How to correct karate technique

“Stop leading with your head”, Sempai Steve yelled at me as he punched me in the forehead.

“Osu”, I replied. Yet I had no idea what he meant.

Bam! He hit me again.

“Stop leading with your head!”


Bam! He hit me for a 3rd time.

This experience was getting old fast.

I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, or what “leading with my head” was exactly, and he didn’t care to explain it. I’m not sure if he knew how to correct my form, or whether he just enjoyed punching a new yellow belt in the head. I’ve got a hunch it was probably a bit of both.

Telling someone what NOT to do, isn’t the same as explaining WHAT to do. There is a key difference.

When making a correction to a student’s technique, as instructors must offer an alternative method to fix the error rather than simply pointing out the obvious.

Let’s use an analogy of driving a car. Let’s assume every time you were making a right turn, you failed to move your hands on the wheel and simply turned the wheel until your arms became crossed.

A low level instruction to correct this might be something like “Stop putting your arms like that when you turn!”

This is vague and doesn’t give the driver any clue as to what they SHOULD be doing.

A higher level of teaching would be to offer an alternative method to help with the correction.

Something like, “To make your turn more safely, smoothly and with more control, slide your right hand around the top of the steering wheel until it reaches your left. Then grip with your right hand and release with your left as you turn the wheel clockwise, allowing it to pass through your left hand.”

Of course this instruction is significantly more detailed, and takes more effort to explain to our student driver. However, the result is that the latter example will almost always provide them with the correct method (and the reasons why), while the former instruction leaves the student driver to figure it out themselves – which they may or may not ever get correct.

When correcting karate technique the same method can be used, but first instructors must know where the error lies! I think sometimes instructors know something doesn’t look right, but aren’t exactly sure what it is or HOW to correct it, so a low level instruction follows leaving their students confused. Little progress made, if any at all.

So I wanted to give you some things to look for when watching your students’ technique. Here’s a list of the common errors students make, so you know where and what to look for:

  • Lack of connection / gripping of the floor with the feet and correct tension in each stance
  • Feet / knees pointing the wrong way while making basic stances
  • Knees not bent enough or positioned correctly while making basic stances
  • Shuffling the feet between techniques
  • Holding tension in the shoulder(s) and neck area – a.k.a, short neck syndrome.
  • Opening and closing of the fists between blocking and punching techniques when there is no open hand technique present
  • Turning of the torso/hips not present during punching AND kicking
  • Lack of hara (abdominal tension), zanshin (awareness) and kime (focus)
  • Blocking or punching technique too slow
  • Blocking or punching technique not positioned at the correct height, line or angle.
  • “Collapsing of the wrist” during blocking and punching technique
  • Thumbs not tucked
  • Lazy hikite position
  • Dropping the hands between techniques
  • Looking at the ground instead of at the target
  • Body mechanics / trajectory / execution of the technique (is the punch, kick, etc following the correct path? And are all the parts of the technique present? What’s missing?)
  • The list goes on…

As you might notice this list points out the errors, but doesn’t tell you as an instructor how to fix them.

That part is up to you.

Because your style and mine are different I can’t tell you how to correct things for YOUR students. How I might correct might be completely different and not right for your system.

The purpose of the list is to bring to your attention some universal points you no doubt are aware of, but may have overlooked during your day-to-day teaching. Keep this check list fresh in your mind and you’ll be better prepared to offer advice.

An easy way to remember the list is to look at your student from the ground up. Does each part of their stance / technique look correct? If not, what parts are breaking down?

Last night I was desperately trying to figure out how I could improve the technique of one of my juniors, but something wasn’t quite right. I ran through the major things in the list above, but still I was stumped.

My solution?

I took a quick video of him, watched it a few times and then talked it over with one of my other instructors. Together we identified the problem and gave our student the right method. He now knows exactly what he must change in order to improve his technique. Our student is now empowered and understands what to do… unlike good old Sempai Steve who would simply yell and punch me in the head.

I hope this list above and the simple method of teaching in a positive and analytical mindset helps you become a better karate teacher.

Finally, Sempai Steve if you’re reading this, I hope our paths cross again one day. I’d like to thank you personally for your tuition. Without your sage advice I may never have written this post and helped thousands of people around the world.

Who knows, maybe I might even be able to return the favor…




4 thoughts on “How to correct karate technique”

  1. Another excellent comment. I would add one more thing. Find a positive comment to voice before the correction. For example: “John, that was a good kick. It would be even better if you also….”. Particularly children will take and remember corrections if attached to praise. A creative instructor will always find ways to praise to make a correction more effective. Arigato.

  2. Thanks Sven,

    And yes positive reinforcement before the correction works well as you are no doubt aware. Thanks for reminding me and our readers of that important point. A while back I wrote about that exact thing, which you can see here if you’re interested:

    I love your comment, “Children will take and remember corrections if attached to praise” – this is so true and the opposite is so damaging. They won’t remember the correction, but instead will remember how they were treated poorly…

  3. An excellent article and an excellent reminder. I often catch my junior instructors being vague or showing the wrong way to do something.
    Of course the real question is, “Where can we get a copy of the video you took of your student?”. I suspect there is some great entertainment on there.

  4. Thanks Jim, glad you liked it.

    That’s always fun when you’ve got to correct more errors thanks to junior instructors. =) But we all start somewhere, right? Maybe you can have them read this post so they know what to look for?

    As for the video – yes, it’s entertaining but for his privacy will stay on my phone. However, you just reminded me something my sensei said years ago – he thought it would also be entertaining to take a video of every new student in their first class, and lock that video away in the vault until they day they earned their black belt. Only then could they take a look back at how far they’d come and have a laugh or two…


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