to share the experience with Dave and have the presentation infront of many of my senior students. Not least Mike who had been with me at my forth dan grading.
When I got home from the competition I reflected on what I had learnt about karate and life over my ten years as a Yondan. A lot has changed, a great deal has happened in my life. Jobs have changed, children have been born and I have made the big step to become a full-time instructor.
But, as I reflect I realise that I am keener than ever to keep learning, encouraging my students and seeking better karate.
I want to get better at performance, teaching, and training.
Afer all ….. I still haven’t found…. What I’m looking for 😊
Me and my Brother ...... David Galloway