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The practice of martial arts has come to be diverse in terms of the wide range of  arts and schools available and in terms of the population that is involved. Physical fitness and talent may only be required to a small degree, or they may be paramount to success. Students may be dedicated about conditioning, or they may be “weekend-warriors” whose primary physical activity is a class.  An instructor may be qualified in a technical realm but not be a good source of information in others, such as the nature of violence. The need for Evidence Based Practice (EBP) is just as high as in any other vigorous physical activity, yet appeals to tradition, history and authority and “experts” often lead students and practitioners to accept dubious information or ignore new information, which can have consequences on a number of levels. For this discussion, the practice of the various martial arts can be divided into two realms: recreational (i.e., oriented at self defense, fitness, cultural, etc.) and competitive (amateur or professional competition). Most of this discussion will focus on the recreational realm.

An extreme example of a lack of critical thinking and evidence-based practice can be found in  the cult of personality that has developed around Ueshiba Morihei, founder of the Japanese art of Aikido.

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Find a psychology text book and look up the phrase “confirmation bias.” Be on the lookout for this tendency in every aspect of your training, especially if you think it can’t possibly relate to you or some enshrined martial art.

Kata and waza are both limited by themselves. They are useless until one learns how to apply them in context.”

Motobu Choki

I’ve been fascinated lately with the struggle to define what karate is, why it is or is not special among fighting arts, and specifically, what role kata play in all of this. A quick look around karate blogs and discussion forums makes it evident that more and more practitioners are looking for answers.

Some seem to content to lean on the dojo kun or Confucian-esque observation of customs and “correct behavior”, which implies that karate is not unlike the Boy Scouts. Often this comes with a distinct air of “if you don’t do it like this, you’re simply a heathen running around on the mats.” When other martial arts groups that use codes of conduct are pointed out, many traditional karate people act like wine critics and put on an air of superiority- even when the codes are worded the same as the dojo kun. So much for open-mindedness.

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If you’ve ever heard something like “we’ll do 500 punches/kicks to relax you- after your muscles are too tired to be involved, you’ll have pure technique” then you have heard some of the inaccurate training information that has plagued karate training for a while. It might make sense on the surface; relax those pesky prime movers and let my hips take over. Sensei says that muscle and strength won’t help me, only perfect technique.

Right. In the meantime, the damage that this sort of thing will cause to your joints, tissues and functional movement patterns will probably end up counter balancing any development that you may make. If the example above were so, why don’t we see professional American-style football coaches making their players do biceps curls and pushups to failure right before working on precision passing technique? This topic can get into some sophisticated concepts and jargon pretty quickly, but suffice to say, quality of practice and movement is more important than quantity- and focusing on quantity can sharply reduce quality.

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Our good friend Elmar tipped me to the link below, which deals with a reconsidered Western understanding of Chinese Medicine. It’s an interesting article, whatever your opinions on TCM may be.  But one paragraph in the first installment would work just as well if you replaced “Chinese medicine” with “karate.”

In the next article I’m going to give you an explanation for how Chinese medicine works that is not only historically accurate, but also consistent with the principles of anatomy and physiology as we understand them today. I’m also going to tell you how this blatant mischaracterization of Chinese medicine in the west came about.

Anyway, enjoy the article.

Chinese Medicine Demystified (Part I): A Case of Mistaken Identity

For a comparison between modern US Army and Marine Corps hand to hand techniques with those from the Renaissance and BCE periods, check out this highly interesting video


"Try to see yourself as you truly are and try to adopt what is meritorious in the work of others. As a karateka you will of course often watch others practice. When you do and you see strong points in the performance of others, try to incorporate them into your own technique. At the same time, if the trainee you are watching seems to be doing less than his best ask yourself whether you too may not be failing to practice with diligence. Each of us has good qualities and bad; the wise man seeks to emulate the good he perceives in others and avoid the bad."
Funakoshi Gichin

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