What do we mean by block?
My old concise Oxford Dictionary offers 18 different meanings for ‘block’ as a noun and 6 for it as a verb, a number of which seem suited to the context in which the term is used in the martial arts:
- an obstruction; anything preventing progress or normal working,
- a blocking action,
- put obstacles in the way of,
- restrict the use of,
- intercept with one’s body (American football).
It’s not a bad term, but one I suggest is still more limiting than the actual karate uke techniques themselves.
In a lot of martial arts that use Japanese language terminology when two people train together they may be referred to as Tori, the person that successfully ‘does’ the technique, and Uke, the person that receives the technique. For at least the last fourteen years I have used the word ‘receiver’ to translate the word ‘uke’ when it refers to a technique (such as Age Uke, Ude Uke, Uchi Uke) as I feel it allows for the broad range of things that the movements can be than the more commonly used term ‘block’.
When is an uke technique not an uke technique?
Most uke techniques are made up of a number of gross motor movements, often with some fine motor additions at the end. The opinion of what is and what isn’t an uke technique will vary from person to person. How much of the movement, and what part of the movement, has to be done before we can say “I used this uke technique”?
As an example, here are descriptions of two different uke techniques. I recognise that they will be taught differently from style to style and from association to association (and my version may well be viewed as heretical or incorrect by some), but I will describe them as I do them if I were doing Shotokan Karate kihon as Shotokan is one of the karate styles that I teach.
Right Arm Age Uke: the left arm extends palm open and down to the front at head height with the right hand fist closed palm up at the hip. The right hand (fist closed and palm facing upwards) moves diagonally across the body from right to left (outside to inside) to approximately shoulder height, supported by a partial turn of the right hip forward. The right arm then moves a small amount from the inside to the outside while continuing to push upwards, the forearm rotating so that the back of the hand now faces the head and the uppermost surface of the forearm is clear of the top of the head. The elbow of the right arm is lower than the fist and the angle of the forearm is diagonal rather than horizontal. This final movement is supported by a further turn of the right hip forward of the left. The hips turn fluidly throughout the movement and the movement of the right arm should be fluid throughout. As the right arm moves the left hand retracts sharply to the hip, closing to a fist and rotating to a palm up position. This can be done with supporting stepping motions.
Right Arm Ude Uke: the left arm extends palm open and down to the front at head height and the right arm is pulled back level with the head, its elbow at approximately shoulder height with the forearm at a vertical right angle to the upper arm and rotated so that the closed right fist faces away from the head. The right forearm then rotates so that the palm of the closed fist faces forwards and the right elbow drops down and forwards sweeping across the body from the outside towards the inside, supported by the right hip orientating forwards of the left. As the right arm reaches its end point (which would have been the centerline of the chest had the hips not turned) the forearm rotates so that the palm of the closed fist faces towards the practitioner. As the right arm moves the left hand retracts sharply to the hip, closing to a fist and rotating to a palm up position. This can be done with supporting stepping motions.
In basic training and in kata the prior extension of the ‘non blocking’ arm is common to the majority of uke techniques. As such if I just do that I would not describe myself as having done an uke technique, I see it as a setup movement, albeit a very important one in a lot of practical applications (as is its retraction). From a personal standpoint if I just do the diagonal upwards movement in one direction described in my version of Age Uke, whether the outside to inside part or the inside to outside reversal, I would not say “I have done Age Uke”, but if I did both I would describe it as an Age Uke. In similar vein although many years ago I was taught in Jiyu Kumite to move and rotate my arm a few inches from its kamae position from the outside to the inside and that movement was also ‘Ude Uke’, for me (and this is an opinion not a fact) it does not utilise enough of the movement to go by that name and I see it purely as a closed hand parry. As such I wouldn’t call an open or closed handed high outside to inside parry Gedan Barai, though if it is then followed by the arm sliding along and across the parried limb to strike the attacker with a hammerfist I would. If the same following outward movement went upwards rather than downwards then I would not be adverse to describing it as an Age Uke.
Flinching, parrying, swatting, patting, diverting and slipping and uke techniques
There are a number of different reactions we make to attacks. The tongue in cheek descriptor I use for the different umbrella aspects that govern the actions or reactions of the ‘defender’ is the FEAR of the defender: their focus, experience, attitude and reaction time – all measured or competing against the EASE of the attack (environment, attitude, speed and entry angle). In broad terms though what we do in response to an attack will depend upon whether or when we see it, how long we have to react to it and how much experience we have dealing with it along with what we’ve trained to do.
The fastest most natural proactive things we can do in response to an attack we have not pre-empted are simple gross motor actions. Patting or parrying from one side to the other, pushing up or swatting down, or slipping straight under. These are all natural movements that most people will do if they have enough time unless confused by being specifically told to do something else. Where training comes in is that a trained person will
- spot the telegraphs of the attack sooner and begin to make appropriate movements,
- have improved reaction time from regular exposure to the stimuli,
- have superior supporting biomechanics to ensure a greater likelihood of success,
- have a superior ability to follow (or convert) their swat/parry/push/pat/slip with an appropriate ‘shutting down’ movement or combination.
Depending on the style (and the student) there are often points in training (particularly in the first few years) where an untrained person will avoid being struck with greater success and ease than a trained person because they are carrying less mental baggage about what they should be doing in support of the movement and that is particularly true if a person is trying to utilise a ‘complete’ uke technique in the manner I described above (with Age Uke and Ude Uke as examples) against an unpredictable attack at speed.
While flinching is a natural movement (and can to a degree biomechanically overlap with some of the examples given above) it differs from them in that it is an unconscious reflexive response. We all flinch, but we do so unconsciously when we do not have time to access a conscious response to protect ourselves. How we flinch will depend on how far away the stimuli is when we spot it, how fast it is, where it is headed, and the position of our hands and arms at the time. If you spot a punch heading towards your face at the last minute and your hands are down by your waist, they may begin to come up as if to cover the head, and the spinal reflex will kick in turning you down and away, and the face will scrunch and the eyes shut, but you will still get hit. If your hands were already in front of your face then your arms would probably have covered the head and you wouldn’t have been hit. If there were more time the arms (or the nearest arm) would have extended to push the threat away. If there were more time than that then you would most likely have accessed a conscious response and your unconscious brain would not have taken over. We cannot modify the flinch. We can reduce its likelihood through training and learning to spot and act on telegraphs earlier. We can also (if we’re sensible) practice recovering from flinch-like positions so that if we do flinch we are immediately able to respond rather than fall victim to follow up attacks. I’ve previously discussed how I view flinching and its relation to karate kata, sparring and techniques here.
Karate uke and applications
Uke can be used and trained for a number of different purposes, some of which are more effective in different environments and under different degrees of pressure than others. So far as I’m concerned whether an application of an uke is right or wrong comes down to the Ronseal test: does it do what it says on the tin?
Stepping backwards with a full Age Uke and Ude Uke (as described above) against a prearranged long-range straight punching torso or chin attack at speed works. I can’t question that, I’ve seen it done hundreds of times and I’ve done it hundreds of times. I’ve not seen it work in other environments, and I’ve seen it fail in other environments, but that doesn’t matter if that’s not your training intention. If you can reliably apply it to do what you want it to do then it passes the Ronseal test for you.
Uke make up the majority of karate kata techniques. It is my opinion (and this isn’t a new view by any means, it has been common in the karate world for a very long time) that they were not designed to be used against karate (or other MA) attacks in the manner in which they are generally trained in a number of karate systems, though that does not detract from their ability in such to bestow a number of positive combative and fitness benefits in the process.
I view uke techniques as ‘receiver’ techniques, they receive the other person’s attack. This means that they deflect, they intercept, they strike (potentially pre-emptively), they unbalance, they manipulate, they trap and they can even control.
In his ten precepts Anko Itosu wrote of Karate as being designed to defend oneself against a ruffian rather than engaging in challenge matches. As such in my own training I have chosen to orientate my study and application of uke techniques towards habitual acts of violence (HAOV). The recreation of HAOV in training and in the simulation of force on force individual and multiple person realistic self defence scenarios is something for which I am probably better known internationally than my karate articles and books. I consider myself very fortunate to have had a number of highly experienced martial artists from a broad range of martial arts disciplines as well as LEOs, military and security personnel, watch or participate in the training that I have run in this regard and endorse it. The applications I teach for uke techniques stem from the observations of what happens (and what works) in this form of training in addition to over a decade of the study of violent crime and associated supporting disciplines. Photographs for clarity of explanation in books and articles will illustrate my applications in a very static form (because they are for people learning the drills), but they are designed to be trained in the manner I describe here with progressive resistance, speed and unpredictability. Ultimately I believe in their effectiveness for self defence and would like to see those who learn them try them in situations such as illustrated in my training in the following video.
I’ve previously discussed the case for elements of grappling in karate here and I know that the conclusions I drew there are not unique. Karate is not purely a striking approach, nor is it purely a grappling approach, it is an approach that is orientated predominantly towards striking and striking is its preferred approach. To do this effectively against HAOV by necessity it contains techniques that are designed to navigate and extricate from the common ‘non percussive’ elements of fighting (such as grabbing and pulling, holding, barging, tackling attempted leg take downs etc) in order to strike, flee or control. In self defence situations the vast majority of conflict occurs at extremely close range and grabbing, clinching, pushing, barging and tackling are extremely common responses – even (and especially) amongst highly trained martial artists who have focused their training on maintaining distance. Long range stepping and attacking tend to occur most often when chasing a retreating person that has not been held, or on joining ‘another’ struggle to help a friend after dealing with an aggressor in a multiple person situation.
In my scenario simulations various patterns of behaviour emerge. I’m not referring to the HAOV of the role-playing aggressors, or the adrenal reactions of the surprised trainees who suddenly find themselves attacked while trying to defuse an argument, but in the patterns that successful counter tactics form. As part of the training the scenarios are videoed and the footage examined frame by frame to give feedback. What is consistently visible in the footage is that successful navigation and extraction of participants from the close quarter fighting comes through movements and stances that more closely resemble the strategies that are shown in karate kata, even amongst those participants who have no martial arts experience. In fact if I were to edit out the attacker from the video so that it appeared as if the defender were fighting thin air, then the resulting movements would look more akin to a kata than anything else seen in the martial arts. Those that have specifically trained to use the kata against HAOV on a regular basis do exceptionally well in such scenario training by using the kata practically. This pattern of both striking and ‘grappling’ (or anti-grappling if you prefer) on the part of both attacker and defender, and the resulting kata mirror, makes a further convincing case for both the need and presence of grappling and throwing in karate kata.
One of the most noticeable elements of karate kata is the relative paucity of ‘obvious’ striking techniques. In terms of overall quantity the majority of the kata are made up of uke receiving techniques combined with hikite pulling motions (and in some systems preparatory extended arm thrusting motions), then we have ‘obvious’ open and close handed thrusting / punching / striking motions and finally we have the emphasised kneeing or kicking techniques.
The idea that uke techniques are only ‘blocks’ and that their predominance in kata reflects the defensive nature of karate should be rejected for a number of reasons. Firstly, deflecting and blocking attacks is a largely instinctive action that does not require specialised movement, though as I outlined above training to deflect and parry attacks is not a waste of time. If you observe anyone shielding themselves against a committed attack outside of set prearranged sparring combinations, you will see them cover, parry, slap, duck or flinch (or any combination of those), and any time you see anything resembling part of a fixed uke technique it will be because the uke technique itself mimics natural movement. Secondly the best form of defence is offence, and that principle has been enshrined in martial writings across many cultures for centuries. A committed attack is not stopped by continuous deflection but by pattern disrupting behaviour that forces reaction and reorientation. Thirdly it is unlikely to be a coincidence that uke techniques function extremely well as striking, unbalancing, trapping and limb (and head) manipulation movements in stand up grappling. Finally it is incongruous that the majority of the movements being drilled in kata should be devoted to anything other than navigating the most common problems posed by violent incidents.
The requirement of good training to address the most common problems takes us back to the weighting of movements in the kata. When I look at the footage of the skilled and unskilled martial artists working to extricate themselves from close quarter force on force violent confrontations in the hundreds of scenario training simulations that I have run (whether on their own against a single assailant, against a group, or part of the chaos of multiple groups of people in an argument that has escalated to physical violence) the weighting of techniques and time is as follows in order of frequency:
- moving and manipulating others to gain a position from which to strike, control or escape (predominantly extracting oneself from multiple punches, grabs, high tackles and clinches),
- striking with the forearms, elbows or hands,
- kicking with the foot.
This distribution of movement mirrors the emphasis on techniques in the majority of karate kata, especially with the ability of most uke techniques to function as short close range strikes (often using the forearm) as well as stand up grappling (or grappling avoidance and escape) movements.
My approach to and interpretation of the application of uke techniques is neither new nor unique, and it is not the only valid approach. From my perspective though it is one that is underwritten by textual evidence from past generations of karateka and their antecedents, is orientated towards the purpose of karate as described by Anko Itosu, fits the uncomfortable realities of civilian self defence (as shown by CCTV footage, years of hospital emergency room data, decades of consistent violent crime surveys and reports, and accompanying psychological and physiological research into human behaviour), and is supported by the fact that entire uke techniques and indeed entire kata sequences can be applied realistically under pressure with other techniques (from the same kata) acting as effective redundancies in the event of less than optimal performance. A few photos in isolation (and possibly out of context without explanation) or a short video of a single application cannot convey its holistic integrity, appropriateness or effectiveness. If you really want to understand or judge my approach then you need to train with me.
How do you use your feet?
A few weeks back I was reading an excellent blog post on ‘Old School Karate’ by Garry Parker of Columbus Dojo. He’d made a personal list of the things he did that he considered as facets of ‘old school’ karate. Obviously such a list is very personal: you can ask one hundred excellent and experienced karateka to list ten things and I imagine that while you’ll get a number of answers that crop up again and again, you won’t get one hundred identical answers, and it might be arrogant to say that any one of those answers was ‘wrong’.
One thing that was mentioned in his article (which you can read here) was the importance of learning to use the feet in karate. How we use the feet has immense importance for not only the feet themselves, but also affects how efficiently and effectively we use the ankles, calves, thighs, hips, pelvis… you get the idea. If the feet aren’t being used correctly then your ability to move, hold position, apply or receive power effectively is compromised, and so is your karate.
I train in two karate systems, one of which trains barefoot and one that wears footwear. As such I am very aware of the differences and similarities between the two approaches. Whether you train barefoot or in footwear it is important to recognise that they do create different dynamics. As an example here are two video captures of me stepping at speed barefoot and in trainers. In both the stepping foot hovers just above the ground as I step, but (without my being consciously aware of it) in trainers my heel automatically touches the ground first (just as it does in normal walking), a different movement to the flatter ‘ball first’ barefoot landing, even though in both my toes are slightly raised and then grip on landing.
While the actions of the supporting foot may be almost identical in both, often the stepping or kicking foot has a different ‘feel’ or position in footwear. Personally I think it’s important to be aware of the dynamics of each if you are possibly thinking that you might need to use your karate in footwear.
The positioning and ‘working’ of the feet is obvious when you are barefoot (if you know what to look for or if it is being highlighted by the teacher). What is less obvious is that the same things you do when barefoot are equally important to use the feet effectively when you are in footwear. How the foot is moved and grips within the shoe, just as when barefoot, has a knock on effect on the rest of your biomechanics. In fact I would argue that although hidden, correct use of the foot is even more important when shod than barefoot because of the sole between the foot and the ground. Even in heavy trainers I am always aware of the type of surface I am on (I can feel it through the shoe), and my feet are always relaxing and tensing in different ways to allow purchase or mobility.
As to which is old school? Using the feet properly is old school. Whether you do so barefoot or shod depends on location, preference, and practicality.
There’s a lot of detail in the feet. Whether you are barefoot or wearing footwear to train, those details should not be neglected. If you want to get a grip on your training, get a grip on your feet.
Recently I found myself passing a few days under observation in the specialist surgery ward of one of the local hospitals due to an obstruction in my airway. While I was there one of the young nurses who had moved to the UK from Portugal came to talk to me about karate as she had seen my occupation on my notes and wanted to ask about training in Oxford. The problems the young lady faced were finding a club with a similar atmosphere and training regime to the Shotokan she had practiced in Portugal, and finding a way to train that could accommodate her varying shift patterns as a nurse.
I think both of these represent common issues for many martial artists, and in many respects her first ‘problem’ is probably more prevalent in the martial arts than in any other form of physical exercise.
The young nurse had trained to a 6 Kyu level in Shotokan in Portugal and was looking to continue in England. This should in theory not be a problem, after all Shotokan is one of the most popular and widespread karate systems in the world. The difficulty lay in finding the ‘right’ type of Shotokan.
I have trained with Shotokan karateka from eleven different associations in the UK that I know of, probably more besides at a few ‘big’ seminars back in the 1990s, and I’ve also been fortunate to train with American and European Shotokan karateka during my travels. Like any modern karateka of this age I’ve also been privileged to be able to see many more members of the same system (or indeed any system) share their training through video media on the internet. While there are many things that unite these karateka, it would also be fair to say that they are all different, in a myriad of subtle ways. A karate style so big and so widespread cannot be like a single set model of a car, absolutely standardized throughout the world (or even a single country). To continue the analogy, different ‘same style karate’ organisations have different interior trims, different in-car media platforms, different paint jobs, different brake and wheel types, different engine sizes running unleaded or diesel, and different fuel management settings programmed into the computer. There’s probably one that even has a Neil Diamond cassette tape in the glove compartment (you know who you are). Beneath all this they are still the same car, they are still ‘Shotokan’, but even then within different clubs in those associations the way you learn to drive that car (and how you are allowed to drive that car in class) will vary according to the instructor, as will whether different models are recognized as ‘the same’ and allowed to continue, or forced to change to their ‘default factory settings’.
It is a hard truth that every club (even within the same system) is going to be different. It is the sum not only of the style, but of the pedagogy of the instructor (team), the venue, and crucially the membership. The age and health diversity of the members, the mix of ages and sexes in class (or not), the aims of the students in training: all of these put yet another spin on the class. You cannot step into the same river twice: you have to accept that in training with someone else things will be different, but that different is not necessarily better or worse (for you) and the onus is on you to make the most of it. In moving from one area of the world to another it is rare that you will see something that looks ‘the same’ straight away, even in the same style of martial art: the important thing is to observe, choose something to try, and accept the potential offered by the change. As I have written in short blog posts about contact in training, six things you should do in your training and speed in training, variety and different training methods can all bring benefits.
Attending a new class can be daunting, whatever your grade, because those pesky belts can carry expectations. That can especially be true if work and family patterns mean that despite your enthusiasm and best intentions, actual attendance is irregular. The less you attend a class, or the larger the gap between lessons, the harder it can become to return. Self containing walls of comfort, fatigue and apathy are surprisingly easy to build.
Irregular training is the death knell of martial arts participation and progress, but it is not the same as infrequently attending class. As Gichin Funakoshi observed in his 20 precepts,
“Karate is like boiling water, if you do not heat it constantly, it will cool.”
- Not being able to get to class does not mean you cannot train.
- Not having the time to build a sweat doing karate (or any other martial art) does not mean you cannot train.
- Training is cumulative: regular short practices will maintain (and can improve) your technique (and flexibility, and concentration, and strength, and resolve to continue to attend class) if not your aerobic or anaerobic capacity.
- Short intensive bursts of non karate exercise for aerobic and anaerobic benefit can complement slow methodical karate training with results that are on a par with (or superior to) long ‘treadmill’ aerobic karate (or other martial arts) classes in a club.
Since I first began training in karate I have taken a rather literal leaf from Gichin Funakoshi’s precepts. I almost always do karate while I’m boiling the kettle, or if not boiling the kettle then while I’m keeping an eye on something that’s cooking.
This is an easy free time to train. I’ve trained in kitchens big enough to do entire forms, but actually all I really need is the space to stand in a stance and rotate my hips. Good quality training does not have to be complicated or require lots of space, or even lots of continuous time: repetition is the key. On the spot (whether for a minute or five or twenty between other little jobs) I can work on almost anything. Even if I can’t make someone else’s class, or set aside a full hour for training on my own at home, I can still manage anywhere from five to sixty minutes in a day in short stints if I really want, and it does all add up. This keeps the kettle boiling and the water hot. It is not a substitute for paired training or attending classes, but a complimentary way of maintaining and refining elements of your skillset so that when you do work with other people you get more from the experience.
Keeping training does not have to be hard if you take it one step at a time.