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Guest Article: Inside Out

This Guest Article is by my friend, Angel Lemus, of the Zentokukai Okinawa Shorinryu Toude Association. Angel was a writer and editor of Bugeisha, one of the finest Karate journals ever published. He teaches at the Ninchokan Dojo, in Los Angeles, California. This article was submitted, partially in response to my post, Kuzushi -- Breaking Balance.

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Printed in American Samurai 2002

Inside Out
Martial Arts and Sports: Can you tell the difference?

By Angel Lemus

Two Definitions from Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary:
Etymology: Middle English, to divert, disport, short for disporten
Date: 15th century
1 a : to amuse oneself : b : to engage in a sport
2 a : to mock or ridicule something b : to speak or act in jest : Trifle
3 [2sport] : to deviate or vary abruptly from: Mutate

Etymology: Middle English, from Latin martialis of Mars, from Mart-, Mars
Date: 14th century
1 : of, relating to, or suited for war or a warrior
2 : relating to an army or to military life
3 : experienced in or inclined to war : Warlike
In today's busy world we see more and more emphasis on sports competition everywhere we look. In the past we were limited to the basics - Olympics, or amateur/professional sports (Baseball, Football, Boxing, Tennis, Golf etc). Recently, clever marketing has brought us things like the ultimate fighting challenge, survival shows, extreme everything, and even remote controlled robot wars with instant replays and sports announcers - 100% unadulterated total entertainment.

There is nothing wrong with most competition or sports, they foster discipline, hard work, teamwork, and the pursuit of excellence. Historically, tests of physical prowess in the form of athletic skills (combative and non combative) have been in practice for centuries. The Olympics for example have noncombative events like running and jumping, and some that stem from martial combat, like wrestling and the javelin throw.

The middle ages had the famed jousts where knights simulated life and death collisions on horseback. But the Roman Empire which brought us the Gladiators (from the Latin word gladius: sword) was the real ultimate fighting challenge where mortal combat and sport came together in their purest form. It was certainly no sport for the gladiators (as we define a sport today); in most cases it was a fight to the death. But it was a sport and pasttime to the spectators who watched it from the stands of the Coliseum in Rome like we sit at home today watching a pay-per-view fight.

In today's modern world of martial arts practices we find two main branches. On one side you will find the traditionalists who do not compete in tournaments and practice martial arts employing old time training methods, principles and focus mainly on self defense. And on the other side you have the modern sports practitioners, who train just as hard and sometimes even harder, but have an altogether different motive that is driven by competition, winning and ranking. There are of course those who fit somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, but this article is not about these folks.

That being said, what makes these two groups different from each other? Is it that one group competes and the other does not? The answer is not that simple, and involves complex physical and psychological perspectives. Kata, which is the "old testament" of Karate teaching, will be the focus of comparison to illustrate some of these differences. We will explore sport kata as it is done for competition, and martial kata as it is done to develop real life combative-survival skills.

Before I begin, I need to stress that this is not an article bashing sport karate, for I have nothing but the utmost respect for those who compete, and for their dedication in pursuit of excellence through that medium. Many years ago I was heavily involved with competition in sports karate and I loved it. The purpose of this article is to inform, clarify and enlighten, especially the young new generation of sports karate practitioners who may not be aware of the other side.

Worlds Apart

Sports karate and martial karate look very similar to the average onlooker who has not had the opportunity to be shown the differences. Focusing on karate, you will see similar stances, kata (prearranged forms), teaching and practicing methods. Most similarities therefore are "external" in nature, things which can be seen by others or by the practitioner if he/she were to look in a mirror.

In a sports oriented school where the teaching is based on tournament competition, the teacher's primary end goal is to have the student perform the kata in such a way that permits onlooking judges to clearly see every single move and have the time to discern and evaluate each posture. They look at the visual elements of the stance (width, height, foot positioning, body posture etc…), with less emphasis on how they got there and what happened between each posture. This is very important, for if the kata were to be done any other way; too fast and/or fluid without the pauses we typically see today, judges would have a hard time evaluating the kata. The established criteria for judging mentioned above, would not be applicable and presumably the performer would get a lower score than someone who was purposely stopping to show each move.

Let's explore some of the fundamental principles that differ between sport karate and karate-jutsu (martial art).

A Balancing Act

Sports balance is like a triangle, extremely sturdy and immovable at the point where a practitioner is demonstrating a stance in a movement in kata. Why is this so? Because of the need to pause and stop all movement in order for judges to have a good look at you. Sports karate, and the way sports kata competitions have developed over the years, have created a unique "language of movement", a dialect from it's parent, martial kata. This dialect uses extremely low and wide stances which are impressive to look at, and certainly demonstrate physical discipline in this area. But does it translate the original intent? The answers would have to be "not really".

Martial balance in kata practice is the total opposite, it should feel wobbly or in a state of flux where the practitioner feels as if about to fall over in the direction of the next movement. Moving this way emphasizes no pauses or abrupt stops in kata like it's sport counterpart. This does not mean that there are no pauses in a martial kata, there are, but even in pauses one would be slightly off balance, ready to fall into the next movement.

Martial kata practice focuses on the internal feel of the movement, as opposed to sport kata which is to focus on how you look externally to the onlooker or judge.

According to Oshiro Sensei, some of the most senior instructors going back one or two generations feel that if they or their instructors were to compete in kata today they would loose because they would look wobbly and/or give the perception that they did not have good balance or timing. If you were to see some of the old film footage of Okinawan masters doing kata, most of them look somewhat fragile and off balance in their demonstrations and not very powerful at all. One could easily assume this is so because they were very old at the time that motion film cameras were available to shoot their performances, and that they were much more dynamic and powerful at a younger age. But according to those who trained with them this was not necessarily the case. They looked the way they did on purpose because they had no reason to stop/pause or be forceful. They were not performing for competition or to be judged by anyone.

Are there really stances in Karate?

We have heard at some point or another that stances are for fighting. This statement is both true and false. Let's look at the true part; yes there are positions like front stance, cat stance, etc… these are modern day teaching tools to introduce new students quickly to certain postures and to attach a name to each so that they can be quickly memorized. But learning a bunch of postures does not convey the meaning of what they represent, especially when it comes to a combative scenario in which the combatant is never in one place for more than a fraction of a second at a time. The best example that can be given is in tournaments today: when was the last time anyone saw someone in the sparring division use a cat stance or a cross legged stance?

You will hear some say that stances are for balance, or being rooted to the ground so you can deliver a more powerful strike. Oshiro Sensei points out, that "one does not need, nor should be rooted to anything in order to deliver the most powerful of strikes, it is totally the opposite." So what is this secret message that stances are trying to tell us? Stances by themselves do not tell you anything other than a weird way to position your feet and hold your body up.

"The secret of stances is not to be in them, but to move thru them".

When you look at it this way, stances become almost invisible, or part of the background of a picture where you are focusing on the "subject" or foreground object. The point of focus in martial kata or combat is the intent and effectiveness of the move which you are doing, the punch, block or kick and to react into the next scenario. Therefore stances should not be emphasized in martial Karate.

According to Oshiro Sensei, in the "old days" teachers would tell the students "follow me" as they demonstrate kata. They did not have names for the individual stances nor did they have books, handouts, and lists like in today's dojos. The teacher had an internal sense of movement from one point in the kata to another and knew what body postures would translate his body weight to deliver the next strike. The student had to follow the teacher and learn by moving in a flowing manner to the timing and tempo of the kata. Old time training was like an "apprenticeship" program where one learns a trade, and learns it to be the successor of the teacher or master.

In sports kata, the emphasis in weight distribution in stances is over emphasized in comparison to martial kata. In martial kata, movement through the postures is more neutral and flowing, so that an onlooker could not follow your footwork, therefore predicting your next movement would be difficult.

As you can see, it is literally like night and day when comparing philosophies in the way sports karate and martial karate use stances. If you competed in any tournament today and did not emphasize and "illustrate in picture perfect form" the stances, nor did you pause long enough in them, the judges would clearly think that you are not disciplined and poorly demonstrating each "frame" of the kata, thus you would get a low score.

On the other hand, in the kumite or sparring part of the tournament, the same judges would totally ignore stances and pausing. In total contrast, you are expected to move constantly, and move extremely fast. The end goal has nothing to do with the way you "looked" getting that point, the only important thing is that you got the "point".

So why is it that we do not see tournament competitors fight like the way they demonstrate kata? If kata is supposed to teach us how to fight, it should look and feel very close to the actual fighting, should it not?

There is yet another aspect of stances that is not addressed in sports, which is that stances by themselves are weapons no different than a fist is used to strike an opponent. A stance can be used to break not only the opponent's balance, but also his leg joints (ankle and knee). A stance can also be used to block an attacking kick. Stances are also the devices used by many of the grappling arts (Judo, Jujitsu Aikido) to throw the opponent off balance. All these elements are parts of martial karate and are completely overlooked by sports for obvious reasons of safety (and of course litigation).

The difference between sports and martial kata

"Kata is fighting"
"In kata, you are fighting multiple opponents coming at you from multiple angles"

We have all heard these explanations over the years, but neither is 100% accurate. Kata is not really for fighting when you are doing it. And you are certainly not fighting multiple opponents. Kata was not really designed that way. In order to really fight, you need to have someone "REALLY" trying to hurt you, so it is by definition, impossible to say that you are fighting in kata. You are definitely pretending, but not really fighting.

The primary lesson in kata is to teach you how to "move" properly. The word "move" is very important in this context because if you are to learn how to move for the purpose of fighting, it should be smooth, fast and fluid without unnecessary pauses. Why has sports kata become so different from martial kata? A lot of it has to do with history and cultural differences. Two of the main reasons kata has lost much of it's meaning are: 1) the opening up of karate to the general public and teaching of karate to children in public schools; 2) the adoption of military training tactics and attitudes into karate teaching by the Japanese universities in the early 1920s. In both of these instances, the old time master-disciple relationship and individualized instruction was lost. Oshiro Sensei states that much of the "jutsu" or martial destructive techniques where never taught to this generation of students because of the emphasis on competition.

In addition, the teaching in large numbers (especially young kids) prohibits individual attention. Techniques are broken down by the numbers so that everyone is doing the same thing at the same time and the teacher can see better (much like general military training). So kata practice became a move "by the numbers" practice and it's original fluidity and smoothness was lost over time. Teaching "by the numbers" is OK when first teaching the sequence to a beginner, but once the sequence is learned it should not be practiced this way any longer. Continuing to do this is detrimental to the student's ability to learn fluid transitions between each posture. Many schools today get stuck in the "by the numbers" method of practicing kata and you see beginners and high ranking black belts moving the same way. Thus you see little to no difference between an advanced practitioner and a beginner.

Another misconception about kata is the notion of there being beginner and advanced kata. This is not really the case. There are long and short kata, and there are some with more complex movements than others, but what makes it look basic and advanced is not the kata itself but the person doing it. In sports competition today, since there is very little distinction between junior's kata and senior practitioner's kata (they both move and look very similar due to the stop and go movements), we find that what are "deemed" advanced kata are being taught to junior practitioners (even those under black belt rank) in order to be more competitive.

The REAL difference between an advanced kata and a beginning kata is never the kata itself, but the person doing it.

Other factors which make sports kata very different from martial kata is that in sports, there is attention payed to your overall presentation; the way your gi looks, your facial expressions when you kiai, the number of kiai, how strong you look on the outside. None of these things matter in martial kata, for all these are show and presentation factors. In martial kata all that matters is that you (the person doing the kata) understand the principles of movement, power transfer from the inside to the outside (your opponent) and the psychological state of mind in a real combative scenario. It is a very introspective process where the "outside" is of little importance to the person practicing martial kata.

Unfortunately the mass propagation of karate to the world, which was a good thing, had a very detrimental side effect, the degradation of its understanding. Thus generations have been practicing kata "by the numbers" and each new generation who remains in this context of practice gets further and further away from its original intent and understanding.

What is power?

Power in martial arts is a very misunderstood concept. In western society the general concept of power in an individual is having big muscles and/or being big in size. Sports karate in general, having no real way to focus power (never hitting anything or using the art for it's original intent) has over time, focused power externally. An example is; while performing kata, the tightening of the muscles all over the body and the general stiffness that implies kata being an isometric exercise which shows off how "powerful" the performer is to the onlooker (or judge). By tightening the body, the practitioner keeps his energy within his/her own body. Let's put this in a combative context to illustrate the problem; if you are stiff when impacting a target, the energy transfer will be minimal since it is being held inside of the hitter's the body. Of course someone punching this way can hurt another, but the amount of damage would increase tremendously if the technique were done properly. This way of dealing with power can be labeled as "outside to inside"- everything is going back into the practitioner.

Power in martial kata is the total opposite. Again it does not matter how one looks to the onlooker, the only thing that matters is what happens when impact is made to the opponent or target. One should look soft and very relaxed on the outside, in fact, the weaker you look the more powerful your strike will be (is this REALLY true?). This is definitely not a good recipe for sports kata, for if you did your kata this way in tournament you would be seen as lacking kime (focus) and of course judges would give you a low score. This way of dealing with power can be labeled as "inside to outside", everything is going out to the target.

Inside out

The goal of this article is to point out some of the differences between sports and martial karate and to plant a seed of curiosity within the reader to explore deeper into the martial aspects of the art and not to accept anything at its face value. Again, there is nothing wrong with sports, but to call a sport a martial art is misleading.

No one competes in sports karate forever. Unfortunately many dedicated sports karate competitors hang up their belts permanently when their competition days are over. The personal study of karate as a martial art, liberates one from the limitations and restricting rules of sport. Thus, knowing that there is more to karate than sports and competition, perhaps the end of the sports phase can lead to a new beginning and a rediscovery of the art in it's original form.


Author Information:

Sensei Angel Lemus is a Shorinji-Ryu Karate practitioner and co founder of the Okinawa Shorinji-ryu Karate-do Zentokukai, an organization devoted to preserving the Karate of Chotoku Kyan. He is also a member Sensei of the RBKD under Shihan Oshiro and teaches in West Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at nincho@comcast.net.


Shihan Toshihiro Oshiro is a widely recognized authority on the history and techniques of traditional Okinawan martial arts, and with his dojo, he is dedicated to the preservation and propagation of Matsubayashi Shorin-ryu karate and Yamanni Chinen-ryu bojutsu. He the Chief Instructor in the USA for the RBKD (Ryuku Bujustsu Kenkyu Doyukai), an organization dedicated to the research and development of Okinawan Martial Arts, Sensei Oshiro is considered the premiere National Martial Arts Weapons expert in the United States.

Oshiro Karate Dojo was founded in 1981. The dojo is located in San Mateo, California For more information visit http://www.oshirodojo.com