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Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture
something like a tactical "decision stick" for self-defense oriented kata application

I think I learned about the "decision stick" concept from Rory Miller and Kris Wilder, at any rate the idea is that instead of  a decision tree with multiple choices, you have a "stick" that goes in one direction, simple, minimal higher brain function required.

I realized that my decision stick for Kata application works like this, and goes in either direction depending on need, and what we are forced to do, with each successive range/environment being less desirable (although arguably neccessary to know) for self-defense as you get down the stick.

pre emptive striking/ usually free movement range > flinch reaction/cover to "husband and wife hand" striking with tactile information <> "clinch" range striking <> vertical grappling/imblance/throw/knockdown  <> groundwork with the purpose of regaining feet.

You can do this same mapping for any art, for instance if it were Judo it might be grips>entry>nage>newaza>shime waza>osaekomi  etc. Although maybe that shows my limited time in Judo, you get the idea.

I try to apply this in my study and practice of application in the sense that something like a "clinch" range bunkai - willingly tying up with and opponent in something akin to a Thai/wrestling clinch etc. is a place I don't want to be unless I must, so it is down the "stick" from the previous choices - a product of neccessity, not choice. This seems to help conextualize what is a primary application vs. a secondary one both in terms of putting together a curriculum, as well as making sure that strategy dictates tactics when pressure testing. I could squeeze locks and holds in here, but for me they are not primary applications, are low percentage and are applied opportunistically in the clinch and vertical grappling range, they can lead to ground technique but I personally think joint locks (especially) on the ground serve very little purpose in self defense, though it's good to have working knowledge of them of course.

Kenneth Poulsen
Kenneth Poulsen's picture

Greetings Zach Zinn,

I use something similar, when I am working on my quest to hopefully re-discover some more of the "Busy hands" versions of the close quarter Release techniques from the Katas as well.

My decision stick is a little bit different though. For me it is strictly Release-techniques, used "When in a conflict, and an opponent has grabbed on to my clothes or body". But the concept of using a decision stick to structure and map different groups of techniques seems exactly the same - and my best guess is, that this is actually an old concept - I seem to recognize a decision stick being described in the 10 Precepts from Itosu Anko Sensei?

I actually use it to a degree, where I say out loud the "step"in the decision stick I am about to do, before I do it - just to remember the next step, and making sure I do all the actions contained in that single step. Otherwise it is all to easy to "skip" a technique within a step, this leads to bad form :).

I also use it if I have some techniques in a Kata, whose old meaning eludes me. Then I find the Finishing step of the previous string, and the next technique must be an Entering Step. I can often locate the Finishing technique, and then I can work backwards from there through the steps. Great fun and a huge challenge! (Same principle when I do Re-engineering or Analyzing of bugs in large IT-Systems in my Day-to-Day job). 

My observation is also, that almost all of the Older katas use the Entering step as their starting point (Yoi stance).

For the Heian Katas it would always be: Enter->Connect->Counter->Release->(Re-Counter/Move)->Finish/Seize

For the older katas (ie. Bassai dai, Jion, Enpi, Kankudai etc.) it would mostly be: Enter->Release->Counter->(Move)->Finish/Seize.

Here is a very short explanation of what the different steps means to me:


• Get a grip on the opponents wrist and/or elbow, depending on the technique.


•Ground yourself, and connect to his structure. This is always the case in the Heian katas, not so much in the older katas, where it is more a case of brute force and speed directly into the Release, continued from the Entering step.


• Moving yourself and/or your opponent, so he can not attack you with his free hand (Dangerous shoulder concept). Includes "de-structuring" him, and remove his balance and grounding as well, often get him to "walk on glass/Tip-toe'ing/Keep him steady at the point right before he falls over" (I seem to have seen a Japanese expression for this - just forgot where and what it was?). Also seen sometimes in this step is techniques to get space between you and your opponent - often expressed by lifting the knee to create that space.


• Release his grip on you - still maintaing your grip on his wrist and elbow. (One common "rule" for these Release techniques is, that once you have a grip on his wrists/elbows, you do not let go before the finishing technique is done. There are "transferring" techniques done though, but normally it is a NoGo to release the controld you have over him by releasing your grip).


• Often the release technique leaves your grip on your opponents arm without joint-pressure. He is de-structured and out of balance at this time though, but you still need to re-apply some sort of joint-pressure pretty fast. Included here is also techniques for moving your or your opponent, and thereby getting him in position for the finishing technique.


• The old techniques did not leave you without "a safe way out" of the conflict, so there are always Finishing techniques included. These are mostly Throws and Locks.

I am not sure if you have discovered this little "gem" in your Descision stick yet:

• Once you get it "under your skin", you can actually start replacing steps from one "string" of techniques, with steps from another? (ie. go from an Enter, Counter, Release, Re-counter string in Heian Sandan, to a harder Finishing technique from Bassai Dai, instead of a softer one from Heian Sandan?). 

(It is like you seem to recognize the "in between steps" positions from one string of steps to the other - and see, that there are many simularities, and you can therefore "jump between" those strings of steps? ... This I find is much better than to "just" learn a bunch of different release-techniques. And they are difficult enough to learn, so it is actually great to have a common structure/system in place!)

So in short - Yes, I use decision sticks all the time

Thank you for the expression and concept! I did not know the "name" of the technique I did, I just did it

Kind regards


Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Hi Kenneth, I think we probably just differ on the importance of locks and holds in Karate, which is all good. I have years of Jujutsu and some Judo, one thing that experience reinforced for me of is that in Karate locks and holds are not primary techniques. So, I know them and teach them but strategically I would differ on their importance in Kata, where I think they are at most a means to an ends, and are secondary to impact-based skills.

So to me the decision stick is just a way of contextualizing whatever Karate application while adhering to the correct strategy, not a collection of tactics or counters, it is not technique-specific, other than the fact that there is a natural adjustment at the different ranges.

So for instance, If I am teaching/working a takedown or throw from vertical grappling, it means that I have found myself involved in vertical grappling, which generally means my previous approaches failed. Again, another conclusion I came to from Judo and Jujutsu is that seeking to grapple is quite dangerous in a self defense situation (which does not mean we don't do it for fun or skill improvement, etc.), so Karate kata-wise for me it is a thing of neccessity and opportunity, but not something I am going to seek out.

Kenneth Poulsen
Kenneth Poulsen's picture

Hi Zach, I totally agree on locks and throws being secondary, when we talk traditional "empty hand" karate from about the start of 1900 and onward, to the best of my limited historical knowledge of karate. 

I am on a sort of personal quest back in the history of some of the techniques from the katas though (at least that is what it seems to be for me - I have yet to find a way to get it confirmed), and here the decision stick seems to be a very helpfull tool when working with these techniques in the Katas.

I have not reached the point of actually pressure testing these old "strings of techniques" yet either - looking forward to that though! - and my immediate take would also be that there would/should be more effective techniques today. So this is purely an "archeological" quest for now. (A little like being facinated when finding a Flint-axe from the Stoneage, even though there are multiple tools today that are much more usefull!)

I am only looking at these release-techniques in their own frame currently - and I would have loved to upload a video of a Heian kata in its entirety using these old techniques, but I have not yet been able to find someone to work with on these old techniques. (Perhaps I can convince the Missus to participate, if I can do the techniques slow and only "hinting at", when there is a throw at the end? ... A little like I did on this Gedan uke from Heian Shodan last year? ... Something to consider).


Great concept on the Decision stick though - and one that I will make sure to continue to use :).

Kind regards


Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

I suppose to find these techniques on your own continuum of force, decision stick etc., you would have to figure out what the primary goal is in researching/practicing them. I also might suggest that a deep dive into Aikido or Jujutsu might open up all kinds of interesting avenues to learning about these techniques. Not practical in lockdown of course. I spent a fair amount of time on these in Jujutsu. It did not convince me of their efficacy in Karate - in fact I'm of the opinion they are historical pain compliance techniques for Law Enforcement -, but their study did open up some interesting biomechanical concepts anf teach me a lot about relaxation and subtlety.

For instance, in the above video you could possibly apply a nikkyo for the first part: 


and  possibly a sankyo variation when you collapse his arm: 


 Anyway, a youtube search would probably net you variations on both techniques that fit those movements, or can be made to.

If you decide to work these with your wife, warn her! Done properly techniques like this are about inducing compliance through pain, and people who have not done martial arts might find it a bit of a shock!

Kenneth Poulsen
Kenneth Poulsen's picture

Thanks Zach Zinn for the warning! The Wrist/Elbow techniques I try to show do use pain - but not in the same degree as some of the hand/wrist techniques you showed (thanks!) is my experience. The wrist/elbow is more about moving the opponent by using your body-strength/Back-pressure, and getting them unstructured and off balance with their side to you. 

The older techniques I have found so far are a different story though! ... Both the Missus and I got really surprised, when we tried the first movement in Bassai Dai using these principles - the older techniques have a tendency to "draw your opponent against you" as part of the Release-technique at the same time you ie. lift a knee aagainst a tender part on the body. Not a pleasent surprise - difficult to judge distance in these circumstances :-/ ... So I know (now!) that I have to be very carefull when applying any knees in these older techniques ;-).

I think I have to do 3 shots of each "conflict" in the katas - both the older ones, and the Heians. It would first be the "Shotokan" style (to show the version I am working from), then the "Busy hand style?" alone to show the similarities and differences in the movements and directions of the arms and body, and lastly with an opponent? 

If I am to do Heian Sandan, it would be 11 conflicts - and I would probably take a couple of conflicts from Enpi and one from Tekki Shodan to try and present the development in the techniques that I seem to see.

Hopefully I can find out what I need to bribe the missus with to do these shots with me :).

All the best,