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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Richard Heselton

 

An Interview with Richard Heselton

 

This is an interview I have been eager to bring to THE SHOTOKAN WAY for a long time. Having worked with Richard Heselton on this interview over a long period, I felt it appropriate and fitting to use it as the centerpiece of the Christmas Edition of TSW.

 

Richard Heselton – as you will find when you read this interview – made the commitment and devotion to travel and live in Japan. Taking out a loan for airfare and living expenses, he expected to stay 3 months and experience Japanese karate to fulfill his love of karate, and travel.  Almost two decades later, and he is still in Japan.

 

It could be said that Richard Heselton has lived ‘The Karate Dream’. And I dare say he has, living and gaining invaluable experiences at the heart of karate-do. Dreams are reality with commitment and determination however, so whilst he has lived this ‘dream’…it was a dream he made happen.

 

Through this interview we learn a great deal about Richard’s background, training in the KUGB, and being a part of the KUGB Junior Squad. We have a fantastic insight into experiences he had with Enoeda Sensei, and his travel to Japan, living and training in the infamous Takushoku University, and his attitudes towards aspects of karate later in his training career.

 

As I said, this interview has been waiting to arrive on the front page of TSW for a long time, so it is with great pride and excitement that I reveal this interview. Enjoy!

 

Sincere thanks to Richard Heselton for his time and efforts. – Shaun Banfield

 

QUESTIONS BY THE SHOTOKAN WAY

 

 

Richard Heselton at Takushoku University, training

 

 

(Shaun Banfield)     Many thanks for agreeing to this interview Richard; I am very much looking forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas.

 

(Richard Heselton)     You are very welcome and the pleasure is all mine Shaun.

 

(SB)     Could we please start by asking how you first got involved in the Martial Arts?

 

(RH)     I'd say my first contact with Martial Arts, if you can call it that, was probably at around the age of 10 when, after watching Rocky 1, a group of friends and I decided that boxing was the way to go. One of my friends had a pair of boxing gloves that we shared - one each.  We made a makeshift ring in between two blocks of flats and would each wear one glove and put the other hand behind our backs and proceed to beat each other up repetitively to the Eye of the Tiger theme tune. Being the youngest and smallest and also, for some reason, always only getting the right handed glove when I'm predominantly left handed, you can imagine I didn't do very well. However, this was the spark for me to decide to join the boxing club followed by the Judo club at the local Boys Club. Neither of which lasted that long, but I do remember winning an inter-club Judo competition at some point around the age of 11.  Anyway, I soon realized though that rolling around on a mat or getting repetitively punched in the head wasn't for me. It was around this time, at the age of 12, that I asked a friend, who was doing Karate at the time, to take me along to a class. After my first class, I was hooked.

 

(SB)     Can you tell us your first impressions, who you trained with and tell us about the early training at this dojo?

 

(RH)     I first started training with Mike Howard at the Whitby Shotokan Karate club in 1988. Training was twice a week - Monday and Thursday. Mike was always methodical in his teaching with the emphasis always being on strong basics and kata. Also with Mike having done kickboxing, I remember the fitness drills at the end of training being extremely painful. Training was hard but the people were genuine.

 

It was the kind of club where arrogance and egos were left at the door. I feel fortunate to have started my karate training there.

 

I later went on to train at the York Kenshinkan under the guidance of the Gordon Thompson and Tivvy Gommersal among other senior instructors. I was 16 when I first started training there. The senior instructors at the Kenshinkan were great bunch of blokes; all quite different in their approach and teaching style, but it was this diversity that gave it its strength. I used to love training there. It had a great atmosphere. We would often go out for a few drinks and a chat afterwards about training and how to improve and get better. As I didn’t have anywhere to stay, Tivvy and his wife Jane, together with other seniors, would put me up and feed me, so I could come and train at the Kenshinkan. Looking back, training at the Kenshikan was a pivotal time for me, and it certainly helped to strengthen my resolve to go to Japan and do well. 

 

Through karate and training at the Whitby club, my friend who had been kind enough to first take me along to the club, and I became really good friends. We started spending more and more time together, which always involved training. We put a big punching bag up in his dad's garage, got some weights together and kind of made our own little gym. 

 

Now, thinking back to some of the things that we got up to; like going for 10 km cliff runs and then training in the North Sea (in the winter) because we thought it would toughen us up, or sparring with Dr Martin boots on and even with sticks (which, I add here, didn't end well) makes me laugh at how obsessed we were with karate and training. There's one particular incident involving my friend and his Dad, who also used to train at the club, and was also very influential in my eventual decision to come to Japan, that still makes me giggle. I remember going over to my friend's place one afternoon and seeing a hand written note on the fridge saying ' NO SPARRING!' in big bold letters with a smiley face next to it saying ' In shoes'.  I'd just like to add here that their flat had a wooden living room floor, so on occasion when we'd suddenly decide to do work on some kumite drills or do some sparring instead of going to his garage, we would often just move the furniture to one side and spar there -much to the dismay of the people who lived below him, I'm sure. He lived on the top floor of a block of flats.  Anyway, it turns out that my friend's dad had come home the night before after a few drinks and somehow they'd got onto the topic of us sparring in the living room and decided to have a go at it themselves- don't ask me how. Seems what started out as a bit of harmless alcohol induced fun ended up with his dad breaking his ankle. Turned out that they'd decided to spar in shoes and yes, my friend was wearing his Dr Martins. Hence the smiley face.

 

 

After about a year of training I decided to take up Kickboxing twice a week.

 

This was primarily to supplement my Karate training, but I was hungry for any kind of training I could get my hands on, and Kickboxing was the only other Martial Arts club in the town at the time that I knew of. I trained with the British Lightweight champion twice a week, so I was now training 4 nights a week. All the lads were a lot older than me and quite rough around the edges to say the least, but we all got along really well. We would go to Middlesbrough twice a month to train with my instructor's close friend at his club. He was also a British and European champion, but at a heavier weight. He was covered in tattoos, as were most of his club, and a scary character especially through the eyes of a 13 year old. I also remember the location of the club being in a neighborhood in Middlesbrough, where it was actually safer in the club and in the ring than outside, especially at night.   

 

Saying that though, he was a very charismatic teacher with a lot of students and a lot to give and always quick to offer a friendly word of encouragement. I remember having to get quite psyched up mentally before going to his club as it was a very different atmosphere to anything I had experienced previously. The fact that my instructor was a big Beatles fan didn't help though. He would play the same Beatles tape over and over again in the car on the way there with songs like Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby. These were not exactly the songs you wanted to hear before training or after for that matter. I later found out that his cassette player was broken and the Beatles tape was jammed so we had no choice. During my 3 or so years of Kickboxing I had a total of around 5 fights in the ring. All of which were in some interesting places- night clubs in Teeside, working men’s' clubs in Middlesbrough and a cruise ship in Newcastle. All of my fights were against guys a lot older than me, sometimes twice my age. There was one time when we were fighting at some pub in Newcastle that stands out for a number of reasons, none of them good mind you.  After arriving at the venue I remember thinking to myself that the ring was smaller than usual.  

 

Someone later described it as a 'fighter's ring' because there was nowhere to run or hide. Upon hearing that I remember seriously considering making a sharp exit through the back door, but with having no money and being in one of those areas where the last place you wanted to be was outside on your own, and with it also being physically impossible to get to any of the exits as it was jam packed, I had no choice but to stay. We then met the lads we were going to fight that evening and that feeling of wanting to disappear came back again tenfold. My opponent turned out to be a skinhead covered in tattoos who by the look of him liked to spend quite a bit of time lifting weights probably more than he liked Kickboxing. I was up first, but don't remember how I got to the ring or back from it, or even being in it for that matter. I later found out that as soon as the bell went, I caught him with a jab which was probably more like a kizami zuki and immediately followed through with a front kick off the back leg which again was probably more like a mae geri that knocked him out of the ring. My friend who went after me also knocked his opponent out within the first minute of the first round, but our friend who went last got beat up quite badly. I think this was probably due to him watching both of us finish our fights so easily that he most likely went into the ring feeling a bit complacent.

I learnt 3 important lessons that night that have stayed with me through my training and they are train hard and fight easy, don't judge a book by its cover and a little fears helps.

 

 

Richard Heselton at Takushoku University, training

 

(SB)     You graded to Shodan within the KUGB in 1993 under Sensei Keinosuke Enoeda. Can you tell us about this experience?

 

(RH)     I think it was in Kendal or Keswick in the Lake District?

 

(SB)     And what are your memories of Sensei Enoeda ?

 

(RH)     Prior to coming to Japan, my impression of Sensei Enoeda was only from a distance, as I had only trained with him a couple of times on courses. I just remember him having a very stern appearance and a certain indefinable energy. Then many years later when I was in my third year at Takushoku, Enoeda Sensei came to our spring training camp which was held at Shiina senpai's dojo in Chiba. I was fortunate to be introduced to him and, much to my surprise he told me how proud he was that one of his students from the KUGB had entered Takushoku and that I must visit him every year I was back in England. Later that year, I returned to England for Christmas and Enoeda Sensei kindly picked me up at Heathrow Airport. After arriving at his home we proceeded to eat Japanese food and drink a full crate of Sapporro beer followed by a bottle of Bushmills whiskey. During this time he told me stories of when he was at Takushoku and showed me some old footage from when he first came to England and established the KUGB. Through this I was able to gain a very different impression of Enoeda Sensei. I feel very lucky to have shared that afternoon with him. Upon leaving, I remember he told me that every time I return to England I must come and visit him. Unfortunately, Enoeda Sensei was taken ill shortly after.

 

(SB)     Between 1993 and 1995, you were a member of the KUGB Junior National Squad under Sensei Andy Sherry and Frank Brennan. Can you please tell us a little about this period of your training career?

 

(RH)     I was approached by Frank Brennan after a course he taught at in York and was invited to attend the Junior National Squad training sessions at the Red Triangle dojo in Liverpool. I was about 16 or 17 and a brown belt at the time. The squad sessions were held on average, once a month and were very physical. Each session would last about 3 hours and consisted of lots of kumite drills, lineouts and free sparring. Each session would end with everyone having to climb over the metal support beams that ran across the dojo.

 

(SB)     Do you have any fond or memorable memories from your time on the Junior squad, and possible tell us about the training you did under Frank Brennan and Andy Sherry?

 

(RH)     Fond memories....umm, let me think... No! Not from Squad sessions anyway.

The highlights of these sessions were getting in the car to go home afterwards and thinking, thank God, I got through that in one piece. On occasion, members of the senior squad would come along and train just to keep the juniors in line. We all used to love that, not. At the time, Andy Sherry took most of the training and Frank Brennan was there in a supportive role. I just remember the atmosphere was always very intense.

 

 

Richard Heselton competing

 

(SB)     You now live in Japan. What prompted your move?

 

(RH)     My father was a ship’s carpenter in the merchant navy and did a lot travelling and subsequently lived and worked in Zimbabwe, Algeria and Germany while I was growing up. I think it was growing up listening to his stories that initially sparked the interest in me to travel.

 

Also, as I've previously mentioned, my friend's dad was quite influential in me deciding to come to Japan. This was probably more indirectly than directly. He'd being doing Shotokan karate for quite a few years before I started. During this time he had amassed quite a collection of books and videos and on the Martial Arts- not only Shotokan- together with every back issue of Terry O'Neil's Fighting Arts International for the last few years.

 

I can hear some of you say 'what else would you need?' And that was exactly it. Having access to those books and magazines is what planted the seed and eventually lead me to decide to combine my desire to travel with my passion for Karate. I was 15 years old when I'd pretty much set my sights on going to Japan to experience training there firsthand. However, I tried relentlessly to find a way to be able to get to Japan but, a lot of doors were closed to me due to my age. So, I decided to put it off until I finished school at 18. I think I was a little out of touch with reality at the time, to be honest.

 

Anyway, just after turning 18, I took out a loan and jumped on an Aeroflot flight bound for Tokyo via Moscow with a suitcase and what I thought would be enough money to last me a couple of months. At the time, I had no real intention of staying longer than the 3 month tourist visa I got at Narita Airport.

 

This was also around the time I was starting to lose interest in Kickboxing and become more focused on my Karate training, and after seeing some footage of Enoeda Sensei and some of the senior KUGB instructors as well as constantly reading about them in Fighting Arts, I decided that for me to get better then I needed to train with the KUGB. I looked for a KUGB club in the area but, at the time the closest one was the Kenshinkan in York, which is a two and a half hour bus ride from Whitby on the Yorkshire Coastline. I also found out that the Kenshinkan also taught at York University twice a week. Upon doing a bit of research, I also discovered that York University offered a language course called 'Languages for All' in Japanese to both students and non- students - kind of like an Open University course once a week for 3 months. After calling the University to inquire about the course and trying to convince the lady over the phone that I wouldn't have any problems understanding the contents of the course as I already spoke fluent French and German, which wasn't exactly true, well, there wasn't any truth in that at all. She finally gave in to my enthusiasm and suggested I meet the Japanese lady in charge of the course and, if she agreed to let a 16 year old join her class of under and post graduates, then it would be alright.

 

We met and she was more than a little apprehensive about letting me join her class, as she soon discovered I spoke neither French nor German and I'd never studied a foreign language before. However, upon hearing my dream of going to Japan to do karate she became even more doubtful, but eventually gave in and let me join the class. She told me to sit at the back and keep quiet. It just so happened that the course was on a Wednesday afternoon and the university karate club trained on Wednesday nights. I remember barely getting through the first Japanese class and then finding my way to the Sports hall for training. I hadn't given any thought to how I was going to get back to Whitby from York that night. I just knew that last Coastliner bus left York Station before training would finish. The students and instructor agreed to let me train. One of the senior instructors from the York Kenshinkan took the class. After the class I was asked to compete for York University in the KUGB Student Championships that weekend. I jumped at the chance and that weekend I travelled to Chesterfield to compete for York University. I was 16 at the time. My first KUGB competition didn't last long though. I got disqualified for excessive contract- probably more like bad control!

 

(SB)     Can you please tell us about your training in Japan? Where do you spend most of your time?

 

(RH)     At the moment, I teach and train at The JKA branch of Taishijuku under Naka Sensei and Ookuma Sensei between 2-3 times a week and do my own training at the gym between 4-5 times a week during the day. I also go back to Takushoku Uni as often as I can to train with the Karate club.

 

Richard Heselton competing

 

(SB)     You spent a great deal of time studying under Tatsuya Naka. Can you please tell us about him as both a man and as an instructor?

 

(RH)     That's right. I've trained under Naka Sensei for the last 17 years. 

 

He is very charismatic and enthusiastic. He takes great pride in his teaching. His deep understanding of body mechanics both from an eastern and western point of view coupled with his historical knowledge of Karate is amazing.

 

(SB)     Sensei Naka was obviously highly influenced by Sensei Y. Osaka. Can you describe, with some detail, the most important ways in which Sensei Naka developed your karate?

 

(RH)     The biggest thing I've learnt from Naka Sensei in relation to my Karate and as a person is not to expect to be taught or for people to show you the way, you have to find your own answers to your own questions - Karate should be a path of self-discovery. Meaning the answers are there if; you take the time to look for them yourself they will appear.

 

(SB)     Another hugely important period of your karate career took place between 2000 and 2004, at Takushoku University. It has a remarkable, if not infamous reputation. What were your expectations joining the club?

 

(RH)     It exceeded my expectations in every way. I'd already been in Japan for 5 years upon entering Takushoku. So I had a rough idea of what training might be like, but it was much harder than I had expected. I also expected life outside of the dojo to be fairly challenging, especially the 'jyougeikankei' which means the relationship you have with your instructor, seniors, peers and juniors. At Takushoku, knowing your place and behaving accordingly and saying the right thing is essential so as not to embarrass your instructor, your seniors and especially not your university name. This can also be said about living in Japan, but to a lesser extent. This far surpassed any expectations I'd had. I also did put a lot of pressure on myself to do things right and not use the fact that I'm not Japanese as an excuse.

 

Richard Heselton competing

 

(SB)     Whilst at Takushoku you must have hardened somewhat in your resilience am I right?

 

(RH)     For sure. You realize very quickly that it's what's on the inside that counts and those around you, who just happen to be there due to circumstance don't last very long.   

 

(SB)     Can you please tell us about the training there and the consequences on you as a karateka and as a man?

 

(RH)     On occasion during my 4 years, I would go through periods of time when I felt like I was hitting my head against a brick wall, and I couldn't do anything right. As you know, it's not like you can just put your hand up and ask questions like ‘why am I doing this wrong?' or 'could you explain that a little more clearly?'  You say OSS and get on with it, which again, goes back to the whole thing about thinking for yourself. This would often make me question my motives and conviction for doing what I was doing but, I suppose, also, through this I came to realize the importance of setting clear goals to prevent your environment or, more importantly, what people say from having a negative influence on you.

 

(SB)     You captained the Takushoku squad. Who were the other members of your team?

 

(RH)     That's right. I captained Takushoku in my 3rd and 4th year. The vice captain was Takeo Nakayama who went on to do the Kensyusei and become a JKA instructor. We both teach and train together on Mondays. 

 

(SB)     Do any fights stand out in particular in your mind that you could share with us?

 

(RH)     Not really because I try not to look back too much. I hardly ever watch footage of previous fights because that was then and this is now - Whether I won that particular fight or not is irrelevant - I want to move on, improve and evolve - I once heard someone say " Yesterday's solutions don't solve today's problems” and I totally agree with this.

 

So I only take whatever positive things from each fight I can and try to improve. But If I had to choose one then I suppose the year I graduated from Takushoku 2004 and fought Ogata Sensei in the quarter finals of the All Japan’s. This is because a few months prior to competing I had an MRI on my back and was told I had 2 herniated discs and quite a large benign tumour in my spine. 

 

I'd had back trouble for most of the time I was at Takushoku but, just thought it was wear and tear and trained through it, but it got to the point where I couldn't even get out of bed in the morning, let alone put on a dogi. So, I couldn't really train for about 2 months leading up to the competition. I remember I fought on the day up to eyeballs on really strong painkillers my mum had sent from England.

 

It was a big learning curve for me because until then I used to get my confidence from knowing I had trained harder than anyone else, but all of a sudden I was competing with minimum physical preparation. It made me realize the importance of mental preparation, and rethink my whole approach to training. So for that reason, I suppose it stands out for me but, again I don't try to dwell too much on the past and try more to focus more on the power of now.

 

Richard Heselton competing

 

(SB)     As I have mentioned, you have had an outstanding competitive career. How does your training outside of the dojo contribute to your success would you say?

 

(RH)     It's crucial. At the end of the day, I believe that your karate must become your own. In the dojo you create your base and should receive a firm grounding in Kihon, Kata and Kumite, and should be taken out of your comfort zone. So, choosing the right instructor and dojo is of course essential. However, at the same time, you don't really have the opportunity to work on your own techniques in the dojo or during dojo training. So spending time working on both your strengths and weaknesses by yourself is very important.

 

Of course we are all different in our reasons and approach to training so our emphasis in training differs and subsequently the questions we ask are different. However, I'm a strong believer in setting clear goals, however small, to aid development, whether you are training in, or outside the dojo. Training has to be purposeful; otherwise you might as well just wave your arms and legs in the air.

 

Also, I've never really needed anyone in front of me shouting commands to motivate me. I believe if you can't motivate yourself, then how can you expect someone else to. External motivators are short lived, it has to be intrinsic and come from within. I approach my training outside the dojo with the same level of intensity and focus that I do in the dojo. Naka Sensei once told me a story about how Enoeda Sensei had told him to always train 3 times harder than everyone else. That has always stayed with me and I use that as the base for how I approach my own personal training, together with the principle that as soon as you put on your dogi, people know instantly whether you've been training or not, Karate doesn't lie, but above all that I’m a firm believer in, if you aren’t able to improvise and evolve you will be left behind.

 

(SB)     Do you feel the body's “fast twitch” can be developed?

 

Based on the research I've done, you can certainly develop your fast-twitch muscle fibres by incorporating plyometric or complex training (combination of plyometrics and weights/ tubes etc.,) to build fast muscle fiber and performing sprinting types of training to build the super-fast twitch muscle fibers. I find the overload principle works really well.  I do this by maximizing resistance during any given routine and then perform the same routine without the resistance. Also, all the resistance and plyometric routines I do I try to ensure they are all congruent with my karate goals.    

 

Richard Heselton training

 

(SB)     JKA Kata has seen many changes to its practice over the last 20 years, which has been criticised by many non-JKA associated karateka. How do you personally feel about the adaptations that have been made to the shotokan kata?

 

(RH)     Change is inevitable, as we all know, and that's the beauty of kata. Everyone's interpretation is somewhat different and each time you do the kata again you come across something a little different that you weren't aware of previously. I am all for adapting and improvising. Of course Standardization helps to maintain a certain consistent level of understanding and is crucial but, taking it beyond that and thinking outside the box in your own way to suit your own needs is also extremely important. 

 

(SB)     What is your favourite kata and why?

 

(RH)     I'd say Tekki shodan and then Nijushiho because I like the varying hip movements and practical applications that you can work on with these kata. 

 

(SB)     Have you ever been tempted to enroll on the Instructor Course?

 

(RH)     Of course, but like a lot of things in life, timing plays a key role. Upon graduating from Takushoku, it wasn't the right time for me. I had a debilating back injury and it was also a time for me to take a step back and reassess my priorities in life.  

 

(SB)     And where do you spend most of your time training now?

 

(RH)     Due to the nature of my work, I work most nights, so I spend a lot of time training during the day at the gym.

 

(SB)     What are your karate goals for the future?

 

(RH)     To keep evolving and not be left behind.

 

(SB)     Can we please say a big thank you for answering our questions? May we wish you all the best for the future?

 

(RH)     You are very welcome. Oss!

 

Richard Heselton