Seagulls and Karate Masters

Brian Tune Sheffield Hallam Dojo

Some time ago I read a book about a Seagull. In fact, a Seagull by the name of Johnathan Livingstone Seagull. Now, this book is only a small book of ninety odd pages (and half of these are taken up with pictures of Johnathan himself) and yet, nonetheless, it is a very profound and informative little book. I can tell you are puzzled. “What? “I hear you ask yourself,” has a Seagull got to do with karate-do?” Well, I’ll tell you – quite a lot actually. It is because Johnathan Livingstone Seagull is a discontented Seagull and discontented Seagulls can tell us a great deal about why we practice something as difficult as karate-do.

First of all let me tell you a little about Seagulls, particularly Johnathan Livingstone Seagull. Richard Bach (the author of the book) points out that “most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight – how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls it is not flying that matters, but eating”. However, for Johnathan “it was not eating that mattered but flight”. In fact Johnathan Livingstone Seagull wanted to learn how to fly better than any other Seagull in the entire history of Seagulls. Consequently, he set about practising the art of flying.

Many of the other gulls, including his parents, severely criticised him for this to the extent that Johnathan, on occasion, stopped practising. He tried to behave like other Seagulls. He could be seen “…screeching and fighting with the flock around the piers and fishing boats, diving on scraps of fish and bread”. (The human equivalent, of course, would be the January sales). Indeed, on one particular occasion Johnathan becomes so disillusioned that in a fit of despair he gives up practising how to fly altogether. “I am a Seagull”, he says, “I am limited by my nature”, he says, “I am a Seagull like every other Seagull and I will fly like one”.

However, his passion for flying will not die and soon he begins his training again. Then, one day, he makes an incredible breakthrough. He learns how to fly at 214 mph which is regarded as “terminal velocity” for a Seagull. In fact it is faster than any other Seagull has ever flown before. He is ecstatic! He sees life in a totally different light, he sees how much more there is to life. He says “instead of our drab slogging back and forth to the fishing boats, there’s a reason to life! We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly!”

I should point out at this stage that Johnathan receives no certificate, is awarded no rank and certainly is not given any badge of honour. In fact, Johnathan Livingstone Seagull is called to the “Council Gathering” of Seagulls and is declared an “outcast” because of his “reckless irresponsibility”, that is because he behaves differently to other seagulls, because he has a passion, because he wants to learn how to fly.

Of course Johnathan protests – well who wouldn’t? This is what he says: “who is more responsible than a gull that finds and follows a meaning, a higher purpose for life? For a thousand years we have scrabbled after fish heads, but now we have a reason to live – to learn, to discover, to be free”. But, as you might have guessed, the “squares” in the “establishment” just can’t get their heads round it and he is expelled from the flock.

The parallel then, between Johnathan Livingstone Seagull’s attempts to learn how to fly and our own attempts to learn karate is quite clear. When seen in this way it becomes obvious that rather than training to pass our next grading we should in fact be seeking to improve ourselves through training. Training in karate is a way of developing our minds, improving our bodies and becoming more spiritually aware. It is not simply a way of gaining popular acclaim by amassing a huge number of Dan grades. The rank we hold in karate should be an indicator of how we are progressing as individuals, it should not be an end in itself.

This disregard of the grading system may seem to be based on a lot of lofty ideals but, as we all know, things are not always what they seem. Let’s leave Johnathan Seagull for a moment and consider what modern, up to the minute, western psychologists have to say about motivation and exercise adherence. More importantly, let’s see if we can link what they have to say to our karate training.

Research by social psychologists has shown that we can categorise motivation behaviour in three distinct ways. Firstly, psychologists have identified the type of individual who is “competition orientated”. This type of person compares him/herself to members of their peer group and competes with them. The goal or objective of this type of competition orientated individual is to become “better” than other group members at performing the groups tasks or duties. With regard to karate, clearly this type of individual would attempt to become faster, stronger, and more technically proficient than other members of the club. This type of approach t training is solo orientated and in fact individuals who adopt this approach have least adherence to training. When competing with others the competitive individual may soon find that he/she has improved his/her performance to such an extent that other group members no longer provide a challenge and as a consequence this individual may stop training or train elsewhere! Indeed this would also be the case if this type of individual found that they were unable to improve their performance to the extent that they could beat everyone.
The second category relates to those individuals who are socially orientated and work well within a group. They strive to co-operate with, and be accepted by, their peer group. At first glance it would appear that this group member would have the highest adherence to training since they are provided with the support and feedback which is typical of group membership. However, adherence to training only lasts as long as the group stays together. Thus, for example, if two or three of the group start missing training it may lead to other members leaving the club. Consequently, it may be stated that although exercise adherence lasts longer than with the competitive individual it is not as long as the adherence of those individuals who are concerned with task mastery – the third category of motivation behaviour.

The type of individual who is concerned with task mastery is independent of their peers and is solo orientated. These individuals are concerned primarily with “mastering” an activity and are thus self-supporting. They do not require group acceptance, for example, to be well liked by other members of the club nor are they influenced by external rewards or punishment, such as passing or failing gradings. In fact, the actions, attitudes and behaviour patterns of other club members is subordinated to the goal of task mastery (in our case of mastering karate itself). An individual who is primarily concerned with being accepted by their peers may leave the club if they felt they were not receiving the ‘acceptance’ or ‘recognition’ they require. This is not the case, however, with people who are concerned with task mastery and consequently it is this type of individual who has the highest adherence to training.

However, this is not the whole story. A key element in the interpretation of motivation and training adherence is the ‘origin’ of motivation. Motivation can be internal (‘intrinsic’) or external (‘extrinsic’). Internal motivation comes from within individuals themselves, whereas external motivation is that which comes from an independent source such as an instructor or teacher. Individuals who are socially orientated derive external motivation whereas individuals who are concerned with task mastery are motivated from within.

Beyond doubt motivation which comes from within ourselves is to be preferred over external motivation since each individual is in control of their own feelings and behaviour. The internally motivated individual is not subject to the preferences, attitudes and indeed the capriciousness of others. In our karate training then, our goals and objectives should be based upon our desire to improve ourselves by mastering karate techniques and kata, etc., in preference to simply passing our gradings.

In April 1998 a presentation was given at Loughborough University by D Harris entitled “The Motivation to Change”. In his presentation Harris outlined the ‘steps to intrinsic motivation’. Here is an adapted version of these steps:

STEP 7 Intrinsic Motivation
“I do it because I want to!”
______________Threshold of Intrinsic Motivation ____________________
STEP 6 Integrated Regulation
“because it symbolises who and what I am”
STEP 5 Identified Regulation
“because it is a means to an end I value”

______________ Threshold of Autonomy ___________________________
STEP 4 Interjected Regulation
“because I feel guilty if I do not do it”
STEP 3 External Regulation
“because I am rewarded”
STEP 2 External Regulation
“because I am forced”

_____________ Threshold of Motivation ____________________________
STEP 1 Amotivation
“I do not believe it is worth it”
This model clearly lays out the “steps” to intrinsic motivation – the optimum type of motivation. On the lowest step we can see that an individual is apathetic toward training but as we move up the steps we can see that the motivation to train becomes more and more internalised. Step two indicates an individual who is pressured into performing an activity, for example, by a parent wanting his/her child to do well at a particular sport or karate, etc. Although a individual is ‘motivated’ to practice it is the worst kind of motivation. By step three an individual continues his/her training because he/she gains some type of reward for doing so, such as passing gradings. It is very interesting to see how low this type of motivation appears on our stairs to the ‘best’ motivation method!

Step four is the last step before we move from external motivation toward internal motivation. It is the phase where we know we should go to training in order to achieve our aims and objectives and we feel guilty if we do not. When we reach step five motivation begins to come from within ourselves. We train because it is ‘a means to an end’. It should be stressed however, that the ‘end’ is an aim that we have set ourselves, for example, to master a particular technique or kata. It is not an ‘end’ which could be regarded as an external reward such as passing a grading. The penultimate step of integrated regulation signifies that an individual associates himself or herself with a particular task or activity. Some people would say that “I am a mountaineer”, “I am a footballer”, or indeed “I am a karateka”. In the final step the individual becomes convinced that those activities they perform, e.g., karate training are “who they are”. The individual no longer thinks about why they train, they train because that is what they do. It is as natural as breathing, eating or going to the loo!

Based on research evidence by social psychologists it is clear that our aims and objectives should be within our control and not dependent upon the actions of others if we are to maintain our training over a long period. In terms of our karate training simply being rewarded by being awarded grades is not sufficient in itself to motivate or encourage an individual to enjoy and continue their training. True motivation comes from within ourselves.

With this in mind let us return to Johnathan Seagull who, later in the book, becomes a teacher. By a simple twist of fate, Johnathan begins teaching other seagulls how to fly. However, the important thing to note is that he does not seek praise or honours for his labour. He simply wants to help other gulls improve themselves. His behaviour is completely selfless as he wants nothing for himself. His only reward is to watch as ordinary, regular seagulls find a higher purpose in their lives and become better, more complete seagulls. Contrast this with the local Neanderthal that you sometimes get paired with on a training course. The Instructor says things like “make light contact,” “Do not hurt each other”, “be careful”, etc. The first thing our Neanderthal does is try to cut you in half with a reverse punch and then nearly breaks your elbow with an arm lock. One reason for this is that your new friend is simply out to prove that he is better than you! His ego demands it. He is a competition orientated individual who will stop training as soon as he comes up against someone he cannot beat. Moreover, it is not possible to truly master karate with this type of attitude, as it is ego-driven, selfish and thoughtless behaviour – the total antithesis of the true karate master. Chojun Miyagi Sensei knew this and he reprimanded his successor An’ichi Miyagi for “throwing his partner around the dojo” (taken from “The History of Karate” – Morio Higaonna Sensei). In fact Chojun Mijagi Sensei advised An’ichi Miyagi to help “his partner to develop not use his partner as a punching bag to develop his own techniques”. (IBID).

If we attempt to help our partner by performing at a level only slightly better thanhe/she is it will encourage our partner to greater effort ensuring that they themselves will improve. It is like being in a race. When the race leader is only a few yards ahead we feel that we can catch him and win the race. If, however, the race leader is several hundred yards in front we feel we will never be able to catch him, we become despondent and we stop trying. So it is with a person who is paired with a better karate student. If the less able student is simply overwhelmed by the better student no one learns anything. However, if the better student performs only slightly better than the less able one then both students can learn a great deal. The less able student is encouraged to perform better and the more able student will learn attributes such as control and self-restraint, i.e. they will improve their character/mind. Indeed, to improve ones character is one of the highest ideals in karate.

Now I know that his mind, body, spirit thing is a difficult concept to grasp and even more difficult to practice especially if, like our unfriendly Neanderthal, you have a brain the size of a walnut and an ego the size of Mount Fuji. Most people, however, are reasoned, intelligent individuals who would benefit greatly from following the advice Chojun Miyagi Sensei gave to his top student. The important thing is to learn the lessons that the sincere practice of karate has to offer not to batter your opponent into the ground for fun or add one more Dan grade to your belt.

So, you see, Seagulls can teach us a great deal about why we train in karate and, in all fairness, so can modern western psychologists. As we have seen it IS possible to practice karate for its own sake, to help improve ourselves and perfect our characters in the same way that Johnathan practised flying. We have also seen that “task mastery” is the most important factor in motivation behaviour not reward. This led us to the realisation that intrinsic motivation is the best way to motivate ourselves with regard to training and indeed, that reward – the passing of gradings – is a very poor motivator!! Moreover, we have seen that the grading system may discourage some students from training since the awarding of grades is out of their control! In short, it is more important to train for yourself than to do training because somebody else rewards you for it.

Wow, now that’s a lot to take in isn’t it? It certainly gave me a headache writing it. Maybe I should stop all this pontificating and do some training instead. Yes, I think that’s a good idea. You know, it’s no good just yearning for perfection, you must actively take steps towards it. Remember the old saying, “if a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step you must take that step or you’ll get nowhere fast” (or something like that!).


· The History of Karate – Morio Higaonna
· Johnathan Livingstone Seagull – Richard Bach
· The Motivation of Change – Presentation by D. Harris, Loughborough University April 1989