I was teaching a self-defence workshop the other day and the subject came up about the traditional concept of 'sen' (initiative) and how this can apply to modern day combatives.
Karate often suffers a bad name for being outdated and unrealistic. In my view, nothing could be further from the truth and when you look closer at the art's core principles, you will see material that is just as relevant now than it was years ago
It's not about 'what' you train, but about 'how' you train - Therefore, karate can only ever be as realistic as the mind of the person expressing it!
The Japanese style of Wado Ryu for instance emphasises the concept of 'sen' (initiative), as left by the founder, Hironori Ohtsuka, who was a highly distinguished master in both karate and ju-jutsu.
The three types of 'sen' as outlined in karate can be directly applied to all types of conflict. In fact, these are the basis of the three primary strategies I teach to my students using the lessons found in Naihanchi Kata, in order to develop a simple yet very effective framework for combative self-protection. Let's take a closer look at each of these in turn and briefly explore how they may be best applied.
Sen is word that represents the ‘window of opportunity’ used to exploit an opponent’s weakness. It is used in three ways to describe the intervals of interception that are possible when faced with an antagonist and all are based on a thorough understanding of the natural rhythm that occurs when combatants face each other.
Sen Sen No Sen means to seize the initiative by pre-emption, before your opponent can launch a physical attack. This principle is used to great effect in self-defence and should form the bedrock of your combat strategy.
If you truly believe that your safety is at risk then using sen sen no sen is often the best option to maximise your chances of success. All other options require your antagonist to first launch a physical attack and because of this, place you behind in the OODA (Observe, Orientate, Decide & Act) loop.
The concept of pre-emption is not only recommended by the best self protection instructors in the business, but it is also recognised in UK self defence law and was a core aspect of traditional karate found within the writings of a number of famous pioneering masters such as Choki Motobu, Kenwa Mabuni and Gichin Funakoshi, who was well-known to have supported the karate maxim, "karate-ni-sente-nashi" (there is no first attack in karate) - which of course relates to a justified response following the violent intention of an aggressor, rather than waiting for an actual physical attack.
Sen No Sen means to seize the initiative earlier, attacking at the same time as your opponent and intercepting their force in order to maximise your own attack.
Sen no sen uses the principle of collision, which states that two opposing forces that collide will produce a force far greater than each could individually.
Go No Sen means to seize the initiative later by allowing your opponent the chance to attack first, thus opening up a potential target for counter-attacks.
Although this is a reactive state, this should not be confused with submissiveness or weakness. For instance, it can also be a strategy that mindfully draws your antagonist in and turns the tables in a blink of an eye.
"I like to think of kata as a process rather than simply a physical entity. The movements of the solo form merely provide a basis to work from and a physical link to the valuable lessons contained within. If all you ever practice is the solo form then in my opinion, you haven't even progressed off the starting blocks!"
In truth, physical self-protection could involve all three types of sen. With good awareness and threat recognition/evaluation skills, the situation may warrant a pre-emptive action to maximise safety and escape. However, if your opponent happens to beat you to the draw, then it is prudent to intercept with sen no sen in order to take the initiative as quickly as possible. Finally, in some case you may be faced with a genuine ambush attack that requires the use of go no sen to help limit the amount of impact suffered and offer some valuable milliseconds to re-group, draw an opening and retaliate.
Although pre-emption is an important and desired concept in self-protection, in my opinion, you should never disregard the other two possibilities and training should include drills that develop strategies to help manage these eventualities. Of course, the most efficient and effective method is to have one or two default skills (i.e. a strike, or bridge) that can be easily adapted to cater for all three types of sen. Naihanchi Kata for instance utilises this idea at the the beginning and as the form progresses, takes into account a number of fundamental contingency (support) options, should the primary strategy for whatever reason be made redundant.
A useful training drill is to explore a solitary kata application with all three types of sen. Can it be adapted in all cases? Does the surrounding movements of the kata suggest that it change slightly depending on the situation? How much of a physical change is required to adapt a reactive application to a proactive application? If a physical change is required, then does this make your application more or less valid?
The vast majority of the principles taught within contemporary self-protection and modern day combatives are not new. They have been around in karate since it's conception and infused into the teachings found within the traditional forms. In order to breathe life into these forms, our study of bunkai must sometimes aim to strip away the 'formalities' and introduce the 'chaos'. From a visual perspective, the final result may look nothing at all like the kata it was derived from, but should nonetheless still contain the key lessons that the form originally aimed to impart.
Best wishes and happy training,
Chris Denwood has been studying martial arts since childhood and specialises in the practical application of karate's traditional principles for civilian self-defence, personal development, life integration and discovery.