Have you ever wondered about the connection between Karate and science?
More specifically; I’ve wondered how science can help us broaden our understanding of the human body and mind… in order to ultimately elevate our Karate abilities. Because, surely, there must be literally thousands of smart tricks, principles and ideas that we can implement from modern sport science research into our Karate (and life in general). After all, as the saying goes, Karate should not be about blindly “preserving the ashes” of tradition, but rather “keeping the flame alight”. You know, that whole “not walking in the footsteps of our pioneers, but rather seeking what they sought.”-story (as masterfully conveyed by 15th century Edo poet Matsuo Basho)
So, I went to Italy to “seek”.
See, as with most areas of expertise, there’s certain “hotbeds” in the world where people know a bit more about some stuff than in other parts of the world. Where people seem to learn, understand and enjoy certain skills to a higher degree than in other corners of the globe.
- Want to learn boxing? Go to Mexico.
- Want to learn soccer? Go to Brazil.
- Want to learn surfing? Go to Hawaii.
You get the idea.
So, when it comes to the relationship between Karate and science, no place was probably better suited for my journey than Italy. And this is not only for for the obvious fact that they repeatedly keep winning gold medals in the mere sporting aspect of Karate, but more so because the infrastucture for funding and supporting sport science and professional research in Italy is probably unparalleled – and, luckily, in this aspect Karate is taken no less seriously than any other “sport” in the field.
Which is, like, totally awesome.
Because this means that a certain handsome Karate Nerd™ blogger can take a weekend off to enjoy the most superb pizza, pasta and ice cream in the world… while at the same time taking his understanding of Karate to a whole new level.
And boy, let me tell you about this guy…
Now, let’s be clear about one thing; I’m not a fan of this whole “hero worship” thingy.
Sure, I readily acknowledge that some people are good, while others are great, but in no way do I idolize or blindly worship regular people. I mean, we all bleed the same, you know?
Well… sensei Maurino, who is a several times Italian, World and European Champion of Karate kata (his first individual World Championships final was in 1996!) – not to mention a Doctor in Motor Science (yes, that’s a real degree from an actual, physical, university) – almost made me change that worldview; as I spent a whole Saturday last weekend in his hometown of Caserta, a small rural town not far from the birthplace of the original pizza (Naples) being lectured on the finer points of Karate and its hidden relationship to science.
See, Lucio Maurino is far from your regular sport Karate jock.
He is one of those guys that not only perform at world-class level, but can tell you exactly why he does it, and how he does it.
In fact, sensei/Dr. Maurino, who enjoys both aikido and ju-jutsu on his “free time”, is quick to admit that kata competition is only a” small part” of his personal Karate spectrum, (also, he strongly resents the thought of being, in any way, “the best” in the world of Karate) where a more holistic approach seems to dominate not only his Karate attitude but his entire outlook on life. A fact I found very regretful for my waistline, as I was treated to both tea, pizza, strange pie with Nutella chocolate spread inside, a couple of t-shirts, DVDs and posters, as well as a private tour of sensei Maurino’s hometown (including a trip to the mind-blowing Caserta Royal Palace, where some scenes from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace were shot).
To be honest, I couldn’t help but comparing that to how some other “World Champions” around the world have treated me on their precious spare time.
Then, somehow, we still managed to sneak in a 2,5 hour interview somewhere on this busy day.
(I could seriously not keep track of all the epiphanies I had that day by the way!)
So, right there on the tatami floor of his beautiful traditional dojo (complete with Japanese koto music playing in the background) I sat down ready to absorb the higher teachings from one of the most remarkable Karate dudes I’d ever had the pleasure of meeting in person. And now is the time to share the first part of that conversation with you guys.
I’m still not sure if I should divulge everything though… we’ll see…
Peeps, meet sensei Lucio Maurino:
When: 19th of November, 2011.
Where: Dojo Karatekai Caserta, Armonia (Associazione di Cultura Tradizionale Giapponese).
What: Introspective learnings (“learnings” …is that even a word?) from a life of Karate and science with Dr. sensei Lucio Maurino.
J (Jesse): Okay, starting from the beginning; when and why did you start with Karate?
LM (Lucio Maurino): “Well, I started in Karate in January 1979, with my father, because he is my sensei. He started just to lose some fat, for exercise, when he was 27 years old. So naturally I started Karate as a kid just to be with him, but gradually it turned into a real passion. However, at the same time I practiced a lot of sports, like basketball, tennis, bowling, soccer and so on.”
J: So when and why did you decide it was Karate that was ultimately going to be your main activity?
LM: “Actually, this is a very interesting anecdote; because in 1990 I had my first Italian National Championships in Karate… but at the same day it was my first Italian Cup in tennis! So my father simply asked me: “What do you want to do?” and I was thinking very much about this because it was a hard decision for me. In the end, I decided I wanted to practice Karate, and, well, here we are! [laughs]!”
J: All right… so at what point did you start competing more seriously in Karate? I mean, has Karate always been a regular “sport” for you?
LM: “Yeah, well, I have to say something… [paus]… this thing, for me, is very important: I see a big difference in the Karate attitude between nowadays and the time when I started Karate, when I was very, very young. Because, we had competitions just to have fun. Without so many expectations. Today, many, many children at the age of maybe ten or eleven want to be a “champion” so soon! And they are waiting only for this moment.
I became, for the first time, Italian Champion at fourteen or fifteen years old. That’s late compared to today. So, I think that this period is very important: to understand that children don’t have to become too specialized too early. This is what has happened now. And that’s why lots of children, at the age of seventeen or eighteen, have the classical burnout syndrome! Because they are just full of only competition and pressure of performance.”
J: That is sad but true. Enjoyment should always be first priority when it comes to kids, rather than worrying about losing or winning! Speaking of losing though; you are today regarded as one of the best athletes in the world when it comes to Karate in general (and kata in specific), but have you always been “the best” Have you always been in “the top”, and winning?
LM: [looks confused] “No, no… how can I say… my idea of competing, basically, has always been…”
J: For fun?
LM: “For fun. Yes. Of course, I have always dreamt of one day becoming the World Champion, but it was never the “only” thing. I mean, just looking back at my training over the years, I spent maaany summers without ever going to the sea [the coast], or sometimes going to the sea but training! I remember I always wanted to train – not because I liked competition – but because I loved training so much. And this is very important to understand: always do something for passion… without having any requests – because if you have big requests, you have a great delusion. You have to train, you have to do your best, you have to believe! Believe in your own possibility. But always think about what Universe gives you. And nothing more.”
J: That’s an excellent philosophy for life, and moreover I can definitely see the “10’000 hour rule” at work when you speak about your training. But naturally, during all this passionate training and competing, you MUST have had a special moment when you suddenly realized “Hey, I can become one of the best in the world at this Karate stuff!”, right?!
LM: [seems a bit annoyed] “Hmm… how can I say this… I don’t like to describe myself like this. Because, as I have told you before, I’m a curious man. So if I can give something to people, especially in Karate, or research, sport or other things, for me that is a pleasure. But I don’t think there is a “the best”. For example, there are many athletes in sports that are good, very good, but the best is… is not possible!”
J: How do you mean?
LM: “It’s not possible because everyone has something special. Something in which he is specialized. So we have to always define exactly what we mean by “the best”” [laughs].
J: Right… But no matter what definition of “the best” you have, to become the best you always have to reach higher. So, for that reason, I heard you have started doing cross-training, both in Aikido and Ju-jutsu. However, your main style is certainly Shotokan Karate, although you often demonstrate Shito-ryu at seminars and tournaments. It’s all a little bit confusing though, so can you elaborate a bit more?
LM: “Yeah. Of course my journey in Karate until the year 2000 was in Shotokan. But because of the fact that I competed from the young age of fifteen or sixteen years old, traveling to and attending many European and World Championships all over the world, I had fortunately very soon a global view on Karate. People who don’t have this global view of Karate often like to say “My style is better than yours, or yours, or yours” [points fingers at imaginary people] but I always used to observe rather than talk. I observed a lot of different styles because they helped me understand my own style even better! So, for this reason, I started in the year of 2000 to practice both Shito and Goju styles alongside my Shotokan. Not only for practice, but also for research in understanding more about Karate, more about its ancient contents. Just to understand.”
J: And what have you understood?
LM: “That my intuitions were exact. Because nowadays I have a more clear idea of Karate. See, I even tried to do this in competition. Why? [rhetorical question to himself]. Because if you see the European Karate Championship finals between me and Valdesi, many times I chose – voluntary – not to give a Shotokan kata performance, but Shito-ryu kata!”
J: W…what? Why? Why risk doing a relatively new and awkward Shito-ryu kata in the finals of an important event like the European Championships when you could easily have pulled of a magnificent Shotokan kata, which, after all, you have been perfecting since you were a kid?!
LM: “Because I wanted to… hmm… [thinks]… of course, I was soon criticized! But my idea was always to demonstrate that Karate is not the end or a journey… but the means. The means through which you realize your journey. And considering the fact that we all have two arms, two legs and one brain…”
LM: “[laughs] …yeah, [continues] we have all the same capacities! We, as human beings, are able to do all the things. Or course, it just requires some smart training, understanding which are the principles related to the specific task – whether Shito, Goju, Shotokan or other style of Karate. And this, for me, was a higher challenge. The challenge of winning the title with my style, not Shotokan or Shito-ryu or this or that. You understand the difference?”
J: I think so. You would rather express your true self rather than fit into somebody else’s idea about you.
LM: “And for this very reason, I paid a heavy price… many times. Because I never won. I was always second. But… when I saw some flags go up for my Shito katas against the “World Champion” [Luca Valdesi] I thought “Wow, that’s amazing! So maybe some judge, or some persons in the audience, have observed what I want to share!”.”
J: That is actually pretty inspiring.
LM: “For me, that feeling was always a better satisfaction than possibly winning (without making a statement of sorts).”
J: So what, if anything, did you actually learn from that?
LM: “It’s interesting, because at this time I began also to actively teach this idea of practicing different styles of Karate. Especially with my own students. And at the beginning they were very skeptical… they did not accept this idea quickly. But today, everyone in Italy makes Shito-ryu, Shotokan, Goju-ryu, Wado-ryu and things like this.”
J: So, in that sense, you were a pioneer of sorts?
LM: “Yeah, well [laughs]… maybe, but not really understood! But it’s okay, because I understand that every time you try to make a change you have to understand that there are lots of difficulties that you have to overcome. But that is the price.”
J: Indeed. So let’s look a bit at synchronized team kata now, which is another area where you certainly seem to have set a new standard along with your team mates Luca Valdesi and Vincenzo Figuccio, winning world title after world title. Could you tell me a little bit about this team kata stuff, perhaps one of the most visually appealing ways of competing in Karate, and how you got started in it?
LM: “Yeah, sure. Initially, I started competing in indivual kata only, as a cadet and junior. Then, just when I was going to become a senior, I had a two year stop! Because the technical director of the national team wanted to prepare me in a different way. This was, for me, a very important milestone on my journey of Karate. At first I didn’t understand what he wanted to do with me, but now afterwards I understand.”
J: And what did he do?
LM: “Well, up until 1993 or ’94 I had been training well, but not at the top of my potential. I had a lot of influences from many different senseis at this time, my father of course, but also many other senseis. However, today I can say that much of their advice was based not on scientific principles but just on their own experience. And, as you know, if you give somebody just your own experience it can be great, but if you don’t have good knowledge about the theory of preparation, adaptation, of constructing a training program, then maybe the results will come not so soon and will not be optimal. So when the national team technical director told me to change my whole practice I didn’t understand anything! I was thinking “What are you saying? What do you want? Why should I do this?” but gradually I gained trust in him and we started changing my training regimen.”
LM: “Well, you see, at this time I was competing in what was later to be known as “The Milon Era” [named after the late Michael Milon, legendary French kata competitor who kicked everybody’s ass], so you see it was very, very hard during that time to compete! I think that he [Michael Milon] is one of the best pioneers of the new methodology of training Karate, especially in kata. So, anyway, with this new program, I got third place in the World Championships where Milon placed first and Abe [Ryouki Abe, Japan] placed second. And then I placed second in the World Cup, with Milon first and Hasegawa [also from Japan] third. I also had good results in the World Games, with Abe first, me second and Hasegawa third.
However, the World Championships in Brazil 1998 was very nice for me. At this time I had an injury in my back, but I still wanted to compete. This was one of those moments when you think “Either I win, or I change!”. This competition in Brazil was incredible, because it was still during the score cards period [later changed to today’s flag system] where you got points for your kata. Milon was first, I was second with just two decimals, and third was Abe with four or five decimals. For that competition I had practised my final kata very hard, it was going to be Sochin. At a time when the whole Shotokan world only did Unsu, alwys Unsu, I did for the first time ever Sochin. So, again, you could say I was a pioneer. And the kata went incredibly well, until I got to the middle part where you do a yoko geri [side kick] and my standing leg slipped! This was of course very bad, because the kata had been very impressive up to that point. So from the second place, I slipped down to fourth place! I actually remember this was the first time I saw Antonio [Diaz, 2010 World kata Champion, see my earlier interview with him here], he was seventh or sixth. So, for me, after that moment my individual career in the World Championships was closed!”
J: Bummer! But nowadays your final kata seem to be Gankaku instead of Sochin, both in team and individual kata. How did that start? Because nobody did it before you Italians, correct?
LM: “Yes, well, after Brazil I started training Gankaku. Just for individual kata. However, at the European Championships in 2000, on the day just before competition, our national team coach said to me: “You don’t compete. Valdesi competes.” And I was so surprised; because this was the first time I would have had the opportunity to show Gankaku to the world in the finals!”
J: And now it has become Valdesi’s trademark kata!
LM: “I am still a bit disappointed, but I think that the Universe gives you things in different ways. Because in the year 2000 I started training for the team kata, together with Valdesi and Figuccio.”
J: Right, so back to that topic. Team kata.
LM: “In the year of 2000 we placed second, because we had some trouble with the balance. Then, in 2001 they introduced the new rules with flags instead of points, and we competed against Spain. It was pretty good, but we lost with one flag against Spain. Then, from 2002, we started to win, many times.”
J: Wow. So you could say it took roughly 2 years to put together a world-class team kata performance. Could you tell me a little bit about the differences and difficulties in training/competing in individual kata versus team kata then?
LM: “Yeah. Personally, for me, my attitude is more on the team kata. I see, I feel that when I’m in team kata I can give my best. Why? Because I define myself as a team man. I give my best when I feel I give something to others, in cooperation or collaboration. Therefore, I think that the main different aspect in these two specialties [team kata vs. individual kata] is the mind. The mindset is different. In team you have to be very adaptive. A strong team needs to be strong outside the tatami [competition mat] before they can be strong inside the tatami!”
J: Would you describe that as harder than individual kata?
LM: “No, it’s just different. It’s different because it’s more psychology. If one team member is a bit down, you have to pull him up [metaphorically speaking], you can never be in different places. The secret is that three persons must think the same thing, at the same time. You have to work on this, a lot! In individual kata, on the other hand, in my experience you have to have a great belief in yourself. Many times this can go in extreme ways, when people want to be too much “superb”, acting like “I’m the man!”, or “I’m the boss!”. But, of course being confident is important, because there is a lot of pressure, pressure, pressure… on you. You are alone. So, I think that this capacity gives you the possibility to give your best. There must be a great belief in yourself and a high energy in this. I had to work a lot on this…. I was not so good at this.”
J: Now, speaking of your team – here’s an incredible fact that most people probably don’t know: You guys don’t see each other that often, do you? I mean, Valdesi lives down in Sicily, you live three hours south of Rome while Figuccio just recently moved from northern Italy down to Rome. So how in the world did you manage to put together such an amazing team kata, becoming the “best” in the world, without meeting every day?
LM: “Yes, many people ask me this all the time: “How is it possible that for many months you don’t see each other, and in two days you are suddenly perfect?!” Well… Let me show you:
[At this point sensei Maurino pulls out and flips open a black notebook computer from his leather bag, on which he show me tons of PowerPoint presentations about the research and relationship between sports science and Karate, the direct result of years of studying, breaking down and analyzing Karate’s core concepts. Suppressing my inner Karate Nerd™ urge to judo chop him in the neck and steal the computer, I eagerly record what he has to say instead]
LM: [continues] “…first of all, you have to consider the performance, okay? The goal you have to reach is to visualize three people as one. Therefore, first of all you have to work on what we call Gesture.”
LM: “Gesture. This concept is related to Technique. And by Technique we mean; how your brain organizes yourself, the different parts of your body, in a given space for reaching a goal. This is the principle of Technique, and this is a general principle, which can be used for all kinds of sports. So, it is very important that when you are, for example, alone at your home and you want to train; you have to train exactly like your friend. You have to have the same comprehension of what you do, just like your friend. How do you have to move? Which are the important details that you have to train? What are the contents you have to improve, to be always more similar to your friend? Okay…?”
LM: “So, first of all, it is very important to understand this.”
LM: “Then you have to learn that there are three main systems of the human body: First, we have the neurocognitive coordinate system. That is the one we have to pay our main attention to. Then, we have the bioenergetic system, which allows you to have effort and muscular resistance in what you do. And lastly, we have the biomechanical system; where we analyze the movements and try to find the best way to execute that movement. The last two systems are very common systems. However, incredibly, the first system is still a much unexplored way. So this is the area where Italy has been working for the last 15 years.”
LM: “For this reason, we [the athletes of the Italian national team] have been used as subjects in various experiments for many years, of many researchers. This gave me the possibility to understand a lot.”
J: For example?
LM: “About how I had to train. For me individually, but also for the team. That’s why, when we train together as a team, we have the same idea of training. That’s why, when we say to each other “Okay, see you guys in one month!”, we know exactly what and how we will practice by ourselves. How to train to give the best… because we have the same understanding of Karate.”
Stay tuned for part 2, where we gradually move away from the tournament history topic and dive deeper into the surprising science of Karate – especially in the psychological plane!
(Also, no more of these “fanboy-snapshot-of-conversation” pictures, I promise!)