In my experience training, studying, and teaching Okinawan Goju-ryu karate, I’ve encountered a significant number of students and teachers who have shared many of my same concerns over the teaching model(s) often used to present the content of this tradition.
It is quite common that the curriculum of karate, regardless of specific style, is taught in three segments:
• Kihon: Fundamental motions, both offensive and defensive in nature, and typically practiced solo,
• Kata: Pre-arranged sequences, both solo and partner-based (as in bunkai-kumite, kiso kumite, sandan gi, and yakusoku kumite), and
• Kumite: Mock or practice-fighting, which often follows a kickboxing model, where the primary techniques often differed dramatically in shape, execution, and combination than the kihon and kata motions.
In this common model, the analysis and examination of kata (called bunkai / 分解) is an additional activity, resulting in reverse-engineered, self-defense applications (oyo / 応用 / “one-offs” ) or applications “borrowed” from other styles that attempted to explain the original meaning or context of the pre-arranged solo kata.
With this hodgepodge approach, many practitioners are left to assume there must be a list of rules for the understanding and application of kata…a “Rosetta stone” of sorts that helps unlock the mystery of the oyo contained within. It has been my experience that this model (kihon, kata, kumite, oyo) has left many practitioners of ancient martial traditions in some way frustrated, as they are left with numerous questions:
• Why are the kihon motions not represented well, if at all, in the kumite?
• How will memorized, pre-arranged partner kata lead to live skills?
• Does the kickboxing model give me the skills to apply my kihon and kata motions in the appropriate context, and when it’s needed the most?
• How will I be able to utilize the more unique motions and combinations only seen in the solo kata in a “live” method consistent with the style’s core principles and preferences?
• Why do so many of the “Oyo Bunkai” that I see seem to be irrational, risky, one-offs, or counter to the ideas core to the style?
• Why, under more realistic speed, pressure, and range, do many of the “Oyo Bunkai” I am taught simply fail or leave me dangerously open to counter-attack?
• How will I feel confident that I can learn and then apply the lessons codified in the kata movements?
Because I shared many of these same concerns and questions, and because I was aware of the historical connections between Okinawan karate (Goju-ryu in particular) and the martial arts in and around Fuzhou in the Fujian province of China, I sought out training directly in several of those arts, which have a high likelihood of influencing the formation of the style. I did so, hoping to better understand the teaching methods and training models used by these styles to impact their skill development and application practices.
What I found in many cases was a more clearly defined set of “principles” describing the fighting concepts of the art. I also found that they offered alternative teaching methods to help guide students to apply their art more consistently, to employ their forms in the context in which they were (likely) originally intended, and to help develop “live” skill more quickly.
Chinese arts have long-written poems and books to describe the rationale behind their training methods and fighting theory, even if deeply encoded. The most famous example to have influence in Okinawa is the General Tian Bubishi, translated and made widely available by Sensei Patrick McCarthy.
As we discuss principles at length, it’s important to first understand that our working definition of the word principle is an umbrella term for all of the following words:
A multitude of martial arts have developed, both independently and through innovation across the world and across human history. Unlike weapons, unarmed martial arts (by their nature) have not evolved via an arms and armor “arms race,” but instead have developed as variations via a number of preferences and tactics for the use of the human body as a fighting machine, as well as a tremendous amount of variance in their teaching methods.
The principles discussed in this book, as well as their related examples, rely upon a set of underlying biases and assumptions that speak to the author’s understanding and preference around the application of one fighting art, Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate, which is considered by the author to be a clinch-range, standing grappling and striking art.
While many of the principles discussed here can support other forms of martial arts at longer ranges, primarily striking or grappling art, not all principles will support all arts equally. If you apply Goju-ryu primarily as a striking art, then some of what is presented may not resonate as well with your training paradigm. That is perfectly acceptable, as this model is not the only useful model for understanding this art or all clinch-range arts, grappling arts or striking arts. The real value of this approach is it provides a useful model for outlining a set of goals (principles), suggests their consistent use, and puts focus on ensuring live skill development in its practitioners over the development of pre-determined, memorized routines.
Merely understanding a set of principles alone does not guarantee solutions to all the problems mentioned above; however, having a consistent set of definitions and a clear set of goals and guidelines can assist in developing numerous abilities in the practitioner, such as the following:
• The ability to understand what makes techniques both efficient and effective in application
• The ability to understand what elements of efficacy and effectiveness are missing in a failed application
• The ability to clearly define the skill-development value of a particular training drill
• The ability to utilize proven curriculum-development techniques, such as “backwards-planning” , to ensure a curriculum is progressive in its skill-development pedagogy
• The ability to more easily understand unfamiliar techniques and applications from other martial traditions and relate them to commonly understood principles
• The ability to error-correct training curriculum, reshaping it from “memory-based” to “skill-based,” and from unnecessarily repetition to progressively skill-building
The highest value of utilizing a principles-first approach in training and teaching is to support the goal of true skill development.
So, HOW Do You Implement a “Principle-Driven” Model?
Even if you don’t find yourself personally identifying with the problems discussed or the unanswered questions and concerns many traditional martial artists share, perhaps some of the potential benefits of the principle-driven approach, such as error-detection and correction, still appeal to you. Regardless, the next question to answer is, “If a principle-driven approach is so helpful, how does one make best use of principles in their training and teaching?”
There are several important steps to implement a principle-driven, skills-focused approach in your teaching:
1. It’s important to understand that teaching IS communicating, and it represents a class of communication with its own common challenges. As such, terminology is critically important. You must both develop and utilize a consistent lexicon to 1) assist your own thinking and planning processes, and 2) enable clear, concise, and effective communication with students.
2. It’s important to identify those principles that represent your style’s preferences and identify the physical skills that support those principles. Clearly identifying skillsets that support your style’s principle-driven approach allows you to create and modify curriculum to support principle-related skill development.
3. It’s critical to identify that TEACHING is a profession with a related skillset and goals, distinct from those of a practitioner. It’s important as a teacher to be clear that our goals in teaching martial arts must include the idea that developing live skills in our students is a higher priority than training our student’s memory. It’s also important to keep in mind that students learn to apply information in a progressive process. Students first learn discreet components of information, then understand how that skillset fits into a broader context, and finally learn by applying their knowledge outside of pre-defined drills. Equally important, teachers should have a very clear picture of the goals they are putting forth for their students, and then develop ways of measuring student’s progress against those goals. Only when those two activities are complete should the teacher then put effort into developing the drills and lesson plans the students will first encounter. Teachers should utilize this “backwards planning” approach to ensure their teaching methods actually support progressive skill-building.
4. Teachers should work to develop and modify their teaching curriculum, so it supports progressive skill development. First allowing students to gain discreet units of useful “knowledge” necessary to progress. Next, teachers should create training methods to allow students to understand the utility of their discreet skills in a larger context…where and how those methods are useful in self-defense, while also guiding students to combine and link useful skills in that context. Additionally, the teacher must provide an environment and platform that allows the student to both “pressure-test” what they know and also experiment with applying their art in situations not provided for in pre-defined lessons.
Let’s discuss this process in a bit more detail.
Step 1 – Understand that teaching is communicating.
Step 2 – Identify the actionable principles and their related physical skillsets.
Step 3 – Teaching is a profession. Approach the process as an educator.
Teaching students with understanding is important for numerous reasons:
1. It creates informed practitioners.
2. It keeps inquisitive students mentally engaged.
3. It provides students who will go on to become teachers with a head-start.
4. It gives students the tools they need to continue their learning outside of the classroom.
5. It helps students put their training into the correct context when presented with other martial arts.
6. Perhaps most importantly, it helps students self-correct when they fail.
Because of this natural process of learning, the instructor must support learning opportunities that support each of these stages.