James Sheedy: A Martial Arts Odyssey

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Blitz Magazine, Vol. 28 No. 8, August 2014

James Sheedy has been involved in martial arts for the long haul. Beginning his journey back in 1975, Jim has been training for a total of thirty-eight years and teaching for the lion’s share of them.

His school, James Sheedy Personal Defense Studio is located in Taren Point, Sydney. The notion of a ‘freestyle’ Tae Kwon Do school means that the style is open to adopting and studying other arts, a necessary undertaking for any traditional style that wants to remain relevant in the modern era.

When asked to explain his philosophy of teaching, Jim quotes Aristotle; ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Therefore, excellence is not an act, but a habit.’ “We live in an impatient society. Success in the martial arts is about deferred gratification. [It’s about] working towards a goal.”

Like so many people of Jim’s generation, he was inspired to begin training as a sixteen-year-old by Bruce Lee.

“I went and saw Enter the Dragon on opening night in 1975,” he remembers. “I was amazed by the skill-set and what the human body could do in the art of war.”

Shortly after, Tae Kwon Do came to Nowra on the New South Wales south coast.

“My first instructor was a guy named Peter Matlow. I remember that he was twenty-six years old; at that time, we thought he was an old fella. He used to drive down from Woolongong, eighty to ninety kilometers, just to teach.”

It took Jim some time to get the courage up to enter the dojo, however.

“I was nervous to start. For the first six weeks, I used to come along and then go home because I was too nervous to begin.

“This is ridiculous’, I thought to myself, ‘I have to start.’ So one day, I showed up an hour early. I watched Peter come to the hall and let himself in. He sat down and started doing his paperwork. I went in, told him my intentions, and without even looking up from his desk, he told me to come back in thirty minutes. I was excited that I’d cracked the egg; I started that afternoon. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”

Jim continued to train until his desire to travel and see Australia got the better of him. He set out to see more of the country and, after a time, found himself settling in Queensland. He decided to resume his studies.

“I had been training in Rhee Tae Kwon Do, but because that wasn’t available, I decided to give something else a go. I went to a small hall in Mermaid Beach and met Graham Johnson, who was the chief instructor at what was called the Australian Tae Kwon Do Institute. I began training under Graham Johnson and eventually graded for my black belt under him. I went on to grade for both second and third dan under him, also.”

Jim age 26 flying side kick

The black belt grading is – and should be – a watershed event for any martial artist. If anything, it’s the first and most distinct destination.

“I graded for my first dan in 1979,” says Jim. “The emotions I felt; the importance of the event was something instilled in me that I try to instill into my students. You undertake a test that pushes you to the limit. [You have] traditional forms, set sparring, breaking; there’s four or five disciplines. You have to prepare. You have to put the hard work in and do it and the rest of your life goes on hold for those months. Putting everything aside shows that it means a lot to you.”

Jim’s black belt grading was not a straightforward undertaking, however.

“Everything was spot-on until I got to the breaking. I had to break one board, which I missed, I was asked to re-attempt it and I missed again. Everything else was spot-on and I still missed out. I had to re-sit the whole test three months later. I redid it and got it.”

After his successful grading, James arrived at a significant turning point. As with many of life’s most important events, it arrived as a surprise.

“After receiving my black belt, I was asked if I wanted to become an instructor. I hadn’t thought of it; I was too caught up in my own training.” James began teaching at the age of twenty and found that the challenges it presented changed him as much as any other training he had undertaken to date.

“Training people is one of the most important parts of your journey,” he says. “I was a shy person, but martial arts changed all that. Teaching people creates an important connection. I have black belts that have been with me now since about 1980. They started at the age of twenty, and are now in their forties. They still stand and listen and let me correct them.”

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That vote of student confidence is one of the most significant indexes of an instructor’s ability, not simply in terms of demonstrating technique. A teacher needs to make conceptual sense of something and communicate it. It’s the quality by which a teacher’s authority lives and dies.

Caspian Smith has been training with Jim for twenty-six years, beginning his own journey at seven years of age.

“I started off being excited by breaking bricks… and spinning kicks. But I continue to do it today because of the impact it has on my life.” When Caspian is asked to explain what it is that Jim has as an instructor that others don’t, he is more than eloquent.

“It’s the meditation in movement that Jim provides. I’ve kept training with him for so long because of his love for what he does. It’s all about his passion for it, and the environment he creates. We’re not tough guys; we’re there to improve our lives. Training gives you resources you can draw upon. A degree of inner calm.”

Caspian’s idea of ‘meditation through movement’ is at the kernel of this notion of art.

“It’s about the beauty of the movement; efficiency and effectiveness. [You form an] understanding of how the body works, and use it in a way that is graceful and functional.”

Competition has its place, but isn’t the central focus of Jim’s experience of martial arts.

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“I did a little bit of competition in my early twenties, but the sport is now Olympic. My experience of Tae Kwon Do was the art of it, rather than the sport. Competition is good for recognition, but it takes the emphasis off the art.”

It’s a difficult distinction to fathom, but almost forty years of teaching and training makes it obvious to Jim.

“Art is personal; you do it for yourself. Sport is about winning. Besides, competition can be there in every training session by trying to improve all aspects of skill and techniques from other training sessions.”

As is so often the way, the subject of competition brings the discussion around to mixed martial arts and the UFC.

“I love watching it; I think it’s great. It’s a combination of skills and the athletes are super-tough. It gives martial arts exposure. Those guys have excellent skills and are beautiful to watch, but it also breeds a kind of fashionable thinking. Look, change is inevitable; it’s a part of evolution. But tradition gives you substance.”

A truly modern martial art is tested in the crucible of mixed martial arts competition. MMA, even more than kickboxing, throws the limitations of ‘traditional’ martial arts into even sharper relief than K1 kickboxing did in the nineties. For this reason, Jim offers classes in other disciplines to supplement the syllabus.

“Boxing is the ultimate hands fighting system, and grappling is the purest form of in-close fighting and sparring. They are huge strengths to have in any martial arts system; that’s the simple reality. Having an excellent standard [of] kicking skills, like in Tae Kwon Do is great, but martial artists need to be aware – and prepared – for all aspects of fighting.”

This cool-eyed, sophisticated outlook on traditional martial arts training has also informed the way James has chosen to set up his dojo in Cronulla. He refers to it as a gym, because of the way it caters to a modern idea of conditioning, with a proper weight training facility and the trappings of a modern gym.

This willingness to include other ideas and viewpoints is another aspect of his strength as an instructor.

Anthony Rogers is another of Jim’s long-standing black belts. He commenced training at thirteen years of age, pushing his total time under Jim’s tutelage to a total of thirty-two years.

“When I started, Jim said he used to see my feet before he saw me, they were so big!”

Jokes aside, Anthony says that Jim’s willingness to not only look at but include other styles is a result of his confidence as an instructor.

“A lot of instructors are scared to introduce new things because they think they’ll lose students, but not him. [Jim] brings Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, boxing, Arnis; all kinds of stuff. It’s about opening minds to possibilities, not closing them.”

In order to do this, Jim has sought out the very best instructors available, which has resulted in some fruitful, high-profile partnerships.

“Between 1989 and 1994, I spent some time in America with my partner, Glenn Coxon. We put on promotions at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. Around this time, I developed a close relationship with sensei Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez. To this day, he still takes my students and black belts every November for a personal training session.”

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Benny ‘The Jet’ was one of the progenitors of kickboxing. A highly-skilled martial artist, Benny also branched out into promotion to answer public demand for the sport in the late eighties and early nineties. One of his most significant contributions was to lift Stan ‘The Man’ Longinidis from amateur rankings by giving him the opportunity to train at The Jet Center in the Hollywood, elevating him to World Champion status.

“The Jet,” says Jim, “has had an amazing impact on me, my training and more importantly, my life’s values. Benny is a great mentor to me, my black belts and my students.”

Traditional martial arts such as Tae Kwon Do have a reputation for offering something deeper than a sport. It’s often ill-defined, but words like discipline and respect are often used in pursuit of it. Just as Jim has drawn from other martial traditions to increase his student’s experience of training, he has also sought to broaden its philosophical basis. James learned about the Japanese principle of Satori during his studies of Zen.

“I was looking for a way to improve my students’ training in the time they spent with me. Satori is the art of freeing the mind of distractions, giving pure attention to the present moment on the floor and living ‘in the now’ with each training session.”

Caspian Smith agrees.

“Satori is a powerful way to express what we experience with Jim. Being able to achieve that state of presence gives you an amazing sense of wellness.”

In the course of Jim’s journey, he has also traveled extensively. In 1986, he travelled with his then-instructor John Callegari to Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan and Japan to experience the martial arts within their cultural context. While in Seoul, Korea, Jim graded for his fourth Dan black belt. The experience made him consider the quality of training he’d enjoyed back in Australia.

“They weren’t as tough as us!”

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That said, Jim’s most significant challenge came when he assisted Grand Master Lee Harnos in a series of demonstrations at the Sydney Entertainment Center. Harnos suspended five concrete blocks weighing a total of forty kilograms from steel pins inserted into his forearms. Jim was charged with the responsibility of breaking each with a reverse knife-hand strike, without tearing the Grand Master’s arms apart.

“I performed this demo three times over four years with Lee, knowing that each time I could possibly break my hand (and I did). Watching Lee insert the steel into his arms, then looking at me and smiling, lifted my commitment and courage. He showed me anything is possible when you commit your mind to it.”

The word ‘odyssey’ is another word for a long journey, characterized by many changes of direction and reversals of fortune. People that have committed to such a journey don’t view changes of course a waste of time; rather, it’s the way in which they discover new lands.

Through the inclusion of other styles and even philosophies from different martial systems, Jim has forged a modern style in the mold of a traditional martial art. And while it is something anyone can come to and use to search for their own experience, it is Jim’s personal understanding that has created the enduring bond he enjoys with his students.

“Teaching martial arts is the person I am. I’ve been teaching since I was nineteen and now, I’m fifty-seven. It never ceases to amaze me when a student or black belt recognizes in themselves an improvement, and that sense of accomplishment they feel when they finally nail those skills that have been eluding them.

“Life itself throws up many challenges,” he continues. “Martial arts have been the one constant in my life that gives me balance and purpose; it is my strength. Every day I shed my daily skin and put on my ‘gi; I want to teach and perform at my best. I enjoy that challenge. It inspires me and adds to my hunger to be a better martial artist.”

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