Belper’s inspiring martial arts teacher Charles Spring and student Scarlet Brown
PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 April 2017
Geoff Ford meets Wellness lecturer, martial arts professional and teacher Charles Spring and his star student Scarlet Brown
By now we may have let that New Year’s resolution slip, the one where we go to the gym to lose a few pounds and generally improve our fitness. Going to the gym is fine for some, membership rates continue to rise and new gyms spring up all the time, but it doesn’t work for everyone. There is an alternative, it works for the young and old and it can become a way of life.
Charles Spring is a senior lecturer in Wellness Management at the University of Derby by day while in the evenings he teaches karate to students from age 10 to almost 70, and he sees a benefit for everyone. ‘There is a real link between the two,’ says Charles, ‘because wellness is about mind, body, spirit, your physical attributes and being well in yourself and everything that you do. Martial arts epitomise all of that. Karate, for me, includes my social network of friends which is based around that. Physically, mentally and spiritually it is very good for you and can help you to focus in the rest of your life. Funakoshi, the founder of karate in Japan, said it is a thing that permeates your whole life. What I do as a lecturer fits with what I do outside of university life, too. Martial arts can take over your life if you get into it. It becomes what you are as a person. The way you behave and how you treat other people comes into martial arts.’
Karate arrived in mainland Japan in the early 20th century and, in his philosophy, Funakoshi said that one should be ‘inwardly humble and outwardly gentle’. He believed that only by behaving humbly can one be open to karate’s many lessons. This is done by listening and being receptive to criticism. To the uninitiated, the perception of martial arts is about fighting, self-defence and competing but Funakoshi thought it unlikely that a devotee would use their karate skills in a real confrontation more than once in a lifetime. He urged that karate practitioners must ‘never be easily drawn into a fight.’
Charles agrees that karate is not just about fighting and that there is something for everyone. ‘The competition side is one thing, but you don’t have to compete. You can train in martial arts your whole life and not do a competition. After I stopped competing I still trained with the same commitment because you progress all the time, you never stop.
‘Then there is the softer side, although some Tai Chi exponents won’t thank me for saying that, because we think of Tai Chi as more of a health related thing in this country. Judo, the gentle way, looks really aggressive when you see it in competition, and there is a very aggressive side to it, but it’s called the gentle way because you are meant to beat your opponent by not overly hurting them, throw them on the ground and that’s it. They actually call their fighting “play”. There are those different elements to martial arts which make it a very broad spectrum of things for people to get involved with. Even to compete without success, you could continue with martial arts in a myriad of different ways.’
The wide appeal attracts students of all ages and Charles is particularly excited about the prospects of his protégé, 10-year-old Scarlet Brown from Milford, who has very quickly shown herself to have enormous potential in the sport.
Charles’s research into wellness looked into the way that martial arts could be incorporated into education in schools, colleges and university. Milford Primary School’s head teacher, Paula Fox, invited Charles to bring a course into the school. ‘It was used to understand the Japanese idea of respect and etiquette, very formal,’ Charles explained. ‘We built it around a book about a Japanese character marooned on an island. Scarlett was in that group and enjoyed it.’
‘I had a couple of lessons and thought I’d like to do it outside of school as well,’ Scarlet added. Within months the youngster was winning medals for the Ronin Budo club in Belper. ‘I enjoyed doing all the kicks and working with my friends doing it.’
Early last year Scarlet missed out on a third place by just 0.1 of a mark in her first competition, but then won several prizes for kata, a set form scored for showing good style, good aggression and good transition between the different moves. Scarlet’s biggest success has been in creating her own freestyle kata, with which she won a gold medal at the first attempt. ‘For someone who has only been training for a short time it’s pretty cool for her to have to have developed her own kata,’ says Charles. ‘She’s getting better and better at fighting all the time and she’s done light continuous (point scoring) and sport sword, coming third.’
Scarlet’s performances have brought her very close to the top of her age group and she recently qualified for the Revolution Grand Championships. She now has realistic ambitions of beating the current world champion who is a year older and has been competing for much longer.
Charles himself took up martial arts at the age of 10, trying a number of disciplines such as judo, boxing and kung fu. ‘I found karate when I was 16 and I have been practising ever since,’ said Charles, now 55. ‘My paternal granddad was a boxing coach, my mum’s father was a boxing champion in the army and mum knew it was a good way of focusing. I was quite an aggressive young fellow and she realised it would channel my energy. I found it for myself in the end but the main reason was I liked the idea of doing something where I could fight. I did some amateur boxing when I was 15 or 16 but then discovered karate and absolutely fell in love with it.’
He points out that the popularity of martial arts in the UK is, in part, down to our cultural history. ‘If you look at our military heritage, our fighting past has always been there. Who are the heroes from history? King Arthur, Robin Hood, all very good at martial arts in their own way.’
In Charles’s own family history Tom Spring was a late 18th century bare knuckle fighter. Contests of that time would include throws, arm locks, chokes and kicks – not too different to some martial arts. ‘He was responsible for the process of sanitising boxing,’ Charles adds. ‘It’s not recognised in a lot of boxing books, but if you read into his history he laid down a set of rules in the late 1700s and early 1800s. We’ve always had that fighting heritage in this country and I think that’s why we are good at it. Great Britain always does well in karate championships and with it being adopted into the Olympics, we could have a future Olympian here in Scarlet. There are always a lot of female competitors and Olympic boxers Nicola Adams and (Irish Olympian) Katie Taylor have been inspirational.’
After retiring from competition in the early 1990s Charles spent time concentrating on his career whilst continuing karate as a recreational activity and instructing. He returned to competition a couple of years ago and became English kata champion in 2015 and recently became Revolution Grand Champion in the traditional forms weapons category. Charles is keen to point out that age is no barrier to taking up the sport.
‘Interestingly, I’m 55 but the categories I enter also have a lot of entries. The oldest guy I have competed against was in his 70s and my oldest student, Mick Bates, is 68. He only began training with me when he was 65. Mick had retired and was looking for a new hobby. When he first came his balance was a little precarious, but karate has really helped with it. It also helps with hand-eye coordination and keeps your brain active. He then began weightlifting and I believe he’s now looking towards the British Powerlifting Championships.’
These same benefits are also being used to help veterans from the armed services who are struggling with a return to civilian life. ‘We are a registered charity, recognised by the Sports and Recreation Alliance, and have just launched the Britannia Heroes Inclusive Martial Arts for anyone who has been in the services, who’s been injured or suffers with post-traumatic stress. This has been successfully tried in America, giving them a focus. It’s the same approach as in the Paralympics or Invictus Games. Martial arts has real benefits and has been acknowledged as helping to reduce the suicide rate.’
For details of the Ronin Budo Club at Strutts Centre, Belper, go to roninbudo.yolasite.com or see
www.facebook.com/RoninBudo. The University of Derby’s BSc (Hons) Wellness Management course is the first of its kind in the UK and equips students for a career in the rapidly growing global wellness industry, developing specialist skills and knowledge, and combining business, management, anatomy, physiology, nutrition, physical activity, coaching and mentoring. To find out more, visit www.derby.ac.uk/wellness