Interview: Fredrik Utbult

The Taido/Blog Interview is a set of eight questions that I’ve been asking for the past few months with the idea of highlighting a variety of perspectives from students and teachers around the world.

This is kind of exciting for me. I first had the idea to interview people I respect on Taido/Blog during the 2009 World Taido Championships in Hiroshima. With some many truly excellent people hanging around and talking about Taido, it was only natural that a lot of ideas got shared and lot of interesting subjects were discussed.

It took me a while to act on, but this is one of the ideas that came up.

For the first interview to publish, I decided to share the responses of Fredrik Utbult, president of the Australian Taido Association and a good friend. Check it out:

Who is this guy?

Fredrik, like me, began practicing Taido in 1984, though he did so in Sweden. After spending six weeks in Japan in 1988 and taking his shodan examination with Shukumine Sensei, he went on to compete as a member of the Swedish national team. He later coached that team and served as president of the Swedish Taido Association.

Eventually, he must’ve gotten tired of his toilet swirling in the same direction, so he picked up and moved to Australia in 1997 where he founded the first Taido club at University of New South Wales in Sydney. As of now, Fredrik holds the rank of 6dan kyoshi and continues to lead Australian Taido.

Taido/Blog Interview: Fredrik Utbult

What follows are my questions and Fredrik’s unedited responses (I didn’t even change his weird European spelling…) via email. Enjoy.

1. What do you love most about Taido?

It is not just a single thing that makes me love Taido. I’ll give you 3 of my favourite reasons.

a) Taido has finesse. The cooler we can finish off our opponent the better. We strive to perform the perfect technique, the most agile, stylish and proper way to beat our opponent. If we succeed, we will get the appreciation not only from our own friends but also Taidoka’s from other clubs and nations whatever the level of competition. This is something I have not experienced in any other martial art.

It is often argued that Taido is difficult to learn and may not be effective on the streets. I agree to some extent, if you want to quickly learn how to fight in real life situations, then a simple and straight forward martial art is probably the way to go. Saying this, you will still be able to use Taido if it comes to it. It will just take a bit longer and you will need to understand that the rules in a competition does not apply to street situations. The difference is that you will have a lot of fun while learning.

b) Taido is very broad. When practising Taido it is important that we do things correctly. This is to preserve the style so that it does not drift off and away from the basics that makes Taido very beautiful to watch when performed to perfection. Knowing this you may think that Taido is very strict and cannot be changed, but this is not the case. Taido is ever changing, this was Saiko Shihan‘s will and as long as we stay within the guidelines we are encouraged to come up with our own techniques. This is a very cool concept as a referee in a competition will be able to reward a point for a technique he/she has never seen before.

In Taido we are supposed to move in 3 dimensions, meaning there should be no restriction to what plane we are moving or body axis we turn around. To be able to move freely we have been given a set of movements called unsoku and unshin. In combinations with all our techniques it does give us a very broad martial art. Over the years I have been practising, trying, watching and reading about many other martial arts, none of these are as broad as Taido.

c) Taido community. What makes Taido really interesting though is the people, my students, overseas students, Sensei’s etc. Wherever you go in the world as a Taidoka you are welcome. The whole international Taido community is like a huge family, I think this is quite unique.

2. What’s one way students can take advantage of this right now?

Travel around the world to practise and meet with other Taidoka’s.

3. What do you feel is the biggest problem facing Taido?

Political issues are unfortunately the biggest problem facing Taido in the future.

4. What’s one thing students can do right now to make this better?

Students should not worry about those things, just enjoy learning Taido and make friendships across the borders.

5. What was one epiphany you’ve had in your training or general approach to Taido?

The one epiphany that made the biggest difference was when I realised that nothing that other Taidoka’s do is impossible also for me to do also. If other people can do it so can I. No one is more than human so it is also possible for me to do it as good. Of course it may not always happen this way that you become as good as the best, but that attitude is what can take you a long way in anything that you do in life. It is also important to realise that you do not need to follow what other people are doing, you can also lead the way yourself.

6. What are your personal goals for the next year in Taido?

Personally, I would like to see another club started so that we can continue to spread Taido in Australia.

7. You began training 27 years ago. Where would you like to see Taido in 27 years from now?

I started Taido 27 years ago. In another 27 years, I would like to see Taido practised in another 10 countries and that the number of students in each of the existing Taido countries will have at least tripled.

8. What message or advice do you have for Taido students?

Most important advice is to be patient, listen carefully to your instructors and to see and learn from the older students.

Thanks, Fred.

I’ll have more interviews coming soon, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, if you have any comments or questions for Fred, leave them below, and I’ll make sure he sees them. Thanks!

Poll Results: How Flexible Are You?

Overall, the consensus is,

I can move pretty well, but there’s always room for improvement.

It looks like most Taidoka are pretty comfortable with their current levels of flexibility, but recognize that they could benefit from more (or more effective) stretching. Here’s how the results for each response broke down:

How Flexible Are You?

  • 52% – I can move pretty well, but there’s always room for improvement.
  • 33% – I can touch my toes, but that’s about it.
  • 11% – Full splits, baby.
  • 4% – I can’t see or touch my toes.

This is about what I had expected.

52% of those who responded are pretty mobile. We can do most of our techniques without difficulty. We can get around the court pretty quickly and almost always get our legs in the general direction they need to go in order to kick. That’s good, but we can do better.

33% say they can touch their toes, but this is where their contortionist tricks end. That’s too bad, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. With consistent stretching, these people can be moving faster and stronger within a couple of months.

4% can’t see or touch their toes. Hey, we’ve all got to start somewhere, right? Seriously, most people don’t begin Taido already having the ability to do all the movements. that’s why we train. Hang in there and work on your flexibility, and I promise everything else in Taido will start to open up for you as well.

11% report being able to do a full split. This may actually be a little high. I know for a fact that the number of Japanese Taidoka who can do a full split is less than 10%. This has historically been the case in America as well, though things could have changed over the past couple of years. What about you guys in Australia and Europe? Can one in ten students really do a full split? If so, you’re doing something right. Keep it up!

For the rest of us, there’s nothing that says we have to be content with our current abilities. If we were, there would be nothing to train for anyway. In other articles, I’ve given you some ideas for increasing flexibility for Taido. Let’s put that knowledge to good use.

Building International Community

As I mentioned in my top 11 article, one of my favorite aspects of my Taido experience has been the opportunity to participate as a member of an international community. There are people all over the world that share my passion for Taido, and I’ve really enjoyed meeting so many of them. There are plenty of others whom I have not yet had a chance to meet, but I hope to get around to it.

The Taido World Tour

One of my goals for the next few years is to visit every country where people are practicing Taido. So far, I’ve trained in America, Japan, Australia, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands. That leaves Denmark, France, Portugal, and England. I hope to make it to all of these places at least once before I turn 45.

My reason for wanting to do this is to learn more about how Taido is practiced and what kind of people practice it. The more I can learn about the people who do Taido and the practices in which they engage, the better I can understand what Taido actually is and, more importantly, where it’s going. It’ll give me a chance to influence this evolution as well.

Taking Personal Action

In the past, we have left the international connections to organizational ties between the lead instructors. In terms of community-building, I think this approach has mostly failed. It seems that the real friendships we develop with Taidoka from other countries almost happens in spite of organizational intervention, rather than because of it.

Open-Door Policy

In my vision of Taido’s future, all Taido dojo and groups will welcome any Taido student from anywhere, without regard to what rank that person holds from what organization or dojo. I think we should open our doors and accept all Taido students to share their experiences with us. In return, we will can give them the benefit of our own ideas. This should be a free exchange, and it should not be limited to instructors or tournament champions.

I think most dojo are fairly open to visitors, especially from other countries. We can also be open personally to receive Taido guests. If someone visits your dojo, why not invite them out to eat or have a drink? Training together is fun, but getting to know that student as a person is much more rewarding. It can be a great experience for both parties to share their thoughts and culture. Even if the visiting student doesn’t speak your language well, it can be a lot of fun to try and communicate.

The Other Side of the Coin

Being open for visitors is great, but it’s only half the battle. We also need to actively encourage our students to visit other dojo. We need to give students incentive to travel to other Taido countries and bring back their experiences. This benefits everyone in a school.

For example, if a student in your dojo travels to another country and learns a different way to do a certain technique, he has expanded his own skills. If he comes back and shares what he learned with other students, they can benefit too. It’s not that any one way is better than another, but every variation has the potential to teach us more about Taido.

Make sure to ask your dojomates about their Taido experiences abroad. You can learn a lot from their stories. It also helps to build excitement about travel and international Taido friendship, which encourages everyone to get out and experience more.

I Love Politics!

Part of the problem may be that we have some negative political history between various Taido organizations. Some of these problems go back to (and I am not even slightly exaggerating here) thirty-year-old rivalries between former college classmates that are now instructors. I don’t see any good reason that this should have any effect on students in Taido. I feel that we should value the desire of students to create connections and friendships with students in other schools and other countries. The better we promote this kind of connection, the more we can be sure of better and more widespread Taido in the future.

Global / Local

We have an international network of Taido organizations. Let’s leverage that network to create an international community of individual Taido students. We are all practicing the same art, even if we practice it in different ways and for different reasons. This variety is rich with opportunity for the future of Taido. We have much to learn from each other if we can get together.

This is already happening on a small scale with certain individuals. I know that several Japanese Taidoka taught at dojo in France and Australia. A few instructors are known to travel whenever they have the opportunity. However, I’d like to make this international community accessible to all Taido students on a wider scale. This need not be limited to instructors or even large dojo.

Chances are, someone in your dojo has some contacts in another country. Seek them out and ask for advice. Make the effort to invite students from other dojo to visit and practice with you. Then make sure to go see them too.

Making Contact

Since moving to Japan, I have been able to cement stronger friendships with Japanese Taidoka than I had in the past. These are not just connections through my instructor – they are personal relationships built through shared practice and discussion. I’ve also made friends with several of the students in Australia and in Europe.

Through this website, I have made contact with Taidoka from everywhere in the world, and they mostly seem very cool. I want to visit all of these people at their home dojo, and I plan to invite each of them to my own.

You don’t have to relocate or start a website to make friends in Taido. Visit the Australian Taido Forum and introduce yourself. Start a discussion or ask a question. Everyone will be excited to get to know you.

Also, keep up to date with tournaments and training camps. Besides the World Championships, we have regular International Friendship Games, European Championships, Australia’s Asia Pacific Games, and American International Tournaments. Clubs in Europe often host training camps – get in touch and ask if you can attend. American Taido summer camp is a great event for anyone who wants to visit the US and hang out at the beach.

Make a plan to attend a Taido event in another country. You will not regret it. The first step is to get in touch. Send an email and introduce yourself. Then ask about any events during the next few months. It really is just that simple.

The Invitation

I previously posted an open invitation to all Taidoka to visit my dojo at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, USA. In 2007 and 2008, we hosted visitors from India and Japan.

I will repeat that invitation now for any Taido practitioner who is interested in visiting Osaka. Osaka is a very different Japan from Tokyo, and Taido here is less tournament oriented. I will make a commitment to provide lodging, practice, and plenty of hanging out to any Taido student who can make it to Osaka. I’m pretty sure that other dojo members would offer to host visitors as well.

The Challenge

I challenge every Taido club worldwide to take this step toward a creating real community of Taido students. Lots of clubs are doing this, and the benefits are very tangible.

American Taido has had Japanese guest instructors for periods of up to five years. Maya Tabata spent a good bit of time in America and France. Masa Ohashi is back and forth between Japan and Australia constantly, it seems. Now there are a handful of French Taidoka living in Japan. I know there is fairly frequent exchange between the major dojo in EuTai. Lots of us from various countries have come to live in Japan for extended periods. Every time a Taido student practices at a foreign dojo, for one night or for a few years, everyone learns something.

Simple arrangements will do more for the future of international Taido than all the political nice-talk in the world and also allow the World Taido Federation to devote their official energies to developing Taido, supporting instructors, and creating educational materials.

Indeed, if individual students take the initiative to build their own community, the instructors can better focus on teaching, and the organizations can better focus on organizing. Perhaps then, instead of wasting time and money with marginal legal issues, Taido Honin can actually begin working to spread Taido. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Let’s all take the initiative together for creating an international community of Taido students. Get in touch, make friends, and meet up.

2006 Kanagawa Friendship Meet

March 2006

It’s been a busy couple of weeks. Last weekend, I was in Australia for the second Asia Pacific Games. This past weekend, I joined the Yokohama team at the second annual Kanagawa friendship meet. As planned, it was a lot of fun, and we all enjoyed getting the chance to play with people we aren’t able to meet so often. This year’s event was a little larger than the first one, but everything still ran very smoothly. Here are my impressions:

Background

The tournament is called the Kanagawa Prefectural Taido Association Friendship Meet. The name is both telling and misleading. Telling because it isn’t about winning medals but rather having fun together and deepening our friendships with other dojo. Misleading because the participants are not all members of Kanagawa Taido – they are members of dojo historically connected to Kanagawa Taido. It’s a tournament for our circle of friends, for the purpose of deepening that friendship. Kind of cool, if you ask me.

Actually, kanagawa Taido is only two groups: Yokohama Taido and Tokai Uni Taido. This meet includes our friends from Shizuoka as well. Basically, it’s Negishi’s Taido family reunion. His current dojo, his university club, his senseis’ dojo, and his friends were in attendance. Negishi has an ability to bring great people to him (how do you think he and I got to be friends?), and the quality of this meet reminded me just how many people hold him in high esteem.

Of course, this isn’t to imply that this event was just “the Negishi show”. That’s not what it was about at all. In fact, most of this year’s planning and execution of the event was done by members of the Yokohama dojo and the students at Tokai. Negishi’s style of getting things done is pretty hands-off. He tends to more often play the role of facilitator than that of project manager. Though this event was the result of a lot of people’s work and effort, it would not have happened without the Negishi magic.

The Tourney

“I was robbed!” just kidding. Yeah, I lost most of my matches. One match in particular, I kept hitting the guy with all kinds of kicks and punches, but I couldn’t seem to convince the judges that I deserved a point. I wouldn’t even bother to mention any of this if it weren’t for the the fact that later on, several people came up to me and told me that they thought I should have scored ippon at least twice during that match. Apparently, the every judge saw my points except the ones who were actually on the court.

Part of the problem apparently, is that I didn’t “appeal” to the judges with my techniques. Now I thought it was enough to simply hit the guy, but it seems that I have to actually hit him and then say “Look at me! I hit him!” in order to score. I understand what this advice means – I do tend to get on a roll with combinations of smaller attacks. I understand that, in tournament fighting, it’s a good idea to try and score with “big” techniques that are easy to see and “look like hits”. But damn, I would have thought that a clean manji to the chest, a straight shuihei to the belly, an ashigarami, and a punch clear to the back would have been obvious enough. Taido is about more than obvious hits, and this just serves to remind me that I really need to work on my gentai in jissen.

Actually, i’m really happy that my jissen is improving. It’s never been my strong point by a long shot, but I’m starting to find a groove that works for me. Part of it might be related to being in Japan, but that’s mostly because I get more chances to practice jissen here. When you are trying to teach jissen to beginners (as I was when I was spending most of my Taido time at Georgia Tech), you don’t get a lot of real practice. I’m also able to learn a lot by exposure to different players, including several champions. Not to say that I am “turning Japanese” in my Taido – I don’t see that happening – but I am learning and growing, and the change of environment has been a catalytic factor.

As for hokei. No, that wasn’t my best performance at all. I was all over the place. I started out trying to think of all the great advice I’d gotten on my Taido in the previous couple of weeks, but without spending time to work it in a practice environment, I wasn’t able to put it to use. About half-way through, I just gave up and finished. I don’t mean that to sound defeatist; I still did a good hokei. My hokei do not suck, but there are plenty of things I realize I need to spend some time fixing. In maybe about a year (spring 2007 – call me on it), I believe i’ll have definitely taken my hokei and jissen both to new levels.

My team ended up getting third in the team jissen though (and I did win that match). Of course, there were only four teams, and our opponents were the other Yokohama jissen team. It was kind of a farce, and we all knew it, so we decided beforehand to just have fun. Oe had asked me to win by bakuchugeri, and I tried, but the mojo was not with me. We were all getting tired, so I finished the game with a cheap punch and called it a day.

Brief Aside

Now the reason I say all of this isn’t to abate my own poor performance (I actually am pretty proud of the fact that, even when I lose, I manage to look pretty good doing it). No, that’s not it at all. It’s not as if I could have won this tourney anyway. I’m not that good – not remotely good enough to beat people who are consistently practicing for this kind of thing. Actually, I’m glad I didn’t win any events at the Kanagawa tournament because there is no reason why I should have.

Look at it this way – some of the guys who participated in this competition train several times each week. They are serious about doing things well and improving their skills. They deserve to win the medals. Most of the winners and placers are people who spend a good deal of their free time practicing Taido. That commitment brings the skill necessary to perform well at tournament events. While some of them may not have the experience or knowledge that I have, they do have an edge on me when I comes to competitions.

In contrast to the “players”, I practice maybe three times a month. I work out at home to stay in shape, but the Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands principle says that there will be little carryover from my daily workouts to my Taido sport performance. There are ways to train that increase this carryover, but without a properly designed training progression, my practices and my workouts are basically unrelated.

In fact, when I perform in tournaments, I am really just doing the Taido I used to practice several years ago when I was more serious about my technical skills. Oddly, I’m better at Taido now, but I can still only perform skills as well as I have practiced them. Since I have improved my attributes (strength, stamina, coordination, etc.), I am better able to execute the skills (hokei, techniques, flips, etc.) that I used to work on, but the skills themselves don’t improve without specific practice. It’s kind of a tricky distinction, but an important one to understand.

I think it’s coming time to go through another skill-practice phase, but I’ll need to be able to increase my training frequency. In other words, it’ll probably have to wait until I get back to America. Anyway…

… And – we’re back!

So, anyway, the tournament went really well. We had a special “demonstration competition” for small children that aren’t able to do a complete hokei on their own. It was hell on the judges, but the kids were led through some basics for a numerical score. We also had the standard events.

Overall the hokei level was higher than the jissen level. Again, this goes back to the thing about practice – once you’ve practiced to a certain level in hokei, you have it. Jissen doesn’t work the same as hokei because there are a lot of other factors involved. Jissen isn’t so much a skill as it is a set of competencies. Besides that, I’ve recently reevaluated my notion of what constitutes high-level jissen in light of my experiences in Australia.

I’m not going to go into details about the tournament results because I don’t really think they matter too much. Most of the players did a really good job and tried hard while having a good time. I can’t help but see that as a recipe for success all around.

The Party

When all of the events were finished and we had cleaned up, everyone walked across the campus (this year’s meet was hosted by the Tokai club) to the uni commons for some food and drink, emphasis on drink. There were a few speeches, but among friends, they were the kind you enjoy listening to. There was none of the crap and filler – just lots of good comments about working together and keeping our Taido family strong. Akiyama Sensei always has a good way of phrasing things, and I think everyone appreciated his perspectives on how we can make the most of our experience with Taido.

I always enjoy these things, because it gives me a chance to talk to people that I don’t meet very often, and also to meet people that I may have seen around and not been able to talk to. This was no exception, and I was lucky to receive several invitations to practice at various locations in the future. It was also good to see Masaki and talk about the trip to Australia for a bit.

After a couple of hours of talking and drinking and laughing, it was time to close up. Chiba and I spotted a couple of full bottles of beer and had a final kampai before heading “home”.

The Second Party

Since I live the farthest out (four hours) I’m always the first person who has to leave from parties. Usually, I would have just taken the next day off work and crashed out at Negishi’s place, but my third-year junior high students were graduating, so I couldn’t miss it. After the first party was over, I decided I would just hop on the train and head home a little early.

By the time we neared the end of our walk from the uni commons, I had been convinced to have “just one beer” with everyone at the izakaya near the station before hopping the last train back to Gunma. And that is just what I did. I’m sure there was plenty of craziness and good times after I left, but i’m not to person to ask about all that…

The Lonely Ride Home

Then I sat on the train and promptly fell asleep, waking up only at transfer stations, as if by magic. I wish I could say something like “these long train rides always give me a chance to reflect on the day’s events and…”, but not this time. I was tired, and I slept.

I’ve recovered now (sort of), and I’ve had the time to reflect a bit, so I want to end this report with something I told the group before I headed out for the station:

We call this a friendship meet. It looks like a tournament, but it feels different. It feels like fun. If we can turn our opponents into friends, we are doing something very special. When we play Taido as friends, we have the freedom the try new things and make Taido better. If our friendship meet looks exactly like a tournament, what’s to stop us from turning all of our tournaments into meetings of friends? Nothing at all. When we bring that attitude of camaraderie even into competition, then we are building a Taido friendship that will last indefinitely.

Well, my Japanese isn’t so great, but that’s what I think I said.