If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right (Henry Ford)

One of the frustrating things I find in teaching martial arts is when a new student repeatedly says “I can’t” before they have tried something or even after they have tried it. “I can’t” is not an acceptable phrase in YAKMA classes and students are told not to use it.

If anyone else said to a student “You can’t do this” I’m pretty sure they would feel insulted and yet they happily say it about themselves. This negative attitude serves no useful purpose whatsoever, it simply reinforces the belief that the students can’t do a particular exercise.

If any of my students are struggling with a technique, I ask them to replace “I can’t” with “I am currently experiencing difficulties with this particular move”, they are often amused by this phrase and are happy to use it.

“I can’t” is the easiest option, if you assume you can’t do a thing then all you have to do is leave it and do something that is easy. But this overlooks one of, if not the major advantage of martial arts.

Often when starting martial arts students find difficulty with certain aspects, sometimes they appear almost impossible and sometimes very scary. If you apply yourself correctly you will find that the “impossible” becomes achievable and eventually even easy. By repeatedly, successfully overcoming obstacles in our training we eventually learn not to assume we can’t do things. We gain confidence in our ability to achieve difficult objectives.

So how do we adopt a more positive attitude to training and ultimately to everything we do in or outside the dojang?

  1. Look around and ask yourself if other students can perform a technique, why can’t you? Look at what you are doing differently to them.
  2. Remind yourself that you are here to learn, if you could competently perform all the moves already why would you be in the class?
  3. Who told you martial arts was easy? It’s not meant to be easy; it should be challenging. How else would you gain perseverance, positivity, or confidence?
  4. What have you got to lose by giving this your best shot?
  5. How can you fail unless you stop trying?
  6. Consider whether the students who can perform this technique could do so when they first started martial arts?
  7. Think of the satisfaction you’ll get when you master the technique.

There are many benefits to a positive attitude:

Physical benefits may include:

  • Longer life
  • Better physical health
  • Improved immunity
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved cardiovascular system
  • Stress management
  • Better pain tolerance

Mental benefits may include:

  • Increased creativity
  • Improved problem-solving
  • Clearer thinking
  • Improved mood
  • Better problem tolerance
  • Less depression

“I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.” Winston Churchill”


I remember starting Hapkido and having a great desire to progress as fast as possible. As soon as I had got the basics of a technique, I wanted to know the next one. I wasn’t overly concerned with the finer details or practicing it until it became a reflex action. I had the idea that the more techniques I knew the better martial artist I would be.

However, imagine a time when you really need to use a technique be it in sparring or a real life situation. Everything happens incredibly quickly; you don’t have the luxury of a co-operative partner or seconds to decide which is your best move for the situation. Your move must be a reflex action requiring no thought. Being able to perform a move in this way also allows you to concentrate on the bigger picture. If you pause to think you’re too late.

Obviously, a technique must be worked through in a slow and controlled manner with a co-operative partner until the basics are fully embedded. The speed and resistance from your partner can then be gradually increased. When you feel confident, different partners are then used until eventually you are ready to improve your application of it by using the technique while sparring.

When the mechanics of a move have been mastered it is time to concentrate on the principles required to make it effective. These principles may include, breaking your opponent’s balance, harmonising with their force, circular motion, smooth transitioning (like water). In Hapkido we initially learn techniques from a static stance, but this isn’t how they will eventually be used. We therefore need to practice the moves dynamically. This may involve your opponent pulling, pushing, stepping in/out or maybe trying to throw you.

Many new martial artists try to devise a plan for sparring by anticipating what their opponent will do and planning accordingly. They think, “When they perform this attack, I’ll retaliate with this”. Considering how many possible attacks there are it becomes clear that it’s very unlikely you’ll be presented with your dream scenario. The opportunity you’re looking for isn’t there so you’re back to square one, what do you do now?

The answer is to have a much more flexible approach. Firstly, drill the techniques until they become reflex actions. With a clear mind and a collection of instinctive techniques you can realistically evaluate the situations as they develop and react accordingly.

Learning every move this thoroughly is very time consuming, especially considering they should be practiced on both left and right sides. There are so many other things that are covered in a class such as kicking and striking, patterns, sparring, breakfalls, footwork, Ki exercises, warming up, conditioning etc, it becomes clear that there simply isn’t sufficient time in one or two classes a week.

Most of us aren’t professional athletes and don’t have the time, facilities, willing partners, and instructors that are available to them. To progress in martial arts, we must work towards a good working knowledge of the mechanics and principles of every technique in the syllabus. However, Hapkido is a complex martial art and there is so much to learn that it may not be practical in the limited time we have to drill all techniques to a level where they become a reflex action.

However, having a surface knowledge of many techniques will be of little use in sparring or a self-defence situation. It will help you immensely if you select a handful of practical, simple core techniques (with experience you will realise which these are) and practice them repeatedly until they become automatic on both left and right sides. You can obviously add other techniques to this list as time goes on.

When it isn’t possible to practice techniques or patterns physically I have found it very useful to mentally rehearse them. For example, when preparing for my black belt I would run through the list of techniques in each section of the syllabus every morning when I woke up and every night before I went to sleep. If waiting in a queue rather than getting frustrated by the length of time it was taking, I might revise the mechanics of a technique or perhaps run through the stages of a pattern.

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I do fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times. “Bruce Lee”

Masakiko Kimuro was a legendary Judo player who was a fanatical trainer. He repeatedly practiced the Judo technique O Soto Gari (major outside reaping throw) against a tree and became so proficient in the technique that he concussed or knocked out several opponents with it. He won many top level competitions by using this one technique. Some sparring opponents even asked him not to use the technique.

This is a great example of how one instinctive technique can be used with devastating effect.


Black belt

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…

― Theodore Roosevelt

I started my Hapkido journey to black belt with my sons Andrew and Stephen. For 5 years we trained for several nights a week with each lesson lasting for 2 hours. We also attended almost all the seminars that were available to us during this period and trained at open sessions held in our local martial arts club. On top of this we would practice at home. In short it was much more than a hobby it was a way of life.  Continue reading “A JOURNEY TO BLACK BELT”


Argue for your limitations and sure enough they’re yours (Richard Bach)

Have you ever thought?  “I wish I’d taken up martial arts when I was younger”

Have you ever thought?  “It’s too late for me to start now”

In my classes I’ve had people in their early 20’s tell me that they wish they’d started at an earlier age. To me that’s a very young age but I understand what they mean.

To be a top competitor or elite athlete it’s generally accepted that you must start at an early age. Although this is true in most cases there are many exceptions and a lot of late starters have made it to the top. Continue reading “ARE YOU TOO OLD FOR MARTIAL ARTS?”


The level of contact in martial arts is a very controversial subject. Is full contact training necessary to learn to fight well under real pressure? Opinions vary but in my opinion if someone is preparing for a competitive fight or may need to fight flat out as part of their job, such as a door security worker they need to know what being hit full on feels like. They also need to be conditioned to take a hit. Ricky Hatton said in one of his books that the hardest part of coming back after a layoff is learning to take a shot again. Continue reading “MANY WARRIORS ARE INJURED BEFORE THE REAL BATTLE STARTS”


Building on firm foundations

Many years ago when I trained in Wado Ryu Karate the first half of the lesson was spent repeating the same punches, kicks and blocks. After that it was time to learn a new technique or perhaps spar. Whatever the second half of the lesson held the first section was spent covering basics whatever grade you were.

From day one attitude was emphasised. “Don’t lean on walls.” “If you get knocked down get straight back up”. “When you’ve done your press ups jump up, don’t lie there like a dead starfish”.

The basic techniques and good attitude were reinforced every week.

These solid foundations were the blocks that we built on as we progressed through the syllabus.

A few months ago I taught a beginners class a new technique. I was walking round making sure everybody had it right when a student called out “Right, got that Sir”. He obviously thought after getting the feel of the move for 2 minutes it was time to move on to the next one. Many times in junior classes I will tell them to practice and after a minute or two someone will shout out, “I’ve done that ten times Sir”.

It’s normal to see beginners wanting to move onto the flashier techniques they see the more advanced grades performing. But first of all the basics must be mastered. This will also teach them one of their first martial arts lessons: Patience.

Basics are often under rated. On their own they can be very useful self defence tools. Consistently practicing the basics will also give you the building blocks such as balance, strength and coordination to name a few. These assets are all necessary to learn the more advanced techniques.

Other side benefits of constant repetition week after the week are a healthy dose of mental discipline, improved focus and concentration.

Back in the 70’s I practiced Karate. Virtually every lesson we would practice blocking full contact punches with our forearms as we moved up and down the dojo. I can’t remember the length of time we did this for but as I had bony forearms I do remember hating this painful part of the lesson. Each time we blocked we would breath out forcefully making an “usss”  sound. Many years later my son asked me “Why do you always make that noise when you’re lifting something heavy?” I asked him what noise as I wasn’t aware that I was making one. He said “Usss”. Since then I have noticed that every time I make a real effort I subconsciously make the “Usss” sound. This to me proves the value of repetition when ingraining something.

The karate lessons were by nature repetitive and painful. In spite of this I would return every week as this was just the way things were. I would never in a million years have dreamed of approaching my instructor and asking “What practical purpose does this serve?”  Or worse still “I know this we did it last week, why are we doing it again?”

After all this time I can still perform these blocks without thought even though they are not part of our Hapkido syllabus.

Johnny Nelson’s (former World Boxing Organisation cruiserweight champion) trainer once told me that Johnny practiced his footwork for an hour to an hour and a half in his training sessions. Even when he was World Champion he didn’t neglect his basics because he understood that no matter how good you are you should still continually reinforce your foundations.

In all the martial arts groups I have been a member of you had to train for a minimum of 5 years attending at least 2 lessons a week before you were considered for grading to black belt.

When I consider the complexity of the arts I practice and the repetition involved I think this is this is totally reasonable.

I had a mum approach me one evening who clearly wasn’t happy that gradings were so far apart. She told me that her son’s friend in another club was almost a black belt after two years training.

In my opinion if you want a black belt worth having and that you can be truly proud of you must be prepared to put the effort and time in. Time spent building and reinforcing the basics to create a solid base for your next techniques.

“Don’t complain about the results you didn’t get from the work you didn’t do”

Good Training Partners are Hard to Find. Break Yours and Who Will You Train With?


Protect Your Training Partner

A good training partner can be the difference between a totally enjoyable fruitful lesson and a frustrating possibly painful waste of your training time.

I’m sure a lot of us have had the experience of training with a partner who has something to prove. If you are practicing a block for the first time they punch with full speed and force. When sparring the instructor specifies light contact and again they come steaming in as hard and fast as they can. They can’t make the technique you’re practicing work so they drop you by using a totally different technique without warning you.

If there is an agreed level of contact then everyone should work at that level.  If you’re not good enough to compete on even terms then more practice should be your solution not cheap shots.

Another type of difficult partner is the one who has just started Hapkido and insists on giving everyone their opinion on the practicalities of what we do. They often seem preoccupied with proving the techniques don’t work.

Very often you’ll hear the famous “This wouldn’t work in the street”. Next they’ll start to be awkward while you’re trying to practice the technique.

Not long ago I taught a student a technique that requires your opponent’s arm to be bent. Unfortunately for him he was partnered with someone taking his first lesson but already thought he knew it all.
I watched the student try the move and he was performing it well so I moved on to another member of the class.

After a few minutes I noticed the student was struggling with the technique as the new student was locking his arm straight. The student looked at me as if to say “What am I supposed to do?” I walked over and told the new member that I was going to perform the move on him and to resist as hard as he could. As soon as I started he locked his arm straight so instead of going for the bent arm move I applied a straight arm bar to take him down. To be fair on him once he realised that there was more to it than he initially thought he did settle down and worked well.

If you try to apply a bent arm move and your partner straightens their arm don’t try to use force the bent arm move, apply a straight arm technique instead.

This is one of the fundamental principles of Hapkido. The Hap means to harmonise or blend with. Therefore if someone is pulling you go with it, don’t hold back resisting their force, move in and go with it.  By applying your own force in the same direction your opponent is exerting theirs you add to it and turn it to your advantage.

In the words of Morihei Ueshiba  “If he wants to pull back send him on his way.”

There are two distinct stages in learning a new technique. Number one learn it in isolation. Number two use it in sparring or practice it as part of a combination series.

Although switching from one technique to another that fits the situation better should become automatic after years of training we have to learn the individual techniques to do this first. If you want to learn a bent arm technique you need a partner who is willing to bend their arm. If you are trying to learn a straight arm bar you need a cooperative partner.

If you know in advance what technique is coming, what side it is being applied to and when it is being delivered it doesn’t take a genius to stop it.

I remember a seminar when two “spoilers” were training together. By the end of the first day their wrists were bleeding from being gripped so hard. On the morning of the second day I asked the wife of one of the partners how he was. She replied, “Yesterday he jumped out of bed raring to go but today I could tell he didn’t want to come”.

It’s obvious from the above that no one wants to train with an awkward uncooperative partner however it is possible to be too cooperative. I have seen many children fall before a technique is applied or tap before pressure is applied. When practicing blocks the person throwing the punch will throw it to the side of their partner so if the block fails it will not hit them anyway. This is done out of consideration for their partner. After a while the person gets into the habit of blocking a punch that is going to the side meaning they aren’t covering their centre. The problem comes when they practice the block with a partner who is punching realistically. The punch goes straight through their block. As well as being cooperative we need to be realistic if we are to effectively progress.

When training with a partner it is best to agree on levels of resistance and speed of application. When practicing a block for the first time you don’t want a partner throwing a full speed punch. When practicing a joint lock for the first time you don’t want someone to apply a vice like grip. Most people don’t need these things pointing out but if you are partnered with someone who is determined to prove something it’s a good idea to quietly explain what is expected of them before things deteriorate.

You can often spot the difficult training partner, in an odd numbered class they’re the one stood on their own after the class has partnered up.

In modern martial arts there are an ever increasing amount of training aids. The most important one though is still your training partner, take care of them, if you break them who will you train with?

Your training partner trusts you enough to allow you to experiment on their body. Respect this and use reasonable force at all times, stop as soon as your partner taps.

Virtually all the problems I have listed above are due to large egos. We are all at different stages in our training and the day you realise that you are here to learn and do not have to prove anything is the day you will start to enjoy your training for what it is.



Good Timber Does Not Grow With Ease

A lot of people quit martial arts because they claim it’s too hard.

Martial arts is one of the few things left in life that doesn’t try to become easier. Software designers strive to make their programs easier to use. Car designers constantly make their cars easier to drive. TV designers aim to make their sets easier to control. We’ve all seen the adverts, “Lose weight with our five minute routine.” The golden rule seems to be maximum results for minimal effort. Everyone seems to want life to be easy and simple. Continue reading “Good Timber Does Not Grow With Ease”

We Do Not Rise to the Level of Our Expectations


We do not rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.” (Archilochus, Greek Soldier, 650 BC)

Most people who’ve been involved in martial arts for any length of time appreciate the need for practice. When we practice a new technique links (neural pathways) are formed in our brains to enable us to perform the technique more automatically the next time. The more we practice the stronger the link becomes making the technique more automatic until eventually we perform it without any conscious thought. Continue reading “We Do Not Rise to the Level of Our Expectations”