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I suppose I wasn't a likely karate candidate when I first went along to a class just after turning 17. Being the shy sort, I refused to go on my own, but managed to convince a friend to come along. Worse than that, I was too shy to even go in the hall without a supportive hand dragging me behind them, so my dad came with us to do the talking. My friend and I quietly slunk in at my dad's heels about 10 minutes before the class started like sheepish puppies. It wasn't long before my dad had cleared it with the instructors that we could sit and watch and had dashed off and abandoned us on some green benches staring at our feet and feeling awfully self-conscious, but things could only get better...at least that was the theory. Unfortunately, they got much much worse. Our soon to be 'sensei' came over to greet us. Sensei was intimidation personified. He was about 6'2, all muscle and was towering over me, with a menicing grin. Then he proceeded to put his hand to his mouth and remove a plate holding his front four teeth, explaining that he'd got them punched out in a karate competition a few years ago. Cue an exchange of scared and dubious glances between me and my friend. However, while we sat there mildly terrified, the class begun. There was a lot of shouting, a fair amount of swearing and a lot of sparring (which, I might add, seemed particularly vicious). Somehow this didn't look like the stuff in "Karate Kid". I honestly don't know to this day what induced me to go back the following week, but go back I did. If I'd felt self-conscious the previous week, then I suppose I should multiply the embarrassment of the previous week by about 200 to reach the level I was at on my first day of training. My friend and I tried to hide out the way, but we felt like aliens in our jogging bottoms and t-shirts while everyone else was skipping about in their nice, clean, white karate 'gis'. I felt even more like an alien when the instructors shouted out terms like 'age uke' and 'mawashi geri', while my friend and I clumsily tried to imitate them. However, I think that was some kind of perverse initiation ceremony, because after a session of that one of the instructors tooks us aside, shook our hands and told us that we were perfectly welcome to come and train with the adults' class, but that if we felt a bit awkward there for the present moment, we could train with the kids for a few weeks. The kids' class at my club accepted pupils up to the age of 16, and the students could also train at the adults' classes, too. Most of the kids in the class were about 10-15 and had been training 2 or 3 times a week for years. In fact, my friend and I were the only beginners, but the class was smaller, and it allowed us the chance to get some time on our own being taught with an instructor. After 3 weeks of this we braved the adults class again, and I've never looked back! If you're interested in starting karate, make sure that karate is what you want to do. There's plenty of martial arts out there, and plenty of styles to try out. Even within karate there is plenty of variation. I train at a Shotokan karate club, but there is many other styles of karate. There is other arts similar to karate, too, that you might want to investigate eg. the Korean style of TaeKwon Do, and of course, plenty of styles that focus more on grappling than striking eg. Judo. There are arts that are more focussed on the sporty side of things than the traditional eg. Judo tends to be very competition orientated, while Aikido tends to be very traditional. Make sure you do your research, see what is in the area and go along to watch classes to see what you think you would enjoy. Karate can be a relatively inexpensive art, but it depends where you train. Many traditional clubs may only expect you to own your own 'gi' and to pay a small amount for classes, but other clubs may expect you to own other equipment. My club expects every member to have their own 'gi' and sparring mitts. These can be obtained through the club. My 'gi' was bought for £15 and my sparring mitts were about £16, although I could have got cheaper fabric ones at around about £6. My club charges £2.50 per training session, although they only charge black belt students £1 per training session, and each training session last an hour and a half. However, the costs can mount up if you buy extra equipment, and insurance costs have to be considered. I think insurance costs me about £30 a year, and my club charges for belt tests, too, although the fee is relatively small. Belts often worry students, especially adults who are out of the habit of sitting tests and exams. Remember that you don't have to train for belts, although you'll probably find the tests are alot more accessable than they might seem at first. I sat my first belt test, but didn't attend my next two because of other priorities I had on the days of the tests. I don't find this to be much of a problem. The kids in the club like to draw attention to how they're on a higher belt than you, but that's to be expected, and since I'm with the adults most of the time anyway, I don't get exposed to it too much. The adults tend to just react to what you are capable of rather than the belt you're wearing, anyway, so its not really too much of an issue. Karate can be very traditional or very sport-orientated. My club is fairly traditional when it comes to instilling discipline, but fairly sporty in t he respect that most of our training time is spent on sparring. The 3 main elements of karate are: 1. Kihon 2. Kata 3. Kumite Kihon is the basic moves and steps. Basic, however, is a misleading word as they can be very difficult to master sometimes, and sometimes they can be put together into difficult combinations. These are often practiced at the start of classes and are generally practiced moving up and down the hall, kicking and punching in mid-air. Kata are patterns of movements put together. They can look quite pretty to watch, but can be difficult to learn. Many traditional clubs place a heavy emphasis on kata, and they are usually important in belt tests. Kumite is sparring. It's not always free fighting, however. Many clubs will make you start out by doing simple pre-decided combinations with a partner. I hated sparring with a passion when I started karate, so eventually my instructor just threw me into the deep end to get rid of my fear and made me free spar with him just using hand techniques. Now, I'm far more used to it, and quite enjoy it. Most clubs don't let their members go all out on each other, even at advanced levels, and ask them to take care to be gentle enough not to injure their partner, but injuries can happen. Often someone just mistimes something, or misjudges their distance from their partner, or the strength of their punch/kick, but it is important to keep in mind that karate is a contact sport and injuries can and do happen. Most universities will have at least one karate club, as do many sports centres. If there is a martial arts shop in your town they will often have contact numbers for martial arts clubs in the area, so its worth checking these places out. Also, look up Yellow Pages and do a search on Google. Try to check out as many clubs as possible before you m ake a decision on where you want to go. However, I would highly recommend a martial art to anyone. Karate has helped me become more confident, and is a sport I really enjoy. I don't notice the energy I'm burning up because I'm so busy learning all the time, and trying to keep up with all the Japanese terminology, of course!
To mention Martial Arts brings up images of Bruce Lee, Van Damme and all the others that get paid a fortune for throwing a few good looking techniques. Whilst these stars are undoubtably very talented and I wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of them down a dark alley, the every day reality of Karate is somewhat different. The style that I study is a form of karate that has evolved from the traditional Wado ryu that it started out as. There are very different styles of club available within the 'Wado' category, the really good thing about this is it means that there really is something for everybody. The club I train with is NKA freestyle Karate which have a website www.freestyle-karate.com and have clubs across the south of England. What I enjoy most about the NKA is the move away from traditional wado etiquette, there is a quick bow rather than the formal one and we study more kickboxing techniques with bagwork, sparring, fighting techniques whilst still keeping the traditional Kata (more about them later) and line work to learn the kicks and punches. For me this gives a good mix as I have tried the traditional clubs which I found dull and I missed the sparring and Kickboxing which was not dull but I missed the technique work. The typical club night starts up with the warm ups. These are absolutely essential and exhausting. They include jogging around the hall and other aerobic activity, stretching, press ups and sit ups. The stretching improves the height of your kicks and increases suppleness also the most important addition of preventing injury. We then move on to techniques these are done in lines and consist of practising all the punches, blocks and kicks and ensuring that the higher belts also know the japanese names for them all. If done properly with maximum effort th is is also very exhausting. My favourite section is learning Kata. These are series of blocks, punches and kicks with the occasional jump which have to be learnt in the right order and every stance (position of feet) and arm position has to be accurate. You either love em or hate em. The point of Kata is to start to put together the individual techniques into meaningful combinations so you can break them down to work out why you would be doing these moves in this order, from a fighting or a self defence point of view. There are 15 that I am aware of and 12 that I know. Most peoples original motivation for learning Karate is either to learn how to fight or to learn how to defend yourself. The first group give up fairly quickly when they realise they are not invincible. We spend time every now and then working out really good techniques for self defence techniques that follow natural body mechanics for example if someone attacks you in a certain way they will be standing in a certain way to do it. you can then use this to either take them down or break the grip and there is little they can do about it, then comes the most important self defence technique - RUN AWAY! Karate is not about teaching you how to stand and fight, it is to give you the confidence to either not get into the situation in the first place or get out of it if you do. Sparring is a great for stress relief and for building up the fitness (something I am still working on and far from achieving) We do semi contact which has to be light and controlled. Again this helps to develop ways of putting the techniques together and knowing which areas to attack. The key to sparring, and any form of sport is relaxing the muscles and getting the power from a good technique rather than really tense muscles which is more likely to damage you as you need so much energy to throw the techni que. The only other important addition to the training is bag work - my least favourite. It does give you the chance to really punch/kick something hard but after a few minutes (again maximum effort required) is completely exhausting, but helps to build up stamina. We also have regular courses and competitions for Kata and sparring. The courses give the opportunity to do weapons training Numchuku (as in Bruce lee enter the dragon) sticks and bow staff (Robin Hood?) Now the cost bit, and this seems fairly standard across all of the ones I have looked into. £30 to join, this includes a suit and your first years licence. £15 per year licence renewal, this is required for insurance purposes and you have to sign the I promise I won't attack anyone bit, it also details all your achievements. Gradings £15 to start with then go up towards the higher belts, this is a test you take every few months to move up to the next belt. The weekly (or twice weekly in my case) training fee is £4.00. I would recommend karate to anyone we have members (black belts) in their 60's (maybe older) and kids as young as 5 all who enjoy it and whilst I will never be Bruce Lee and I am not a good fighter, I have the confidence to know I have a chance of getting out of a situation if I ever have to.