Interview with Jonathan Hodgson

Jonathan has trained in Kenpo since 1991, initially under Ben Harms. He was graded senior back belt in 2000 by Rob Walsh, graded 1st degree black belt in 2004 by Neil Hazell and he is currently a IV degree black belt. He has also studied numerous other systems over the years including; fencing - foil, epee and sabre under Prof Perry, Ju-jutsu, Kobudo, Tae Kwon Do, kickboxing, Silat, Kali, Wing Chun, Qi Gong, Taichi, historical Ninjutsu, boxing and Muay Thai. He has been teaching since 1998 and is a Level 4 Sports Coach and creator of The Kagemusha Foundation. Jonathan has also developed Applicable Blade Skills system for all styles and individual military personnel, taught weapons at Sports Coach Expo 2016, and devised the original weapons syllabus for Chard Martial Arts. Jon is also a professional artist/designer at the Millhouse arts centre, Ilminster, where he also teaches weapons and self-defence.

Thanks for taking time out to chat to Tough Talk Jonathan. When did your journey in martial arts, particularly Kempo, start?


I started training in Kenpo, a more progressive form of the traditional Kempo, at the age of six, in Chard, Somerset. It’s fair to say martial arts was, and has ever since been my biggest passion. My parents and several close relatives were teachers and professional sports coaches, so naturally my childhood was steeped in education. Living in a rural part of Somerset, alongside Kenpo I had a very active, outdoors life, including sports such as cricket, archery and gymnastic,. From my early teens I coached sports and lived and breathed martial arts and combat science, which all provided a great basis for what I do now.


Have you always had a passion for weapons based training?


Yes, always. Despite the rule that only adults could learn weapons in Kenpo, I started practising with swords, sai, knives and sticks etc from the age of twelve; asking instructors and older students to share their knowledge, reading every book and text I could get hold of, and inventing my own forms and techniques, utilising Kenpo as a starting point. To this day, people describe me as a maverick, and I think I always have been in that respect.

When I joined the senior Kenpo class aged fourteen, I started learning the Kenpo ‘self-defence’ techniques. This became my grounding for everything I do now. It’s fair to say the Chard Kenpo Club had a reputation for being one of the ‘harder’ clubs to train at in the area. In fact, other clubs locally nicknamed us the Chard ‘animals,’ as we did improvise a lot and hit quite hard and with little protection. Therefore bruises and superficial injuries were absolutely constant. The upside of these years was the conditioning; though at a cost of occasional fractures and breaks, and an odd mixture of respect and contempt from other Kenpo clubs.

How did your Kempo then develop?


At the age of nineteen, I achieved my 1st degree black belt alongside Matt ‘The Mill’ Follain, and worked a lot with Neil Hazell, my instructor at the time. Neil Hazell is a great practitioner of Kenpo, though lesser known in the wider martial arts world. Around this time I realised that the fixed, rigid approach to training for real-world self defence was not practical for me, so I decided to break from the traditional structure and politics, and go with my instincts. I had already dabbled in other systems over the years, but knew that in educational terms, the right instructor will get you where you wish to be, almost regardless of their style. About this time I met two Ju-jutsu and Kobudo Sensei; Danny Clarke, and his Instructor Brian Carpenter. They were both ex-military, and for me this was a good sign for what I wanted to achieve. So I studied this for a few years, still training and teaching Kenpo while filling the gaps with anything useful and appropriate for progression and practicality. I attended many seminars, bought every useful book and hundreds of DVDs on anything potentially beneficial, and just studied it fanatically to absorb as much as possible, trying it in the dojo, and pressure-testing it.

Aside from your instructors, did you have any other influences at that time?


The biggest influence on my work at that time came from a chance meeting. I had been coaching gymnastics at a local private school, when I was introduced to their fencing master; the late Professor Jim Perry. He was genuinely a one-in-a-million coach, and clearly a world-class educator. Jim and I shared the same sports hall, and through many conversations, mini impromptu lessons (when we probably should have been working!), and me joining of several of his fencing clubs in Somerset, I learned more about life and principles of combat / motion in a few years, than I had in my whole life up to that point. With hindsight, I can say he naturally became my mentor. He exuded competence. I was not surprised to discover after a few years that his background was with the Special Forces, he had a CV the length of your arm! I could show him ideas from Kenpo and in turn, in a positive, empowering way, he would then explain to me how to improve it, in terms of brutal simple efficiency.

If there’s one lesson I learned from him, it is the importance of relaxation. He pointed out to me that due to my over-conscientious nature and perfectionism, I was self-sabotaging and - in his words - the tension in my mind was spreading into my shoulders, arms and movements. He taught me that in a pressured or dangerous situation, you have to be able to (paradoxically) relax and trust your instincts, otherwise you probably won’t react fast and effectively enough. A useful lesson. Furthermore, I have found in times of conflict, the ability to appear absolutely, almost abnormally calm can be a great diffuser of situations when dealing with aggression and confrontation. Not always of course, nor indeed for everyone, but often for me it has been the case.

Other words of wisdom he instilled were that whatever you do, you simply have to believe in it and your ability to implement it. Or otherwise change it. You can get yourself injured or killed through a bad choice in training or in reality; but to do so as a result of blindly following any instructor, system, or idea (all because you didn’t / couldn’t question the material and assumed it would work for you) is, in my mind, far worse. It’s about taking absolute responsibility for yourself, and having the courage to go with your instincts about what is right for you, and to accept or embrace the consequences. Jim always did this, and was the ultimate maverick, and role model for this concept. He was totally happy for me to listen to his view, and challenge it, or even ignore it for that very reason. Direct, but respectful and mindful questions and answers are the way forward.


One thing I do now, is to treat every technique / scenario in training as a totally unique event. If I have to show a fixed ‘book’ technique, it is purely as a starting point, and I encourage improvisation, and then as the student progresses, and we see what their natural ability is, we guide them where necessary. Why? Because, in my view, adaptation and improvisation is the name of the game in self-defence, supported by strong psychological intent and conviction, of course. It’s always a good thing to play devil’s advocate with all training; it’s safer to believe that anything we know might not work, and actively look for the glitches, and assume that for every move / technique there is a potential counter, and for every counter, there is another, and so on. I encourage my students and training partners to think like this, as no physical method, art, technique etc., is sacred, or above scrutiny when we’re talking about people’s safety. As long as the rapport and respect between everyone is there, and there is a positive learning atmosphere; challenging and even tearing apart ideas, and rebuilding them is real learning, and vital for progress. This is real education!

And is this your foundation for good learning?


The crux of all learning is communication and, in my view, this is the paramount ability of any educator. You can have the best skill-set, the highest ranks, the most trophies, the most years of putting skills into practice, but if your communication skills and level of empathy and sensitivity to each student’s needs aren’t good enough, their learning will always be stifled. As an instructor, this delivery system for your ‘product’ of skills, guidance and knowledge is absolutely crucial.


I now believe that in the end, whatever system, art, method, (or none in particular) you choose, the most important question is: Can I achieve what I set out to do with it? And as a coach: Can I ensure as far as possible that the student is genuinely empowered by my teaching, to the designated purpose? This can be subjective, and often the root of bad politics between clubs and instructors. My belief is that if we have time to scrutinise and denigrate other instructors / practitioners, we should be using that time to address our own faults and weaknesses. I have yet to meet an instructor or practitioner who has no insecurities and demons. If such things inspire a positive path though, and drive us to improve personally, while maintaining professional integrity, then great. But more often than not, insecurity, in my experience is the main underlying cause of bad politics, and bad coaching.


What is important to you as an instructor?


As an instructor, I try to remain mindful of the fact that everyone is learning, (coach and student alike) with more to improve, and refinements to make. I believe that almost any system - or even any student - can still teach me something, perhaps not consciously or intentionally, and it’s definitely true that the very act of teaching can give a different perspective and insight into the material. Whenever possible I always like to get the opinions of professional soldiers, doormen, fighters, police etc., on what has worked for them, and learn from the feedback of every student.

And your training methods?


In terms of practical training methods, I choose them according to the individual student’s needs; i.e. what they’re training for, and their time commitment. Everyone needs good basic skills, good structure and form to function effectively. At a physical level, we train the basics of strikes, blocks, parries, kicks, chokes, escapes, grips, gouges, strangles, joint manipulations, throws / takedowns and falls etc., but chiefly, the underlying principles that make them work, and from different positions, and how to combine them effectively against vital targets. A good curriculum includes the five T’s: Techniques, Tactics, Targets, Timing And Training. We also do the same incorporating weapons, mainly blades and sticks of varying sizes, depending on the purpose.


It’s a popular cliché in what we all do nowadays, but ‘simplicity and practicality’ is the focus. In terms of designing and creating anything, we have the two qualities: Form vs Function. I tend to start people off learning what is most functional, then, if needs be, the more expressive, artistic Form can be practised. However, in simple terms, all students need to know the difference between what is a) scientifically effective in terms of surviving modern world violence, and b) more for show. Above all, understanding the limits, purpose, strengths and weaknesses of everything they do.


Nowadays, our students have the opportunity of regular cross-training in various systems including Muay Thai, boxing, kickboxing, BJJ and grappling, Kenpo, and specific self-defence, with several instructors of diverse backgrounds. At the very least, studying other systems and cherry-picking useful elements, which is critical for creating a well-rounded technical skill-set. Pressure-testing is also vitally important, though of course the balance between safety and realism in training is a delicate one. Over the years I have taught specialist practical skills to everyone ranging from fighters, students, and the over 55s, to animal welfare professionals and victims of assaults.

And lastly, what would be your ten general philosophies for coaching?


1. One to one tuition is often the fastest way to learn anything.
2. Quality is always better than quantity; practise and repetition is vital for progress, but can also be a great for creating and nurturing bad habits.
3. The material has to be flexible to adjust for the recipient's needs!
4. Economy of motion is imperative.
5. Practise non-telegraphic movements, and train ways of naturally deceiving and hiding your intentions.
6. Try and move smoothly, rather than just quickly, it’s often faster, and generally more powerful.
7. Use the path of least resistance
8. Where possible either try to make everything you do, as ‘subtle’ as you can; effectively starving your opponent’s senses of information, or conversely, just overwhelm them if that is your style / personality.
9. Sometimes self-teaching, with the support of a good, secure coach, is the best way. Intuition is an extremely powerful force in learning.


Finally, this is one catalyst of forward thinking and harnessing initiative; 10) when it comes to tradition and established thinking, sometimes it’s better to break the rules, or never know them in the first place.

In the end though... do what works best for you!

Jonathan Hodgson (2nd right)

Jonathan Hodgson

Facebook: @thekagemushafoundation

Facebook: The Mill Ilminster

Instagram: @jonhodgson84

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