January, 2010: Karate Speed Zones

Karate Speed Zones is a topic mentioned by Hanshi Duessel during his last visit in Hackettstown during our seminars. I had heard him talk about his concept previously on a number of occasions. After he returned to Pittsburgh, I decided to investigate this principle further (there is nothing like an idea who’s time has come). We must understand this critical concept, if we are going to advance in Isshin-ryu Karate. The same holds true in the way we learn as we progress from one grade in school to another (ranks white belt through green belt in the dojo), through high school (ranks purple belt through brown belt levels in the dojo), into college (ranks Sho Dan through San Dan in the dojo) and beyond (instructor’s and master’s titles awarded because of ability and dedication Renshi-go, Kyoshi-go & Hanshi-go).

We are aware of Hanshi’s quotation: “Speed+Form = Power”. As we think about it and the speed zones, why does one person learn more easily than another, progressing through the ranks more quickly and why does one person’s technique hit the target during sparring and another’s is blocked? One piece of the puzzle is speed. Another piece of the puzzle is timing. Yet other pieces are using the proper technique with the proper weapon to attack the appropriate target. Would a Pittsburgh Pirate baseball player try to hit a home run using the handle of a broom or a wiffle ball bat? The icing on the cake is developing the ability to use the proper training techniques at each rank, combined with the proper comprehension level and applying all of what has been mentioned with the appropriate speed and form. Trying to learn or advance too quickly generally slows one’s progress, rather than speeding it up.

As the sensei instructs the movements in kihon, kata, kobudo and kumite, remember how each movement and combination of movements is taught. That is the proper beginning learning speed. Do every part of each technique before beginning the next one. Resist the desire to move more quickly that the sensei instructs by trying to imitate the way the more advanced ranks perform the techniques you are learning. Make sure that each stance is set before the technique is delivered. With practice the individual techniques will join into combinations and movements will become more refined. Gradual progress, proper training and time will ultimately create simultaneous blocks and counters with speed, form, balance and focus. At higher levels the student will be able to “see” the opponent and the attack thus making his or her practice and performance “alive”.

Physical strength and conditioning are important as we develop into adulthood. As we condition our bodies, we remain healthy, strong and alert. A thought worth viewing is, what is physically strong for one person is weak for another. At this point in my life, I have not bench pressed 275 pounds in years but I now do more repetitions and sets than I did when I was younger. “Staying” strength is now more important than knowing that I can move a relatively heavy weight a moderately short distance. (But it was impressive, at least to me, then). Emphasize conditioning and flexibility because these qualities are the skills that will help us throughout our entire lives. With time our youth’s strength, speed and quickness refocuses on maturity’s enthusiasm, technique and timing to succeed. As is stated at the end of Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses”:

We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are,
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

At times illness and injury may limit our physical activity. If this happens we either take time off or we continue to train, doing what we can to advance the capabilities we are able to use. Working through injuries when appropriate, knowing no further injury will occur if we do what is reasonable, is a sign of maturity, dedication and discipline.

So, with all this being said, what must be understood if we are to use the proper speed zone? Strive to follow the direction of the sensei that knows how to best help each of us to improve. Practice daily demonstrating the proper way to do kihon, kata and kobudo and at the appropriate speed. When in the dojo, use the time efficiently; arrive early and be ready to start at the beginning of each training session. Practice what you have been taught and be open to improve when instructed. Lastly, have a beginners mind; be open to learn and review the skills you may feel that you know (perfectly). With this open and willing mind, each person will be able to learn more (happily) and become an exceptional karate student and person.

The first karate tournament of the year is at Warren Hills High School – – Sunday, February 14th.  I hope many of you will be able to attend.  I have pre-registration forms.

Please pay the beginning of each month

If paying monthly with more than one std. per family  – – additional student is a $10 reduction / month.

Those students that have paid for more than one month, the new rates will begin with the next payment.

December, 2009: Promotions

Congratulations to the students who have earned promotions since our last newsletter.

  • Junior Yellow Belt:  Vlad Kuz
  • Senior Green Belt:  Bridget Driscoll

Thought of the week #28

Self-confidence is either a petty pride in our own narrowness or the realization of our duty and privilege as God’s children.
Author: Phillips Brooks

Thought of the week #27

I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again.
Author: Stephen Grellet, Quaker missionary

Thought of the Week #26

If you don’t have confidence in yourself, get off your rear end and do anything that will make you feel better about yourself
by Wayne Dyer

In Memory of Sensei Dennis Sammartino

dennis_sammartinoIt is with regret that I write about the passing of Sensei Dennis Sammartino (12-7-09) at his home after a prolonged battle with cancer. Dennis and I trained with Sensei Dale Jenkins, starting in about 1973.  He was a fine man who taught Isshinryu for many years at his dojo in Boonton, NJ. His desire to teach his understanding of Isshinryu was passed to his students, whom I hope will continue his legacy.

A viewing will take place this Friday (12-11-09) from 2-4 PM and from 7-9PM at: Iliff-Ruggerio Funeral Home in Newton, NJ. The web site is: www.iliff-ruggeriofuneralhome.com for further information

December, 2009: Zen and Strategy

A former black belt of our dojo, Gene Feller, passed away November 24th. He was a local artist and a gentleman. There will be a memorial service for him Saturday, December 5th at St. Mary’s at 10:00 AM. Because of this there will be NO CLASSES at Fit Happens on Saturday, December 5th.

There will be no classes at the Hackettstown or Fit Happens dojos on December 24, 25, 26 & 31. Please plan ahead and make up these classes.

Zen and Strategy

zenZen philosophy and its strategic insights optimized fighting strategy and taught Samurai to deal with fear and death to obtain victory. The benefits were proven during hundreds of years in situations where the penalty for failure was not loss of a “point”, but death. Today Zen is rarely taught in fighting, and the focus of martial arts classes are usually all physical despite the fact that the mental component is the most important attribute in any fight – tournament, or real life.

Asian strategy (e.g. the classic “Art of War” by Sun Tzu) and Zen are not religions but provide systems for understanding the ‘self’, optimizing technique and performing at one’s best. Some of the principles taught by sport’s psychologists mirror that of Zen in the martial arts and other things taken from Zen are more specifically directed towards combat. The modern term of putting oneself in “the zone” is directly related to the Zen mind state of mushin – one Zen principle, which can be related to kumite, is discussed in more detail below.

“Like a full circle, the mind must be empty, yet complete.” The Japanese term often used in karate, which is loosely translated as “empty mind”. This term does not strictly imply “no thought”, but rather no attachment to any one thought, emotion or strategy. To obtain this state of mind fears, doubts, ego, and any preconceived thoughts of action (strategy) must be removed, or the mind will not react openly. When we apply mushin to certain techniques and kumite strategies many karate athletes often miss the point at first glance – it revolves around the assumption that the mind must be trained to know all these strategies innately and that at any moment in kumite the right one for the situation is released without thought. This creates the required speed (i.e. no delay) and enables dynamic adaptive change in the strategy after the opponent begins to react (which enables another innately trained technique/combination to emerge as soon as it is needed). There are drills, combinations and training methods to enhance this heightened mind state.

A simpler conceptual analogy for mushin, which removes the complexity of strategy, is the following: imagine fighting someone who truly has the ability to strike with any one of their 4 limbs at any time. These people are always tricky fighters due to the fact that any limb can come out at any time i.e. no attachment or predisposition to any one thing (mushin). As one works on kumite this is one physical-mental approach, which can be drilled.

There is a famous Zen saying “mizu no kokoro” which translates to “a mind like water.” Everyone understands how the water of a pond can be calm and clear. In this state, it will reflect all around it truthfully & accurately, much like a mirror. In karate and in life we strive to have a calm mind that reflects everything around us accurately. Therefore, the mind must be clear like the glass surface of a still pond, reflecting everything accurately and without distortion. If the mind gets attached to any thoughts, this is analogous to throwing a stone into the tranquil pond. The ripples that the stone creates (or thought in the mind) will interfere with the smooth surface of the pond making the reflection (perception) distorted. If the mind is cluttered with thoughts, how can it possibly react quickly in stressful situations? Only when the mind is clear and calm will we act instantly without hesitation or fear.

The term “void” (kara in Japanese) has very real implications for strategy, Zen mind set and accessing weak points in an opponent’s technique and body. The use of “void” as the first character in Karate-Do was later consolidated in 1935 by Funakoshi sensei (founder of Shotokan) publishing the book “Karate-Do Kyohan”. The link between “voids”, or “emptiness”, has obvious similarities to mushin, however, its mental implications for strategy go further than that. The mind is just one component of a “void” approach used in fighting. Other cumulative uses of the “void” concept include:

  1. Technique combinations which open an opponent enabling the scoring of a “point” (pre-determined opponent response strategy which occurs following a particular combination)
  2. Furthering the first two points by striking a cavity, or anatomical void, to most damage/upset the opponent.

Therefore, fighters can chose to train certain combinations that provide a three-pronged approach of creating mental voids, physical opening voids, which are then followed by impact on an anatomical void. The emphasis here is to use all three “void” approaches in a cumulative fashion. The goal here is to not only score points but also mentally optimize one’s position of confidence and strength relative to the opponent’s physical and mental state.

Although this article mentions just two karate related Zen concepts a number of others exist which are highly relevant to kumite performance. All such concepts can be worked on as part of one’s training to optimize tournament fighting. Other Zen-based lessons can include:

  • Centering in a bout (physically and mentally) – upsetting your opponents “centered confident state”
  • Striking voids (mental and physical combinations)
• Progressing through the stages of Zen as one’s fighting improves
  • Reading your opponent
  • Dealing with fear and anxiety to perform at your best
  • Use of Aiki and Kiai to upset your opponents mind game, and at the same time create physical openings for standard technique scoring


Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

After 3 minutes: A middle-aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

4 minutes later: The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

6 minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes: A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. Several other children repeated this action. Every parent, without exception, forced his or her children to move on quickly.

45 minutes: The musician played continuously.  Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace.  The man collected a total of $32.

1 hour: He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a true story (you can read it here, at the Washington Post). Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities. 

The questions raised:

  • In a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?
  • Do we stop to appreciate it?
  • Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this: 
 If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made. How many other things are we missing?