Sometimes the hardest part of martial arts training is the practice of basics year after year. For many this gets boring and repetitive. They want to move on and master more advanced techniques – things that are more exciting, fun and even spectacular.
These are the martial artists who after many years get into their own groove. They are so used to doing techniques, that they do not focus on them, and do not examine what they are doing. I often see these students in class. Many of them are advanced in rank, but their technique has dissolved into sloppiness. Even if shown the correct method, these same students quickly revert to original form.
This is what I call following outer form without working on the principles and technique within.
In various arts, such as karate, or example, this problem becomes especially evident when you see these same students execute kata (prearranged sequence of techniques). (1) They perform the outer form, but are unbalanced, lacking power, effectiveness, and speed of execution. In short: their basics are sloppy, thus so is their technique, and with sloppy technique their kata is impaired.
In self-defense, this same problem may impact a student’s health. If a knife is coming toward you, it is no time to be sloppy and slow.
Some time ago I was at a gathering at a friend’s house, and my friend introduced me to one of his neighbors. After talking for a while, this neighbor said that he had been studying a form of Korean Taekwondo for about eight years. Before long he was demonstrating various techniques. Included were some kata moves. It was terrible –sloppy movements, off balance, no power, etc, etc. “Good God,” I thought. “What are his teachers teaching him?” I hoped his self-defense, if he ever had to use it, was more effective, but doubted it. (2)
Whatever your art, there are intricacies and subtleties of basics that are essential to the correct performance of your art. Real progress is measured by the mastery of these aspects, the mastery of the inner form, not the outer pattern. Nothing is gained by practicing year after year the same sloppy technique.
Students in karate, for example, sometimes ask me, “Aren’t you bored after more than 45 years doing your basic punches, kicks, blocks and stances?” I tell them, “No, because I am always working on something. You might not see the subtleties in what I am working on, but they are there.” This adds interest to what otherwise might seem boring and repetitive.
In practicing karate, for example, my performance of basics has evolved from what it was ten years ago. Even though I am older and possibly not as strong, today my punches are faster and more powerful. My techniques, I believe, are infused with better body mechanics, body movement, methods of generating power, and are more focused on specific targets and angles of attack. I have incorporated more internal dynamics of power and reduced reliance on outer muscular strength. I have relaxed externally, but learned to add internally compression, and the use of the internal hinges of the body including multi-angle koshi movement (hip including lower torso and upper thighs) combined with gravity. And, I might add, there is much to work on.
Mastering basics is a lifelong activity, not just repetition of the same movements done in the same way over time. You learn the outer pattern first, but then you work on trying to understand and perform the principles and methods within. Sometimes you only understand these after years of training and watching your masters. Some teachers too will first teach one level, then another and another.
The secret to improving your basics is to be attentive to yourself and your movement. You can be shown something, but only you can monitor your progress. You thus become your own teacher as you incorporate what you have learned. At some point what your have learned become so ingrained into your muscular memory and reflexive action that it becomes instinctive. You can then move your focus to new goals.
Mastery of basics is always an elusive goal, for there is always more to learn. Once many years ago after a seminar in aiki-jujutsu I was talking to another student in the locker room. I had been very impressed with the technique and aiki movement (seemingly almost effortless ability to perform technique) of the master. I casually questioned myself saying, “How long do you think it would take to approach his capability?” The fellow student looked right at me and replied, “You will probably die first.