Defence the first line of attack

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The Independent Online
Eric Pich brings a sense of mission to his karate club in north London, championing the social as well as the physical benefits of the shotokan traditional brand of karate that he teaches at the Willesden Sports Centre.

One of the proteges Pich is proudest of is Tony Francis, once a rebellious schoolboy from the toughest side of inner-city Harlesden who took up karate at the club and became a model student. He is now a law graduate, soon to sit his Bar exams, and a member of the British karate team who recently returned form the World Championships.

Pich says that the discipline the sport requires can change a child's character. If they are introvert, they can gain in confidence; if they are rebellious, they learn respect and concentration. "They are going to need to train two or three times a week," Pich says, "and, when they get serious, three or four. In an 'I've done this, seen this, been everywhere' sort of society, it's only the very determined ones who stay with it."

All black belt-graded fighters have completed a minimum period of three years' training, with five years considered good going to make the black grade. Remarkably, at Willesden there is a family of brothers, the O'Driscolls, who have produced three black belt fighters - and the eldest is only 14.

The Willesden club is part of the Karate Union of Great Britain, with 400 clubs the largest martial arts body in the country. The shotokan karate teaching is of a traditional and non-contact nature, and does not use protective clothing.

"Karate," Pich says, "is all about defence: defence first and then counter- attack. It is only in our competitive format that someone has to attack first." The skill is in being able to pull out of a kick or punch just as it is about to be landed.

Some adults join the club because they have already been attacked and want to learn to control violence in their lives. The training is very structured, starting with yoga-based stretching movements at each session. Pupils learn pre-set choreographed movements, referred to as katas, which contain all the tricks and defensive moves. New pupils begin with about 20 moves, and they learn a new kata with every grade. The shotokan system taught by Pich has 27 katas in all; students working towards a black belt need the first eight.

In the kata and the kumite, or sparring, routines that follow, everything is done in symmetry in all movements. What you do to one side you do to the other, in mirror image - it is an art that aims to develop people's weaker side, and give them a balance, both spiritual and physical.

Louis Jebb

Budokwai Judo and Karate Club

4 Gilston Road, London SW10 9SL

Telephone 0171-370 1000

Founded: 1918

Martial arts available: Judo, akido, karate, ju-jitsu

Ages catered for: 4-70 Cost: Annual membership of pounds 45 (adults), pounds 35 (children, OAPs, students) plus pounds 3 per visit

Willesden Centre Karate Club

Willesden Sports Centre, Donnington Road, London NW10 3QX

Telephone 0181-459 6605

Founded: 1981

Martial arts available: Shotokan karate

Ages catered for: Four and upwards

Cost: No membership fee. Charged by session: children pounds 2; students and unwaged adults pounds 2.50; waged adults pounds 3