John Titchen Interview by Michael Rosenbaum
1. Why did you begin training in the martial arts?
I began training due to a combination of different things in my life converging at the same time. A martial arts club teaching Shotokan Karate opened at my secondary school. At the same time I was looking for something active to do to supplement the weightlifting regime I was following as that form of exercise was beginning to bore me, and I have no interest in sports. A final factor was that I’d had some anger management issues the year before and taking up a martial art had been suggested as a way of controlling my temper and focusing my aggression.
2. What expectations did you have of the martial arts when you began and how have they changed?
I think my initial expectations were formed from the occasional martial arts techniques I had seen in action movies such as James Bond or television shows like the Fall Guy. I hadn’t had any prior martial arts experience other than a few Judo classes as a young child, so I had no real idea how a martial arts class ‘should’ be structured. Once I began training in martial arts and caught ‘the bug’ I went through a development stage, common to a number of beginners of the pre UFC and internet era, where I watched a large martial arts movies (such as those starring Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme etc) often while stretching or doing bodyweight exercises, a move which fostered an interesting (and very misguided) set of ideas as to what was ‘effective’ in fights – fortunately I grew out of that fairly quickly.
I mentioned earlier that one reason why I had been encouraged to take up martial arts was that it might help me control my temper better. I would say that for me this has been successful, but that success is not really due to anything special about martial arts or eastern philosophies. I think any form of physical exertion can be a way of letting off steam and channeling aggression, and any study that you devote time and energy to can enhance self control (through the dedication required to reach a reasonable level of proficiency).
I never believed the philosophy that studying a martial art would make me a more ‘moral’ person, and while I have met many great individuals who practice the martial arts, I can also say that I have met (and heard of) a number of individuals whom the study of martial arts has not made into decent citizens.
I think that looking back I took up martial arts as I wanted to try a form of exercise that I would enjoy, and as added side effects I thought that I might improve my ability to control my temper and I’d learn to do some pretty cool things involving strength, flexibility and balance. For me the martial arts have ticked all those boxes.
3. You're a proponent of cross training, why?
I think cross training gives a martial artist two things: firstly a broader perspective and understanding of the other approaches available both in their core art and in other martial art styles, and secondly a deeper understanding of the mechanics of their own art by affording them the opportunity to become a devil’s advocate for their training through exposure to other methodologies.
4. Do you believe that eclecticism is more effective than keeping within stylistic boundaries?
I believe each different style of martial art has originated because of the eclecticism of its founder and the subsequent generations of senior instructors. Ultimately a deep study and practice of any art for the purpose of self development (in a technical / physical rather than emotional sense) has to become eclectic to be effective. This does not mean that you cannot be effective by staying within stylistic boundaries, but ultimately by doing so you are (to a degree) becoming more proficient in someone else’s ideal martial art.
5. What role does kata have in your training?
Kata is everything and nothing to me. That probably seems like a strange thing to say. To some people I’m known for my bunkai and my first book Heian Flow System: effective karate kata bunkai, but there are others who know me for my current work in Conflict Management and don’t see me practicing Kata.
As a Karateka I’ve always been fascinated by biomechanical efficiency of technique and practical application of technique. These two things combined with my interest in haov led me to spend lots of time researching and developing karate bunkai, a course of action that gave my kata practice greater meaning. The problem with that approach is that ultimately the kata were simply mnemonics for drills, and so to improve my training efficiency I focused on my drills. Where drills overlapped unnecessarily I would ruthlessly cut the least efficient and effective ones, and over time a number of my drills have changed a little as a result of pressure testing feedback. The end result is that I now practice a small number of drills (either paired or shadow boxing against imaginary attacks) rather than Kata, and although all the drills have their origins in Kata I don’t string them together and perform them by rote in the manner that Kata is commonly practiced in many Karate classes. On the one hand you could say I don’t teach or do Kata, but on the other hand it could be argued that I am doing Kata in its most eclectic and developed form.
I’d say I’ll practice an occasional full kata or two from Shotokan Karate on about one day every months. When I do this I tend to play between doing my own adaptations of movements (which tend to be closer in appearance to 1930s Shotokan) and the late twentieth century versions I was taught. I’m currently popping in to a local Shotokan class about one week in three (due to other work pressures) and I do Kata in that class by rote.
6. How do you explain kata's ambigous nature?
I would say that there are a number of different reasons for the ambiguous nature of Kata.
1. Techniques. Good techniques often have what I call the ‘multiplicity’ factor. That means they can be applied in the same or a number of different ways against a number of apparently different attacks in a number of different situations. As a result they tend to have multiple applications and can be interpreted in a number of ways. The fact that Kata are made up of a number of techniques strung together increases the number of different ways that they can be used.
2. Transmission of Knowledge. I’ve argued in the past that it was possible that the grappling element of Karate was not taught as much as the striking element because of the cultural prominence of tegumi amongst Okinawan youths, and this may well have had repercussions on the transmission of knowledge when Karate was taught in Japan.
In some systems we know from written and photographic records that the grappling/throwing element of Kata was downplayed or removed, and this ‘gap’ will serve to make certain parts of the forms ambiguous to say the least. Combined with this there has clearly been a situation where certain teachers either haven’t known or have deliberately obfuscated the applications of techniques.
3. Function. Kata can serve many purposes depending on the needs of the student, the purpose of the training and the interests (and knowledge level) of the instructor. Kata is ambiguous because we get out of it what we put in: if you purely train it to refine the appearance of your techniques, to work through an injury, or to win a competition, or as a form of moving meditation then it isn’t going to reveal any great combative secrets or turn you into a better fighter.
7. Do you believe in personal kata? For instance modifying existing kata or creating your own?
Absolutely. I don’t believe in doing this (modifying or creating Kata) for the sake of having a new Kata though. Personal Kata, or personal variations on existing Kata, should be a reflection of your training, and the dynamic of techniques as you apply and visualize them.
8. What do you consider traditional martial arts?
To some people what I teach is ultra modern, scientific, reality based self protection. I recognise that description and yet at the same time I regard what I do as very traditional karate, even though I don’t wear a gi and belt for regular training, don’t use Japanese terminology in my system or observe oriental etiquette.
There is more to traditional karate than physical actions, drills or even kata – there is intent. What was the intent of those men who sought out other teachers and trained and passed on their knowledge? There is no way that you can be Sokon Matsumura, Kokan Oyadomori, Kanryo Higaonna or Chotoku Kyan, you cannot train precisely the way they did or replicate their experiences – but you can aim for the same thing they did. Isn’t that traditional?
Anything can be considered traditional once it has been done more than once. You can copy the training methodology of any decade of any martial art and therefore describe yourself as traditional. personally I prefer to look beyond that and focus on underlying aims and objectives as the basis for my own tradition.
9. You're training program is very self defense/self protection orientated. How did this come about?
I blame Kata. That’s where it all started. I have an inquisitive mind and I don’t like doing things without a reason. Kata presented a challenge, a puzzle, sequences of movements that didn’t make sense in the manner in which I was taught. As a result I started investigating and studying bunkai, which led me into a study of haov, which in turn led to studies into violent crime patterns and effective combative drills. I’ve spent a fair amount of my life teaching history to school children and university students, and working/studying as an historian. Historians ask questions and search for evidence, that evidence brings new conclusions and new questions. It has been that natural progression and cycle from question to evidence to conclusion to question that has led me to where I am today.
10. Could you tell us about DART and what its training involves?
Defence Attack & Resolution Tactics (DART) is a Karate system designed to develop and enhance the necessary survival skills to avoid, deter, negate, survive and escape violence. The DART training method evolved from applying research in the following subject areas to traditional Karate techniques and training methods:
human physiology, sports science, psychology, violent crime statistics and the law.
DART teaches simple effective physical drills in response to simulations of habitual acts of violence (HAOV). Alongside this we provide training in fear management and verbal de- escalation techniques. Every drill used in DART has been pressure tested in full contact training and risk assessed to ensure that even when students are pushed to their limits in stressful real time, real movement, force on force training simulations, and their training experience is safe. The drills themselves are subject to a long list of criteria to ensure they maximize the potential of students and minimise the maintenance and learning required for effectiveness.
The range of physical skills taught by DART are based on predominantly everyday gross motor physical movements and genetically wired reflex behavior patterns. This makes them less perishable and makes them more suitable for use in conditions where the subject may be under considerable mental and physical pressure. Throughout our syllabus there is also a written element explaining the rationale behind drills and approaches and supporting some of the psychological training embedded in the system. The information/knowledge element is tested at every grade in addition to the physical element.
DARTdrills are designed to flow into one another. As a result failures to apply one drill puts students into positions where another drilled response can be automatically applied. Many of the drills have variable outcomes so responses can be adjusted once a position of control has been achieved depending on the threat level posed by an attacker and the context of the conflict situation. Drills are ordered in the syllabus according to the likelihood of the attacks for which they are designed.
From my perspective what I teach requires a huge amount of continuous background research to ensure that we are teaching the best stuff available when it comes to self protection (deterrence, avoidance, confrontation management) and self defence. It’s also important not to get too focused on the books, research papers and cctv footage though, and every drill we teach is pressure tested in high quality PPE and put through a double risk assessment process, firstly for its legality were it to be used for real, and secondly to ensure that it is safe to train.
One type of training that DART runs that has gained a fair amount of interest recently is our Simulation Days. These are training days designed to introduce people of different levels of ability and experience to confrontation management situations that may or may not escalate into violent situations using haov depending upon the participant’s actions:
This form of training is frequently misunderstood by those watching rather than participating. Some don’t understand that the training is tailored to the needs of the student, and that for injured or inexperienced students we will work at a slower pace with lower contact levels. While there is often great physical pressure (for more experienced participants), and people can get hit very hard (though the PPE prevents injury), the real pressure, as with real life, comes from participants trying to find the right key to defuse the tension and avoid violence.
11. Would you consider live drills and role playing more effective than solo kata?
Yes. The key to solo Kata is in the name. It is something you do when you don’t have a training partner to work with.
12. How important are live drills and role playing?
Live drills are crucial if you want to have combat applicable skills, whether for self protection or for combat sports. In my opinion good quality role playing with multiple variables and outcomes (depending upon the positioning, body language, tone and words used) is a core part of training effective self protection. The video below is an example of a role playing experience involving martial arts students and LEO Instructors. Warning, this video contains scenes of violence and profanity:
13. The fight or flight response, tell us how it effects one's skills?
I don’t refer to the fight or flight response as that is quite an outdated way of summing up the effects of an adrenal hormone cascade. I refer to the freeze, flight or fight response. This can affect our skills in a number of different ways.
In physiological terms the increased heart rate associated with adrenal cascade has a direct effect on our motor skills. While every person will have slightly different threshold levels, on average fine motor skills deteriorate at 115 BPM while complex motor skills deteriorate at 145 BPM and disappear by 175 BPM (these figures will vary depending upon physical fitness levels, VO2 efficiency and heart rate capacity). By contrast gross motor skills improve as our heart rate increases and continue to improve even after the ability to perform fine and complex motor skills goes. The obvious first lesson to draw from this is that if you anticipate having to perform in high adrenaline situations you should focus on developing a repertoire based predominantly on gross motor skills. A second lesson is that you should practice functioning with an elevated heart rate to simulate those conditions. A third approach might be to practice breathing techniques through which you can affect your heart rate and increase your ability to lower your heart rate under stress so you can increase your chances of accessing complex motor skills.
In psychological terms the physiological effects of adrenaline can also affect our ability to perform. If a person has not experienced a severe adrenaline dump before they might well lose confidence due to the unfamiliar physiological sensations caused by the hormone. This will also affect their ability to access their skill set.
14. How fast does one become fatigued in real combat and how does this affect their skills?
How fast you become fatigued will depend on a number of different factors:
1. on both your aerobic and anaerobic fitness,
2. your training regime (being fit for swimming is not the same as being fit for running which is not the same as being fit for fighting),
3. how biomechanically efficient and effective is your repertoire,
4. how raised your heart rate is (linked to your fitness and your experience of potentially adrenaline inducing situations).
As you tire your heart rate will most likely increase in order to sustain the same level of activity, resulting in a reduction in the ability to perform fine and complex motor skills. If your repertoire is based predominantly on fine and complex motor skills a failure to finish a confrontation within seconds (and indeed a failure to prepare for adrenaline induced high heart rate levels) will lead to a higher risk of failure. In addition to this your peripheral vision will be affected by the level of adrenaline in your system, so acclimatization training that lessens the amount of the hormone released (due to familiarity) or that accustoms the trainee to working under such conditions, is a prudent measure.
15. John, what are your future plans and what do you envision for DART in say, another 5 years?
I’m about to make a ‘branding’ split between DART as a training system and the team’s professional work as Conflict Management Advisers and Trainers. Working under the same name has caused confusion for both those seeking regular self protection training and those interested in finding a professional to provide a service in their workplace.
With regard to the DART Training System we’ll see where continued exposure and training takes us. The core of the DART Training System has remained unchanged for a number of years with minor tweaks to certain drills and a greater emphasis on incorporating padwork into existing syllabus exercises. Those changes that have been made have been born out of continued exposure in simulation training, looking not only at how experienced students have reacted but also those fairly new to training. In essence we will retain and refine what works.
Over the next five years we will probably expand the number of Simulation Days we offer to martial artists and members of the LEO community. At the moment we are predominantly running these locally due to the excellent facilities (such as moveable padded walls) that we have on hand, but we can and do offer these to outside clubs and LEO groups as a useful training experience. I’d certainly be interested in taking this kind of training along with other elements of the DART Training System to trainees in Europe and America as well as further afield in the UK.
Thank you John, it was a pleasure.