In all of my books and videos there are deliberate differences between my kata and my paired application (oyo) that has resulted from my analysis (bunkai).
“Practicing a kata is one thing, engaging in a real fight is another.”
Gichin Funakoshi, Twenty Precepts
Karate kata are generally taught and trained as a solo platform. Through their stances they hint at suggested weight distribution and methods of movements that can support the upper and lower body techniques of which they are made, and indeed at the oyo (if any) of the form that its teacher had in mind from their own bunkai.
I say ‘if any’ because changes in kata may be made to obfuscate purpose, allow greater speed in transitional movement for aesthetic purposes, or provide a greater athletic challenge. Furthermore changes may come about through the copying of the movements of older karateka who have themselves changed their form to reflect how they wish to move and exercise their more mature bodies, or through ignorance of potential oyo or flaws in their approach.
This is not meant as a criticism of any one system; the onus is on all of us to examine what we do and ensure that in application we use the most appropriate posture rather than sticking with something higher or deeper as the case may be.
But whether moving slow or fast in the kata, there is a significant difference between executing controlled techniques into thin air compared with endeavouring to make maximum impact on a target, or moving against the resistance of another person while grappling. This is a subject about which I have written in greater detail in Volume Four of my Pinan Flow System series of books.
The postures and techniques found in the majority of movements in kata are not designed to exactly replicate the biomechanical structure for optimum application, but instead their purpose is varied and can be:
- to protect karateka from unbalancing, instability and injury by limiting the power of movement against no resistance,
- to balance the ‘hollow body’ that forms good biomechanical structure for striking and grappling with exercise that inverts that posture to ensure balanced muscle development for good health,
- to indicate either a single tactic or through generalisation (lack of specificity) give an altered movement that acts as a coat hanger reference point for multiple similar or overlapping tactics,
- to highlight a principal of movement on which a number of tactics are based,
- to provide an important physical exercise that underpins and strengthens the muscles required for many tactics.
In many kata there are straight rear leg postures or very high stances. These are not necessarily wrong, but a product of their context. A straight leg can be an exaggerated example of thrust, codified into ‘good form’ for aesthetic purposes and to limit forward momentum against thin air which risks injuring the knee joint. In similar vein, thin air fighting puts balance and weight bearing limits on power generation through the movement and positioning of the knee and hip.
Unlike the postures often utilised throughout the majority of kata, when grappling with a training partner, attacking, preparing to attack or bracing during an attack, the back should not be held at a perfect right angle to the ground.
No matter how good your stance or footwork, having an ‘upright’ or classically ‘arched’ back while resisting physical force from another person is biomechanically unsound. The greater the level of force you are resisting, the more necessary it is to brace appropriately to take the load so as not to place undue stress on your back or compromise your balance, so the greater the angle of your back (and depth of stance and thus angle of shin) required. There is a difference between lifting an object and exerting or resisting force along other planes of movement.
The postures of kata protect and develop the body in solo training. They are the other side of the coin that balances the effect of the postures of paired training. Karate is soft and hard, relaxation and tension, grappling and striking, slow and fast, expansion and contraction.
For health and flexibility, form cannot always mirror function. To provide greater depth of application from a limited sequence of movements, form cannot always mirror function.
The kata is a map, but the map is not the territory.
There is a difference between training (for development and/or testing of skills) and utilizing those skills outside of your training, whether in a competitive format, in scenario training or in an unsolicited violent situation.
What we do in training is a game. That is true whether you are competing in any of the top-level martial arts competitions or whether you are engaging in the most realistic self defence training possible. It may be a game focused on a very serious purpose, it may be incredibly tough, but it is a game nonetheless and it has rules and conventions in place to enable it to be played in a manner that not only allows for progressive skill development but also can be done safely. It is important that we all accept this in order to gain the maximum benefit from our training.
So what do I mean by ‘playing the game’?
When you train with someone else it is in your interests to ensure that they, like you, are developing their skill sets and improving. A training partner that cannot progress limits your potential because it means that the training you do with them will be limited and less fulfilling for both you and them.
It is obvious that there are times when you should resist your partners movements, and they yours, but doing so at the expense of learning or practicing the optimum biomechanics for a movement is not necessarily one of them. You have to play the game and increase resistance gradually. In similar vein being a completely limp training partner can be a step too far and again limit the development of the necessary skill sets, which is a waste of both people’s time. It is in your interests (both in terms of training safety and your own skill development) to have a skilled adaptable and alert training partner, and you bear a measure of responsibility for that as well as both your partner and the class instructor.
Training is a game for more than one person, and any drill – be it attacking, taking a throw, or holding a pad has as much educational value and potential for the receiver (observing patterns of movement, learning telegraphs, feeling for flaws or potential escapes, learning why a hold works to better employ or escape it, psychological conditioning) as it does for the one practicing.
Almost all my drills are games and they involve making pulled contact to elicit movement; as a result they require give and take. It’s important to know when to go with a drill or how to resist to allow someone to practice and refine a skill set and when to seize opportunities to turn the tables, to take an escape if the opportunity is there, to teach both parties about their strengths and weakness and keep themselves ‘on their toes’.
If I hit someone in training, but pull the contact, I expect that person to move as if they have been hit and simulate some degree of effect, whether that be the full effect (going down) or partial (turning the head or body, buckling the legs, or momentarily relaxing). If they don’t do this then my follow up response is nonsensical – my training partner is not playing the game, they aren’t giving me realistic stimuli and thus they are inhibiting the development of appropriate responses.
This is akin to a person holding pads for a head shot but putting all their force into their arm so it is as if the person’s head is a stone cliff face. Heads move. Certainly some people have such strong necks that their heads don’t move so much, but they are few and far between (and an experienced person might relax their neck with a shot to an alternative target first). For a person developing their head shots, and learning the biomechanics of power delivery, the game needs to be played. The pad needs to give, the resistance has to be measured. If you engaging in mobile pad training and you never let your training partner hit the pads, you aren’t doing anything for their confidence or skill development. You may think you are proving that you are faster but you’re actually proving something else about yourself.
Whenever you are training you need to keep in mind both context and purpose. What are you training for and what is the purpose of the exercise you are doing. It is a game. Playing to win every time is not necessarily a winning strategy.
To kick or not to kick, that is the question.
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 is familiar to you, 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.
A few years ago I put together a video showing all the kicks and attempted kicks used by participants from a range of different martial disciplines in my Sim Day scenario training. The clips came from hundreds of simulations, but featured very few kicks indeed (although knees were very successfully employed).
This was in part due to the enclosed environment, but primarily because most people had no experience in trying to kick at that range or under those conditions. Although we don’t kick in many of our regular drills, of the participants my personal karate students (and a very experienced LEO who is also a Ju Jutsu instructor) kicked the most because the environment and range was familiar.
Since then I have seen more kicks employed successfully because the kickers are returnees to the Sim Days and are not only more comfortable with the environment and range but have also made little tweaks to their own training based on the lessons from previous sessions.
So can you kick in self defence?
Only you and your training can decide that.
Disclaimer. This is an analogy. Like all analogies it generalises.
Kata, for most of us, is fixed. It is a set construct that we learn and rehearse. It does not vary very much. Over time different instructors have figuratively taken the same block of ice and carved away at some of the edges, added on smaller blocks, broken it down into lots of blocks and reassembled it in a different way, or taken chipped off elements from lots of different blocks to form a new block for others to replicate. In this manner we have lots of stylistic variations on the same kata and new kata have been created. Because it has been frozen (fixed) and joined in different places at different times its crystals are generally not aligned and it is filled with air bubbles; the block is opaque.
Training regularly is said to polish technique. Training regularly in a kata does indeed polish the structure, it polishes the surface of the ice. You get to know the contours and positions, you can form them in your minds eye and they become ingrained. Polishing the ice has value for understanding the shape of the form. But form is not the same as function. Form is a dance that teaches important positions, movements and develops strength and balance – a combative dance but a dance nonetheless. Polishing the ice brings the satisfaction of the development of those attributes, it takes a lot of effort and brings clarity to the surface, but as with a lot of ice the interior remains opaque and hidden. The dancer cannot utilise the form outside of the choreography; to deal with the unpredictable they are forced to utilise other methods. Their kumite and/or self defence bears no resemblance to their kata.
As a state of matter, ice is limited. It is strong, incredibly strong, but not adaptable. It can be cut to fit shapes, but then is limited to those shapes. It is limited to predictable fixed scenarios.
There is a welcome increase in the interest in learning the applications of kata in karate at present. This interest itself is nothing new, but I would argue that for many years the explanations given to students were so ridiculous and ill-informed that they drove away from karate those of a practical and independently minded nature who were not prepared to overlook the deficit and simply continue to develop the attributes gained by polishing ice.
More than ever it is possible for karateka to easily find videos and books on karate application, and while there is exceptionally good stuff out there, it still isn’t all that common and it is often surrounded by the bad and the ugly. Even amongst the good, I see a lot of demonstrated applications produced by well meaning people that I regard as ice. They have simply chopped up the kata into smaller blocks and arranged each for static attacks. There is no evidence of adaptability, there is no provision for failure, a way of moving between applications is not taught. They have simply created more blocks of cloudy ice. It is simply a smaller dance routine. They have the shape of the form but cannot see through its substance.
To get inside the kata you have to do more than break it into blocks. You have to heat it up through training. You have to work those blocks through unpredictable and dynamic training until they completely break down and merge together into one transparent mass of water. Good application is like water. It moves freely, it fills and exploits spaces, and it continuously adapts. The tiny air bubbles and ill aligned crystals that made the ice opaque disappear, and the meaning and potential become clear. Applications should be fluid, they should be adaptable, and we should be able to flow like water from one to the next, nor be limited to one kata.
Once we have our water, our kata becomes something different. A medium through which we swim in our paired or multiple person training. We benefit from and utilise its substance, but it no longer constrains us with the rigidity of blocks of ice. Having heated it this way through our training, we can allow it to cool in a controlled manner into ice for our solo practice, and because we can control how slowly it cools and freezes in layers, we control its opacity. It is ice to polish once more in solo practice, but now it is transparent, and now we can see through it.
Kata may be ice. But be like water my friend.
“In war it is all-important to gain and retain the initiative, to make the enemy conform to your action, to dance to your tune. When you are advancing, this normally follows; if you withdraw, it is neither so obvious nor so easy. Yet it is possible. There are three reasons for retreat: self-preservation, to save your force from destruction; pressure elsewhere which makes you accept loss of territory in one place to enable you to transfer troops to a more vital front; and, lastly, to draw the enemy into a situation so unfavourable to him that the initiative must pass to you.”
Field Marshal Viscount William Slim, Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945
Many tactics cross multiple fields. We can draw upon the experience and advice of successful military leaders and apply it not only to modern warfare and politics, but also to business decisions and even to competitive or consensual violence.
But does this apply to personal safety? Is there value here for the physical element of self protection, the aspect that is often termed self defence? While self defence has some overlaps with
- consensual violence (accepting a challenge to ‘a fight’ or engaging in physical violence when it could be safely avoided),
- competitive violence (such as UFC, Olympic TKD, WTF Karate etc.),
- or the use of armed or unarmed force by individuals in a professional civilian or military capacity (such as Security, Police or Infantry),
it is a different entity.
It is a simplification, but I like to think of self protection as to
AVOID, DETER, NEGATE and ESCAPE aggressive behaviours and violence.
Each of those has many facets. The final one, escape, is the physical one. Its aim is extrication – whether of myself or others. It’s a deliberately vague and permissive term in some respects, while being incredibly definite in others.
The aim is to escape. It is to remove myself (or others) from harm. That harm to me also includes possible repercussions from the use of violence. That is not something to think of at the time: that is something that is addressed beforehand in training methodology and the mentality fostered. This aim is one of self-preservation and it is one of strength. I give myself permission to do whatever I think is necessary to reasonably negate the threat as I honestly perceive it at the time.
Slim’s exhortation to “gain and retain the initiative” is one to which all good self protection instructors adhere. We see it in so many forms. It is keeping others in the OO of the OODA loop for example. The physical means to this will vary from person to person, from instructor to instructor, from system to system.
But how much of what Slim says here applies to self protection?
Retreating for self-preservation is wiser than seeking a battle you do not have to fight nor gain from winning. While you should not have to, choosing carefully where you go out, what route you walk or drive, or leaving an unfinished drink at a club or bar because of a bad vibe or argument; all these are common sense.
Accepting the loss of territory in one area to enable you to transfer troops to a more vital front?
This could be applied to the planning of property defence or burglary prevention situations where you choose to strengthen security/protection/cctv in one area at the expense of another, but this does not apply to most self defence situations.
It is the last item on Slim’s list that is the most interesting to me, and perhaps the most controversial. “To draw the enemy into a situation so unfavourable to him that the initiative must pass to you.”
This is something we see all the time in competitive and consensual violence. One or both participants trying to trick the other in order to gain and retain the initiative makes up a significant proportion of each event.
Does this apply to self defence?
How or when do you draw someone into making a mistake while retreating so you can escape if you are trying to avoid, deter or negate the threat in the first instance? This is different from pre-emption. Pre-emption is an aggressive defence selected when threat avoidance, deterrence and negation (negotiation) have failed. It may be disguised by innocuous body language, it may be set up by the trick of a gesture or a glance, but it is part of the advance that Slim describes, not a trick of retreat.
In non consensual violence, until aggression or violence occurs an interview process is still taking place. The target is threat assessed. In most instances if the target appears aware of the selection or exhibits body language or verbal indications that they will pose a risk of failure and potential harm/exposure to an aggressor, they are deselected in favour of searching for an alternative easier target.
Luring an attack by retreating to appearing weak through your body language is not a sound self defence strategy in the vast majority of cases.
Few attacks are certain until they commence, and once an attack does commence there is no certainty that by appearing weak beforehand it will be any less aggressive or successful. What criminally/violently inclined person thinks “I’m going to attack/approach this person differently/in-a-less-alert-manner because they don’t appear to be ready for me”? That is a competitive sparring perspective. In most cases a person that has selected a target is alert and watching for signs that things might go wrong.
A faked weak persona is not so likely to lull them into a false sense of security and vulnerability to counter attack as a confident persona is likely to deter them from attack in the first instance.
I am not a psychologist but I would wager that those undeterred from continuing by a strong front are not going to initiate in a manner that leads them to be successfully suckered by a fake weak front. It is a strategy that will have worked on occasion, but it is a poorer strategy than deterrence.
To sum up I return once more to the initial words of this quotation from Field Marshall Slim. “It is all-important to gain and retain the initiative, to make the enemy conform to your action, to dance to your tune.” This goes beyond the physicality of self defence and to the heart of self protection. Avoid, Deter. Negate.
Don’t share our secrets!
I’ve come across this refrain in the Traditional Karate Community a number of times.
It usually crops up when a person posts a video online where they demonstrate a drill they’ve been taught or a new thing they’ve worked out. Sooner or later somebody pops up and berates them for sharing a technique only taught to ‘advanced black belts’ in their system.
“Sharing trade secrets isn’t cool.”
“Have some respect.”
“Lots of people have had to work hard for years to gain access to that knowledge.”
The secret is: there aren’t any secrets.
Depending on the emphasis and technique weighting of different systems, one styles basics is another’s ‘advanced technique’. Something you might only cover as a black belt is something another student learns from Day One.
I’ll admit that there are nuances to movements and applications that are often not taught right away, but these are not secrets – they are there in plain sight and feel for those paying attention. Beyond that because they are often core to the approach of another art there are already numerous instructional videos and books out there in which they are set out.
Is this a bad thing? Are we putting dangerous knowledge in the hands of the irresponsible? Isn’t it best only to share these things with people we know and never publish books or videos?
My answer to this is no. I can show you a drill in a book in eight pictures and eight sentences. I can talk for twenty five minutes on video on the same drill and still not have covered every nuance or the underpinning rationale that explains what it is, how it works, and how to make it your own. Books and the videos are there to give you knowledge, ideas, and a framework for training; but only study and hours of practice will give you understanding and ability. The book or video, like the teacher, only shows or opens doors – it is the student that has to put in the effort to go through them.
There is only one secret, and it isn’t well kept. That secret is the arduous task of good observation, practice, analysis and repetition. That is what gives people ‘secrets’ and they don’t come easily.
I try to weight my physical classes according to the skills I believe my students are most likely to need.
We have a broad syllabus, we cover a lot of different things, but to do so I try to rely on a small number of interlocking drills and techniques that can be used in lots of different ways. The size of the toolbox is not what impresses me; I’m not impressed by high numbers of techniques, drills or kata: it is the versatility of a small carefully stocked toolbox and the user’s ability to skillfully use the best tool for the job that catches my attention.
This does mean that I have one or two drills that I try to teach almost every single training session, and I have a number of things I always do in my personal training.
A small number of my students welcome these like old friends, they are the rare perfectionists: they know that while they can do it, it could be done better.
A larger proportion sigh. They want to be doing the cool stuff. They want to be fighting on the ground, or breaking out of a control, or experiencing the challenge of running an unpredictable cascade failure through a series of drills against a resisting opponent trying to better them. The stuff I want them to do is boring – it’s the first thing they learned, they know it, and working a jab / cross (or similar) preemptively or in reaction against a pad is tiring, as is constantly dealing with head punches. They don’t want to sweat the small stuff.
If the ‘small stuff’ isn’t strong, isn’t biomechanically right, then the ‘big stuff’ will be weak. Beyond that if the small stuff isn’t as good as you can possibly make it, you’ll never need to go to the ‘big stuff’ because it will most likely be over when the ‘small stuff’ fails.
Working on the basics is not easy, whether you are training as a student or planning your class as an instructor.
Much is often made of the discipline of the martial arts, the self control it can develop. Often the focus of that is on turning up to train. That can be difficult, of course it can. I very much doubt there is a single martial artist who has reached a stage where they are teaching who does not have occasions when they really struggle to force themselves to do some personal training, where the fatigue and the aches and the call of the couch or the fridge are telling them ‘missing this session will be good for me’.
In my opinion a harder discipline than turning up is the discipline to rigorously focus on the basics, on your underpinning movements. Constantly exposing yourself to your weaknesses, tirelessly working to get the same thing better is physically and mentally punishing. The visible rewards and changes from each practice become so small that at times they are often barely perceptible. It’s not an easy task and it is not a solo task, and it is a never-ending task.
The advanced level, the ‘big stuff’ is not a new move, or a new form, it’s the same stuff we’ve always done, done with greater reliability, greater precision, greater efficiency and better timing. I’m working hard to get there. Are you?