How do you use your feet?
A few weeks back I was reading an excellent blog post on ‘Old School Karate’ by Garry Parker of Columbus Dojo. He’d made a personal list of the things he did that he considered as facets of ‘old school’ karate. Obviously such a list is very personal: you can ask one hundred excellent and experienced karateka to list ten things and I imagine that while you’ll get a number of answers that crop up again and again, you won’t get one hundred identical answers, and it might be arrogant to say that any one of those answers was ‘wrong’.
One thing that was mentioned in his article (which you can read here) was the importance of learning to use the feet in karate. How we use the feet has immense importance for not only the feet themselves, but also affects how efficiently and effectively we use the ankles, calves, thighs, hips, pelvis… you get the idea. If the feet aren’t being used correctly then your ability to move, hold position, apply or receive power effectively is compromised, and so is your karate.
I train in two karate systems, one of which trains barefoot and one that wears footwear. As such I am very aware of the differences and similarities between the two approaches. Whether you train barefoot or in footwear it is important to recognise that they do create different dynamics. As an example here are two video captures of me stepping at speed barefoot and in trainers. In both the stepping foot hovers just above the ground as I step, but (without my being consciously aware of it) in trainers my heel automatically touches the ground first (just as it does in normal walking), a different movement to the flatter ‘ball first’ barefoot landing, even though in both my toes are slightly raised and then grip on landing.
While the actions of the supporting foot may be almost identical in both, often the stepping or kicking foot has a different ‘feel’ or position in footwear. Personally I think it’s important to be aware of the dynamics of each if you are possibly thinking that you might need to use your karate in footwear.
The positioning and ‘working’ of the feet is obvious when you are barefoot (if you know what to look for or if it is being highlighted by the teacher). What is less obvious is that the same things you do when barefoot are equally important to use the feet effectively when you are in footwear. How the foot is moved and grips within the shoe, just as when barefoot, has a knock on effect on the rest of your biomechanics. In fact I would argue that although hidden, correct use of the foot is even more important when shod than barefoot because of the sole between the foot and the ground. Even in heavy trainers I am always aware of the type of surface I am on (I can feel it through the shoe), and my feet are always relaxing and tensing in different ways to allow purchase or mobility.
As to which is old school? Using the feet properly is old school. Whether you do so barefoot or shod depends on location, preference, and practicality.
There’s a lot of detail in the feet. Whether you are barefoot or wearing footwear to train, those details should not be neglected. If you want to get a grip on your training, get a grip on your feet.
Recently I found myself passing a few days under observation in the specialist surgery ward of one of the local hospitals due to an obstruction in my airway. While I was there one of the young nurses who had moved to the UK from Portugal came to talk to me about karate as she had seen my occupation on my notes and wanted to ask about training in Oxford. The problems the young lady faced were finding a club with a similar atmosphere and training regime to the Shotokan she had practiced in Portugal, and finding a way to train that could accommodate her varying shift patterns as a nurse.
I think both of these represent common issues for many martial artists, and in many respects her first ‘problem’ is probably more prevalent in the martial arts than in any other form of physical exercise.
The young nurse had trained to a 6 Kyu level in Shotokan in Portugal and was looking to continue in England. This should in theory not be a problem, after all Shotokan is one of the most popular and widespread karate systems in the world. The difficulty lay in finding the ‘right’ type of Shotokan.
I have trained with Shotokan karateka from eleven different associations in the UK that I know of, probably more besides at a few ‘big’ seminars back in the 1990s, and I’ve also been fortunate to train with American and European Shotokan karateka during my travels. Like any modern karateka of this age I’ve also been privileged to be able to see many more members of the same system (or indeed any system) share their training through video media on the internet. While there are many things that unite these karateka, it would also be fair to say that they are all different, in a myriad of subtle ways. A karate style so big and so widespread cannot be like a single set model of a car, absolutely standardized throughout the world (or even a single country). To continue the analogy, different ‘same style karate’ organisations have different interior trims, different in-car media platforms, different paint jobs, different brake and wheel types, different engine sizes running unleaded or diesel, and different fuel management settings programmed into the computer. There’s probably one that even has a Neil Diamond cassette tape in the glove compartment (you know who you are). Beneath all this they are still the same car, they are still ‘Shotokan’, but even then within different clubs in those associations the way you learn to drive that car (and how you are allowed to drive that car in class) will vary according to the instructor, as will whether different models are recognized as ‘the same’ and allowed to continue, or forced to change to their ‘default factory settings’.
It is a hard truth that every club (even within the same system) is going to be different. It is the sum not only of the style, but of the pedagogy of the instructor (team), the venue, and crucially the membership. The age and health diversity of the members, the mix of ages and sexes in class (or not), the aims of the students in training: all of these put yet another spin on the class. You cannot step into the same river twice: you have to accept that in training with someone else things will be different, but that different is not necessarily better or worse (for you) and the onus is on you to make the most of it. In moving from one area of the world to another it is rare that you will see something that looks ‘the same’ straight away, even in the same style of martial art: the important thing is to observe, choose something to try, and accept the potential offered by the change. As I have written in short blog posts about contact in training, six things you should do in your training and speed in training, variety and different training methods can all bring benefits.
Attending a new class can be daunting, whatever your grade, because those pesky belts can carry expectations. That can especially be true if work and family patterns mean that despite your enthusiasm and best intentions, actual attendance is irregular. The less you attend a class, or the larger the gap between lessons, the harder it can become to return. Self containing walls of comfort, fatigue and apathy are surprisingly easy to build.
Irregular training is the death knell of martial arts participation and progress, but it is not the same as infrequently attending class. As Gichin Funakoshi observed in his 20 precepts,
“Karate is like boiling water, if you do not heat it constantly, it will cool.”
- Not being able to get to class does not mean you cannot train.
- Not having the time to build a sweat doing karate (or any other martial art) does not mean you cannot train.
- Training is cumulative: regular short practices will maintain (and can improve) your technique (and flexibility, and concentration, and strength, and resolve to continue to attend class) if not your aerobic or anaerobic capacity.
- Short intensive bursts of non karate exercise for aerobic and anaerobic benefit can complement slow methodical karate training with results that are on a par with (or superior to) long ‘treadmill’ aerobic karate (or other martial arts) classes in a club.
Since I first began training in karate I have taken a rather literal leaf from Gichin Funakoshi’s precepts. I almost always do karate while I’m boiling the kettle, or if not boiling the kettle then while I’m keeping an eye on something that’s cooking.
This is an easy free time to train. I’ve trained in kitchens big enough to do entire forms, but actually all I really need is the space to stand in a stance and rotate my hips. Good quality training does not have to be complicated or require lots of space, or even lots of continuous time: repetition is the key. On the spot (whether for a minute or five or twenty between other little jobs) I can work on almost anything. Even if I can’t make someone else’s class, or set aside a full hour for training on my own at home, I can still manage anywhere from five to sixty minutes in a day in short stints if I really want, and it does all add up. This keeps the kettle boiling and the water hot. It is not a substitute for paired training or attending classes, but a complimentary way of maintaining and refining elements of your skillset so that when you do work with other people you get more from the experience.
Keeping training does not have to be hard if you take it one step at a time.
This debate comes up regularly on martial arts forums and such discussions tend to produce variations on a number of regular characters:
- The person who is convinced that whatever he or she does in class will work.
- The person who sees kicking as a low percentage strategy but advocates low kicks if kicks are used at all.
- The person who has used kicks ‘in real fights’ and therefore believes that they are a high percentage effective strategy, especially high kicks.
- The person who has used kicks in competitive fighting and therefore believes they can do so in self defence.
- The person who has no opinion but just wants information.
- The troll.
So who’s right?
When it comes to applying martial arts techniques in self defence, context and training methods determine the results. We get good at what we train for.
If you don’t train kicks regularly then the likelihood of being able to use them in a self defence situation decreases considerably. Whether you can use kicks bears no relation to what someone else has reputedly done in self defence or in the ring, it depends not only on how much you train them, but how you train them. If the opportunity to kick comes in the form of relative positioning and pressure that you are used to then you are likely to be able to employ that skillset. Everything comes down to how you train and to a large extent how many of the six things you should do in physical training for self defence are present in your approach.
Last year I put together a video showing all the kicks and attempted kicks used by participants from a range of different martial disciplines in my scenario training. The clips came from hundreds of simulations, but featured very few kicks indeed. This was in part due to the enclosed environment, but primarily because most people had no experience in trying to kick at that range under those conditions. Although we don’t kick in many of our regular drills, my students kicked the most because the environment and range was familiar. This video contains profanity from the start.
So can you kick in self defence?
Only you can decide that.
At some point in time almost everyone who exercises will sustain an injury that limits their ability to train in the martial arts. It may occur during training or randomly in daily life. Even those who are lucky enough to avoid breaks, sprains, strains, or hernias may catch a cold or flu, or have to miss training for a period of time due to a medical condition. Those who successfully avoid any of these hurdles may find that family or work commitments may also interfere with training. It is rare to find anyone who has trained for a sustained amount of time who hasn’t had something external happen that could have stopped them from training.
I’ve had my fair share of injuries over the time I’ve been training in the martial arts; I even started karate with a broken wrist in a fibreglass cast. I’ve also had two transplants since I began and a number of other operations, in addition to having permanent catheters that went into my abdominal cavity and also into my bloodstream for several months. I’ve also worked in jobs that consisted of shifts spread through both the evenings as well as the day and over thirteen days a fortnight. As a result I can empathise with people who have had to miss training for a few weeks.
It’s easy for a few weeks to become a longer period of time, or even never. The longer you stay away from training the harder that first step of going back can seem. It’s easy to find excuses not to go: that little muscle twinge, feeling tired, housekeeping that needs doing, that good program on the TV, or the simple appreciation of how comfortable the couch is. Training is always a little bit harder when you return after a period of absence, particularly if you have had to recover from a physical injury or operation. In some respects it is like being a beginner again, only your brain knows what you want to do and the body doesn’t comply, or the body complies but isn’t flexible or strong enough to do so without giving you considerable aches and pains the next day. Pain which your prior level of conditioning may have led you to forget.
Sometimes you have to bite the bullet, accept that it isn’t going to be easy, and make the effort. The longer you stay away the harder it will be. In the past I have trained with clubs as quickly as possible after major surgery because I knew that the longer I left it, the less likely it would be that I would return. I have also trained with tubes going into my body taped to the outside.
Good instructors are not monsters. They would rather see you training slowly at the side, and getting advice to assist your physical recuperation, than have you leave. If you aren’t ready or well enough to train, visiting and watching will help remind you of what made you stay before, and encourage you in your recovery.
Returning to training needn’t be torture, and the time you have spent away from training needn’t be detrimental. Stepping back a bit, watching others more, and working slowly can even be better for your skill development than the classes you missed.
To help you ease back into training, don’t expect everything to be perfect straight away. Your objectives should be SMART, that is: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Rewarding and Time limited. Don’t be disheartened if you have to be flexible with them, the important thing is to keep working, it simply means that you over-estimated how achievable something was in the timeframe you set.
Getting back up after being knocked down isn’t easy. Going back to train isn’t easy. But if you are able to bite the bullet and try, you may find you can do more than you thought possible.
There are lots of different ways to train in the martial arts. Different systems and indeed different teachers will weight their training along diverging lines according to their training aims, the student to coach ratio and the type of students they have. No matter how long we train, whichever way we turn, the roots of our progress lie in our attention to basic principles and the level of our understanding as to why we train in the manner we do. After writing a blog post on the subject of speed in training (here) I was asked about my thoughts on the relative merits of solo training, paired drilling and live sparring. All of these are useful forms of training, but in the majority of martial arts a focus on one alone will not develop as skilled or able a practitioner as the appropriate use of all three. The knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of each method should be understood.
Solo training can take many different forms. In this instance I am referring to training away from class or training partners rather than drilling techniques ‘solo’ in class. With this in mind the training can involve making contact on a striking surface, with all the benefits I described here, or nothing more than yourself and an empty space in which you can move. There are considerable benefits to training impact techniques solo against a bag, in particular the ability to go at your own pace and focus on elements in isolation, and not having one person neglecting their skillset by holding a pad (though being the pad holder can develop other useful skills – of which more later). Solo training is extremely valuable, and I would be the first to say that of all my training hours at least 70% have been solo, but it should never be seen as a replacement for any form of paired training, rather a complement to it. A practitioner needs to already have a good skill level to gain anywhere near the same amount of benefit from solo training as from paired training.
Correct biomechanics – ‘perfect practice’
Facilitates injury recovery
Allows more time for high quality visualisation during techniques or drills
Means of maintaining or refining skill without a training partner
Can improve power generation and striking technique without ‘wasting’ a training partner’s time
Can improve applied strength and balance
No external pressure
Very little feedback / resistance (in non impact work)
Limited value for techniques that rely on tactile feel (such as grappling) unless practitioner is extremely advanced and can utilize their memory to enhance rehearsal
Does not work reaction time
Limited value for training appropriate timing
Danger of rehearsing and ingraining poor technique, particularly in new students
Paired drilling is the form of training that makes up the majority of the classes that I teach. It can take the form of trainees attacking each other with pre-set techniques and defending with previously learned drills (with varying degrees of flexibility on either side according to speed and experience) or practicing power generation against partner-held moving or static pads, or even against an armoured partner, the benefit of which I have discussed previously here. The training can be done at a variety of different speeds depending on the desired outcome and format of the class. Depending on the system being trained, paired training can bring disadvantages as well as advantages. As an example, in self defence orientated systems students may often spend time drilling a less desirable technique such as a telegraphed haymaker for their partner rather than a less telegraphed pre-emptive straight palm strike or jab to the head, though a skilled coach can find ways to mitigate this. While a person is holding and moving pads for their partner to hit they are obviously not working their physical skills, which can be seen as a disadvantage, so it should be stressed that in doing so they are working their strength and stamina, often practicing maintaining their guard, developing a combative mind-set by standing fast against their partner’s attacks, and learning more about how both to use a technique and defend against it by observing their partner’s telegraphs and overall biomechanics.
Immediate feedback – pad work / pre-arranged combative drills
Controlled predictability allowing for technique learning, introspection, observation, coaching and refinement
Develops distancing and timing appropriate for the activity being trained
Excellent for developing reaction speed
Can improve both aerobic and anaerobic fitness
Can improve confidence
So long as students are not complacent can allow fast training with a high degree of safety
Often benefits one person’s physical technique more than another, especially in self defence training and pad work
Can be inappropriate for a student with injuries or medical problems
In theory live sparring may be what the majority of martial artists aspire to. If you are training for the competitive arena, or for self defence, the ability to execute techniques with precision at full speed under the pressure created by unpredictability is surely one of the most important aims of any trainee. There are many advantages of training this way, both psychological and physical.
Training unpredictably brings with it the danger of being hit – and the natural fear in many people of pain or injury. This in turn puts an element of pressure in the performance that cannot be matched in other forms of training (unless students are engaged in drilling where they have to be hit). Successful selection and performance of techniques under the conditions of live sparring builds real confidence appropriate to the arena being trained.
In physical terms, only unpredictable training can assess the accuracy of a student’s ability to read body movements and spot the telegraphs of techniques in time for threat avoidance, and put their reaction time and speed of movement to a real test – whether in attack or defence.
The disadvantages of live sparring are linked to its role within the training regime. When a person moves fast and are under pressure, or even if the live sparring is done slowly and they are simply having to improvise in reaction to an unexpected event, they tend to make mistakes: non optimal postures, over-extension, greater telegraphing, not enough torso or hip rotation to give a technique as much power as it could have. How well a person performs in live sparring is dependant upon a number of factors, but two very simple ones are:
- how familiar they are with working under those conditions,
- how skilled is their existing technique.
Regular live sparring will address the first factor, but spending too much time in live training is likely to be detrimental to the second, since the more you rehearse a technique sub optimally – the more likely you are to perform that way consistently: practice does not make perfect: only perfect practice makes perfect.
Only real test of practicable ability
Develops anaerobic fitness
Excellent for developing reaction speed
Develops distancing and timing appropriate for the activity being trained
Places students under psychological stress.
Over use will reinforce poor technique
Generally does not allow for refinement as fine motor skills will be inaccessible if placed under real pressure
Can only be sustained for short periods of time.
Just like judging a system by how many students it has, how many techniques it has or how fast they are training, something impressive and useful as live sparring can be a false indicator of the quality of training. A predominant focus on unpredictable training does not necessarily develop skilled students, and while a lot of paired drilling or solo training may be less visually impressive, it can not only be technically and physically demanding, but also be a reliable way to develop a high level of skill. Too much of any type of training has the potential to be detrimental. Ideally training should be balanced, with different emphases on different methods according to the health and level of the student, but both students and coaches should know what they are aiming to achieve with each training method when they do employ it.