The Trouble with Karate

The trouble with most traditional and classical martial arts is that they are taught one step at a time. Each skill is learned in isolation and then slowly added to the others. Hand techniques are first learned in static stances, and only later combined with footwork. Lower and upper body movement is learned separately. Even sparring is first introduced in one-step partner drills.

I agree with the methodology and trust the process. The “trouble,” however, is three-fold. First, many of those who train never get to the stage where they really put everything back together. Regardless of their rank, or years training, they never develop fluid, functional life-protection techniques that combine all these separate skills seamlessly. Many of them go on to teach others, unaware of this important missing aspect in their art.

Second is the trouble of perception. People on the outside looking in rarely see anything being practiced beyond the isolated drills and techniques. Armed with this information (or lack of information) they conclude that traditional martial arts are of no use for real self-defense. Instead, the opt for the modern fighting systems that place more focus on “fighting” in the ring. This approach seems more realistic despite the obvious need for rules and safety that can make it little better than a game.

The real problem with learning to fight by fighting, no matter how realistic the environment, is that it is very hard to add new or improved skills to your arsenal. Once the adrenalin starts pumping and the opponent starts swinging, you will gravitate to the skills you already have.They are the only things you can trust. You may make modest changes over time as you learn from various wins and losses but, each fight is different, so you never really repeat anything. The results in most fights between untrained fighters is predictable. The person who is most aggressive and most committed, overwhelms and dominates the opponent. End of story. This sounds a lot like dog fights. Dogs aren’t taught skills, they are taught aggression. That approach in humans might look something like the Jet Li clip below.

Traditional martial arts are designed to make you a better fighter than you are, through a slow and deliberate process of breaking down and improving every individual aspect of movement. Once these techniques have been re-engineered, they should be put back together into the sort of free-flowing movement that that works in a real fight. This is not easy, and it takes patience.

Lack of patience is the third and possibly biggest “trouble” that this approach to learning has to deal with. In the face of so many modern fighting systems, all screaming that they are the best, fastest and easiest to learn, us traditionalists have a tendency to start putting things together too quickly before we have really perfected the parts. Sadly, this means that when we are thrown in the ring, none of our skills can be trusted together and we end up back where we started, fighting like beginners. This is why one sees so little advanced technique in sparring. People learn it through kata, but never practice it to the point where it really works. When the fight begins, despite all the time they have spent training, they discard it completely.

So, if you, like me, believe in the step-by-step approach, I suggest an exercise this week that I find helpful. You don’t have to go back to doing each piece all by itself (although that never hurts) Instead, as you run through a kata, try and isolate one aspect that could be improved. It might be your breathing, your off-balance stance, your telegraphing of technique, or any of a thousand other things. As soon as you recognize one issue, focus on it to the exclusion of everything else. Keep doing the entire kata if you want, but don’t worry if the rest of it falls apart, or if you get moves wrong. As long as you stay focused on the selected issue, you have a chance of improving that part. Then you can move on to other parts. And there are always other parts…

The “trouble” with karate is that it takes time.


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