An interview with Sensei Ernie Molyneux Part I

A World Exclusive Interview with IOGKF Vice-Chief Instructor, Sensei Ernie Molyneux, where the 8th Dan Black Belt covers a wide range of topics from training to running a Dojo to the IOGKF itself. For improved layout and pictures, check out the FREE IOGKF International Magazine for December 2013 now!

For those who don’t really know or understand Higaonna Sensei’s achievements, what can you tell us.

Well for starters Higaonna Sensei has been recognised as a living cultural treasure for his contributions towards martial arts or Karate basically. If you are talking rank wise, Sensei has graded from white belt to 3rd Dan when he was 19 after many of training. As for when the IOGKF started, I believe Sensei was a 7th Dan. He was this rank when he first came to England for EGKA in 1977 and Chinen Sensei was 6th Dan.

This was the first time I’d seen and trained with Higaonna Sensei, but we in England has been training with Chinen Sensei since 1972. But Higaonna Sensei had actually been to England in 1973. He was with Terry O’Neil and Gary Spires, and I can’t quite remember, but Bakkies Sensei might have also been with them. Either way, they stopped into Liverpool on their way to the world Karate championships in Paris.

As for the IOGKF itself it was formed in Poole in England in 1979, but as for the countries affiliated with Higaonna Sensei prior to this South Africa had been following him since 1969 and England was from around 1977. But people from our Dojo’s in England were going over to England to train with Higaonna Sensei at the Yoyogi Dojo even before that. English guys like Graham Ravey and Steve Bellamay were there for extended periods.

So pushing grades aside, being at such a high level and in such high demand for so long is a true testament to Higaonna Sensei.

Now, some 35 plus years later, Higaonna Sensei has stepped back from the role of World Chief Instructor and promoted Sensei Tetsuji Nakamura as his replacement. Can you explain the significance of this move.

I think it was a really wise move, personally. If look at a lot of the other really big Karate associations, across a variety of styles too, once the figure head either passes away or retires completely there tends to be suddenly be too many chiefs and everyone wants to be in charge. So basically what Higaonna Sensei had done has had a look at where he is in life and has decided to appoint Nakamura Sensei, obviously for his youth and technical abilities. Higaonna Sensei has then asked seniors like Bakkies Sensei, Terauchi Sensei, Sensei Henrik and I to support Nakamura Sensei in his journey to become the world chief instructor.

Even though his current title is World Chief Instructor, he knows himself he still has some way to go. And Nakamura Sensei is actually very, very open minded in that respect and he will take on board advice from the other seniors and I. Our next step is to try and push him more to the forefront now. For example, we really want to see him out the front with Higaonna Sensei at the big Gasshuku’s. When Higaonna Sensei kneels down, we think Nakamura Sensei should be out the front there with him.

When Higaonna Sensei formed the IOGKF, he still had possibly up to ten seniors to him in Okinawa. Master such as Kina Sensei and even Miyazato Sensei at the time, and of course Anichi Miyagi Sensei and Shuichi Aragaki Sensei were all his seniors and were listed as such, but Higaonna Sensei was the chief instructor because he was obviously the most active out of everyone

This is exactly the same with us currently seniors and Nakamura Sensei.

Where do you see the IOGKF heading in this new era? Is it a new direction or the same focus?

 I think it’s our job as chief instructors and more so us as executive committee members and seniors of IOGKF to basically continue to steer the Federation on its current path. We have many, many good senior instructors in many, many countries and I think what we need to do is make sure that we are all heading in the same direction.

Personally I think we need to have tournaments of one form or another, because otherwise we’re going to lose too many youngsters. I think we need to have some kind of Iri Kumi competition or something along those lines, and then we get together and have a World tournaments every set amount of years. The countries themselves would have to push the tournaments, not necessarily to have fighters travel to different countries or in open tournaments, but just so it gives the youth a want to compete. If they want to compete in point sparring competitions or other comps, that’s fine. In England we have members who want to do both, but unfortunately because we do practice traditional Karate and we have some much to cover like Kata, Kakies, Bunkai, etc, Kumite is not really the main objective. So unless you get someone who is very, very talented you won’t get someone who will win these open competitions.

So I think that’s another step to strengthen IOGKF in the junior ranks.

Do you think because of what you just explained IOGKF needs its own set of tournament rules?

I don’t think it is so much the rules. In the past we’ve had lots of seniors who are high level referees in their own country and they’ve actually helped us in formulating sets of rules. But it’s not so much the rules themselves, it’s getting the referees to all be on the same page and use the rules in exactly the same way. Generally what happens is what one referee deems as too much contact, another referee will think that’s ok. What one referee will accept as contact, another referee won’t and that’s basically what it is like in different parts of the world.

We have some countries where they like to have a higher level of contact and other countries that think there shouldn’t be any contact at all. What we actually need to do is try and even it out a little bit and find a happy medium between the two, because when we have a world tournament, we’re going to have good fighters disqualified, not through any fault of their own, but because they’ve just been used to making heavier contact or they get hurt because they’re not used to having any contact. The bottom line is if you haven’t got an even playing field, you can’t really have a fair tournament.

As for teaching, say you have a students who come into the Dojo young and is quite tournament orientated and trains like that for years and then suddenly becomes to get board, how do you steer them towards traditional Karate?

Well if they do start to become board with the tournament side of things, you really should have make sure that they actually have a real love for training itself. You know they really have to have a thirst for knowledge and you create this by not feeding them too much too early. I am not saying you should keep people in the dark by not showing them your Kata and things like that, I think that would also be the wrong approach. But you can only fill a glass so far before its starts dripping over the side and losing things, so you need to find a good balance and only give them so much at a time.

However, if you do have someone like that who is very talented and board of tournament Karate, you can ask them to start helping with teaching. Because sometimes instructing can also give you a greater insight into Kata, different combinations and techniques and it will help to give you a better understanding and depth of knowledge of the actual style itself. So each situation is different.

Now IOGKF International is such a big organisation and there are so many talented senior instructors amongst its ranks, do you think member countries should bring a variety of guest to their shores, or just try and stick with one visiting instructor?

I think if you are looking at Kata, each country needs to look to Higaonna Sensei and then of course to Nakamura Sensei, because obviously Nakamura Sensei has modelled himself on Higaonna Sensei’s technique. So I think if they want to learn the Kata’s they really need to go to Okinawa.

We have such a variety of instructors with such a wide range of abilities that I think it is good to do a rotation of guest instructors. In England and also Denmark for example, we always rotate the guest instructors.

For lower grades its a big deal if one instructor teaches the Kata with their hand here and another with their hand there. But for seniors its different attitude, they take into account peoples body shapes. Like I’m not six foot six inches tall and because they’re really tall they might not be able to do a good Shiko Dachi or vice versa. I think though as you get a little more mature its important just to accept little things like that and get on with it and don’t make a big deal about something if it is slightly different.

The truth is, none of us are like Higaonna Sensei or even like how Higaonna Sensei was when we first started training, but all we can do is strive to reach the goal of the level of perfection he has in his technique.

With training, how do you get the most improvement? Is it attending big Gasshuku’s or training in Okinawa or just Dojo training?

For me personally, on most big Gasshuku’s I’m usually teaching, but there is generally training in the mornings with Higaonna Sensei for black belts before the Gasshuku starts. Whether we’re covering Sanchin or senior Kata, whatever it is, I always find I pick something up. Even if it is only one thing in one Kata I always make a note of it and when I go back home I think to myself I need to sort that out.

Obviously I get more if I personally go to Japan and train with Sensei, because it’s me on the floor putting that many more hours of my own training in. But I do also really enjoy training with my own students. I train with them every day and some of them are very, very dedicated. Whether we’re doing fitness training, bag work, fighting, Kata, Bunkai, Kakie and other different aspects I enjoy that side of training too. In the day time, I train for me and at night I try to teach and those who join me during the day, they basically have to just go along with me.

Well speaking of your own time during the day, are you training then and do you have a certain routine?

Yes I do. Generally I try and work it so say on a Monday morning I would just go to like a regular gym and do some cardio training and some weight training and maybe do some bag work of Kata afterwards. Then Monday night I would teach at the Dojo, which is a senior class, but depending on what we are doing, I’ll try and get involved with the training too. On Tuesday mornings its the same thing again and some of my students might come and train with me and I’ll just do my general fitness routine for between 40 minutes to an hour and then do Karate based training for an hour or even longer if I have something coming up like a big Gasshuku or I’m off to teach somewhere.

It’s basically the same routine day to day it’s just the training that varies. But I try to keep it so that my level doesn’t drop, so I never have to struggle to get back to fitness, unless I have an injury. I always try to keep myself at a reasonable fitness level.

Then on Tuesday nights I teach a beginners class. There are some black belts there, but they are generally the ones how are back after having some time off and are getting geared up to return to the senior classes

On Wednesday morning, sometimes I go to a boxing gym and I’ll do basically pad work, bag work, sparring, etc for a couple of hours. Thursday mornings I train again and I basically follow the same day to day routine again and again. As for the weekends, if I’m not teaching somewhere, I’ll train again on Saturday and Sunday. This is usually once, sometimes twice just depends on family commitments. If there’s nothing going on or my wife is away, I’ll go a couple of times.

You were talking about black belts who have had time off coming back to training. World wide there seems to be a lot of people who used to train coming back into the organisation. Do you think chasing up the people who have stopped for a while due to family or other commitments is something member countries should be doing?

 Yes I do. What generally happens is when someone has a week of the instructor tends to notice and if it becomes a fortnight you think ‘I wonder where they’ve gone’? If it gets to a month and you don’t contact them, you can actually lose them. What you should do as an instructor, after a fortnight or so is get in contact with them and just ask how they are, say I haven’t seen you for a while, hope to see you soon, I hope everything is ok. You don’t have to be pushy and say where are you, it’s certainly not that type of thing. A lot of people do martial arts or Karate as a hobby and they don’t what to be pushed. If you ring up saying, ‘where are you? Why aren’t you at the Dojo?’ then it becomes like they feel like they have to turn up. You should never make it like that.

But having said that it is a two way street. If you have people showing up every blue moon, they can’t expect to be graded. It’s a bit like a double edged sword if you will.

With people who are going to have a bit of a lay off or a break because they’re getting married or they’re off to university, whatever it is, if they do decide to come back, you should provide for them to train. I know that in the past, even in my own Dojo, people have come back after a long layoff and a lot of the other black belts think that is open season on them. This is no good, because they won’t go back. It can also lead to an animosity feeling in the Dojo or almost like there are two groups which isn’t how it should be. You can try to avoid it, but unfortunately it’s not always that easy, all you can do is try and make it friendly for everybody.