MALCOLM PHIPPS 7th Dan
(Chief Instructor to Seishinkai Shotokan Karate International)
Dr. Patrick Mileham
Doctor Patrick Mileham: Sensei, When and why did you begin karate ?
Malcolm Phipps: I began my karate training in the early seventies at the Hemel Hempstead Dojo of JKA/SKI. Firstly, we were JKA (Japan Karate Association) then there was the split, with Kanazawa Sensei forming the SKI (Shotokan Karate International) and our club followed this faction. I had been in the Royal Navy since leaving school in 1958 and had seen a rating practising some kind of fighting art on the mess-deck of HMS Delight the Daring class destroyer I was serving on at the time. This would have been around 1967/8.
He was hitting his kitbag with an amazing array of kicks and strikes and his power was awesome. What impressed me most was that he was doing this quietly, with no-one watching and it was by sheer accident that I disturbed him. I asked him, somewhat tentatively, what he was doing and he told me it was karate training. This sowed the seed.
Then in the early seventies, Bruce Lee appeared on our screens and like most young males at the time, I was extremely impressed, to say the least. This reactivated my earlier curiosity and a couple of weeks later an advert appeared in our local paper and I went along to give it a try. I liked the discipline of the art, something I had got used to in the RN. But this was a different kind of discipline, it was self-discipline. In other words, I didn’t have to be there if I didn’t want to be! This I found refreshing and new. The rest I suppose, is history.
DPM: I believe you were quite a decent footballer - was there conflict between this and your karate training ?
MP: Yes, I was a football fanatic. I had played for the RN all over the world and on release from the RN played decent amateur football twice weekly. It was my first love. There was no conflict at first but karate training demanded regular training, as did football, and although the actual matches didn’t clash with my karate lessons, my football training days did. I got as far as yellow-belt doing both. But it was obvious a decision had to be made. Firstly, I wasn’t getting any younger and my love for karate was growing stronger. The decision finally came when I took a crack on my ankle playing for my Sunday team and on the Monday evening’s karate lesson couldn’t even sit in seiza properly. What also stuck in my mind, was that the Japanese Masters and all the good books stated, that karate was for life. This is what I wanted, as I knew for definite that football wasn’t. So it was goodbye to my illustrious football career!
I still support my first love in football, Wolverhampton Wanderers FC. For when I was a lad the Wolves were the very best! Now that’s called showing your age! In actual fact, throughout the early nineties, our Association President was a good friend of mine, John Byrne the Republic of Ireland, Q.P.R. and Sunderland striker.
DPM: What made you decide to become a professional karate instructor and go on to form your own Association ?
MP: It was fate really or just a strange set of events. It wasn’t something I set out to do or even wanted to do at first. I had a decent job with a commodity broker in London and had been given permission by my sensei to open up a small club in a Baptist Church Hall in Hemel Hempstead, which I attended. I had around fifteen young students who had all shown an interest in training in karate but the main dojo in Hemel Hempstead trained a little too late for them. So I was given permission to start the club, once a week at first, on a Saturday afternoon. This was the beginning of things to come. The club grew and grew and we eventually had to change to a larger venue (Bennetts End Community Centre) and train twice weekly. It was here that the club took off. Through no fault of our own we were forced to change Associations.
There had been a lot of political/financial trouble at the main dojo and therefore a change of leadership with a new sensei took place. With the new broom sweeping clean syndrome, we were asked to close down our dojo and that all students would now have to train at the main dojo in the Sports Centre. This was impossible, as explained earlier and I now had a big decision to make. Also our main dojo just did not believe in competition karate and this side of our training was totally lacking. We kept reading in ‘Combat’ and ‘Fighting Arts International’ about such great competitors as, Terry O’Neill, Andy Sherry, Bob Poynton, Billy Higgins and Ticky Donovan and wondered why we didn’t train in this side of karate, especially as most of these were Shotokan. With all this in mind, I rang the relatively newly formed Martial Arts Commission and told them of our plight and they put me in touch with a Mr. Dan Bradley and the ASKA (Amateur Shotokan Karate Association). The Chief Instructor was Sensei Balwant Sahans (Blanti) a very senior 5th Dan who came to our dojo along with Dan. You could not wish to meet two nicer gentlemen. Blanti took the class and after it was over, shook my hand and invited me to join ASKA. This offer was taken up immediately and we spent seven very happy years in ASKA. Again it was a change in direction that forced us to move. We, as a club were training with a host of excellent JKA instructors and noticed that there was a big difference in the way the two major groups, SKI and JKA did things. My hero was Nakayama Sensei and when his books were published, the ‘Best Karate’ series, I noticed that things were quite different. This was slowly coming into conflict with our training, as trying to be successful at both methods was nigh impossible. And so, after much debate and a vote, which favoured going on our own 100 percent we left ASKA in 1984. There were one or two other reasons but these would be unfair to put into print. And so we joined the then, EKF (English Karate Federation) as Seishinkai Shotokan Karate and in 1995 became an international group and therefore adding this last word to our title. We now have thriving clubs in, England, USA, Australia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Hungary, India, South Africa, Kosovo, UAE (Dubai) and Sri Lanka. Going back to the other half of your question. My club in Hemel Hempstead at that time was pretty large and I had been asked by Hertfordshire County Council if I would teach at St. Albans College during certain days of the week and twice in the evening. This was impossible with my job in London. And so I approached by boss and told him of my plight. I couldn’t have had a greater and wiser man to look up to. His name was Hans Oosterhuis and his son was the famous golfer, Peter Oosterhuis. Being heavily involved in sport himself he suggested that this could be my only chance in life to do whatI really wanted to do. He gave me great advice and a lot of help (especially in having time off to run my St. Albans College club) and after about two months I eventually left to become a professional karate instructor. Anyone who has taken similar steps in any field knows that the first couple of years is especially hard. But with perseverance I survived and again the rest is history.
DPM: In nearly 34 years involvement with karate you must have seen lots of changes in the way it’s taught and practised. In your opinion what are the most significant changes, and have they all had a positive effect on karate ?
MP: This is a tricky question Patrick. It was, in some ways, harder in those early days. Tons of bunny-hops, poor sit-ups etc. and technically pretty average. Control in competition was also a little suspect, to say the least, especially as I lost two teeth in back to back competitions. Obviously my blocking on that side was poor! But this lack of control wasn’t really anyone’s fault. Karate training was new to the country and it was hard to interpret what the Japanese sensei’s were trying to convey. Today karate is more scientific and a lot has gone into making it safer, especially in the competition area. I think though, you have to be careful not to take the karate out of karate. There is a fine line between strong and powerful karate and karate that is relatively safe. There were no children’s clubs in those early days and the amount of children training in any one club you could count on one hand. There are many more ladies training now also and I think this is a good thing. Some of my very best students have been female. So I believe it had to change to an extent. One change that does stand out in my own mind is the, ‘straight back leg on everything syndrome’. It wasn’t until we started to train with the likes of, Kawasoe Sensei, Kato Sensei and Dave Hooper Sensei, that we started to understand about the back leg being slightly bent in zenkutsu-dachi (front stance) in the hanmi (half-facing) position. You only have to look at certain books on the art of Shotokan to see the difference. Just look at Osaka Sensei in ‘Best Karate Vol. 5’ to see the way it should be done. Again SSKI was willing to change, many other groups were not. Now, I am not saying their way is wrong, but as the Chief Instructor I wanted our karate to be in line with Nakayama Sensei and the original JKA. I just felt that this was the correct route to travel. Teaching is so much better now, especially at the higher levels. We have regular courses with such sensei’s as, Dave Hazard, Aidan Trimble, Richard Amos, John Mullin etc. and they don’t come much better than this. We are also very lucky in this country to have a host of great Japanese sensei’s to follow. In Shotokan alone we have had, the late, great Enoeda Sensei, Kawasoe Sensei, Ohta Sensei, Asano Sensei and Kato Sensei, all who live in England. This cannot be bad for such a small country. When I visit my group in the USA they are so envious that such a small island could have so much great direction.
DPM: Who have been the biggest influences on your karate ?
MP: The greatest overall influence would have to be Nakayama Sensei but millions of people could say that (shows what a great man he was and what a great loss). Other influences over the years would be, Kanazawa Sensei, Enoeda Sensei, Balwant Sahans, Jack Warner, Terry O’Neill, Dave Hooper, Dave Hazard, Aidan Trimble, Richard Amos and John Mullin. Some of these are less senior than myself but what does that matter. I believe you can and must learn from anyone who has something to offer.
DPM: What achievements are you most proud of in your karate career ?
MP: My proudest achievement is teaching my students, especially the children to a very high level. They are the future, not only of karate but of life in general and I personally believe if they are taught the way of karate properly then their lives will be so much more enriched for this experience. It is wonderful to see a hyperactive child calm down and a very shy child come out of their shell. This is karate-do at its very best. Other achievements I would be proud of would be my own progression. This sounds a little vain but isn’t meant to. Before I took up training in karate I had done absolutely nothing with my life. It has given me a direction and the courage to achieve other things. I owe it a lot. I am also very proud of my students who have gone on to win World, European and many National titles but this is short-lived. In actual fact I am more proud of the everyday karateka who train day in, day out in the dojo, no matter what their age or ability.
Someone once asked me what epitaph I would like on my grave (I think it was probably an ex-wife after the insurance money). Seriously though it would be nice just to have, ‘A karate man - one who tried to help others in the Way’. I think this sums up how I feel. As I said karate has given me a lot and it is nice to put something back.
DPM: Who have been your most successful competition students?
MP: Well, the first two that spring to mind are Willie Thomas and Tracey Phipps. Willie started his training with me in St. Albans as a beginner at the age of fourteen and I took him to the nidan level and 1986 EKU European Champion. Willie then went on to win the 1992 WUKO World Championship kumite title in Madrid. Tracey Phipps fought for the England team on ten occasions, winning seven gold medals in these ten outings. Both of course were British/English kumite champions. Then at the same time there was Val Henry who also fought for the England team on a couple of occasions and was also English kumite champion. All of these titles were for Ticky Donovan’s All Styles England team. The Association has gone on to win thirteen world titles and two European titles in the last few years with many national champions along the way. At the moment we have three current IKA World Champions, Douglas Carson, Leah Hoey and Aaron Gould, all who won their titles in Sardinia in 2005. The squad I have now is probably the strongest we have ever had. Much of the thanks must go to my new coach, Sensei Adam Cockfield 3rd Dan, who with myself, has worked extremely hard with these youngsters, who have topped the gold medal tables in nearly every tournament they have entered in the last three years.
DPM: What dislikes do you have?
MP: I absolutely hate karate politics! I have no time for this side of karate. I will not go on in case I offend certain people. We are members of Karate England, the WTKO and WUKO but I will not get caught up in any political wrangles between different governing bodies. All I will say though, to some of these politicians, is get your gi on and get back training. Nobody has earned the right to retire! I love the saying: ‘The older I get, the better I was’.
DPM: You have also had published several books, some on karate, some not. Did you always want to be an author ? Why do you enjoy writing?
MP: Since my naval days, and indeed during, I always enjoyed telling stories (most of them untrue) but enjoyable still the same. I think everyone has the story-teller in them and indeed it has been said that everyone has at least one book in them. This I think is true. It is also a wonderful balance to the dynamic and physical side of karate training. If you look at the great masters in Shotokan karate they have all had that calmer side. Master Gichin Funakoshi wrote poetry, and many books and enjoyed the art of calligraphy. Master Masatoshi Nakayama wrote many books and sensei’s like Stan Schmidt, C.W. Nicol and Randall G. Hassell, to name just a few, have also had many works published. It’s a nice balance in life. I have had books for adults and books for children published and enjoy writing for both. My favourite books that I have written would be, The Ah So! Stories, The Conequest and my sixth book, Wild Oats, which has just been published in 2006 and is an adult novel and the follow-up to, Wild Oats in Cornwall.
I enjoy writing because I personally find it very relaxing and indeed very rewarding once the work is finished. I do not mean financially but mentally and spiritually. It is a wonderful feeling to see your book/books on the bookshelves of bookshops. This along with ‘signing sessions’ is very good for the ego. As Billy Connolly once said, ‘No matter how good the book or works are, you have produced something that did not exist in the universe before’.
DPM: You also teach the art of the Nunchaku to the Association. Do you find this beneficial to your karate training and karate training in general?
MP: Yes, I believe all the Okinawan weapons are beneficial to one’s karate training. I personally believe it is good to train seriously with one of these weapons and not just dabble with all of them. Like Karate, Kung Fu, Aikido etc. you must find which is the one for you. I like the Nunchaku, as it is extremely dynamic and benefits karate with the coordination required to become adept with the weapon. I have trained in traditional Nunchaku now since 1975. We have formed the English Traditional Nunchaku Association (ETNA) where we have a proper structured system of teaching, kihon, kata and kumite and indeed a belt system that goes along with this structured training. A black-belt gained in karate does not necessarily constitute a black-belt in Kobudo (Okinawan weapons system). At the moment we have four thriving clubs in England and one in the USA. I do also teach Sai a couple of times a year to those who want it but the Nunchaku is my favourite!
DPM: You have an amazing open attitude to your Courses/Association - is there any reason for this ?
MP: I just personally think this is the way it should be. I want the very best for my students and if I think that certain instructors can give this, then that is brilliant. If you are an instructor, then your students must come first. You must push them to higher things, probably higher than you have attained yourself. I would not want to return to the old days where we were forbidden to train with other groups. This is pathetic. But sadly, it still goes on. In my home town we have around three other Shotokan groups and none of them attend our ‘Open’ Courses. Just look at the instruction they are missing: Terry O’Neill, Dave Hazard, Sean Roberts, Ronnie Christopher, Aidan Trimble, Richard Amos, John Mullin, Dennis Martin, Sensei Ohta, and that’s only in the last few years. How can you not just go down the road and train with these great sensei?
I heard through the grapevine, that one local instructor actually instructed their class that his/her students were not allowed to train on these Courses. Sad or what? Another student from a certain Association asked if he could be excused from being in the Course photograph at the end of a Course. I asked him why - and he said that if his instructor or chief instructor saw him in the photograph he would be for the high jump. One of my senior black-belts went to train at a club in another Association and was promptly asked to turn his gi jacket inside out, so as not to offend the club instructor with our badge. I won’t print the obscenities that left my lips. Naturally, he never went back. These sadly are true stories and are only one or two that I choose to mention, others might offend certain people. The truth of the matter is, these instructors are worried and challenged by the thought that their students might not return to their dojo or might think less of them if they attend these Courses. I know for a fact that my own students and Association are very pleased with our open attitude in SSKI and I am pretty sure that no one has left because I cannot kick like Dave Hazard or Ronnie Christopher, or perform kata like Sean Roberts. So, I think our open attitude is a healthy one and will indeed continue. I see it as a huge plus for SSKI.
DPM: What goals in karate would you like to achieve in the coming years?
MP: I would like to see the Association grow, not only in this country but abroad as well, but not just for the sake of getting bigger but hopefully for the sake of students enjoying their karate training in a good and honest Shotokan outfit that follows the way of Nakayama sensei. My personal goals are that I become a better instructor, which in turn will benefit my students. I am very lucky to have as Deputy Chief Instructor, Sensei KevinThurlow 5th Dan, who has really been a gigantic help in helping to run the Association. We have just had three new clubs open within the Association and five new clubs join from outside the Association with their sensei, Dave Gaish 4th Dan, so things are definitely on the move. We have very vibrant international groups in the, USA, Kazakhstan, Hungary, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Australia, Kosovo and UAE (Dubai), so this keeps me busy and off the streets!
DPM: What principles do you base your karate teaching on?
MP: I base my karate teaching principles very much on Nakayama Sensei, as explained earlier. He was a great leader and a gentleman as well. We follow his principles and the way he taught very closely indeed. He, like Kanazawa Sensei now, had time for everyone and I try to follow these superb examples. Not many students will turn out as great competitors and some will be less supple than others but this is totally irrelevant as karate-do is for everyone, no matter what their age or ability. As long as a student tries and listens to their sensei, then in a good club they should enjoy their training and progression, no matter how slow or fast. So in a nutshell - everyone in the dojo is important.
DPM: Do you have a personal philosophy?
MP: I suppose my personal philosophy would be, to be happy with what you have and who you are. I spent a lot of my young life trying to be like other people. We were placed on this earth to be ourselves not a clone of somebody else. Mind you, this is not a code for laziness - I believe we must try to better ourselves. I think it is important to be happy with what we have and not keep wanting what other people have i.e. bigger houses, more expensive cars and the like. The grass is always greener etc. etc. Also, I believe that time is precious and that we should not waste it. Life also is sacred and again I believe we should not kill for the sheer fun of it. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that fox-hunting, badger-baiting, stag-hunting and all these so-called sports/pursuits are absolutely pathetic. As humans, who should know better, we should respect life and treasure it. I think that one’s family is also very important. I lost my mum in 1999 to cancer and it just makes you realise how important time together is. I had better come down off of my soapbox now before I really get carried away!
DPM: What message would you like to pass on to all the readers.
MP: Just to train hard and enjoy the wonderful art of Shotokan karate-do, following the dojo kun. I really believe that sincere training enhances one’s life a million-fold. It will keep you mentally and physically fit and if done properly in a good club, very happy with your life in general, making lots of good friends. You can’t ask for much more!
DPM: Many thanks for the interview Sensei.
MP: Thank you Patrick, it has been a pleasure.
Sincere thanks to Dr. Patrick Mileham for so kindly allowing us to use this interview