by Eric Wilson
(Note: This started as an updated version of Overcoming Limitations But it evolved into observations and advice on martial arts for the "senior citizen")
"Youth is wasted on the young." What would one say if he was told that a world famous martial artist was at one time a self admitted shy kid who never excelled at anything and was not a natural athlete? Or that another had bad eyesight and one leg shorter than the other? Nonsense would be the reply. Youth and Olympic class athletic talent is often thought of as the first prerequisite towards exceptional martial arts achievements. Determination and attitude are all fine and well but cannot by themselves overcome the limitations of one's body. Or can they? Consider that the first person described is Chuck Norris. And the second? Does the name Bruce Lee sound familiar? While they built themselves towards physical prowess envied by many, they are the proof that enthusiasm, the passion to work as hard and as long as possible to reach one's potential outweigh all else. All of us in martial arts have seen incredible physical talent fall by the wayside because the practitioner had not developed mental strength commensurate with that talent. While the one's who take longer to earn that next rank, lack the flexibility and coordination to immediately master that next kick, punch or other technique, or the speed to match others in sparring end up excelling. There is no magic formula. As with anything you must be willing to commit yourself to training and develop an attitude of putting in only your best . This is especially crucial for us "older" artists. I began studying hapkido in my mid thirties, borderline nursing home age by athletic standards. And like Chuck Norris I lacked pretenses to athleticism. In addition I was, and still am, afflicted with several physical woes, (including my bond with Bruce Lee, one leg shorter than the other), that had me questioning if I could endure training. Athletics are perceived as the exclusive domain of the gifted, the enthusiastic and above all the young. How many of us have wistfully recounted, with admittedly increasing exaggeration as time passes, the endeavors of our youth?. The winning touchdown pass, the basket that won the state championship, that perfect ski run become the memories that sustain a body that can no longer create more than a semblance of those dreams. Aching joints, sore muscles, and fading stamina become the physical rewards of age taking with them the desire to even attempt anything new and challenging. Martial arts is no exception to the phases of time. Your reflexes will inevitably slow, endurance diminish and flexibility exercises make you wonder when those overwound springs were substituted for your muscles and tendons. You will question your instructor's intentions as you humiliate yourself attempting jumping kicks, and for those kicks that keep you on the ground think that there is much merit in only striking knee high. And for those of you into channeling, during stretching protesting joints will start provoking flashbacks from the Spanish Inquisition. Does this mean that it's time to acknowledge the rewards of your training, thank your instructor profusely, then slink away to make up barroom tales of the time you fought Jackie Chan to a standstill? Absolutely not. It means you have entered a new, enlightened stage of your career. You are now a Karate Geezer. And that means you must now draw on your secret weapon, the one disdained by the young, your mind. First you must acknowledge the signs that it's time to make the transition to Karate Geezer. Look for these: 1. Your joints pop louder than your kiups. 2. You are convinced that your kicks are not getting lower but that gravity is getting stronger. 3. If you get winded it's because air is getting heavier. 4. You arrive a half hour early for class because of all the knee, elbow, wrist and ankle braces you now need. 5. You only worry when something DOESN'T hurt. 6. The low roundhouse is now your favorite kick, along with the low front kick, the low side kick, etc. 7. Your crescent kicks could still disarm an assailant providing that assailant is a midget. 8. Your once blinding spin kicks can now be timed with a sundial. 9. You are convinced sparring rounds should be fifteen seconds tops. 10. You wonder why your belt seems to have shrunk. If you meet these criteria then it's time to develop the skills to compensate for what your body no longer wants to do. Remember, you may not have the vitality of old, but you're far from dead. First, if your style includes a lot of hand techniques it's wise to concentrate on perfecting them. Many youngsters prefer the flash of acrobatic kicks and punches and are bored with hand techniques. This is a most satisfying equalizer when the kid who was dancing around you during sparring is trapped on the mat wondering why that subtle move you just applied feels like it's going to rip his arm off. Second, economize your moves. The leaping kicks, sweeping crescents and spins of younger opponents look spectacular and thrill tournament audiences, but appearances are deceiving. They take time to set up and can be easily evaded, plus they burn a lot of energy. You still need to keep moving and use your opponent's zest against him. And moving doesn't mean trying to chase him. No sense leaping like Baryshnikov when a little soft shoe will do the trick. A single step inside can jam that arcing crescent or spin. And again your hands are increasingly important. Too often young partners over rely on their feet and let their hands drop or flail. Seize these openings for a quick jab or more telling blow, especially after you've frustrated him by jamming as previously mentioned. Keep your own hands in close for defense. My instructor emphasizes what he calls "answering the phone" to protect your head. The hand on the side being kicked to simply flicks to your ear just as if you had a telephone receiver in it. Good defensive techniques are the best way to frustrate and wear out opponents. Stymied because few moves are getting in they will quicken the pace and wear themselves out trying to get something to work. And potentially get sloppy and start leaving openings for you to exploit. Above all be realistic. If it is necessary for you to modify a move to compensate for injury or fatigue then do so. Talk to your instructor before class and get an idea what he or she plans to cover. If something is on the agenda that you know is not physically advisable don't be ashamed to sit it out. But on the other hand don't be afraid to try something of which you are merely unsure. Your martial arts career can continue as long as you desire. Some months back I posted a request in an Internet martial arts newsgroup for experiences from older martial artists. The response was amazing. One man and his wife were in their sixties when they began Shotokan and their only regret was not having started sooner. Invariably all commented that while the inevitable effects of age could not be denied, martial arts had enhanced their lives in ways they had never dreamed. So don't give up just because your birthday cake is setting off smoke detectors. And always remember the maxim of the Karate Geezer -- "Old age and treachery will always defeat youth and vitality."
Comments? Please email me at ewilson