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Train Smarter by Michael Barr

Train Smarter by Michael Barr

Train Smarter and Follow the Methods of World Champions & Elite Performers By Michael Barr

A scientific approach to training and practise opens a door to make significant improvements in your karate


Science provides the tools and the knowledge to help us realise that most important thing - our potential.

A young karateka trains regularly and to their frustration, progress is slow. A long-standing member of a dojo believes the effects of aging are a barrier to improvement and they are resigned to a steady decline.

Fortunately, over the past century, evidence-based training and practice has led to massive performance improvements. When athletic or physical skills improvements are sought, everyone who is prepared to adopt scientific training methods can improve significantly. Also, we can continue to improve at greater ages than our predecessors when we turn the scientific approach into a habit.

For those seeking progress, with limited time available and wishing to boost the efficiency of your training and practice, this paper introduces the methods and application of science. It also reduces the risk of injury and promotes good long-term health, therefore you miss less training days.

Put another way, it is finding out how others, in other disciplines, become good at what they do and applying this knowledge to karate.


Researchers have looked at the importance of talent versus practice. They have measured the baseline ability of talented people and their improvements over time, to find out what they did to improve so much, so we can emulate them.

Consider a children’s karate class for beginners, where the instructor might pick out a few talented individuals. Are the talented beginners blessed with favourable genetics or is there something else to consider?

The talented ones might just be benefiting from hours already spent learning skills and gaining fitness from other sports. Their ‘natural talent’ is perhaps down to the confidence and co-ordination gained from these other activities and transferred into the dojo. The beginners regarded as having little talent, might be venturing beyond their iPads and computer games for the first time. They just do not have the advantage of the coordination and fitness acquired from running, swimming; participating in ball games, or gymnastics.

How much have skills improved?

It is not possible to measure the progress, improvements or differences between the Okinawan masters of the early years of the 20th century and their modern-day equivalents. Therefore, I have turned to some easy-to-verify measures from other areas of achievement, to show the magnitude of the advances over the past hundred years or so.

Walter George set a world record of 4 minutes 12 seconds for the mile in 1886. In 1954 Roger Bannister famously broke the four-minute barrier. The present world record is held by the Moroccan Hicham El Guerroujis with a time of 3 minutes 43 seconds. Had Walter George been running against Hicham El Guerroujis, he would have been more than half a lap behind.

To qualify to run in the Boston Marathon, a male in the 18–34 age group must be able to run the course within 3 hours 5 minutes. This is only 6 minutes slower than the 1896 gold medal winning time of Spyridon Louis in the first Olympic marathon.

Four years later, golf featured in the 1900 summer Olympic Games. Charlie Sands won the gold medal over two rounds of golf with scores of 82 and 85. Today, these scores might get a student into a decent university golf team.

Turning to music, the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) learned to play instruments at an early age. He was driven hard by his father, but regarded as a childhood prodigy. Today, when he is compared to children immersed in the Suzuki Method of Music Teaching, Mozart’s playing ability would be classed as average.

It is unlikely these performance improvements are the result of major genetic changes; it is so improbable the thought can be discounted. Therefore, the improvements must be due to other factors. The examples above provide more than just illustrating the improved performances of a few elite individuals. They also demonstrate the big advances to the general levels of performance regarded as a decent standard, compared with the past.

Sporting achievements and other areas of skill have gone up to levels that were previously thought impossible, although directly comparing times and distances with the past is often unfair. For example: in golf and cycling we can argue the equipment is much better, using high-tech materials; running on synthetic tracks rather than cinders; records in swimming improving since the use of goggles. However, other activities such as marathon and road racing, gymnastics and musical ability do not have any big ‘equipment’ advantage compared to the past and it is difficult to dispute the massive performance improvements.

There are other factors leading to record breaking performances. More of us than ever are training and practicing as we have more leisure time and there are more full time professionals. Our standards of living, health and diet are much improved.

Talent or hard work?

An often-reported piece of research came up with the idea 10,000 hours of practice is required to become a genius in a field of endeavour. This demands 20 hours of practice a week for 10 years. The 10,000-hour rule was described in a best-selling book, Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. He said, “Researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.”

However, this is not quite right. Many of us have come across musicians, runners, golfers and karateka who have worked hard for a long time and are nowhere near the level regarded as elite. They might have been sparring in the dojo for years, but they never become great competitors. Others spend dozens of hours practicing solo kata and have not been rewarded with the improvements they hoped.

Think back to the British Cycling Team. Was the British Cycling Team training longer and harder than the other cycling nations to win all those gold medals? No one doubts that the main opposition; the French, the Americans or the Australians were training at least as hard as the British team. The French were so desperate they accused the British of cheating, with the claim the British had "magic wheels". "We are looking a lot at the kit they use," and "We are asking a lot of questions: how have they gained so many tenths of seconds?”

It seems to be clear, after considering the cyclists, to think of dedicating the next ten years of your karate life trying to training harder, perhaps more repetitions of a kata, or hitting a makiwara for example, is not the best way to approach a training regime.

We can discount the idea of major genetic changes to the population being responsible for improved performances, although asking ourselves if we have been personally blessed with the right genetics is a fair question. There is a self-evident truth that certain sporting events suit certain body types. Marathon runners just do not look like shot putters.

In this regard, karate accommodates all body types and each member of a dojo who has already ‘stuck at it’ for several years, has already proved they ‘have what it takes’. Every black belt has the capacity to be acknowledged as very good at one thing or another and should train to their strengths, not only their weaknesses.

"It is indeed impressive to watch a large framed and heavily built man perform the Shorei-ryu kata, overwhelming the observer with a display of sheer vibrant power... Again, one cannot help but be greatly impressed in seeing a slightly built man with motions as quick as those of a bird in flight, perform the Shorin-ryu kata with techniques of a blinding sweetness ...and one is not better than the other." – Karate-Do Kyohan, Gichin Funakoshi

Traditional karate is not an Olympic sport. In the dojo, a point not to be missed is we are not seeking to produce a champion, but to bring everyone up to a level of fitness and good performance. The aim of training is not to be the best, but to facilitate continued improvement to be the best we can be and to promote good health.

Why do some improve so much while others stall?

Consider someone practicing and training harder than their contemporaries, who are considered to have a similar level of talent. We expect they will become much better than those who train infrequently or with less effort. It sounds logical and sensible, but often it is not the outcome. l

Although there are more people training in different sports and disciplines, there are also many who succeed when their time is scarce: at the same time managing a day job and supporting a family. There must something going on, when significant numbers of people can improve so much, to have been world-beaters only a few generations ago, when at the same time others make little progress.

The answer lies in using a modern training approach. It can open a door to enable massive improvements without necessarily having to dedicated more time.

However, the scientific approach is not a magic bullet. It requires hard work, but possibly no harder than many of the non-improvers are training today. The research does show you are unlikely to have the desire to work hard enough to be very good, if you don't love it.


Science grows incrementally, moving forward using improved data and through examination and discussion. Often there are disagreements among scientists, which is a critical part of scientific advances, therefore what might have been a good idea a decade ago, may no longer be the way.  

A celebrated example of performance improvement came from the Olympic cycling squad. Under Sir David Brailsford and his successors, massive gold medal winning success came from small improvements in many areas. It was not all about gut-busting training performances, as his approach looked at all aspects of the problem.

For example, team members learned to wash their hands properly, to reduce the infections interrupting training. They also had a comfortable pillow for a good night’s sleep.

Taking a cue from this observation it is not all about ‘no gain without pain’. To be in good condition for training begins with a good night’s sleep, a well-balanced diet and moderation in all things.  I know from my own experience you can do the wrong type of training, which will increase the risk of injury and infection. The things we do can take us a step in the wrong direction.

Brailsford’s concept was the “aggregation of marginal gains”. He understood when someone has achieved a high standard of competency, it just is not possible to progress in leaps and bounds. He looked for a one percent margin for improvement. Improve everything by one percent and those small gains will add up to a remarkable improvement.

Sir Clive Woodward, said winning the Rugby world cup was not about doing one thing 100% better, but about doing 100 things 1% better. Although I am being lose with the mathematics, improve ten of the things you are doing by 1% and you have a 10% improvement.

At the start, there may not seem to be much improvement when changes in training make you 1% better compared to others who carry on as they were - the 99% remaining 1% worse. Add more changes to your training a persevere to make you 2% better, might still seem such a small gain to be discouraging.

The dedicated are rewarded, as after a time, there will a breakthrough when the accumulation of small improvements compound. A significant gap opens between those who make all the marginally better decisions and those who do not change.


“If you have five minutes in which to cut the wood, then better spend four minutes sharpening your axe.”

In 2008 there was a massive breakthrough in surgery. For the medical profession and the researchers involved, it must have felt like a true ‘eureka’ moment. The breakthrough resulted in a dramatic drop in the number of deaths following surgery. Surgical complications were reduced by more than one-third and in-patient deaths reduced by more than 40%.

If the credit could be pinned on one or two individuals, you would think the advance worthy of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, but no one will ever win a prize, because the breakthrough was no more than a checklist.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) ‘Surgical Safety Checklist’ is used before the start of a surgical procedure. The medics introduce themselves to the other team members. Each member of the team explains why they are present. Another question confirms the name of the patient and the name of the procedure. It is so simple and yet it required the best of modern thinking and science to create and implement the checklist.

You should not underestimate the importance of writing down your objectives and how to achieve them. It is essential to write down a plan of action to prepare a training regime and your goals. You are not going for some vague overall improvement, but specific targeted improvements, which is not the same as playing or fighting. Doing things differently with a plan, will dramatically improve your chances of achieving improvements.

Building a plan of your own

Starting to be measurably better begins with a written plan, with a realistic schedule setting out the important things you wish to achieve. When you get going and experience the progress and failures, you can ‘learn a lot about effective learning’. You can also plan for temporary failures, as missed targets will happen occasionally, but the plan keeps you on track and reduces the risk of giving up.


Standard note taking may work for you when writing a plan for a training schedule, using bullet points etc. although in the example below, I use a Mind Map. You can also try the Cornell Note Taking System or a spreadsheet or a combination.

Providing you have a system to record your schedule and your objectives and can measure your improvements, it does not need to be in a particular format.

A kata can be a central reference point for a modern training regime.

I was never permitted to move on to another kata until Azato was convinced that I had satisfactorily understood the one I had been working on ... you will, in other words, come to understand, that all of the more than 20 kata may be distilled into only a few basic ones. If therefore you become a master of one kata, you will soon gain an understanding of all the others... This constant repetition of a single kata was gruelling, often exasperating and on occasion humiliating...” – Karate-Do: My Way of Life, Gichin Funakoshi

Why one kata?

The early masters used an evidence-based approach, only practicing techniques that worked in self-defense/self-protection scenarios. Training ‘narrow and deep’, copies the training approach used by the early masters in Okinawa (who seemed to practice deliberately – see later), but we have the advantage of modern science.

Funakoshi’s reference to “…constant repetition of a single kata”, should not be interpreted as repeated performances of solo kata. Karate-do Kyohan has numerous illustrations showing training in pairs. Precept 6 of the 10 Precepts of Anko Itosu encourages us to study kata bunkai and to personally explore the appropriate use of such bunkai in combat.

Map 1 gives a format to be used with any kata and it is not intended to be anything other than a starting point or a basic template for practice.


Map 2 is an extract and adaptation of Map 1, specifically to study the early moves of Heian Shodan / Pinan Nidan. Five moves for deliberate practice. This is a section demonstrated in an Iain Abernethy YouTube video, specifically sections 1.30 to 3.00 and 4.30 to 6.05.

Choose any kata, or part of a kata to provide a framework for new challenges and specific, measurable goals.



"Night after night, often in the backyard of the Azato’s House as the master looked on, I would practice a kata time and again, week after week, sometimes month after month, until I had mastered it to my teacher’s satisfaction.” -  Karate-Do: My Way of Life, Gichin Funakoshi

‘Evidence-based’ refers to any strategy supported by a large amount of scientific research: derived from or informed by objective evidence. By a process of trial and error, from those in the 'field', receiving feedback on what works and discarding what doesn't, appears to have been the best way forward with karate. It is the building of skill on skill.

The aggregation of marginal gains is a proven evidence-based approach to accumulate skills. It points to a method and the steps we should take, but not how to approach our day-to-day training.

Here is ‘the problem’ of learning in a large karate class. The instructor demonstrates and the class imitates. Occasionally when noticing a student is doing something incorrectly, there will be a little one-on-one tutoring.

In the class a student might do 10 pounches on each side, 10 kicks with one leg, 10 kicks with the other leg and then 10 punch and kick combinations on each side. During the repetitions the student’s mind wanders. It can be mindless repetition without any clear thought for improvement. This is not purposeful practice.

Typical mindless training is performing numerous repetitions of a kata. It will be good for aerobic ability, but it will probably not lead to it being performed better the next time.

Starting karate at 69 years of age

Deliberate Practice a concept pioneered by Anders Ericsson during his 30 plus years of research, which gives us a blueprint for making progress. He is a leader of what has been called the Expert Performance Movement, a loose coalition of scholars trying to answer an important question. When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that makes him good?

Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — punching 1,000 times, for instance, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

Ericsson and his colleagues have studied expert performers in a wide range of pursuits, gathering not just performance statistics and biographical details, but also the results of their own laboratory experiments with high achievers. Their work makes a startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Put another way, expert performers are nearly always made, not born. Practice does make perfect, a cliché that happens to be true.

Ericsson confirms prodigies follow the same path of deliberate practice. They may not have any more ‘natural talent, but they started training early in life and were encouraged to train better to achieve remarkable expertise at a young age.

The ability to improve is there for everyone as it is not exclusive to the elite. Providing you are willing to change your approach, it is never too late to improve.

Ericsson talks of a Swedish man who started karate at 69 years of age. He was planning on achieving black belt by the age of 80, by training five or six hours a week in a karate class and another 10 hours a week with other exercises.

Most people’s reaction would be, "He is too old!" Ericsson’s reaction was different, as he advised getting some personal training with a knowledgeable teacher. In fact, there is good research confirming the benefits of high intensity training in old age, therefore ‘karate for your health’ is always worthwhile, when approached scientifically.

Deliberate practice and coaching

Unlike activities such as ballet, violin and piano, there is no standard training approach in karate. This makes it more difficult to identifying the experts. In an ideal world, there would be an objective measure of a karate coach’s ability as a performer and teacher. Because there is no universal agreement on what good performance should look like, it makes it more difficult to develop methods to improve performance.
Most professional instructors only train in their own karate group, working in a bubble and it is difficult to know their true coaching ability. A good rule of thumb is to seek out people who work closely with other instructors, those who the other professionals prefer to engage regardless of politics or karate style. This is often one of the biggest steps a student must make; the willingness to move on to train with a new coach.

This decision is important as one of the key elements of deliberate practice is to have feedback to identify shortfalls. Without feedback, there is no way of identifying improvements. At a simple level, this might be the use of a mirror when training on your own, or corrections from an informed training partner, but first you need the expert instruction. It pays to employ the best coach you can find to learn what you should be doing during your own practice.

You can practice deliberately when you know exactly what you should be doing and with an understanding of how the experts managed to excel. Experts learned from their predecessors and now serve as the next generation of teachers and coaches, developing training techniques to steadily increase the overall skill level.

Learning versus performing

When we train for improvement, concentrating on what we haven't mastered yet and making mistakes, we are in the ‘learning zone’. This is different from what we do when we are in the ‘performance zone’, when giving something our best shot and trying to minimise mistakes.

Our performance shows what we can do, while the learning zone maximizes our improvement and future performance. The reason many of us do not improve despite hard work, is spending almost all of our time performing. This hinders our development.

The learning zone is breaking down abilities into component skills, being clear about what subskill we are working to improve, giving full concentration to a challenge outside our comfort zone, just beyond what we can currently do. The importance of frequent feedback with repetition and adjustments and engaging the guidance of a skilled coach, because great coaches know what those activities should be and can give us expert feedback.

Key rules of deliberate practice

Deliberate practice has well-defined specific goals. It is about taking small steps to reach a longer-term goal.

For example, if a student wishes to ‘increase punching power’, say the lunge punch in a kata, this is not a well-defined goal. Before beginning to practice, it needs to be broken down into components and a brief description of what must be done to improve the lung punch. It is put into the student’s written plan and then you practice.

The knowledge comes from what the big hitter's do: mental approach, hip action; body position, order of movement and foot position etc. It is a virtuous circle: the more skilled you become, the better your mental representations are, and the better your mental representations are, the more effectively your practice.

Deliberate practice is focused, using your full attention. For example, practising a favourite kata on 'autopilot' is not deliberate practice and it will not lead to great improvement or prepare you for complicated situations. Our brains are shaped by practice. If you are pushed to learn new skills, your brain changes in the process.

Deliberate, purposeful practice requires stepping out of your comfort zone. Often, this is not about training harder, but differently. Trying to do something you ‘cannot do yet’. This is fundamental; without pushing yourself you will not improve.

Studies from many disciplines confirm no one develops a high level of ability without a tremendous amount of deliberate practice. Ericsson's research suggests you will not succeed unless you love what you do, otherwise you will not work hard enough and lack the desire to do the deliberate practice required.


One way to change our behaviour, attitude or preferences is to subtly nudge people. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman defined nudges as "nano sized investments" that lead to "medium-sized gains."

Many of the popular ways to bring about change to ourselves fail and may even have the opposite effect. The overambitious New Year resolution fails, as it requires hundreds of smaller steps, but as there are no step-by-step instructions the resolution invariably fails.

Nudging on the other hand, focuses on the how and not the what. How might a nudge work? You might say I will try 10 minutes of deliberate stretching, to improve my flexibility, when I come home from the dojo. If you don't like it, then don't do it again and find something else. It might instead be trying 10 minutes of deliberate stretching at work, or when walking the dog. If you like it, it becomes a positive experience, you are likely to keep it up and it can become a part of your plan.

Rather than saying you will try a big challenge and train in your garage every night, why not begin with one extra evening, when you will practice something for 15 mins (and no more)? If it works, build it up to 30 minutes or a second night of 15 minutes, or a weekend slot.

Nudges help to overcome psychological hurdles preventing us from performing well. Self-nudging might involve minimal modifications to our body language or mind set to produce more psychological and behavioural improvements ‘in the moment’. Again, we are talking about minor tweaks (marginal gains) with the potential to bring big changes.

Imagine a situation when someone is trying to sell you something. We look for clues to tell if they don't completely believe what they're selling. If they don't buy what they are selling, you will not buy what they are selling! It is the same with your training. If you do not believe in your own potential, which might be described as confidence without arrogance, you are not going to move ahead.

Not yet

When setting goals, there will be times when you struggle. The approach to adopt is not one of ‘I have failed’, but one of I have ‘not yet’ made it. You are on the right path, but not quite where you wanted to be in the time frame you set yourself.

Excitement over anxiety

In a series of experiments, subjects were put into situations replicating stage fright. The subjects were assigned to tell themselves one of three things before their "performance". The 1st group was to keep calm, the 2nd to get excited and the 3rd to tell themselves nothing.

Those who took a moment to reframe their anxiety into excitement outperformed the others.
When you are excited, it sets up an opportunity mind set, to make decisions and take actions that will make a good result more likely. There are hundreds of studies examining the effects of performing self-affirmations, many using simple exercises, which can be incorporated into training.

Feeling like an impostor

Many people will have experienced to some degree, a feeling we have fooled people into thinking we are more competent than we are. It is not performance anxiety, but a paralysing belief we are not as good as we are made out to be.

It might be the award of a dan grade we feel we didn't really earn, did not deserve and at some point, we will be exposed. Psychologists call it impostor syndrome. Developing true presence is the opposite.

In the study of self-protection, it is well known you can spot a potential victim by their posture and body language. What is less-known is that training to have expansive body language increases our feelings of physical strength and skill, whereas a contracted body language decreases them. Also, a dominant pose (feet spread and arms straight out to the sides) enables us to endure more pain than when we are in a submissive pose.

"Don't fake it till you make it, fake it till you become it", is an often-quoted line of Amy Cuddy, the Harvard business School professor and social psychologist. You can incrementally nudge yourself to become the best version of yourself (your karate potential). It is not about fooling other people, but kidding yourself just a little, until you feel more powerful, more present, which is achieved by continuing to practice presence until you actually get there.

Success can be a struggle

The thing many successful people have in common is that they struggled into success.

The road to successful has periods of uncertainty, of feeling average and experiencing failure when pushing your limits before experiencing success. A big mistake is failing to give yourself credit for your small wins. In the world of marginal gains, it is what we are after. Also, everything can look like failure when you are in the middle.  

A second big mistake is comparing yourself to others. They might be younger, more experienced, fitter or just ahead of you at the time. Comparing ourselves to others can be the start of feeling ‘less-than’. Remember, no matter how skilled, they are also trying to be better and when coached, they are being asked to change the way they do things and they will also be finding it tough.

You are not aiming to be better than someone else, you are aiming to be better than you used to be with what you have got.

Sources and further reading

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise
Ericsson, Anders

Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges
Cuddy, Amy

Thinking, Fast and Slow
Daniel Kahneman

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness
Cass R Sunstein and Richard H Thaler

How to get better at the things you care about
Eduardo Briceno
Mindworks and TED talks

Fast Exercise: The simple secret of high intensity training: get fitter, stronger and better toned in just a few minutes a day
Michael Mosley and Peta Bee

The Anatomy of Stretching, Second Edition: Your Illustrated Guide to Flexibility and Injury Rehabilitation
Brad Walker

Training for physical and mental health hyperlinks

High-Intensity Strength Training in Nonagenarians

Karate-do: My Way of Life
Gichin Funakoshi

Karate-do Kyohan
Gichin Funakoshi and Tsutomu Ohshima

The 10 Precepts of Anko Itosu - A translation sourced by Iain Abernethy

Five Years One Kata: Putting Kata Back at the Heart of Karate
Bill Burgar

Mordred's Victory & Other Martial Mutterings: The Collected Martial Arts Articles of Jamie Clubb
Clubb, Jamie

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