Karate from the Heart Part 1

Written by Mike Clarke

A conversation with Shotokan master Stan Schmidt

There would be few senior Shotokan karateka practitioners in the world who have not heard the name Stan Schmidt. Quite simply, he is a legend among those who follow that particular school of Japanese karate. And while his depth of karate knowledge and achievements are undeniable, like so many legends, the person behind this one is much closer to normal than the myth might have us believe. Mike Clarke spoke to Sensei Schmidt and discovered a remarkable man who is also a ‘regular guy’.


At the time of our conversation, Sensei Schmidt (or Stan, as he preferred I called him), was 73 years old and still practising the art he began studying as a young man in his native South Africa back in the late 1950s. Like many of that era, he was introduced to karate through judo, which, along with jujutsu, had been established in the Western world for some years. Already training in judo, in which he achieved 1st Dan, it was an accident resulting in a broken ankle that proved decisive in his switch to karate.

During his recovery Schmidt was given a book on karate, a martial art few in the West had heard of back then, and in it he read a line that changed the course of his entire life: “The karate man never stops training.” Capturing his imagination like nothing else he had known, this single line caused him to jump headlong into karate training. In the absence of an instructor, he gleaned what he could from the few books he was able to find. In this way he began to absorb an art he was destined to practise for the rest of his life. Then in 1963, he went to Japan to seek proper instruction in Shotokan karate.

His introduction to formal training came as something of a shock, as a confused conversation found him placed in the general training class where he was the only ungraded student in the dojo. Still, he was young, strong and full of spirit, and this proved enough to get him through the schooling he found himself involved in. With intensive daily training and a lot of help from his seniors, he left for home wearing a Brown-belt, and was now in a position to introduce authentic Japanese karate to his homeland.
In 1965, he hosted the late Keinosuke Enoeda, who lived at his home for six months, taking the standard of Shotokan karate in South Africa to a new level. The story of karate in that part of the world, and Shotokan in particular, would be different today had the young judoka not broken his ankle and discovered the art of karate in the pages of a book.

Today Sensei Schmidt is the senior non-Japanese sensei within the Japan Karate Association, a member of the JKA Shihan-kai, and regularly sits on the panel of examiners for higher Dan gradings. Along with his family he moved to Australia, but still visits South Africa and Japan from time to time. At home in Melbourne he teaches a small number of students in his private dojo and is as enthusiastic about karate now as he ever was. Our conversation ran, on and off, over a number of weeks, and what follows here is only an abridged version of it.

Few Western karateka have practised their art continually for almost 60 years, and even fewer have made the sort of contribution to furthering the understanding of what karate is than Stan Schmidt. Hopefully you will find his views as fascinating as I did.
Stan, it feels a little strange for me to be addressing such a senior karateka by their first name, but as you prefer I do, I’m happy to comply.

It’s being respectful of each other that matters, not the title; Stan is fine.

Well Stan, to begin, what particular challenges do you face as you continue to train karate into your 70s?
I think I’m fortunate in that I have trained in karate since I was young and still do. In that time I have had various injuries and both hips replaced after a motorcar accident, but I believe my training helped me deal with that. My main purpose at the moment, for my personal training, revolves around what I call ‘contra-indicators’ in my training and in my technique. I realise these won’t be the same for everyone, because everybody is different. But I am finding that (A), because of my age, and (B) because of restrictions and limitations due to the hip replacements done during my 50s — as well as some of the type of training I did when I was younger — all of these things have caused me to refine the techniques so they don’t do any harm to my hip joints, but actually rehabilitate them as I continue to practise.

For example, in the opening movements of the kata Heian Shodan where you move from the yoi (ready) position to the gedan-barai (downward block) position to the left, I had previously done what most people do and pivoted on the ball of the right foot as I shot the left foot forwards. So this, in my opinion, is contra-indicated over a long period of time, especially if you train on certain surfaces that can cause the feet to over-grip, like on a rubber mat or grass etc. Trying to move as I’ve just described on most surfaces can work against different joints, especially the ankles, the hips, and the knee joints. Whereas if you lightly turn your toes of the right foot, and stay on your heel to pivot 45 degrees to the left to do the block, it is a very freeing movement. If this kind of movement is educated — in other words, if it is repeated a lot — it becomes free flowing, and thus quicker. This is just one example around the idea of executing flowing, rather than forced movements.

Right now there are two really big no-no’s for me. One of them is yokogeri-keage (side snap-kick), and the other is making a long stance while doing gyakuzuki (reverse punch). These two things are very dangerous for certain types of Western people who may for example have a long femur — you know, long legs but with short bodies. My height has altered since my hip replacements, but basically I’m 6’2”, so quite tall. Some tall people who haven’t had hip problems develop knee problems; so I think maybe there is a weak point here (in the legs). Because the Japanese drilled us over the years to do a technique a certain way, we tried to copy them and do it exactly as they did. But most of us have different bodies and so rather than train in ways that grind down our cartilage or is damaging ligaments and things like that, we should be training in ways that don’t damage the body. The problem is, the damage isn’t always obvious, it may not happen straight away, but may take a few years to manifest. My main focus of thinking today, is to help others to learn how to monitor themselves as they move backwards and forwards, sideways, and up and down, so they are not damaging themselves with overly elongated or awkward movements.

An example: If, say, you are already in a stable zenkutsu dachi (forward stance), but then you elongate that stance (like some people doing Shotokan in England and we in South Africa used to do), this is what I call a ‘contra-indicated’ move. I was watching an old tape of ours recently and thought how ridiculous everyone looked. Biomechanics to one side for a moment, it was clear there was no sense of free flowing movement; the body was just being worn down by forcing a punch or kick.

Do you think Western people have been misguidedly trying to mimic the Japanese, then, instead of trying to learn the principles involved and employ them in ways conducive to their own bodies?
Yes and no. Don’t get me wrong though, there are Japanese who shouldn’t be doing those long movements and postures either. Funakoshi Sensei’s karate didn’t look like this. A lot of people have labelled Shotokan karate a long-distance type of fighting whereas Goju-ryu is more close-quarter fighting, but most fights end up at close quarters and it might be better if people think of karate as both. Breathing and free flowing movement are important, no matter what range you fight at.

Many years ago, I made a point of studying lions and how they fight, live and hunt, because lions are extremely relaxed creatures. I remember I had Masahiko Tanaka staying with me at the time. One day, as we were walking down the street, he looked at me and said, “Stan, why you so tense?” I was surprised because I didn’t think I was. Although, when I thought about it I realised I was completely out of alignment; my shoulders were hunched over and my backside was sticking out — terrible!

Another time I was playing a round of golf with an old friend of mine, Wayne Westner. So there we were afterwards on the driving range and I’m hitting the ball about 150 metres or so. He came along and drove the ball around 300 metres or more. Wow! So I asked him how he did this. “Stan, just look at your feet.” Where I had been standing there were two big pits in the ground where my feet had been, and the grass was all torn up from twisting. Comparing that to where Wayne had stood, where the grass was still smooth and green and looked as if no one had ever stood there. He told me then, “You have to be soft-footed and relaxed to hit the ball far, not heavy and over-strong.” Yeah, I want be more like a lion.

These experiences were pointing me towards being softer, but it wasn’t until after my accident, when I was in my 50s, that I had to become soft. I had to find a way of still being strong but from softness, and this is what I believe in now for all karateka. I’m learning something new every day and I still try to train at least six days a week. Sometimes it’s only for 10 or 15 minutes or so, and sometimes it’s for an hour-and-a -half. I try to do something on most days. But I never train with so much tension that I walk out of the dojo with unhealthy aches and pains.

I think many people mistakenly pursue perfection of technique over developing a natural feeling for it. So they spend their time working on every little bit of technical detail, and miss out on the natural rhythm of the technique and how best to apply it. What are your feelings about this?
Yes, I call it ‘paralysis of analysis’. Look, I’m not a good golfer, but I think golf and other sports can show us how we should move. Nakayama Sensei would sometimes talk to us about this. He would explain how baseball players and golfers stayed relaxed when they hit the ball, they never tensed up but instead worked towards a tremendous release of energy as they hit through the ball. When they got it right there was the same exchange of energy we might call kime (focus) in karate. He told us that this is how we should try to be and not get all bound up (with energy) before making a blow, or whatever technique we were doing. I think that is the secret to developing power from softness. I do a lot of reflex training drills from a relaxed/ready posture.

Do you think there is too much emphasis placed on making kime then?
Well, I think the kime in a punch should be something like a 50th of a second, something like that, so yes, some people may be putting too much emphasis on kime. But then when we practise Hangetsu kata in Shotokan, and you have Sanchin kata in Goju-ryu, the tension is different and is held for longer to develop core body strength. But with a fast, sharp, kizami-zuki (leading-hand punch) or ura-ken (back-fist strike), or even a mawashi-geri (round-kick), the kime should be there but for only a fraction of a second before the release comes and you are ready for the next technique. This is the kind of thing my students and I are working on. It also comes up during smooth aerobic training when you might be doing kata over and over. Suddenly in the middle of a kata you get to the point of kiai (harmony of spirit and technique) and kime happens without conscious effort.

So even at an advanced age such as yours (73), you feel your karate is still physically strong?
To a degree. I look at a person’s biological age I don’t look at age chronologically. How old are you?

I’m 54.
That is still quite young, but more importantly you sound like you are doing all the right things, not doing stupid things to harm your health. So your biological age is probably much younger than your chronological age because you keep yourself fit, train regularly and stay healthy. I can say that in only about 20 per cent of my karate, things are better now than when I was younger. When I go to a gasshuku to teach I can no longer do all the jumping and running around that young karateka do, but there are a few things I can do against younger and stronger people when we stand facing each other within punching range. For example, we sometimes do a drill where you stand within range of your partners punch, they throw a punch and you have to use reflex action to block it. I can still do this and make the block. Also I am still quite fast with my punching. But, if I had to start moving around all over the place and fighting at longer ranges then I’m no longer efficient. So I work on the things I can still do well and improve as best I can.

For example, when a young man is taking the test for Shodan (1st Dan) Black-belt. They have been training for something like four or five years and have come through the Brown-belt ranks where they learn to hit the makiwara. During that time they might be throwing 50 or 100 punches on each side, but they tend to do all the punches at the exact same rate, exerting that same amount of energy (kime). They do that and then they do whatever kata they are requested to do and that’s it. They go through the ritual and that’s that. A lot of people don’t change from training this way after Shodan. What I’m doing is looking at how I move from point A to point B. These two points might be anything; the fist moving from the hip to its target, or the leg moving from one position to the next. What I’m doing is working on the efficiency of the movement.

So now when I hit a target, I don’t hit the makiwara anymore, I hit a bag. Not one that is too heavy, but it’s not too light either. I hit that as well as I can, but not too many times. It’s a bit like a weightlifter who wants to increase his power — what does he do? He builds up to it with a lot of good form and lighter repetition first and then gradually increases the weight. As his lifts become heavier, he is breaking down the muscle tissue correctly, which then builds itself back up a little stronger than before. So he might do six reps and then have a rest, and then four reps and slowly work at doing heavier lifts, but less reps in order to increase his power.

I have taken this same approach to punching and bag work over the last 10 years and I can say now that the strength of my punching compared to when I was 60, has improved a great deal, in particular with a choku-zuki (straight punch) standing in a relaxed forward stance and shooting the punch into the bag. I begin by standing in front of the bag and punching straight into it. Next I take up a relaxed forward stance, turn my hips and punch the bag. The next stage I take a slightly longer stance and draw the back foot forward while simultaneously punching the bag. My most powerful punch occurs during the stepping phase when I am a quarter or half forward, or sometimes even three-quarters forward; the distance I start away from the bag governs this. I do no more than 10 reps of each technique just to warm into it. My final seven punches are with full power but with my body moving as fast as possible. My fist, as it contacts the bag is vertical and not fully turned.

I believe the final turn or twist in the fist in a punch is the follow-through, like in golf: after you have hit the ball, you continue on with the swing. I mean, when you hit someone, the guy’s no longer there when you initiate the twist. There might be an occasion when someone runs in at you and you extend your punch like a pole and they run onto it and knock themselves out. In these last 10 years this has been maybe the one really good improvement for me personally. Now, I’m not saying I have the same power in my punch as someone like say, Keith Geyer, who hits on the scale of something like 8.8 out of 10. He can knock guys out even through a pad. But for me, I used to be around 6.5 at the age of 60 whereas now I’m more like 7.5, and this is with less training than before but with using the proper biomechanical principles. The principles are to break the movements down and how to use things like leverage to hit harder — like weightlifters use leverage to manipulate the weight. They should not be confused with bodybuilders, who pursue a different discipline. What weightlifters do is closer to what we do in karate than bodybuilders.

There are many things I would not attempt anymore, like flying kicks or jodan mawashi-geri (head-height round-kick), even though I still teach these techniques to younger people.