Why Practice Karate Kihon?

The true power of kiai…

Watch almost any martial arts movie from yesteryear and you’ll witness a tsunami of bad acting and fantastical abilities. From catching bullets to breathing fire and everything in between. The plot almost always follows one man’s struggle against the odds to avenge his <<insert favorite family member’s>> death.

Frequently the hero will be surrounded by multiple opponents, and emerge triumphant after being attacked by a series of single techniques that resemble the kihon section of a karate class.

Thank goodness some of the more recent movies have resembled something slightly more realistic from an attack standpoint, albeit not the real deal. What attacker is going to wait for you to defend and counter?

Is Karate Kihon for the Birds?

So if nobody attacks with a single technique, and pause with their punch fully extended and their other fist at the hip, what’s the purpose of practicing karate this way? We don’t see it in boxing, and we don’t see it in MMA. Only in a traditional karate class do we see this seemingly odd behavior. Wouldn’t it make more sense just to practice the exact techniques and counter methods that one might encounter in a real situation?

Of course I’m playing coy when asking these questions. I clearly see the value of repetitive singular basics and traditional stance work as I’m sure you do too. However, I want to provide you with a couple of analogies you can use next time you’re mocked by an armchair fighter who says traditional karate is for the birds.

Tweet. Tweet.

Clichéd Analogy Numero Uno

You gotta walk before you can run…

You gotta crawl before you can walk….

This is a good start, but it doesn’t quite possess the level of detail required to penetrate our non-karate-ka’s fortified mind. We need a more subtle approach to have our opponent lower their intellectual drawbridge and let us in before they’ll consider our reasoning.

Analogy Numero Dos

When I get asked why we practice this way, I nearly always use this simple explanation.

Basics are like letters of the alphabet, A to Z.

When you become a karate student, we teach you how to recognize and write the letters just like in kinder or first grade. You learn to punch, block, kick…. A, B, C.

Once you know your letters we then teach you how to spell a few words. These are combination techniques, or sequences from kata.

The next level of writing would be to construct sentences. At first we show you a sentence. You copy it down and learn it as you were taught. This is where you work with a partner doing ippon kumite, kata bunkai and various karate drills and exercises. You string together specific attacking and defending techniques.

Beyond that is when you create. You write the sentences. You become the author. Of course this is when you adapt and apply your basics. Perhaps not in the exact way as you originally learned, but in a way that is still effective and tweaked to fit your fighting style and skill level. They’re no longer “basic techniques” yet without them you could never attain technique authorship.

To refer again to the alphabet analogy, as adults we don’t write to that dotted half line height in lower case print any longer. And our grammar isn’t always proper. We write how we please, with relaxed grammar and slang instead of regimented sentence structure. But without the fundamentals our story would be weak.…just like our fighting skills would be without understanding the basic techniques first.

The bottom line is we teach and practice the basics in order to do the advanced. If you are only ever taught to write the sentences verbatim without knowing how to create the sentences yourself, there will be a ceiling to your learning. Next time a student or intellectual sparring partner asks you why you teach and practice basics feel free to use this analogy.



Develop Your Weak Side

How many karate-ka does it take to change a light bulb?

Just one. But he’ll do it 10,000 times with his right hand, then 10,000 times with his left.

(This is the part where you laugh.)

In all seriousness as much as we karate-ka like to think we are equally proficient on both sides of our body, the reality is we’re not.

The fact is most of us are right-side dominant, and not as coordinated as our left-handed brothers, since “lefties” have to adapt to our right-handed world.

Side note: Unless you’re left handed you probably don’t realize how much of a challenge it can be with daily tasks in a right hand world. Think about writing, scissors, tools, measuring cups, etc. For lefties, check out https://www.leftyslefthanded.com/ – You’re welcome. =)

Anyhow, let’s get back to the original point.

Typically, by nature we are a one-side dominant species. Approximately 85% of people are right-handed according to Scientific American.

But why?

Well it’s to do with the left brain controlling the right side of the body. The left brain is also what controls speech, and when the written word came to be, it was therefore natural to write with the right side.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

This explains why other primates (who can’t speak or write) don’t tend to favor their right side, yet us wacky humans do.

However one of the requisites of karate is that we train both sides equally. But how many of us seriously do that in every aspect?

ZERO would be a good guess.

Here’s why:

It would be a fair assumption most traditional karate dojo practice either Pinan or Heian kata, wouldn’t you agree?

If we look further at kata it’s apparent they were developed for defense with right side attacks first in mind. Think about the first move in any pinan/heian kata… you turn/move away from a right-handed attacker.

(A savvy reader might argue these right-handed attacks develop a strong left side defense. And I would agree… which is followed by a dominant right hand counter.)

In addition many of the finishing techniques/kiai points are made on the right side of the body. This holds true for almost every kata. This evidence reinforces karate is a right side dominant fighting system. 

Still need more convincing?

Try doing Pinan/Heian Godan as the mirror image of what you regularly practice. You’ll probably get through it, but not smoothly. There are certain techniques that you almost only ever apply with the right side of the body. And when you attempt the lefty version of these you’re bound to feel like a beginner all over.

Consider the kosa dachi/uraken kiai point in Pinan/Heian Godan, or the first move in Bassai Dai for example. How often do you practice these moves on the left side during kihon (basics) or bunkai (application) practice? I’m guessing not very often if at all.

The left photo shows the first kiai point in Pinan Godan. The right picture is a reverse image of the same technique.

With all of this in mind, it becomes apparent why lefties tend to do quite well at karate since they already have the left side dominance as a natural ability. They learn through repetition to be proficient with their right. Often times they can hit just as hard with either side of the body, or perform difficult techniques on either side without much thought.

Makes sense, yes?

And if you’re a right-handed karate-ka, guess what? Your right will almost always be stronger and more coordinated no matter how much you practice both sides equally. It has the natural advantage already. So equal numbers of reps will keep it ahead of your left, less dominant side.

So what’s the solution?

In order to feel more coordinated on your weak side, a simple exercise would be to make a list of movements from kata for which you only practice the right side of the body. Take those movements and incorporate those directly into your kihon (basics) section of class and you’ll see a marked improvement in your students’ skill sets.

For example, from yoi dachi have your students step in (on your count) to kosa dachi and make uraken per the picture above. On the next count have them return to yoi dachi. On the next count they step in with the other side of the body. Repeat.

What other techniques can you think of to practice in this manner?

Post away!



The star of the show…


“Hey karate-man!! whaaaaa!”

The class walked by and while most smiled and waved, a couple of  young boys made karate chops in the air while simultaneously running their mouths.

What the hell? Was I being heckled by 4th graders? You bet I was…

Part of me wanted to walk over and break the kid’s elbow. Then in my best Austrian accent drop a cool Arnold Swarzzenegger-style one-liner, “Better catch up to your class…. chop chop!”


My inner-adult however decided that might not be the best action, and so I chose to ignore the hecklers and smile at the friendlies.

Incidentally when did it become okay to be disrespectful to adults?

Oh wait, yep… I can’t pretend I never did it, but I tell you the day I got chased down by some older teenagers, one of who gave me a well placed uppercut to the solar plexus, fixed my attitude problem.

So anyway, back to my story….

I was invited to a career day at an elementary school along with some firefighters, paramedics, air force mechanics and wait for it – a UFC referee. (Super nice guy, but am I missing something here or do all kids from kinder to 4th grade watch the UFC?). We were invited to talk to the kids about the importance of hard work, continued education and commitment.

For 3 hours I did the same 15 minute presentation to each group, explaining to them what it takes to follow your dreams, how you should endeavor to be a good person, always do your best and learn something new every day. I intertwined the presentation with some basic karate exercises and techniques to keep the classes engaged and learning. For the most part it went nicely and the students responded well.

So after 8 classes and a couple of hours, guess who arrived?

Yep, you got it. My hecklers.

Oh, this was gonna be fun!

So I begin and I ask the class a few questions to which one of my 10 year old hecklers bucks the system – he disagrees with EVERYTHING I say (as expected). He’s got it in his head that he knows it all and has life all figured out.


I mean, who doesn’t at 10 years old?

So anyway I continue my class and Mr Interuptus interjects again. So at that point I ask for a volunteer – several hands shoot up, but not his… but of course I choose him. (Heh, heh, heh!)

I reach over and take his baseball cap off of his head (his security blanket) at which point he becomes compliant. He doesn’t want to be the volunteer but he’s not going to back down either.

“What’s your name?”, I ask.

“Alex. Well, Alexander”, he says sheepishly.

“Ok, thanks Alexander”

I ask Alex to bow as I bow to him, and he gives me a nod of his head. I pause and explain that respect begins with doing your bow properly, etc, and finally he executes a nice bow. Aha… we’re getting somewhere.

I say to the class, “Give Alex a clap!”.

The class cheers. Alex smiles bashfully.

“Now Alex is going to show the rest of you guys how to do a PERFECT pushup!”, I announce.

Alex’s eyes widen and he swallows hard.

Think about the psychology here – he’s been called out to perform, but doesn’t really want to, but doesn’t want to back down either. Seems like a good time to step up to the plate and show the class what he’s made of…

Alex drops and gives me 10 perfect push ups. Man, this kid is an over-achiever… could make a black belt one day with the right training. I congratulate him and tell him he did an AWESOME job!

We bow and I ask the class to give Alex a round of applause. He again smiles bashfully and I return his hat.

Alex is now on cloud 9.

The naughty kid just became the star of the show. At the same time he learned a little about respect and got a much needed self-esteem boost.

If you ever have disruptive students, this concept is key to unlocking their good behavior. Instead of coming down on them and lecturing them on what they SHOULD do, which they hear countless times a day, flip everything on it’s head and make them the star of the show. It’s amazing how well this works.

Pretty soon your disruptive students will become role models for the rest of your class.





Kata Bunkai Drill

So you’ve seen 5 year old kids pull off remarkably sharp kata like this:

And you’ve seen competitors jump high like this (2:20):

And you’ve probably got a handful of students who are *really* sharp too…

But as aesthetically pleasing as these examples are, it surprises me how many students can’t actually apply the movements of the kata in a realistic and effective manner against another person. Fresh air techniques can look sharp and powerful, but lack of understanding and being able to actually make the techniques work are two completely different things.

Random thought…

Remember that movie “Days of Thunder” with Tom Cruise? He was ultra fast on an open track – faster than everyone else. But he had to learn to deal with other drivers pushing and nudging him, and that wasn’t so easy.

It’s the same deal here. Students might look great, but can they apply?

Here is a little bunkai exercise to help students bridge the gap between technique and application.

It works like this…

  1. Pick a random sequence of kata. To keep it simple, let’s say the first few moves of say Pinan Shodan / Heian Nidan.
  2. Have one person stand in yoi dachi (ready stance) and have their training partner approach from the left with a punch or shoulder grab.
  3. Now the first person must turn to their left, shift away and apply their bunkai. Once complete return to yoi dachi.
  4. Now the attacker approaches from the right side. The defender applies the same sequence again, but this time using the opposite side of the body.
  5. Now the attacker approaches from directly in front. The defender shifts back (or moves left or right relative to the incoming attack) and makes the application with either side of the body.
  6. Now the attacker approaches from behind and the defender must turn, shift back, left or right and apply the bunkai once more.

Advanced methods:

  1. Attacker approaches from any angle. Defender must apply using whichever side of the body that makes sense. As a general rule move to the opposite side of the incoming attack.
  2. Defender starts with their eyes closed. Attacker approaches from any angle and as soon as they begin their attack, the Defender opens their eyes and applies. The attacker can kiai to alert the Defender before the attack to give them some time to respond. (As opposed to stepping over and punching the defender in the face while their eyes are closed, and THEN then making kiai).
  3. Defender may apply any kata bunkai you specify (example – they can do any application from a chosen Pinan kata), attacker may attack from any direction.
  4. Defender my apply any bunkai they know from any kata, attacker may attack from any direction.

This is all just a precursor (as are ippon kumite, and regular kumite) to more realistic personal defense. An attacker might throw any technique from any direction at any time. The purpose of training is to be prepared for that. This exercise helps students get one step closer.



How to get through to students who don’t listen…

“Yoi!”, I commanded.

Osu!”, the class responded.

“Bassai Dai”, I said.

“Bassai Dai”, they announced.


My advanced junior class began their kata. Two or three looked super sharp, crisp with their technique, fast with their turns and with a visual intensity strong enough to burn holes.

Then there were students whose techniques reminded me of drowning men, arms flailing as they tried to keep up with the higher ranks.

They were speeding through their kata without focus or connection, bouncing from one stance to the next, colliding like pinballs during multi-ball bonus time. I was frustrated because I’d reinforced the importance of good solid basics when practicing kata many times in the past. I pinched the bridge of my nose and closed my eyes as I thought how best to address this debacle.

“Yame!”, I said. “Come over here to the white board and take a seat.”

(Yes, I have a white board at the dojo – and it’s a great idea to write notes and explain things from time to time)

“Ok… I need a volunteer please”, I requested.

Several hands shot up and shouts of “Me, me, me!” could be heard.

“Ok, David, (name has been changed to protect the innocent) would you come up here and write your name on the board as nicely as you can please?”

David wrote his name nicely as requested.

“What do you guys think? Did David do a nice job? I think so. Now this time David, I want you to write your name a quickly as you can as soon as I say go. Got it?”

“Yes”, he replied.


The scribble that came out from his marker reminded me of Mr. Messy from the Mr. Men book series.Mr._Messy

“Ok, thanks buddy. Would someone else like to have a turn?”

I chose 3 more students to come up and try the same experiment. And guess what… all had similar results.

“So what did you guys just learn?”, I asked.

“When you write fast it’s messy?, a student replied with a silly grin on his face.

“Kind of like rushing your kata, right? When you don’t take time to complete your technique and you try to keep up with other students, your kata kind of looks like that.”

An “a-ha” moment washed over some students’ faces.

“Remember kata is an INDIVIDUAL thing, not a group thing unless you’re competing in a synchronized event. So take your time to do your technique properly and completely. Don’t worry about keeping up with anyone else. Do it right, then later on once your technique is solid, we’ll work on the speed and timing. Got it?”

“Osu!”, responded the class.

Sometimes all it takes is a little analogy or a different perspective to get through to junior students.

Let me give you another example…


In the same class I have  student who is constantly overly-dramatic with everything he does. If he falls over (which he seems to do quite often) he lies on the floor like he’s been mortally wounded. When the class is doing basics, he struggles to keep still after he completes his technique. I had talked to him about it loads of times but it just wasn’t getting through.

So earlier this week during the basics portion of class, I asked him to stand next to me at the side of the tatami while the class continued. After each oi-zuki (lunge punch) I asked him, “Do you see that?”, as I quietly pointed another student whose technique was a little shaky.

“Yes”, he replied.

“That’s what your technique looks like. Now take a look at Joseph, and watch his technique”, I whispered. At the completion of the next technique I asked him what the difference was. He identified the first student as shaky and the second one as perfectly still.

“Ok, so I want you to be like Joseph from now on. Can you do that?”

“Osu!”, he replied.

Contrast these approaches to simply barking orders, “C’mon faster! Stronger! Sharper!”. Worlds apart in teaching methodology and can you guess which gets better results?

Sometimes students think they’re doing everything perfectly until they realize they’re not. These teaching methods are powerful tools to help students come to their own realizations about their technique….. and that, is the most powerful teacher of all.

Bunkai Flow Drill

Important post today about applying bunkai…

I know, I know “applying bunkai” is kind of redundant, right? Shouldn’t it be just “application” or “bunkai” instead of “applying bunkai”?


Anyway, I digress…

Most often you’ll see two karate-ka apply bunkai (there’s that redundancy yet again) in the following way in a very formal manner.

Both students assume their ready position, either in yoi dachi or zenkutsu dachi. One attacks with a certain technique. The other applies their bunkai responds with their technique from their kata. Repeat 10 times, change roles.

This is all good, but it’s a little boring… particularly after 20 or 30 repetitions. (And problematic if you teach kids as the attackers can tune out thinking “it’s not my turn” and often don’t treat the attack seriously. This in turn makes the whole thing sloppy).

I challenge you to try this approach instead:

Use the same application but turn it into a continuous drill, where it alternates between attack and defense.

For example let’s take the 5 technique sequence from Pinan/Heian Sandan moving towards the “front”. It begins with an inside-out block (uchi uke), proceeds to a spear hand nukite, twisting through to shiko/kiba dachi with hammer fist (tetsui) and finishes with an lunge punch (oizuki). See the picture below. Your stances and style may differ (and you may not have a perfectly round head, either), but you get the idea.


Ok… so the defender begins with blocking and incoming punch to the chest, then proceeds to the nukite and the rest of the sequence... (pay attention this is the important part)… where he/she makes lunge punch to the chest. Let’s now use that final move of the sequence as the ATTACK for the other person to begin their application.

IMPORTANT: With the following picture read it from RIGHT to left as if the person on the right is now doing the bunkai returing to the left of the screen.  Just follow the arrows starting on the RIGHT.


And of course as they complete the sequence the last technique is used as the attack for their partner, who does the bunkai a second time… now moving this way —>


This DRILL proceeds back and forth… forever. Or until somebody accidentally gets knocked out, passes out from physical exhaustion or until you call stop.


This is a great way to add some flavor to your boring old bunkai application (urrrgh) repetitions. It’s great because it alternates and keeps both students alert and paying attention.

You can do this with any application you like. The trick is to make the final technique of the sequence the attacking technique for the second person. And if it doesn’t match up, simply add another technique that solves the problem.

Like this idea? Find more here…


Dealing with ADHD

Last week I received an email from Tom who wrote…

“I am starting to have kids in my class who are ADHD.   Any suggestions for drills or teaching techniques that will help address this issue?”

Ahhhh… the good old ADHD challenge!

I wrote about this a while back in regards to PPS, and also a bunch about visual learners here.

But today let’s assume that your student is in fact a legitimate ADHD candidate, and not something else.

In a nutshell think of it like this…

  • In the  student’s head, there are 10 things at once competing for attention. Someone once described ADHD to me as a TV inside the mind that keeps switching channels, so the focus is extremely short until they find something that can hold their attention.
  • What you’re teaching has got to be top of that list otherwise they tune out, look at other students, people walking by, a fly on the wall, etc.


teaching karate to adhd kids
ADHD can be like trying to watch tv when someone else keeps switching channels.


I’m not an  expert in the field of ADHD (though I do have a BSc in Pharmacology and Physiology). However I have taught over 1,500 kids with quite a few with legitimate attention deficit disorder, Asberger’s and autism. I’ve also taught both blind and deaf students. All are challenging in different ways, as are people with bad knees and backs, or some other kind of physical disability. The important thing to remember is that we are all people, and in most cases are doing the best we can. So the first thing is to realize this important point, and to have patience.

ADHD can be severely affected by diet, food coloring and emotion just to name a few things. Most of this we can’t control, but somehow we’re expected to help fix. So it’s particularly important that you don’t over-excite an ADHD student as they can take hours to calm down. Similarly try to avoid negative reinforcement with ADHD students as this can send them into a death spiral of negative emotion which results in resentment and unresourcefulness.

I’ve found that ADHD kids perform better with a little encouragement. Think about it – for most of the day they’re told, “Just focus!” and “Concentrate!!!”. So I’ll walk by that student in class and whisper to them, “Great job, Max. You look like a black belt when you do it that way.”

Little things like that seem to pep up their self esteem. They feel better immediately, try harder and focus more.

People have also asked me if I change the way I teach the class when I have ADHD students?

I don’t. I still do the same karate drills and exercises as the rest of the class. And just like all other times, I make sure I’m ENGANGING my students by making class INTERESTING and CONCISE.

Get to the point QUICKLY, make the drills EXCITING and CHALLENGING and students will respond well.

Long drawn out  explanations about body mechanics and power generation aren’t really what kids are interested in. Cut to the chase, demonstrate so they can SEE it, then get them to DO it. Kids are pretty good at copying…  but not as good at listening whether they have ADHD or not.

I feel it’s important in closing to say that we don’t want to make students feel left out or different to the class. Aim for 100% inclusion. Teach and address the group as a whole, but be sure to give each student some personal feedback during class.

Once I thought I was wrong…

Years ago when I had a “real job”, my boss “NJ” used to have a sign on his desk that read:

Once I thought I was wrong, but I was mistaken.

It was a reminder that since he was the boss we probably should listen to him. And for the most part we did. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred he was right. And on the rare occasion when he was incorrect, he was still right.

I remember one time when we had an argument about the location of a certain place. He swore up and down it was to the south, when in actuality it was to the west. After he realized his error, he still maintained it was to the south, and there would be no more to say about it.

End of story.

Years later we laughed about that day and how stubborn he was and once again with a wry smile on his face he reminded me, “You know once I thought I was wrong, but I was mistaken…”.

As an instructor it’s not fun being wrong… however I admit it. I’m sometimes wrong mistaken  and that’s ok (just don’t tell my wife). As it’s said, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough”.

I spend time with my assistant instructors to promote their growth as teachers, and explain that it’s ok to be wrong every now and again. It’s part of being human. It’s how you handle it that’s important.

My friend and brother in the martial arts, Sensei Jason Nichols one night  made a small error teaching kata. A confused student questioned his error to which he smiled and said, “Thank you, you’re right. My mistake. I’m allowed one mistake… just one”. This was a gracious way to admit his err but provide correction at the same time. He did not dismiss his student nor punish them for their insubordination.

By contrast, I distinctly remember as a white belt being taught a certain way to do a kata, and then being told a few months later that I was doing it incorrect. Yet, it was the same instructor who’d given me conflicting information. When I politely questioned him about it, he scornfully denied the former teaching. That was typical of the attitude at my first dojo. The sensei was NEVER wrong and as students we should never question, just blindly follow and say “Osu!”

As both a lifelong student and teacher or karate, I believe it’s important to admit mistakes when you make them and give the correction immediately. Failure to do so and then contemptuously denying it undermines your student’s trust in you. You’re students aren’t stupid, and you’ll come unstuck.

My advice is to admit your errors immediately. Every time you make an error, it’s an opportunity for you to congratulate your student for being so observant.  Make it about them and you’ll create longer and stronger relationships built on trust.


The Importance of Lowering Your Expectations

So it’s that time of year here in the USA where school is wrapping up, and everyone’s busier than worker ants on steroids…

It seems there’s a party, a graduation, a field trip… you name it. It’s all happening this week.

Kids classes are turbulent both in numbers and emotion and the lure of summer vacation is stealing students’ attention like thieves in the night.

Lack of sleep seems to be the culprit.

I asked my junior class yesterday, “What time did you guys wake up this morning?” 

Answers of “5am” and “6am” seemed to be the yawn norm.


No wonder they were lethargic and distracted by 6pm, after a full day of school and activities.

It’s a physiological fact that lack of sleep, puts you in an un-resourceful (and sometimes resentful) state. And kids don’t have the luxury of coffee to combat it like we do.

In other words, when we FEEL sluggish performance suffers. Especially cognitive processing.

So my advice to you for the next couple of weeks (or any time with a transition from one schedule to another) is to LOWER your standards as a teacher.

Yep. I said it.

Lower your expectations of your students.

But… wait!

expectationsAren’t karate-ka supposed to give 100% effort every time? Isn’t that what separates karate-ka from non karate-ka? And as a teacher of karate, shouldn’t I demand it of my students… every time?

As romantic as that might sound, it’s an idealized view of reality. The truth is if there is no gas in the car it doesn’t matter how much you WANT it to go up the hill, it’s not going to happen.

You’ll drive yourself nuts trying to get your students to perform at their best this week, and probably next week too.

So lower your expectations.

Expect less.

Avoid teaching anything that is complicated and requires a lot of mental effort. (Teaching a new kata, for example would be a good thing to skip this week.)

And instead focus on revision and things they already know. Focus on drills and exercises that are more fun and physically demanding. Make them sweat. Make them work hard and don’t be overly concerned with perfect form.

You’ll be happier.

Your students will be happier too.

Then once the dust settles and order is restored, you can get back to kicking their @#$%!