Sloppy Basics Make Sloppy Technique
By Christopher Caile
Sometimes the hardest part of martial arts training is the practice
of basics year after year. For many this gets boring and repetitive.
They want to move on and master more advanced techniques – things
that are more exciting, fun and even spectacular.
These are the martial artists who after many years get into their own
groove. They are so used to doing techniques, that they do not focus
on them, and do not examine what they are doing. I often see these students
in class. Many of them are advanced in rank, but their technique has
dissolved into sloppiness. Even if shown the correct method, these same
students quickly revert to original form.
This is what I call following outer form without working on the principles
and technique within.
In various arts, such as karate, or example, this problem becomes especially
evident when you see these same students execute kata (prearranged sequence
of techniques). (1) They perform the outer form, but are unbalanced,
lacking power, effectiveness, and speed of execution. In short: their
basics are sloppy, thus so is their technique, and with sloppy technique
their kata is impaired.
In self-defense, this same problem may impact a student’s health.
If a knife is coming toward you, it is no time to be sloppy and slow.
Some time ago I was at a gathering at a friend’s house, and my
friend introduced me to one of his neighbors. After talking for a while,
this neighbor said that he had been studying a form of Korean Taekwondo
for about eight years. Before long he was demonstrating various techniques.
Included were some kata moves. It was terrible –sloppy movements,
off balance, no power, etc, etc. “Good God,” I thought. “What
are his teachers teaching him?” I hoped his self-defense, if he
ever had to use it, was more effective, but doubted it. (2)
Whatever your art, there are intricacies and subtleties of basics that
are essential to the correct performance of your art. Real progress is
measured by the mastery of these aspects, the mastery of the inner form,
not the outer pattern. Nothing is gained by practicing year after year
the same sloppy technique.
Students in karate, for example, sometimes ask me, “Aren’t
you bored after more than 45 years doing your basic punches, kicks, blocks
and stances?” I tell them, “No, because I am always working
on something. You might not see the subtleties in what I am working on,
but they are there.” This adds interest to what otherwise might
seem boring and repetitive.
In practicing karate, for example, my performance of basics has evolved
from what it was ten years ago. Even though I am older and possibly not
as strong, today my punches are faster and more powerful. My techniques,
I believe, are infused with better body mechanics, body movement, methods
of generating power, and are more focused on specific targets and angles
of attack. I have incorporated more internal dynamics of power and reduced
reliance on outer muscular strength. I have relaxed externally, but learned
to add internally compression, and the use of the internal hinges of
the body including multi-angle koshi movement (hip including lower torso
and upper thighs) combined with gravity. And, I might add, there is much
to work on.
Mastering basics is a lifelong activity, not just repetition of the
same movements done in the same way over time. You learn the outer pattern
first, but then you work on trying to understand and perform the principles
and methods within. Sometimes you only understand these after years of
training and watching your masters. Some teachers too will first teach
one level, then another and another.
The secret to improving your basics is to be attentive to yourself and
your movement. You can be shown something, but only you can monitor your
progress. You thus become your own teacher as you incorporate what you
have learned. At some point what your have learned become so ingrained
into your muscular memory and reflexive action that it becomes instinctive.
You can then move your focus to new goals.
Mastery of basics is always an elusive goal, for there is always more
to learn. Once many years ago after a seminar in aiki-jujutsu I was talking
to another student in the locker room. I had been very impressed with
the technique and aiki movement (seemingly almost effortless ability
to perform technique) of the master. I casually questioned myself saying, “How
long do you think it would take to approach his capability?” The
fellow student looked right at me and replied, “You will probably
About the Author:
Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of FightingArts.com.
He has been a student of the martial arts for over 43 years. He first
started in judo. Then he added karate as a student of Phil Koeppel in
1959. Caile introduced karate to Finland in 1960 and then hitch-hiked
eastward. In Japan (1961) he studied under Mas Oyama and later in the
US became a Kyokushinkai Branch Chief. In 1976 he followed Kaicho Tadashi
Nakamura when he formed Seido karate and is now a 6th degree black belt
in that organization's honbu dojo. Other experience includes aikido,
diato-ryu aikijujutsu, kenjutsu, kobudo, Shinto Muso-ryu jodo, kobudo,
boxing and several Chinese fighting arts including Praying mantis, Pak
Mei (White Eyebrow) and shuai chiao. He is also a student of Zen. A long-term
student of one branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong, he is
a personal disciple of the qi gong master and teacher of acupuncture
Dr. Zaiwen Shen (M.D., Ph.D.) and is Vice-President of the DS International
Chi Medicine Association. He holds an M.A. in International Relations
from American University in Washington D.C. and has traveled extensively
through South and Southeast Asia. He frequently returns to Japan and
Okinawa to continue his studies in the martial arts, their history and
tradition. In his professional life he has been a businessman, newspaper
journalist, inventor and entrepreneur.