Wednesday, April 09, 2008


"One thing I often say to my young pupils they find confusing. "You must," I tell them, "become not strong but weak." Then they want to know what I mean, for one of the reasons they have chosen Karate-do is to become strong. It is hardly necessary, they tell me, to train in order to become weak. Then I reply that what I am saying is indeed difficult to understand. "I want you to find the answer within yourselves," I tell them. "And I promise you that the time will come when you truly understand what I mean." Sensei Gichin Funakoshi ( Karate-do: My Way of life)

As I had read these words of Sensei Gichin, I was as dumbfounded as his pupils at his statement. I walked around for years thinking "I must become weak? I don't get it." It is especially confusing to think this way as I struggle to be able to hold stance that much longer, or kick/punch with that much more power. I've found that I desire greatly to be stronger when I have to face opponents that tower a good foot above me, with longer reach, and hit me with such power. I think that I have had a glimpse into the wisdom of "becoming weak" these past days.

There is only "so" strong that I can achieve, no matter how hard I train, I can only get a certain amount of strength. I cannot rely on strength in my karate because there will be a time when I have to face someone stronger than me. (In my case, this happens far more frequently than I'd wish.) I've got to realize this weakness, and capitalize on it. This is where my mind takes over, and I start to rely on timing, experience, knowledge, strategy, distance, and well-chosen movements. I have to learn to read my opponent like an open book, and to react without thinking. I have to become "weak"... or at least, I hope that I have gotten a glimpse of what Sensei Gichin Funakoshi is saying.


Steve said...

Interesting post. Within BJJ, there are two philosophies which at first seem mutually exclusive, but aren't.

The first is that one should strive for technique, timing and perfect execution. It's always fun to watch the really big new guys try to outmuscle some of our more advanced guys. It never works. :) In BJJ, one of the highest compliments you can receive is when someone says that you're "technical." High praise, indeed.

On the other hand, strength and size are physical gifts, just as agility, flexibility and intelligence are gifts. While it's important to emphasize technique, and we often admonish each other to avoid "muscling" an opponent, you wouldn't say to a small guy, "Hey, try not to out-think your opponent." Or, "You're too agile. That's not fair to your partner."

What I'm getting at, ultimately, is that strength is a physical tool that should be used, just like any other. We train so that we can expand our toolset, becoming stronger, more agile, more flexible, certainly more technical and hopefully more intelligent in our style. By doing this, we minimize our reliance strictly on one of these tools.

supergroup7 said...

Steve, I agree with your statements.

It's just that as a 44 year old woman I find that I can only get stronger "for me". Young men that come at me with their strength are rather daunting. It almost feels like I could do pull ups on their extended arms. I wonder, will I ever be able to train myself to the point where I won't have to worry about other people's strength? I doubt it. This is where I think that I have to train to be "weak". The more I realize that strength is good.. yes.. but it's not my goal, the harder I'll work towards gaining skills that will help me... as a weakling. Am I speaking sense? It sounds confusing to me.

Silverstar said...

Great post! As a woman of smaller size, dealing with students who are stronger than me has been a major hurdle. The best I can hope for is to become "technical" and through pratice..practice..practice be finally ready to deal with them using techniques and speed. :)

Sarah said...

Agreed. I know I'll never match the strength and power of the six-foot-tall men I train with. Physically, there is really no way. Which is why I work to use what *I* have - flexibility, youth - and just try to master technique. In the doko, it's not as much a problem, only because karate is a personal journey, and they all realize that. I'm not EXPECTED to be able to take them on - or, well, not expected the same things of - though I am expected to - I don't know how to explain. What I mean is that it is realized that we do the best we can, and that our best is good enough. It's not a competition, we're not trying to outsize or strength each other, we're only trying to get better at our own things. Like Steve said, it's technique that is counted, moreso than anything else. But OUTSIDE of the dojo, I know I have to realize my weaknesses in order to be stronger. I need to know that I am weak - and where I am weak - in order to truly use what technique I know to defend myself. As Funakoshi trained in a different era, trained for the true possibility of attack, not free-sparring (which he disagreed with), maybe he was thinking about that? I have no idea. I wish I did. Like supergroup, when I read that quote, I was like - huh? - it makes no sense. Something to ponder. But I guess I train in order to know my weaknesses. :)

Steve said...

Hey guys. I totally agree that as we gauge our progress and improvement, our scale is unique. I feel the same way as a 37 year old guy amongst wrestlers and fighters in their 20's.

A very common phrase in BJJ is "make BJJ work for you." My daughter, who is 4' tall and weighs 50 lbs, is learning a "different" bjj than I. Her strengths are her flexibility, intelligence and ability to sneak through holes. We're learning the same techniques and fundamentals, but her combination of skills and abilities will evolve and become as unique to her as her fingerprints. And it should, in my opinion.

On the other side of the coin, we have a guy who's well into his 50's, can't touch his toes or bend his knees all the way. He's a grizzly bear. Different, but still good.

Steve said...

On an unrelated note, I know you like kata. I thought you might enjoy reading this article on the subject.

supergroup7 said...

This might surprise you Steve, but even though I only had time to read the first third of this person's point of view, I found myself disagreeing with the comments presented.

a) I do not feel that the Martial artists who are doing the new fancy acrobatic style of patterns during competition are a problem. I respect their dedication, skill, and training.

b) I'm not sure that the Masters created kata only to "hide" karate techniques into secrecy. Yes, I'm aware that this is one of the accepted explanations for why kata exists. However, I personally believe that the creation of kata came from a more basic inner wisdom that patterns help the mind to remember. This is why knowledge was placed into songs, poetry, stories, and dance. For example "I before E except after C, except words that say "a" like in neighbor or weigh." Even as an adult, I find myself singing this rhyme once in awhile as I type out a word.

When I have time I will read this person's article fully, and make a post concerning it. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

Steve said...

I found it to be an interesting article. It's a post started on a large martial arts discussion forum called Martial Arts Planet. So, the idea is to start discussion on the boards, and I think this article did a fine job of that.

I will say, in that spirit, that you and I sort of agree and disagree on the gymnastics moves. I agree that they're gifted athletes, but not necessarily martial artists. Giving a gymnast a sai doesn't make the gymnast a martial artist. If that makes sense. I have nothing but respect for their demonstrations and wouldn't mind being able to jump around and twirl in the air... but calling it martial arts is misleading, in my opinion.

Honestly, I wasn't sure whether you would agree or not, but knowing your passion for kata I did believe you'd have an opinion. :) I'm looking forward to reading what you have to say on the subject.

Mathieu said...

I think too much time is spent debating about the value of things.

Practice should be done. Don't see value in kata? Don't practice it! You see value in it? Practice it!

The gymnastics seen in karate competitions are very close to what you'd see in a wushu competition. albeit less "organized".

The "martial" value of things might have changed. Might not. All this history is quite young. Karate is young and bjj even younger.

Street value? martial value? Bah. It's part of the walk. It's not whole walk.

What one gets out of his practice is very personal. I like throwing kicks. No kicks in aikido, judo, jj or bjj. I don't do those. I like punching. It's what I do.

Remember that you'll have as many opinions on kata as there are people.

Kata is a tool. Not an arsenal. :D