The late John Corcoran was a significant mentor of mine. I hired him to be the editor of the ACMA Instructor Certification program in 1998, which was a job he had great enthusiasm for. The ACMA has reworked and updated into the MATA Certification Program.
Here is his Foreword for the ACMA Manual.
Let’s Learn From The Past Lest We Repeat It!
BY JOHN CORCORAN
Don’t tell me about training, buster! I’m from the “old school” of martial arts—and I’ve got the injuries to prove it! For years, in fact, you could hear the physical symphony of snap, crackle, pop whenever I moved. It especially terrified my dance partners.
It all started innocently enough. One time, when I was young and, in retrospect, astutely foolish, I enrolled in a karate class after seeing the flamboyant use of martial arts in a James Bond ﬁlm.
Most assuredly, I could have used James’ help during my lessons—as a personal bodyguard. For, as it turned out, I signed up for lessons in 1967—at the tail end of that notorious period known as the “Blood-n-Guts Era” of American karate.
I was something of a 19-year old skinny runt, standing only about 5’6” and weighing in at 120 pounds. The type of skinﬂint bullies traveled from out of state to line up for. When I put on my ﬁrst gi, with its “high-water” pants ﬂagging around my lower knees, I looked like a scarecrow on a popsicle stick.
The grueling training regimen of that era, as ACMA and NAPMA founder, John Graden articulates it so well, “Was not so much designed to build strong character, but to eliminate the weak ones.” Most instructors were gungho ex-military types who ran their classes with brutal boot-camp regimentation. But I was gungho myself. I rode a bus five miles each way to get to class, and sometimes also had to walk about a half-mile, even in all kinds of inclement weather, to and from the bus stop to my father’s home where I lived periodically.
It’s not like I had much choice of changing schools for a more convenient location. In 1967, there were only about four or ﬁve karate schools in my entire hometown of Pittsburgh, PA.
Ah, the good old days! So scientific were the training methods of that time that, amazingly, I can still feel some of their peculiar lasting “beneﬁts,” 30 years later.
How well I remember doing those character-building bare-knuckle push-ups on concrete ﬂoors; punching, bare-ﬁsted, straw-wrapped makiwara boards till my ﬁsts ached. All while working up a good gi-drenching sweat during mid-winter in cold buildings with minimal heat. We were breaking boards-sometimes with bare-knuckled punches that sometimes didn’t break, resulting in two swollen “egg knuckles” that never returned to normal size.
My favorite was performing tens of thousands of repetitions using good old “bounce stretching” which is now called ballistic stretching.
Sure, you’re thinking, everyone got hurt back then. And the truth is, only the strong did survive that prehistoric training, and it did forge us into stronger individuals, both physically and mentally. But as we know very well today, there’s a radical difference between self-improvement and self-destruction—a distinction truly lost on old-school beginners and intermediate practitioners. Like gungho automatons, we just did what we were told.
Sensei: “White belt, go run head ﬁrst into that brick wall.”
Beginner: "Yes, Sensei!"
Later, in our intermediate phase, we got smarter. We started to ask why.
Sensei: “Green belt, go run head ﬁrst into that brick wall.”
Green Belt: “But Sensei, why?”
Sensei: Because it will strengthen your head butt.”
Green Belt: “Yes, Sensei!”
Like so many of my peers today, I have some of those antiquated training methods I’ve cited above to thank for the torn ligaments in my knees, which is practically an industry standard among veteran black belts. As well, most of us suffer from a host of other unnecessary injuries from those early classes. How many veteran black belts do you know that have had hip replacement surgery?
My nose, for example, is still cracked from one of my ﬁrst sparring sessions: Me, a white belt with about three weeks of training, pitted against a bigger, stronger, more skilled green belt, who kicked me squarely in the face so hard I saw stars and my nose cracked and bled profusely.
Some kind soul, probably not the instructor, threw some type of rag at me and directed me to wipe the blood off the ﬂoor so no one else slipped on it. My nose has been crooked ever since!
My second instructor was hardly better, which brings me to perhaps the lowlight of my entire martial arts training. I won’t tell you his name in order to protect the guilty.
He had this self~defense thing he did that he called, “Let’s work out together. _ But his vision and execution of this “shared" concept confused me for a long time; most of the time, it just hurt.
Our Equal Opportunity Workout consisted of this. I would stand facing him, step forward and throw a simple reverse punch at his face with my right ﬁst. He would block it and then beat the living daylights out of me with any number and all manner of hard contact punches, kicks, and chops tall over my body.
Duh! This is deﬁnitely where I became intimate with the phrase, "marriage to gravity."
The most memorable "Let's work out together" workout led to me, "Ben Gay night of terror!"
I came home that night with my then–fiancé, a green belt in the same class, and collapsed on the bed. My instructor had beaten me almost senseless. I was black and blue everywhere from head to feet.
I had a brilliant revelation on the way home from the school that night–"Honey, let's buy some of that Ben Gay stuff. The commercials say it's good for sore muscles. I had never before used a muscle ointment. Ignorant of its peculiar effect, I stripped and had my fiancé rub Ben Gay all over my body from neck to toes, both the back and front of me.
I quickly learned the science of cause and effect.
Cause: Never-rub Ben Gay over your entire body.
Effect: When you do, it causes you to alternate between Hot Flashes and Cold Chills.
So bad Were the Cold Chills my teeth were actually chattering” audibly and I had to wrap a heavy blanket around me in a futile attempt to stop my body from convulsively. About every 30 seconds, I was introduced to the “extreme” alternative. During the hot flashes, I broke into a feverish sweat and had to whip off the blanket and ﬁght to breathe.
I soaked the blanket and three towels with sweat before the dual effects began subsiding. The “Ben Gay Night of Terror ended about a half-hour later.
This anecdote sure sounds funny in retrospect, but I can tell you now folks; that I didn't know if I was coming into this world or leaving it. And boy, was I mad at that instructor! Had he and I and a gun been in the same room right then, I know only two of us would have left and it wouldn't have been him!
Here's the point behind all of my painful anecdotes. Let's learn from the past, lest we repeat it.
There are still, unfortunately, far too many instructors using frightfully outdated teaching methods. Maybe nothing as severe or brutal as in my era, but certainly antiquated compared to other modern fitness industries. The future–the time for change–is now.
In my 30+ years in the martial arts field, I've watched our industry rise from a storefront novelty practiced by a few in rooms akin to dungeons, to a popular activity mass-marketed in fine schools to millions of people in all walks of life.
I've applauded our victories and mourned our failures over the years. I'm proud of our spectacular strides in so many areas but equally disappointed by areas suffering unnecessarily from stubborn stagnation.
One such area, standardized teaching practices, should now be brought up to speed. Many of you, through associations like John Graden's NAPMA, are now becoming black belts at business. So, isn't right now a great time to become a black belt in teaching too?
I knew you'd agree. So please read this book and apply its modern principles. Your students will thank you instead of suing you. Now there is a concept!
Had I sustained my stupid injuries around the late 1980s or after, I probably could file a multi-million-dollar lawsuit for damages caused by instructor negligence. Heck, the trial for such a case might even air on Court TV. I could become a courtroom star as I sing the blues about my black and blues. Good thing I'm a nice guy.
It's also a good thing that I've spent some 25 years around Hollywood and the entertainment business. There I learned how to use "props" not only to look 10 years younger than I am but also hide the otherwise disastrous effects of those numerous martial arts injuries I sustained during the "good old days."
Now, at middle age, I'm finally going to have to get my nose straightened too the result of that green belt trying to remodel my face with his foot 30 years ago– since it mildly impairs my breathing capacity. No doubt a good L.A. plastic surgeon will charge me a few grand to help me smell the roses again.
Paying for my youthful annoyance has been an expensive education, folks. But–ha, ha–I no longer clank when I walk. And for darn sure I know how and when to use Ben Gay sparingly! Now, if I could just perfect this last technique...BONK!