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Practical Karate Training: Planning, Composition and Testing by Carsten Schmitt

Practical Karate Training: Planning, Composition and Testing by Carsten Schmitt


You can find a lot of literature regarding Sport Training and Physiology. There are many books and scientific examinations about increasing performance for sport and competition. Especially Olympic disciplines or for example football where a lot of money is involved spend a lot of effort in research to achieve optimal results in competition. The motivation behind is to gain reputation, success in the business and earn money. Martial arts are also a business and worldwide there is quite significant money involved. Especially popular martial art competitions in Boxing, Kickboxing, Mixed Martial Arts and similar play a leading role. For those you can also find a lot of literature dealing with training methods to improve competitive performance. The sport federations have established sophisticated programs to develop coaches and provide trainers who are able to guide athletes to competitive success. Such programs can be found for martial arts as well. But all of them have one main goal – success in competition – whereas there is no competition in practical Karate. I’m holding a trainer license in the German Karate Federation and I’m asking myself how I can make use of what I have learned as a coach for competition in my practical Karate training. Meanwhile there is quite decent literature on the market regarding practical applications of techniques, Self-Defense, psychological aspects of combat and as well various forms of training. However - I feel a lack of literature regarding a systematic approach to built up training for practical Karate and Self-Protection. I try to look at sport methodology where I’m familiar with in order to find systematics which I can apply to plan, prepare and provide training in practical Karate. Moreover, I would like to share concepts I had most success in my years of training people in Karate. I hope my thoughts will be useful for any other trainer and can contribute to a discourse about the systematical development of students in practical Karate. 

Training in practical Karate

Any kind of training will be influenced by the goals you set and want to achieve in a certain timeframe. As we want to talk about training of practical Karate, we need to understand its goals first. When we want to make use of concepts from competition sport, we need to understand the difference in goals between competitive and practical Karate. The goal for competition is to show an optimum of performance at a certain time period. Competition goals like running a distance in as short as possible time, throwing a ball as far as possible, scoring more than the opponent or the other team, etc. are quite clear. They are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely) (1) and provide an excellent base for a training plan enabling to achieve motoric (condition and coordination), cognitive (tactics and rules), affective (dealing with emotions) and social (dealing with opponents and fellows) training goals (2). Setting SMART Targets for practical Karate is quite difficult. The main goal is to be able to protect yourself and others. This ability needs to be available at any time and you can hardly influence when it is required. Practical Karate is about dealing with non-consensus violence, while you can decide to take part in competitions and schedule them. Therefore, you can only train for a certain event but not for a specific time. It is also difficult to measure the results of training as there is no score or no speed, distance, time, etc. which you need to achieve. Performance in sports can be measured whereas performance in practical Karate can be hardly objectively judged. A quite subjective judgement is required to decide whether the targets of training have been met, because you cannot bring it to its potentially lethal end. The judgement can be either given by an outside person (the trainer or training partner) or by the student himself. The latter requires a mental readiness of the student to accept for example that the own technique might have not been as effective as the technique he took from the opponent. This means he needs to overcome the own Ego, otherwise he would not get the feedback required for growth. It is not like the clear feedback a sprinter gets from the clock, and that’s what we need to reflect in the forms we use and the targets we set for the training in practical Karate. For example, one goal I often set is that my students need to be able to go fluently through applications in drills with different orders. This is a hint whether they have understood the principles of the applications, whether they have automized them and whether they are able to apply them at different situations. Another target could be that they are able to use the applications in a free sparring round. The trainer must carefully select the tasks he gives to the students by setting the targets.

The targets drive the subjects you want to train. The content of training determines what needs to be done to meet the targets (3). It is the physical, psychological and intellectual substance a trainer tries to transfer and educate to the student and what the student catches from this process. In practical Karate the content of training is usually fixed in a syllabus. However, I have to say that I often go beyond the syllabus. I see it as a guideline but not a fix specification you are not allowed to deviate from. Without doing new things apart from your syllabus you wouldn’t progress anymore. The transfer of training contents happens by the orientating, motivating and regulating word of the trainer and the training exercises (3). You can distinguish between general and specific exercises (4). For practical Karate general abilities are as useful as for normal sports. It is good to have power, endurance, speed, coordination and flexibility. I strongly recommend making that part of your training. I see this, Karate techniques in line work or Kata and competitive Kumite as general training content. Whereas the applications and its drilling are specific for practical Karate.

Training methods show a planned way to transfer the training content and achieve training goals. Rory Miller sees four main methods to transfer information to students (5):

1. Teaching

2. Training

3. Conditioning

4. Playing

He emphasizes that it is the most important thing for you as a teacher that you know what you do, why and when.

Another concept I follow are Iain Abernethy’s four stages of practicing Kata (6). As a Karateka it is very normal to me to see Kata as a training form and base for training. But even if you don’t have kata in your martial art you usually have a kind of form to teach movements and techniques to your students. The forms might be complex. They are templates provided to the students in order to be copied, to learn the principles behind and make use of them. Rather than from the trainer’s point of view Abernethy guides from the student’s point of view systematically and gradually through four steps

1. Learning a form or template (Kata)

2. Learning the applications

3. Adapting and varying the applications

4. Gaining life experience

In order to be able to perform the applications free and without hesitation.

Combining the two approaches will give you the following matrix which shows a variety of training forms following the different methods.

Picture 1: Matrix of generic training methods and forms

There might be more forms. In fact, there should be no limit for creativity to develop new forms or make use of known forms for different purposes in order to improve the student’s abilities. For example, you could mix different forms – Kumite with changing and non-compliant partners, Kumite with compliant partner in a drill with clearly defined structure and content, etc. With combining in a free way, you can create all kind of exercises. Everything leading to progress should be considered if it does not cause any damage. The structure in the matrix can help to find and create new forms of training or to understand how and when to make use of it. It shows the trainer at what stage of his student’s learning he applies which method of transmitting the learning content to him.

As a last important thing we should not forget the means of training. Availability of places and equipment are very important to support the success of your training. Creativity is also very important here in order to use what is available. It’s not only about having a nice room and devices, punch bags, pads, etc. It’s also to use things from the environment to create realistic scenarios or to use a simple tool like a ball or a stick in order to get a certain result or training effect.

Training Plan

To develop a plan the trainer should know the abilities and the fitness of his students. This will define the starting point for their development. In competition sports you can make use of many diagnostical methods to find out. Performance prerequisites and behaviour are rated to prepare and train for competition (7). This helps to objectify and rate the capability and power of the student. In practical Karate we should investigate the general athletic capability for which we can utilize diagnostical methods described for competition sports as well. In addition, we need to validate the situational behaviour. This might be at least partially based on subjective judgement as described before. It is recommended to include such kind of checks during the training period to monitor the progress of the student. In practical Karate there is an obvious way for doing that - the grading. In your syllabus you should have defined the criteria the student should fulfil to come to a certain level. The reward is the coloured belt which provides a certain reputation. This is a very clever system which has been established and has become a very natural part of martial arts. Anyhow in addition to this you should also feed in checks for the student on his way to the next grading. That can help him to understand his progress and where he still needs to work on. Be creative with those little checks and make sure the feedback to the students is motivating.

When it comes to planning the training over a certain time period you will find different cycles in literature. Some define Macro and Micro Cycles (8) others include as well so called Meso Cycles 9). Micro Cycles are the smallest unit which built up the others. Usually a Micro Cycle contains some training sessions (between 1 and 2 hours each) and will be repeated in its basic structure and direction of action. It will be adapted according to the capability of the student to give him increasing training impulses. An example in practical Karate could be the capturing of a certain drill including kata applications over two to four training sessions. Depending on how often a group trains per week the Micro Cycle will extend over one or two weeks. A Meso Cycle could for example deal with learning a complete kata and its applications. It consists of several Micro Cycles and can last for several months. A Macro Cycle is built by several Meso Cycles and can expand over half a year, a year or even over more than a year. It needs to be ensured that the focus on the goals will be maintained and consequently followed. This might get tricky as you usually gather a lot of new ideas during the period you want to check and include in your training. For me it’s always difficult coming back from a seminar with a lot of new things in mind to keep concentrating on what I wanted to do with my group in the dojo. Sometimes it fits perfectly to my plan and can easily be embedded. Sometimes I try to find some extra time for the group to give them a special lesson. That can be an extra motivation and additional fun. In my dojo I try to have Macro Cycles of about half a year.

After the Christmas break people return and need to get fit again as they enjoyed good food and were a bit lazy. That’s why I usually start the year with basics (Heian / Pinan repetition) and a lot of fitness exercises. Then I try to deal with one or two more advanced kata and their applications which will be used to build up kata-based sparring, ground fighting, pad work etc. This will be concluded till summer break. After summer vacation the second Macro Cycle starts. Usually I try to do fighting, scenario training or cross training for the first few months in order to deal with another kata or two till the end of the year. Especially before Christmas I like to feed in some extra bonus contents which I learned on seminars in order to give a motivation for the group to keep fit during the break and come back motivated. Everybody has a different group, a different year structure, different weekly hours, training facilities, etc. But my experience is that structuring the training year and having a plan to follow helps to develop the students and the group. That’s why I recommend structuring your training according the circumstances you are in and develop a plan with a horizon of more than just the next training session. Experienced trainers might be able to have the plan in mind, but I would recommend putting the plan in a schedule where the time, content and goals are captured, and potential checks are included. The checks should be placed at the end of the Micro and Meso Cycles to be included in the plan. You also need to have the plan in case you must organize certain means or resources for training. Maybe you must purchase additional, specific pads or you must organize a location for scenario trainings. A clear training schedule will give you a hind by when you need to place the order for specific pads, to get in touch with someone to get access to an area, etc. Such events or key dates can be put into the plan as well.

Picture 2: Typical training schedule (Click HERE to see more clearly)

Training Session

The training session is the smallest element in your training schedule. Usually it lasts 1 to 2 hours and several sessions build up the Micro Cycle we learned to know above. In sports a training session should start with a warm-up and end with a cool-down mainly due to avoid injuries and to get ready for the training impulses10). You can do non-specific exercises or specific exercises for warm-up. Non-specific could be running, jumping, stretching, etc. I remember Iain Abernethy mentioning that he likes having fighting elements in warm-ups like for example his playing for grips. Or you could do some light punching or kicking randori with a partner. These are perfect examples of specific warm-up elements for practical Karate. Cool-down can be stretching elements again, meditations or especially for practical Karate a simple chat with your partner to give feedback and to calm down after an exhausting and maybe even emotional session. That tells everybody that everything is fine and can take out emotional heat. Another useful thing in my mind to prepare training sessions is the principle of the optimal loading sequence11). This tells the trainer in which order he should organize the training contents in order to achieve maximal results. Generally, you should train technical and tactical elements before condition in order to not be exhausted when the brain needs to work. That’s why I try to do new techniques or applications right after the warm-up, the repetition of technical and coordinative challenging exercises or drills before I come to exhausting fighting, power generation or pad work. The following table shows an example how to structure a training session and document it.

Picture 3: Plan for a training session

Performance Checks and Testing

As explained before diagnostics are very difficult, need creativeness and often subjective judgement when it comes to practical Karate. I believe the breaking tests everybody connects to Karate or other martial arts were introduced to measure and prove striking power. This is a very practical and obvious way to measure performance. However - it does not show how one would behave under attack in a self-defence situation. You need to find other ways to test your students and their capabilities obtained during their Karate training. Geoff Thompson`s ‘Animal Day’ provides excellent insight in testing martial arts for reality 12). As progress is required and no-one ever grows while staying comfortable 13) the tests need to get the students out of their comfort zones as well. One way of doing that is to include random elements into the tests in order to confront the students with unexpected situations. Part of the tests should also happen out of the Dojo the students are used to. Other places, other people and training ‘partners’, good actors, etc. should help simulating reality. That’s for what Ian Abernethy’s fourth step of learning ‘gaining live experience’ should prepare students for.

Even more important than exposing the students to random and realistic elements is to bring them to a point where they lost orientation, freeze or are close to submission. Overcoming this point and acting is a key for self-protection. If you were able in addition to act tactical and counter-attack effectively would be the cherry on the cake. Conditioning drills and anaerobic training can help to achieve that. You should foresee tests where the students reach their limits and need to go beyond. Be careful and don’t let it go too far but make sure that there is a challenge. It is not so much about doing it right it is more about still be able to do something.

Andi Kidd describes scenarios as the ultimate form of pressure testing your martial art and emphasizes the importance of debriefing and feedback 14). The ladder is key for the student to progress. Observations need to be shared with him in order to enable reflection about what happened. Realistic and constructive feedback is not easy to provide but will help to overcome the Ego and come to a more objective view instead of trusting only on the student’s perception. Andi Kidd’s recommendation to read Rory Miller’s ‘Training for sudden violence’ 15) should be considered. This book provides excellent advice how to create and run scenarios and on top practical methods and forms for training.


The tests described before can be very rough and should not be faced without proper preparation. Pressure needs to be gradually introduced into the training that the student learns to deal with it, avoid injuries and is still able to act effectively when pressure increases.  With a training plan fixed in a written schedule and following practical principles from sport and elsewhere the trainer can systematically develop the students towards achieving defined targets. On top of that the trainer needs to guide the students through the training sessions and provide constructive and motivating feedback. That can be very demanding for the trainer but is the best way to ensure progress in practical Karate.

Appendix: Bibliography and Quotations

1) First known from George T. Doran and Project Management: Doran, G. T. (1981): ‘There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives ‘. Management Review. 70 (11), pp. 35-36

2) Prof. Dr. Armin Kibele, Hans-Peter Konopka (2018): ‘Trainingslehre – Materialien SII’. Westermann, p. 10

3) Günter Schnabel, Hans-Dietrich Harre, Jürgen Krug (3. Auflage 2014): ‘Trainingslehre - Trainingswissenschaft’. Meyer & Meyer, p. 211

4) Prof. Dr. Armin Kibele, Hans-Peter Konopka (2018): ‘Trainingslehre – Materialien SII’. Westermann, p. 10

5) Rory Miller (2017): ‘Principles-Based Instruction for Self-Defense’. Wyrd Goat Press LLC, p. 55

6) Iain Abernethy Article: ‘The four stages of Kata practice’.\articles

7) Günter Schnabel, Hans-Dietrich Harre, Jürgen Krug (3. Auflage 2014): ‘Trainingslehre - Trainingswissenschaft’. Meyer & Meyer, p. 115

8) Prof. Dr. Armin Kibele, Hans-Peter Konopka (2018): ‘Trainingslehre – Materialien SII’. Westermann, p. 16 following

9) Günter Schnabel, Hans-Dietrich Harre, Jürgen Krug (3. Auflage 2014): ‘Trainingslehre - Trainingswissenschaft’. Meyer & Meyer, p. 246 following

10) Prof. Dr. Armin Kibele, Hans-Peter Konopka (2018): ‘Trainingslehre – Materialien SII’. Westermann, p. 132-134

11) Prof. Dr. Armin Kibele, Hans-Peter Konopka (2018): ‘Trainingslehre – Materialien SII’. Westermann, p. 14

12) Geoff Thompson (1995): ‘Animal Day – Pressure testing the martial arts’. Summersdale

13) Andi Kidd (2015): ‘From Shotokan to the street’. Self-published, p.147-149

14) Andi Kidd (2015): ‘From Shotokan to the street’. Self-published, p.153-162

15) Rory Miller (2016): ‘Training for sudden violence - 72 practical drills ‘. YMAA Publication Center, Inc.

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