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What practicing karate is really like

This article describes in straightforward and frank terms what karate training is like, for a person coming into it afresh. It describes it in particular from the perspective of a person who is not in the first flush of youth, rather cynical, and not particularly athletic (e.g., the author). The emphasis is on British clubs, but my conversations with people from the Americas and Europe suggest that karate is much the same everywhere in the western world. In short, this article tries to tell you things that your karate instructor won't.

What is karate?

Karate is an oriental method of unarmed combat. There are people who claim to be able to trace the origins of karate back to the early days of Buddhism, or even to ancient Greece. While remnants of ancient pottery have been found that appear to depict karate-like fighting, there are also ancient depictions of people running, and no-one credits the Greeks with the invention of running. There are only a certain number of ways of hitting and kicking someone, after all.

In reality all the karate styles that are now widespread have a much shorter pedigree. Karate as we recognise it probably developed on the island of Okinawa from earlier, Chinese martial arts. It is debatable whether karate is an Okinawan interpretation of a Chinese martial art, or the result of Chinese influence on an existing Okinawan fighting system. What we can be reasonably certain of is that modern karate was brought to Japan in the 1930s by a number of influential Okinawan practitioners. Most notably of these is Gichin Funakoshi, whose nickname `Shoto' is the origin of the word shotokan, a style of karate very widely practised throughout the world. Other styles widely practised include shito ryu, wado ryu, and goju ryu_. These styles all developed between 1930 and 1950, and have more elements in common than they have significant differences, Although it isn't often remarked upon, the similarity between all these karate styles and the Korean martial art of taekwondo is also quite striking.

It is from Japan, not from Okinawa or China, that we get the modern `karate culture' -- white suits, belts of rank, bowing, etc (of which, more later). Much of this culture was borrowed from the Japanese art of judo, and employed to increase the acceptability of karate in the rather nationalistic Japan of the day.

Unlike other fighting methods, karate works by the delivery of a small number of forceful, knockdown blows. This is very different from boxing, for example, where the objective is to wear down one's opponent with a barrage of quick, sharp punches. Unlike the impression you may have from television, most boxing matches at club level do not end with a knockout, but with an advantage on points. In karate tournaments, generally there are no points for anything except a blow that would maim or kill the opponent in one strike. As a result, a lot of karate training focuses on single defensive strikes followed by single decisive counter-attacks.

Karate has a certain `purity' compared to other oriental martial arts. The repertoire of technique it employs is comparatively small: kicks, and rudimentary defences. There are no throws, locks, or grappling techniques. Karate rarely involves the use of weapons, either in defence or offence. A reasonably fit person can learn to do the basic moves in a few days. The purpose of training is to do them over and over again, until one can do them very well.

Over the years karate has picked up a certain amount of philosophical and social baggage. Of particular interest is the connection, for better or worse, with Zen Buddhism. Oddly this is much more prevalent in the West than in Japan. There are karate clubs in the UK that make the practice of zazen (seated meditation) part of their training regime. Conceivably the practice of karate helps zen practitioners clear their minds of everyday concerns. It seems unlikely that studying or practising zen improves the skill of the karate practitioner, although generations of movie makers have sought to convince us otherwise. The connection between karate and zen is, as I say, a fascinating one, but beyond the scope of this article. There is also a body of opinion that karate is not about kicking and punching, but becoming a better person. This also can be

argued either way, but not here.

Why practice karate?

People have various reasons for taking up a martial art like karate. Some are attracted by karate's mysterious and elitist image, with its bizarre rituals, chanting, and formality. Some take up karate in a belief that it will improve their self-defence skills and give them increased confidence. People my age, however, usually take it up because their bellies protrude over their belts, and they are deterred from more traditional sporting pursuits. Squash is suicidal, jogging is boring, football and rugby are macho team sports (with all the communal shower activity this entails). Karate is competitive, in a very direct, in-yer-face, way, and very physically demanding. At the same time, it emphasises individual, rather that team, achievement, and the idea that a karate team would get totally trousered on cheap lager and stagger through the streets singing the Good Ship Venus is almost inconceivable.

This is all very well, but potential Bruce Lees need to be aware that joining a karate club is, for the most part, not at all like joining, say, a tennis club. Karate has a culture all of its own, and a number of unwritten rules that take a while to figure out. Under the rhetoric of perfection of character and zen-like tranquillity are bitter political punch-ups that make the actual practice of karate look tame. To be fair, politics does not really affect an ordinary karate player on a day-to-day basis, but its echos do permeate the practice of the sport in subtle ways.

There is no doubt that a certain mystique still surrounds karate, which is not present in other sports. This mystique is very appealing to some people, however dubious its origins. One karate enthusiast at my club expressed surprise, bordering on outrage, when I mentioned that a black belt is just something you can buy at a sports shop. Why should this be a surprise? Do people imagine that black belts grow on sacred black belt trees? The karate mystique partly probably arises from the strangeness that anything oriental has in Western perception, and in particular the (dubious) connection between karate, zen Buddhism, and the samurai elite of medieval japan. Karate clubs do capitalise - often innocently - on this Oriental mystique. I will have more to say about

this later.

I took up karate in middle age, after more than ten years of total slobby idleness. To be fair, I should point out that I was a very enthusiastic martial artist in my youth, so I wasn't completely surprised by what I experienced. All the same, starting karate in your 50s is a different proposition to starting in your 20s.

Doing karate

This section describes what goes on in and around a typical British karate club.

A typical training session

Most karate clubs run their training sessions for between one and two hours. If you aren't very fit, you'll probably find that one hour is enough. However, my experience is that the discomfort one feels after twenty minutes doesn't really get much worse after two hours -- there is, after all, a limit to the amount of pain that the human body can experience. What does get worse, however, is how you feel the next day. If you are a middle-aged, unfit person, the difference between a one-hour session and a two-hour session may mean the difference between feeling slightly stiff in the morning, and not being able to get up without the assistance of a dock-yard crane.

At the start of the class, students generally line up in rows, in order of experience. In the shotokan style, it is typical to line up from right to left, with the most experienced students on the right, while in other styles front-to-back is more common. Front-to-back probably makes more sense, as the more inexperienced students at the back get to watch the more experienced students more of the time. However, if your club does it the other way, you probably won't be able to change it. It's one of those tradition things.

Training usually begins with a short series of formalities -- bows and whatnot, which I'll say more about later. Then there will typically be a warm-up session led by an instructor. If you skimp on the warm up, you'll pay the price the next day. Sports physiologists recommend that a warm-up of twenty minutes is required before karate-like exercise. In reality, few sessions are long enough for this length of warm-up as part of the training, and you'd do well to warm up before starting.

Then the training will consist of some elements of kihon (basic technique), kumite (fighting), and kata (patterns) in varying proportions. Some clubs do each of these in every session, while others prefer to devote whole sessions to one or another.


Karate enthusiasts vary in their relative liking for kumite and kata, some preferring one and some the other, but everybody hates kihon. Because it is so despised, it is usually done parade-ground fashion, marching up and down in rows. This ensures that you can't skive off. In addition, if you don't move briskly enough, the person behind you will crash into your back, which provides an additional incentive to work. Kihon mostly consists of steps, punches, kicks, and defences, often delivered in combination. The trick for successful kihon is to repeat the moves over and over again; there is no other way to become good at them. Although everyone hates kihon, no-one is in any doubt as to its importance, and most clubs devote more than half of the total training time to kihon drills.


Clubs vary in their attitude to kumite (fighting, or sparring). Some like everybody to indulge in relatively free sparring from an early stage of training, while others restrict kumite to set forms until students are quite advanced. A very restrictive attitude to kumite often indicates that the club has had some bad experiences in the past -- injuries, perhaps -- but there are some karate organisations that stipulate certain levels of attainment before students are allowed to duke it out. These days, very few clubs allow full-contact sparring, either with or without protective clothing. The scope for serious injury should be readily apparent. Full-contact sparring without protective clothing is more properly known as `assault occasioning actual bodily harm' and is punishable by up to five years' imprisonment. The fact that the participants consent to the assault does not necessarily prevent both being prosecuted. It is unclear whether the immunity enjoyed by boxers extends to other martial arts. In any event, unprotected full contact sparring is a mug's game.

In practice, most clubs strive for non-contact sparring, but accept that occasional bumps and bruises are inevitable. In most karate tournaments you would be disqualified if you hurt your opponent, and in some tournaments even a slight contact would disqualify. Beginners typically start off doing `three-step' sparring, where the opponents take turns to attack and defend. The same attack and defence is repeated three times, hence the name, followed by some sort of counter-attack. It is also customary, in the early stages of training, for the person in the attacker role to tell the defender what attack he proposes to use, or at least what part of the body he will be attacking. As training progresses, sparring becomes increasingly fluid.

The club which I currently attend discourages vigorous and aggressive sparring, but even then we do get the occasional bruise or black eye. However, the only time I received a really nasty injury in martial arts training was when I was hit in the head by the elbow of someone who was actually fighting someone else at the time. I never even found out whose elbow it was.


Kata are sequences of prearranged moves -- blows, defences, or steps. Each of the main karate styles has its own canon of kata, some of which are of great antiquity. Doing kata properly is exhausting, particularly with the more dynamic examples. There is a leap off the ground in Heian Godan that I doubt I will ever be able to do properly.

Most kata have between twenty and a hundred moves, and take one to two minutes to perform. As you might expect, beginners are expected to learn relatively simple kata, involving only punches, blocks, and steps; as students progress the kata become increasingly difficult and may involve kicks, leaps, and inexplicable movements. The origin of the many inexplicable movements in kata has been the subject of much speculation; they may, for example, be stylised representations of certain moves that it is unsafe to do other than in extremis. In fact, the whole field of kata interpretation is hotly debated. Many of the moves have no obvious application as offences or defences, and their significance is lost in the mists of time.

Enthusiasts argue incessantly about the exact way to do a particular move. Some kata are extremely dull, others are very challenging. Almost all karate clubs treat the standard kata with more reverence than they deserve, and are loathe to allow even the slightest deviation from the prescribed format. In fact, although some kata have been handed down across the centuries, others are relatively modern. My club, for example, still expects students to learn taikyoku shodan, a kata devised in the 1950s for schoolchildren. All kata, however, are an opportunity for hard exercise.


Grading examinations, or just `gradings' for short, are formal events in which your skill as a karate practitioner will be tested. If you pass your grading, your club or organisation will recognise your right to wear a belt of a different colour, and very likely expect you to do more difficult and taxing things in training.

Young karate practitioners are often wholly terrified of gradings, just like children are of any sort of examination. They are often confused about the process, and what is expected of them. But adults are not immune to grading anxiety, and some are so apprehensive that they are unable to do the necessary on the day. A particular worry is that instructions may be given in Japanese, so the grading candidate won't know what to do. If my biggest problem in karate was mastering a couple of dozen words of Japanese, I'd be happy. I'm more concerned about falling on my head during a high kick.

This level of anxiety is a shame really, because kyu (non-black belt) gradings are usually cursory to the point of rudeness, and failures are very rare, even in the toughest clubs. There are a number of reasons for this. First, most people who train regularly will make progress to the extent required. Second, clubs are aware that failing a kyu grading will generally be the last thing a person does in karate. Very few clubs can afford to turn away members at the rate that would be occasioned by expecting everyone to perform like the Karate Kid at gradings. Middle-aged and older karate enthusiasts will tell you how much more difficult gradings were in their day, but everyone knows that everything was more difficult in the past, so this shouldn't carry too much weight.

In most clubs, the worst that can happen in a grading is to be awarded a `provisional' grade. This is recognised as allowing the candidate to wear the belt, and to train with people of the same nominal grade, but one is barred from taking the next grading `to allow suitable progress to be made'. This is actually a neat trick. It saves grading candidates from the stigma and annoyance of a real failure, but prevents progress through the ranks more rapid than if one had really failed. A provisional grade is, in a sense, a polite way of failing someone.

If your karate club is affiliated to some wider governing body, then it will probably have to adhere to the grading standards of that body. If it is not, then the instructors will apply whatever grading criteria they see fit. Your club may invite representatives of the governing body to conduct gradings, rather than having them done by the local instructors. This has advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, it encourages an unbiased assessment, as the examiner is unlikely to know the candidates personally.

Being relieved of grading responsibilities is helpful to the local instructors, who are spared the risk of having to fail a person who they see every week and may have come to respect. Gradings carried out by a national body also give practitioners the confidence that their grades will be broadly comparable to those awarded by other clubs. The disadvantage, and it should not be underestimated, is that gradings carried out this way will be relatively infrequent, and will attract a great many candidates.

This means that until you reach a high level of skill, your grading examination will last no more than a couple of minutes. The examiner will see wave upon wave of candidates, all doing the same thing. Unless you are particular good, or particularly bad, the examiner will have little to say about your performance.

In reality, kyu gradings are seen by many instructors as formalities. You keep your head down for a few months, then take the grading, the outcome of which is largely a foregone conclusion. In that three month period, some practitioners will train about a dozen times, some six times that many. If they are at the same grading stage, both will be assessed in about two minutes among hundreds of other candidates. Most likely, both will pass. As a result, even in the same club there can be a huge disparity in ability between practitioners of nominally the same grade. This is most prevalent in the middle-kyu grades, in which are usually to be found about 60% of the members of most clubs. This can be dispiriting to candidates who train really hard, and see people far less accomplished than themselves being awarded exactly the same grade.

Of course, your instructor will stress the importance and seriousness of gradings, and the need to train hard to achieve a pass. He or she knows perfectly well that most people need the visible sign of progress that gradings represent. Instructors also know that people put in their best training efforts the few weeks before a grading, and hard work never did anyone any harm.

Aches, pains, and injuries

When I attended my first karate class as a middle-aged man, I was surprised at how little it hurt. With hindsight, I have a suspicion that the instructor took the class rather more gently than usual, concerned that the flabby, out-of-shape, middle-aged guy at the back of the hall was going to have a heart attack and drop dead. In any case, later classes were considerably more demanding. Like most sports, the problem with being out of condition doesn't manifest itself immediately. Instead, it catches you off guard a day or so later.

Karate is not really an aerobic activity, like running or swimming. It requires short, explosive bursts of activity, punctuated by periods of comparative idleness. It puts a great deal more stress on the joints, particularly the knees and lower back, than any other sport I have tried.

In addition, karate is typically practised in village halls and schools, not purpose-built, well-ventilated sports facilities. Despite the violent image of karate, I have no doubt that far more injuries are caused by dehydration, slipping on sweat-soaked floors, and bumping into people and furniture, than by kicks and punches. Because of the regimented nature of karate training, it is annoying and inconvenient for people to leave and rejoin the class while it is running. As a result, people are discouraged - not always by the instructor, but by their own sense of propriety - from drinking water, or taking a rest, during class. It isn't all that unusual for people to flake out in hot weather and have to be carried out. It's certainly happened to me in the past.

Unlike the debilitating effects of exhaustion and dehydration, acute injuries are quite unusual in sensibly-run karate clubs. They mostly affect young men who enter into sparring too enthusiastically. A particular hazard in uncontrolled sparring is the notorious `mutual groin kick'. This happens when both contestants attempt a roundhouse kick at each other's ribs, both using the same leg. Because the kick tends to cause the person delivering it to lean back slightly, it puts his groin and ribs closer to the same height than is the case when standing upright. Because both contestants are leaning back, neither is able to use his arms to deflect the other's leg, and because both are on one leg, it is difficult to move out of the way. As a result, very often both contestants kick their opponents' groins at the same time. It's funny to watch, but not very nice to experience. Another relatively common injury is a fractured collar bone, caused by falling hard onto your outstretched hand.

Apart from acute, immediate problems - thankfully rare in well-conducted karate classes - karate practitioners are prone to a number of chronic irritations. Stamping about barefoot with lots of other people who are stamping about barefoot does carry a significant risk of skin infection (athlete's foot, veruca, etc). Constant stress on the joints can lead to stiffness and immobility. And although it is only irritating rather than debilitating, wearing coarse, heavy, sweaty clothing irritates the nipples.


Compared to, say, skiing or scuba diving, karate is a relatively cheap sport to follow. Most clubs charge about 5-10 per class, and nearly all offer discounts for seasonal membership. My club charges 40 per month, and enthusiastic members might attend twenty classes in that time: that's 2 per class. You'll need at least one gi (uniform) and belt. If you train very regularly, you'll probably need to get an extra gi, or accept that you'll be quite smelly a lot of the time. Karate is a sweaty business.

A decent gi costs about 40 for an adult size. Your gi will shrink every time you wash it, so you should get one that initially seems like you're wearing a tent. In practice, the life of a gi is about six months if you train hard. After that time it will either shrink so much you can't get it on, or fall apart from repeated washings. Needless to say, a more expensive gi will outlast a cheap one, both in terms of wear resistance and shrink resistance.

You will also probably be expected to contribute to the cost of your club's personal injury insurance; this cost might be wrapped up inside `licence fees' or something of that nature. Expect about 20 per year.

If your club practises contact sparring, then you'll need hand and foot mitts, and maybe a head protector and gum shield. You may be able to borrow some of this stuff from the club, but after you've smelled it you may not want to. You may also choose to shell out on specialist training gear, such as a punch bag or stretching jig. This is a waste of money for most people, because if you are enthusiastic enough to benefit from its use, you'll be training so regularly that you won't have the energy to use it.

In fact, much of the expense in karate training will be in the grading fees. Most clubs charge 30 or more per grading, and you will probably want to attend four or so every year as a new practictioner. If you pass, you'll need a new belt, so allow 5 for that. If your club is affiliated to a national governing body, a large proportion of the grading fee goes to that body, not to the club. This is a cause of irritation to many instructors, because the high grading fees give the impression that the club is trying to exploit its members, when in fact it is the governing bodies that are exploiting the clubs.

All in all, unless you buy a heap of specialist training equipment, karate training shouldn't cost more than a a few hundred pounds per year

Children in karate

Many karate clubs will take children from about the age of five, although five-year-olds vary in their ability to cope with the rigours of training. Clubs vary enormously in their ability to mix serious training and entertainment, as do individual instructors. It almost goes without saying that today's karate champions are people who started training from a very young age. That way, when they reach the peak of athletic prowess, they have already mastered the techniques through many years of practice. If you start training in your 20s, you will probably never become a champion, because by the time you have trained enough to master the techniques, you will be too old to hold your own athletically. I suspect this does not apply to women to the same extent it does to men, but I'm not sure. Anyway, if you want to be a champ, you have to start at the age of five.

Even in the best-run clubs, karate has the potential to be dangerous. Children seem to have a better time in clubs where they run around shouting and fighting, than in those where they do the same drills as adults. However, as a parent I feel more comfortable with the idea of children being kept under strict discipline when doing karate.

Karate culture

Doing karate means getting involved, to a certain extent, in the culture of the sport. This is true of any sport, of course, but particularly so of martial arts.

Ritual and formality

Karate as we understand it is largely a Japanese development, and Japanese people are renowned (rightly or wrongly) for their formality and precise etiquette. Unsurprisingly, therefore, UK karate clubs that follow the Japanese tradition (that is, most of them) are correspondingly formal and ritualistic.

In fact, from conversations I have had with people from outside the UK, it appears that UK clubs are more punctilious in their observation of karate etiquette than those in most other parts of the world, even Japan. Many people, including myself, find the constant bowing and chanting rather peculiar, although probably harmless.

Karate practitioners are typically expected to bow on entering and leaving the training hall (dojo, in karate jargon), bow at the start and end of training, bow before and after sparring, bow to the instructor, and so on, and on. Japanese people do not bow like this, so it is not obvious where the tradition has come from. Many karate instructors like to be addressed as sensei, a Japanese word meaning `teacher', a practice which, again, is not common in Japan. While one person might address another as `sensei' in Japan, it would be a breach of etiquette to ask other people to call you `sensei', or introduce yourself to another person as `sensei Fred'.

Many clubs start and end training sessions with a spell of ritualistic chanting (or shouting, depending on the club). It is not unusual for the class to recite the dojokun, which is rather like the boy scout oath without the `dib dib dib' bits.

However, apart from the initial and closing formalities, most clubs are relatively relaxed and friendly during the actual training. Some, of course, are full of would-be samurai warriors who spend the entire session scowling like Klingons, but this is quite unusual. However, the atmosphere in almost all karate clubs, even the most relaxed, is more formal than in almost any other sport. There are people who argue that this is appropriate, in an activity that involves potentially lethal blows pulled just short of contact. While there is some truth in this, other martial arts are not carried on the same way, and I've not seen any evidence to suggest that there are more injuries.

It is my belief that most British karate clubs fervently and honestly believe that they are carrying on a tradition that originated in Japan. In reality, the customs and culture of British clubs are a pastiche of a culture that Japanese clubs have largely dropped. Is this a bad thing? It is probably harmless, and many people do enjoy the feeling of taking part in something exotic and foreign. If you are a person who is offended by cultural inauthenticity, you will have to grit your teeth.


Whether or not there are benefits to using Japanese jargon in karate (and it can be argued either way), most British karate clubs use at least some Japanese jargon. In fact, perhaps `Anglo-Japanese' might be a better word, as on the whole the pronunciation of these words would be unrecognisable to a Japanese person. Oddly, there is quite a lot of consistency in the way that British clubs pronounce karate words. For example, most pronounce the word uke (which loosely translates as `block' or `deflection') as `ookee', even though this is not how Japanese people say it. It isn't clear, therefore, where the British way of pronouncing Japanese words has come from -- certainly not from Japan.

In fact, the need to master a handful of poorly-pronounced Japanese words should not deter anyone from the pursuit of karate. After all, you'll hear them so often that they'll become second nature after a few weeks.

The most contentious and divisive piece of Anglo-Japanese jargon is the word osu, which British karate enthusiasts shout at each other all the time. The traditional British pronunciation of this word (`ooss') sounds like the Japanese word for a millstone (uwausu), but Japanese people are too polite to say so. British karate practitioners have got into the habit of saying osu as a greeting and an affirmation, and they do it all the time.

In fact, Japanese adults rarely use this word, and consider it rather vulgar. Japanese children sometimes use it in the same sense that a British child might say `hey!' However, it is not true to claim that because Japanese people never say osu socially, they don't say it in karate -- I've certainly heard it. In general, karate instructors tell their students (somewhat misleadingly) that osu is Japanese for `yes', and they were probably told that by their own instructors. In fact, even in Japan the origin of the word is not clear, but it appears to be a greeting, not an affirmation.

To be fair, karate is not the only sport to have its own jargon, nor is the practice limited to oriental martial arts, or even martial arts in general. For example, fencers tend to use a number of old French terms. Even the scoring system in tennis uses a corruption of a French word: when we say `15-love', the word `love' is derived from the French l'oeuf (the egg, the shape of zero!)

Belts and rank

Most British karate clubs set great store by the hierarchy of grading ranks; that is, they expect people to recognise who is `senior' to whom, and conduct themselves accordingly. Generally seniority is signalled by belt colour, usually with white as the most junior and black as the most senior. In between these colours is a veritable rainbow: some organisations recognise ten or more ranks between white and black.

It follows from this that an individual cannot compare himself to another from a different club by comparing their respective belt colours. ``I'm a green belt'' is only a meaningful statement within a particular karate organisation. In the UK, clubs which are affiliated to the Karate Union of Great Britain or the Japan Karate Association (which tend to be those following the shotokan style) have a uniform system of belt colour, which goes like this: white, orange, red, yellow, green, purple, brown, brown with stripe, brown with two stripes, black.

However, there are other clubs that have as few as three belt colours or (oh, bliss) none at all. Some clubs are quite strict about junior practitioners deferring to more senior ones, even at the level of, say, white belt and orange belt. However, most clubs now consider this practice to be more honoured in the breach that the observance, and therefore honour it in the breach.

The requirements for the award of grades beyond the first black belt (1st dan, or shodan) are even less well-defined than for kyu grades. This is because once you get beyond about 3rd dan you run out of people who are competent to test you. The situation is analogous to that of awarding academic qualifications beyond PhD level. You can think of 1st dan as a bachelors' degree, 2nd as a masters' and 3rd as a PhD - after all, the times required to complete these qualifications are about the same. Once you get to PhD level, your advancement in the academic hierarchy will depend on recognition by your peers and your contribution to scholarship, not on your technical skill. At that level, there will be no-one qualified to judge your technical skill anyway. I don't know of any university that awards professorships on the basis of competitive examination.

The same is true in karate - beyond 3rd dan it is impossible to say even what technical skills are required, much less how they should be assessed. So, although there are people around who claim 8th dan or the like, it is not really obvious what that means. If the instructor at your club has, say, a 3rd dan recognised by a body like the KUGB, he or she is likely to be as technically proficient in karate as anyone on earth.

Karate students are expected to take gradings and advance through the belt hierarchy. It seems to cause a degree of confusion and upset within karate clubs if they don't. To be fair, in a large club, the instructors can't be expected to keep track of the relative ability of all the different students, and rely on belt colours when assigning exercises to different groups of people. This can be very inconvenient if you have difficulty attending gradings because of, for example, work or family commitments. If your belt does not change colour, you will find yourself doing the same things over and over again. There is an argument that says that this is not a bad thing - generally the more you practice something the better you'll get. On the other hand, when you learn a new technique you'll improve in its execution most rapidly in the first couple of weeks. After that, you will get better at a decreasing rate. There are, to be sure, stories of ancient karate masters practising gyaku tzuki (a basic punch) on their death-beds and complaining that they still haven't mastered it. In reality your ability to improve at this technique, and any other, is eventually limited by your physique and athletic prowess. If you can't do it as well as your instructor after a year of

practice, you probably aren't ever going to.

What all this means is that it is very difficult to train in karate without going through the rigmarole of gradings. A reasonably fit person should be able to advance by one rank every three months or so, although many clubs insist on longer periods of training between the higher grades. If you miss a grading, but carry on training regularly, you ought to be able to skip the grading for the rank you missed, and just take the next one. It is very rare for clubs to allow this, particularly if they are affiliated to a national body. Cynically, one could conclude that this is because grading fees are a large part of the income of such bodies, so they want people to take lots of gradings. Some clubs will even insist that if a person joins from another club, he or she ought to restart the grading process again from white belt. However, most British clubs do recognise each other's grades, at least provisionally.

Head honcho

One notable feature that distinguishes karate clubs from many other sports clubs is that they tend to be formed by enthusiastic instructors rather than enthusiastic students. Typically a karate practitioner who wants to form a club will appoint himself chief instructor and then start recruiting students. This is not, in itself, a bad thing; but it does mean that karate clubs are dominated by the personalities of their instructors. A well-balanced, decent instructor will usually engender a well-run, moderate club. An arrogant, bullying instructor will give rise to a harsh, unpleasant club. For a student in such a club, the choice is to put up with it or walk. Happily, there is no shortage of karate clubs in the UK these days, so it shouldn't be too difficult to find a decent one unless you live in the isolated village of East Dogpatch.

Contrast this with, for example, a local football or tennis club. Typically these clubs will be run by their members, who will appoint or hire coaches as required. Very few karate clubs are run this way. Partly this is because most clubs could not afford to hire an instructor: a karate instructor may be prepared to work for a pittance to run his own club, but generally won't want to do so as an employee. This is just human nature -- the owner and manager of a small business may cheerfully spend the day doing menial tasks that would be beneath the dignity of the humblest employee of a large corporation. In general, people are happier to do tiresome and low-paid jobs for themselves than they are for someone else.


There are some very good karate clubs around, but even the best of them have some features that a thinking person will find peculiar. The esoteric nature of karate disguises what is basically the practice of hard punches and kicks, repeated until they achieve devastating effectiveness. Almost all practitioners swallow the story that karate is not just punching and kicking, but a particular way of life, uncritically. At the end of each training session, many clubs recite an oath that begins `seek perfection of character'. Whether this is a valid goal or not, it is hard to imagine boxers or fencers claiming that their sports are about striving for self-realisation.

In my experience, even well-balanced karate players, find the mystique of the orient an additional attraction of karate, even if not a fundamental one. As a result, people generally won't thank you if you respond to their greeting of osu! by asking why they are shouting `millstone' at you. Nor will you win many friends by pointing out, vigorously and with mathematical proof, that it is physically impossible to `grip the floor with your feet'.

In the end, doing karate will probably improve your fitness, and may even give you increased self-defence skills. It may improve your confidence and your concentration. It will, however, require that you accept as dogma a number of practises and beliefs that are of dubious authenticity and value, or at least that you don't try to stop other people accepting them.

[ Last updated Tue 22 Feb 19:28:25 GMT 2022 ]