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What does it take to become a Champion?

Mastery In Kumite

“To be a champion, compete; to be a great champion, compete with the best; but to be the greatest champion, compete with yourself.”  ― Matshona Dhliwayo

What does it take to become a champion? It’s a frequently asked question and one we explore in the context of a karateka competing in Shobu Ippon Kumite.

In my opinion there are three categories which relate, in equal measure, to the question ‘what does it take to be a champion?’

1. Mindset of a champion

2. Discipline & Commitment

3. Mastery & understanding the Strategy of you chosen field

I believe we distance ourselves from the act of becoming a champion by saying someone is naturally talented or ‘gifted’ compared to the rest of us who have to grind and slog and yet still come up short. We do a huge disservice to those few that do make it to the top with this train of thought. As we explore what it actually takes to live in the rare air of champions, we unravel why there are seemingly so few that make it?

We live in a world of instant gratification, time poor and frankly far too impatient to commit to the effort required for the so-called mastery needed to be at the top. Discipline, commitment, fail-learn-repeat and hard work are sub elements most of us either don’t see or deny co-exist daily with those already defined as being in that rare air category.

The reason we say ‘they are gifted’ or ‘have natural talent’ is because we can safeguard or deceive ourselves with the brutal truth that to be the best, takes tremendous sacrifice, commitment and discipline. Without exception champions undertake extraordinary daily regimes; dip your toe into a champ’s routine and we reel back in disbelief. If you want to rise to the top you have to practice, talent is necessary of course but talent alone will not cut it. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson , a Swedish psychologist says deliberate practice, not inherited talent, determines success. And the practice must be long, sustained and ultra-vigorous. My first Sensei in England was infamous for saying ‘Practice makes better’. The sooner we accept that the faster we improve.

The vast majority of us do not reach our potential. The human psyche is predisposed towards negativity, a hangover from the days when early man was a staple part of larger creatures’ diet. This negative bias left unchecked can lead us to believe the voice in our head telling us we are not good enough. “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.” ―Richard Bach

If we fail to adopt the mindset of a champion, we are already on the back foot and a long way from reaching our full potential. This brings us to the first of our three categories – the mindset, the mental aptitude required to be a champ.

Mindset of a Champion

“If my mind can conceive it and my heart can believe it – then I can achieve it”

- Muhammad Ali

We can say that winning or losing often comes down to attitude of mind, believing in self, trusting your training and knowing your desire to win is stronger than your rivals.

Your opponent will be feeling just as you are, therefore the one who controls their mindset and concentration without allowing themselves to be distracted has a far greater opportunity to take the victory.

The Zen expression ‘Mushin no Shin’ can be translated to ‘mind without mind’ - it referrers to a presence of mind that is not fixed, uncluttered and free from random thoughts, free from fear, free from anger and most importantly free from ego. With no thought to winning or losing you are completely connected to ‘the moment’

The karateka that can achieve this state of mind is able to act without hesitation, the hours of practice and training now drawn in unfettered response to whatever presents from your opponent. Your training and the skill acquired through your training are equal to the mindset needed for a champion, we cover that in more detail in the next chapter.

The notion of weaponizing your mindset isn’t new of course, it’s ancient. Preparing to step out onto the mats and draw your focus into that exact moment takes courage. “Courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it” (Winston Churchill)

A key trait that is common amongst champions is that of visualisation. Controlling what pictures, you replay in your mind allows you to stay positive – in control. Running the many different scenario’s over again and again, each time with your success as the outcome will give you advantage to achieve that uncluttered mind we just spoke about.

As we recap the mindset of a champion - what are our three learnings?

1. Mindset matters greatly. It’s part of your training, your game plan includes a chapter on how you sharpen & focus what’s going on inside your head.

2. Free your mind, your body will follow. Uncluttering your mind and deeply focussing in the moment will allow you to react and perform spontaneously and to the level that you’ve trained at

3. Visualising your win goes a long way to achieving it. Create the movie and replay all the possible scenes that leave you as the champion.

Discipline & Commitment

“Mind control is the result of self-discipline and habit. You either control your mind or it controls you. There is no hallway compromise.” - Napoleon Hill

Like all things desired in life – there is a price to pay. To be a champion is no different. The good news is that anybody can afford that price which actually means anybody can be a champion! If you want to be a champ, be at the top of your game and ahead of the pack - you can. It’s about what you do that differentiates you from the rest and pushes you in front.

Being at the top of your field is not determined by your financial status, your family or environment you were born into. Of course, it would be naïve to suggest that invested parents spending time and resources supporting their children’s chosen field wouldn’t have a material benefit – it would. However, regardless of what somebody else wants for another person’s life it comes down to the individual finding their own desire, discipline and commitment to become the best of the best.

When asked about their success an elite athlete would use words like discipline, dedication, sacrifice and commitment. They would have a routine and a plan which is followed meticulously. It turns out that planning, along with focussed goal setting and deliberate practice is a major contributor to being successful. If you want some help getting started, here’s seven key attributes you should have written on your bathroom mirror to greet you each morning;

1. Set big goals

2. Set clear goals 

3. Know that everyday matters 

4. Don't argue with the plan

5. Build a no-matter-what mindset 

6. Plan a routine

7. Commit

The list above serves two purposes. The first and obvious one, that if followed – you’d have to contest, your chances of success are greatly improved – if not assured!

The second is the wider by-product of knowledge attributes, key for life in general, such as learning the value of goal setting, the value of hard work, how to deal with losses what it means to practice, and the preparation required for that. To understand sacrifice and what it means to have ‘performance moments’ which is how to focus ‘in the moment’. All of these are experienced daily by professional athletes and are well understood by champions.

To give you some context of the type of gruelling routines champions put themselves through I thought I’d share these from a little selection I found.

Novak Djokovic – the Serbian Tennis legend does circa 4 -5 hours training a day, 6 days a week including yoga, stretching, tennis and weight training.

Michael Phelps – the American Olympian swimming phenomenon swims 13km a day during his insane training schedule.

Cristiano Ronaldo – the Portuguese soccer superstar earns 31 million Euro’s doing what he loves best. It doesn’t come without a gruelling training program and diet though. Ronaldo trains 3-4 hours a day, 5 days a week.

Naturally if your income and livelihood came from your sporting interest not only would you be one of those few individuals that make that happen, you’d also understand the necessity to put in the discipled training. The reason for sharing their training regime is to give you some sense of the iceberg under the water – what we don’t see. What you eat is as important as is recovery and rest. This is a critical topic all on its own and the subject of my next blog.

Ultimately as non-professional athletes, if you fall into that category as many do, we have to fit our training around our income career or education, depending on your age. In doing so then, I’ve discovered some hacks that can keep you on track – my first recommendation would be to utilise the 7 principles listed above. I’d further refine that to say make your training goal achievable – even in your busiest period. For example, create a minimum daily workout. That could be a 15-minute stretch or a 6-minute ab workout. It could be going over a kata or running through a few kumite drills. Your workouts should include strength, stamina and stretching. Doing a little every day over the course of one week, one month or one year will enable tremendous results.

Habits take time to create and once established replace ‘motivation’. Once something becomes routine – like brushing your teeth, you no longer need to think about it you just get it done.

As we recap Discipline and Commitment, we can take away three key insights;

1. Create a plan, be ruthless and relentless in its execution and allow for a minimal viable training goal so you never miss a session.

2. There is no substitute for hard work, don’t kid yourself it’s going to be easy.

3. If you truly want it enough – you can make it happen. It’s up to you!

Mastery in Kumite – Fighting Strategy “concept of Sen”

“Knowing the enemy enables you to take the offensive, knowing yourself enables you to stand on the defensive.”― Sun Tzu

Now that we better understand the mindset of a champion and we’ve delved into the discipline and dedication to one’s personal training, let us consider combat/fighting strategy.

For almost as long as humans have walked this earth we’ve found it necessary to discover and implement new ways to bring about the brutal and unnatural end to another humans life. Our violence operates outside all other species. Human beings kill all other creatures and we kill our own. Primarily homo-sapiens are genetically pre-disposed to kill each other for two reasons: fierce territorially and because we live in social groups.

Early archaeology discoveries dating 13 to 15,000 years ago of mass graves in far northern Sudan provide evidence of skeletons with arrow heads embedded in them. One could argue that’s an unnatural end to life. With such history under our belts over such a significant period of time it’s little wonder that we’ve become expert in combative techniques and fighting methodologies. Combat strategy is imperative, which is why the study and successful refinement of such things defines one nation above another in terms of dominance.

We are going to travel a relatively short time back in history to learn from Miyamoto Musashi. Arguably one of Japan’s most famous Samurai, born in 1584 Musashi wrote about his life, kenjutsu and the Martial Arts in the Book of Five Rings (Go Rin no Sho). Musashi tells us that in the beginning of any confrontation there are only three initiatives, no others, and that one should investigate them thoroughly to know ultimate victory.

1. The initiative of attack is when I attack my opponent.

· Sensen no sen – to take the initiative. Attack before their attack

2. The initiative of waiting is when my opponent attacks me.

· Go no sen -after the attack, block and counter

3. The body-body initiative is when both my opponent and I attack at the same time.

· Sen no sen – attack the attack, be faster than your opponent

These strategies have been passed down through kenjustsu (the art of the Japanese sword), and Kendo (the way of the Japanese sword) and of course now used in karate and other Martial Arts. Sen can be translated into many meanings, which is why I think it’s widely misunderstood. A simple translation can be before, ahead or in front of. There is a deeper meaning as I read more on this topic, taking the initiative, or to proceed one’s opponent, the term Sen can also be found in Sensei – meaning he, or she who came before or he/she who is ahead.

These concepts relate to a number of critical aspects that, in my view, make up the mystique of eastern Martial Arts. They are strategies, when deployed correctly in kumite, will enable you to overcome your opponent decisively not just physically but also from a stronger mindset too.

There is a level of commitment, dedication, indeed mastery of one’s skills and training to apply these three strategies naturally in the moment.

Certainly, as I continue my own study on this topic, I realise what little appreciation I have of its depth and the certainty that it will be my life’s journey to understand them well, let alone be able to apply them.

First - Go no Sen as it’s often what we can observe on the competition mats. Go no sen - post the initiative or after the attack has commenced. Your opponent launches an attack, you counter (block) and attack swiftly and decisively. Only one combatant can win and when there is equality in skill or the opponents are technically matched then the one who can reach a mental state of concertation which surpasses the other will take the victory. Since there are many forms of attack in a combat situation it’s only through repetitive training and focus that one can bring about a swift defeat through attacking your enemies initial move.

Waiting for your opponent’s move and at the exact time necessary taking their power, momentum and energy away by striking their attack (blocking and avoiding known as tai sabaki) with immediate counterattack. Thus, ending the confrontation or winning the point. This is the concept behind go no sen.

Sen no sen means attack their attack. Be faster than your opponent. Sen wo toru means to anticipate what your opponent will do. In doing so you can take a victory by striking decisively and by being first (fastest) once more this strategy can only really be achieved through diligent training and repetitive drills, as well as combat experience.

In karate and other Martial Arts, we refer to a concept of no first attack/strike - karate ni sente nashi. Gichin Funakoshi, in his Ninja kun created twenty ‘instructions’ which would be left for all future karateka as guiding principles, this one of them.

We can determine our opponent’s intention way before they launch an attack and in doing so ready ourselves as we understand their objective - to do us harm outside the dojo or to win the point on the competition mats. This then, the first ‘strike’.

Timing and harmony with your opponent are learnt through the first kumite drills we practice such as gohon kumite. We learn to ‘feel’ our enemy as they advance with their attack, our bodies move in unison both combatants entering and evading each other’s distance as one is striking and one defending. As we advance our techniques and gain experience, we move onto free form such as jiyu kumite. When you control your opponent through your stronger mindset and you mirror their movement – in harmony with their distance and timing you can begin to draw them in, lower your guard or relax your posture for example, as if showing a weakness or an opening. Your opponent drawn in begins their attack, already expecting this outcome you can be faster and more decisive. This is one interpretation of sen no sen.

Both Go no sen and Sen no sen require a level of focus and concentration that is often elusive for westerners. Breaking your opponents will and rhythm letting them know through your eyes that you can’t be beaten, that your confidence takes theirs.

As relevant now on the competition mats as it was in feudal Japan with duelling samurai. Our karate master’s in history come from a line that is entwined around the sword. Nakayama himself was the son of a famous Kendo Master and part of the linage of a great school of Kendo. Little wonder then that these three strategies remain fundamental to us in modern day kumite bouts.

Sensen no sen is a more refined concept of Sen no sen – next level you might say.

We understand that sen can be interpreted as before, the repetition of sen in sensen tells us that this strategy relates to the timing even before our opponent initiates the attack. Following the principles in karate of ‘no first attack’ we are satisfied all avenues have been exhausted, (referring to outside the dojo here), to avoid confrontation and that it’s clear our opponent’s intention are to do us harm. Only then should we consider this initiative.

Sensen-no-sen is when you strike the opponent in the instant he has made up his mind to attack, ideally before it actually appears in physical form. In this way, strikes like these can have a mysterious quality to them - even appear magical. Have you ever executed that one ‘flawless’ technique that seems to have come from nowhere? Even before we’ve thought the sequence through in our mind it’s done! We find ourselves thinking ‘did I just do that?’. It’s this state of mind, of focussed concentration that we refer to as zanshin. This state of awareness is difficult to reach because our minds are not practiced in closing out all but the necessary and focussing and narrowing our entire world for those three minutes on the competition mat. Back when these strategies meant life or death their relevance was high on the daily training regime.

For me, as I consider the curriculum of the modern-day dojo it seems there is much, we can learn from these three combat strategies of old. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to Shotokan karate.

Shobu ippon kumite (one-point match) captures the essence of one strike, one kill and mimics what combat between two warriors must have been like. Understanding sen, applying these concepts and understanding their meaning in a combative application links us to the very essence of budo. In the words of Miyamoto Musashi ‘You should investigate this thoroughly’.

And that brings us to the conclusion of this document. We’ve covered much and yet only really skimmed the surface. In considering what does it mean to become a champion I hope you have found this blog useful. A final recap of the topics we discussed;

1. Mindset of a champion

2. Discipline & Commitment

3. Mastery & understanding the Strategy of you chosen field

The insight I gained whilst researching for this document was the realisation that ordinary people not superhumans become champions in their field. It’s ordinary people that push themselves to do the extraordinary – that’s the difference. Champions make a conscious decision to walk a path few take and in doing so separate from the pack, distance themselves and continue to strive forward once they’ve learnt what it actually takes. I wish you well on your own journey, believe in yourself – be absolute in your desire, set goals and take unreasonable action and you can be that next champion.

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