Spirit First, Technique Second!

A slight diversion from my on-going bunkai stuff but this came into my mind on the back of a recent training session.

It’s a very old karate cliché and you hear it said often by the traditionalist, not so much by the pragmatic crowd because many of us have distanced ourselves from the clichés of the past tradition in order to differentiate the focus of our training, which is about effectiveness rather than self-improvement after all.

The problem is that there is still a lot of truth in these old clichés (as there is with most) and we need to examine how they really apply to the way we (the “applied” karate-ka) train and teach our students.

From our point of view “spirit” doesn’t mean marching in line until you drop or ki-ai-ing louder than anyone else (tongue in cheek, I’m aware that it doesn’t for a lot of traditionalists either, but we are discussing clichés), but the idea is very relevant, dare I say, even fundamental to what we do.

There has always been an issue in modern karate of any flavour that learning a martial art is somehow “magic”, if you know the right techniques (and practice them enough) then when you need them they will come and all will be right with the world. There is as much of a measure of this in modern applied karate as there is in traditional as our sort of training is becoming more mainstream but modified so as not to scare off potential students.

There are a lot more people now training at realistic ranges, hitting pads, doing partner based drills etc… which is all a good thing, however there is still an expectation from this that your knowing a technique to deal with a certain situation makes you able to cope with that situation irrespective of the physics involved.

However, with the best will in the world this still comes under the heading of “charms to ward off evil” unless you really take the time to pressure test these techniques in unpredictable, messy and (within certain safety limits) full on power.

What will invariably happen in these circumstances is that techniques that you’ve practiced successfully over and again with a partner will start to fail under pressure and the random chaos that more accurately reflects a real situation (and it is still only play fighting, so if you can’t make stuff work here…).

If you partner is now no longer playing the drill game but just coming on until your technique would have stopped them (you still have to “play the game” to a certain extent or people will get seriously hurt) and your technique fails to stop them because they are no longer being nice then you need to start to understand why.

First and foremost we need to acknowledge that there is no magic in technique, it will not work for you just because you made the right shape. All you are training with technique is efficient use of the resources you have (your own body), understanding the potential weaknesses in your opponent and modifying the odds of your surviving a confrontation to be slightly more in your favour.

This is where we come back to the question of “spirit first”. Once you start to really pressure test a technique you will quickly find a student with mediocre technique but full commitment (what we used to call “heart”) will fare far better than a student with good technique but no commitment.

Now you have to be careful when pressure testing techniques with students as for those who (may currently) lack the “heart” they can very quickly become disillusioned with their training (and they are typically the ones who need it the most) so you have to walk the line between reality and building (and rebuilding) their confidence until they develop a level self-sufficiency (I think a large part of this is still about being honest and setting a level of expectation up front).

So, “spirit” is not just about shouting loudly and sweating a lot, spirit is actually a large part of the cycle of training and something we as instructors should actively be trying to consciously develop through specific exercises in confidence building, pressure testing, showing what works and (more importantly) knowing what to do when it doesn’t (just shouting “more spirit” at students doesn’t cut it in my book).

Whilst I acknowledge the ideal is both spirit and technique and that’s what we should be working towards if the sh*t ever hits the fan for a student in the real world then “spirit” will be what sees them through, effective technique is just the vehicle to carry it so I’m perfectly happy to stick with “Spirit first, technique second!”


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