Kihon- a “Basic” Error
In the mid seventies, we all got fat on a diet of basics, served up with mashed basics, two sorts of boiled basics with a basics gravy. In the twenty first century, the consumer is a much more demanding beast with a mature palate and discerning tastes. Consequently, the same old stodge just won’t do.
I can already hear the reader exclaim; “What? Is Skipper doing a U-turn? All this talk of giving the consumer what he wants smacks of compromising of standards. Surely karate is all about hardship, shugyo, overcoming barriers, training through the boredom and pain, and coming out richer for the experience. Umpteen years of kihon didn’t do me (or my Sensei, Nissan Micra) any harm. What was good enough for us is good enough for them.”
Don’t panic. I’m not going soft on you. I can however assure you that kihon is an inefficient and inappropriate way of acquiring skills in a combat discipline. Furthermore, there are better alternatives that can deliver all the qualities you and I need to be a “real” karateka.
So what’s wrong with kihon? The good old tradition of basic drills has stood thousands in excellent stead for centuries. Hasn’t it? Er, no. The kihon drills as we know them are a modern artifice, designed to permit large classes to practice efficiently and safely.  Basic technique practice allows lots of people to train simultaneously in a limited space. It allows the instructor to drill dozens (indeed scores, even hundreds) of disciples at once. Furthermore, a hundred simultaneous kiais create an atmosphere of apparent fighting spirit and common purpose. A sort of mass-hysteria, or group hypnosis ensues. Within that group it is easy for the enthusiastic no-hoper to imagine he is performing well, and to continue in his ill-advised way, or the lazy braggart to step down a gear but remain hidden in the crowd. But nobody really gets taught anything.
In order to explain my position, first I’d like you to consider what you think basics are designed to achieve.
Karate is made up of a set of techniques, in much the same way that a language is made up of words. These words in turn are comprised of letters. To get the language right, the constituent parts need to be right first. By constructing karate from the base constituents up, the student not only builds a sound foundation for the future, but also learns patience and diligence.
Fair enough, but I have two problems with this. Firstly the notion that good handwriting and sound grammar make a great creative writer is erroneous. A string of grammatically-perfect sentences does not a classic novel make. Many a stodgy potboiler is sound in syntax and spelling but lacks any creative inspiration. Conversely a great imagination and a feel for a phrase or character can make an ungrammatical linguistic hotch-potch into great literature. Hemingway’s staccato  prose would probably fail GCSE English Language. Secondly and more importantly there are serious flaws with the acquisition of techniques in isolation. The key to the application of a technique is context. By teaching abstract techniques, devoid of any context, a whole series of fundamental errors can be allowed to develop. There are at least four elements of fighting that are missing from kihon training. These elements are; movement, distance, timing and impact. All of these elements can be experienced in full-blown no-holds-barred kumite, but this holds problems too. Obviously the injury rate, and recovery rate from those injuries will be severely impacted by a training regime that consists only of all out fighting. Such a regime will not allow or encourage personal development of those who may, in a more forgiving environment, improve. Even if your idea of karate is one in which only the hard men are of value, and the softies who can’t stand the pace should be allowed to fall by the wayside, a kumite-only regime will not work.  Kumite is fine for trying out what you have learnt, but to get to the principles, those skills need to be distilled out and practised in a controlled manner. The problem with kihon however is that in general too much is distilled out. So we need training regimes that allow us to develop those four elements efficiently. Karate, in a practical sense is a two-participant activity. Without an attack, a parry and counter attack are meaningless concepts.  So our teaching methods must take this into account.
Distance, timing and movement can be honed with a series of paired drills, such as ippon kumite, and jiyu ippon kumite. Here we can apply a controlled attack, and practice a response. This response must, in order to work, acknowledge the attacker’s shape, size, angular and linear motion and speed. The counter will only work if it directed around, under or through the opponent’s guard. Such concepts cannot be understood in any real sense without an opponent in front of you. Quite often, a counter attack will work because of its timing. A well-timed well-aimed punched with appropriate footwork can disable a kick before it has a chance to build any momentum. The subtleties of this defence are impossible to conceive without the presence of the attacker!
 Movement is an integral part of the karateka’s repertoire. Not only in the perhaps obvious sense of getting one out of trouble, or into striking range, but also in the sense of generating power, or of wrong-footing your opponent. Basic kihon drills on the spot can do nothing for the cause of co-ordinating footwork with hand technique for optimum power generation.
This brings us to impact. Many writers have already discussed the dangers inherent in punching and kicking against thin air. The risk of joint damage is only one small part of the problem. By “striking” the air the student karateka is getting no sense of what it feels like to hit something. Recoil, balance, the follow-on technique as well as the actual technique itself are all affected by the introduction of a solid object into the path of the blow. Furthermore, in many cases the “air punch” is often dramatically modified compared with a real punch to a body, or a bag. The snap created by a locked-out air punch, so impressive to novices, not only stresses the elbow joint, but also compromises the power! It is the rapid braking of the arm which causes the snap of the gi. This effect creates the myth of kime (focus) when in fact the desired outcome would be to accelerate the relaxed arm unimpeded on its intended trajectory. Many a novice has met with a shock (literally & figuratively) the first time they have been asked to hit something after, in many cases, years of practising kihon. Fist position, wrist position, shoulder shape and attitude are all affected. Once the novice starts to contact a shield, focus mitt, bag or makiwara a real improvement in power generation can be realised.
One other element of kihon that many traditionalists dwell on is dachi, or stance. Like strikes, blocks and punches stances are meaningless in isolation. Unless you are fifteen stone in weight, and your opponent is eight stone, your perfect immovable “Fudo dachi” will be of limited value in a fight. Fighting is always dynamic, and stances should be considered as transitory points in time. What is of fundamental importance is being able to move in a fast efficient fashion from stable to mobile postures. Again, these skills can be honed in pairs work.
There is another problem with endless individual basic drills. As I have said before, karate is a medium for self-improvement. There is boundless scope for all sorts of human development: social skills can be enhanced; aesthetic, intellectual and physical issues are all addressed. If I suggest that the corollary of the notion that exercise improves the body is that lack of exercise allows the body to deteriorate, nobody would argue. So is it true that lack of mental stimulation permits the mental capabilities to atrophy. And let’s face it what could be less mentally stimulating than 2000 choku tsukis in heisoku dachi? No wonder so many karateka are allowed to descend into thuggery. (Present company, of course excepted, or why would you be reading such an enlightened publication as this?)
In summary, forget kihon, and work on free and pre-arranged drills (shadow boxing) for footwork and combinations; controlled, pre arranged kumite drills for distance and timing; and striking objects for power and feedback. Once all these elements are honed, increase the random elements in your kumite to put it all into action. All these elements will add a sense of relevance to the training drills whilst permitting detailed work on the core principles. For those of you with a yen for the ascetic, self denial style, this regime leaves ample room for high repetition training, thus satisfying the “no-pain- no-gainers” whilst delivering a highly efficient, stimulating training session.
İMartyn Skipper July 2001
Martyn Skipper holds third dans in Henka Ryu and Shotokan karate but has avoided the constraints of style by exposing himself to many schools and styles in 25 years of training. He is currently practising Shukokai in
East Lancashire. To contact him for seminars, or to discuss any issues from his articles, email him on: