My thoughts about Karate

I practiced Karate Shotokan for 2 years in the early eighties; I had a go at Wado Ryu in 1994 for less then a year and I then trained in many occasions with experts, dan level, of Goju Ryu, Shorin Ryu and Kyokushin kaikan.  I find it an interesting martial art(s) that brings, in most cases the whole Japanese (and Okinawan) tradition.

Description

I will generalise in this post Karate as a single martial art while I am aware and encourage the reader to find out the differences between the over 10 main styles that all share similar techniques but develop a variety of strategies and preferences for linear rather than circular movements, harder versus softer approach to attacks and blocks and so on.  Karate manifests itself with a broad variety of strikes using various parts of the hand, elbow, knee, and foot.  Hands can be used to strike with a closed fist to hit in a traditional punch with the knuckles, hammer fist or back fist; open hand can deliver the chop with the external edge, knife hand or poke with fingers, finishing with palm strikes.  A foot can hit with the ball in a front kick, the edge in a side kick and the hill in a rear kick.

A Karate class is usually regulated by a number of rituals like the initial salute, bowing toward the master and fellow students and kneeling in line while the master explains. The basic techniques, punches and kicks are usually taught first, together with the simpler stances and guards.  Other strikes and advanced stances and position come later, at higher ranks.

When training Karate practitioners become aware of the famous 3 K:

  • Kata, representing forms: they are sets of choreographed moves, to be practiced solo, simulating a fight against a number of opponents.
  • Kihon, representing technical training: when two people are practicing various techniques attacking and defending each other.
  • Kumite, representing fighting: when two opponents are facing each other and freely attack and defend each other in a competitive way. Rules about Kumite vary between styles: in some cases it’s bases on point sparring, with numerous limitations about areas that can be hit (e.g. no legs or back) while in other cases it’s free, full contact.

History

Karate (that in Japanese translates as empty hand, with the mean of fighting without a weapon) is a traditional martial art that originated during the 19th century in Okinawa when it was independent from the rest of Japan and it later spread across Japan.  While some influence of Chinese martial arts is found in the very early stages of its development the various styles of Karate developed independently in Japan and Okinawa.  Karate started to have a significant presence in the West after WWII and gained great popularity after the big wave of Hong Kong movies that were shown in cinema theatres in the early seventies.  The Kung Fu shown in most of these movies was similar enough, to untrained eyes, to stimulate and encourage many people to start learning and practicing Karate.

What I like about Karate

Karate, like many martial arts, teaches and improves coordination, body awareness, and increases fitness helping to delivery faster and powerful techniques.  With an average practice of 2-4 hours per week it keeps the practitioner in good shape and it can avoid the need for gym or other sport activities.  The continuous training helps to ensure a good harmony between mind and body that can be utilized outside the Dojo (the venue where a Japanese martial art is practiced).  Karate teaches essentially 3 good things:

  • How to have snapping, explosive, techniques that can hit at the required and wanted level of power.
  • Great control of one’s body at speed: you learn to have good coordination and how to hold your body in very precise positions.
  • Devotion and respect for the master and fellow students: it instils discipline and rigour in practice and in life.

What I don’t like about Karate

In my experience Karate has 4 main limitations:

  • The basic concept of guard is very open, offering a large percentage of the practitioner body a face available to the opponent’s attacks.
  • Most karate styles rely on very strong, decisive, strikes assuming that a single kick or punch will stop the opponent.  Bad news starts when this doesn’t happen.
  • It’s not very effective in pure self defence terms: most of the practice makes lot of assumptions that are simply not true and when a random attacker hits you.  I know of many experts of Karate that were seriously injured in street brawls.
  • Some of its training can bring long term damages to joints and limbs: I feel that some of the practices failed to evolve into the latest discoveries in terms of physiology and sport sciences.

Conclusions

I am convinced that the basics of Karate are useful as a general concept.  I would suggest it as excellent first martial arts, especially for children and young people because of the discipline and respects it instils.  Classes for children as usually very well controlled in order to keep the practice safe for young people.

In any case I firmly believe that a decent or good knowledge of two or three martial arts is fundamental to have a reasonable understanding of how the same thing can be done differently.

Contact training for self defence

This post is discussing the importance of contact training in martial arts, particularly in view of their effectiveness in self defence situations.

A few months back I welcomed a new student in my club: he stated to be nearly at Dan level in his club back home.  He practiced a style of Korean martial art, derived from Tae Know Do and purely orientated to self defence. While he felt confident training with anybody he showed immediately to be struggling when people at intermediate level started attacking him with proper combinations of punches and kicks.  His techniques and fitness preparation is good and his main limitation is the lack of practice with aggressive attackers swinging punches at him.  Without speculating on his abilities or however diminishing them I feel that if faced by somebody with really bad intentions his style and preparation might have let him down.

I met and heard many people that sell their style as self defence and justify the lack of contact in their training stating that “our techniques are too dangerous to be applied for real”: fact is if you never practice a technique for real it will not work when you have to use it.

Do you know any boxer?  Have you ever heard of a boxer being beaten up in the street? Boxing is considered pretty basic and very physical by most purists of martial arts and the repertoire of techniques it offers is limited to 4 punches.  At the same time each techniques is pushed to its perfection and strong attention is paid to fitness and preparation; a boxer will hit hard and precisely to the point, finishing off a fight in a very short time.  Boxing is by definition a contact sport, full contact, and there isn’t such a thing as a soft boxing fight.

The main purpose of contact training, whatever limitations are imposed by the rules observed, is to have a fight that resembles a realistic situation, not dissimilar to what you would find on the street.  A self defence situation would surely have no rules, being everything but fair; if you have experience in sparring with a realistic level of contact it likely you are going to get out of there pretty well.

One of the most important aspects of fighting is in the mind; your mind will respond to a very basic stimulus, fight or flight, which goes back to when our ancestors were encountering fierce animals.  Faced with a danger the subconscious has to take a split second decision: shall I run (best form of self defence) or stay and fight?  In any case adrenaline will be released and you will be more alerted, either with improved running performance or ready for the fight.  Heart beat will increase and however fit you might be you might feel short of breath after an effort that usually would not affect you at all.

Contact training, however performed in a controlled environment helps reducing the stress induced by adrenaline rush.  If you are sparring regularly and therefore are often faced with individuals that have the only intention to punch you, kick you or whatever else, your mind will be get used to it and respond in a more rational and controlled way.

Related posts are: How Realistic is Your Training? and Martial arts for self defence: are they useful?

Tao of Jeet Kune Do

I have been toying with the idea of writing books’ reviews for a long time.  Have an extensive library of martial arts and eastern philosophies books that cover a broad range of subjects.  I hope that what I am going to write about each of them will be enough to inspire some readers to read them, as well as writing some comments about what they think.

When reading a martial art book it is important to have a clear idea of what the main goal for the reading the book is: in my case I never intended to learn a martial art or a style but more to understand the main concepts and philosophy behind it.

The book 

Tao of Jeet Kune Do

Tao of Jeet Kune Do

Many of us consider Bruce Lee a legend that left a great legacy and inspired entire generations to start and keep training martial arts.  For me this is a precious book that I keep handy and go back to read on a regular basis.  It is obviously not a novel with a story but more a collection of notes and ideas: small paragraphs and some time single sentenced that describe a strong and deep concept and make you think for a long time.  Although the cover sheet states “Tao of Jeet Kune Do – by Bruce Lee” the book was put together by Gilbert L. Johnson and Linda Lee (Bruce Lee’s widow) based on Lee’s original notes.

Description

I see this book as a journal for Bruce Lee himself when he was thinking and refining the concepts behind JKD and how he felt this should have developed.  Tao has a strong meaning and multiple interpretations: it is written in Chinese with the same character that is used to write Do in Japanese and it has the same meaning: The Way.  This is to describe an approach that is not meant to teach a strict methodology to do this or that.

Each chapter describes a different aspect of the concepts behind JKD: Preliminaries, Qualities, Tools, Preparations, Mobility, Attack, Circle with Circumference and It’s Just a Name. In some parts of the book entire pages are full of hand written notes from Lee himself, in other cases there are drawing that are probably copied by other books at the time: I say this because the drawing style is consistent for some of the simple stylized pictures where an entire person or a limb is represented with a few lines.

JKD maintains and improves many aspects of Wing Chun that is the first martial art that Lee ever practiced when he was still in Hong Kong.  Bruce Lee probably wanted to improve what he considered the weak aspects of Wing Chun but, instead of simply adding the missing techniques, he saw an opportunity for a much greater picture, not limited by traditions, cultures, styles or country boundaries.  He wanted to define a new concept that many different people, with different backgrounds, could embrace and grow with it.

What I like of this book

Apart from the definitions of this and that technique Lee explores numerous details of the mental aspect of training: what you should think, the attitude you should have and how each of these should be prepared.  While he was against rehearsed techniques and combinations because fighting should spark naturally, from the martial artist experience and based on the opponents moves, he covers in details how each aspect of training should be practiced.  Considering that disciplines like coaching and motivation, the knowledge of sport science and sport psychology were hardly available at the time Lee was surely a great precursor of these concepts.  I also find fascinating the amount of wisdom contained in this book, considering that Lee was in his late twenties when he wrote most of the notes.

Conclusions

I would suggest reading this book to anybody that is interested in martial arts, from beginners to top ranked black belts.  Don’t expect to learn JKD by reading it but be prepared to a bit of thinking because each chapter will add some wisdom to your knowledge of martial arts.

If you are interesting in buying this book, or other interesting ones, please have a look at our book store that contain a little collection of the books I read so far.

My thoughts about Judo

Judo was the first martial art I have ever practiced and, even after many years, I have good memories of the experience and I can still use good part of what I have learnt at the time.

Description

Judo is essentially a martial art based on throwing techniques: the intent, when two people start fighting, is to drop somehow the opponent and then follow up with grappling.  Grappling means wrestling on the floor using various techniques to immobilize the opponent (keeping both shoulders on the floor for at least 10 seconds), to strangle her or to apply joint locks, specifically elbows: once one of the fighters is caught in one of these situations she will have to give up by tapping with one hand the floor or the opponent body to avoid real damage.

History

Judo is a Japanese martial art that was defined by Jigoro Kano in the late 19th century as a fair, sport orientated, derivative of Ju Jitsu.  Most ancient martial arts were invented and practiced for situations when loosing a fight meant being seriously injured or killed.  Ju Jitsu is a martial art with over 500 years of history that was taught to samurais, useful to fight bare handed in a broad range of situations with the intent of surviving life threatening attacks.  Many applications of Ju Jitsu are meant to seriously arm or kill the opponent and this obviously doesn’t apply very well in a competitive sport.  Judo was the first martial art to be an Olympic sport and it gained  at some point great popularity in the US and Europe as long as it was one of the few martial arts broadly available.

What I like about Judo

Judo teaches and greatly improves awareness about balance and how to cause an opponent to loose it: it works well if and when an attacker grabs you by the lapel or any part of your clothing.  It is also ideal when somebody pushes you aggressively: with a simple movement or a little sweeping technique you can simple drop the attacker on the floor and, if she has no experience in martial arts, she won’t know how it happened.  In a typical Japanese fashion Judo classes are highly structured, instilling good discipline and great respect for the opponent.  Although much of its training is very physical it is reasonably safe and a great work out of for most parts of the body.  Given the relatively gentle approach that can be applied to its teaching, Judo can be taught to young children both male and female: it could be a great starting point for children interested in martial art and for parents that support the idea.

What I don’t like about Judo

I find Judo inadequate for self defence purposes because of its basic structure.  Although its aim is to redirect the opponent’s force and use it to your advantage I found it not as applicable as it sounds.  I met many people, with senior ranks in Judo, that had the opportunity of testing this on their on skin, with dear consequences. It is known that Judo’s curriculum includes, for top ranked practitioners, strikes similar to the ones used by Karate or other striking styles.  Nonetheless I never encountered or heard of anybody practicing these techniques.  That means that all training relies on the opponent grabbing you with the intention of applying a Judo technique.  This is pretty much useless if somebody, as it can happen in many cases in the street, attacks you with a strike of some kind, either a punch or a kick.  The other bad habit instilled by Judo is relying on an opponent wearing a Gi (typical jacket and trousers made out of thick cotton fabric) that has broad and strong sleeves and a belt: if you face an opponent wearing t-shirt and shorts you’ll find that good part of the common techniques of this style do not work because you cannot grab your opponent in a way that allows you to apply the technique itself.  Although in terms of safety Judo training is reasonably safe I know of many joint and shoulder injuries caused by excessively zealous joint locks or wrong fall breaks.

Conclusions

I am convinced that some of the basics of Judo are very useful concepts to be aware of: at the same I would not rely on this martial art for self defence because of its intrinsic limitations.  I therefore would not suggest considering Judo as a unique martial art to be learnt.

In any case I firmly believe that a decent or good knowledge of two or three martial arts is fundamental to have a reasonable understanding of how the same thing can be done differently.