the best (and worst) kept karate secret

the secrets of shotokan karate
secret karate: the hidden pressure-point techniques of kata
karate secrets revealed: knowledge of the masters
secrets of chinese karate
the secret karate techniques: kata bunkai

listed above are just some of the titles available for you to buy, and all share the same idea. while i have a number of karate/martial arts books, and surely will continue to buy and read more, there is something about the idea of buying a book of ‘secret karate moves’ that makes me wary. having trained in shotokan for a good few years, and known people who have trained for much longer, i am either waiting to be ushered into the room where i am allowed to know the secrets of the karate, or such things don’t exist. to be entirely fair, i haven’t read any of the books listed, and there is an even chance that any of these are very useful books, containing useful and practical bunkai (analysis) or oyo (applications) of kata. i wish here only to draw attention to their titles, which may be the fault of the publishers rather than the authors themselves, but which are still problematic.

book covers: secrets inside!

recently i was in conversation with a high-ranking instructor, who pointed me towards the website of a karate club in reference to a video posted there; while the video in question certainly raised some questions about the quality and nature of the karate featured, i couldn’t help but think more of the text that immediately preceded the video:

“The learning of kata presents many challenges, that of technical application, timing and distance, along with balance, co-ordination and mental discipline. We need to repeat the katas again and again and strive to constantly improve technique. However, kata are never boring, each time a kata is practised it should be with the thought it is completely new, bringing it to fresh life. A single kata can take a lifetime to explore and we may never truly discover all its secrets.”

now there are certainly things here i agree with, but the idea that a kata has ‘secrets’ just doesn’t sit right with me, and i think there is a problem when ‘martial arts’ as a concept is tied – sometimes intentionally, but often not – to the idea that there is something mystical going on. this idea is prevalent in the west, and can be found throughout martial arts cinema. the crane kick from the karate kid, the secrets of wudan mountain from crouching tiger, hidden dragon, the wonderfully ridiculous ‘gun kata’ from equilibrium, all examples of secret techniques that allow our heroes to overcome their enemies. and there’s nothing wrong with this in this context, of course; cinema is escapism, and we willingly suspend disbelief in order that we might enjoy a story built on extraordinary people, larger-than-life events, and stunning visual effects.

the difficulty arises when this idea of ‘martial arts secrets’ becomes marketed to the public as a shortcut to capability. by learning secrets not given to the general populous, you have an ‘edge’, and are absolved of the responsibility to work hard. this is all wrong, and here is the only real secret of karate: there are no secrets.

to become good at something, anything, you have to work hard. karate is no different to golf, or knitting, playing a musical instrument or, essentially, anything. skill arises through sustained practice and effort, and there are no shortcuts. malcolm gladwell makes a good case for the role of practice (as well as good fortune, alongside ability) in outliers, examining how those we tend to excuse as ‘geniuses’, or ‘talented’, are not without a long history of working hard to achieve their status. similarly, matthew syed’s book bounce lays out very cogently the same idea for sports across the board, and the message is again that there is no shortcut to excellence.

shortcuts sell

consider, though, the position of the martial arts instructor, faced with making the choice of advertising a club in an already crowded marketplace. make your classes uncompromisingly hard and your customer base is likely to end up small, with essentially no children, and you are not going to make a profit. on the other hand, if your classes offer only a mild challenge to those attending, you are likely to attract a much wider audience. if the quality – that is to say, effectiveness when tested – of what you teach is subsequently less than great, then so be it. it is a compromise you make in order to draw in the revenue, and the happy coincidence is that people your clients are so willing, so ready to believe that they are learning ‘secrets’, they don’t question why the classes need not be demanding. the same does not apply to aerobics. and in particular, consider the position of an instructor who simply may not be that good, but who still wish to make a wage from it. their choice is essentially made for them.

the beauty of this tendency to buy into the martial arts ‘secrets’ myth is that the patrons themselves apply the reasoning, and so you as an instructor don’t have to, and statistically speaking there’s not much risk of the complicit self-bluff being called. it’s actually quite unlikely you’ll ever get attacked in the way that your martial art purports to prepare you for (hence why it has also developed as a sport), and even then if you do get mugged, and your secret techniques don’t work, well then maybe you hadn’t yet completed your ‘lifetime of study’ required. better take some more classes!

the handy cloak of magic names

‘getting out of the way of being hit’ seems like a fairly obvious thing to do; not many people would pay for that kind of advice. but if a child comes home from their karate lesson with a knowledge of tai sabaki, a parent might feel their money well spent. and of course one is the same as the other, but attaching a special name to something, a name in a language one does not understand, confers it a mystical status – this increased credibility is known as the phraseme effect*. but the thing that matters – actual value of karate, where ‘karate’ is a special mystical name – is not whether you learned to get out of the way of being hit, or learned tai sabaki, but the fact that you spent a time practising being attacked and getting out of the way, again and again, at high speed, with someone who was genuinely attacking you.

the names of kata, and of course the name kata itself, contain no magic. there are no shortcuts to success. and as richard feynman famously said, knowing the name of something is different to knowing something. similarly, knowing the moves of a kata, going through the dance, is not the same as knowing what the moves are. and the moves, in any direction and in any order and using any limb you like, are to keep you safe. if they keep you safe, it doesn’t matter a damn what you call them or how rough and ready they are. there are no secrets to kata: ‘fast and strong’ are not secrets. use everything else in whichever way you can make it fit; kata teaches you options, gives you ideas as to what you can do, but they are a jumping off point for fights that are by their nature improvised, chaotic, and will never – ever resemble kata. learning to attack in different ways, blocking by moving away, moving in, turning: all found in kata, all useful to keep you safe and certainly not to be deployed as learned. the more you deliberately practise in formal exercises, the more choices you will have, the better your instincts will be for finding a target when you may be off balance or blinded or injured or scared. this is karate.

the only secret to karate is that there are no secrets, no shortcuts. it isn’t in everyone’s interest for you to know that, and that might be a good way of sizing up an instructor should you be in doubt. specifically for kata, the original applications of the kata are gone, and anyone who knows ‘secrets’ is just making things up. it is a very good bet that modern applications of the kata contain some of the original, but also entirely new ones too. this is entirely irrelevant; use what works. find out what works by training hard. and please, feel free to pass that on.


(this post written for kenmei shotokan karate club)

*i made this up. there might be a name for such a thing, i have no idea; the effect, however, is entirely real.


One comment

  1. Pingback: what we’re wearing, part 2 – the white/orange belt | the cuddly rodent

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