Improving performance in martial arts: a progressive approach

Image copyright and courtesy of the Judo Channel

Many martial arts techniques require actions that involve groups muscles that are not usually used in any other everyday’s activity; let’s we consider for example:

  • round kick to the head from tae kwon do
  • chain punches from wing chun
  • harai goshi from judo

Each of the above mentioned techniques are part of the basic training for their respective martial arts and yet, they involve several groups of muscles, at a high speed and in perfect synchronization and it could be quite challenging for a novice.

Achieving top performance in any of these moves (or any other technique) usually requires what implicitly most martial schools teach as part of their standard curriculum:

  1. the technique is shown by the instructor
  2. the student tries it and familiarise with the various aspects of the move: starting position, foot work, shifting weight in the right direction and at the right time, maintain a proper guard during the technique and the ending position
  3. once repeated a few times the instructor feeds back some suggestions about adjusting what is not working and the technique is repeated more times until a decent level of performance is achieved

I have been using successfully the approach described above with thousands of students; for some decently co-ordinated people techniques just come natural and everything simply works.  However there are people that struggle to learn a complex move at ones so they get overwhelmed by the whole process or frustrated by the lack of achievement.

If one of my students encounters this kind of difficulties I implement what I am here defining a progressive approach for improving performance.  When we are learning a new technique the aim should be to achieve unconscious competence, when your technique just flows without conscious effort.  Before achieving that state we need to work, consciously on the technique and repeat it until it becomes automatic.

My approach follows these steps:

  1. quickly establish what is already working in the technique
  2. isolate one or more aspects that need improvement
  3. instruct the student to focus his/her attention just on one aspect of the technique at the time until that works
  4. repeat <3> until all non working aspects have been worked on and improved
  5. finally perform the whole improved technique a few times to focus on the positive outcome and ensure it pushed at subconscious level

A typical example of the above process applies well to people that, when kicking front kick, drop or open their guard.  So here is the application:

  1. quickly establish what is already working in the technique: the kick is ok but the guard is not
  2. isolate one or more aspects that need improvement: the guard the unconsciously is opening up while kicking
  3. instruct the student to focus his/her attention just on one aspect of the technique at the time until that works: simply forget about the kick, it’s already work, just think about the guard be conscious to see where it while kicking
  4. repeat <3> until all non working aspects have been worked on and improved: keep kicking until the guard stays in position
  5. finally perform the whole improved technique a few times to focus on the positive outcome and ensure it pushed at subconscious level

The above methodology has been working for me for a long time and, while nobody actually explained to me in the first place I noticed its power and simple effectiveness over many years of practice.

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.


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.


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.


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.

Transfer of knowledge: the pyramidal structure of a martial arts club

The technical basis of most martial arts is full of complex concepts if  compared to many other physical disciplines and sports.

Just think about the number of different strikes that karate, tae kwon do or a kickboxing practitioners have to master or the number of throws that a judo or a aikido students have to learn.  Teaching and learning all moves that a martial art style involves requires a specific approach in the way they are taught.  That’s why the organizational structure of a typical martial arts club is usually different from what is found in other sports clubs and organizations.

The structure of a martial arts club (or school) can be usually seen as having a pyramidal shape where the master (or head coach) is at the top of the pyramid and progressively, at lower levels, are individuals that belong to various ranks like instructor, assistants and other senior students that by definition contribute to the transfer of knowledge.  New students and beginners should usually represent the largest group of people: these will progressively improve they knowledge and climb the ranks.  This concept is important to express that not just master and instructors are taking part in the transfer of knowledge but also the remaining students that, once they learn a new concept, they should be able to explain it and transfer it to others.

The importance of proper technique

If you ask a person with no experience in martial arts to throw a punch or a kick you might get some kind of result that will be, in most cases, very inefficient and inconsistent. Having a foundation based on some kind of martial art ensures the application of a technique based on the style(s) this person has studied and that will apply one of the basic theories behind the art itself.

Each style of martial art has a basic philosophy and underlying foundation that determines various characteristics of the style itself. Usually this was outlined by the person that originally defined the techniques and it reflects four basic principles:

  • His background and experience:
    • a broad range of different styles might have generated a clever mix of the useful techniques from each style
    • a long experience in a single style might have just evolved into a new one that is more in line with his personal taste
  • His body shape:
    • a small, short person might have developed styles that must be, by definition, very clever in defeating larger opponents;
    • a person with good flexibility in the lower body might have developed a style with many high kicks
    • a stocky person with lower centre of gravity might have developed a wrestling and grappling style
  • His taste for one or the other technique: certain people like punching others like kicking or grappling
  • The environment where he grew up and where he developed his techniques: the kind of opponents he had to fight and defeat determined what techniques and defence strategies that he considered useful to be in his style.

Have a look at the many styles available; some of the principles behind them will be even in contradiction with each other:

  • A Karate expert will mostly strike his opponent while a Judo or Hapkido practitioner’s main goal will be to grab, throw or manipulate the opponent’s body
  • Wing chun mostly uses straight strikes and footwork while Aikido is all based on circular movements
  • Kicks delivered by experts of Kickboxing, Thai boxing, Tae Kwon Do are similar although the emphasis is on different rhythm and targets on the opponent’s body
  • A Silat expert will keep a typically open guard that attracts the opponent to hit in between, working like a trap, while Wing Chun will protect the central line inviting the opponent to go around it

It is important to remember that a style was not defined overnight. Whoever has spent long time to define a martial art did a great job to understand human anatomy, biomechanics and how to exploit natural movements while using particular groups of muscles that are suitable for certain situations.

It is therefore paramount understanding the style you are practicing and what the logic behind it is: this is to maximize your power, speed and efficiency in any given situation. A reality check is obviously a good thing to do once you start understanding your style. Any comment is appreciated.