Aidan Trimble 7th Dan
Greek philosopher Heraclitus once stated ‘the only constant is change’, and critics of Shotokan Karate have often noted its lack of relevance and function in the context of reality based conflict. There are however, a select group of karate instructors that illustrate perfectly how the art of karate can be both relevant, and functional.
Aidan Trimble is a powerhouse of British Shotokan Karate. A former World Champion, he developed an international reputation, primarily as a world-class competitor, but later as a globally sought instructor of the highest calibre.
In 1986 he established the Federation of Shotokan Karate, an association that stands for ‘excellence, without exclusion’. In more recent years, he has opened ‘The Dojo’, the Hombu of the FSK located in Nottingham, UK. Here he continues to teach his unique interpretation of Shotokan Karate, producing first-rate students and instructors that continue to push the art onward and upward.
This year, Aidan Trimble taught at the prestigious Ozawa Cup Masters Seminar, and gave attendees an insight into the skill that brought him World titles, and has helped produce students that are skilled on the tatami, and on the pavement.
His karate has never stagnated, never stood still, as Gichin Funakoshi once wrote, ‘Karate is like boiling water: without heat, it returns to its tepid state’. He has sought constant progression and development and after over four decades in the art, he continues to explore, improve, and raise questions; never resting on his laurels. Having trained under Sensei Trimble many times, both on home turf in Wales and later at ‘The Dojo’ in Nottingham, I was eager to interview him and ask a range of historical, current and technical questions. I would like to express my gratitude to Sensei Trimble for his time and willingness to be interviewed. (Please note this interview was conducted in 2012, prior to the Ozawa Cup Masters Seminars)– Shaun Banfield 2012
(Shaun Banfield) Like the karate in the Academy of Shotokan Karate, training in this kind of close range reality based conflict is important to you and the FSK, yet in the broader karate community the coverage of this is very limited. This is a broad question, but what are the most important things that should be considered and emphasised in close proximity training?
(Aidan Trimble) It’s important that you don’t practice just to be good at fighting other karate people! For example I don’t think that you will block a kick with gedan barai out in the street, you would probably use your feet and legs. Do I teach gedan barai against mae geri? Yes I do because against a good mae geri that comes through the knee and is nice and straight; it works. But of course karate is full of blocks using the feet and legs, it’s just our emphasis. That is just one example, there are many. Don’t get me wrong, the big, long range stuff works, it’s just that you need to be comfortable at close range also without losing all that power.
(SB) Is your perspective on close proximity fighting influenced by a great deal of real life situations? If so what have you learned from situations you have been in?
(AT) As I said it’s not all close proximity. In fact I have heard instructors say that all fights start with a grab! I think it was someone teaching pressure points, but I disagree, maybe once I was grabbed. I have taken people out with Jodan Mawashi, with Ash barais, even picking them up and throwing them! You never know what’s going to happen and your training should take over so you better make sure you are training properly.
(SB) So what is your process in taking a karateka at your dojo from being good at the basics, good at the long-range fundamental stuff, and making them competent fighters at a closer range? What do you stress and emphasise?
(AT) Horses for courses. If it’s a young person who is interested in competition, then I give them every opportunity to compete. If they are maybe a little older and are more interested in applying it at close range then we practice that. I must admit that some people find the transition very difficult, but only because they haven’t done enough of it. I think its like the kata bunkai; students have a go at something that is not something you would do up and down in the class and say “wow that’s interesting” and move onto the next bit when they need to practice the move as much as they would if it were oi-zuki or any other basic technique.
(SB) Do you think, with the explosion and mass popularity of MMA, that the traditional values of karate are in danger of being lost to those seeking more pragmatic combat systems?
(AT) There will always be something new that comes along, and remember boxing - as a spectator sport - is huge but how many actually get in the ring? It’s the same with MMA and like boxing, there are some very skilled and entertaining individuals in it, but it’s the atmosphere that surrounds it that I don’t like. But the point is that karate is still very popular and I can’t see that changing any time soon. I have always looked at other systems and every good instructor I know has done the same, but that doesn’t mean you stop doing karate.
(SB) A few years back, you took me on a tour of some of the tourist pubs of Nottingham. Being out with you in a natural social setting I was struck by your natural physical presence, how you held yourself, and this certainly had an effect on the way people seemed to act around you. Do you think a lot of conflicts can be avoided if the right body language is used?
(AT) Maybe some people are cautious when they think you are a fairly big guy, but when they’ve had few beers they’ll have a go and the bigger the better in their eyes. I don’t think I’m particularly scary and that suits me because then people underestimate you and then they get a surprise! And likewise you can never underestimate anyone else; you never know who’s out there. I think as a fighter a lot of the time you can spot someone who can handle themselves just by the way they move or their general demeanour.
(SB) In your dojo, you have both a makiwara and BOB (a human-figure impact device). What purpose do they both play in your training and which do you prefer?
(AT) Well you mentioned Steve Ubl earlier and I liked what he said “I make sure I hit something every day”. It’s good to get that feedback when you hit something. I have always had kick shields or kick bags in my clubs because I thought it was important, but it wasn’t until I opened The Dojo that I could have a makiwara. I think the makiwara is good for getting the timing right in a punch especially.
(SB) Is it body timing that you refer to? We want our whole bodies to arrive as one unit, yet many textbooks teach that the hips, punching arm, and stepping leg should all start at the same time. Is this an idea you subscribe to?
(AT) That’s why you hit things, so you know yourself when you hit the sweet spot, not because someone else has told you! I always say on courses “don’t trust a word I say, go away and try it!” There are all kinds of theories and they may be valid but it is easy to have a theory and no matter what the result you make it fit the theory! To answer the question, if that’s what you call body timing, then yes.
(SB) The idea of ‘whole body unit’ when making impact seems to be an idea that is ‘talked’ about in many groups, but isn’t necessarily stressed, and strategies certainly aren’t always in place to help students learn to time their body as a whole unit. How do you get your students to achieve this whole body connection?
(AT) Not wishing to be flippant, but practice! As an instructor you know what you want to achieve for the student, but there is no one way, as all people are different and one explanation or phrase will connect with a student and not with another and that is when your skill as a teacher comes in.
(SB) Last time you were interviewed for TSW, you said that ashi-barai was a technique you enjoy using. What are the most important features of successful sweeping, and how do you train your students to develop their sweeping ability?
(AT) Yes I love ashi barai. Obviously my first introduction to sweeps was from Sensei Asano. But after that I would always be drawn to people that used sweeps and pinched any ideas I could. It’s a whole skill in itself, but many students don’t persevere because when you get it wrong you get hit...a lot! You also hurt your feet and legs and shins but unless you go through this you’ll never get it. When you think we used to do double foot ash barais with people flying up in the air and our old dojo with Sensei was a concrete tiled floor… My Dojo is matted and they still moan when they hit it. Keeping a low centre of gravity is important and always knowing where you opponents leading leg is without looking so you can always take it away. With practice you will know where your opponent will land, it’s like chopping a tree down you want to put them where you want them for the finishing technique.
(SB) One feature of your karate that I have always found particularly impressive is your kicking ability. Kicking – I feel – is perhaps one of least understood parts of karate, but can cause serious damage to the body. What are the most important things that should be considered when practicing kicking in order to protect the body?
(AT) Well I assume by protecting the body you mean joints etc? The correct position of the support foot is key in my opinion. For example in mawashi geri, I see many students almost stationary on the support foot and at best, the foot at a right angle. This of course restricts the hip movement making the back side stick out and therefore the range or penetration of the kicking leg is weaker, but also all the rotational strain is put on the knee joint.
It is important to understand that the joints moving in a way that they like will not only keep them healthy but lead to a far more powerful kick. You can kick Jodan mawashi without rotating on the support foot for years but it will eventually take its toll on the joint without question. How many karate-ka do you know of that have had cruciate ligaments done or hip replacements in their 40’s or 50’s?
(SB) So whilst talking about protecting the joints etc, as a gentleman of a stockier build, how does that affect longevity in training? Is there naturally more duress on the joints because of this?
(AT) Very well put - stockier build! Since I stopped competing, my weight has fluctuated and without a doubt, the joints don’t like extra weight. But I do have good joints that are pretty strong coupled with the fact that I changed the way I kicked just in time and that saved a lot injuries. I do have a lot of competition injuries that seem to have come back to haunt me however, but you adapt and change to allow for it. Plus every now and then I need to eat a salad for a change!
(SB) Looking at the injuries being carried by many, if not most senior karate-ka, what do you think can be done to ensure that ‘tomorrow’s masters’ avoid such degenerative wear and tear through long term practice?
(AT) To be honest of all the students that I have taught, 99% of injuries they have are nothing to do with karate. They are injuries they came with, but what you find is that when they start practicing, they flare up again. I think the injuries that you are thinking of are probably from the early seventies where some very dubious training methods were propagated in many dojos. Whatever sport, especially a contact one such as ours, there’s a good chance you will - after some years - get degenerative wear and maybe arthritis. But against that, you benefit in so many other ways. Plus many of the seniors you speak of have probably had a long and punishing competition career. To answer your question, there is more information regarding correct technique, and sports science has come on leaps and bounds. A junior can now get sports specific training in a gym. That in itself will prevent injury. It’s a different world from twenty, let alone forty years ago! There is no excuse for your local dojo to be teaching poor technique that could injure you, and if they are, find another club.
(SB) And how are you adapting your karate in order to suit the effects of injury and the natural ageing process?
(AT) I listen to my body and if something hurts I don’t train on it. I do gym work that strengthens my core and muscles around the joints to give stability.
(SB) Coming back to kicking, when teaching kicking, you seem to place a great deal of emphasis on the set up of a kick, focusing on transitional stances such as kosa-dachi etc. Can you talk me through the importance of an effective set up, and how you develop a smooth and fast transition from stance to impact?
(AT) I assume you mean applying the kick in kumite rather than just the kick itself and if so that’s quite a big subject with so many variations, but in short, by doing exactly as you have just said, pay attention to what happens in the middle.
Don’t just think of the end product when all the interesting stuff happens before. Have fast feet, but don’t broadcast the movement. Use the correct line of attack but without your opponent recognising your footwork. Even your eye line can give things away.
Also what was a bad kick when you were a lower grade can be a good kick when you are a senior, for example a good basic mai-geri is actually quite easy to block when it comes through the knee nice and straight, but when it comes straight from the floor into the hip joint or ribs it’s very difficult to block as its one movement. It’s ugly, but very effective. In fact as I said before, in my opinion using gedan barai against a front kick only works against another karate man. You are better off using your legs so both hands are free and your legs are much better to block or jam unorthodox kicks.
(SB) You touch on the difference between ‘Kihon’ kicking and applied kicking for effectiveness, which aren’t always the same. Critics of karate state that ’Kihon’ has no relevance or purpose. What are your feelings about this?
(AT) Practicing kihon teaches you how to use your body correctly, engage your hips, breath, co-ordinate. You need to exaggerate all these movements in a way that is easy to grasp. Do the movements slow so that it becomes an economic movement, so it’s smooth. If it’s smooth, it’s fast, and if it’s fast, it’s powerful.
What I would say is that your basics are a means to an end. If all you do are basics when you are a senior Dan grade then that’s not a good thing. Teaching beginners all the time for example can affect your technique; make it very placed and safe if that makes sense. The main thing to remember is that Kihon is not only relevant.
(SB) Karate has been somewhat romanticised over the last few decades by some, with emphasis being placed almost solely on development of character and personality, yet Mikio Yahara states that the philosophy of Karate-Do lies in the ‘Killing Blow’. What is the central purpose of Karate-Do to you?
(AT) Of course that’s the whole idea of Ippon and quite right, however karate is more than that or we can all just do MMA and be done with it. We do a very violent thing, but I would like to think, with morality and respect. Karate is practiced by millions of people around the world and the vast majority will never achieve the ’Killing Blow’ and there are instructors who emphasise the Do in Karate-Do because they can’t fight and can’t teach people to fight. I remember an instructor saying to me (He obviously practiced the line) “I used to knock people down, now I’ve learned to help them up” Yes very good only you’ve never knocked anyone down in your life!
Having said that I have seen people’s lives change through practicing karate, both children and adults. All the old clichés; character building, confidence, etc. In a good club it actually works. Karate is not one size fits all. Not everyone can or wants to be a Yahara!
(SB) Unlike so many senior karateka, your karate hasn’t stood still. You have never rested on your laurels and just taught what you used to years ago. Is this constant development important to you?
(AT) I remember going on a sports coaches’ course many years ago and the lecturer said you often hear coaches saying that they have been training for ten years when what they actually mean is they trained for about three and a bit years and just repeated it three times!
After more than forty years of training if I didn’t keep looking and learning I’d be bored to tears. Like all karate-ka, I hit plateaus, but you just have to carry on training and you get inspiration from somewhere, and then you are back on track. There are not many sports that I can think of that have so many people that are still training after decades! Clubs are full of these people, it’s fantastic really.
(SB) And in what ways have you most developed in recent years?
(AT) My waist line!
(SB) You have, in the past, published textbooks on the issue of Kata. Kata has a different role in different people’s training, but what purpose does kata have in your study and training?
(AT) Well again it changes with time and age. I always enjoyed Kata and I competed very successfully in it, so early on it was about gradings, then it was about competition, and then it was about application. You always find something new in kata and I don’t mean a different move, rather a different application for a move. I also find kata useful to get the body co-ordinated, get your brain firing everything correctly, or breathing in a kata like Hungetsu to feel energy in the body.
(SB) Your textbooks contain a substantial amount of attention on Kata Bunkai. What are the most important thing you consider and factor in, when applying a movement from kata?
(AT) Those books are quite old now and my karate and understanding has changed, but at the time there were little or no applications in print so they were of use at that time and are still popular as a reference. The Bunkai brings life to a move that otherwise would not be practiced in the class and make people comfortable with it. And it’s good to see that there are more than just Oi-zuki and gyaku-zuki, in fact it’s interesting to see how many oi-zukis and gyaku-zukis there are in kata compared to juji –ukes or nukite etc.
(SB) You mentioned that your understanding of kata has changed. Can you elaborate further on how this understanding has evolved, and what this encompasses?
(AT) Because I was so involved in competition, it was all about speed and power. And my understanding was pretty superficial. Plus there was little or no bunkai taught in Shotokan dojos at that time. As I understood more about body movement, that obviously affected my kata and also as you gain in confidence regarding your own ability I was more likely to question some moves in kata.
(SB) At different points in my training, different kata seem appealing. While I was competing, it was Unsu, but currently Nijushiho seems to be the focus of a great deal of my attention. Do you go through this process of exploring one kata for chunks of time?
(AT) Yes I work on a kata for some time and familiarise myself with it again with fresh eyes, and see if there are some new or interesting ideas I can get from it.
(SB) With many effective combat systems excluding kata practice, how would you justify the practice of Kata to those feistier students training for function over form?
(AT) I was always brought up to practice both disciplines in equal measure and you always competed in both. I won many kata titles including the all-styles English twice and I was the SKI grand Champion twice. Terry O’Neil, Frank Brenan and more recently Matt Price all did the same in the KUGB and I’m not sure that is the case anymore. I try hard to encourage that ethos in my group and club but I must admit in general it tends to be one or the other. Kata gives you an attention to detail that helps when practicing kumite and I think applying kata in a realistic way will encourage students to practice kata more.
(SB) What do you consider to be the least understood parts of Karate as a Martial Art?
(AT) How effective it is. Shotokan is a great style and very effective as long as you make it realistic in your practice and have a good training partner.
(SB) What do you consider to be the most influential piece of advice you have been given in your years of training?
(AT) I have been so lucky to have trained with so many excellent instructors that I couldn’t put my finger on one piece of advice.
I do remember a piece of advice in the early seventies from my then Plumbing lecturer in college that I am glad I didn’t take though.
“You’ve got skill in them hands Trimble, stop with that bloody Kung Fu, stick to plumbing and you’ll do well”
(SB) What can Shotokan instructors do to ensure that the system evolves within the modern world and avoid stagnation?
(AT) There are already instructors doing it. There are young, up and coming instructors that are now travelling and teaching that are very skilful and they will influence Shotokan with their own take on things. Shotokan will evolve or die and I don’t think it will die.
(SB) You have been approached about a new book, am I correct? Can you please tell me a little about the background to this, and what it will be about?
(AT) I was approached a few years ago by Clive Layton who had done biographies on many of the Japanese instructors and he wanted to do a book about me. My first reaction was no, as I didn’t think anyone would be interested enough to purchase such a book but agreed to meet Clive. We had a very long meeting and I was impressed with his knowledge of people and dates and his meticulous research.
I spoke to Dave Hazard, who had done a book himself, and he said that I should do it which surprised me to be honest but as he said “you have a good story to be told and if someone else doesn’t do it you won’t!” He was right but after a great deal of thought I decided that the time wasn’t right and said no to the project. But the seed had been sown and I did start to think about it and after some period of time I mentioned it in conversation to Dirk Robertson who is a good friend and is also an accomplished author based in the USA. After the conversation he said “Why don’t I do it?” or rather we will do it together and I thought, why didn’t I think of that before. So I said yes and that’s the plan, we just have to write it and of course people have to be interested enough to buy it. I’ll keep you posted.
(SB) Are there any points that I have neglected to ask you about that you would like to discuss?
(AT) I think you have pretty much covered everything, well done.
(SB) Thank you Aidan for all of your time, it has been a pleasure interviewing you. Good luck with your trip to Las Vegas, and the up and coming book. I’ll definitely be getting myself a copy!!