Karate’s Just for Kids, Right?

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Absolutely not! Karate is for people of any age, not just children. Every week I teach karate to many adults wanting to learn self-defence skills, get fit and stay fit without the tedium of going to the gym, build confidence and enjoy the camaraderie of training with like minded people.

Our oldest student is 67 years young. He came along to a Friday session about a year ago and said he didn’t like feeling old and wanted to get fit again!

Many adults believe that it’s just about children competing for trophies. But at the same time, many adults are concerned about their personal safety, for example, walking home from work late at night. The majority of karate clubs today train solely for competition. In our locality, virtually all karate clubs are sport based. How has the World’s best known and formidable martial art become known as a sport for children? Let’s look at the history to see how this has happened:

Karate in its present day form was introduced to mainland Japan from Okinawa in 1922 by Gichin Funakoshi and his associates. It was taught to large groups in Japan and, as a result, lost some of its martial qualities. It wasn’t until after the 2nd World War, when the Allied Forces occupied Japan, that karate was exposed to foreigners, becoming very popular with occupying servicemen and subsequently being exported to the West.

Before this time, competition karate was rare. Funakoshi had stated that karate training was primarily ‘the development of character’. The competition aspect of karate that we have nowadays was very much influenced by the West’s tastes for sports, winners and trophies.

And so in the West, Governing bodies established competition with gloves, rules, judges, spectators and a system containing just a few techniques from the vast range in karate training. Actual contact is minimal or not at all.

As soon as rules are introduced to a martial art it loses that title and becomes a sport. Rules inhibit any martial art and diminish its effectiveness as a form of self-defence. For example, if you’ve never had to take a punch to the head or body, how will you know how to react if you get hit in a real life situation? If you only train wearing gloves how will your hands fare if you have to punch bare knuckle in a street fight? Have you been properly taught how to punch bare knuckle?

Competition fighters strive for glory and ego. We live in an age where winning has become everything regardless of how we perform. Fair play is dwindling as the pressures to win become greater. I’ve had my fill of karate coaches who love to brag about their club’s trophy collection. What does their training offer if they were attacked in a street situation?

And so karate has evolved into a sport. But there are some benefits to competition karate. It definitely gets children enthusiastic about winning medals. It also develops speed, timing, accuracy and control. However many people don’t realise that its entirety is only about 5% of what karate has to offer.

At our club, we practice the other 95%. We live in an age where cowards roam the streets in gangs and sometimes attack individuals solely because they can. Karate training should be about self-defence and protection of others. Training should include multiple attacker scenarios. Karate training should be about the development of well balanced students who strive to better themselves physically and mentally, not the pursuit of trophies.

Why is our club different? I grew up in a rough part of East London, started out as a full contact karate fighter and sport karate never really appealed to me. Years ago and out of curiosity, I entered two competitions and I won a bronze trophy in one of them, but if I’m honest, was never very good at it. I saw many karateka win trophies and the adulation that comes with winning but also realised that those trophies would be of no use in a street situation. This is the main reason why our karate training has to be practical.

Our club is all about family. We have many parents train alongside their children. It creates a bond, a shared interest, a chance to help your child learn how to stay safe in this increasingly dangerous society that we live in. It’s also important for adults to be fit and able enough to stay safe in their later years.

Sensei Stephen O’Brien