The Key Is to Customize Your Forms by Playing With Them!

When facing a real attack, creativity and fast thinking are crucial for overcoming an opponent. The human problem, however, is that in a moment of stress, people tend to resort to a single, familiar response — whether it works or not. The goal of martial arts training is to help the student develop the ability to solve various tactical problems in moments of crisis. To achieve this, several attributes must be cultivated. One of the most important is the flexibility of mind needed to make good tactical decisions. What may be surprising, however, is the method that traditional arts use to develop flexibility of mind: kata.

Kata, or forms, have been taught in the fighting traditions for hundreds of years. The thing that makes them so effective as a learning tool is what's overlooked in most modern schools, where forms are often treated like an annoying curriculum requirement. Classical forms are composed of actual self-defense techniques that are based on sound and reliable principles. So the first step is to actually practice forms "for real." This means that forms training must include not only the solo performances but also the bunkai, or two-person applications.

Now, some people say they practice bunkai, but they're misleading themselves if their practice consists of defending against stylized attacks that bear no relationship to what one is likely to see in a real-world encounter. And they're misleading themselves if the responses to those stylized attacks — supposedly, the movements from the form — depend on distance and anticipation to work. True bunkai is the purely functional use of movements from kata against common forms of aggression.

Note: To test whether you're practicing true bunkai, have your training partner attack with intensity and realism. If you can't make your application work, it probably is not true bunkai.

When kata are taught properly, the first step is to provide students with a simple, realistic and usable interpretation for each movement of a form. Each individual move is taught as a response to a realistic attack. And it's taught on the assumption that the attacker is about the same size as the defender. But what if you're a 5-foot-6-inch, 125-pound woman training in a dojo full of men who are 6 feet tall and north of 200 pounds? Clearly, the standard techniques won't work as standardly taught.

This is precisely what makes kata training so important. The secret lies, first, in understanding that kata are practical and that practicality is expressed in realistic bunkai, and second, in acknowledging that realistic bunkai is ultimately about understanding and applying the principles of a technique. In other words, if you have a practical use for a kata movement, you have one good technique. But if you understand the principles of that one technique, you have a thousand techniques.

So how can kata be taught and subsequently fine-tuned in a way that maximizes practicality and conceptual understanding? The answer is to give yourself permission to think creatively about forms so you come up with a variety of bunkai that work best for you. And to accomplish this, you must give yourself permission to play with the forms.

And how does one play with kata? Any way you want. A simple way to start is to change the timing and emphasis. For example, while performing a downward counter (gedan-uke), the emphasis is usually on the downward strike. Instead, emphasize the beginning of the movement when your hand comes up near your opposite ear. Suddenly, you discover another striking action hidden within the movement. Your downward counter isn't a low strike away from yourself; it's a rising strike that moves toward your own body.

Another way to play is to start with bunkai and work your way backward. Perform a bunkai you already know but on a differently sized or abled opponent. While performing the technique, pay attention to modifications that you make to execute the move effectively. Once you have identified a modification, try to apply it to the solo performance of kata play.

The point is to learn to think freely and creatively. Playing with kata is a form of free expression. This leads to creative thinking and to the discovery of principles of effective self-defense. And this, in turn, leads to different ways to solve tactical problems and ultimately leads to the skill one needs to make good tactical solutions under stress.

Now, some very traditional practitioners will object to the notion of playing with kata because it implies "changing" the forms — a notion that attacks the very heart of the traditionalist sense of orthodoxy. But playing with kata does not imply abandoning the "orthodox" versions, however they're defined within a given style or tradition. In fact, it's the custom of the authors to practice orthodox kata, then to perform a personalized, played-with version of the same forms.

Other instructors might object, claiming that it will create confusion if students are given permission to personalize their own art. But imagine what would happen if students were taught to think on their own — and not simply parrot the teacher's movements. Imagine how much more they could get done during class. Instead of struggling with students who can't get something to work, the students can play with the movement themselves and find alternative methods that work for them. In this way, playing with kata can solve some very important dojo problems.

For example, if students think there's only one correct way to perform a technique, they'll tend to sacrifice technique and muscle their way through the move when necessary to make it work. But when students are encouraged to adapt techniques to suit their strengths, they begin to work independently on improving their technique through proper body mechanics.

Another dojo problem revolves around the fact that karate is a male-dominated adult activity. But if you look at the kids classes, there's a more even mix of girls and boys. What causes girls to quit training?

There's no one single reason, but part of the problem is that girls are not being taught how to adapt techniques to make them work. Most girls, as they grow, find that they can't muscle their way through a technique against an adult male to make it work.

Sadly, most sensei don't have enough time or knowledge to teach a different way of doing the technique when this occurs. Nor should they. Instead, if all the students are given the freedom to play with kata and the corresponding bunkai, those girls — who might be in danger of quitting — can learn to think independently as they modify their moves.

Another dojo problem is that training partners don't always attack in a helpful manner. This is especially an issue for women training with men because the men sometimes will try to demonstrate their superior strength with female training partners. Students who have been taught to play with kata and modify them for different situations have a much better time adapting to meet changing circumstances — all the while, still using the framework of the kata. For students trained in this approach, kata aren't stagnant routines; they're living things that can be manipulated and shaped to fit a variety of combative circumstances.


Who knew that playing could be such a useful learning tool? Students who have been given permission to think creatively about kata will become better fighters. They will have already learned how to adapt to different situations and circumstances. Sparring will improve with the freedom to think outside the box.

And should the students find themselves in a self-defense situation, they will be prepared to think on the spot instead of freezing when a technique doesn't work like it was supposed to.

The ability to think is arguably one of the most important fighting skills anyone can learn. A good fighter has a good mind. Kata are the perfect tool for training a strong, effective mind — as long as you're given permission to analyze, adapt, shape, understand and play with those kata.

April Taylor is a practitioner of Ryukyu kempo. She stands 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 125 pounds — and regularly trains with 200-pound men. Chris Thomas is a longtime practitioner of the martial arts and a renowned instructor whose articles have appeared in Black Belt since 1981. He is also April Taylor's dad. Click here to visit his website.

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It's the Kick That Gets No Respect, But It Works!

The front thrust kick isn't the most dynamic technique in the dojo. Perhaps it's because there isn't a lot of excitement in seeing or performing it.

Unlike a front snap kick that flicks up to head height or even higher, the front thrust kick looks more like you're stomping at a door that won't open. It just doesn't have the elegance. And unlike the snap kick, it's nearly impossible to make an effective thrust kick any higher than you can raise the knee of your kicking leg.

However, the technique can be devastatingly effective and undeniably versatile.

Unlike the snap kick, which directs force upward, the thrust kick sends its energy forward.

The Japanese name for the technique is mae-geri kekomi, which translates as "front kick, thrusting." Unlike the keage, or rising kick, which directs force upward, the thrust kick sends its energy forward or, better yet, down.

Ideally, a front kick is best used when the target is below the height of your waist. If you're flexible and have good springing power in your hips, you can direct it at the chest of your opponent. Problem is, as your knee chambers in front of your chest, your intentions are fairly obvious. If your opponent has even a basic grasp of shifting or evading, he won't receive the full force of the kick and may avoid it altogether.

In a rising kick, power comes from the upward motion of the foot as well as from its forward momentum, leaving your opponent to deal with energy coming from two directions. In a thrusting kick, the power comes in a single, straight line. That makes it easier for him to anticipate and neutralize it. The advantage is that the thrusting kick travels with more power.

The striking weapon in a front thrust kick is the ball of the foot or the heel. Why not the entire foot? With a hard-soled shoe on, the bottom of the foot might have good pushing power, but when you strike, you want to concentrate that power in as small an area as possible. Making contact with the ball or heel does that.

The heel is harder, less susceptible to injury. For it to be the focus of your strike, though, you need considerable flexion in your ankle so you can draw back your toes. Doing heel raises with the ball of your feet on a platform is essential for this kind of flexibility.

More than any other kick, the front thrust kick depends on the proper use of your hips. To see how this is best done, stand with your heels together in a natural stance. Lift your knee and make a thrust kick to the front at waist height.

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Now, ask a partner to stand behind you with his open hand just touching the back of your head. Kick again, paying attention to what happens to your head. It will move back a couple of inches. If it moves back more, your power may be coming from your hips but part of it is "leaking" out through your torso. Energy is going backward, not to the target.

Another way of analyzing the execution of the kick is to examine the role of your supporting leg. It cannot be locked. It should have some springiness to it, with your knee bent slightly. If you want a guide, have your partner watch you from the side. When your kick connects, your buttocks should be on a vertical plane with the heel of the foot on your supporting leg. The knee of that leg bends just enough to support that action.

When you kick, try to keep your arms hanging naturally at your sides. If balance is a problem, your arms will tend to come out, like a tightrope walker with a balance bar. Avoid that. The less movement you have in your upper body, the more likely the kick will be successful — which leads us to its major drawback.

No one would describe the front thrust kick as a stealth technique. When you're doing it, as I noted, it doesn't come as much of a surprise. Your knee is chambered, your foot is cocked — there isn't much question about where it's going. That means your opponent need only shift back enough to let the focus of your kick land in the air in front of him, and you've basically offered him your leg for grabbing. The higher its intended target is, the more easily it's grabbed.

There are at least two possible solutions to this weakness, aside from the oft-heard and good advice that you must retract your kick quickly.

First, know that the front thrust kick is most effective against an attacker's knee or the area just above the knee. With the kick aimed there, its force tends to come down. The action is more like a stomp, with the weight of your body and gravity adding to its power. If you miss, you'll have driven deep into your opponent's stance.

Using all caution and good sense, try this: Face your partner in a fighting stance. Lift your knee and execute a front thrust kick aimed at the inside or outside of his knee. (Let him know in advance which one.) Deliberately miss the knee as you move in slow motion with minimal power. When you miss, instead of retracting your foot, leave it out; drive your body in behind it. In effect, you're making what amounts to a big stomping forward step. You'll land well inside the comfort zone of most people. At this point, you should see which close-range techniques are available to you.

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Second, follow the way of Okinawan karateka. Start by facing your partner in a natural stance. Stand close enough so that when you stretch either arm out, you can just pinch his uniform at the shoulder. Hold onto the fabric. This is the distance at which you should practice your front thrust kick.

Can you lift your knee high enough — remember to move slowly — to connect with your thrust? Can you use your foot to touch him at waist level without losing your balance or pulling him? This exercise demands flexibility in the hips. If you haven't practiced the basics of the front thrust kick, you'll see your weaknesses now. Your buttocks will stick out or you'll lean forward, trying to maintain your grip on his uniform and still get the kick out.

In all likelihood, this will most often be how the front thrust kick is used. It works well when it's polished because an opponent at close range, even grappling range, doesn't expect you to kick and because there isn't any warning. If you and your opponent are at arm's length, his perspective is dramatically shortened. He doesn't see your knee being chambered, and he can't anticipate the straightforward direction of the kick.

The mae-geri kekomi will never have the grace and fluid beauty of the front snap kick. Practice it, though, and you'll see that it definitely has its moments.

About the author: Dave Lowry is a freelance writer who's trained extensively in the Japanese and Okinawan arts. He started writing Black Belt's Karate Way column in 1986.

What You Need to Know to Find the One That Is Right for You!

To karate practitioners, kumite (fighting or sparring) is the culmination of all training. Whether you study the martial arts for self-defense, competition or personal improvement, kumite serves many useful purposes. It is more than just fighting, however. It's a direct link to karate's origin and intent, as well as a personal expression of you as a martial artist.

Why Fight?

The purpose of kumite is not to see who is the strongest, who can hit the hardest or who is the fastest. It is to allow students an opportunity to better understand themselves. This understanding provides an insight into their physical condition, mental attitude, spiritual commitment and technical ability. In addition, it serves as an indicator of how students handle life's day-to-day problems.

During kumite, it's easy for students to imagine that their opponent is stronger and more technically proficient than he or she really is. The students, because of their own lack of confidence, form this image of a formidable and frightening foe. They fail to make eye contact with the opponent, immediately going on the defensive — often to the point of running away. This attitude may reflect the way the students handle problems in life. Dwelling on the problem, they envision it to be much more complicated. Instead of confronting the problem for what it is, they choose to back down, accepting failure and defeat without even trying.

Kumite is the final span in a long bridge that includes kihon (basics) and kata (formal exercises). Cementing the gaps between the spans requires constant adjustments. If, during kumite, a student throws a roundhouse kick and the opponent blocks it, the student must start doing something different. If the opponent constantly scores on the student, the student needs to adjust things so he's not there when the next attack comes.

This also applies to life. A student never knows what his day has in store when he awakens in the morning. He may get ill. He may be involved in an accident on the way to work. He may arrive at work only to find that his job no longer exists. Life is full of obstacles, and they require adjustments — just like in kumite. How an instructor teaches his students to approach kumite and how well they learn this can mean the difference between hating it and enjoying it. This same is true in life: How a student approaches it determines whether he succeeds or fails.

Kumite is essential to the practice of karate. Karate in its truest and most traditional form was intended as a system of self-defense and self-preservation. If its techniques were ineffective, karate would have vanished shortly after it was created. For the techniques of karate to be applicable to self-defense, they must be constantly and consistently practiced. This includes the practice of kumite in all its forms, seven of which are described here.

Sanbon Kumite

Sanbon kumite means "three-step fighting." The students face each other in predetermined stances. The most popular stances include zenkutsu dachi (forward-leaning stance), kiba dachi (straddle/horse stance) and kumite dachi (fighting stance). One student plays the attacker, and the other plays the defender.

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The attacker throws a prearranged technique (punch or kick), and the defender uses a prearranged block and counter. This sequence continues for three movements. At the conclusion of the third block, the defender counters.

After the completion of three advances by the attacker and three blocks by the defender, the roles are reversed and the exercise is performed again. This allows the students to practice the basic techniques of offense and defense while learning to adjust to their opponent's movement and compensate for changes in distance. The speed and intensity of the attack can be increased as the students become more proficient.

Ippon Kumite

Ippon kumite means "one-step fighting." This exercise is done in the same manner as sanbon kumite but with only a single forward movement of the attacker and a corresponding backward movement, block and counter. The students reverse roles after each attack and defense.

Kihon Kumite

Kihon kumite means "basics fighting." In it, students go through a prearranged series of movements that include blocks, kicks and hand strikes. The exercise teaches students how to transition from one technique to another. It also allows them to adjust their techniques to fit their current fighting needs. This can include modifying the distribution of weight between the feet and the positioning of the hands for punching.

For example, the basic seiken chudan tsuki (forefist middle thrust) requires the student to retract his non-punching hand to a position alongside his body between his armpit and hip. His punching hand extends forward at mid-level. But during kihon kumite, his hands may be held high like a boxer's. His retracted hand moves to the area near his chin to protect his face. With this modification, power is sacrificed for the sake of defense and speed, but the student may execute the series of techniques while stationary or moving forward, backward, laterally or diagonally.

Yakusoku Kumite

Yakusoku kumite means "prearranged fighting." The students practice a prearranged series of movements with a partner. One student attacks with controlled contact, while the other moves about, countering with a prearranged set of blocks. The roles of attacker and defender are reversed after each set.

As the students become more confident and proficient, the exchange of techniques and the transitions from attacker to defender become more rapid. This, in turn, allows for a faster and stronger counter. The repetitive nature of the training also enhances the students' timing and sense of distance.

Tanshiki Kumite

Tanshiki kumite means "modified prearranged fighting." The degree of contact can vary from light to moderate. The intensity depends on the control and proficiency of the students. In actuality, this is an excellent way for students to learn control and avoid injury.

The variables in this exercise are endless. One student may be instructed to use only kicks while the other uses only blocks. One student may employ only his hands while the partner uses only his legs. One student may be limited to three or four specified kicks in any order while the partner blocks and counters in a prearranged manner. Without stopping, the students may quickly change from offense to defense or from one set of techniques to another. No matter what the details are, speed, timing, transitioning and distancing are greatly improved.

Jiyu Kumite

Jiyu kumite means "free fighting." The students are not limited in their choice of techniques, nor are they regulated in their choice of playing the attacker or defender. They apply their techniques according to how their school or art teaches: non-contact tournament sparring, controlled tournament sparring, full-contact tournament sparring or realistic street defense. During the practice of jiyu kumite, students learn how to fight their opponent and acquire an understanding of themselves.

Jissen Kumite

Jissen kumite means "full-contact, no-pads fighting." This intense form of sparring was created by the legendary Masutatsu Oyama, founder of kyokushin karate. Jissen kumite requires extensive practice of karate kihon and kata, as well as all the aforementioned forms of fighting. It also requires the students to endure an exhausting physical conditioning regimen.

Participants engage in jissen kumite without protective equipment. Full-contact punches and kicks are delivered to the head, body and legs. The only prohibitions are hand techniques to the face, groin attacks and frontal attacks to the knees.

Those untrained in this form of karate fighting would probably expect numerous injuries to occur. Although they do occur — in all forms of karate fighting and in other contact sports — they are not too prevalent or severe. This is because the fighters are well-conditioned and highly skilled. They have trained long and hard in the dojo (practice hall), and they probably cross-train in running and weight lifting, as well.

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More injuries occur when karate students use protective gear than when they engage in jissen kumite. Students wearing gear at tournaments and in schools often receive busted noses, split lips or dislocated jaws because of uncontrolled punches to the face. Other common injuries are sprained, dislocated and broken toes and fingers. This happens because students wearing pads often rely on the gear to stop a blow, rather than their own blocking technique.

The use of protective gear in sparring is very important for two groups, however: children and students who do not wish to prepare for full contact or real self-defense.

It is hoped martial arts students will never be faced with a street encounter, but if they are, there will be no time to stop and put on protective equipment. And you can rest assured that the assailant will not be wearing any.

No matter which style of karate is practiced or what your reasons are, kumite can yield significant results. Perhaps the most important is the understanding of yourself. This understanding will better prepare you for life's challenges — which, like kumite, require strength, confidence and determination to overcome.

About the author: Michael J. Lorden has studied kyokushin karate for more than 37 years. He has taught the art for the past 18 years and is currently based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Photos by Brandon Snider

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The first time I met Joe Lewis was in 1985 at a sparring seminar he gave in Corona, California.

It turned out to be a great experience — even though he lambasted all traditional stylists (like me) who used formal stances (the horse stance, for example) in their training. His comments didn't bother me, however, because by then I'd learned to regard statements from martial artists with his impeccable credentials as constructive criticism. So I listened intently as he spoke, even though I never stopped doing those stances.

The next time I sat down face to face with Lewis came a decade and a half later. By that time, I was a regular writer for Black Belt, and I'd penned a few features about him after conducting telephone interviews. I had become a real fan — Lewis was a great champion, a smart fighter and a gifted teacher.

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What does a karateka need to know about the Japanese sword? Well, nothing really.

Karate's roots are not in feudal Japan, where the katana was ubiquitous. Yes, there were plenty of swords in old Okinawa, but as an art directed mostly at unarmed combat, karate emphasizes movements and strategies that are, in many ways, incompatible with those used to make the sword an effective weapon.

It's odd and sometimes unnerving to watch karate demonstrations given by sword "experts." Assuming that a person can use a sword just because he or she has experience in karate is like assuming that because your basketball skills are excellent, you'll be a good lacrosse player — they're both sports that use a ball, after all.

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