Written by Andrij Demianczuk, 2nd-Dan, Bushido Karate Association
The start of September is always a special time for me and my training. This is the time of year when our dojo sees the new students joining us to train on the floor for the first time. The crisp weather and the turn of the leaves marks memories of my first days training with Bushido Karate and hallmarks the turn of another year of my training. I’m particularly fond of the thought that for some of the new students, these are the first steps in a potentially life-long journey. It also means that our classes go through a transition, and we see a return to focus on the basics of karate. A decade on in my own journey and revisiting the most basic, fundamental training is still exciting to me. I often talk about my training with my like-minded friends and recently I’ve had some fairly interesting conversations about why after even a decade of training I find the basics so important.
Training basic technique to improve basic technique
It might seem obvious to most people that practicing and drilling mechanics makes us better karateka but it bears stating that this isn’t always the case; practice makes permanent and training habits just makes them harder to break. Many dojos separate the advanced students from the beginner students, assuming the advanced students have the skills and abilities to largely focus on more difficult elements of training, somewhat forgetting that basic technique is performed with a number of years’ worth of habits rolled-in. At the same time, the beginner classes tend to focus on the mechanics of progression which is important, but also comes with certain caveats. While the beginner student is expected to understand what constitutes a good strike, often habits of the instructor or advanced students tend to slip in to their pupils. A skilled and thoughtful student will always consider the concepts learned at the beginner ranks and constantly re-evaluate them to suite the situation at hand so as to try and reinforce good habits early.
This comes down to my first major point: basic technique is the building block of everything. With my day-job we deal with complex problem solving involving a number of teams. The best chance we have at succeeding at our tasks, is by doing what we refer to as service decomposition. This is a fancy way of saying ‘break it down to the basics’. All of our complicated workflows and processes are broken down into simple, manageable tasks. Since we generally have a framework on how to tackle each of these smaller issues, it’s not too difficult to solve them individually and by the time we re-compose the service we have a fully working solution. I view my training in a very similar way; complex or difficult tasks at the dojo can usually be broken down in a similar manner. By doing so, conceptualizing a difficult sequence as a series of simple and well trained basics we have the opportunity both to thrive in a challenging environment meanwhile reinforcing our basic technique. When advanced students break out basic technique to focus on it exclusively we allow ourselves the unrestricted opportunity to refine and tweak our basic abilities.
By the time we re-insert our basic technique into context, we find that more difficult tasks predicated on these basic concepts also mature accordingly. From an instructional standpoint the better understanding we have of basic technique (with good habits), the better and more efficiently we can coach our peers and students. I have a firm belief that the best way to improve anything is to teach or talk about it; introspection is key to improvement and the best way to challenge your abilities is to put them to test. Understanding nuance and learning differences between students and peers forces us to really question what and how we train. There’s no better test (other than full-on combat) to assert the skill and aptitude of a kareteka’s abilities. As both a coach and a student, it’s imperative to be mindful of my own habits and constantly re-evaluate them; and there’s no better time to do that then when we break it all down to the most fundamental level of basic training.
Training basic technique in an advanced way
The progression of my karate journey so far has unfolded in a way that the milestones achieved have been more subtle than expected. Granted I’ve had a few moments of enlightenment, the majority of growth as a student and coach has come gradually and through the process of introspection. I didn’t realize how far I’d come until one day I decided to look over my shoulder and reflect on the path travelled. Admittedly the journey is different for everyone, but for me it wasn’t so much that one day I was able to execute a technique I previously hadn’t; it was noticing upon coaching others how my basics look and feel. For me at least, that’s always been the marker of my growth.
How we keep improving our basics after many years of practice is through practicing the basics, albeit in an advanced way. Training static punches and kicks at the dojo with the same routine every day would get boring, and few students would tolerate that for long. In an effort to keeping things interesting we often train with variety to keep both our bodies and minds stimulated. This translates to focusing on certain core aspects of our basic training, but we actively seek different ways of training the basics on putting them to the test in different or challenging scenarios. At Bushido we use pressure to assert our understanding of the basics and help the karetaka at our dojo really focus on the core concepts of what makes good technique. I appreciate this kind of training because it really challenges understanding of the fundamentals in a situation where there is very little time to think, or react. This kind of training stresses the fundamentals and a student’s understanding of what is effective. Ultimately the goal is to make the reaction and precision of execution completely autonomic. The greatest chance at success is thus determined by what is ingrained in the student with many years of practice. It stands to reason then that basics being most often trained, are what most karateka rely on in the context of novel stimuli, therefore training basic technique in an advanced way gives the karateka the possible chance for success.
Pressure testing also has the added benefit of being a good instructor in the absence of a Sensei. Pressure testing is a good way to draw technique out of students; if done appropriately students learn through visceral feedback what works and what doesn’t. I particularly enjoy this type of training since it affords the luxury of consistency. Consistency in instruction is the most reliable form of feedback. As a student, being constantly reminded of my shortcomings is a good way to determine what I need to focus on. Good pressure testing challenges that without fail. Any missed opportunity or poorly executed technique in the context of stress is a critical reminder of the importance of good, basic technique. In this way we can still train advanced classes, but be mindful of our basic training at the same time. This thoughtfulness and introspection also shouldn’t stop at the doors of the dojo either.
Training basic technique outside of the dojo
Most people I talk to about my training are surprised to hear that I train every day. Whether it’s at the dojo, at my home or even on my way to work I make a point each day to review my teachings, practice my mechanics or sometimes even something as basic as threat avoidance. Regardless of how in-depth my training is outside the dojo, I still try to make a point each day to at least think about karate. I believe this is what keeps me sharp; some days I train in front of a mirror when I’m working on my strike targeting. Some days I train threat avoidance in public by making myself acutely aware of other people and my surroundings. Other days it may be simply drilling proper stance as I’m preparing a meal. On any given day I train some part of my karate teachings for the sake of keeping what I’m focusing on fresh and alive in my head. This is what allows me to break down what I train to a fundamental level and really consider how basics apply to what I’ve learned and trained.
It matters very much that we train independently, and the best karateka I think do this inherently. Training basic technique outside the dojo is vital to a karateka’s growth and maturity. I don’t imagine too many students pursuing a lifelong journey in karate go very often without thinking about their training. I actively engage my peers (some of whom don’t train martial arts) in discussions and musing about my training. I do this for two reasons; first it affords me an opportunity to articulate what I’m training and second, it gives me perspective from how an outsider would view my training or the concepts explored. This is another means of pressure testing as well. Often discussing my training with my friends who don’t train, I get asked questions that a typical karateka would not ask me in conversation. Not only do I need to explain what we do, but why we train the way do or in what context. Invariably this always comes back to concepts of basics; threat detection and avoidance requires us to be aware of our surroundings – a good karateka will preserve as much stability as possible. Being grabbed or assaulted largely influences stance or catching of the weight (tai-sabaki). Being struck or blinded forces us to cover up and overtly do what we need to get ourselves out of a bad situation (precision striking). This kind of introspection and discourse is essential to reify karate basics.
Training outside of the dojo is what stimulates growth as a student and coach. Unencumbered, we allow ourselves to reflect and focus on building muscle memory and isolating the efficiency and aptitude of basics to help codify a karateka’s essential tools. By doing so we strengthen not only our bodies but our minds as well. The best way out of a fight after all is not to get into one in the first place; everything we train at the dojo serves purpose to us in case that plan fails.
Meeting new students for the first time is exciting to me. I enjoy sharing something I’m truly passionate about and care very much for. Karate is more than an activity we do for a few hours each week. For most of us, it’s a lifestyle and a means by how we manage one day to the next. Seeing a new student attain the skill of the basics is a remarkable experience; these are the skills they will user over and over and continually improve upon and draw from for the rest of their journey. This is why this time of the year is so important to me. I remember what my first steps along my journey were like and I’m excited for my peers to see them take theirs.