The Degradation of Karate is Over!

The Degradation of Karate is Over!

CHEERS TO THE MODERN KARATE MOVEMENT – THE DEGRADATION OF KARATE IS OVER! By Will Wright

INTRODUCTION – THE GOOD OLE DAYS (THAT SCREWED EVERYTHING UP!)

When I was young I fell in love with karate.  Who didn’t?!  In the 70s karate was viewed much differently than today – karate had a touch of magic.  Those were the days when a black belt was a quasi-superhero.  If you trained long enough, at some point in your journey a dedicated student would effortlessly snatch flaming arrows from thin air, catch bullets with bare teeth, and if necessary, pull the beating heart from his attacker (and then show it to him as he dies, of course).  My first dojo had framed photos of a sensei slicing fruit off of a student’s stomach with a razor-sharp sword and other feats of similar skill.

Unfortunately these superpowers never came to me. But maybe it’s not so bad after all.  What do these abilities have to do with self-defense?  Karate? Absolutely nothing.  I heard somewhere that in the heat of battle one won’t rise to their expectations, but will react consistent with their training.  And if you train at all, that’s an obvious truth.  I hate to disappoint anyone who hasn’t caught on yet, but there is nothing magical or mystical in karate or kung-fu (RIP David Carradine) or any other martial art.  It’s just training combat techniques and sweat.  Professional wrestling is bogus, too.

So if it’s about the training, how do you spend your time with your training partners in the dojo? And what are the objectives for your training – self-defense, personal fitness, competition sparring or kata?  Is it simply a cultural endeavor? Those are all great reasons! But whatever the reason, you should tailor your training to fit your objective.  If your training has been anything like most dojos in the U.S., a typical karate class would consist of a short stretch, a few basics, a few kata, and then some sparring of various degrees.  Testing through the ranks would involve a couple of katas, some basics, and a few rounds of sparring.  But how does this line up with your objectives?  Regrettably, one size does not fit all. 

For my karate club classes the primary objective is civilian self-defense. And I mean no disrespect to those dojos that are focused more on competitions, fitness, or whatever.  However, I do feel it important that students know the context of their training.  If the primary goal is aesthetically pleasing katas or competitive point fighting, that training shouldn’t be confused with training for self-defense.

So then, what are you preparing for? Just take a look at your typical training session.  Do you discuss pre-violence awareness and avoidance? Does your class focus on the bunkai of the katas you practice relentlessly or are they just a warm-up?  Do you break the moves down and practice those moves with a partner or on pads?  Do you work variations of those bunkai?  Or do you concentrate on the aesthetic aspects of kata?  Does your training consist of locks, throws, sweeps, chokes, and ground work?  Or does your dojo usually stride through the rank katas and then partake in a little kickboxing?  A cursory look for these answers will quickly tell you what you are (and are not) preparing for.  Not to say that there is anything wrong with staying fit or competing in sparring or kata tournaments.  But this shouldn’t be considered a complete self-defense program.  Of course, there is lots of overlap between them, but the context of your training shouldn’t be misunderstood.  Forgetting the context of your training could be a grave mistake.

Over the past few decades the dojo has turned into a place for children and the adult karate classes are empty.  One of my favorite mock newspapers, The Onion, recently ran a faux news story that really summed up today’s typical dojo.  The headline read, “GROWN ADULT WALKS RIGHT INTO KARATE STUDIO.”  The story was hilarious, but like most of this paper’s stories, it had a hard dash of truth.  Why?  Instead of the fighting art of civilian self-defense, karate has morphed into a competition-centered art.  That simply doesn’t appeal to most adults.  As a Master once said, “Karate is not intended to be used against a single adversary. It is a method of using the hands and feet to avoid injury should one, by chance, be confronted by a villain or ruffian.– Anko Itosu. Or how about, “The techniques of kata have their limits and were never intended to be used against an opponent in an arena or on a battlefield” – Choki Motobu. Most adults I encounter could care less about becoming a cage fighter, kickboxer, point fighter, or doing competitive kata. But nearly all of the adults I talk to have a real interest in learning to protect themselves and in staying fit. 

So what happened?  In its infancy in the U.S., karate became wildly popular – thanks Bruce Lee!  And its biggest stars were its toughest fighters and students naturally gravitated to those dojos.  Unfortunately, the toughest fighters aren’t always the best teachers and karate classes across the country slowly deteriorated into not much more than kickboxing classes and a dance lesson called kata.  As dojos became focused on competition, self-defense fell by the wayside.  To illustrate, one of today’s most popular karateka and blogger recently spoke of ‘forgotten techniques’, one being the toe kick. Agreed, the toe kick can be a devastating blow.  Jamming your big toe into someone’s ribs can quickly dispose of your opponent in a barefoot sparring match. But in the reality-based world of civilian self-defense you are almost certain to be wearing shoes when confronted with violence.  And should we try to hurt our training partners? No!  Toe kicks aren’t a forgotten technique, they’re just no longer considered as practical.  The toe kick is not alone – RIP flying sidekick.  Common sense guides any potential new adult student and when your dojo doesn’t recognize the difference between the mat and the street, any potential student (armed with all the knowledge they can glean from the internet) knows your dojo isn’t teaching a self-defense centered system, plain and simple. 

Specific combat sports fall in and out of favor with the public. Karate has become less popular over the years.  The rise in popularity of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (mixed martial arts success) and Tae Kwon Do (Olympic event) are part of the problem.  The emergence of MMA has all but killed the professional sports of kickboxing and boxing and has also erased any doubts regarding which combat system is the best – it’s the one that’s well-rounded and complete. Just as a karate system is incomplete without throws, locks, and chokes, any jiu-jitsu or judo class would be as equally incomplete for self-defense if strikes are never taught.

But karate has always been a ‘mixed martial art’.  Karateka, myself included, have allowed it to be watered down to kicks and punches on our watch.  No more.  The modern karate movement is taking karate back, back from ‘old school’ to ‘old, old school’!  I call it the modern karate movement for lack of a better term, but the ambitions of an increasing number of like-minded, pragmatic karateka are simple.  Pull the techniques from the katas, practice a complete system for practical self-defense, and remove the BS!

What do most pragmatic martial artists consider to be karate’s biggest problems today? 1) Stripping karate down to kicks and punches; 2) Failing to link the moves in the katas to combative techniques; 3) Ignoring the treasure trove of bunkai information available today; 4) Changing the kata bunkai for aesthetic reasons; 5) Ceremony, ritual, and inflated egos; and 6) Failing to remove ineffective combat training.  Each is discussed below along with how the modern karate movement is changing karate for the better.

FAILING TO STAY ‘OLD SCHOOL’ – THE DISAPPEARANCE OF LOCKS, THROWS, SWEEPS, CHOKES

One glaring problem with most dojos today is the lack of a complete self-defense curriculum.  Instructors often skip over teaching things like situational awareness and de-escalation (or even basic bear hug and wrist escapes).  Geoff Thompson, a highly-regarded expert in self-defense says ‘The Fence’ technique (preparing for a potential attack without posturing) is the most important technique to learn and teach.  I tend to agree, along with other pre-violence training.  Karate is more than kicks and punches.  Much more!  But most schools, for whatever reason, fail to teach some of the most basic safety techniques. 

Throws, trips, locks, sweeps, takedowns, strangles, chokes….all of these are found in our katas but are all but gone from most dojo’s training.  But this problem didn’t start in the U.S.  The Masters said it best themselves ‘back in the day’:

In karate, hitting, thrusting, and kicking are not the only methods, throwing techniques and pressure against joints are included … all these techniques should be studied referring to basic kata” – Gichin Funakoshi, Founder of Shotokan Karate-Do, 1935            

The karate that has been introduced to Tokyo is actually just a part of the whole. The fact that those who have learnt karate there feel it only consists of kicks & punches, and that throws & locks are only to be found in judo or jujutsu, can only be put down to a lack of understanding … Those who are thinking of the future of karate should have an open mind and strive to study the complete art” – Kenwa Mabuni, Founder of Shito-Ryu Karate-Do, 1938

In my karate club we work all of these techniques as part of the curriculum.  And it’s lots of fun!  Strikes are always the primary weapons, but you can’t ignore what may happen when the distance changes.  Sparring in class with a constant distance and then a constant resetting at that distance ignores reality.  An attacker won’t strike in a one-on-one, karate-vs-karate match. Instead, the distance you are accustomed to will vanish and you’ll find yourself in unfamiliar territory.  Then what?  I once heard a high-ranking karateka say “going to the ground is what happens to people that don’t know how to fight” and that’s why he didn’t train for the ground.  As soon as he said it another ranking black belt jumped him from behind and took him straight to the ground.  It was all in good fun, but my point being you may end up on the ground whether you like it or not and if you’re not ready the ground is where you may die.  You don’t want to be a black belt standing up but a white belt on the ground - the lion is helpless against a shark.  The more you work on all aspects of a potential attack, the more likely you are to survive.

The modern karate movement’s solutions to this problem are simple.  Integrate the basics of throws, locks, and ground techniques into your classes and add them to your training and testing criteria.  Do what the katas tell you to do - make your self-defense strategy well-rounded and complete.  Tweak them for karate.  Keep them simple and practical with the goal of staying on your feet and escaping, not going to the ground or sticking around to ‘finish them off’. Escape is always the primary goal.  You may win round one but round two may be a different story and in the street it could cost you dearly.

SKIPPING THE INSTRUCTIONS – BUNKAI WHAT?

As I discussed training with a long-time mentor and high-ranking karateka, (a true master in my eyes) he mentioned he hadn’t heard the word bunkai until about 10-15 years ago.  I know he’s been training since the 60s.  A discussion with another senior member revealed that his karate style’s founders never taught bunkai; kata was a quick warm up to sparring.  Therein lies the rub. 

I would love to spar like one of my karate heroes, Master Michael Foster, one of the best there ever was. But I never will.  And neither will you.  I’ll also never be 6’6” and agile as a cat.  And neither will you.  But that isn’t what karate was ever meant to be.  It was never meant for a competition or a consensual dual of egos in a bar fight. Its rigid rules and preset nature make sparring an uneven match in most cases.  To overcome the differences in athletic abilities, size, and age, you must add proficiency/weight/age classes or use techniques other than what’s permitted in sparring.  Where can you find all of these moves?  They are in the katas.  Point fighting and light-contact sparring can be great fun and it certainly helps with self-defense on many levels, but it’s not everything.  Not even close.  And it shouldn’t be the standard by which we grade our ranks.  Karate is much deeper.

I whole-heartedly agree with the modern karate movement’s view that each kata movement is a specific combative technique – why else would we be doing them?  I also agree with its perspective on a major problem with today’s karate – “The kata are a collection of karate's most brutal and effective fighting techniques, including not only the commonly practised kicks and punches, but also neck cranks, throws, chokes, strangles, joint locks/dislocations, takedowns and many other grappling techniques now completely absent from the bulk of karate training. Many of the older texts on karate give advice on grappling, Gichin Funakoshi's Karate-Do Kyohan and the Bubishi to name but two, and yet today the skills of locking, throwing etc. are left on the sidelines making the karate of today incomplete when it comes down to all-out combat situations.” – Iain Abernethey.  Ignoring the grappling, locks, chokes, and takedowns found in the katas is the real degradation of karate.

The internet has changed essentially everything to some degree and karate is no different.  Today, information from Masters and everyday karateka are pooled, analyzed, and dissected ad nauseum for effectiveness.  And mixed-martial-art fighting has exposed numerous techniques as ineffective.  Every kata is on the internet dozens of times, with numerous bunkai for each technique.  Obviously some are far better than others, but when common sense is applied and the wheat is separated from the chaff, there is a very clear picture of what katas were meant to be.  And it also leaves doubtless what kata is not.  Kata is not prearranged practice of a future battle - your enemy will attack from a certain angle and then his co-conspirator will attack from the opposite side at the same angle, and then from behind, and so on. The angles in kata give us the angle we need to be in relation to the enemy, not the angle from which the enemy is attacking. Mabuni and Motobu reference this in their text and common sense tells us it was the only way in that period of time to record the kata in solo form. And kata is certainly not just a dance of motions.  Unfortunately, there are still numerous instructors that teach kata this way.  It can no longer be questioned that kata provides a blueprint for combat techniques.  They provide a sequence of moves based upon tested self-defense techniques, and with repetitive practice of those techniques a student will create, to quote a Master, ‘combative habits’ that can be used when confronted with violence.  No one knows for sure what the Masters intended as the primary bunkai for every technique in a kata. I mean no disrespect to the Masters, but I don’t really care.  Any suggested bunkai that gives the opportunity to practice a proven technique is enough for me.  Training effective techniques is what it’s all about.

But from the modern karate movement’s view, it’s not enough to simply know the bunkai for the technique within the kata; the technique must be practiced with a partner and/or pads (constantly striking into thin air is inadequate) repeatedly just like the katas themselves.  Only by breaking the moves out, individually or in a logical sequence of moves, and constantly trying them out on different partners of varying size will you gain the experience to make the technique an actual part of your ‘combative habit’ arsenal.  As I age I adjust techniques or take them out of my arsenal entirely when they’re too risky or no longer physically possible.  Constantly practicing and reassessing the techniques makes for a lifelong commitment of training – the endless journey.

BUNKAI IS NOT A FOUR LETTER WORD

The wave of bunkai information has produced some interesting situations in the dojo.  Suddenly, the ranking instructor that has been teaching kata a certain way forever (no emphasis on bunkai) is confronted with the irrefutable evidence that each move in a kata has a combative purpose.  For most, it isn’t a real issue; most instructors see the good this will do for karate and now embrace this information and begin to incorporate the moves into their class syllabus.  The modern karate movement is continuously growing with numerous open-minded instructors embracing the bunkai techniques and it is improving the level of self-defense taught at their dojos. 

But the draconian nature of some dojos’ protocol can really stifle progress.  There are too many high-ranking karateka that still cling to the notions that kata is merely a motions exercise, that kicking and punching are only what karateka do, that bunkai is a myth or an unsolvable riddle, or that ‘other styles’ shouldn’t be part of karate.  That is the degradation of karate.  Information can’t be restricted to only flowing one way.  I’ve learned so much from all of the awesome instructors I’ve had over the years, but I’ve learned as much from books, videos, other students, other styles, and yes, even the internet.  And I welcome any and all practical techniques in my classes.  Occasionally, students want to try something they learned elsewhere, which is fun.  I also have students with other martial arts experience and we cross-check similar techniques.  This usually highlights a technique being tweaked for competition, so we tweak it back!  These endeavors really enrich the learning process. 

If karate is going to survive, if adults are going to seek out self-defense training at a karate dojo, teaching a well-rounded curriculum is imperative.

FORM OVER FUNCTION

I love a well done kata.  Strong but beautiful. The snap of the gi, the penetrating gaze, the intense augmented breathing and amplified kiais…they’re really awesome and require great skill.  But what do these aesthetic and dramatic theatrics have to do with self-defense?  Nothing. I’ve seen numerous grainy old clips of some of karate’s forefathers, but these theatrics aren’t a part of their katas.  The showy version of kata is simply a product of competition and the never-ending battle to one-up the other competitors.  Some changes are subtle.  Others range from hammy to just plain ridiculous (was that a backflip?) and give karate a black-eye.  Kata has numerous benefits, such as coordination, fitness and body control, but the primary purpose was to provide a blueprint of self-defense techniques to use when confronted by a violent attack, not to score a 9.4 at a tournament.

I think most karateka have no problem with the subtle changes for aesthetic reasons, as long as those reasons aren’t confused with the true purpose of kata…self-defense.  Too many times over the years instructors have tinkered with a kata for tournament or aesthetic reasons and discussed nothing about how this would change the bunkai.  That is the degradation of karate.  Erasing the bunkai from the katas is an unforgiveable karate sin.

But it can be more indirect than that. While preparing for a tournament, I once witnessed high-ranking karateka changing a kata from an angled stance to a head-on stance to look better to the judges.  Later, after further discussions about the change, the ranking members decided to keep the change and tweak the bunkai.  It was determined that changing the stance to head-on ‘took the fight right to the opponent’. 

But this decision totally ignores the basic combat tenet of getting off line, as the kata originally taught.  Changing a kata to look better for tournament purposes and then trying to stuff it with a new bunkai is an inappropriate approach.  The most practical and effective technique should always be the primary bunkai for any technique in a kata.

This problem is not isolated to kata.  Sparring in the dojo can range from a really rough scrap to a game of patty-cake children play.  Both are fine.  However, some tournaments have degenerated into the absurd with opponents barely touching each other for the win.  That’s fine for the children. Children participating in hard sparring is inappropriate and creates daunting liability issues. But the adults too?  It can be a fun game but it’s a far cry from self-defense and the crossover between the two is dwindling in most dojos. 

Too many dojos make sparring the be-all-end-all of training and testing.  Students begin at a prearranged distance, and then hop up and down throwing techniques from a distance just long enough to touch their opponent with a leap and then reset at that distance once any contact is made.  Or they fight too hard and run off students.  Takedowns, throws, and sweeps are all but gone.  I can remember as a young teen being able to beat much larger fighters in a point fight.  But that’s not a realistic confrontation and those larger opponents would have fed me my lunch had they been allowed to grab me. 

Being able to grab, sweep, and takedown your opponent should be added to the sparring mix.  Rory Miller says it best – “When people don't have a reality check they have this really stupid tendency to make up a reality check.  'Make up' and 'reality' rarely belong in the same thought.  I almost always pick on karate for this.  When I look at their kata and kihon, they have possibly the best body mechanics for infighting that I've seen... then they choose to test it at sparring range, where it sucks.  Or, worse, point contact range where it sucks AND it screws up everybody's sense of distance and time.”  All sparring types of should be done in a controlled manner and safety should be the top priority.  Some won’t like it, others will love it, but it needs to be done if you want your dojo’s training to be taken seriously by today’s well-educated consumers. 

Kihon is another serious problem area.  The static nature of the ‘one step sparring drills’ is far too artificial in most cases.  One student extends a punch from a sparring distance, the other student snatches the punch in mid-air and grabs a wrist lock and shoots a few strikes or whatever. Doing kihon in this fashion may somehow remotely help with training, but it’s too indirect.  In order to gain any real benefits from these kihons they should be practiced less formally with a realistic distance.  Practice them with various partners of differing sizes and at different speeds.  Katas are done the exact same way every time.  But when the techniques are broken out and practiced with a partner things should get a little messy and the same goes for kihon!

POMP-AND-CIRCUMSTANCE OVER SWEAT

The karate protocol system in some associations has gotten way out of hand.  Just as katas were slowly changed for the wrong reasons, pomp-and-circumstance seems to be more important than the actual workout itself.  For too many karateka, the higher rank equals training less, as if you’ve ‘made it’ somehow. This is the degradation of karate.  Earning a black belt or higher dan ranks doesn’t keep you in shape.  It won’t keep your techniques crisp and smooth.  It’s the persistent training – the endless journey.  Everyone asserting to be a ranking black belt needs to train and/or teach on a regular basis as best they can. The only way to keep your association successful is to bring in new students and start new dojos and it’s the only way to keep the tradition alive.

Teaching a karate class means leading by example, not walking around with your hands on your hips hyper-correcting students.  Too often, as soon as the training session begins the higher ranking members bow out to ‘teach’.  Then training students have their stance or strike adjusted a hair to the left only to have it adjusted a hair to the right by someone else.  This hyper-technical view of kata has very little combat value (especially when the bunkai isn’t also trained) and it’s confusing to students.  Everyone should have proper posture and do a proper technique, but geez!  Please get over yourself!  Moving a student’s technique a millimeter one way or the other to make yourself look like you’re operating on some higher level of karate is ridiculous and the students know it.

Nor does a high rank mean you’re the commander of some karate army, it means you should be leading the class by showing students your proper technique. There are some, and thankfully it’s a small number, who feel as if their rank allows them to act like quasi-paramilitary generals or some high holy Grand Poobah.  Expecting lower ranks to act subservient, berating students, interrupting others that are teaching, constantly pecking at lower ranks – this nonsense is killing karate.  No one is looking to join some Walmart militia and no one cares about your rank.  The days of the sensei being some omnipotent god that can’t be questioned are long gone.  This approach may work for a while with the children’s class, but the adults find it odd and awkward and head for the door.  A high rank doesn’t make you anyone’s boss or hero.  This behavior just runs off good students.  I was at a recent seminar and no attention was paid to rank, everyone treated everyone else with respect, there were no harsh admonishments cast down from atop Mt. Karate.  What a refreshing way to train.  I loved it.

DON’T FORGET TO TAKE OUT THE TRASH

Have you ever knocked someone down with your chi?  Or your hara? Ever go full Pokémon on someone?  Me either.  And there is a reason.  It’s all boloney.  I did knock someone down with a kiai once (scared the crap out of them!).  Yet the internet is full of dojos with students professing their allegiance to some ‘Master of the Arts’, whatever that is.  This magician/martial-arts Master will send his students flying with a wicked look and a flick of the wrist.  It’s sad.  Even sadder are brutal videos that show what happens to these so-called Masters when they are stupid enough to believe their own gibberish and try to fight a reality-trained fighter.  The end is always the same.  The no-touch/ki/hara Master is knocked flat.

As I said in the beginning, back in the day martial arts came with a tough of magic.  But it’s time to rid the dojos of all the nonsense.  No-touch knockouts are an extreme example of the hogwash that continues in martial arts, but it’s not the only example. 

Too many instructors still tell their students that one day, after years of dedicated training, they’ll be able to drop attackers with an accurate strike to a so-called pressure point, nerve or artery.  Or worse, they practice kata without training the bunkai expecting it to just ‘come’ to the student and one day they’ll just ‘flip a switch’ and be a karate Master.  Or perhaps the instructor teaches the katas without training the bunkai and those ‘ninja moves’ will be taught later when the pupil is ‘ready’, but that day never comes.  These fabrications to students regarding their proficiency levels and the effectiveness of techniques are absurd.  There aren’t any pressure points that will instantly stop an attacker, there aren’t any ‘ninja moves’, just target areas that should be hit (very, very hard) with well-practiced strikes.  Any mystical training should be done far away from the dojo, preferably in the comfort of a wizard’s robe and hat.

The modern karate movement’s solution to this problem is apparent; stop teaching crap.  Any larger associations should monitor what’s being taught (and not taught) in their affiliated dojos.  A crystal-clear curriculum that cuts out the BS and lays out what students should know at every rank ensures the students progressing to the higher ranks will know and learn what is expected.  The curriculum should not only include pragmatic combat techniques, but things like situational awareness, de-escalation, and other safety basics. 

Testing should be thorough.  The amount of information a student needs to know for a high rank is vast (at least it should be).  The shorter the test, the more likely a school will have unwanted consequences.  A short, cursory test may allow an unprepared student to sneak away with a rank they don’t deserve.  Or worse, the test won’t give a complete picture of a worthy student. Testing criteria should also be required for every rank and only students actively training/teaching on a consistent basis should be considered for advancement.  Too many karateka do not actively train or teach yet still achieve higher ranks based merely on the passage of time.  That is the degradation of karate. 

CONCLUSION – FRESH KARATE FOR SALE

In the 70s, karate marketed itself.  It was the new way to fight with a touch of magic and everyone wanted to learn.  It was in the movies and on TV shows and classes were full, especially the adult classes.  But it’s not that way today.  Whether you like it or not, running a dojo is a business.  And like any other business proper marketing is the key to survival.  So how do you market your dojo?  Every market is different, so how you spend your money on print marketing is up to you.  To stay afloat, this marketing is typically targeted towards children.  And that’s fine.  But how do you sell your dojo to the interested adults you meet?  There are questions that are pretty common to every karate school:  What style do you teach? Do you ‘go to the ground’? Do you have to fight?

My answers to these questions are straight forward.  When it comes to the myriad karate styles, they are all basically the same when you boil them down to their combat techniques.  And the emphasis on styles is misplaced.  Karate predates any styles.  The katas and the techniques in those katas are older than any style.  At my karate club we consider strikes the primary weapon.  But if that defense is breached, we practice trips, sweeps, throws, and takedowns; and then basic grappling techniques.  I emphasize staying on your feet with escape as the ultimate goal.  We also stress avoidance, situational awareness and de-escalation.  It’s basic civilian self-defense. I teach self-defense by way of Okinawan karate – Yoshukai karate with the Yoshukai Karate International association.  There are numerous Yoshukai karate associations, but it isn’t the style itself that makes it great.  It’s the people we train with.  Within the group you’ll find pragmatic karateka teaching the bunkai of the kata to all levels and abilities, as well as masters of competition kata and point sparring.  And, if you want to really scrap it out now and then, that can be arranged too!  My head still hurts from my Shodan testing and that was in the 80s (RIP Donnie Hair).  Most importantly, make sure you know what you’re preparing for!!

As for going to the ground, throws and basic grappling have always been a part of karate.  And most potential students desire a complete self-defense system.  But just like strikes, these techniques can be hard on the body, especially when you get older.  Safety should always be of paramount importance.  Tweaking takedowns and throws to stay on your feet to escape should always be the ultimate goal.

Sparring is a delicate subject.  Mixing it up a bit is great fun to some and out of the question for others.  Both are fine.  The level of contact for sparring should always be the student’s choice and strictly controlled by the instructor.  If you tout your class as ‘hard fighting’ you’ll run off most students (the smart ones).  And in today’s market, those hard-fighting students tend to go to MMA type gyms anyway.  They also tend to be students with the least need for self-defense lessons.  Let them go.

One of the greatest innovations in combat sports is the safety equipment.  Today’s equipment allows a student to throw a much harder technique (and much more realistic) at their partner without hurting them.  Students, kids and adults, should always use head gear with face shields, a mouth piece, groin protection, shin/foot pads, gloves, as well as rib protection.  Proper protective gear means fewer injuries for students.  Instructors have a duty to discourage hard-contact sparring because it’s truly unhealthy. It should be out of the question for minors. And any notion of hard contact sparring without safety gear is misguided and illegal.  Other training pads like the heavy bag, punch/kick pads and focus mitts allow students to get the feel of a fully-executed technique, and body-armor type pads allows that technique to be thrown full-force at a moving target. Constantly striking thin air is woefully insufficient.

How’s your sales pitch?  Like it or not you need to be able to sell people on your class.  One good way to win over a potential student is to let them know you teach what the other schools do not.  You can look better than a Tae Kwon Do school if you teach throw, locks, takedowns, and chokes.  And you can look more complete than most judo and jiu jitsu schools because they don’t teach strikes!  I also like to mention my club works on moves too nasty for MMA (the illegal stuff you need for a bigger opponent)!

Karate is making a comeback.  But if karate is going to thrive in the modern era it has to keep up with the times.  The modern karate movement’s path is clear - get rid of the mystic BS, practice pragmatic and useful techniques, get rid of the tough-guy attitudes, make the katas more than a dance, and get rid of the excessive pageantry and egos in your dojo if you want karate to get back to what it once was – civilian self-defense.  And thank the karate gods the modern karate movement has put karate well on its way to its former glory.

Will Wright, 4th dan, Yoshukai Karate International

About the Author: William Wright began training in Yoshukai Karate in 1977 in Titusville, Florida and has dan grades training in several Okinawan martial arts.  He holds a 4th Dan rank with Yoshukai Karate International and is the instructor for the Bonsai Dojo Karate Club in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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