Back to Basics

Back to Basics

For those who have been involved in karate for more than a few years, we know that there are some things we do in training that are not necessarily ideal for replicating in a self-defense situation, or tournaments, for that matter.  In fact, some things we do can actually be considered counter-productive.

So why do instructors of Shotokan place so much emphasis on keeping the heel down, holding in position during lower stances than are practical, or practicing kata application that deal with unrealistic attacks? Why should we pull the back hand to the hip or keep the arms out to the side when kicking?

In my opinion, there are several possible explanations for the adherence to basics beyond what seems practical, some with more validity than others:

These are simply training tools
By training ourselves to adhere to strict basics, such as the idea of keeping the heels down all the time, pulling the back hand to the hip, keeping our arms out to the side when kicking or returning to the starting mark in kata, we can be sure that everyone is not making large errors.  While it is understood by at least the more advanced instructors and practitioners that deviations can be advantageous, minimum standards should be maintained.  Furthermore, there may be a specific reason for training this way, even though application would be different. Also see below for point of preparing for related techniques, etc.  I have also written other articles on this subject.

We are training for extreme situations, to prepare for anything

While very long and low stances may seem impractical, preparing for the unexpected has its value.  We train placing the weight/torso as far front as possible in front-stance and as far back as possible in back-stance.  We are training to be able to operate anywhere within that large range.  Although practical application may not involve either extreme, we should be ready, just in case. And of course it can also be great exercise!

Preparation for related movements/techniques/strategies
Training with what I often refer to as “extreme basics”, the range of motion is very large.  While in a self-defense or free-sparring situation, this may be impractical.  Try, for example, the full preparatory move for sotouke/outside-block while someone is trying to punch you from close range.  This is actually preparing the person for realistic technique (if they have the right frame of mind, at least).  Although we tend to “do what we practice” when caught unprepared, the movements become smaller instinctively as well as through necessity.  If we practice very large moves, we should expect that these techniques would become smaller in a realistic encounter.  If we started with only small movements from the beginning, application under stress may cause a further reduction in range-of-motion, which may mean it is too small to be effective. Also see my article regarding practice of related techniques.

Tradition.  Instructors simply teach what they were taught. 
Sadly enough, this is the reason that many, if not most, instructors teach this way.  They teach what they learned, how they learned it, feeling that what worked for them should work for others.

There are many valid reasons to practice basics that may seem impractical on the surface.  There are many reasons why one would want to practice other than these “extreme basics” as well.  I advocate sticking to just the basics until the points are clearly understood and achievable.  After that, I believe one should still practice the basics that may appear to be unrealistic, also adding variations, keeping in mind that there can be great value in both types of training. But frame-of-mind is important.

Copyright © 2022 Jon Keeling (originally published November 2004)