Practical Karate?

Practical Karate?

I’ve been thinking about the term “practical” and its relationship to the martial arts. What is practical karate and how is that different from standard karate? Shouldn’t all takes on karate be practical? What would be the point of “impractical karate”?

The Google online dictionary has “practical” defined as:

1, Suitable for a particular purpose

2, Likely to succeed or be effective in real circumstances

3, Concerned with the actual doing or use of something rather than with theory and ideas

I thought it would be useful to break those definitions down a little in order to get to the heart of what “practical karate” is.

1, Suitable for a particular purpose

From this first definition we can see that unless we define that “particular purpose” we can’t say whether something is suitable, and hence say whether it is practical or not. We talk about this a lot on this site. A method can never be divorced from the environment / context in which is it designed to operate. We also need to be aware that a given methodology cannot be moved in a “cut & paste” fashion to another context and be expected to function.

Figure 1: Effective methods become ineffective when context changes.

The common example is when people state that the methods of karate competition are “not practical”. However, the methods of karate competition are, by this definition, extremely practical when employed for the particular purpose of wining karate tournaments.

Practicality and purpose are always linked. The methods of karate competition are practical for competition. The methods used for self-protection are not practical for competition. If we don’t define the purpose, we can’t say what is practical and what is not.

It would be fair to say that most people use the word “practical” in relationship to self-protection, so that’s what I’ll go with here. We should, however, note that that is not automatically a given and that all things can be “practical” depending upon the purpose assigned to them. It’s also not enough to say the purpose is “self-protection” and leave it at that. We also need to define what that actually means and hence from there say whether the methods we are looking at are suitable and hence practical. That leads us to the next definition.

2, Likely to succeed or be effective in real circumstances

Because the purpose of training is often poorly defined, people think of self-protection as being the same as a no rules “street fight”. I see this as one of the most frequent errors when approaching self-protection: it is viewed as being one and the same as “fighting”. This is a big mistake!

Even when we put aside all the vitally important non-physical aspects of self-protection – such as threat awareness, personal security issues, knowledge of the law, etc – it should be noted that the physical side of self-protection is not the same as fighting. Unless we are clear about what is required, we can’t know if a given method is likely to succeed or not.

While there is some crossover, effective self-protection is not the same as fighting. The methods one would use to fight to the finish cannot be cut and pasted to self-protection. Fighting to the end is often not effective, can unnecessarily put you in vulnerable situations and can leave you on the wrong side of the law.

In self-protection the aim should always be to escape as soon as we can. To try to outfight multiple enemies is nowhere near as effective as escaping from those enemies. To continue to inflict damage when you could have fled can leave you open to attack from others, and may leave you on the wrong side of the law i.e. you will have to justify why you chose to remain on the scene and inflict damage when you could have escaped (could be construed as "taking revenge”).

Figure 2: Methods should be close-range with the emphasis being placed on escape.

Essentially for self-protection we need to be “fighting to flee” as opposed to “fighting to win”. It’s about “not losing” by escaping; as opposed to trying to win by fighting. Remember this when we look at the quotes from the past masters later on in this article.

We need to carefully examine what self-protection situations – commonly referred to as “real situations” – require and train accordingly. If we are talking about civilian self-protection then to be practical we need to avoid confusing fighting and self-protection and train accordingly (for both if you wish).

3, Concerned with the actual doing or use of something rather than with theory and ideas

Having clearly defined the purpose of training and what is needed to succeed in those circumstances, we then need to do it! Live practise is a must if we are to avoid being stuck in the world of untested theory.

Sound theory is important of course. In the scientific world a valid theory is something which has overwhelming evidence to support it. The theory of gravity can be said to be “just a theory” but that won’t stop you plummeting to the ground if you step off a roof top! We should avoid “baseless theories” and we see lots of those in the martial arts. And the best way to do that is to do as the scientists do and put all theories to the test!

Practical karate should have lots of live training that is as close to reality as safety and practicality will allow.

One of the great things about live training is that it heightens your “bulls##t filters”. When people make outlandish claims about the effectiveness of given methods (remember the untested theories discussed a moment ago) you know they won’t work because you have simulated experience of that environment. Precise striking, complex locks, pseudo-mystical methods, block and counter, etc, just don’t survive the testing process. The pointless “fat” that some approaches to the traditional arts have acquired is burned away in an instant through such training.

Live and realistic training also brings home the importance of context. If you try using one-on-one methods in a group situation you won’t last long. You quickly learn how the methods used need to fit the context of the situation faced; and you get good at instantaneously matching methods to context in a way that mono-context fighting training simply won’t develop.

Live training is also the only way to learn to effectively deal with the dynamic nature of the self-protection environment. While they are a useful part of the process, you can’t learn what is needed through set drills alone.

My proposal is therefore that practical karate needs the following to earn the title of “practical”:

A – The purpose of training needs to be clearly identified (identify the goal / define the problem).

B – The methods that most effectively address that purpose can then also be identified (identify what will lead to the goal / solve the problem).

C – Having identified those methods, they need to be drilled in a live way in a manner that as closely reflect reality as safety allows (enact the solution / methods for reaching the goal).

The masters of the past were very good at identifying the purpose of training. As a couple of examples:

“[Karate] is not intended to be used against a single assailant but instead as a way of avoiding injury by using the hands and feet should one by any chance be confronted by a villain or ruffian” – Anko Itosu (my translation of his 10 precepts).

The techniques of kata were never developed to be used against a professional fighter in an arena or on a battlefield, they are however most effective against someone who has no idea of the strategy being used to counter their aggressive behavior.” – Choki Motobu (from Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters by Shoshin Nagamine, translated by Patrick McCarthy).

From the above we can see that the karate of the past (the karate of the kata) was not for dealing with single assailants, professional fighters or trained warriors on a battlefield, but for “avoiding injury” when facing “villains and ruffians” who are not familiar with karate (i.e. civilian self-protection).

It’s also important to note here how Itosu uses the term “avoiding injury” as opposed to something like “winning the fight”. What is needed to succeed in a self-protection situation is again emphasised.

The problem is therefore clearly identified: self-protection in a civilian context.

The methods for dealing with that problem are also identified: the methods of the kata.

If we therefore drill those methods live, in what I call “kata based sparring”, then we certainly fulfil everything needed to be practical: and we can also claim to be traditional too.

Figure 3: Drilling live is vital. The Kata-Based-Sparring DVD / Download shows drills in which the methods learnt from the kata can be practised in a live and realistic context. Click HERE or on the image for more details.

Impractical karate would therefore be karate that has failed to clearly identify the purpose of training; that has therefore also failed to identify the most effective methods for any given purpose (i.e. one-step sparring methods, karateka vs, karateka “bunkai”, etc. being deemed relevant to self-protection); and does not drill live in a realistic way. Of course no one uses the term “impractical karate” but I would think many reading this would recognise the karate just described.

Being “practical” is therefore very straight forward it would seem. The key is simply to be “goal focused” and make effective use of what has been given to us by the past masters. This raises the question of why anyone would not be goal focused and why not all karate is practical, but I’ll leave that for another day. For now, I hope the article as got you thinking about some of the issues surrounding practical karate.