NGAExperience® Nihon Goshin Aikido

An Interview with John Carter

27 February 2014

Sensei John Carter has the distinction of operating one of, if not, the largest Nihon Goshin Aikido dojos in existence.  With an average class attendance of 16-20 students per night, the growth of his dojo has allowed him to devote himself to the proliferation of the art full time for the last 14 years.  



NGA Experience:  How did you get into Nihon Goshin Aikido?


John Carter:  “I was 14 years old and was very active in athletics (mainly baseball and swim team).  I was looking to add another physical activity to my routine.  It was 1986 (the summer before I started 9th grade) and I thought it would be nice to have some self-defense skills before starting high school.  


Also, the Karate Kid was a huge movie at the time and I felt Martial Arts would be a great addition to my life.  


Now there were only 3 main martial arts schools in my hometown (Spartanburg, SC) at the time.  My choices were A Karate School (with a Cobra Kai type Sensei), a "Take Your Dough" .... I mean Tae Kwon Do mega school, and finally Mr. Weber’s "Aikido Academy of Self-Defense."


It was a pretty easy decision.  I still remember sitting down at my kitchen table with my mom and dad and working out my training schedule.  I started in that summer in 1986 and have never looked back.



Many people (me included) have never had an opportunity to meet Mr. Weber.

What can you tell us about him?   


Mr. Weber is one of the best martial technicians I have trained with. He has extremely high standards when it comes to technique, and you can bet he held every last one of us to those standards.  Anyone who achieved their black belt under him will have exceptional technique. He is also one of just a few Nihon Goshin Aikido instructors to train in Japan.  He was sponsored by the late Toyoda Sensei and even trained at the Aikikai headquarters dojo.  


When I was a student, he was pretty strict with how he ran his dojo, and he could be very direct at times but he has definitely mellowed a great deal since I have known him.



How did you arrive at the point where you wanted to start your own dojo?


When I arrived in Columbia to attend USC (Go Gamecocks!) I visited virtually every dojo in town;  Aikido, Karate, Japanese Jiu-Jitsu and even Tae Kwon Do.  I didn’t find what I was looking for.  Basically, I was searching for three important things everyone should ask themselves when searching for a place to train.

1.  How effective is their technique?

2.  Is the learning environment safe and positive?

3.  Are the instructor and I a good fit?


At the time, I unfortunately could not answer all three questions with a “yes,” and I wasn't willing to compromise.


So, when I graduated USC in 12/96 I looked around decided that there was a need for an aikido dojo, and I had a black belt.  After checking with Mr. Bowe and Mr. Weber, I opened my first dojo in January 1997.



What are some of the challenges you had when you started up your dojo?


Starting a dojo from scratch is very challenging.  Finding a location, negotiating rent, purchasing mats & equipment,

committing to teaching days (while working full time and starting a family) and a long list of other responsibilities such as business licenses, websites, advertising, etc is

ongoing but well worth it!



How do you organize your classes?


I organize my classes into monthly training cycles.

Along with regular classical techniques and applications practice, I have further categorized the major areas of NGA into the following: Avoid the strike, special defense,

weapons, strikes, grappling, special drills.  For example a class might look like this:


1. Warm Up ~ 10 minutes

2. Special Focus Area 1: Avoid the strike/ Blending

~ 5 minutes

3. Classical Techniques & Applications ~ 20 minutes

4. Special Focus Area 2: (instructor choice: special defense, weapons, strikes, or grappling) ~ 15 minutes

5. Special Focus Area 3: Special Drill ~ 10 minutes.  


Of course I always assess the level of the class and adjust whenever it is needed.



What are some of your frustrations when teaching?


Student Attrition, but I would say it is not a frustration.  I feel more disappointed than anything when I see a student quit. I have seen what martial arts can do for so many people in so many way, but committing for the long haul is a stretch for so many students.


Inevitably many students get to a point where they think they have learned enough and lose interest, or they allow their lives to become "to busy" and then move on. When that decision is made, I know they just walked away from a life long journey, a magnificent challenge and a perpetual learning opportunity; but I have learned to accept it.



What are you learning as it relates to NGA right now? ?


For me NGA has always been about refining my technique.  Every time I demonstrate or teach a technique I am either learning a new detail, reinforcing the fundamentals of the technique or seeing things from a different perspective. Thus deepening my knowledge of the principles and mechanics of the art.  I also am also working on how to constantly improve how I teach and present the art.



What are your Pocket Technique (s), the ones that seem to always come out when you're under pressure?


Pull down from the rear, slap to the side of the head, and high bridge are my go to techniques.



Who are your prime teachers, or who would you call when you had an NGA specific question?


Steven Weber, Joe Beckham and Mike Bibb (1986 - 1991).


Since 1992, John Wyndham has been my NGA "Big Brother" and has been such a positive influence in many areas of NGA.  


Mr. Wyndham and I continue to collaborate often on many things related to technique, dojo administration, curriculum, policy, student management, and the future of Nihon Goshin Aikido.


I also want to mention a few other instructors from other arts that have helped me open up specific areas of my NGA.  Kyoshi Gary Shull has been a great Martial Arts mentor of mine whom I have trained off and on with since 2001 (Ryu Te Kempo).  Jack Walker introduced me to Gracie Jiu-Jitsu back in 2007, and I continue to train with him today.  Lastly, Rener and Ryron Gracie who I work with closely on my continuing education in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.



What are your NGA Specialities or perceived strengths?


My movement and blending.  I think it might also be said that my desire to improve would be a strength.  I have seen a lot of martial arts instructors (covering the entire martial arts galaxy) become complacent when it comes to personal training, personal fitness, healthy living, continuing their education, and improving their craft (teaching skills).  I make it my aim to “not” fall into that trap.



Can you discuss your current opinion on ukemi, and how you believe initially de-emphasizing it has increased your student body enrollment?


My opinion on ukemi is evolving as I am trying to answer the challenge of improving the falling skills of our intermediate and advanced students. Currently, what we are doing is looking at how aikido sensei from other styles teach it in order to give us more ideas and ways to present ukemi.


Furthermore, by "easing" our beginner students into ukemi (essentially giving them only what they need to learn and do the techniques ~ eg:  for yellow belt, a white belt only needs a side fall), I have seen a huge jump in my dojo’s student retention.


De-emphasizing the ukemi for new students has been one of my greatest student retention tools  to date, and I look forward to making our ukemi presentation to our advanced belts even better.



What are some other things that you have done that you believe have increased your student enrollment?


Well there are two things that have really added to our enrollment numbers.


First is the formal addition of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Combatives (taught every night at the dojo in addition to our regular Nihon Goshin Aikido classes).  Gracie Combatives has certainly increased our Nihon Goshin Aikido enrollment.


Many times students will enroll in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, but will then begin to attend aikido classes also ~ or vice versa.


In adding GJJ, we are not compromising NGA.  Like any NGA dojo, we teach the original 50 NGA Classical Techniques, with no deviations or modifications, and their limitless applications.  NGA is taught in our Nihon Goshin Aikido classes.  Gracie Combatives & Gracie Master Cycle material is taught in completely separate classes from our NGA classes.  We do not blend the two arts ~ from an instructional standpoint.


We also maintain a separate Gracie Jiu-Jitsu belt/ranking systems at our school, which I believe to be extremely important.  So when I’m teaching Gracie Jiu-jitsu, I’m wearing my Jiu-Jitsu gi, and my Gracie blue belt.  Likewise, the students are wearing their Gracie uniforms and Gracie belts.


Philosophically, I think these are complimentary systems.


NGA is one of the best stand up self defense systems on the planet, but (as with all aikido fighting systems) it lacks an adequate ground curriculum.  With the success of the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), and the spread in popularity of MMA in general, many martial artists, as well those in the general public, recognize the importance of a good ground game.  I think they feel a sense of well-roundedness when they train in both styles with us.


I have especially seen this appreciation with potential students. They are very excited to learn that can study Aikido and Jiu-Jitsu in the same building from the same instructor.  In this way, I can easily demonstrate how well the systems compliment one another.  In fact, I’d almost go as far as saying that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is Nihon Goshin Aikido on the ground.


I highly encourage all Aikido practitioners to gain some basic ground skills when it comes to self-defense.



What was the other addition you thought had added to student enrollment?


The Youth Curriculum has also led to major dojo growth. It is a basic set of 30 or so of the most common bullying attacks, and the most effective NGA responses.  I describe it to parents as "play-ground" self-defense. We begin training children in Nihon Goshin Aikido at age 4.  We break the kids up by age groups, and keep the classes fun, light and a bit playful.


It’s been very good for everyone, but it is quite different than the adult class.


In some ways, teaching a 4-year old aikido reminds me of teaching a little kid to play baseball.


If you’ve ever been to a 4 year old baseball game, you know what I’m talking about.  Their brand of baseball doesn’t look anything like what you’d see on a major league baseball diamond.  The ball is on a tee.  The kids all stop to watch an airplane fly over ~ while the ball is in play.  At any given moment, half the kids have a nearly uncontrollable desire to play in the dirt, etc.  That said, they’re playing their own version of the game ~ developing the foundational skills that will allow them to possibly one day play in the major leagues.  That’s the way I see my 4 year old class.



How many active students (adults and kids) do you currently have?


Well I am now responsible for two dojos.  The main dojo is in Lexington, SC and the new one, which Bryan Winfree and I just opened up, is in Irmo, SC.  If you include both locations, and our after school programs, we have about 150 active students.



Could you tell us about your teaching certificates which as I understand it, are designed to help/ assist new dojo operators by providing them with a "turn-key" dojo operational plan.


When I opened my dojo, I probably did what most people do, and that is to follow the model of my instructor.  It was a successful start.  As time went on I realized that I needed to adjust and adapt my teaching methods to fit my own personality and style of NGA.  More than simply how to best teach the art, I also explored how to better run my business, and I was able to make significant strides in these areas.


That said, when I became a certified Gracie Jiu-Jitsu instructor, I first hand experienced how the Gracie’s (a global organization) handled their instructor certifications and development.  From the time I was accepted into their instructor program until now as a level 2 Gracie Jiu-Jitsu instructor (about 3 years total) has been eye opening for me; even for an already successful dojo operator.


The Gracies have the promotion of their brand down to a science. In figuring out how to best spread their art across the globe, they have accounted for every possibility. While they are a huge organization and growing rapidly, they are not making any compromises in their instruction methods.


The process to gain my Gracie instructor certification was not easy, and they held all of us to unbelievably high standards. Let me tell you, they are not playing with the Gracie Brand!


The experience was a game changer from a “how to run your dojo” vantage point, and I immediately knew I had to change how my future NGA instructors would conduct themselves as they ran their own dojos.


I have used that personal experience with the Gracies to guide my NGA Teaching Certifications. Right now, I have one person who is certified to teach NGA and be affiliated with my academy (Bryan Winfree). Along with the instructor certification comes adult and youth curriculum guidelines, teaching methodologies, strategies, class management, continuing education, etc. It codifies the experiences I’ve had so that the new instructor, or dojo operator can avoid making all the mistakes I’ve made in the past, and begin to rapidly grow his dojo.


What are some training stories we might find interesting or funny?


Definitely the Florida Trips (for Ni-Dan testing), but maybe I will save those martial tales of lore for another interview.



Have you ever had a real life reason to use your NGA skills?


I had a couple of  "close calls" in college.  No punches were thrown, and the skills I used were not much more than strategic distance management, serious body language (projection of readiness, hands up, etc.), and some solid eye contact to make the other guy think about what he was going to do for a second ~ which allowed the moment to pass.

Sensei John Carter

Uke is Frank Purvis.

On Your Personal Strengths:

My movement and blending.  I think it might also be said that my desire to improve would be a strength.  


I have seen a lot of martial arts instructors (covering the entire martial arts galaxy) become complacent when it comes to personal training, personal fitness, healthy living, continuing their education, and improving their craft (teaching skills).  I make it my aim to “not” fall into that trap.



On Ukemi:

My opinion on ukemi is evolving as I am trying to answer the challenge of improving the falling skills of our intermediate and advanced students. Currently, what we are doing is looking at how aikido sensei from other styles teach it in order to give us more ideas and ways to present ukemi.


Furthermore, by "easing" our beginner students into ukemi (essentially giving them only what they need to learn and do the techniques ~ eg:  for yellow belt, a white belt only needs a side fall), I have seen a huge jump in my dojo’s student retention.


De-emphasizing the ukemi for new students has been one of my greatest student retention tools  to date, and I look forward to making our ukemi presentation to our advanced belts even better.



On Adding the Gracie Combatives Curriculum to the School’s Offerings:

Philosophically, I think these are complimentary systems.


NGA is one of the best stand up self defense systems on the planet, but (as with all aikido fighting systems) it lacks an adequate ground curriculum.  With the success of the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), and the spread in popularity of MMA in general, many martial artists, as well those in the general public, recognize the importance of a good ground game.  I think they feel a sense of well-roundedness when they train in both styles with us.


I have especially seen this appreciation with potential students. They are very excited to learn that can study Aikido and Jiu-Jitsu in the same building from the same instructor.  In this way, I can easily demonstrate how well the systems compliment one another.  In fact, I’d almost go as far as saying that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is Nihon Goshin Aikido on the ground.

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Sensei Carter Demonstrating a High Bridge Application

(Mugger’s grip ~ pulled back)

Uke is Billy Wright.  Picture courtesy of Will Robinson.

Students watching a demonstration at the dojo in Lexington, SC

(November 2013)

Sensei Carter (trademark clipboard in left hand ~ obscured) observing a Scissors Application in my attack line test for Shodan.

Picture courtesy of Will Robinson.

Lexington SC Dojo

Group Picture Time!

Sensei Carter Cleaning House at an Irmo Middle School Bully Proof Demonstration as Bryan Winfree looks on.  I’m the Uke. February 2014

TV Interview ~ February 2014

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