Psyche of a Warrior:

John Johnston


“John was and still remains probably the greatest influence to my development in martial arts, taking me through all those vital fundamental lessons, offering me (free) private lessons when he saw my potential; he even bought a suit and belt for me when I didn’t have enough money. He is a great influence and a great friend and a powerful presence in British martial arts. Without John I would not in any way be doing what I am doing today” – Geoff Thompson (BAFTA award winner, best-selling author and world authority on martial arts and self defence)


It is too easy for my generation to be dismissive of traditional martial arts. Most of us began our training when the most popular systems had become commercialized and branded. We witnessed the dawn of the McDojo. The mystique of the 1970s’ Kung Fu Boom and the 1980s’ Ninja-mania was over when we began. The 1990s spawned some huge changes in the martial arts world; a fair amount was instigated by criticism of the old guard. This led the birth of the mainstream “Reality-Based Self Defence” movement and the emergence of “Mixed Martial Arts” as a limited rules combat sport. The McDojos didn’t decrease; in fact, they continued to grow along with the mystical schools. More martial arts were discovered and created. Along the way revisionists took the traditional martial arts back to their functional roots and created another subculture. However, there is still yet another area of training from the pre-cynicism and scepticism of the early ‘90s that is still healthy today and is also being “re-discovered”. These were tough instructors who believed in teaching the hard basics of their art, who were more concerned with developing the original intentions of the “do” way of early 20th century Japan than anything else. They came from an era when karate was still a minority quantity in the west, when the training was tough and when the rank of black belt was rarely seen in the UK. John Johnston comes from that era and today he embodies the strength of his times.


John ran a Shotokan karate dojo in Coventry. Among his students would be the man who would spearhead much of the martial arts controversy in the 1990s, Geoff Thompson. This article varies from many others I have written on individual martial artists in that I have stepped aside from giving my personal reflections and sought those of Geoff’s. Geoff had a profound influence over my development in the martial arts during the early ‘90s and he continues to do so today. Therefore, I thought it would be interesting and perhaps more revealing to co-interview Geoff about his experiences with John rather to give any surface impressions the man made on me. To begin with I asked Geoff to sum John up to me:


“I first started training with John in the early ‘80s, before my door period, way before leaving my real job to train full time; in fact I got my black belt with Enoida sensei in karate under John’s tuition. He had a big class and he had a strong reputation as a former fighter and city doorman, and as a class karateka. His karate was and still is very dynamic, he is a big man and when he moves the whole room crackles. For a big man he is very fast.  He was also as a man that spoke his mind and not everyone liked that (I did), so he did not suffer fools. It is what really drew me to him”.


To John mindset, attitude and the psyche of the individual is the foundation of the good karateka. He had a tough upbringing, which inspired him first to fight and later to seek discipline through fighting:


“I was a mixed race kid growing up in Coventry just after the war had finished. I mentioned the war because if people understand their history, they will understand that colour prejudice was a propaganda tool that the American administration used to keep their coloured GIs segregated from the British public, mainly the women.  Therefore it was very strong in the minds of a lot of adults and was consequently passed onto their children. I was brought up by my English Grandparents who were very loving, but lacked the understanding to be able to equip me to deal with the overt prejudice that I found, other than to tell me that if I was picked on I was to fight back. Consequently I was in a lot of fights at school and at play. I had to fight from infant school through to my second year at comprehensive school. I was not bullied after that because I had dealt with most of it by then. At that time, there were only five coloured kids at my senior school, which made me a target.”


Being naturally athletic, John was not your obvious victim of bullying. This only goes to show how bad racial tensions were at the time and how deep the propaganda was in the collective psychology of those growing up during the era of John’s childhood. Born in 1951, he would have experienced the nationalist racism of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s that was inspired over fears regarding mass-immigration. John did not seek martial arts to solve his bullying problem - he would be 20 years old before he took up karate. He learnt how to fight well through hard experience and understanding how to utilize his natural attributes. He was an able rugby player at school, becoming a member of the Warwickshire Colts and then later the Coventry Welsh. He boxed for a little while and dabbled a bit in judo, but it was karate that eventually captured his heart.


“I was influenced by such films as ‘Our Man Flint’, starring James Coburn, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, starring Frank Sinatra, and later the Bruce Lee films. Having looked at several kung fu and karate clubs in the area I was fortunate to watch a class taken by Rick Jackson shortly after he had returned from training in Japan. I instinctively knew that Shotokan suited my physiology.”


Rick Jackson had recently been training in Japan. A much revered instructor, Rick taught John for two years. John’s dedication to the art was evident and it wasn’t long before he was entrusted with his own class to teach at Henley College. The scarcity of British born karate black belts in the early ‘70s was probably comparable to the number of British Brazilian jiu jitsu black belts in the 2000s. John was just a green belt when he first taught. Always the avid sportsman he took to karate kumite with predictable enthusiasm and vigour. In fact, it would seem he was a little too enthusiastic in his first competition when, as a purple belt, he was disqualified for excessive contact at the Larcano Ballroom in 1973.


However, he would soon become a regular on the competition circuit, fighting successfully at regional and national level competitions. This helped prove himself to the higher echelons of the British karate scene. He and his fellow club members began training with the British squad at the notorious Longford Dojo. Here he would trade blows with some of the best in the sport, and as time went on he became far more than a plucky sparring partner. John rose through the Shotokan ranks, taking instruction from some of the luminaries of his day such as Enoeda Sensei, Kawazoe Sensei and Andy Sherry. Despite learning some control from his early days on the tournament circuit, John was still feared for his devastating sweeps. By the time he was running his own clubs as a professional instructor he had caught the attention of the best in the sport and was selected for the Central Region Squad coached the British and European Champion, Frank Brennan.


The esteem that John was to be held in by his peers was explained to me by Geoff Thompson, who is one of today’s most respected martial arts instructors:


“He was a senior with the KUGB (Karate Union of Great Britain) and everyone knew at the time that they were the elite, it was an amazing association manned by some very serious players, Terry O’Neil, Frank Brennan, Andy Sherry, Bob Poynton, Ronnie Christopher to mention just a few. Just getting a brown belt with these folk was seen as top end, so getting my black belt with them was a life time ambition”.


And yet despite this awe he was held in and his reputation for not “suffering fools”, John, according to Geoff, was a man that was generous with his time and cared about people. Long time readers of Geoff Thompson’s work will be only too aware of the author’s dark days of regularly jumping from job to job. During some of these transient periods of Geoff’s life in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, John ran a building company and gave Geoff work:


“I even worked for him for a time, again there was always the sense with John that even if he didn’t have any work for me, he’d find work for me, he was that kind of person”.


However, John was always a realist when it came to self defence side of martial arts training. His initial karate training can be seen as a type of buffer period that helped turn the street fighter who was born in order to cope with childhood violence into a warrior that could turn his skills to a profession. Three years after his first lesson he began work as a doorman. He worked in Coventry during a time when the city had a fearsome reputation for violence. This was just prior to the era that Geoff made famous in his autobiography “Watch my Back”. John ended up becoming head doorman of a top Coventry nightclub and explained to me what a career in door security was like in those days:


“Initially the majority [of doormen] were boxers and a couple were rugby players. A lot of the guys that I worked with had criminal records for violence and it was after a particularly bad incident at a club that the police made it a condition that no one with a criminal record could work on the doors. It was at this point that I was promoted to head doorman and had to find replacement staff which I recruited from the karate club I was training at and a kung fu club”.


His work in door security was very successful. Geoff Thompson told me that John was once probably “the top doorman in the city”. This reputation led John onto other security work including “overt and covert operations protecting high profile business men, TV personalities and recording artists”. The “Adaptive” karate he teaches today doesn’t fall into the category of either literal interpretation, as portrayed by the pre-arranged sparring drills promoted in the 20th century, or the bunkai promoted today by the likes of Iain Abernethy and Gavin Mulholland. It is a more principle-based approach than a dissection or testing of bunkai. John told me,


“I feel that my karate is more instinctual than conceptual, so it isn’t easy to translate it to the written page. I try to encourage students to develop a very positive attitude when training, as well as being honest and realistic about real combat. I try to get them to understand that it’s not just physical; there is a psychological aspect which is also affected by the chemical reactions within the body. I believe that if you have these precepts in mind when you engage in training, and the training is hard and focused, you can help prepare them for the eventuality of conflict, and also give them the tools to be able to deal with conflict with the possibility of resolving it without resorting to violence, but worse case scenario, to be able to manage the situation with a favourable outcome”


“I stayed with Karate because its philosophy and its rigorous training methods have helped me to shape my life and has steered me in a direction which has been good for my wellbeing.


“I still teach and train in traditional Shotokan karate but I believe that to make it viable, the mind set in conjunction with the techniques require adaptation to be able to apply them in a way which would be effective. You can take competition techniques, Kata sequences and adapt them for street level protection. It’s not only the physical delivery of techniques that require adaptation but also you have to adapt your psyche”.


The mindset, attitude and psyche seem to mean everything to John and his approach to martial arts. It is something that I have noticed most experienced martial artists with a strong background in handling violence outside of their training came back to when they teach. When I pushed John on this subject he explained,


“I would say that attitude is not only a key part for the foundation of martial arts and self defence training, but is paramount and fundamental to a successful outcome, more so than the physical. If you train for competition you are preparing to attempt to win competition, however, if you prepare for war, you are attempting to avoid war. The attitude and mindset for these two concepts, albeit related are completely different”.


Today the martial arts world is very open to cross-training and hosting other martial arts and it is hard to remember a time when the norm was for most clubs to forbid training at another school. Knowing that much of the controversy surrounding Geoff’s early work came from his experiences in traditional martial arts, I wondered how he correlated this with his time training under John:


“It is hard to find other good teachers after working for so long with John because he was so charismatic; many of the people I went to afterwards, in my search for more martial arts information, were diluted by comparison. But he did also encourage me to explore, he was not one of these ‘jealous husband’ teachers that were afraid of you training with anyone else. Through John’s inspiration I later took my skills to the nightclubs and pubs of the Coventry to further forge and develop myself, and later when I wrote my first book, ‘Watch my Back’, he was very encouraging”.


Geoff Thompson often talks about stepping outside of comfort zones. Indeed, much of his philosophy is steep in metaphors about putting yourself into the forge as often as possible and moving toward discomfort in order to achieve the targets you desire. I can’t help but wonder whether John Johnston’s hard earned lessons didn’t have some degree of influence over him. John stepped from an outside world that had shown him cruel violent and irrational persecution and into another focused and disciplined type of discomfort. I asked John what the karate was like when he began and the changes he has seen during his lifetime.


“The Karate that was being taught at that time was very basic and very strong physically and mentally and often brutal, with a lot of misguided honesty to it”.


I queried what he meant by “misguided honesty”


“Misguided honesty or naivety: Various training methods which our instructors honestly thought were good for us. Sports science has recently shown us that many of these concepts were not only bad for us but also dangerous. I would say, however, that that kind of regime built a strong mental attitude. Unfortunately it also wheedled out the weaker students very quickly. They wouldn’t come back, which made it elitist. The students that really needed it should have been coaxed and encouraged instead of being put off. Here are a few examples.


“We used to block against an unpadded length of 3 by 2 hardwood that was being rammed at our abdomens with considerable force. This was supposed to toughen our arms up, which it did. However, if you didn’t block it you would have a rib taken out.

On one course held just before Christmas, a senior British instructor told us after three hours that he was now about to give us our Christmas present. We were told to kneel down, arranging ourselves round the Dojo, which was a converted Ice Skating rink. The last man in line was told to start bunny hopping around the room and over the students that were kneeling down. All the rest of the students followed round in succession. We all did three laps, no body was allowed to give up or be excused before we were allowed to finish. I and my fellow students spent three days virtually unable to walk. Thanks for my Christmas present!


“One last but not least of the so called body-conditioning exercises: We were regularly encouraged, advised to go on barefoot runs at least three miles long, around streets and parks. So when I say misguided honesty, I refer to instructors that genuinely thought that this type of body conditioning would have immediate and long term positive effects”.


It is not surprising that among the good things that John believes has happened in martial arts is the adoption of modern sports science. This has helped influence many schools to drop outmoded, counter-productive and potentially damaging training practices. However, he concurs with Geoff’s sentiments regarding the dilution that has happened within many traditional martial arts. This is not just in terms of the pragmatism, but also the morality. John told me “There are a lot of people that have no concept of the real values, ethics and aims of true martial arts” This side of John was echoed with some of Geoff’s points about the man I mentioned earlier such as providing Geoff with a suit and belt so he could train or giving him some paid work. Geoff sees John as one of his inspirations to compete in martial arts tournaments and then to work the doors. The era that Geoff trained in was a time when the unheated dojos and hard training that had made karate and other martial arts minority activities were beginning to give way to the commercialism that would jade my generation’s early experiences. On that note I would like to leave you with Geoff’s memories on the balance of values and pragmatism that John taught him during his karate days:


“I can remember being a purple belt (and feeling as though I was almost at the top of the world) and telling John my belief that karate was all about self defence, that was its real essence, and even then, way, way back then he pulled me to one side and explained that

self defence was only really a by-product of karate, and that good karate was about self development, about development of the virtues, ultimately it was about taking your skills to the level where you become of service to your community, to the world at large. I had no idea what he was talking about, and yet, here I am nearly 40 years on teaching just that.


“He was always like that though, John, so far ahead of the curve. He once told me that when you were good at your art, even painting a fence became an extension of your karate. Painting a fence, who ever heard of such a thing? The man was clearly mad (I thought). And yet…and yet here I am (again) painting fences and writing books/plays/film/articles all as an extension of my karate. As you can see I owe him a lot.


“I also remember a time when he gave me a real bollocking. We had a couple of black belts in the class that I didn’t think represented Shotokan, certainly not Shotokan as I saw it. They were haughty and arrogant. Good technicians I thought but not good men. I told John this; I said, accusingly, that he had let them slip through the net. He told me (with raised voice) that his job was not just to teach the people that were palatable, but also to teach those that had lost their way, teaching pleasant people he said was easy, any instructor could do it, but his job as he saw it was to help everyone, especially those that had drifted from the path. That has always stuck with me. It was a very profound thing to say, and I have quoted it many times since. In the Toa it says that a good man is a bad man’s teacher, a bad man is a good man’s job. He knew that all those years ago when I was still arrogant enough to think I had any idea what I was doing.


“John’s emphasis in training was always on good basics. He drilled them again and again. Obsessive basics made me so strong that it literally saved my life. One time in a club in Coventry I was attacked by a gang en masse. They were literally trying to kill me, but my basics were so strong that they could not keep me down, and everyone I hit fell over. Afterwards I said to a friend proudly (I was battered and bruised, but still standing), ‘that was Shotokan!’ I knew why the basics were so important. John taught me that”.



by Elaine Johnston

Shotokan Magazine Oct 2011


Karate has become immensely popular and taught in a genuine manner from a reputable teacher, a student will learn very important life skills that can prevent victimization and bullying behaviour.

It is not necessary to teach children about self defence from a knife attack or being mugged etc. The real life dangers that threaten children are more likely to be “peer pressure” and making bad choices.

Children need to be taught how to be strong minded, courageous and encouraged to train with intensity in their Karate to learn the moral codes that it teaches, as the lessons that are learnt from people who have the most influence may not always be the right ones, depending on a person’s upbringing.

Strong minded children with a correct moral behavioural code to follow, who train regularly under correct instruction will be more likely to stand against peer pressure and because of their training have the physical ability and confidence in their Karate to defend themselves and the decision that they have so rightmindedly made for themselves. Life is about making choices and one has to have the courage to make the right choices. Courage builds with correct Karate training. Along with building courage one must also develop courtesy so that being assertive is always done with the best of intentions and manners possible.

Genuine Karate should encourage students of all ages to think about what they are doing and not perform mindless techniques. It takes a patient and conscientious teacher to encourage and explain to students what thinking processes should be alerted and that they should be learning to affect these thinking processes for themselves. This teaches them to be more aware of what they are potentially capable of. This will encourage independent thinking. Once certain foundations have been placed within the psyche, these being the realizations of abilities and identity, a stronger sense of self is developed. This gives a student more certainty in the decisions that they make for themselves. Learning correct thinking processes calms the chaos of the mind. Proper body dynamics  have to be applied in Karate techniques so therefore a procession of specific mechanics have to be activated and specifically timed to enable the fluidity, speed and power of movement. These combinations have to be timed so that they are all focused together at the last moment on the impact of a strike. Not only do these dynamics have to be executed in a particular order but also the mindset that will enable the techniques has to also be in order. So the mind has to be trained to be able to acquire the correct thinking processes. When a child, or any student is determined to learn the techniques in all their detail, their mind automatically starts to learn the necessary thought processes. To be able to perform Karate techniques with all the proper dynamics requires clarity, focus, complete awareness, balance, coordination and determination. As the mind becomes more clearly focused and determined the body will be able to achieve greater things. A student then starts to feel a sense of achievement and confidence in their developing and improving abilities.

Karate training teaches all students to be more aware and teaches them to put themselves under scrutiny. They have to teach their bodies right from wrong. It would be an absolute miracle if a student came along who was able to perform with complete perfection, so these things have to be learnt. When learning the Karate techniques the body goes through a process of finding the right way to do things and the wrong way to do them. What Karate has then given that student is a tool and the ability to learn the right way and the wrong way. This tool can then be used in other areas of their life. It is not good practice to force any young student to do what you want them to do, but rather teach them how to make sensible decisions and discipline themselves to be motivated. Vulnerability and insecurity stems from self doubt. Doubt only arises from not being sure that one can make the right decision, or doubt and stress because one does not believe that they are strong enough to stand up for themselves and be assertive. Analysing thinking processes under certain conditions allows a student to learn about strategies. I don’t mean strategies to deal with an opponent, but strategies to deal with their own thought processes.

Chaotic thinking will cause chaotic actions. A student learns to notice how they are reacting to stress whilst doing certain training exercises. If a student learns that they have problems in certain areas with certain exercises they can develop

strategies that will help them through, maybe even use the exercise as a tool to find a permanent solution to the problem. This is possible through good instruction and a lot of inner reflection. What is learned in the dojo (training room) can then be taken home and used as a tool to improve the quality of life.

When students of Karate start to learn about themselves, they start to realize how their behaviour affects those around them and to understand how their personal conduct will ascertain how other people will react to them. Their personal conduct is what they display and how they present themselves to the world, the way they dress and their mannerisms. These things are consciously and subconsciously evaluated by others. So before any actions or words, a person has already been evaluated and categorised by the other person based on the impression given by their conduct. This will decide how that person is treated. It is no good for anybody to say “but I didn’t do anything” and be ignorant and mindless about their own personal conduct. Students need to be taught to ask themselves the questions” how do I treat myself?” if they do not treat themselves with respect, they will not behave respectfully. If they are not behaving respectfully, others will not be respectful of them.

When students learn to become mindful in their training, the mind will begin to process connections that connect them to their psyche (self, soul) then they can begin to learn and develop an understanding of their own nature, how they fit into the world and how their behaviour affects others.

Everyone has uncertainties. The more certain that students become with their own identity (self), the more their decisions will start to have weight, substance behind them.  The more weight and substance that decisions have the more likely they are to defend them as they will feel on solid ground in their convictions. An animal will not fight another if it does not think that it has a chance of winning or if it thinks it could get wounded. We are animals and our subconscious instincts are quiet similar. Believe me you don’t want to fight with someone who believes that they are on solid ground with their convictions as they will fight to the death. This in itself can give protection. Being impressionable is linked from insecurities, wanting to be liked and accepted makes one vulnerable. Learning Karate from a knowledgeable source teaches the most important lessons, one of them being that the only acceptance ever really needed is your own.  Karate has a strong underlying spiritual developmental aspect. As the mind becomes more knowing and stronger Karate instils within the psyche its correct moral code of conduct. These assets develop from the inside to the outside and teaches the student about the true nature of the self leading on to a strong mind and the ability to make correct decisions with certainty and conviction.


Everyone should be very aware that peer pressure is the real life danger and threat to youngsters and any vulnerable or impressionable person. Children often make mistakes with their lives due to peer pressure, which affects the future quality or direction of their life in a negative way. All because they didn’t have the courage to stand against it or they didn’t know any better or were unable to perceive the consequences. We have a collective responsibility to all of them to try and eliminate this problem.

Adults should have strategies and mechanisms in place that prevent them from doing certain things. Children do not have these simply because their minds haven’t learnt them as they do not have the knowledge or experience, so they can present a danger to themselves and those other impressionable children, people around them. Also a predatory adult will prey on youngsters and vulnerable people who are easily impressed. Children have got to learn to have the courage to make the right choices. A Childs moral compass does not register the correct direction so they seek approval to understand right and wrong. If they are getting positive stimulus from what they are doing then it must be right. If they get negative reactions from what they do then it must be wrong.

So it is the parent’s duty to set the parameters and to make sure that the people and teachers in a position to influence their Childs life has integrity and that Childs best interest at heart. Children are small people and it is a mistake to think that they cannot develop strategies to improve and lift the quality of their lives.  When they are being trained in Karate, they should be presented with analogies that they easily relate to and language should be a little more simplistic but the essence and content of the lesson must be the same as the adult.

Through Karate students learn how to control their bodies and you do exercises that face them with certain conditions. They learn how to control those conditions and as the intensity of the exercise increases with experience and advancement they are confronted with fears which they learn to control and its understanding about fear and its effects which allow them to transcend those effects or channel them positively. Students should learn how to turn a negative effect into a positive effect which gives them the tools to step above peer pressure and bad personal judgement. This is why students have to be trained the way they need to be trained and not the way that they want to be trained. This is why there needs to be no compromises, no short cuts and no easy answers. It’s also why when it gets to the point where there’s pressure within the class it becomes the easy option to pack up. It’s down to instructors and parents to encourage and coax the children through those times with a little bit of cajoling and a little bit of gentle force. Sometimes children need to have a lot of guidance and encouragement even to be made to do things that they don’t enjoy because to give into it is a loss and a detriment to building their psyche.

Karate is about physical and mental conditioning. Although sometimes training can be too severe, from uneducated instructors with no rhyme or reason to what they teach, this can be detrimental? If it’s not good for the body then it certainly is not good for the mind. How Karate will affect a student will largely depend on the motives of the instructor. Instructors teach for many different reasons? Some are genuine and work with the interest of the student in mind. There are many who are only interested in their own agenda or making huge profits. This indeed will affect the progressing attitude of the student in a detrimental way.

Dress code is important within a class. Just a plain white uniform will make everything fundamentally equal. There should be nothing flash or ostentatious. Uniforms are expected to be clean and ironed, belts should be tied correctly and of the appropriate length. This ensures everyone is balanced and equal. Someone from a poorer background can stand next to someone from a more affluent background and the only thing that will distinguish them is the standard of their Karate and the colour of their belt. The development of their attitude and spirit is paramount to the underpinning of the physical training as a child that does not develop their inner attitude (strength) will struggle to achieve what’s required of them physically.  Children should be taught to be strong minded in a positive way that can then be backed up with strong conscientious physical ability. This correct self protection starts with correct attitude and manners.

There are clubs whose students wear miscellaneous T-shirts and bottoms with a belt tied around their waist, which is fairly meaningless as the belt is to keep your suit wrapped around your body and to keep up trousers.  Flashy types of uniforms can make students feel better about themselves but for the wrong reasons, so all these are misguided values. This can also ascertain to an element of peer pressure.

Society as a whole needs to be lifted out of this negative peer pressure trap as it does not only effect children but it also affects adults. It doesn’t matter how old a person is, they can still learn about their own mind in a way that will give them enough self assurity to not allow themselves to be affected by peer pressure.


Peer pressure seems to have been swept under a rug of ignorance and classed as a young person’s problem. The peer pressure problem affects all children and all adults at varying times. Most adults are in a position to make up their own minds whether or not they want to change the way they think but children need to be guided towards a method that is going to teach them those important life skills like learning how to properly behave and conduct themselves in such a way that is not going to attract negative attention. Learning this correct code of conduct is what will keep children safe from harm and stop them from harming others as they will learn about dignity and self respect on deeper levels where they need it. These codes of behaviour can be learned through training but only if students are willing to try hard and embrace the mental challenges presented to them.


All rights reserved, Copyright© Elaine Johnston 2011