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The link below is a must-read for instructors of any fighting art or sport. Simply replace “soccer” with karate/Judo/MMA etc. and be leave your assumptions at the keyboard.  Of particular interest are “Myths 1-5,” which seem to be standard in the so-called traditional martial arts, yet are not shown to actually improve a learner’s ability to learn a skill and to parameterize (adapt to new/changing conditions) it as needed in relation to performance environments and action outcomes. In fact, common practices such as endless, detailed feedback, blocked repetition and authoritarian instructional styles actually degrade skill learning.

The floor is open for discussion…

Practice Instruction and Skill Acquisition in Soccer: Challenging Traditions

It is always a good exercise to take account of our motivations as karate teachers and practitioners. Why do we continue on, year after year, teaching and practicing karate? Yes there are a lot of easy, canned answers: cultivation of character, preserving the traditions of the past, to learn to be able to defend oneself, to confront our responses to violence, force of habit. I am sure I am leaving many out.

I don’t think most people scrutinize this carefully. For a variety of reasons, answering this requires us to consider who makes up the community of people to whom we are responsible towards. When the answer is ambiguous it becomes nearly impossible to understand the extent of our responsibilities, and thus what it is we should be doing. The ‘why’ question becomes easier to address when we are clear about what we are doing, and equally important, about what we are not/ should not be doing.

There are those who regard themselves as hard-core ‘traditionalists’ for whom preserving tradition seems to be the ultimate objective. To these people the most important obligation is to ones predecessors in these arts. Of course it is useful and proper to give credit where it is due. We have an obligation to make sure our historical claims are accurate, but that seems like the extent of our obligation to the dead.

Many times in the thirty-plus years I have been involved with martial arts, I have seen abusive and insensitive behavior justified by appeals to tradition.

As a younger black-belt level instructor, I remember struggling with ethical dilemmas that should not have been complicated, however, my judgment was clouded by the imagined relevance of some mumbo jumbo associated with tradition.

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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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During a recent conversation, Bob said practicing kata without having developed the prerequisite skills and attributes is like someone trying to appreciate a limerick who can’t even speak English.  I thought that was a wonderful way of explaining why the practice of kata usually doesn’t result in real fighting ability.  Most people can’t understand the meaning of the kata, because they don’t even know the words, so to speak.  A good deal of time must be spent on learning the fundamentals of the language, before we can appreciate poetry.

So, what are the fundamentals?  One way of looking at a martial art is that a small set of physical and mental attributes are required to develop a slightly larger set of skills.  Then, these skills form the basis of an even larger set of techniques. Each kata is meant to function as a mnemonic and includes a variety of techniques performed within an imagined strategic context.  Pretty high level stuff, huh?  You wouldn’t try teaching a small child to speak English by having them read Shakespeare, but a lot of karate people think they are learning to fight by practicing kata.  I disagree.

The attributes that make someone a good fighter are fairly obvious.  The training methods used to produce them are not.  At TKRI, Bob’s knowledge of modern sports science and corrective exercise principles informs everything we do.  Each class, we spend a lot of time stretching our ankles, hips, and shoulders.  Tight muscles can inhibit a joint’s range of motion and result in movement compensations.  If you can’t move, you can’t fight.  Also, we activate the core muscles by performing front and side planks.  These require us to stabilize the shoulder joint, too.  Strong core muscles allow us to effectively transfer momentum from the ground, through the waist, and out the arms.  If you can’t hold the plank position for at least 30 seconds, you shouldn’t be punching.  It’s as simple as that.

In addition to these foundational exercises, and others, we do a lot of balance and power training.  At the end of our last power cycle, I was able to catch and throw a six pound ball with one hand, while standing on a wobble board.  I felt pretty good about that.  And, squats emphasizing eccentric stabilization combined with agility ladder training have definitely put some extra bounce in my step.  These kinds of things are the attributes that will allow us to develop fighting skills.  No matter what you are trying to do to an opponent, your body will always be the delivery system.  Fighting is an athletic endeavor, and the same things that make someone a great football player, gymnast, or track and field star, also make you a better martial artist.  Think about it.  How much more confident would you be in your next sparring session, if you were put together like Bo Jackson was back in the day?

After a certain level of athleticism is achieved, you can just expect your body to respond the right way.  When you move your center, your feet will sort of automatically end up in the best position for whatever you’re doing.  But, in the beginning, an important mental attribute to develop is the awareness of your body, or kinesthetic sense.  If you are doing floor bridges and your hamstring on one side engages more than the glute, something’s wrong.  The most important thing is how a movement feels to you, not what it looks like.  If you are able to mimic your instructor’s kata moves exactly but don’t have the feeling of being “stacked,” then it’s no good.  Bob says we have to discover the best way to perform the techniques based on our own unique morphology.  You can’t do that, if you’re not “in tune” with your body.

The specific skills necessary to execute a technique properly are a little less obvious and will have to be the subject of a future article.  But, you get the point.  Kata practice can be an enjoyable and rich experience for someone who has already mastered the basics.  For someone just starting out, they are virtually useless as a training device.  There are much better ways to develop the fundamental attributes and skills required in fighting.  And, that’s what is special about Bob’s method.  He’s put together a system that introduces skills gradually through a series of exercises and drills.  You don’t have to start out being a super athlete.  An “average Joe” can get there by taking baby steps.  At TKRI, nobody gets left behind.  That’s what it’s all about.

There is an awful lot of talk regarding the power of the karate punch. I haven’t seen enough unbiased data regarding the force generated by karate punches to feel comfortable with any of the claims floating around. I have seen individuals who could hit heavy bags and makiwara with a surprising amount of force.  I had the opportunity to watch Harry Cook hit the makiwara at the TKRI dojo in Virginia recently, suffice it to say that I would not want to receive the full force of such a punch. Harry hits hard (to say the least). I think one key reason he is able to is because (apologies to Egami) he hits stuff, and he does it a lot. Put simply you need to hit stuff, a variety of stuff, in order to hit hard. Ideally you should be able to punch, kick, and strike stuff that stays put (like makiwara) and stuff that moves (bags, sagi makiwara, speed bags, etc) as frequently as you hit air. Unlike weaponed arts, karate strikes generally require a great deal of power in order to be effective. All that said I am uncomfortable with all of the “kill with one punch” rhetoric in karate. It results in the prioritization of power over other factors which are equally important to the effective use of karate in combat.

Some people may protest that this talk about one-punch kills is really just hyperbole, what is intended is really something like the injunction to train so that one may “stop an opponent with a single blow”. The expansion is important. There is world of difference between “punch” and “blow” and I am sympathetic to the idea that it is possible to knock out or seriously injure an opponent with a single blow. The problem lies in how difficult it is to get the chance to use such a blow, and whether it is wise to train oneself, or one’s students to rely on single blow strategies.

My experience is admittedly limited, but I have worked with boxers, full contact fighters, and traditional karateka. Boxers hit hard and fast (and unfortunately for me, often). I was always surprised by how quickly they exploited my smallest openings, and by how much damage their punches did. I love traditional karate, but I do not believe that the karate punch is intrinsically more powerful than a boxing punch (I doubt very many karateka could punch like the legendary Rocky Marcianno), Boxers tend to spend a great deal more time working set ups and combinations then karate people do, and I think most of us would do well to incorporate more of this sort of training. I suspect that factors other than power, especially strategic concerns, contributed to the form of the karate punch (these other factors will be the subject of a future posting). While it may be correct to regard all of this “ikken hissatsu”( kill with one-blow) talk as just designed to motivate students to practice. The degree to which it is entrenched in karate culture should prompt karate instructors to consider what effect it is likely to have on their students.

Dealing with real world attacks is likely to involve wading through a tangle of insults, environmental obstacles, and worries about the the threat to uninvolved innocents. One’s opponent’s most vulnerable targets will be partially, or fully shielded, or out of range. Opponents will move and roll with blows, reducing their effectiveness. It will be hard to find your footing, and the ground is likely to be slippery, uneven, sloped, or otherwise difficult. I doubt that the vast majority of black belt holders, even when the field is limited to the most legitimate and earnest of karate lineages, would be able to stop a fit, determined attacker with a single blow. Some lucky few may be able to land something like an elbow to the back of their opponents neck, or hit at just the right moment, at just the right angle, when one’s opponent is unprepared, and thereby settle things. It is more likely that you will find yourself scared as hell; you will notice a pronounced loss of fine motor control, your peripheral vision will deteriorate, and before things are over your limbs will feel like lead. It is also likely that you will find yourself on the ground fighting for your life, and that you will never have found an opportunity to throw your big finishing blow. It is extremely difficult to negotiate for an opportunity to fit a technique to a target when all hell is breaking loose. The effect a blow will have on an opponent is the result of many factors besides power. Karate instructors should give a great deal of consideration to how much emphasis they put on power in their classes.

I doubt there is an easy answer to this. If I am teaching a group of large, strong, athletic, and agile young adults I may emphasize powerful strikes and take downs. If I am teaching a group of bookish, non-athletic people I may emphasize something else, perhaps something like reality based, adrenal-stress drills. If I have a group of students who are in pretty good shape, but who have lighter frames, then I may be likely to spend a great deal of time focusing on shifting, combinations, and contingency drills. This requires a great deal of investment on the part of the instructor. It is hard, but it is important to keep in mind that the training the student receives could mean the difference between life and death for them in a real encounter.

Happy training.

"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


July 2020

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