Back to the Fundamentals

We have discussed of Learn, Practice, Apply and worked on answering the question How Do You Learn That New Skill?  Last week we asked Are You Pursuing Mastery? Today’s blog is about what to practice.

We had a great class today at the dojo. It was all about the fundamentals of karate. The youth as well as the adult classes concentrated on the basic elements of karate. Our head Sensei often says, “All power comes from a good stance.” And today we worked on perfecting our stances.


Front stance. See the knee?

Vince Lombardi, the world class football coach, famously began the first practice of the season holding a football and saying, “This is a football.” That is really getting back to the fundamentals. Similarly, John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, began every college season with a lesson on the correct way to put on socks and tie basketball shoes. After I began attending classes, I would have benefited from another class on how to tie belts!

The two coaches mentioned above always went back to the fundamentals of their sport. They also had teams that performed the fundamental tasks well. Of course both coaches are mostly remembered for their teams’ winning records.  What does their focus on fundamentals have to teach us? They knew the power of applying fundamentals and reinforcing them in regular practices. They employed the power of small, daily, fundamentally correct practices with their athletes to get the best performances from the athletes that they coached.

We are a Shotokan dojo and have our roots in Okinawa where the soil is sandy.  We can only imagine how difficult it is for a warrior defending his home country from foreign invaders on horseback. Now add to the situation that you have to be rooted in a good stance to defeat this foreign invader in the sand. You would have to know the fundamentals and have practiced them to make your stance. History is always written by the victor in a battle. So we know the answer. The warriors in Okinawa practiced the fundamental elements of the stance and did them well.

Today we performed very simple drills, just moving up and back on the dojo floor performing simple strikes. I know I was sweating about half way through the adult class. At random intervals we were stopped and our stances checked to ensure we had the proper fundamentals. When stopped, our Sensei pushed on us to see if we were in a good (or bad) front stance and if we were able to stand our ground. This was a great class–very technical for us with each stance and strike as well as very engaging as we had to think again about how to move in front, back and horse stance. We even had a bo staff check on our posture and knee position in our stances.


Front stance fundamentals

Of course today we did not learn a new kata or technique. I would imagine all who were in class today relearned lessons that were first taught to us when we were white belts. Sensei was kind enough not to start each class today saying, “This is a front stance…” We did review the basics, and if you wrote notes like I did, your fundamentals are going to be just that much better. This was an easy class from a material standpoint. It was also a fun and challenging class.

If you did not make class today the question for you is, “How is your front stance?” When you move forward are you in embusen? [Quick definition: Performance line, the floor pattern of a given Kata. Also, the head height, do you bob up and down?  All Shotokan Kata will start and finish on the same spot.]

I know that I will work this week on the drills we did in class. I will pay attention to my feet referencing and how well I move backwards in a stance as well as forward.

February has been our month focused on practicing. We began focused on the three part method of Learn, Practice, Apply. We shifted our focus to answering the question How Do You Learn That New Skill?  And last week we asked  Are You Pursuing Mastery?. This week’s wrap up with the class on fundamentals capped off a great month for us at the dojo. We trust you are learning the fundamentals, practicing them and applying them. If you would like assistance, Sensei Mae and Sensei Glen are happy to help with the fundamentals as well as the more advanced skills. Remember, the basics done well make everything else look easy.

See you in class soon. You can follow Sensei Mae  @letstalkkarate on Twitter.

Are You Pursuing Mastery?

Are you taking karate to learn a few tricks or are you out to master a skill or technique that will save your life? I recently finished reading Daniel Pink’s book Drive, and he challenged me to think about my karate. Am I pursuing mastery?  And if so, what should I be doing to achieve that goal? And, what does it mean to become a master at anything?


Am I pursuing mastery? And if so, what should I be doing to achieve that goal?

To answer the question what is a master, the dictionary has multiple definitions of master for us to ponder.  If you click the link above, one of the definitions in the dictionary is “an artist, performer, or player of consummate skill.” This is the definition that I believe Daniel Pink is discussing in his book.  As a martial artist, I would like to have that consummate skill.

Okay Sensei Glen, so I want to master the back fist. What are the steps to achieve mastery and how will I know when I have arrived?

Great questions. As a practicing martial artist, I have learned that mastery is not something we ever fully achieve. What I mean is we can learn to spell and add numbers. I have mastered “2 + 2 = 4” and I imagine you have as well. In his book Daniel Pink writes that “Mastery is an asymptote”. He says that we learned the word asymptote in algebra.  While that may be true, I did not readily recall the definition and had to look it up to confirm what he wrote. Here is what I found on the website math is fun: “An asymptote is a line that a curve approaches, as it heads towards infinity.”


An asymptote is a line that a curve approaches, as it heads towards infinity.

So, if you are still following along, we are pursuing becoming a master in karate.   It always eludes our grasp as we get closer and never quite reach the line of mastery. In a prior blog post I wrote that you are not art. As we think about our last roundhouse kick in our last fight we cannot duplicate that like we can “2+2 = 4” and have the same result, even with the same opponent at the same dojo. That is what we mean by pursing becoming a master. We get close to the point of perfection and never attain that point of perfection.

Does this mean we should not practice? Of course not! When we practice we should be deliberate in our practice toward mastering our technique. We discussed practicing in depth in prior posts learn, practice, and apply and then how do you learn that new skill?

This week our focus on practice moves to mastery. We have discussed learning the back fist, applying and using it in a fight or drill. The main focus today is deliberate practice. Our practice works best when we are challenged to learn a technique that is matched with our abilities. Daniel Pink refers to this as “flow”; it works well. He indicates that when we are in flow, we are so in the moment we can lose track of time. That is one stop on the journey to mastery.

The second area from the book Drive in the discussion of mastery is the concept of hard work or grit. He tells the story of what separated the students that finish the first year at West Point from those who dropped out. It was not academics or physical abilities, it was grit. Daniel Pink defined grit as “perseverance and passion for long term goals.” The determination to see the task through to the end, like moving from white belt to black, requires grit.

The final area from Drive for mastery is the concept of a growth mindset. At the dojo, we believe that you can learn new techniques and memorize forms. We do not just take students who show an aptitude for karate. We do not require our white belts to pass a coordination test. We have the mindset that the abilities can be learned and the skill level improved through the concepts on practice we have discussed.


Our practice works best when we are challenged to learn a technique that is matched with our abilities.

The Harvard Business Review published this in July, 2007 from the article The Making of an Expert by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely: “When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.”

Did you catch that? Deliberate practice works on the uncomfortable aspects. The article goes on to explain how when you learn to play golf, you improve a lot. Once you learn the game, just playing the same course does nothing to improve your golf game as you are at the same skill level. No growth is happening.

The article related this story of Ben Hogan, a golf master who worked to improve his shots and his powers of concentration. He sounds like he could have been a karate sensei. The authors make the point our Sensei makes about practicing. Physical practice is just one aspect. We also need the mental practice that comes with concentration.  And of course this article articulates that it takes time. The authors pick the 10,000 hours in ten years with intense training to become an international champion.

Just showing up for class for ten years and not deliberately practicing will not get you on the path to master. It is the deliberate practice that sets apart the individual on the path to mastery. The Harvard article ends with a nod to our culture in thinking about genius. Many know some of the story of the talented Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. What we forget was his teaching (learn, practice and apply) began before the age of 4 from his father who was a composer and music teacher. Mozart had deliberate, supervised practice.

I am looking now to pursue mastery in my practice. I know our students look to the senseis as masters of technique. How about you? Are you on the road to mastery?

See you in class soon.

How Do You Learn That New Skill?

Each time I come to class I learn something new. Sensei Mae and I are open to the uncomfortable feeling that accompanies learning new things. How about you? Do you know that you have to leave the comfortable behind to learn new things?

As teachers we know that students have to be open to learning new things. We are also student at the dojo and we do not always want to learn new things. I am sometimes uncomfortable in trying a new technique or kata. It may be just as simple as you want me to move how? Of course, I am thinking that others are watching me…and I am not doing it correctly. When we are learning a new thing we should keep in mind what Helen Hays said, “The expert at anything was once a beginner.”

Last week we discussed Learn, Practice, Apply . This week we are diving into the practical aspects a little more, how we learn and then how do we practice. My comfort zone is to do what I know and practiced. Of course, I only know what I have practiced. I sometimes like being able to show off my skills. This never has ended well for me. I just want to share with the world that at the very least I believe I am good at something. For me it is great to have acknowledgement that I mastered a technique. The avoidance of criticism or thoughts on how the technique could improve every now and then is a good feeling.

Learning a new skill, like gyaku-zuke (reverse punch) is best done slowly little pieces at a time. The sensei on the floor teaching the technique will usually explain it and then demonstrate how it works. Every time I see and hear a new technique I am amazed how easy it looks for the one who mastered the technique. So just picture me in class learning gyaku-zuki for the first time. I had punched bags and I had a brother, so hey—I have hit things before. This training was unlike hitting a bag or my brother. I was shown how to perform the technique correctly and allowed to make mistakes hitting the bag and then with our Sensei holding a pad for us to hit.  Performing this part slowly and under supervision moved me along rapidly in understanding the gyaku-zuki.


Performing this part slowly and under supervision moves you along rapidly in understanding.

Being in a karate family was a great assistance. We all went home and showed off to each other how this technique worked. Of course we all picked up this simple technique slightly differently. When I ask the question, “why didn’t you tell me this?” the answer from our teacher may be we were not ready or more likely, I did not listen to the whole explanation.


How good are my notes? It was easy with Sensei telling me. Now I have questions!

In my example, “how much do you rotate your hand” or “where does it start from?” and even a question on “where does the punch end?” were items we did not fully write in our notes after the first time we learned this simple technique.  Of course none of us could agree on the spelling for gyaku-zuki in our notes.

We tried it out at home and came back to the next class with questions that were readily answered by our Sensei. Now we wanted to fill in the gaps in our notes. We practiced some more on the dojo floor and came back home with the basic concepts corrected and even learned how to spell gyaku-zuki for our notes.


What can you apply from this simple process to your learning and practice?

What can you apply from this simple process to your learning and practice? Here are some of my thoughts

  • We can perform techniques if we are open to getting out of our comfort zone
  • Sensei needs to supervise initial practice at the dojo and follow-up after you have tried it home to see if you are beginning to learn the new technique
  • Practicing and note taking is a key part of the process to learn new skills
  • The sooner a correction is made the easier it is to make the change.

I am happy to say that we learned gyaku-zuki and it made learning other punches easier with the foundation of knowledge we had on that first reverse punch. You too can do it! Be open to the teaching, practice slowly to master the skill under a sensei who knows the technique, try it out at home, come back and receive refinement and help others. Remember to Learn, Practice, Apply. Continue to monitor even the most basic skills and you will keep adding to your learning and understanding.

See you in class soon.

Learn, Practice, Apply

Happy February. How are your resolutions going? Are you spending time practicing or working on your karate? Did you promise yourself that you would do more karate practicing this year? Now is the time to take up our challenge to practice more.

Of course we do not mean the satirical reference we had when looking at our dojo’s Facebook page this week. We saw a posting “from” Bruce Lee asking if you had practiced enough. Of course the schematic followed the trail to encourage us to keep practicing. It is great to practice, and Sensei Mae and I believe you should be practicing. All of us know we should practice more than we do today.


Did Bruce Lee really say you should get back to practicing?

Here is my schematic for the cycle, not just constant practice as advertised by Bruce Lee, but learn, practice, apply, re-learn, practice, apply…


Not just practice. Learn, practice (take notes) and apply!


Before we practice, we should learn the move or activity and write it down in our notes. We recommend pen and paper. Take a look at Sensei Mae’s blog post about taking notes. A good journal helps keep things straight. I often find that in writing it down it shows the gaps in my understanding and knowledge. If I can write it down, I know that at home I can practice.


After we have been taught an activity or move, we should practice that activity or move. Helen Hays said, “The expert at anything was once a beginner.” To get the most out of practice, we should begin as slowly as the move allows and build up speed as we determine our technique is correct. Our head Sensei demonstrated a jumping move in black belt class last week. He jumped and come down pretty quickly. Here is the reference back to the notes; if you have a karate friend, asking them to watch you pays off for the both of you.


After you have learned and practiced the move or activity, you are ready to apply. In the application stage it may be running kata for your Sensei or using the move in a fight at class. Whichever the application after the execution, you will receive feedback. The move worked in the fight and your classmate was impressed, or the move did not work and you will need some refinement. I know in my journey I have learned several katas, and they are never perfect–they require refinement and re-learning.

Re-Learn, practice and apply again (and again…)

As we grow in our martial arts practice, we will follow the learn, practice, apply, re-learn…sequence on several techniques and activities. Part of the joy in karate and moving up in the ranks is working on perfecting a “simple” technique. We all learned a front kick as white belts. When I was practicing for my black belt test, I was still refining the front kick to ensure my foot and ankle placement was correct.

If you want to grow as a martial artist, the timeline of only practicing shown at the beginning is incorrect. Of course we must practice. Proper practice occurs after we receive proper coaching and receive feedback on how well we have learned and applied our martial arts. Keep practicing. If you would like feedback on your technique, drop us a line here at the blog or reach out to Sensei Mae on Twitter @letstalkkarate.

See you in class soon.