The Instructor’s Corner

Personal Comments from SVSK Chief Instructor Jon Keeling

LMontoyaJKeelingA little about myself…

I began training in Shotokan karate in 1982 and really enjoyed it. I was at the dojo for an hour or two each day, 6 days a week, often self-training at home in addition, until I passed my shodan under Mori Sensei (New York, head of Shotokan Karate-do International, affiliated with the Japan Karate Association) in the summer of 1985. In September of that year, I left for Japan, where I intended to stay for about 6 months while I contemplated what I might want to do with the rest of my life. I lived at the Hoitsugan dojo, where Nakayama Sensei was teaching until his passing in April, 1987. I trained there and at the JKA Honbu (headquarters) dojo 6 days each week, often many hours a day, with some of the best karate practitioners in the world. That six months turned into a year, then a second, then a third.

I returned to the U.S. in 1988, enrolled in college and less than three and a half years later completed a Bachelor’s degree in Economics with a minor in East Asian Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz (with stops along the way at two other institutions). During that time, I taught at several dojo, including those at UCSC and Cabrillo College (which I co-founded with Sensei Jeremy Peck), as well as having helped out with classes at SUNY Stony Brook while there.

After graduation, I returned to Tokyo for work. This time, my hectic work schedule prevented me from training as often as I had previously. I eventually got enough training in to pass my yondan exam in 1997, less than a week before my return to the U.S. Since then I have returned for short training trips several times and in 1998 passed my “D” level instructor, examiner and judge exams there. Since my return from Japan, I have focused increasingly on teaching and better understanding fine points of physical movements.

I’ve had the incredibly good fortune to be able to train with and learn from many of the best karate instructors in the world. In many cases that training has not just been the occasional seminar, but hundreds of hours each over long periods. Most karate-ka will recognize many of these names:
Senseis Nakayama, Nishiyama, Kanazawa, Asai, Okazaki, Mikami, Mori, Abe (x2), Ueki, Enoeda, Yaguchi, Osaka, Tanaka, Yahara, Isaka, Omura, Imura, Kawawada, Kurasako, Yamamoto, Sakata, Tabata, Imamura, Kagawa, Ogura, Shina, Izumiya, Naka, Aramoto, Taniyama, Takahashi, Field, Ubl, Amos, Mullin, Valentin, Berger, Seto, Friederich, Yabe, Yokota (x2), Montoya, Hooper, Butler, Hoopes, Peck, Santella… (not nearly a complete list)

Thoughts about teaching karate…

There are others who teach the way I do, but we are a small minority. One student from another dojo, after visiting us for several days, told me that I had spoiled him for training anywhere else. He said that he had never known that there could be anything but “MRT” (Mindless-Repetition-Training), the way karate is taught in most Shotokan dojo. In our dojo, we think about what we are doing while we are doing it. Thinking isn’t all we do, but conscious effort can accelerate the development process, both mentally and physically. We often try to focus on one or two main points during a class, but frequently change the focus entirely for the next day’s classes. The focus of the evening classes is usually some fundamental point, practiced repetitively in some type of basic technique/movement, while we think about why and how we are doing it. For the Saturday morning classes, we do a single kata for the first hour and some type of kumite for the second hour. We go through four-week cycles for each kata. The first week is an introduction. The second week, we go into more detail on technique. The third week, we explore applications. On the fourth week, we review and/or look into variations of the kata.

We are also careful to train safely. I demand a high level of technical skill. But I also demand a high level of effort and attitude. I do not expect students to make it to class all the time, as many people are busy with family, work, etc. But when they are in the dojo, I hope that they try as hard to learn as I try to teach.

We also have Instructors’ Classes that many consider to be the best of its type available anywhere.

And we have lots of special seminars, often at least once/month, including some of the best guest instructors in the world.

About tournament competition…

There are a couple of reasons you haven’t seen my name on major tournament champion lists. One is that during my competitive years, I was mostly in Japan. Japan has the highest level of competition in the world, and Tokyo has by far the most great competition of any city. Qualifying for major tournaments in Tokyo is not easy. To get a spot representing Tokyo in the All-Japans, you must first place in the top 8 in the All-Tokyo competition. I have actually done this several times. I represented Tokyo in kumite once and kata twice and actually qualified yet again for both kata and kumite in my last year there (1997), just before moving back to the US, but forfeited my spot because I didn’t want to wait around for an extra two months just for the tournament. Even if you can make it to the All-Japans, though, that certainly doesn’t mean you’re home-free by any means. Japan has many more high-level karate competitors than any other country, and maybe all other countries combined.

The other reason you don’t see my name on many tournament medal-winner lists (I am on some of them; just not many) is that I simply have not put a lot of emphasis on tournament competition. I do not focus on competition and never really have. I don’t think competition is a terrible thing. But it certainly shouldn’t be the main reason for training. That being said, I have participated in my share of tournaments, both as competitor and judge. Most notable medal-winning achievements as a competitor have probably been one of each third, second and first places in team kata in the JKA All-Tokyo tournaments and several first place wins in kata in US regional level tournaments. The last two tournaments I entered were the 1998 ISKF Northwest Regionals (1st in kata) and 2010 annual Shinkyu Shotokan tournament (1st in Senior kata). I have been the Chief Referee for Shinkyu Shotokan’s annual tournaments 12 out of the past 13 years.

How much training do you get in these days?

Unfortunately, I cannot train as much as I would like. Who does? What time I do have for karate, I concentrate more these days on teaching and furthering my knowledge and research in an effort to help others succeed past the point that I have reached in my own training. When classes at my dojo are comprised of only more advanced members, I sometimes get a good amount of training in.  And when I have guest instructors teaching, I often get a good workout in as well. But more often my time at the dojo is spent helping students. I also workout outside of the dojo doing Karate and calisthenics and have spent time cross-training in related activities including boxing, kick-boxing, and jujutsu, and try to refresh my memory of Aikido and other martial arts when I have time.

I spent many years dealing with severe arthritis in my hips, as well as other injuries and afflictions. I can no longer train the way I did 15+ years ago without paying a price in the following days. But I am certainly better now that I was 10 years ago! For information on the condition (Femero-Acetabular Impingement) behind my hip surgeries, including two artificial hips, please see my blog on the subject:

And my personal life…?

Yes, I have a life outside of karate.

I have 3 children, all of whom have attended my kids’ classes. I am married to a wonderful woman who sometimes trains in my classes in addition to her hectic work and workout schedule that includes circuit-training, swimming, cycling, yoga and more. My professional experience lies in the fields of investments and investment technology and I have worked in the investment business as a broker, trader, vendor and technology consultant with some of the best companies in the business. I have also been involved with various karate-related ventures, including (I was a senior partner in the business but turned it over to my business partner, Mr. Dan Cook, when I became too busy) and creator/contributor/editor of ShotoMag, at the time the premier Shotokan-focused online magazine.

With the encouragement and support of my wonderful wife (I coulnd’t have done this without it), at the end of 2012 I left the corporate world to devote all my time to Karate and related endeavors.  I now regularly teach an average of 20+ hours/week at about 10 different locations, organize various special seminar sets (Instructors’ Classes, guest instructors, training camps) and have been working on developing various related activities, including a new website, ebooks and more.

More from Sensei Keeling