How Adults Learn Traditional Karate Differently (better?) than Kids

Matthew Borthwick

In his 1975 memoir, My Way of Life, the great teacher Funakoshi Gichin wrote,

One of the most striking features of karate is that it may be engaged in by anybody, young or old, strong or weak, male or female.

Funakoshi’s statement rings ever-truer to me the more people I work with in Isshinryu Karate.

Children obviously approach the martial arts with high energy and an enthusiasm for learning new skills. But what advantages do adults bring to traditional karate training, and what unique benefits can they derive from it?

Understanding Concepts Before Applying Them

Strength alone is not particularly useful. A technique is most effective when it precisely targets a vulnerable area, and when a resilient part of the body is aligned to most efficiently deliver the impact.

Adults can more readily pick up nuances of correct form when the purpose and mechanics behind a technique are explained before they try it out physically. A student who comprehends the proper technique will end up succeeding, though it may take many repetitions to physically duplicate what the mind’s eye envisions.

The conceptual approach also tends to reignite older students’ imaginations, which need exercise as much as any muscle to stay healthy.

Intellectual and Emotional Awareness

Avoiding a physical conflict altogether is superior to “winning” in a fight. One must see any potentially violent situation before it unfolds and then take early action to resolve it.

Doing so requires awareness of both oneself and of others. In class we often work on physical awareness (“Is he close enough to grab me?”), but a real exchange with an attacker has a deeper give-and-take (“Is he trying to make me lose my cool?”, “Do I appear to be a victim who won’t fight back?”) that we learn to navigate as well.

Karate provides a safe means to gradually understand — and improve — our response to threats. Only by fully knowing ourselves can we remain aware and in control while under severe stress. Adults start with a broader toolkit and vocabulary for self-exploration.

Connecting to History, and to Each Other

Sensei Deborah Pittak, one of my teachers in Ohio, often likens karate to family. It’s appropriate on many levels. We trace our “family tree” of teachers and their teachers and so on back to the famous Okinawan masters of the 19th century and earlier.

Training alongside our fellow karateka gives us a unique insight into one another. We move together and sweat together. We see people at their best and their worst. We watch one another grow, both in the art we share, and in life.

Modern karate is often seen as a short-term sport for kids, not unlike soccer. It can be so much more. It has brought and kept me in contact with many dear friends, from a wide variety of backgrounds and points of view.

In “grown-up” life, both the value of the old ways and the preciousness of close relationships come into clearer focus.

About the Author

Sensei Matthew Borthwick is the head instructor of Isshinryu Karatedo of Hillsboro. He began training in 1984, near Cleveland, Ohio, and now holds the rank of fifth degree black belt. Before arriving in Oregon, he taught Isshinryu at several universities: Cornell, McGill, and MIT.

Borthwick-sensei is very excited to bring his karate classes to RoseSprings Center.