When I was growing up, I had no idea how to throw a punch. I remember putting my thumb inside my fist for some reason. The person who saw that said something like you’ll break your hand doing that. I was always terrified of fighting and wanted to change that.
My martial arts career started back in the beginning of 1999. I can remember playing street fighter for years and thinking that I wanted to do what Ryu can do. This was back in the days before high speed internet, so my first reaction wasn’t to look around for reviews but to look in the yellow pages.
I started taking karate lessons at a place not too far from my house and stuck with it for 9 years. In that time I’ve learned a good deal about the martial arts. While this article deals with martial arts through the lens of karate, the lessons are applicable to all martial arts.
In martial arts, you will be taught a number of things. Different martial arts tend to focus on one area more than others, especially with the advent of mma and more “reality” based fighting systems. That said, there are usually three things taught to people learning martial arts. They are basics, techniques, and katas.
The most important things in fight outcomes are basics and level of fitness
The first things that you are taught when doing martial arts are the very basics of fighting. This includes stances, punches, and kicks. It’s easy to overlook this step as someone new wants to get into the cool stuff of martial arts, but this is the most important step. If you can’t perform the basics, you can’t move on to more difficult techniques. Yet, so many people I see in martial arts do in fact move on.
If you master basics and drill them more than anything else, you will be better than 80% of people doing martial arts. I was one of those people who rose up the ranks before learning how to do something right. I knew something was wrong with my sidekick, but because I was stubborn I just kept going without saying anything. I eventually figured it out months later and corrected form. I came to understand that I wasn’t the only one having this problem because other people couldn’t get power on their sidekick either. I went over to them and showed them one little move of rotating their back foot and it helped tremendously.
Similar to working the basics is working on fitness. Before each class we’d do some kind of warm up moves, some light conditioning, and some stretching. This was very limited stuff and in no shape or form will prepare you for an actual fight. You have to do your own conditioning outside of class if you want to survive fights. I have seen a lot of people who have advanced in rank, all the way up to black belt who have shit conditioning. All I would have to do when sparring them is just wait until they get tired and just amp up the intensity.
Katas have value to new people only
Katas are a bunch of moves thrown together to form a choreographed dance like routine. They hold very little value outside of learning a set of movements and putting them together. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.
That being said, if you have no idea about anything athletic, it’s a good way to teach how to move. Once you have basic movement down you don’t need to be doing more advanced katas, it’s just more of the same.
Techniques are mostly useless
Techniques are a predetermined defensive maneuver against a predetermined attack. So for example, attacker throws a punch at your head, you respond by doing x. Attacker goes to two hand push you, you respond by doing x. You get the idea. I learned a ton of these things and I remember only a handful of them today.
The reason for this is that there are so many techniques that most people only do them enough to pass the test. They are extremely convoluted movements that are hard to call up in your memory in reaction to the actual attack in time. The best techniques were the ones that were super simple, and thus easy to practice. Because of this ease of practice, you are more likely to practice them more and have them ingrained in your muscle memory.
However, another problem with techniques is that they are most effective on people who don’t train. I have done sparring at my karate school for years and can say that I have never seen a technique used against another student while in a sparring match. It’s just too fast and the people sparring are well aware of the concepts of distance to throw a big unwieldy attack at another person.
I would suggest learning only a couple techniques well that are against unusual attacks like tackle attempts, chokes, or pushes. Learn them well and have them in your muscle memory, then move on.
Best things to work on to be a good martial artist
If you really want to be good at martial arts, look at what the top guys doing continuous full contact sparring are doing. Hint: They aren’t working on their katas. I have developed a list of things to work on the hardest if you want to compete with the best.
- Basics-work on having correct form on all your kicks and punches. This includes getting your knee up on all side kicks, and pivoting your feet to get your whole body behind your strikes. Also understand the concept of hitting through your target to get as much impact as possible.
- Combinations-put some of your basic punches and kicks together in a way that flows. Throw off your opponent by using feints that launch into a barrage of moves.
- Speed-the faster your movements are, the harder it will be to defend against you. Action>Reaction, so make your action as fast as possible and they won’t have a chance.
- Strength-lift weights and hold your moves to strengthen your legs. The bigger and stronger you are, the harder your impacts will be when they hit. You also need to strengthen your hips and legs in order to be able to swing them around more effectively.
- Power-mixing speed and strength together without any hesitation, all while hitting through your target. This is the devastating combination that will cause major injury if you hit someone.
- Flexibility-work on your flexibility to increase the amount of kicks you are able to effectively use. The more flexible you are, the easier kicks become. If you can kick easier, it uses less energy. This will decrease your exhaustion and allow you to be more powerful at the same time. Head kicks now become an option.
- Stamina-how long can you go in a fight before you get tired? Work on lasting more rounds in practice so that you don’t lose merely because you lost steam.
These areas should be the areas to focus on. Mastering these will make you a serious threat and someone not to be messed with.
Karate builds confidence in people, sometimes false confidence
Always test your assumptions. People think that it’s impressive to be a black belt. I would agree on a couple levels, but one thing I have found through my own training is that being a black belt doesn’t mean you automatically become an ass kicking street fighter. The only thing that really matters when it comes to fighting other people is having the above areas mastered. If there is someone better than you, it’s most likely because they are better at some of the above areas and not because their rank is higher.
I have seen a bunch of black belts that were completely out of shape and some that were frail women. I wouldn’t be intimidated by either of them if it came to a random fight. Yet I’m sure that they had a level of confidence to them just for being a black belt. Don’t be that guy.
I personally have been in street fights after learning karate and there’s a couple things that they don’t teach you in class. First is that the other person doesn’t give a shit about your martial arts training. Second is that adrenaline is a very powerful thing. Too much while standing around waiting for the fight to happen can cause you to shut down and only use gross motor skills. All that fancy kicking and techniques go out the window.
What built a level of confidence for real in me was winning fights and sparring for YEARS. Forget all the talk in the dojo, once you do it for real, and come out the other side alive, you know you can survive.
Karate schools are open to make money
Always remember that the reason that a martial arts school is open is to make money. Take note of this when they are trying to teach you a bunch of random shit just to justify teaching you new stuff and have you coming back in. Honestly, if all I did was learn the basics, do conditioning drills over and over again, and do sparring, it may have been a better use of my time.
Advancing to black belt isn’t the hardest thing in the world by a long shot. This is more serious depending on what kind of school you are going to, but most of the time it’s just a matter of putting in the work for years. Remember that they want you coming back as that would be more profitable, so be wary of any advancement you do make.
You get out of martial arts instruction what you put in. Make sure that you aren’t someone just going with the flow because what is the point? You are the one paying for instruction at the end of the day so ask all the questions you want and make sure it’s actually benefitting you.
Beware of scams
With the advent of the internet and mma, a lot of schools across the country were exposed as being nothing more than a black belt mill. Make sure that there is some kind of accreditation your school is a part of. Do your research here because you don’t want some guy who claims he’s a grandmaster who gives people a black belt after a year.
Beware of upfront costs and forced memberships. Ideally you should be paying month to month because at any time you may get injured, lose interest, or find out you don’t like that specific style. If you paid a yearly membership for a crap load of money, you’re now on the hook. Also beware of places that charge a huge amount of money just to test for a black belt. This is usually a scam. They get you invested for so long paying a bit every month then quickly advance you up the ranks so that they can charge a huge fee to get your black belt.
Karate is still relevant
Although you don’t see too many karate practitioners in mma, I can say that a number of moves utilized by the karate practitioner are still very effective in this day and age. Most people who are in mma don’t come from a karate background. It’s usually either Muay Thai, Jiujitsu, or Wrestling.
The spinning side kick or turning side kick is one of the most damaging “home run” maneuvers you can do in a fight. It generates so much power that it will destroy someone’s rib cage area effectively taking them out of the fight immediately. The problem is that most people don’t practice this technique correctly. Joe Rogan demonstrates this pretty well by hitting a heavy bag harder than I’ve ever seen anyone hit one before.
Another technique that is absolutely devastating is something called the question kick. The question kick is a fake front kick rolled over into a roundhouse kick to the side of their head. When throwing it, guys’ initial reaction is to drop their hands to cover their nuts, so it’s the perfect setup for a head kick. I have had success with this technique against everyone who let me get within striking distance.
Another good technique is something I call the get off me sidekick. This is a tough one to pull off because you are already in reactive mode. When you are caught off guard by something that your opponent does, you step back and launch a side kick at him. Usually this is in response to them coming at you and overextending themselves. So when you opponent goes on an assaualt you take a quick step back and hit them in the ribs. It’s a little deceptive and will make them think twice about getting in your kicking zone again.
Get started today
If you have no idea what you are doing in a fight and are feeling a little insecure about this area of your life, get started immediately. There’s a certain freedom knowing you can handle your shit in a fight. Once you get started, give it everything you have.
Go check me out on Twitter.