Writer and well-known photographer Mike Holdsworth chats to Steven Timperley, former UK military specialist instructor, Founder of KEWAP (Knives & Edged Weapons Awareness Programme), and PST (Personal Safety Training). Steven is also the President of the UK Martial Arts Alliance, a unique network of martial arts instructors and personal safety trainers.
Firstly Steven, thank you for taking the time to speak to me, and for sharing your experiences and thoughts with Tough Talk.
Thank you Mike. It’s my pleasure!
How did you first get involved in combat sports and reality-based training and how long have you been training now?
At the age of 13, I was introduced to Wado Ryu Karate by a friend of mine from school who had told me of this great club he went to in Beeston, a small town on the outskirts of Nottingham. The club was situated above an old pub and it had about a dozen or so members. The instructor was what I would class as borderline insane by today’s standards, in that his training methods were draconian and spartan. Perfecting techniques, physical and personal discipline were at the very core of our weekly routines. As for how long have I been training? I’ve been training now for over 35 years and instructing for over 25 years in combat related pursuits.
When you say spartan what do you mean exactly?
For starters, at the beginning of our karate sessions we would often go for a barefoot run around the town in our GIs, and in all weathers. I’m sure the locals must have thought we were all barking-mad. I mean, seeing all of these people dressed in white, chasing after one another must have looked crazy! But in those days that’s how we used to do business. Personal discipline was an integral part of our training in that, whilst our instructor was demonstrating and/or talking, you just dared not move an inch or fidget. If you so much as flinched or appeared remotely casual, you had to pay a ‘physical fine’ of say thirty push-ups on your knuckles. Nowadays I see so many students adjusting their training kit, moving about freely and even talking whilst their instructors are talking. That would have never happened back then!
Would you say martial arts clubs and their practices in this country have changed?
In short, from my experience and from what I have seen in recent years, I feel that respect for others and self-discipline are certainly two values that are no longer central to training in many clubs. However, it would not be fair of me to make a blanket statement by tarring everyone with the same brush. Old-school clubs with old-school values still do exist, but I feel the old-school in the main is in decline and has been for some time. I also struggle to accept the fact that there many instructors out there who are obviously overweight. For me personally, people like this do not convey the real appearance of someone to aspire to be like, and first impressions certainly count in today’s society. I mean, if I took my lad to a club and the instructor was fat, then to me there cannot be much going on by way of physical activity, which is so important to a child’s development.
What styles combat activities have you practised over the years?
When I started training at the age of thirteen, I first practised karate, and did this for about two years. I then took up Taekwondo with Tony Vohra, who had a large influence on me at that time. Tony also had a military background, and I feel, this influenced to a degree how he conveyed Taekwondo. However, when I enlisted into the Infantry at age nineteen, I found it impossible to find a club where I could regularly train. This was because we were either on operational deployment, on training courses or on exercise, and so for a time this halted my development.
So how did you overcome this and move forward?
I suppose, looking back, my form of learning could be compared to those who founded many martial arts systems and styles dating back generations. Upon arriving at my parent regiment after basic training, I quickly found who in the regiment were combat sports orientated. However, the problem for me at first was as a ‘new’ boy in a ‘teeth-arms regiment’ nobody took me seriously, and those who did train and instruct would not take me on. So I used to go and watch them train as I trained in the corner of the gym! But after a while I was finally accepted by my seniors, and I eventually got to train with some formidable boxers, ex-England team judo player Jim Brown and other prominent karate stylists. We would train in the gym, outside on the grass or even in the drying room if it was raining - but we always made time for training!
What does your training and lessons consist of?
These days I tend to cross-train, albeit more intelligently than I did fifteen years ago because I am getting older! Occasionally I will do hill-reps, bag work, swim, light spar and muscular endurance weight circuits. Of course, depending on who I am teaching will have a bearing on the content of the session. For instance, when I was instructing military personnel, I would conduct high-impact sessions and group pressure testing i.e. King of the Ring and last man standing! And if I am instructing middle-aged females for example, the warm-up will be low impact and the physical skills sets will be pragmatic and relevant to their overall ability as a collective. For me, one of the best things about teaching is that those I instruct come from such diverse backgrounds. One day I might be delivering a modulated instructors course, and the other day teaching high school students. Having taught thousands of people over the years has certainly educated me to be flexible and fair - one suit never fits all.
You have developed several self-defence related concepts, tell me about them?
Sure! The first system I developed many years ago was Trident Self-Defence Training (TSDT). The key word here is; Trident, a three pronged concept of learning. This concept is: the confidence to confront an aggressor; the ability to apply realistic techniques; and the development of character through pragmatic instruction. In recent years, due to the increasing content of Trident, I renamed the physical skills wing of Elite Response Training (my main business name) to Trident Safety & Intervention Systems (TSIS). TSIS now delivers the highly acclaimed Knives & Edged Weapons Awareness Programme, otherwise known as KEWAP. TSIS also delivers the new Personal Safety Trainers course (PST) which covers soft skills and generic break-away techniques. One of the first developments of Trident was Combat Defence and this was ratified by a resident UK Grandmaster.
Considering your lean towards reality-based training, is Combat Defence a fusion of old meets new?
Definitely! Firstly, I felt it was important to include traditional techniques, old school values and practises. By doing this Combat Defence students gain a baseline physical understanding of traditional techniques. In essence, traditional techniques and practises are the foundation of Combat Defence. However, in order to make the overall syllabus more pragmatic than aesthetic, I felt it was important to ensure that techniques beyond the foundation stuff had an actual value regarding modern day violence. Combat Defence students train in traditional karate attire, but every so often we might train in jeans, trainers and a casual jacket, and pressure testing is not uncommon.
So do you feel that the practical applications of traditional martial arts as a whole are slowly becoming redundant in a modern world?
Mainly yes! This is not just because I feel that most traditional techniques are dated. It’s mainly because today more and more students seem to be engaging in street-based skills training, hence the rise of MMA and self-defence specific clubs. Most traditional styles stick religiously to the old ways and sadly fail to evolve. Surely, did those, who developed their respective styles many years ago, do so to combat relevant threats at that time in history? If so, why have so many become fixed and failed to evolve further in history? I fully understand that tradition has its ritualised and aesthetic content, but traditional styles should not become redundant in their respective applications. Surely wouldn’t new techniques incorporated into existing styles in time become traditional ones? But in all fairness, there are instructors who, nowadays, furnish their students with additional techniques which are better suited to combat modern day violence.
Are there any other issues about martial arts in the UK today that annoy you?
I suppose ‘the same old same old’ topic of black belts. Years ago, when I started out, black belts were few and far between, but nowadays it seems that black belts are ten-a-penny. The standard of some black belts is shocking and if these people were graded thirty or so years ago, they would not make orange belt! Unfortunately, many club instructors are now motivated by income and numbers. What’s happened to the principle of turning out quality martial artists? Standards, as a whole, have fallen and I firmly believe many of the old vanguard would agree. Nevertheless, on occasions, I have witnessed some exceptional young martial artists coming through the ranks, promising and refreshing!
Is there anything else that you feel is wrong with martial arts today?
There is, however, a small issue / niggle for me regarding contractual matters within some organisations. A few years ago, I went on an instructors’ course and was presented with a contract. It made reference to the fact that unless I attended the next instructors’ course a grade higher within twelve months, I would not be allowed to continue teaching at my present grade. So, every twelve months the organiser/s stood to make another tidy sum out of each instructor. However, by all means, have a policy that promotes refresher training, i.e. a two-day course, as this would allow instructors to remain active at their present grade and avoid skills fade, but I don’t agree with organisations enforcing ridiculous in-house policies regarding their instructors, and the fact that they cannot cross-pollinate with other stylists and organisations.
How have you sought to improve yourself as a combatant specialist over the years?
Serving twenty-two loyal years to the Crown helped me to develop my combat pursuits and these, in turn, served to enhance my application to military life. To date I train five days a week and I am in the gym at around 6 am Monday to Friday. I eat healthily - within reason - and I try to live a good life and be a good person. Also, I firmly believe that, as an instructor, you must be prepared to be the student from time to time and be enthused to learn new skills. If not, how can we, as instructors, be in a position to enthuse others to learn? Equally, training with different combatants has helped me to develop a wider understanding of other fighting and defensive systems. If someone trains in a different discipline to mine, then I want to learn some of this, and I feel more and more martial artists are adopting this philosophy.
So, have you had to use hand-to-hand skills in the past?
Yes, and something I am not completely comfortable talking about. Like many, I have read stories of this fighter and that fighter, and many in my opinion - but not all – are stories told to bolster egos and reputations. But a few references I will make are about a couple of bare-knuckle matches I had with two Iraqi policemen, and another when several Iraqis tried to take me hostage. The bare-knuckle matches occurred because the opponents wanted to test the Brit’s metal when we turned up in Basra in 2003. And bare-knuckle because basically we had no gloves! The first opponent was not much to write home about, and he was dismissed within seconds. The second was, however, a damn good boxer; his stance, style and movement conveyed an opponent of some experience. He caught me several times and so I reverted to a combination of punches and low kicks which paid off after about three or four minutes. As for the hostage situation; I was unfortunate enough to be in a position where I was somewhat remote and on my own away from the lads. Six, maybe seven Iraqis made a grab for me in an attempt to drag me into a small room. Their intention was clear; grab the Brit. At the point of realisation that I was about to become a statistic, my legs all but gave way and for a second or so I froze; after all, this was no Friday night fracas. Fortunately the thought process of I WILL be going home with a pulse became - shall we say - a creative process. No finer details needed on this, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination! And, over the years, there have been various situations when some drunken idiot had thought that I would become their sport for the evening; again a desired outcome – for me - was achieved.
In life, who have been your greatest supporters, and who do you look up to?
Well I do not idolise anyone in particular; for me there’s too much back slapping going on these days. However, I do have a very healthy respect for those I instruct because they have motivated me to seek further knowledge and self-enhancement. In turn, I have much respect for the likes of Peter Consterdine and Geoff Thompson from the British Combat Association, and certainly karate legend Mr. Aidan Trimble. Most of all though, I owe a lifetime’s debt to Mr. Mark Dawes of the National Federation for Personal Safety. Mark Dawes is the Founder, Director and the Lead Master Training of the NFPS. In recent years Mark has encouraged me to develop my skills and believe in myself; he’s a true gentleman and friend to many. In general, there are others who I have much time for too, for example: Tony Davis and Stuart Harris from Total Dojo, Tony Hughes from Kent and the Face-to-Face Combat guys from London. Of course, my upbringing and family certainly forged the way ahead for me. My father was a hard-working market trader and shopkeeper, and a former RAF boxing champion from the ‘50s. He was a real hard man and had a rough upbringing during the war as a fostered child, so the harsh lessons he learnt became mine as I was adopted; Looking back, my childhood was a privilege!
Steven, thanks for your time!
Copyright © Tough Talk, Mike Holdsworth and Steve Timperley
UK Martial Arts Alliance : www.ukmaa.org