Friday, December 21, 2012

Train With A Friend

A few days ago one of this blog's followers wrote in to say how much he loves training in the martial arts with his young son.  That may surprise someone who hasn't attended a martial-art tournament recently, but it certainly doesn't surprise me.  I continually find parents -- father, mother, or both -- joining their children in the training hall, and the entire family wins.  Everyone gets in shape, and everyone shares in the same challenges, frustrations, and successes.  And, yes, many of them compete in the same tournaments -- though in different age groups.
    Whether you study Taekwondo, karate, or another art, you can train together in a way that's just not possible with most other sports.  Have you tried joining your child's Little League team or PeeWee Football squad?  Ain't gonna happen.  You get to sit in the stands while your kids have all the fun.  But the martial arts allow families to train together, grow together, and pursue black belts together. 
    But suppose you're 60 or 65 and your "little ones" are married and have children of their own?  If you're interested in learning a martial art, get off the couch and find a friend who's willing to take the challenge with you.  And if you're a "retired" martial artist, maybe bringing a friend to the training hall will provide the extra bit of motivation that you need.  It doesn't matter whether your friend has martial-arts experience or not.  You can train together and support each other.
    Why bother with the martial arts if you're a "senior citizen"?  Put fitness at the top of the list.  There's no better all-around training program available.  And there's a powerful self-defense component that we can't overlook.  The older we get, the more we look like targets to those who are out for trouble.  But you don't need a huge arsenal of techniques in order to survive a street attack.  What you need more than anything is the will to defend yourself, and that comes only from training.  Beyond that, a strong, swift front kick and a palm strike may be all you need to buy enough time to get away from trouble.  If you're in reasonably good health and have a doctor's clearance to begin training, you owe it to yourself to put on that uniform and hit the training hall.
    If you're already training and have found a senior-friendly school, please send me a note.  I'm happy to publicize senior-friendly martial arts schools no matter where they're located.
    Happy holidays to all.  Hope to find you here at Seniors in the Martial Arts throughout 2013. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Old dogs actually can learn new tricks

This 66-year-old dog recently began taking bo staff lessons after seeing some of the amazing things that can be done with this ancient weapon.  The bo staff is one of the most popular weapons used in martial-arts tournaments, and I've got to say that we've come a very long way from the old wooden staff that might have been used, say, a thousand years ago. 
   To begin with, competition bo staffs generally are no longer clunky, hand-carved wooden items.  Most of them are tapered so that they can generate more speed, and they come in a wide range of materials, from wood to graphite.  The more exotic lightweight staffs aren't designed for actual combat, of course; they're meant to be spun, twirled, jabbed, and whipped at imaginary opponents in a formal exercise that's judged for creativity, fluidity, and precision.
   Now I should mention right up front that I'll never be a world champion with the bo staff.  In fact, so far I have countless bruises that give testimony to the difficulty of mastering the fancier bo staff techniques.  But so far I haven't broken anything -- well, no bones . . . but perhaps a few household objects and a couple of wooden bo staffs -- and I'm gradually getting my brain and body to cooperate in the venture.
   This, by the way, is what my bo staff training is all about.  When you cease challenging your body and mind, they figure it's okay to slow down.  And before you know it, you've merged your atoms with those of the living room couch and the TV remote.  Not good. 
   But there's something else about the bo staff that has become quite apparent as I check out my new bruises each day.  Even a lightweight competition bo staff can generate tremendous striking force, the combination of speed and a small impact surface.  Yes, those ancient warriors knew what they were doing when they first began using wooden staffs as weapons. 
   What can you and I do with this information?  As we age and inevitably lose muscle strength, we can substitute a simple weapon in our self-defense arsenal.  Think cane.  Think walking stick.  Here you have two common objects that are often found in the hands of seniors anyway, so why not learn how to use them for self-defense? 
   If you want to see what a simple cane can do, head to Google or your favorite search engine and look for YouTube videos on "cane self-defense," "cane fu," or anything similar.  You'll find lots of videos, some better than others, all of which demonstrate that something as basic as a cane can become a highly effective weapon when used with a bit of skill.  And listen: you don't need to become a competitive athlete to use a cane effectively, nor do you need to hold a black belt in some martial art.  What you need is some basic training and the willingness to say, "If necessary, I WILL DEFEND MYSELF." 
   Seniors are all too frequently the targets of assaults of every description, and in some cases -- depending upon the strength and fierceness of the attacker -- there's not much to be done about it.  But in many cases, perhaps even most, a senior who is mentally prepared to defend himself or herself AND who has some training to back up that willingness can hold off an attack and buy enough time for help to arrive.
   What's that you say?  You don't need a cane for walking?  So what?  Buy a cane, take some lessons at a local martial arts school, and begin carrying the cane whenever you're headed someplace where trouble might be waiting, especially at night.  Knowing how to disable an attacker with a swiftly applied cane or walking stick could one day save your wallet or your life.
   Interested?  Check around for senior-friendly martial arts schools in your area.  You may also find that a local senior center offers a class in self-defense using a cane or walking stick. 
   Be the old dog that learns a highly useful new trick.  It's not too late.

Monday, November 12, 2012

What you can learn at tournaments

On Nov. 10th I had the privilege of competing in the 38th Annual U.S. Open Championships, sponsored by Grandmaster YB Choi and held at Rutgers University.  Although I was fortunate enough to be named grand champion in the men's senior forms division, this was hardly the highlight of the event for me.  If that seems odd, read on.
   Every tournament I have attended this year begins with the message -- and the message was delivered especially clearly by Grandmaster Choi -- that everyone who competes is a winner.  For every child or adult who steps into the ring at a tournament, there are thousands who could but don't.  And that's understandable, especially for the youngest competitors, who may be 5 or 6 years old.  It's not easy to stand in front of hundreds of people and be judged on your abilities.  So when you take that deep breath and step before the judges, you've already won.  Carrying home a medal or trophy is not the measure of your worth.  Having the courage simply to try your best is all that matters.
   I was extremely pleased to find that almost without exception, the competitors who didn't capture a trophy were respectful of the judges' decisions, were pleased to have competed, and applauded the children or adults who took first, second, or third place.
   I was also delighted to see so many youngsters exhibiting respect for those who held higher-ranking belts as well as for their elders.  The martial-arts world is one in which humility and respect are paramount, and it heartens me to know that each year America's training halls are turning out students who will be better citizens and neighbors for having trained in Taekwondo, karate, and other disciplines.
   Once again I was overjoyed to find a level of camaraderie that I have never found among competitors in other sports.  Two of the competitors in Grandmaster Choi's tournament -- one 14, the other 18 -- had flown in with their coach from Colombia, South America.  Nationality simply didn't matter.  They performed beautifully and were cheered on by all those who knew outstanding technique when they saw it.  These two young Taekwondo students each left with trophies for every event in which they participated, and they made friends among those who will compete with them for years to come.
   I was knocked out -- not literally, I'm pleased to report -- by a 49-year-old guy who had recently earned his 1st-degree black belt.  In addition to  having become a formidable competitor, he told me that his Taekwondo training had helped him lose 50 pounds.  That's five-zero.  So if you're 40-something and thinking you need to get off the couch and get in shape, think about Taekwondo.
   These are just a few of the things that struck me about the tournament, and I mention them because they may help you either begin training or come out of "retirement."  Whether you're 50, 60, or older, you have a future in the martial arts.  Find a senior-friendly school near you, and become part of the growing and extremely supportive family that is the martial arts.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A joyful tournament

In my last post I mentioned the Oct. 20th New England Open Taekwondo Tournament that was taking place in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.  Well, the event has come and gone, but the joy lives on.
   Joy?  If you're not familiar with martial-arts tournaments, you may have something ruthless and brutal in mind.  Just the opposite, in fact.  What I found at Grandmaster Young A. Kwon's tournament was the usual healthy dose of friendship and camaraderie that outweighs the serious competition.  In this case what you would have seen, had you been there, was one large Taekwondo family joyfully applying the most important of rules: good sportsmanship, discipline, and respect.  Was there stiff competition?  Sure.  But the winners were all those who stepped onto the mat and tried their best . . . not just the ones who walked away with medals. 
   Grandmaster Kwon's tournament drew 300 competitors from ages 5 through 66 in a variety of events: poomsae [formal routines], breaking, and sparring.  It was especially encouraging to see so many youngsters displaying skills that you simply wouldn't expect to find at ages 9 or 14 or 17.  Since Taekwondo is an Olympic sport, it's great to know that several generations of American athletes are already training seriously.
   Here's another bit of good news.  While I sat in the stands chatting with other competitors, I bumped into guys in their sixties who were just beginning their Taekwondo training.  Taekwondo isn't just for the young or for those who have been training for decades.  If you find the right senior-friendly school, you can begin Taekwondo at any age and benefit from the total mind/body fitness program that comes with it.  There's no upper age limit.  This is a lifetime activity that asks only for you to do your best.
   If you already attend a senior-friendly school, please tell me about it so that I can write something for "Seniors in the Martial Arts."  No charge.  I just want to help other seniors find their way into the exciting and beneficial world of martial arts.
   In the meantime, I offer my sincere congratulations and appreciation to Grandmaster Young A. Kwon for a fine tournament.  I know that several hundred of us are eagerly awaiting the 21st New England Open Taekwondo Tournament in 2013.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Oct. 20th New England Taekwondo Championship

If you're a Taekwondo senior and live within striking distance of Tewksbury, Massachusetts, now's the time to sign up for the 20th Annual New England Open Taekwondo Championship.  The event is being hosted by Kwon's Taekwondo, which has two schools in the area, and the tournament's chairman is Grandmaster Young A. Kwon.
   The tournament's events include forms, sparring, breaking, and power breaking -- in other words, something for everyone.  And the great news is that the top age division is 53+.  Since many tournaments list a top age group of only 35 or 40, I think it's important for us seniors to support events that recognize that 55 or 60 isn't 35.  At 66 I don't mind competing in forms against someone who's as young as 53 -- and I'll definitely be competing at Grandmaster Kwon's tournament -- but I'm not interested in competing against 35-year-olds.  Yes, the rumor is true: flexibility doesn't improve with age.  So my high kicks aren't quite as high as they were 30 years ago.  I definitely need the "old guy" division.
   If you can make your way to Tewksbury, MA, you're welcome to participate in this major Taekwondo tournament.  You don't need to be a Massachusetts resident, and you can hold any Taekwondo rank whatsoever.  Each area of competition offers both age and rank divisions.  Although the top age group is 53+, some of this blog's readers may fit into the 43-52 age group.  Either way, it's time to get out there, make some new friends, and challenge yourself in a way that only a tournament can do.
   You can pre-register [and save money] or register on the day of the tournament.  For all the facts, all you need to do is click over to, where you'll find a registration form, fee schedule, and other useful tournament information.
   Ready to compete?  Then sign up today.  But if you're still thinking about learning Taekwondo or perhaps "unretiring" after a long layoff, then just come out to watch the tournament.  For a small admission fee you'll enjoy hours of competition featuring students ranging in age from under 5 to . . . well, at least 66. 
   Hope to see you on October 20th!  

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Where are you?

Yesterday I competed in an important New Jersey martial-arts tournament [sponsored by UMARA, the United Martial Arts Referees Association] and was pleased to take home a silver medal for empty hand forms.  That's the good news.  The bad news is that I competed in the 50+ category, which meant that I was giving away as much as 66 years to those who were actually 50.  I was, in fact, the only 60+ competitor who showed up. 
    Instant replay: last March in a large Mercer County, NJ, tournament held at Rider University I was also the only 60+ competitor, so I had to drop down to the 50+ division.  Now a question: given the size of this state, and the likelihood that there are hundreds of 60-something black belts around, why are they not entering competitions?
    Let me say something else about the two recent tournaments.  In both cases I met competitors who were there for the same reason I was: to stay in shape, to challenge themselves, and to honor the commitment that they had made many years ago to their martial art.  I made new friends and experienced the joy of competing with like-minded folks who cared more about the camaraderie -- the spirit, if you will -- of the martial arts than about whether or not they carried home a trophy.
    Here's why I'm writing today.  If more 60+ martial artists don't get in the game, we'll all be out of the game soon.  Did you know that many tournaments now have a top "old guys" division of 35+?  Seriously.  Try giving up 31 years in competition.  Not fun.  Look, I'm not competing because I expect a medal every time out, but it would be nice to be reasonably competitive.  And it's tough to be seriously competitive when you're required to give up 25 or 30 years because of the tournament rules.
   Okay, so what to do?  If you're a New Jersey black belt in any style [or a black belt anywhere in America, for that matter], get back in the game.  Search the Internet for tournaments.  A great place for you to begin your search is  See what's available near you.  Then speak with the tournament director to ask whether there's a 60+ division.  If not, suggest that he or she add one. 
    If I were a tournament director and couldn't find 60+ competitors, I wouldn't bother offering a 60+ division.  What's not to understand?  But if 60+ martial artists are willing to compete, I'm betting that tournament directors will be glad to accommodate us.
    If you're a 60+ black belt who has "retired" to the couch, get back in the game.  And if you're still training but don't attend tournaments, rethink the idea.  The tournaments are fun.  You'll make a few new friends.  And you'll challenge yourself to push just a little harder than usual.  Hey, that's a good thing, isn't it?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Taekwondo: Mind, Body, and Spirit

For those who have never studied Taekwondo, or who have studied only briefly, it probably seems to be nothing more than a powerful self-defense system or an exciting Olympic sport. It is both these things, of course, but to have the story end there would do a grave injustice to those who over roughly 5,000 years have nurtured Taekwondo and carried it to its present stage of development. To all of the masters who systemized, preserved, and modified this elegant Korean martial art over the millennia, Taekwondo was and is a way of life -- a way of becoming a whole person whose mind, body, and spirit operate in perfect harmony.
     During my 40 years of Taekwondo training I have learned that the mind and body account for only a portion of what most of us would think of as a complete life. Some people are wise but physically weak. Others are physically strong but mentally weak. Yet even those who are strong both mentally and physically may not understand who they are or why they are on this planet. What they lack is an understanding of the spirit, the essential life force that resides within each of us and whose power waits patiently for us to harness its full potential.
     A computer can be programmed to analyze and process billions of bits of important data, but it doesn’t live. A large boulder rolling down a mountainside can generate tremendous force, but it doesn’t live. Likewise, a man who believes that his capacity to think and his ability to move about from one place to another are all that matters is missing the great lesson of Taekwondo: if we truly wish to live, we must unify mind, body, and spirit. Developing a full life -- bringing mind, body, and spirit into harmony -- is not at all easy. But the Taekwondo Life can get us there.
    To begin the journey, visit a Taekwondo school near you.  Remember, it's never too late.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Easing into the martial arts

If you're 50, 60, or perhaps 70 you have already figured out that your body behaves somewhat differently from the way it did when you were, oh, 25.  You may still feel 25 at certain times, but reality comes creeping in now and then -- especially if you decide to take up some new physical activity.  So there's a right way and a wrong way to begin a new training program if you're a "mature" 66, as I am.
     Let's begin with the wrong way.  I love taekwondo and have studied this Korean martial art for over 40 years.  But if I hadn't trained for, let's say, five years, I would be a fool to walk into a school and attempt to pick up where I had left off.  That's a prescription for multiple potential disasters: lower back, hamstrings, hip joints, shoulders, and just about every body part you can name.  Yes, you could lay off and bounce back quickly when you were 25.  But you're no longer 25.
     So let's consider the right way.  First, see your primary care doctor and let him or her assess your body's preparedness for serious training.  If you've been working out regularly at the gym, you're probably ready for a martial-arts program.  But check with the doctor anyway. 
     Now here's an important consideration.  If the doctor says it's okay for you to begin the martial-arts program, ask for a referral to a local physical therapy clinic.  Why wait until you've damaged something before seeing a physical therapist?  Isn't it smarter to have a qualified professional assess your strength, flexibility, and stamina?  That's what physical therapists do on a daily basis.  Your primary doctor does not.  He or she knows all about your blood pressure, heart rate, medications, and such, but your doctor is not generally well equipped to assess the "active ingredients" of a training program that calls for strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance.
     For those of us who were born "flex challenged," the first thing a physical therapist can do for you is gently prepare you for kicking.  A "high kick" is one thing when you're 25 and something else when you're 65 -- at least at the beginning.  Can you achieve greater flexibility when you're a senior?  Absolutely.  But if you don't ease into the stretching program under the watchful eye of a professional, you stand a great chance of injuring yourself.  And this could result in a long recovery or a decision to quit training.  Avoid both: see the professional first.
     A physical therapist can also provide you with written directions -- complete with photos -- on how to do your stretching or strengthening exercises properly.  Working hard but wrong is a common problem and the cause of many unnecessary injuries.
     So you've seen your doctor, and you've had perhaps 10 sessions with a physical therapist.  What now?  Visit some martial-arts schools in your area to see which ones seem to care most about helping seniors achieve their fitness and self-defense goals.  I'm partial to taekwondo, because it relies heavily on kicks rather than upper-body strength.  This is an important consideration for seniors.  You don't want to be grappling with a 20-year-old mugger when you could be remodeling his groin with a well-directed front snap kick instead. 
     If you've "retired" from the martial arts, "unretire."  Get back with the program.  And if you haven't trained before, there's no time like the present.  It's not too late.   

Friday, July 27, 2012

The ultimate mind/body program

In recent years Western physicians and researchers have begun formally acknowledging what folks in Asia have known for hundreds if not thousands of years: the mind and body are intricately linked and must be developed as one.  And one of the most profoundly effective methods of achieving this mind/body unity is by practicing what martial artists generally call "forms."  In taekwondo, the martial art that I have practiced for over 40 years, these formal exercises are called poomse.  In essence they are highly choreographed battles against several imaginary opponents, and they require intense physical and mental energy when executed properly.
   Beginning martial artists start out with simple forms that contain relatively few basic techniques: blocks, kicks, and punches.  As simple as these beginning forms may look, they require something that many people lack: the discipline to execute the form or poomse precisely as it was designed by the masters who created it.  In theory, at least, if two martial artists are executing the same form -- one of them in the United States, the other in Australia -- they will do so in exactly the same way. 
   As you might expect, the poomse grow more complicated as you advance up the ladder to and beyond first degree black belt, or first Dan.  The techniques incorporated in the poomse grow more complex, and there are more individual movements -- sometimes vastly more than you find in the beginning forms. 
   So where does the mind/body link come in?  Well, the first step in mastering a form is simply memorizing the sequence of movements.  In this early stage you're basically repeating the sort of exercise you went through when learning multiplication tables back in elementary school.  All that matters is knowing which move follows another.
   Once you've done this, oh, perhaps 50 times, you begin to enter a different realm of mastery.  You already know the movements, so now the goal is to achieve what you might call a meditative state in which the mind and body flow through the poomse with intense focus but without the constant annoyance of troublesome thoughts.  Stated differently, you attain a level of performance at which you no longer think about what move comes next; your mind and body simply deliver the entire poomse without your active control.
   The taekwondo poomse offers practitioners the same sort of "mindfulness" that many people seek to achieve through seated meditation.  You are aware of the present moment, but the moment requires nothing of you.  The more you practice the poomse, the closer you come to achieving a freeing of the mind that permits the movements to flow without your customary habit of controlling events.  It's an "active meditation," naturally, since the body moves and can grow tired, but throughout the exercise you should find yourself at peace -- almost outside yourself but aware of what seems to be happening on its own.
   How many repetitions of a given poomse will it take to achieve this sort of mind/body union?  If you refuse to give up control, it will never happen.  But if you give yourself over to the poomse and allow it simply to happen, perhaps you will get where you want to be after a few hundred repetitions.  That may sound like a tremendous commitment, but consider that the typical taekwondo poomse takes about a minute to execute.  Is keeping your mind and body in balance worth an investment of 200 minutes?  Certainly.  Surely you can find a few minutes even in a busy day.  And it's precisely a busy day that would benefit most from the "active meditation" offered by a taekwondo poomse.
   If you haven't begun studying the martial arts, now's the time.  And if you've "retired" from the martial arts but are still healthy, get back in training.  Your mind and body will both thank you.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Free: "Self-Defense for Seniors"

If you're a senior who happens to live in West Windsor, NJ, or thereabouts, you can take part in two free "Self-Defense for Seniors" classes offered on August 8th and 10th by the West Windsor Senior Center.  Each session will run from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. 
   Since I'll be teaching the classes myself, the self-defense techniques you'll learn are those associated with Taekwondo, the Korean art of self-defense.  I learned my Taekwondo under Grand Master Bobby Kim, a former Taekwondo champion and martial-arts film star.  I believe that Taekwondo is the ideal martial art for seniors, since it relies heavily on kicking techniques.  And since your legs are longer and stronger than your arms, they give you the best chance to defend yourself against a younger, larger attacker.
   Will most seniors ever be assaulted?  Not if they avoid being in the wrong places at the wrong times.  If, let's say, you're riding a subway in Manhattan at 3:00 a.m., you're asking for trouble.  So you can greatly reduce your chances of becoming an assault victim by being smart about where you go and when.  But an attack can take place in a grocery store parking lot at noon if you happen to encounter the wrong individual.  The odds are greatly against this, but why not be prepared to handle the situation just the same?
   In my two upcoming classes you'll learn that the first response to an impending attack is to talk.  If there's any way you can talk your way out of the attack, do so.  Plead, beg, or be sweet.  If that fails, scream for help.  If you're in a busy parking lot, there's a good chance that someone will come to your aid.  But if help doesn't arrive quickly enough, you need to be prepared to keep from, let's say, getting punched in the face.  So in the two West Windsor Senior Center sessions you'll learn basic blocking techniques as well as follow-up strikes that can help buy you precious time.  And time is what you're after: time to turn and get away from the attacker and to dial 911.
   Should you consider taking a couple of basic self-defense classes?  If you're in reasonably good physical condition and don't have serious balance problems, why not?  Naturally, if you haven't been physically active for some time you absolutely should consult your physician before embarking on any sort of fitness-related program.  This just makes good sense.
    If you take a short self-defense class and find it stimulating, then by all means consider enrolling in a senior-friendly martial arts school near you.  In this blog I am happy to help publicize senior-friendly schools, so if you know of one, just tell me something about it.
    It's never too late to take self-defense seriously.  And since I've spent the last 40 years of my life studying Taekwondo, I know that this is a martial art that is perhaps ideally suited to those of us who are 60 and older.
   For more information about the West Windsor Senior Center self-defense program, call 609-799-9068.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Sixty and silver

In my June 29th post I introduced you to 60-year-old Dennis Schaefer, a taekwondo black belt who was preparing to compete in the U.S.A. Taekwondo Championships in Dallas, TX.  So it's time to wrap up this story with the results of his most recent Olympic Sparring contest. 
   Dennis came home to Dayton, OH, with a silver medal after finishing second to a 51-year-old competitor.  Although he gave up nine years to the eventual winner, Dennis stood tall in what he had told us might be his final competition.  And if he does indeed retire after this year's major event, Dennis leaves the competitive arena with two important victories: a silver medal in USAT's most prestigious tournament; and the knowledge that he competed with honor while most guys his age were home flopped on the couch in front of a TV.
  The martial spirit doesn't need to fade because of age.  And you don't need to be a championship competitor in order to exhibit that spirit in the martial art of your choice.  All you need to do is take up a martial art for the first time -- and, no, it's never too late -- or come out of "retirement" and begin training again.  Whether you're 50, 60, 70, or older, all it takes is the willingness to commit yourself to the discipline of a senior-friendly school in your area.
   Look, those of us who are in our mid-sixties know that we're not 25.  And if your brain doesn't get it, your body sure does.  Perhaps you tire sooner than you once did.  And maybe your high kicks aren't as high as they once were.  And it's entirely possible that your sense of balance isn't as sharp as before.  All of this would matter greatly if the goal was to win an Olympic medal.  But that's not what this is all about.  The goal is to be as fully alive as possible, and the martial arts represent one of the most powerful mind-and-body training programs ever created.
   So in today's blog I offer three messages straight from my heart:
      -- A rousing "two thumbs up" to Dennis Schaefer for taking silver at 60.
      -- A glad salute to all seniors who are still practicing the martial arts to the best of their ability.
      -- And to everyone else a warm invitation to get in the game by visiting a senior-friendly martial-arts school in your hometown.
   Are you already training at a senior-friendly school?  Please send me the name so that I can tell readers about it here on "Seniors in the Martial Arts."  Don't keep the good news to yourself.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Dennis Schaefer and the martial spirit

When he was 49 -- an age when too many folks begin permanently settling into their couches -- Dennis Schaefer began studying taekwondo.  Well, some people probably figured Dennis was too old for all that jumping and kicking and punching.  Be he wasn't.  Dennis is now 60, a third-degree black belt, and an instructor at the Asian Arts Center in Dayton, Ohio.  Oh, and by the way, in 2008 Dennis walked off with the gold medal for his age group in Olympic Sparring at the AAU National Taekwondo Championships.
  But wait.  There's more.  Dennis has been sharpening his fighting skills throughout 2012, looking ahead to this month's U.S. Taekwondo Association national tournament in Dallas, Texas.  Right, he's  60.  And right, he's once again going all out against the best martial artists in the country.
  In a recent Facebook post, Dennis talked about his upcoming challenge, and with his permission we're reprinting it here.
  "Next Tuesday, July 3rd, I will fight in the USTA National Tournament in Dallas, Texas. I have been training seriously since the first of the year and have accomplished my mission of qualifying for the middleweight class instead of the unlimited. Good news for me because the gold medal winner from the unlimited class in 2010 is back and bigger than ever. The hardest part of preparation has been making the weight but I have succeeded and I am ready.
  "At age 60 this might be my swan song. My philosophy is to never say never, but the practicalities of continuing my fight career are limited by age and the fact that most other guys 60 and over are chasing golf balls.
  "I am addicted to the training, camaraderie and the ritual; the single-minded preparation is a relief in today’s world. Aside from coaching, my future in the world of competitive Taekwondo sparring is hazy. But that’s projection; there’s still a fight to fight. And all of the experience that has come in the past 12 years of competing will not go to waste.  I am committed to bringing some form of martial arts training to my peers from here on out.
  "When we return from Dallas (my better half Mary will coach) I will be considering some new fields. Number one contender at this point involves reviving my running career and tackling the ultra-marathons.  No one to fight but myself."
  Whether you're 50, 60 or 70, you're not too old to begin martial-arts training.  If the spirit is willing, the body will follow to the extent possible.  We may not all turn into champions like Dennis Schaefer, but that's not the goal.  The goal is to push, to strive, and to achieve as much as you can.  The martial arts have much to teach you if you're open to learning.
  Let me add here that it helps to have a senior-friendly school, and it sounds as though that's what you'll find at the Asian Arts Center in Dayton, Ohio.  They have numerous adult classes as well as senior instructors, and they understand that older students will need some extra attention.  If you live in the Dayton area and have been thinking about taking up the martial arts at an "advanced age," give Dennis a call sometime.  His footsteps are worth following.
  You can find the Asian Arts Center at

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The leg is mightier than the hand

A few posts ago I discussed and then in a short video demonstrated two highly effective hand strikes that you can use in a self-defense situation.  The first step, of course, was to block the incoming punch, and we talked about the high block last month.  If you stand and do nothing while an attacker is aiming a heavy punch toward your face, the game is over before it begins.  So you absolutely must DO SOMETHING!  And the first "something" is to execute the best, and most powerful, high block that you can muster.
   But suppose you just aren't confident that your hand strikes will stop a larger, younger opponent.  What then?  Well, for sheer stopping power, nothing beats the force of a well-placed kick.  So in today's post we'll examine an uncomplicated way to harness the power of the strongest muscles in your body.  This sequence of movements is something that does not require great flexibility or advanced training.  All it requires is average athletic ability and, more importantly, the desire to DO SOMETHING in the unlikely event you become the victim of an unprovoked attack.  If you are not certain that you are physically fit enough to execute these or any other techniques discussed in this blog, you should naturally speak with your doctor before beginning.
   Today's self-defense sequence is as follows:
          1.  Block the incoming punch.
          2.  Aim a quick, powerful front snap kick to the opponent's groin.
          3.  When the attacker doubles over [and if you land the front snap kick properly, he most definitely will double over] grab the back of his head with both hands.
          4.  Pull the attacker's face toward your knee, which you are raising with all the power that you can generate.
          5.  Final step, as always: turn and get away.  Everything we discuss in "Seniors in the Martial Arts" is about buying time to get away.  If you can talk your way out of an attack, always do so.  But if you can't, buy yourself enough time for help to arrive or to beat a hasty retreat. 
   Okay, you've got the steps.  Now watch an extremely brief video demonstration of how to put the steps together.  I have slowed each step down somewhat so that you can see the techniques more clearly, and you'll have to imagine that I'm facing a larger opponent.  In an actual self-defense situation, you would want each technique to be delivered with as much force as you can generate.
    Block, snap kick, and knee to the attacker's face. 


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

And in addition to speed . . .

In my last post I talked about and demonstrated the importance of speed when executing self-defense techniques.  Without question, speed can help offset the raw strength of an attacker.  But you will make speed even more effective if you can put some muscle behind it.  In the unlikely event that you are attacked, you might as well have everything possible going for you.
     It is absolutely true that seniors can gain strength and perhaps even muscle size through smart resistance training -- that is, training with equipment that stresses the muscles.  Lifting free weights or using the fancy resistance machines that you can find at most gyms will do the trick.  You don't need to build the body of a Mr. or Ms. Olympia, fortunately.  All you need to do is build on the strength you already have.  If you've been working out at the gym for a few years, you're probably already where you need to be.  But if you've been avoiding exercise religiously, you have some work ahead of you.  The good news, though, is that your gains can be quite rapid as long as you approach the training sensibly and don't try to get all the work done in one week or one month.  Instead of the strength gains you're after, you'll end up in physical therapy after injuring yourself.
     Approach your strength training with the wisdom that comes with age.  First, remember that you were once 20 . . . but will never be again.  You may not like to admit it, but you aren't going to be as strong as you could have been way back when.  Neither will you run as fast or jump as high.  This is life.  So accept some limits on where the training can take you.  Second, learn how to execute your strength-building exercises properly before embarking on the comeback trail.  You can find plenty of good information on the Internet or in fitness books and videos.  You might also consider paying for a few sessions with a qualified personal trainer.  But the key word is "qualified."  The best way to find a personal trainer is to ask friends.  If they don't know, try your family doctor or the local physical therapy clinic.  DO NOT under any circumstances rely on the exercises you learned 40 or 50 years ago in high school.  Much has changed since then, and it turns out that some of the "fitness" training we received back then was flat-out harmful.
     Okay, so you're not ready to return to the gym quite yet.  What should you do?  A number of posts back I talked about the importance of stretching.  So begin there.  It's really important that you work on flexibility, but only after warming up before each stretching session.  Then you can work on arm strength with push-ups.  Have a lower-back issue?  Then rest on your knees while doing the push-ups.  Hey, you're not training to become a Navy Seal.  You're trying to gain strength without injuring yourself.  When you do your push-ups, be sure to get good extension of your arms each time.  If you cheat, you're only cheating yourself.  You should also work on strengthening your abdominal muscles.  Forget those nasty sit-ups we did in high school a million years ago -- you know someone holding your feet while you wreck your back in the name of strengthening your stomach muscles.  Look online for the proper way to execute sit-ups, leg raises, or other abdominal exercises.  Finally, get yourself a pair of dumbbells so that you can do arm curls for your biceps muscles.  You don't need massive weight.  Use light or moderate weight and aim for high repetitions at first.  Remember, the more patient you are about getting back in shape, the less likely you are to stop the entire process by injuring yourself.
     Speed is crucial to success in the martial arts, and it's a fabulous equalizer when you find yourself confronted by a younger, stronger attacker.  But speed AND strength is an even more formidable combination.  I strongly urge you to work on both.
     If you want to build the full package of speed, strength, technique, and flexibility, find a qualified senior-friendly martial-arts school near you.  Get yourself on the road to fitness and an effective arsenal of self-defense techniques.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Power of Speed

I'm a professional watercolor artist, not a physicist.  But back there in a dark, dusty corner of my brain I can still find a couple of equations that I learned half a century ago in my high school physics class.  I'm not certain that either equation is the right one for today's discussion, but they're all I've got.  If you're a physicist reading this post, please feel free to set the facts straight.
     The two equations are:
        -- F=ma.  Force equals mass times acceleration.
        -- p=mv.  Momentum equals mass time velocity.
     Now what do these two physics equations have to do with self-defense for seniors?  To my non-physicist mind they help explain why a trained martial artist can sometimes defend himself or herself successfully against a larger, stronger, and younger attacker.  Stated differently, they suggest that you and I as seniors can learn techniques that will help offset the physical advantages enjoyed by a younger opponent.
     You'll notice that in both equations -- one for force, the other for momentum -- a key factor is speed.  In one instance speed is represented by acceleration, and in the other it's represented by velocity.  Without splitting hairs over the differences between acceleration and velocity, I simply note that speed is directly related to a form of power.
     The importance of speed is something martial artists learn early in their training.  A fast strike, whether with a hand or a foot, generates more power than a slow one.  And, yes, there are lots of other variables -- your size and strength, the crispness of your technique, your stance, and such -- that we won't examine in today's post.   All the variables matter, but the key ingredient for senior self-defense is speed.  It can be a great equalizer if you are assaulted by a larger and stronger opponent.  I'll leave it to the short video at the end of today's post to demonstrate why speed is really important.
     An issue closely related to speed is the size of the striking surface.  Suppose you punch an attacker in the midsection.  If you strike with the entire flat surface of your fist, you'll generate less stopping force than if you strike with only two knuckles, which is the technique that is used in taekwondo and many other martial arts.  Concentrating all of your power on a smaller striking surface maximizes its effect on your opponent.
     A few posts ago I demonstrated two effective hand strikes that you can use in a self-defense situation.  You should review and practice those strikes.  But you should also keep today's post in mind: speed is critical to the effectiveness of your strike. 
     Next up is the short video.  Before you click over, take a look at this single blurred frame from the video, because you won't be able to see it at full speed . . . and I have no idea how to build slow motion into a YouTube
video.  Something else to learn.

     For the video, please click to The Power of Speed


Friday, June 1, 2012

It's called "the art of self-defense" for a reason

No matter what martial art you have studied or plan to study, one rule stands above all the rest: you're learning a highly refined art of self-defense.  The key word is "defense."  Never, under any circumstances, are the techniques you've learned to be used as offensive weapons. 
     Because so many young children are studying the martial arts these days, teachers from coast to coast are continually driving home the message that bullying others is forbidden.  The discipline of learning a martial art must carry over into life outside the training hall, and you must never use what you have learned in order to be the aggressor.  To do so would violate the most fundamental tenet of the martial arts. 
     But if you're 60 or 70 or older, the same rule applies.  If you're an active martial artist at, say, age 65, you're undoubtedly in better shape than most people your age, and you have acquired a body of knowledge that enables you to do some damage to an opponent.  You have also learned that modesty, restraint, and respect for your martial art require you to use what you know only for self-defense purposes . . . and then only if you can't walk or talk your way out of trouble.
     The higher your rank, the more humility you should possess.  This means, in part, not worrying about "losing face" by walking away from a tough-talking bigmouth.  Whenever you can walk or talk yourself out of a confrontation, that's the right thing to do.  "So why did I go through all these years of training?" you ask.  Simple.  No matter how much you seek to avoid conflict, you always run the risk of coming face to face with a situation that requires action.  And if the punch is coming toward your face, you need to respond quickly, as noted in my recent three-part "DO SOMETHING" posts. 
     Precisely how you respond to an actual attack depends upon two things.  The first is your psychological preparedness to defend yourself.  You need to KNOW, not just think, that you will not allow yourself to become a punching bag in the event of an assault.  The second is the depth of your martial-arts training.  Attaining a black belt does not guarantee that you can whip anyone who attacks you, but it certainly indicates that you will respond automatically when a fist or foot is flying in your direction.  The longer you train, the more automatic your responses become.  This is why a professional martial-arts school is vital to your development.  You will train with other students and learn what it's like to block actual punches and actual kicks under a controlled situation.  You can read about these things, but you'll never know what an attack is like until a fellow student actually attacks you under the watchful eye of a master instructor.
     If you have "retired" from your martial art or are just beginning to think about enrolling in a class, it's time to get moving.  The fitness benefits of martial-arts training are huge and well documented.  And the self-defense knowledge that comes with ongoing training can help keep you out of harm's way.
     Find a senior-friendly school near you.  Ask to watch a class before you decide to join.  And listen for words like, "This is all about DEFENSE."  A professional school is never a training school for bullies.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Fighting invisible opponents

I'm revisiting a topic I touched on a month or so ago because it has generated some questions from readers who have never attended a martial-arts school.  The subject is "forms."  A form -- often referred to by other names depending upon the martial art in question -- is a pattern of blocks, kicks, and hand strikes that follow a rigid sequence of movements.  A friend of mine has referred to it as a "self-defense dance."  Well, there's some truth to that.  Each form is carefully constructed by the top masters of the particular martial-arts style, and every student worldwide must learn how to execute each form in precisely the same way in order to move up the ranks.
     So if you attend, let's say, a taekwondo school, you may have to learn one or two forms in order to advance from white belt to yellow belt.  Each of the forms is a highly choreographed pattern that leads you to "fight" several imaginary opponents who are attacking you from all sides.  The first forms that you learn are relatively simple and have few movements.  Naturally, the forms become more complex as you move from white belt toward black belt, and they incorporate a more complete arsenal of blocks, kicks, and hand strikes.  Each time you test for a higher belt, your exam will include a new form that you must execute crisply, forcefully, and, of course, with all individual techniques accomplished in the proper order. 
     On the one hand, the form is an artificial fight that you can't lose.  You're fighting imaginary opponents, after all.  On the other hand, each time you practice the form, you're reinforcing the "muscle memory" of how particular techniques flow together naturally.  A low block, for instance, can flow naturally into a punch, or a high block can flow easily into a front snap kick.  Since you will no doubt practice each form hundreds of times in the course of your training, you will possess a vast repertoire of multiple techniques that make sense together -- just as the master instructors intended.  And someday if you're forced to fight real rather than imaginary opponents, there's a good chance that all of the solitary practice will allow you to respond sensibly and without having to think too much.  Listen, even if you're facing only one attacker, you'll get the most favorable results by acting more than thinking. 
     In the following video I demonstrate a form called Taebaek, which is required for promotion to third-degree black belt in the style of taekwondo that I study.   If you're interested, you can also find my video demonstration of Hansu, required for promotion to eighth-degree black belt, by searching YouTube for Russ Johnson Hansu.
     Video: Taebaek form

Friday, May 25, 2012

"DO SOMETHING" Part three

This is the third post in a series about basic self-defense strategies and techniques for seniors.  The primary strategy, of course, is to do everything you can to avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And, yes, we can all exercise a great deal of control over this. 
     If you're strolling through Central Park at 2:00 a.m., you're asking for trouble, and you're likely to find it.  So why not go there at 2:00 p.m. instead, when you're surrounded by families, sun-worshippers, and softball players?  You get the idea.
     But no matter how careful we are, we can still be attacked by some guy  who's up to no good.  If you're in a supermarket parking lot and are threatened by this guy, your best move, if at all possible, is to walk away without saying a word.  If that's not possible, your second best option is to talk or plead your way out of trouble.  But if the attack comes, you need to DO SOMETHING in order to buy time for help to arrive.  In the first two posts of this series, we talked about a) executing a high block while yelling for help and b) if at all possible, executing a strong front snap kick to the attacker's groin.
     In today's post I'll demonstrate two hand strikes that you may also wish to have in your self-defense arsenal.  If you successfully block the attacker's blow to your face but can't deliver a powerful front snap kick, a hand strike may be your only remaining option.  In the short video that follows, I'll demonstrate a palm strike to the attacker's face as well as an open-hand strike to the attacker's throat.  If you deliver either of these blows with some degree of accuracy and as much power as you can muster, you stand a good chance of buying yourself enough time to depart the scene uninjured.  Remember, the goal is to get away, NOT to engage in sustained hand-to-hand combat with a young thug.
     Before you click over to the video, here are two thoughts you should keep in mind.  First, NO ONE has a right to attack you.  You, on the other hand, absolutely have the right to defend yourself.  Naturally, your defense must be proportionate to the perceived threat.  If someone in a parking lot calls you a bad name, you don't have the right to beat him with a tire iron.  But if someone younger and stronger pushes you against your car, you have a right to strike back and buy enough time to retreat to safety.
     Second, you won't learn how to defend yourself effectively by reading this or any other blog or watching some videos on the Internet.  No matter what your age, consider enrolling in a local martial-arts school, ideally one that already has a number of seniors among the students.  Only by practicing your blocks, kicks, and hand strikes under the watchful eye of a professional instructor will you gain the skill and confidence to use the techniques properly in the unlikely event you are attacked. 
      Video: two hand strikes

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


In my previous post I stressed the importance of doing something if you are attacked.  Step one was to execute the strongest possible high block to keep your opponent from striking you in the face.  Even more important, I said you should be yelling for help if you're in a public place.  Your objective is to buy precious time so that someone can come to your aid.  The older you get, the less you want to grapple with a 25-year-old thug.
     Okay, let's suppose you have successfully warded off a blow to the face but still don't see anyone rushing to help you.  Once again, you've got to DO SOMETHING to buy more time.  A highly useful second step in this self-defense sequence may be the "front snap kick."  If you're an experienced martial artist, this is the first kick you ever learned.  And if you are thinking about studying a martial art for the first time, this will be kick #1.
     The front snap kick is nothing like the incredible jumping, spinning kicks that you've probably seen in martial-arts movies.  This is a basic, fast, and extremely powerful kick that does not require a master's skill or balance.  The short video that follows will take you through the fundamentals of the front snap kick.
     There are two things to love about this simple kick.  First, since your legs are longer than your arms, the kick allows you to increase the distance between you and your attacker.  Second, your legs are stronger than your arms, so you're relying on your most potent strike.
     For the purposes of senior self-defense, we're not talking about placing the front snap kick on your attacker's chin . . . or even his midsection.  We're aiming for the groin.  If you deliver a fast, powerful kick to the groin, you will buy sufficient time to turn and retreat.  As I said in my previous post, your objective is to get away from the attacker and call 911.  If you place the front snap kick where it belongs, you're on your way.
     A gentle reminder: you won't master self-defense by reading a blog or watching videos.  If you're serious about learning how to defend yourself from an attack, you need to join a local martial-arts school.  Visit several; ask questions; watch a few actual classes; and select the school that seems most serious about training seniors. 
     In the meantime, here's a brief video demonstration of how to execute a front snap kick if the situation absolutely calls for it.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The first rule of self-defense

Even if you have never taken a martial-arts class, you can certainly learn some basic self-defense techniques at any age.  In fact, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Many senior centers offer either martial-arts or self-defense sessions, as do many community education programs throughout the country.  If all you do is learn some basic strategies and techniques, great.  If you decide to join a school and do some serious martial-arts training, even better.
     Either way, the first rule of defending yourself from an attack is DO SOMETHING.  Now that sounds almost too obvious to mention, doesn't it?  But it's a fact that some people who are attacked do nothing.  Well, that's not quite true.  What they do is freeze.  They keep their hands down; they close their eyes; and they cringe, waiting for the blow to land.  And this, of course, can be the shortest path to the ER or worse.
     Okay, so what does DO SOMETHING mean?  First, it means being mentally prepared to defend yourself if a) an attack seems imminent and
b) it doesn't appear that you'll be able to talk your way out of the situation.  By being "mentally prepared" I mean accept the fact that you could be attacked -- even in a place as seemingly safe as a super market parking lot -- and therefore have a simple strategy in mind.  Among other things, being mentally prepared means staying aware of your surroundings, most especially any suspicious individuals who might catch your attention.  When in doubt, stay away.
      Second, DO SOMETHING means being capable of buying yourself some time while you yell for help.  If you're in a public place at a decent hour, help is usually nearby, and there's a good chance that someone will come to your aid if you yell for help.  But you certainly want to avoid being punched in the face or stabbed in the chest before help arrives.  Once it's clear that you're about to be assaulted, almost any defensive action -- something more than simply freezing and waiting for the blow to land -- may spare you serious injury. 
     Martial arts students learn a wide variety of blocks, but if you can learn only one technique, the high block is probably your best bet.  Although it's designed to protect against a blow to the face, the same motion can protect everything from your midsection to the top of your head.  Whether you execute the block flawlessly isn't terribly important.  If your life is on the line, fending off the first blow with a strong block may be enough to buy you the extra time you need.
     The best way to learn how to deliver a powerful high block is to attend a self-defense class or to sign up for a month or so of basic martial-arts training.  By practicing the basic blocks over and over again, you'll find that they become automatic.  And if you're ever actually attacked, you won't have to think about what to do.  You'll DO SOMETHING other than freeze.
     While you consider taking a formal class of some sort, you should look at this short video on how to execute a proper high block in taekwondo.  Different martial arts may teach slightly different variations on this block, but all of them will get the job done.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Yoga for martial artists?

Several years ago a college classmate and good friend of mine began emailing me about the fitness benefits of yoga.  Yoga?  Fitness?  I mean, really.  Any self-respecting martial artist knows that the only way to train is to crush boulders with your feet and chop down oak trees with your bare hands, right?  What possible good could come from sitting cross-legged on a mat or striking strange poses with unpronounceable names? 
     But recently I got the same yoga-as-fitness message from my physical therapist, who had spent a couple of months keeping my body intact before and after my training for an important martial-arts tournament.  Since I had maxed out my authorized PT visits, she suggested that I give yoga a try.  It would help with my stretching, she said, but it would also improve leg strength and balance.
     Still a rabid non-believer, I went to my local Senior Center, which happens to offer a very fine -- and free! -- yoga class.  I figured I'd try one session, confirm my doubts, and go back to the no-pain-no-gain training methods that I had learned more than 40 years ago.
     Confession is good for the soul, they say, so here's mine: I found that yoga is a highly demanding mode of physical activity that has challenged me in ways that I never expected.  The stretching methods are gentle but effective; and what could be better for those of us who are now closer to 70 than to 60?  But my real shock came when we tried a few of the fancy poses.  The first pose I learned, Warrior 1 in English, is what most martial artists would recognize as a forward leaning stance.  You get a great stretch, and if you hold the pose long enough your quads begin to quiver.
     Then we moved on to Warrior 3.  Mere words can't describe the challenge of Warrior 3, so I thought I'd insert a short video in today's post.  Yes, the woman who demonstrates Warrior 3 for us has been at this for quite some time.  And, yes, she's a lot more flexible than most of us old folks can ever hope to be.  But what impresses me most is the power she possesses in both legs.  Trust me, you don't execute Warrior 3 unless your length strength is way up there.  Take a look at the following short video.  Then think about adding yoga to your martial-arts comeback.
         Warrior 3 pose

Sunday, May 13, 2012

540-degree reverse hook kick

While roaming online martial-arts sites recently I came across an excellent demonstration of a 540-degree reverse hook kick, performed by Master S.J. Woo.  Master Woo has a long list of video tutorials on YouTube, and I highly recommend that you check them out sometime.  His lessons range from the basic -- how to punch, how to block, and such -- to the highly advanced.  The 540-degree reverse hook kick is definitely one of the latter.
     For those of you who have never seen, much less attempted, a 540 reverse hook kick, here's a simple plain-English description.  You spin your body 180 degrees toward your opponent, thereby generating momentum.  As you complete the 180, you leap high into the air and execute a 360-spinning kick to the opponent's face.  And, yes, Master Woo makes it look easy.
     Since I'm the author of "Seniors in the Martial Arts," you have probably figured out that I'm a certified senior -- a few weeks away from 66, according to my Medicare card.  What you may not know is what would happen if I attempted a 540-degree reverse hook kick.  Basically I would be fine with the 180-degree spin, which I routinely use for spinning back kicks on my kicking dummy.  But then it would get tricky.  The part about leaping high in the air is problematic for seniors who, like me, have become what I suppose we could call "gravity challenged."  Although I was a high jumper on my high school track team about 50 years ago, I now consider "a jump" to be anything that gets me high enough off the ground to allow a thin sheet of paper to slide between my feet and the floor.
     My "high into the air" isn't the same as Master Woo's.  Thus I would never complete the 360-degree airborne spinning kick.  Instead, I would would hit the ground somewhere in the middle of the kick, and that's when I would begin the countdown to my trip to the local hospital's emergency room.  There's simply no way of knowing exactly how many muscles I'd tear or how many body parts I would lose before crashing in mid-kick.
     But since I have no plans to attempt this particular kick anytime soon, here's the good news: senior martial artists can be highly successful when it comes to defending themselves and staying in shape even if we can't execute the same techniques that we were able to manage 30 or 40 years ago.  When it comes to self-defense, the most important techniques are strong blocks, a punishing groin-high front snap kick, and powerful punches or hand strikes.  You won't win a sparring tournament with this small arsenal of techniques, but you can definitely put down an attacker.  And in terms of staying fit, every element of your martial-arts workout -- stretching, punching, kicking, practicing forms, and sparring -- will do more for your mind and body than, say, logging 30 minutes on an exercise bike.
     With age comes wisdom, and it's wise for a senior martial artist to recognize that he or she should resist the temptation to play at being 20 or 30.  It was great to be there, but that was then . . . and this is now.  Whether you're 50, 60, 70, or older, your goal as a martial artist never changes: do all you can with what you've got.  If you just do that, you'll always get back more than you put in.  Martial-arts training is without question one of the best investments of time and energy you'll ever make.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Five self-defense tips for seniors

Even if you've never been a martial-arts student, you need to have a clear understanding of what you'll do in the unlikely event you're attacked.  In today's blog, I'll cover five key self-defense strategies that may prove helpful.  Of course, I still believe that your best course of action is to find a senior-friendly martial-arts school.  But in the meantime, here are my five tips for seniors.
     1.  Don't be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Sure, that can happen purely by accident.  But most of the time you have control over where you are and when.  If, let's say, you're riding a subway train at 3:00 a.m., you're asking for trouble.  If you like leaving bars at 3:00 a.m., ditto.  Be sensible about where you go and about what time of day you go there.
     2.  If confronted by a possible attacker, use words to defuse the situation whenever possible.  Speak calmly, and plead if you think that might help.  This is not cowardice; this is intelligence in action.  And if you're facing an armed assailant who simply wants your wallet, give up the wallet.  Even a highly trained defender is at risk against a knife or gun.
     3.  Don't make the first move, but if attacked, be prepared to do everything in your power to save your life.  And the older you get, the likelier it is that any attack could prove deadly.  What do I mean by "everything in your power"?  Jabbing your fingers in the attacker's eyes, for instance.  It's not something you would like to do, but it may be the only way you can walk, run, or drive away from an attack.  And assailant has no right to attack you; you, on the other hand, have a right to defend yourself.
     4.  If you are attacked, DO SOMETHING.  You can't just stand there and get hit or stabbed.  Put your arms up as forcefully as you can to block the attack momentarily.  Buy yourself a little time.  And while doing it, scream for help.  Screaming for help while buying time with your defensive movements is the best way to avoid serious injury, especially if you're not in a dangerous place.  If, let's say, you're attacked in a shopping center parking lot, fending off an attacker while screaming for help will -- at least in a fair world -- bring someone to help you.
     5.  When the situation ends, call the local police and provide as much information as you can about the attacker: license plate number, description of the individual, exact time and place, and names of witnesses.  After you call the police, call a local martial-arts school, and sign up for a class.  It's never too late to begin.

Monday, May 7, 2012

What color is your belt?

Even if you have never attended a single martial-arts class, you probably already know that the training involves moving from a belt of one color to a belt of another color to . . . well, you get the idea.  The color of the belt changes as you move up the ranks, culminating in a black belt if you stick with the program long enough and become proficient in a host of required techniques along the way. 
   But there's a common misconception about the meaning of black belt, and in today's post I would like to help set the record straight.  Ask most people, including yellow belts and green belts, what black belt means, and they'll probably say something that incorporates the word expert -- as in "a black belt is an invincible martial-arts expert." 
   Well, there are two flaws in that statement.  First, a black belt is not invincible, not by a long shot.  A black belt may or may not be able to handle a 220-pound mugger.  I never wanted to find out even when I was 25; 40 years later I'm even less inclined to test the theory.  Second, a black belt may or may not be an expert.  It's generally safe to assume that a 9th-degree grand master in, say, taekwondo, is an expert.  But what the black belt truly signifies is a "serious beginner."  You've become proficient in a great many basic techniques, and now you are ready to become a fully committed student of your martial art.  How long will you be a student?  Forever.  If you're a serious enough student, you never stop learning and never stop striving to strengthen the mind/body connection that represents genuine mastery of a martial art.
   So when you look at it this way, a white belt, a green belt, and a black belt are all in the same business.  They are attempting to become all that they are capable of becoming, regardless of the color of the belt.  The black belt has been working at this longer, but he or she probably understands that the path has no end.  The more you know, the more you recognize what you don't know.
   Now here's the best news.  No matter where you are in your training -- white belt or black belt -- it's not too late to reach for your full potential.  If you haven't taken a martial-arts class, go for it.  Find a senior-friendly school that will help you on your way.  And if you've been out of training for some time, let today be the day that you rededicate yourself to the path that never ends.
   Do you have a success story about being a senior in the martial arts?  If so, please share it here. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Ideal School for Seniors

In my last post I discussed the huge health problem that falling represents for seniors, in particular those 65 and older.  And I discussed the potential benefits of martial-arts training, among them the ability to build leg strength and improve balance -- two key factors in healthy, fall-free aging.
    This led us to an important and practical question: what would the ideal senior-friendly martial arts school look like?  So today's post is an exercise in thinking out loud -- or perhaps dreaming -- about the perfect training hall for martial artists of a certain age.  If the school of my dreams exists, I haven't found it.  My online searches have led me to schools that mention "adults of any age" and a couple that specifically advertise classes for folks 50 and over, but I haven't found one that exists solely to serve senior citizens.
    Let me say up front that I understand why most schools are eager to serve students of any age -- from small children to teens to seniors.  The broader the market, the greater the potential to attract students and turn a profit.  And right now in America there's a vast opportunity for martial-arts instructors to generate a profit by teaching children.  Look, if you don't turn a profit, you end up closing the doors.  Very few instructors get rich teaching martial arts, so I applaud all those who manage to keep the enterprise afloat by serving the age groups that are available to them.
    But if you could find a dream school for seniors, what would it look like?  Here are some of the things I would want:
      1.  A minimum age of 50 or 55 for all students.  In the best case, I would like to see a 50-59 group and a 60+ group.  Believe me, there's a big difference between 55 and 65.  I've lived them both.  And if the school had enough students 70 and older, I'd have another group just for them.
      2.  Classes would be offered in mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and early evening.  Asking most seniors to participate in martial-arts training early in the day would be a mistake; and many, if not most, seniors are not able to handle serious workouts in the late evening.  7:00 p.m. is too late for most of us for a variety of reasons.
      3.  The instructors would ideally be seniors themselves, because to anyone else the phrase aging process is probably no more than an abstract concept.  If you're 60 or 70, aging process has real meaning.  You truly understand that, for example, your "high kicks" are closer to the ground than they once were. 
      4.  The program would focus heavily on gentle stretching, balance, forms, and basic self-defense techniques.  Sparring?  Maybe not.  Breaking boards and bricks?  Definitely not.  This doesn't mean that seniors can't break a board or brick; it simply means that requiring everyone to prove his or her ability in this area is inviting injured egos and broken bones. 
      5.  The head instructor would personally interview each prospective student to explain how this senior-friendly school will differ from traditional martial-arts schools, to understand what the student hopes to gain from the training, and to make sure that the student has been cleared for training by his or her physician.
    Well, that's just five short items on what could certainly be a much more exhaustive list.  And, as I said at the top, this is my dream school rather than a school I expect to find anytime soon.  In terms of the real world, I'd settle for a school that incorporates as many of these components as possible.  Simply offering a seniors-only class once or twice a week would be a huge step forward for most of the schools I've looked at online.  That's because most schools define an "adult class" as 18 and over.  Someone who is, say, 68 does not need to train alongside someone who is 18.
    Do you belong to a senior-friendly school?  If so, tell me about it, and I'll gladly help spread the word.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Leg strength and balance

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls are the number one cause of injury death among Americans 65 and over.  Falls are also the leading cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma.  And among older adults falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries as well as fractures of the spine, hip, forearm, leg, ankle, pelvis, upper arm, and hand. 
   Now there are lots of reasons why older adults may fall, including medications, faulty vision, cluttered living spaces, and the like.  Yet one of the most common reasons is something that's very much under our control: poor leg strength.  But there's more.  According to the physical therapist who has managed to keep my body parts intact throughout the first half of 2012, leg strength and balance are virtually two sides of the same coin.  Work on one, and you're improving the other.  And even if balance deteriorates with age, you can compensate to a large extent by keeping your legs in top condition.
   If you're a martial artist you already know that leg strength and balance are essential ingredients of your training.  But if you have never participated in the martial arts, maybe it's time to consider the powerful health benefits that can come with the study of taekwondo, karate, kung fu, or basically any martial art you can name.  Very early in my own training an instructor once said that a martial artist should have better balance on one foot than everyone else has on two.  Well, I think that's a bit of a stretch, but the underlying sentiment is sound.  The martial arts train you to remain upright and under control.
   Every kick you execute strengthens both the kicking leg and the supporting leg, but it also forces you to remain upright in a rather odd position.  The more you train, the less odd the kicking position feels.  And at some point you may find yourself executing spinning kicks, which naturally ratchet up the need for balance.  After all, you can't execute a spinning kick properly if you fall down every time you try, right?
   So if aging well is a high priority for you, either get active or stay active in the martial arts.  Scout out schools in your area, and find a senior-friendly environment in which to train.  What to look for in a "senior-friendly" martial arts school will be the topic of our next post.
   In the meantime, for more information on the problem of falls among older Americans, visit 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A "total package" workout

I don't know whether anyone has conducted a scientific inquiry into why people take up martial-arts training, but my gut tells me that "self defense" would be the most common answer.  It's certainly the reason I began studying taekwondo more than 40 years ago, and the self-defense aspect is still important to me.  But today the primary attraction is that in terms of efficient exercise, taekwondo is a "total package" workout. 
    A complete martial-arts training session checks off just about every box on your fitness checklist.  Strength training?  Absolutely.  Push-ups, sit-ups, and explosive repetitions of hand strikes, blocks, and kicks are highly effective in building a powerful body.  Flexibility? You bet.  Few training programs place as much emphasis on full-body flexibility as the martial arts.  Aerobics?  I've never run a marathon, but I've experienced martial-arts training sessions that gave a pretty good imitation of what a marathon must feel like.  In a well-run school your heart rate gets up and stays up.  Balance?  It's really tough to deliver an effective front kick if you fall down every time you do so.  So your instructor will spend a great deal of time working on how to maintain balance while delivering strikes with maximum power.  Symmetry?  Training just one side of your body can lead to problems like muscle-strength imbalance.  With the martial arts, you work both the left and right, front and back of your body from head to toe.  Even though you will likely be more proficient with one side than the other, the training requires you to give equal attention to left and right movements. 
    For senior martial artists there's another important health consideration that's certainly worth mentioning.  Brain training?  As you progress through the ranks, you place greater and greater demands on your brain -- learning countless individual techniques; learning complex forms; and learning about the history of your particular martial art.  The martial arts will work your brain in a way that most exercise programs simply cannot approach.
    The best part of martial-arts training is that you can participate at any age.  Your workout at, say, age 70 won't be as intense as it was at 25.  But you can tailor the training to whatever limitations might come with aging.  
So rest assured that if you haven't begun martial-arts training, it's not too late.
    We're looking for senior-friendly martial arts schools that we can tell other readers about.  If you know of such a school, please let us know, and we'll help spread the word.   

Monday, April 30, 2012

Overcoming back pain

Today's topic is slightly off the point of martial-arts training for seniors, but it's something worth examining.  Let's face it: one of the main reasons older athletes give up a sport is "back problems."  So if we can overcome the back issues, perhaps we can all get off the couch and back into training.
   Here in America we've been taught in countless ways -- often through TV commercials or by doctors who don't look deeply enough into our symptoms -- to believe that we're suffering an epidemic of fragile, out-of-kilter backs that are ready to "go out" if we even think about sports after a certain age.  While it's certainly true that millions of Americans suffer from debilitating back pain [and for a long time I was one of them], it's absolutely not true that all back pain should be a reason to give up sports.
   The book that changed my thinking -- and my life, to be more precise -- is Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection by John E. Sarno, M.D.  A friend of mine recommended the book nearly 20 years ago, when I had such extreme lower back pain that I could hardly walk across the street.  He told me that the book had worked a small miracle in his life and that maybe I'd find it useful.
   Here's a true story: a got on a plane in Hartford, CT, barely able to walk.  While flying to Florida I read Dr. Sarno's book from cover to cover; it's a slender, very readable paperback first published in 1991.  By the time I got off the plane in Florida, I was walking normally and was able to return to my normal exercise routines.  No drugs.  No surgery.  No physical therapy.  And no special exercises.
    Early in the book Dr. Sarno makes it clear that if an MRI or X-rays have shown that you are suffering from a true physical problem, his book may not be the right answer.  But for the rest of us -- and perhaps most of us -- the problem is not actually physical but mental.  Okay, the pain is physical.  Lower-back pain is sometimes excruciating.  But the fundamental cause, Sarno says, is mental.  To make a long story short, he indicates that the subconscious mind creates the pain in order to keep us from examining conflicts in our lives.  We're not talking about the simple stress of daily living.  We're talking about inner conflicts that we need to recognize and resolve; once we do that, we defeat the subconscious mind's ability to create lower-back pain.
    Yes, this sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?  Get rid of back pain just by changing the way you think!  But I now keep two copies of Healing Back Pain on my bookshelf: one for me to reread every now and then, and one to lend to family and friends who are experiencing either back pain or other painful symptoms that in Sarno's view are triggered by the same basic mind/body phenomenon.  The phrase "Read the book" comes up quite often in my family.  Whenever someone talks about back pain, shoulder pain, or even migraines and heart palpitations, I say, "Read the book."  And everyone knows which book I'm talking about.
    Most of us don't need to fear lifting, twisting, punching, or kicking.  For most of us back pain isn't a physical ailment.  It's an unpleasant trick that the subconscious mind plays on us.  To learn why and how the mind does this and why we are able to eliminate the problem from our lives, read the book.
    Healing Back Pain may be your way back into training.  If you do read the book and find that it works a small miracle in your life, please let us know so that we can share your story.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Training alone

One of the major strengths of martial-arts training is that you can experience real-life fighting situations by practicing your "forms."  Forms come by various names, according to your martial-arts style, but they all feature an imagined battle with multiple opponents.  As you progress from one rank to the next, you learn new forms, each highly choreographed to incorporate additional offensive and defensive techniques and combinations of techniques.  And by the time you have mastered let's say 10 or 12 forms, you will have established  "muscle memory" of a rather large arsenal of important kicks, strikes, and blocks.
     In addition, you will have learned how one technique can flow naturally into another.  For example, you learn how a left high block moves naturally into a right middle punch, or how after executing a double open-hand block to the left you can swing your body 180 degrees into a double side kick.  Because each form follows a pattern of moves that you must execute properly and in strict sequence, you are continually benefiting from the wisdom of the masters who created these forms as a means of assuring that every student of a particular martial-arts style has learned the fundamentals properly.  In this way, as an example, a student who has learned Taekwondo form Koryo while studying in Korea will execute the moves in the same way as a student who learned the form from a qualified instructor in Texas or Minnesota.
     Although the full body of training that you experience in your school may vary greatly from what someone learns in another school of the same style, what doesn't change is the forms.  These are established by that style's highest governing body and are standard from one school to the next.
     If you have never studied the martial arts, you need to begin in the company of a trained instructor who will teach you the basics and introduce you to his or her style's forms.  You will learn the forms in the proper sequence as you move from, let's say, white belt to black belt, and you will be required to master the individual techniques.  Once you know the forms -- if, for instance, you have learned the forms in a martial-arts school but must now practice on your own -- you don't need a training partner in order to engage in "hand to hand" combat.  By practicing your forms diligently, you are preparing yourself for self-defense in the real world.
     In the April 18th post about "Inspiration" you'll find a link to a black-belt form demonstrated by Taekwondo Grandmaster Kyu Hyung Lee.  You'll see what a form should look like when executed by someone who has devoted his life to the martial arts.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Spotlight on: A senior-friendly school

Although most readers of "Seniors in the Martial Arts" are New Jersey residents, we're always happy to acknowledge the efforts of senior-friendly martial arts schools elsewhere in the U.S.  Today the spotlight is on High Kicks Taekwon-Do up in Rochester, New Hampshire.  The school is operated by head instructor Gary L. Arkerson, a 3rd-degree black belt certified by the International Taekwon-Do Federation.  He aims to have the school accessible to "people of all athletic abilities," and he gets high marks when it comes to accommodating seniors.
    First, he offers a seniors-only [55+] class every Tuesday from 10:00-11:00 a.m.  Here you have two wins: seniors can train in the company of folks who understand that age often brings with it some physical limitations; and the class is held in the morning, a major plus since many senior citizens can't tolerate intense workouts at night.  Second, seniors can participate in a Saturday "all adults" morning class that runs from 10:00-11:00.  Better still, the Saturday class actually kicks off at 9:30 with a half hour "stretching and balancing" session.  And get this: visitors can attend the Saturday stretching and balancing session for free.  Talk about friendly.
    Even if you don't live in New Hampshire, you should check out this school's website.  The training hall is a knockout, as you'll see when you reach the homepage.  The website's motto is, "A Black Belt is a White Belt who never quit."  The NEVER QUIT idea is one that we wholeheartedly endorse. 
     Two thumbs up to Gary L. Arkerson and High Kicks Taekwon-Do in Rochester, N.H.  If you know of other senior-friendly schools, please let us know.  We'll try to help spread the word.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The "Duh" Stretch

Back around 1971 I was unceremoniously introduced to what I would now call the "Duh Stretch."  I was in a martial-arts class sitting on the floor with my legs spread as wide as I could get them.  Every few seconds I would lean forward and attempt to pull myself forward, stretching the groin and hamstring muscles.  An assistant instructor, who thought he knew a lot more than he actually did, came up behind me and without asking if I wanted some help just pushed me down from my upper back.  Well, I did go lower, but I tore a hamstring muscle in the process.
    Ever since then I have considered stretching to be a solitary activity.  I believe in static stretching: you extend a given stretch to the point of your personal limit, then hold that position for roughly 30 seconds.  Holding the stretch for less than 30 seconds may not increase your flexibility over time, while holding the stretch for more than 30 seconds can possibly damage the muscle in question.  So it looks as though the proper length of holding the stretch is about 30 seconds according to all the scientific literature I have been able to find online.
    The next logical question is, "Should I stretch before or after exercise?"  The best answer seems to be the following: do a serious range-of-motion warm-up for at least 5 minutes -- riding a stationary bike if you plan to stretch your legs, for instance -- and then stretch gently.  Then go gently into your martial-arts routine; keep the kicks and punches light at first, and gradually build up intensity.  Finally, do your serious stretching after the full workout, when your body is completely warmed up.  You'll notice two things in this bit of advice: 1. the word gently is key; you score no extra points for injuring yourself by playing Bruce Lee during the warm-up phase.  2.  You need to invest a fair amount of time to stretching each time you train.  How often you train is a function of many things: how old you are; what sort of shape you're in at the time; whether you still work outside the home, and such.  As always, the best answer is do all you can with what you've got.  If you're 60 or 70, your flexibility won't be what it was at age 25.  That's just how it works, folks.  But your flexibility at 60 or 70 can be radically better than that of someone who spends 14 hours a day in front of the television set.  
    Do you know a senior-friendly martial-arts school in your area?  A school that welcomes senior citizens and recognizes their common training limitations?  Let us know about the school, and we'll gladly tell others about it in this blog.