My teacher is at an age when he keeps making rumblings of someday soon “retiring” from martial arts. I don’t know if he brings up the subject only to scare the heck out of me so I visit him more frequently before he makes good his threat or what, but the last time he brought it up, he noted that (thankfully!) he still has a few more miles in his gas tank, so to speak.
“I was ready to hang it up,” he said, “But lately I’ve had lots of housewives, children and older people join the dojo. At first, I used to think that budo training was too intense and hard for them. But you know, I got old too. I found that I could still keep up by teaching the older fellows things like bo (staff work) and short staff, weapons kata and the like. And I also found that they’re really fun to train with. It gave me a new lease on enjoying budo training myself!”
I was relieved that my teacher was newly inspired to keep on teaching. I still had a lot to learn from him, but it also highlighted something I’d been thinking about myself, especially when I turned the half-century mark and knew that my best raw physical strength I could ever possess was probably way behind me in my past.
When I was young, I thought budo was exciting because it tested my physical and mental endurance to the maximum. Although not quite as taxing as the high school football and wrestling that I participated in as a teenager, organized martial arts training did allow for really grueling workouts in my college years up to my late 20s and early 30s. I threw myself into it. At one point, while in graduate school and working part-time, I also somehow managed to train in karate, aikido and judo at the same time. I took side roads into some yoga classes and other activities, too.
However, as I got older and transitioned from the somewhat unscheduled student life to that of entering the working world, time became more precious. I couldn’t spend three or four hours every day training, then working, then doing graduate studies until the wee hours of the night. My body and mind could no longer do it, and regular employment required that I show up, on time, and put in a full day’s worth of work, training injuries or not.
Inevitably, I found that competitive budo was receding away from me. No longer could I train hard enough to give judo players on the National AAU level fits with my newaza, or score occasional points against local, national and All-Japan karate champs in kumite. I couldn’t put in the hours to be in semi-pro athletic shape. And it bugged me because as my wife likes to chide me, I may act like I’m unassuming, but I have a huge competitive streak in me.
So gradually, I pulled out of competitive budo because I knew my glory days were long, long behind me. In addition, I had trained long enough in some budo to become soured on their organizational or personality problems. I found my way to budo that were noncompetitive, more into kata geiko. I could still put in a full workload during the days, but because kata geiko budo clubs didn’t force me to train like crazy, I could still have one foot in budo without sacrificing my professional career or family life. Eventually, I ended up in my comfort zone: I practice a sogo bujutsu (a martial system that includes a variety of armed and unarmed kata) and an iai system. It’s been good for me all the way from my 30s to my current 50s. I also try to do some Tai Chi Ch’uan when I have spare time, and I’m looking at picking up my childhood hobby of Western archery again soon.
Some people, blessed with more natural physical talent and endurance than me, will be perfectly happy continuing to train in competitive martial arts well into their senior years. It’s up to them. But even in their case, they surely will have to admit that injuries sustained over the years, and the weakening that occurs from simple aging has slowed down their training so it’s not like when they were 19 or 24 years old.
It’s a natural process. If it is a natural process, then there’s really no “better” way to train in martial arts. I think there’s a need to acknowledge that there’s just different ways to train depending on your age and temperament.
Young children taking up budo is really great. They can learn how to tumble and not get hurt. Doing randori or kumite will drain out a lot of excess energy. Taught properly, budo for children will teach them self-discipline, respect and mental focus, besides helping to keep them physically healthy.
I’m not a big fan of the late action movie star Bruce Lee, but I was listening to an interview with his daughter on the radio, and I was surprised to hear (because he often cast Japanese martial arts as the “bad guys” in his movies) that he encouraged her to take up judo when she was a child. Lee thought an art that included tumbling and free form throwing and grappling was best for kids. I do too. Judo or aikido is a great way for kids to learn how to take a tumble and not get hurt. Learning ukemi as a youngster is a skill that will serve anyone well even if they go on to take up other arts, such as karate or wrestling, boxing or football. And since falling and hurting yourself is a major source of injury among seniors, learning ukemi at an early age may help keep you from becoming bedridden as an older person.
For youngsters, I would advise a parent or teacher that the main thing is that a child learns social skills, mental concentration, self-discipline and respect for others. Tournaments or competition are a plus. They’re not necessary, but they do encourage kids who are competitive to strive for competitive goals. Lots of kids like to test themselves. So competition should be used as a way to inculcate moral and physical health in youngsters, not as ends in themselves.
While I was doing karate, I saw too many examples of kids pushed too hard by their status-conscious parents or teachers who wanted them to win in tournaments at all costs. There was this one little tyke who was a Tasmanian Devil of a karate kid. He could do jumping-spinning back kicks over and over, slam rapid fire punches at his opponent, and scream and yell like a psycho case…which I thought he was on the verge of becoming, because he also faced a whole lot of pressure to excel by his father. I could tell that the kid was really wound up tight. That was too much pressure for a kid. It’s like parents getting so involved over a soccer game that they will have physical altercations with the referees if they kid’s team loses a match. That’s not good parenting.
Better, however, to be age-appropriate and focus on what’s best for a child’s growth at that point in his/her age. By way of contrast, I also encountered a doctor who had just emigrated from Korea. He decided to enroll his twin daughters, both in elementary school, in our karate dojo. I talked with him and mentioned that there were a number of very active Tae Kwon Do schools in town. Maybe because he was Korean, he might prefer a Korean martial art? He shook his head. At the time (of course, things have changed!), he told me that in Korea martial arts had a reputation of being just for thugs, for people who wanted to fight and compete for trophies. As a member of the upper class in Korea, he said he wanted his daughters to learn karate because he saw that my teacher emphasized proper respect and discipline in the classes.
“I don’t care about Tae Kwon Do being Korean, or fighting,” he said. “I want my daughters to learn respect and have good health.” And, he said, the Tae Kwon Do schools he visited didn’t emphasize those qualities. They were keener on winning tournaments.
As I got to know him and his daughters, I found out that the girls had a busy schedule: they went to a private academic school. They took piano lessons, ballet, and soccer as well as karate. They were smart, respectful and diligent. They even won a whole bunch of trophies when they entered competition, but the father made sure to keep their winnings in perspective. They had to also ace their grades at school, and when they got older, they both were accepted to prestigious universities. More than anything, their father stressed that martial arts for his children wasn’t about fighting or competition. It was about helping to develop a whole, successful person.
The later teens and early twenties are the apex of one’s physical prowess, however, so if a student is so inclined, that’s when he/she should strive to test themselves physically, whether in competition and/or in mastering the highest levels of kata geiko. Trust me, you young guys; it doesn’t get any better than when you’re young. The bones are developed. The muscular structure is mature enough for intense training, and you are at your peak mental abilities. So training long and hard is great at that age, If you can swing it.
Soon enough, however, physical decline begins to set in. Work and family responsibilities also edge into your training time. That’s just how life is. Unless you’re a professional martial arts instructor, you need time to establish a reputation and start a family.
If you only think martial arts is going full-blast in kumite or randori, of course you will stop doing martial arts, because you simply won’t be able to keep up with kids half as young as you who don’t have the responsibilities and worries. You end up like a lot of ex-football players who suddenly stop sports when they can’t continue college or high school athletics, and then their guts balloon out from sitting on a couch watching TV, drinking beer and reliving their glory days.
It doesn’t have to be like that. As my teacher discovered, and as I learned, it’s okay to slow down. It’s okay to accept one’s limitations, and then train a bit less aggressively. I can still “roll” in jujutsu techniques, but lately I enjoy weapons work a bit more, where I don’t have to tumble as much. My body thanks me for that, and I’m more able to get up the next morning and go to work without as many aches and pains. Do I miss the grappling and sparring I used to do as a youth during karate and judo? Of course. Do I think I could go back to competitive budo? Not on your life. I’m past that age. I would hazard to say that a good 17-year-old competitive judo player could now dump me all over the place in standing randori because I’m simply a bag full of old judo and football injuries that preclude me from going at it like I used to.
But I would venture to say that even if you do karate or judo, there are wonderful advantages to aging. You can focus more on techniques, more on the kata, less on training for competition. Maybe you do a bit less sparring, or spar for specific purposes, such as to sharpen your waza, to figure out self-defense tactics, to modify techniques so you don’t have to put out as much youthful energy. There are all sorts of ways to make any budo training age-appropriate.
My own teacher found that teaching children and older people had rejuvenated his interest in teaching martial arts. In a recent trip to Japan, I had to take a break from training. I sat next to him as he watched his regular class train with some visiting students from other countries. His frontyard dojo was packed to its gills with students; maybe some 40 or so crammed into a dojo only the space of a medium-size American garage. There were young men throwing each other, slamming each other into the mats in jujutsu. There were kids doing bo. There were older people doing weapons kata. It was loud, happy and boisterous.
I thought back to when I first entered his dojo, almost three decades ago. When I first started I was in my late 20s and there were only two or three other students, in their 20s, on a good night. We trained long and hard, as young, earnest men are wont to do, but it was pretty somber. Now, with people of all ages doing all sorts of kata, it looked like a lot more fun, even though the level of physical exertion in training was much more uneven.
I asked my teacher, “This looks like so much fun nowadays. Did you ever think you would have this many students training here, of all sorts and nationalities and ages?”
He replied, smiling, “Never in a million years.” And he kept on watching, and teaching.
I’m hoping that instead of retiring soon, the wide range of students will inspire him to keep on walking down from his home to his dojo to teach. I still have a lot more to learn from him. And while my body may age, I think my mind is still young and eager to learn more. So budo can be age-appropriate, and conversely, it can keep you young, at least mentally, if it continues to bring you enjoyment!