Tuesday, April 01, 2008

My kung fu is more powerful than yours!

This week I have thrown out some controversial claims in a couple of posts. In one, I suggested that aikido was probably more suitable for older adults than were other striking and grappling arts. In another, I stated that of all the arts I’d participated in, aikido seemed to be the best for self-defense.
I gave some vague support for my opinions in my posts, and sure enough, several of my buddies from other martial arts called for some more well-thought-out evidence. In my mind these two topics are related, so I'll work on supporting both in what is probably to be a short series of posts. Here I offer a video counter-example, a statistical hypothesis, and a little anecdotal evidence.
A video counter-example:

Now this guy is not exactly mixing it up in the octagon, but he is displaying impressive, viable skill. What is really remarkable about this guy is how little what he is doing looks like “real karate.” For the most part, he does not move like most “modern karate” practitioners (as Dan Paden calls them). He is still doing karate but he is certainly not doing young man’s karate. In fact, this old man’s karate really looks a lot like aikido!
A statistical hypothesis:
I don’t know any way of getting this info in quantitative, empirical form – if any of y’all do, please jump in to the conversation – but I would suspect if you looked at the median age of participants in different martial artists, you’d have a progression in age something like this:
YOUNGEST: TKD - Karate – Judo – jiujitsu – aikido – taichi :OLDEST
Small kids seem to thrive on kick-block-punch and judo. Jiujitsu seems to be more populated by young adults. Aikido practitioners seem to fall in age between the jujitsu players and the older tai chi practitioners.

Judo athletes seem to peak in their 20’s and 30’s. It is not uncommon to see extremely-high level karate masters who are in their 40’s and 50’s. In our aikido organization, nearly all the greatest masters are in their 60’s and 70’s and they have a goodly number of students their age or older. The stereotype for taichi is the little old man or the tubby old man in the park.

Of course there are exceptions, but the exceptional nature of these folks (like in the film above) just proves the rule – different age groups tend toward different arts. There is also the possibility that these various arts simply interest different segments of the population such that the groups are self-selecting. But, as I said, I think that the structure and content of the various arts plays at least part of the role of selecting that art to an appropriate age group.

Some anecdotal evidence:
  • In the mid 90’s, I ran a class of about a dozen 75-85 year-olds in an aikido class who did well. They did no falling and worked out in normal clothes and shoes with an otherwise regular aikido syllabus.
  • Starting in the late 90’s I have had a series of judo and aikido students in their 50’s who have all done exceptionally well.
  • Starting this year I have been bombarded by friends concerned for my welfare when I announced that I was planning to compete in judo in my late 30’s and early 40’s. Sure enough, I competed and won, but got busted up and took longer than a month to recover.
Nathan, Colin, Dan, and anyone else interested, there's more to come from the black hole that is my brain...


  1. Well, there's a reason why that guy's karate looks different: it's Shotokai!

    You might find Shotokai interesting. It's the organization put together by Shigeru Egami, who claimed that Funakoshi wanted him to head his system when he was gone, and also that JKA karate is substantively different from what Funakoshi taught before World War II.

    No big surprise there: Funakoshi pretty much said as much in his autobiography.

    At any rate, Egami became convinced that relaxation was the key to true karate power, and Shotokai reflects that. I have thought from time to time (thanks for the magic of YouTube, where I can see systems that aren't actually taught in Tulsa!) that Shotokai looks something like Shotokan, only reverse-engineered to be more like the original stuff. It's an intriguing system.

  2. Whilst we're talking about old guys and karate, here's one of my all-time favorite YouTube clips. Even though this man's not from my system (he's doing Uechi-Ryu), I find him inspiring. He was, if I'm not mistaken, 74 years of age at the time of filming.

  3. I would suspect if you looked at the median age of participants in different martial artists, you’d have a progression in age something like this:
    YOUNGEST: TKD - Karate – Judo – jiujitsu – aikido – taichi :OLDEST

    It would be interesting to take a poll to survey the philosophy of instructors or high level participants in the martial arts regarding their own style and their progression through the arts.

    As for my own practice of traditional taekwondo - once upon a time I was a tough black belt who got off on rounds upon rounds of tough-as-nails sparring. Then I suddently realised that no matter what I was going through, for most part I would walk out of that dojo on my own two feet pretty much unscathed (of course there were exceptions). Then I also realised that our sparring was merely a simple dance - two people jumping backwards and forwards. Pretty much brain-dead when you got the hang of sparring 'game' strategy.

    Many years later I would come across the concept of Shu Ha Ri. Shu Ha Ri for a western mind talks about the progression in the arts - how you need to understand technique, then explore variations, then depart from those very techniques. It made me understand how I could turn the value of my hard earned skills on its head. It allowed me to look at what I've learned with some clarity - and less naivety.



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