Part 1 of a two-part discussion

Try this: have a friend (not another karate person- we’re often too conditioned by training to attack/respond honestly) grab hold of your arm and clamp down hard. Invite them to do so with as much determination to hold the grip as possible. Now try any of the wrist lock/release techniques common to many martial arts and self defense schools. If it doesn’t work the first time, relax and try it again, without telegraphing your intention to use the technique. Chances are your friend still has a good grip that you can’t completely break or reverse. Frustrated, you’ll probably try it again a few times, then faster, then with more power, until finally what gets your arm free looks very rough and not much like the aesthetic form we’ve come to expect of a Martial Art.

Change the attack to a standard “Karate” stepping punch to the face. Block or parry it however you choose. In public demonstrations and action movies, this is the moment that leads to a deft manipulation of the attacker’s wrist or elbow that instantly breaks the limb, initiates a lock or sends them flying across the room. The oi-tsuki arm is nice and extended straight in front of the attacker’s body- effecting a technique is fairly easy with everything so stretched out. No problem. Now move the range in closer so that the attacker’s punch becomes more of a hook that circles in from the side or below. Make sure that your friend keeps the arm tight. Does the same technique work? Remember, someone who is angry enough to attack you is probably going to be very tight, muscles clenched to keep the fist balled. They also will not stop after one blow. Is it working in less than the amount of time it would take for them to hit you again?

If you’re still game, get even closer. Let your friend charge in and shove into you like a football player, punching from wherever they happen to be in the movement. Can you get anything even remotely close to the technique to happen when the attacker is moving through your space and not stopping after the punch? Get your pal to throw more punches after the initial attack. Now it all becomes a bit more hurried and fine motor skills are harder to utilize, especially when not getting hit means throwing up some blocks (gross motor movements) with speed. If the attacks are starting to look less like Karate and more like a street brawl, your friend is doing a fine job. If you’re still responding with an effort to execute textbook karate techniques, you likely aren’t doing so well.

You may be able to make the technique work in all of these situations, and if so, congratulations on developing such a high degree of skill. But it’s more likely that the technique failed as more of these variables were added and less of the standard “Karate” aesthetic was present in the attack. Try the experiments above with all of the escapes and manipulations you’ve trained in, and a pattern will likely start to emerge: they don’t often work like they’re “supposed to” against someone who’s never trained. Odds are that someone who might attack you for real has never trained. The technique that works so well against oi-tsuki or the overhead “Psycho” stab implodes against the rougher, more realistic style of continuous hitting.

This line of thinking is inspired, in part, by some experiences with shirtless Randori and sparring. It’s summer time here in the South, and that means anyone not in A/C is covered in a slick sheen of sweat all day long. Even grabbing and holding onto someone’s shoulders becomes a challenge. Fine manipulations of the wrist are out of the question when the attacker can slip around easily in your grip, neutralizing any torque you can get. A large and very strong person might have no problem- but are all of us large and very strong? Are we always at the top of our game, relaxed, rested, and alert? Here is where the line about training a technique to the point that it becomes automatic usually gets trotted out. However, learning a technique to the point of “muscle memory” is a liability if the technique will not work under stressful conditions. Judo people tend to be better at translating their manipulation techniques to a resisting person than Aikido or many karate people; they involve a series of gross motor manipulations, rather than a series of fine ones.

In looking at the wrist manipulation techniques that are in the common vocabulary of martial artists, our tendency is to treat them as discrete actions that address an attack. In training they occur as suffixes to an attack that often feeds right into them- for example, the straight arm oi-tsuki. Pull action A out of kata B to address karate attack C. Many “traditional karate” groups seem to be leaning more heavily on this aesthetic crutch, perhaps in response to the wave of skepticism brought about by the now popular, rough and ready UFC fights. By doing more “traditional” karate, that is, the “3 K’s” that beginners sweat through in strip malls and hombu dojo alike, the implication is that the art is being practiced in a pure form. But what of utility? What good is the perfect form if its functionality depends on an attacker’s compliance? And if the pure Karate form requires an adjunct “self defense” training component to teach defensive skills, what is the point in training in karate at all?

In the case of the wrist release/lock, the definition of the technique has become defined more by aesthetic markers than outcomes, for example: execute technique A to throw the attacker; instead of: execute technique A then/and throw the attacker.
There are several skills that, when included in the definitions of the techniques, make them work more reliably. They can be grouped into a few broadly generic categories:

-Raw strength: functional strength that adheres to/controls an attacking limb

-Shock factor: striking to create pain/surprise/openings

-Anatomical exploitation: moving with the construction of the joint instead of working against it

In part two, we’ll examine a specific wrist release/lock technique more closely, and explore some alternatives that move away from the aesthetic concern to more reliably achieve the same goal of functionality.