The usefulness of useless techniques.

by Ryan Gregory, March 18th, 2012

Meibukan Goju-ryu does not include free sparring for points (jiyu kumite). To be honest, I don’t miss it. I never really enjoyed point sparring, since it seems to me that it often just ends up as a flail-fest with few real techniques. And when there are techniques used, they’re designed to score points rather than to do damage.

Instead, Meibukan uses only pre-arranged sparring. This means that one partner attacks and the other defends using one of a set of particular techniques. The simplest version is to just do walking basics with a partner, with one, two, or three techniques thrown at a time (e.g., high punch, or high punch, middle punch, low punch). In renzoku kumite, there is a more complex sequence performed by two partners in a linear series. And in kakomi kumite, one student is surrounded by four others and again there is a pre-determined sequence of attacks and blocks. The specific series of attacks can vary in renzoku kumite and kakomi kumite, but the sequence of movements is the same. I have written more about these forms of kumite in a previous post (Learning kumite exercises).

In another type of pre-arranged sparring known as one point sparring (ippon kumite), one partner throws a particular attack (say, a middle punch), and the other responds with one of four or five pre-determined defences and counterattacks. So far, I have learned the series for high punch and middle punch.

There are five counterattacks included in the ippon kumite series for middle punch. One of them involves shifting into cat stance, blocking the punch, grabbing the opponent’s wrist, and delivering a front kick. I like this one because it involves side-stepping and redirection, maintains control of the opponent’s arm, and uses a kick. Would I actually perform such a sequence in real life? Not exactly like this, but the benefits of practicing the basic concepts of redirection and control are pretty obvious.

In one of the four high punch counterattacks, you pivot so that your feet face one side as you drop to one knee below the punch and deliver an uppercut to the groin. My first reaction on learning this was “Yeah, right”. There is zero chance that I would want to drop down to a knee on purpose in such a situation, let alone in response to a single attack. For one thing, you put your face conveniently at your opponent’s knee level. And what if that high punch was just the first part of a combination? Oops!

That said, I did notice right away that the movement of pivoting the feet and bending down to one knee felt novel and seemed to flow fairly nicely. In that sense, it added a little bit more awareness of my body that I didn’t have before. It also provided some practice at getting up from a position of being down on one knee, ready to attack if necessary. And I could also see that it would be a bit of a workout of the leg muscles if you did it repeatedly. In short, practicing this technique wasn’t useless at all and it was naive of me to react purely on the superficial criterion of whether I would use it in a fight. As I wrote recently in another post, there is a lot more to martial arts training than learning a series of individual techniques that you could use in combat (Your art wouldn’t work in real life, man!).

The truth is, a lot of what we do in martial arts training does not translate in a simple way to applicable fighting skills. I wouldn’t drop to one knee to defend against a high punch. I also wouldn’t drop and do a bunch of push-ups. But both of these exercises, done repeatedly, will contribute to a general fitness, awareness of body, smoothness of motion, and other attributes that would be helpful in a fight.

This should not be surprising to students of karate. Learning kata is pretty much the same thing — the direct fighting applications are not always obvious, or indeed may be impractical under a superficial interpretation. But practicing kata is a very good way of getting a much more general — and in that sense, more useful — training than just learning individual techniques that you may or may not (probably not) be able to pull off in reality.

The lesson that not all training is as it seems ought to be well known to members of my generation, as it featured prominently in the classic The Karate Kid (1984). If you haven’t seen the movie (shame on you!), you can get the gist of this important lesson from the clip below. I have actually used this in an undergraduate class to get across the point that sometimes exercises that seem pointless can actually be teaching an important skill. (Watch it all the way through).

Maybe it’s because I have been teaching for several years and trying to convey complex scientific concepts to my students. Perhaps I just have more life experience. Or maybe starting over as a white belt has given me a new perspective on training in the basics. Whatever it is, I feel like my understanding of the art is different this time around. I’m not as concerned about the utility of any given technique so much as focusing on the deeper aspects of the training.

No, I wouldn’t drop to a knee in a fight. But I still think it is worthwhile doing so in class.

Comments (3)

james coonsMarch 18th, 2012 at 11:10 pm

technique without principle lacks refinement.
principle without technique is too obscure.
seemingly useless unified with smart hands and nimble heart,
demons and ghosts fear
and heroes sigh.

and now concludes James’ martial arts poetry for the evening. 

Stephen HatfieldMarch 20th, 2012 at 8:45 pm

It is true… Simple techniques form the basis of complex routines.
Interestingly enough, I actually watched this movie right around the time I started my own karate training.  I too, noted that the teaching methods (as demonstrated in the clip above) are not unlike what we have been learning.  Perhaps a bit primitive, however, quite effective!

Ryan G.March 20th, 2012 at 8:59 pm

Perhaps in part because the style in the movie supposedly is Goju-ryu, and Mr. Miyagi is named after Chojun Miyagi. 🙂

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