Learning Karate Techniques

 Learning karate techniques is no different than learning any subject at school or any skill in life. It requires effort, attention, persistence, discipline and organization. Learning karate techniques is based on the human brain functions of receiving through our senses, remembering, analyzing, outputting and controlling.

Analogy with children learning to tie their shoelaces

This process can be illustrated by the analogy of children learning to tie their shoelaces. In the beginning a kindergarten child just observes how its parents do that. The child forms a visual memory of the process. The visual memory generates a sense of comfort, which in turn encourages the child to experiment on its own. With help from its parents and after several attempts the child succeeds eventually in tying its shoelaces. From this moment on, the visual memory becomes linked to the particular hand skills necessary for the desired output. This linkage forms a thought pattern in the brain, which allows the child to see “the big picture” and to get a feeling of rhythm for the sequence of elementary actions needed for the completion of this complex process. (Yes, tying shoelaces is a complex process known only to humans among all living creatures in Nature). After several successful outputs the level of familiarity with the process increases along with the level of comfort, which in turn allows the child to analyze the elementary actions and to learn new ones. This analysis leads to performance improvements in all elementary actions. The child becomes more efficient and needs less time to tie its shoelaces. The process still requires full concentration of the mental energy or attention of the child. With practice, the child learns to control the process with less mental energy, which allows the child to redirect its attention somewhere else. After many repetitions, tying shoelaces becomes fully automatic and does not practically require any attention at all.

A karate master performs any technique in the same way adults tie their shoelaces – without thinking. A new karate technique is as difficult to a white belt student as tying shoelaces is to the kindergarten child.

Getting a feeling for the whole technique

Following the same learning process, the karate student first observes how his sensei performs the new technique, thus building visual memory of the process. Next the student tries the technique several times, which in turn links the particular motion to the visual memory and forms the thought pattern of the “big picture”. The big picture generates a feeling of rhythm for the sequence of elementary actions needed for the completion of the technique. With subsequent repetitions the level of familiarity and comfort with the whole technique rises. This is based on a fundamental principle of thought pattern formation. When a thought appears for the first time it encounters the resistance that a pioneer experiences when forging a path through a dense forest. The more frequently the thought travels this path, the wider the path becomes, the less the resistance is, the higher the level of comfort becomes. The level of comfort rises thanks to the universal principle that states that the energy flows always through the path of least resistance. A thought can be seen as a unit of mental energy flowing through the path of least resistance; attention can be seen as a laser gun that emits a ray of thoughts in the desired direction. When the karate student repeats the technique, the thought for the rhythm of the technique widens the path it travels, thus reducing the resistance and increasing the level of comfort with the technique. (This logic also explains why people tend to stick to what they know and to learn easily by analogy.)

Analyzing the elementary actions of the technique

After the level of comfort with the whole technique gets to a certain threshold (that varies with each student) the attention can be redirected towards analyzing the elementary actions of the techniques. The sensei breaks the technique down to its elements emphasizing the proper move for each element. At that moment the karate student sees the technique as a combination of individual elementary actions. This allows him to focus his attention on each elementary action, which in turn triggers the same learning process that gave the student a feel for the whole technique. The sensei reinforces the learning process by repeating with the student the same combination of elementary actions first slowly, then with medium speed and finally with full speed. This gives the student a feel for the proper acceleration and muscle tension associated with each elementary action. The focus is on understanding how and why a technique works.

Putting the parts together

After several repetitions the sensei must help the students to see a technique as a whole; to help them relearn the rhythm of the whole technique on the next level of the learning spiral – in the light of smooth transition between the individual elements. From this moment on, the improvement of the technique occurs after constant repetition and understanding different applications. The sensei simulates real applications of the technique, through controlled single attack sparring. The next phase of combination yakusoku kumite and more advanced sparring technique highlights the dynamic side of the technique – the students applies it in motion. The focus of learning shifts to development of power and proper timing of the technique associated with the motion of the opponent. The timing is learned in three phases: first with counting – the students knows exactly when to apply the technique, second without counting – the student knows which technique to use but the timing depends on the motion of the opponent, and third in free sparring – the student learns to apply the technique only in certain circumstances and in combination with other techniques. This lets the students concentrate on making the technique work for them, which still requires conscious effort. Mastering of the technique occurs when the technique is done spontaneously, instinctively or naturally – without the effort of the conscious mind – as adults tie their shoelaces. The student becomes a master – he just uses the technique when he needs to and without thinking.

Timing in learning and remembering

Research has shown that during the learning process the human brain primary remembers the following:

  • Items from the beginning of the learning period, for example when the karate technique is shown for the first time in the beginning of the karate class
  • Items from the end of the learning period, for example when the karate technique is shown at the end of the karate class
  • Items associated with or linked to previously stored patterns, for example when the karate technique resembles an already known technique, or when the technique was already shown in a previous class
  • Items emphasized as being outstanding or unique, for example when the sensei demonstrates a lethal application of the technique or describes an extraordinary application. This corresponds to a peak from the figure.
  • Items which appeal strongly to any of the five senses, for example when the sensei demonstrates a lethal application of the technique (visual) with a powerful Kiai (sound), or when the technique causes high muscle stresses. This corresponds to a peak from the figure.
  • Items which are of particular interest to the person. This also corresponds to a peak from the figure.

These points are illustrated in the following figure:

Proper understanding of the remembering process in the human brain can be a powerful tool for:

  • Improving the teaching style of the sensei through a carefully selected demonstrations and explanations to emphasize outstandingness, strong appeal to the senses, and linking to techniques that students already know
  • Accelerating the learning process of the karate students by using more actively their imagination to see the application (or explanation) of the technique they focus on as something outstanding, something extraordinary; or simply by seeing a resemblance with a technique that they are already familiar with.