By Christopher Caile

Basics in Karate, TaeKwonDo and kung fu help perfect basic skills, but if you think they are useful for self-defense, think again.

Basic punches, kicks, and blocks isolate one movement, or a simple group of movements. Most often they are practiced standing still, or are combined with simple movements as in basic Self-Defense drills where one person steps and punches, while the defender steps back and blocks.

The benefits are many. By isolating one movement in constant repetition you help perfect your basics, and basics teachers so often say, are the building blocks of good, fast and powerful technique. So what’s there not to like?

A lot, it turns out. Here are some of the problems.

One major problem is that hard blocks (so often practiced, especially in karate and TaeKwonDo) just don’t work against most attacks. They are too slow (because they require a wind up or preparation move before execution and because they are done hard) and are therefore ineffective unless you have extra time and you know beforehand the attack that is coming. That’s why boxers dodge and weave, slip punches and use a soft parry or a cover-up.

Of course basic blocks work if the attacker has to take a big step toward you and you have time to step back and wind up – but that is not likely in a close in, fast or surprise attack. To make basic blocks work in the real world, movement has to be minimized and/or modified. This is exactly what is seen in some techniques taught in old-style Okinawan Karate. Blocks are more direct and in some cases the forward hand (as in an
inside block against a straight punch to the face) is used to parry (similar to what a boxer would do) while the rear hand is reserved for a secondary movement such as controlling the blocked punching arm or as a counter attack.

There are also many attacks, such as grabs and holds that basics just don’t address. To counter these attacks a whole new vocabulary of techniques must be learned. Examples include headlocks, hair grabs, two arm grabs from behind, etc.

Another problem with practice of basic technique (blocks, punches and kicks) is that it separates defense from counter-attacks. A defensive block to a punch does not change the equation – you are still under attack and a second one will probably be coming. Self-defense, if it is to be effective, should stop the attack immediately by either controlling the attack and the attacker or by simultaneously countering – ideally both. You take control and multiple defensive and counter techniques are involved.

Then, too, there is the problem of movement. Practicing blocks and punches from a stationary position actually ingrains the wrong muscle memory. Self-defense, often reflected in the moves of traditional Okinawan kata, combine techniques with movement – forward, to the side or at angles to get out of the way and/or to get into a position of advantage. Stationary drills don’t teach this. That’s why even after years of practice many practitioners in karate, taekwondo and kung fu just move backward when attacked. They lack skills in angling and movement to the side.

If you want your technique to work against real-life attacks, you must develop and practice coordinated skills. You can’t depend on instinctual improvisation, thinking that technique will come out when needed (how many of you have heard that?). Instead you must combine all your elements – movement, defense, counters and control – into single explosive or effective combinations. Defense against common attacks should be practiced over and over until they become part of your reflexive vocabulary. Of course this is the essence of old Okinawan kata, but few today teach the applications and self-defense.

In Okinawa before karate was imported to Japan there were no basic drills. Kata was the principle method of teaching. If you knew the applications, your technique included the necessary elements. You developed self-defense skills. But karate once in Japan expanded its curriculum. Techniques were extracted from kata and taught in isolation. Added to practice were basic punch, block and kicking drills, basic back and forth punching and blocking combinations, practice fighting and competition. At the same time the central role of kata practice was diminished and in most styles self-defense applications that included a rich mix of strikes, kicks, body manipulations, off-balancing and control techniques, throws and take downs were no longer taught.

But don’t think that practice fighting or kumite substitutes for this loss. Practice fighting parried down the rich inheritance found in kata to focus on percussion techniques – punch, kick and block combinations aimed at safe targets of a single opponent. In contrast, self-defense includes grabs, holds, multiple opponents, and the use of weapons and techniques aimed at targets outlawed in kumite. And the attacks are for real. They can be hard, brutal and come with no warning.

This is not to say that basics should not be practiced; they should. They teach the body how to perform singular techniques and how to develop power. They also teach balance, how to flow between technique and minimize movement within the prescribed movement pattern. But you need more for self-defense.

In short, beginners may benefit from standard drills of basic techniques, but for more advanced student you should develop your self-defense skills too. Practicing basics alone, or simple back and forth punching and blocking drills actually ingrain actions that are counter-productive in self defense situations – single technique, difficult to execute blocks, rooting in place, lack of simultaneous counter attacks and control. For self-defense you need to learn how to modify and combine your basics. And where basics punches, kicks and blocks don’t fit a particular self-defense need, you need to expand you vocabulary of skills – all ingrained with movement. This way you learn how to actually apply and use your basic blocks, kicks and counters with other self-defense technique. You learn how to move and control your opponent – skills that someday may just save your life, or at least your skin.