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An Interview with Ticky Donovan OBE



If you study Traditional Karate, then you are bound to know his name. If you practice Sport Karate you’re bound to have heard of his reputation.  Ticky Donovan OBE is undoubtedly one of the worlds finest and most respected Karateka and coaches. In June 2007, I was lucky enough to speak with Sensei Donovan and pick his brains and hear the thoughts of a karateka that dominated the competition circuit, runs his own style and Organisation and takes many young talented athletes to great heights and successes as Coach of the English squad. - Emma Robins June 2007


Please note that this interview was conducted in 2007, and since that time, Ticky Donovan has retired from being the National Coach. The final question was asked in 2009.




(Emma Robins)     I know this is a bit of a generic question, but could you tell us how and why you first started karate?


(Ticky Donovan OBE)     Yeah, I was boxing at the time, and a friend of mine was doing judo and he came to me and said ‘do you want to have a go at this’. (Laughing) That was it, really, in so many words.


So we went along to the club taught by Mr.Suzuki, and we trained there on the Wednesday night, which I didn’t really like. I thought it was very slow, but the Japanese instructors did a demonstration on the Friday, and I was hooked.


(ER)     And where was that club?


(TD)     That was Italia Conti in Clapham Common in 1965


Ticky Donovan with Sensei Suzuki


(ER)     I know that you developed the style of Ishinryu. What was the impetus behind that?


(TD)     There was a lot of politics going on at that time. I had done Wado-Ryu for a long time and then I changed over to Shotokan with Mr. Kanazawa and Mr. Enoeda. Mr. Enoeda went up to Liverpool and Mr. Kanazawa went over to Germany, and then I had a break. I had broken a bone in my hand so I had to take a break for a while. Then when I went back I started training with Steve Arneil in Kyokushinkai. Kyokushin is great but it doesn’t have the finesse of Shotokan or Wado Ryu, so I kind of developed the bits I liked out of them all.


(ER)     So you created an amalgamation of the best bits?


(TD)     Yes, yes.


(ER)     And would you say that there was one style that influenced you more?


(TD)     NO, one man, Dominique Valera. I had been involved with Dominique, doing courses with him and I liked the way he moved, his idea on techniques. (Editor’s Note: Dominique Valera, born in Lyon France in 1947, was a very successful competitor, and notched up a long and very impressive competitive record throughout his varied competitive career.)


(ER)      And that’s where you took most of your influence from?


(TD)     Yeah. The basic side we tended to lean more towards the Shotokan, and the Shotokan Kata in the high grades.


(ER)     Which kata do you have in your organisation?


(TD)     Heian katas tend to be closer to Kyokushinkai but changed more by the ideas that I learned from Shotokan and Wado-Ryu. Advanced katas are mostly Shotokan and Shito-ryu.


(ER)     On the site, we allow readers to submit questions for our interviewees, and one of the questions that has come forward our readers is that you were responsible for the style of competition karate that we see today, as before you formed Ishinryu and dominated the karate scene karate was flat footed and worked in straight lines. What made you create a style that could be said revolutionized sport karate?


(TD)     Well I think my boxing experience came into it. The movements of body swerving, blocking with the back hand rather than just the front hand, and I started moving around in the way that I had when I was boxing, rather than just standing still.


(ER)     Your reputation is widely spread throughout the world. Why would you say you are so widely respected?


(TD)     I’ve never really thought about it. Thank God I was gifted with ideas, I could think up ideas and combinations that would work in competition.


(ER)     Many people who have spoken about you comment on the fact that you have an excellent ability of controlling your opponent on the mat.


(TD)     Well, I used to be (Laughing)


(ER)     Would you say that you have changed your training much because of the ageing process and the injuries that you mentioned?


(TD)     Well no, after my career, my students took over. I won the British three times but I decided not the fight the following year because I believed my students could win it and they did. Tyrone White and Peter Dennis took 1st and 3rd and they dominated the scene, and so I kind of became the England Manager and then I started to give my ideas to other people.


(ER)     You have a competitive record that is so impressive. What would you say was your secret to your success? Well, not so secret after this (Laughing)


(TD)     (Laughing) Well I don’t know really, that’s a difficult one to answer.


Ticky Donovan with Dominique Valera


(ER)      Who were your hardest fights against when you were competing and could you please share any memories that stand out to you?


(TD)     Dominique Valera. I think I fought him three times, he won twice and we drew once, but I just found him superb. He’s great and we still have a great friendship now, but we play golf rather than fight one another (Laughing)


(ER)     How do you think you and your peers would have fared in the WKF arena? This is one question that comes up a lot on the site so we just wanted to get your views on this?


(TD)     No problem, I mean we went from shobu-ippon to two ippons and then to three ippons. We just adapted. I don’t think there would have been a problem. It’s just that a karate fighter today has to be much fitter than you had to be with shobu-ippon.


(ER)     And did you have to adapt your coaching to suit this?


(TD)     Yes. I have always changed my coaching. I have always looked for ideas from other people, and if I have seen someone doing something good I would either copy it or play around with it.


(ER)     Do you have any proven exercises that you employ with your squad?


(TD)     Just the pre-training. We were the first country that started pre-training for a competition. We would do three days of training, one day rest, three days training, one day rest, three days training, one or two days rest and then the competition. And that works, and other countries copied it. There were two-three sessions a day depending. Fitness for the first three days, then tactics, then timing and speed for the last three days.


(ER)    What kind of tactics would you work on?

 (TD)     Different combinations. I’d work on different combinations to suit different people, and I’d stress that this might not suit you but it might suit someone else in the squad. So I’d cover a lot of different combinations, not just kicking, but kicking and punching with co-ordination, changing stances, you know.


(ER)    Speed is clearly something that stands out when you watch a competitor in WKF competition. What kind of things would you do to develop speed in a competitor?


(TD)     Well, it’s a copycat syndrome, karate is a copycat syndrome. In the old days you could tell who everybody trained under, all the students copied the gimmicks and head movements, and things like that and it’s the same with the fighting. Fighters go abroad and see someone fighting and if that person’s winning, they start copying.


(ER)     That’s very evident, even today you can usually guess with some of the better competitors which association they are with just by judging on the Senior competitors in that association.


(TD)     When I do my gradings within Ishinryu, I can tell the students that come from different instructors because they move in the same way as their instructor.


(ER)     How has Wayne Otto influenced you in your coaching?


(TD)     Well Wayne Otto was the most successful fighter in England and we worked well together. I mean, if you ever speak to Wayne, he got to know me more when he finished his competition and he understood me more, as a person not as a coach.


With Wayne Otto, he believed in what I had done and I believed in what he could do. He knew that I would never call anything out for him to do that wouldn’t have suited him. There were times when I would sit on the chair and really shout things out to Wayne and other times I would just sit there and tell him how much time was left.


Ticky Donovan with Steve Arneil


(ER)     What kind of mental approach do you tell your fighters to take?


(TD)     Everybody is different.  This is the one thing I think that makes us successful, is that I try and get into people in different ways. Because with some coaches everybody has to do the same thing, but you can’t have a squad of different weight categories and think they’re all going to train in the same way. You have to pick things that suit people.


(ER)     Do you do a lot of impact training?


(TD)     We do pad work, not lots of impact, but pad work and sometimes body armour, but that’s all part of conditioning improved training. The idea is that if you take a squad away for two weeks, they get tired and homesick and if they know everything that’s going to happen they get bored so you have to change it around a bit.


(ER)     So the pre-training, does that happen in the country you are competing in or does that happen before you fly out?


(TD)     It depends where the competition is. When we had the Championships in Mexico, we went to America first which was high altitude, to train there, because there were better facilities for the training. So it depends where the Championships are. When the World Championships were in Australia, we trained in Australia but we trained in the Gold Coast and then went to Sydney for the Championships. One time we had the World Championships in Holland, but pre-trained in Portugal. I think in pre-training it’s important to eat, to be warm and keep the body supple.


(ER)     Are there any activities outside of Karate that you would advise your squad members to take up?


(TD)     Well definitely fitness; running, sprint, shuttle running. Some will do weights and some wouldn’t, just depending on the individual.


(ER)     Are there any activities that you would tell your competitors to avoid? My partner and I took up squash a couple of months ago and we were told that it can be bad for your karate.


(TD)     Again I wouldn’t recommend squash, but someone may like to do it for the body movement, but it is very hard on the joints, ankles and knees. Again there are different individuals, there are some that like to run and some that like to swim, but I wouldn’t tell someone that enjoys running to go swimming and visa versa.


The most important thing is that the individual is feeling physically and mentally right and they are getting what they are needing.


(ER)     Is there any particular athlete that you have found to be particularly gifted over the last few years?


(TD)     I have been very lucky to work with some very gifted athletes, but I have had some that have come on the squad and I think will have no chance but two years later are European Champion.


(ER)     That must say a lot for your squad!


(TD)     Yeah it’s great to watch people develop within the squad.


Ticky Donovan with Billy Higgins


(ER)     Are there any adaptations you think that the rules need to make the competition better for the fighters? Anything you would add or get rid of?


(TD)     Not really, I think they are gradually changing the rules more and more. They took out mubobi. It’s in there but I think the warning should come back for that. But at the moment I think the rules are very good, they give the opportunity for people who want to take the chance to get more points.


(ER)     Do you agree that there is a divide growing between traditional karate and sport karate, how do you feel about that?


(TD)     You have got to have a tradition to start with. I am a traditional person, I always get classed as sport because I was a coach of the English team, but my students have always done very well with kata in competition, and technically I have some very good 5th and 6th dans who can do sport karate but are very technical in their traditional karate.


But there are some younger people who have no interest in traditional karate; they just want to do sport karate. But that’s up to them, the only trouble is and I do tell them that when their competition is finished they are finished. But with a tradition behind them they can teach, do courses and develop more people.


(ER)     What advice would you offer to competitors around the world who want to become a full-time competitor?


(TD)     I say to them, ‘What do you want to do?’ If you just want to be a fighter, so be it but when your fighting career is over you might do courses if you were successful, but with someone with a traditional background who can fight and do kata, they can have a much longer career as an instructor because they have got more to offer.


(ER)     And what about advice for those who want to become instructors, what would you say makes a successful instructor?


(TD)     Well again, what have you got to offer, that’s the thing. If you can only fight, you are very limited in what you can teach.


(ER)     One last question, what is your favorite kata and why, particularly interesting with you I would imagine because of karate background?


(TD)     The kata I most like to see, when done properly by someone young would have to be Unsu. I think that’s my favorite kata. Not that I want to do it (Laughs). Nijushiho is more for me, but to see it done properly, Unsu is a beautiful kata.


You have no retired from competition am I correct? Can I please ask why you have decided to do so when you are, in the eyes of many, on the top of your game?


(TD)     I have retired only from being National Coach, and I have not retired from karate. I am still teaching in my ishinryu clubs and am still travelling and teaching open courses. 


An Interview with Ticky Donovan OBE