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What is Fighting Spirit? And how to train it!

We can see if somebody possesses fighting spirit or not. Fighting spirit seems to be ubiquitous. We all know what fighting spirit is. Until we are being asked for an explanation. By Michael Ehrenreich

Fighting Spirit: You Know It, When you See it!

When I started competing in the early 1980´s I heard a well-known German coach explaining to one of his students: “You lost the fight because your opponent had more fighting spirit”. I knew exactly what he meant. Even though I was  rather inexperienced as a competitor I  clearly saw that the other fighter wanted it  a little bit more. But what exactly was this karate expert saying? Is fighting spirit something one has and somebody else does not?

The picture shows Michael Ehrenreich during a fight with Shiina. Both show incredible fighting spirit.

Later as a black belt II understood that there is still a lot to learn. So, I went to many seminars. With all the big names. Unfortunately,  fighting spirit never really became a topic in our discussions. Many of the well-known instructors would mention that fighting spirit was the most important thing for a fighter. I believed them. However, it never went beyond these one-liners. Thus,  I researched in fields like psychology, education, neuro science, philosophy, and sport sciences. Being a sport scientist myself I came up with the following idea: Fighting spirit can be understood just like fitness.

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The Puzzle of Fighting Spirit

Fitness is a complex and very balanced combination of a variety of skills like power, speed, endurance, strength, agility, and others more. We only speak of fitness, if all those virtues are being established at a decent level. The same applies to fighting spirit. To illustrated that I have created the fighting spirit puzzle. In this puzzle, all parts are interconnected . Together they constitute our fighting spirit.

The fighting spirit puzzle has six parts: self-confidence, persistence, determination, control, risk-taking, and competitiveness. This  analytical puzzle helps us to  to target specific weaknesses in us. It enables us to reach specific goals. Like in fitness, when we want to increase our speed, we need to work on our maximum strength, do plyometric drills, and practice a specific number of karate techniques at maximum speed. When it comes to fighting spirit we would apply the same principles. We would train a specific part in order to increase our fighting spirit.

6 Different Elements of Fighting Spirit

Self-confidence

But what are the different elements of the puzzle? The first element is our self-confidence. Self-confidence is a central part of fighting spirit. It is a positive feeling, it increases our self-esteem. Self-confidence is based on our skills and our positive experiences with challenges. That means, we have self-confidence in a certain area, whereas in others we might lack self-confidence.

Think, for example, that you as a Karate expert teaches a Karate class. You have the skills, the experience, and hence the self-confidence to teach a successful and exciting class. But than you need to talk about Karate. In front of strangers, hundreds of them. This is still the same topic, but a different setting. As a result, your confidence might  be low. That is why, it is so important, to always implement specific training impulses for specific goals. You cannot increase your self-confidence for a self-defense situation by signing-up for  a kata seminar.

The picture shows Michael Ehrenreich in situation full of fighting spirit.

Persistence

The second elements persistence. With persistence I understand the virtue of standing your ground when under pressure from outside. Pressure from outside can come in all different forms: a strong opponent in a fight, a mean boss, an important test, but also pain. While we don’t have much influence on the things that hit us from the outside, we can consider the way we look at them. We can change our perspective and look for weaknesses in an opponent. We can take lessons from peers who went through the same challenge. Over time, we will get used to all kinds of pain. In doing so, we will reduce the pressure and the stress that comes with it. We will be able to deal with a challenge or threat.

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Determination

The third element  is determination. It is the skill to set a goal and then motivating oneself to reachit. No matter what is being thrown at us. Somebody determined will always be first in class or practice and the last one to leave. She focuses on the possibilities and not on the problems. If she is not satisfied with a situation, she will change it.

Control

Control is the next element of the fighting spirit puzzle. With control I allude to the control over our feelings. The understanding that showing ones’ emotions is a sign of weakness and will not help us reaching our goals. Keeping our emotions under control in times of pressure, stress, and anxiety is an important aspect of a grown-up Karateka and of fighting spirit.

Risk-Taking

Taking risk is another element of the puzzle. We live in a society where taking risks is considered something to be avoided. But in order to progress as fighters and as human beings we need to take risks. As Karateka, if we go into a Kumite class and we do not feel butterflies in our stomach, we probably will not progress much as a fighter.

Competitiveness

Competitiveness is the last element of our fighting spirit puzzle. It is closely related to risk taking. But as Karateka it includes an opponent. It makes a challenge more dynamic. For instance, if we want to increase our fighting skills, we need to fight in class. The less rules we implement the more dynamic a situation will get. It becomes more realistic. Every interaction will be different, always changing. Every interaction will be a challenge. If we find the strength to always seek out stronger opponents, we will eventually get stronger, mentally and physically.

The picture shows true fighting spirit during a JKA tournament.

How to Train Fighting Spirit?

How do we train these elements? Let us assume that we are Karate teachers and there are two young fighters particularly promising. But both do not get the results everybody is expecting from them. Both are in their early 20s. One of them has been cruising through the junior divisions, winning tournament after tournament. He was a talent from the start, picked up techniques and concepts easily, never needed much practice. Even older Karateka respected his talent.

When he was entering the senior division (over the age of 21) though, things did not go quite as smoothly anymore. He started losing, often losing against obviously less talented fighters. Eventually, he was often injured or sick, especially before competitions. The other fighter has also been successful, but not quite as impressive. He never actually won a tournament but placed second or third a few times. When he is in regular class things look very different though. There is almost nobody who can keep up with him in the Dojo. Nobody practices harder and more often than he does. Everybody is wondering, why is he not fighting in competitions the way he is in practice?

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Two Practical Examples

So, we have two young Karateka who do not show the results they could. The causes for that differ . That also means that the way to deal with those fighters needs to be different. The traditional way of treating them the same way, often by simply increasing the number of repetitions, will help neither of them.

The First: Talent Yes, Determination No

The first Karateka draws his confidence from the fact that he is talented, genetically superior. But when he enters the grown-up division, talent becomes secondary. Now quantity becomes a force to reckon with. As a result, we need to explain our student that he will have to step up the number of weekly training hours he puts into Karate. He needs to understand the relation between training hours and competition results. We will need to help him motivating himself by pointing out the benefits of a life as a competitor, fame, trophies, maybe even money. Once he is ready, we will have to teach him about the really important things in life and how success in competition can help to achieve them. This Karateka needs to work on his determination.

The Second: Low Stress Management

The second Karateka does not need to practice more often. He already practices enough. With him we need to work on stress management. We need to help him understand why he is not delivering. If he is showing world class skills in the dojo but keeps on losing the important bouts, then there is something putting too much pressure on him. This pressure results into too much stress. Stress he is not able to cope with.

So, we need to find the stressor, the coach, the parents, peers, audience, or a combination of the above. The first step is to accept the fact that it is this stressor and his inability to deal with it that is holding him back. Then we need to set-up a training program to help managing his anxiety. For instance, with meditation, with visualization, with writing about his anxiety, or/and with practices where he will progressively face his daemons. This Karateka needs to work on his persistence.

The picture shows Thomas Prediger, chair of The Shotokan Times advisory board and organizer of the kumite boot camp. He also shows a lot of fighting spirit.

Conclusion: The Complex Concept of Fighting Spirit

Fighting spirit is a very complex concept. By breaking it down into different elements, the whole issue becomes  understandable and manageable. As a result, we are now able to set-up a specific program for a specific problem or goal. Just as we do with fitness. If we don’t set specific training goals and address those with specific training measures, then Karate training is no more than a lottery. A hit and miss situation. As Karateka we are surely aiming for more.

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Makiwara – The Return of the Karate Tool

The makiwara is an important tool for karateka. But most have it almost forgotten. However, it seems to on the verge to return to the dojos. By Michael Ehrenreich

The Makiwara is a piece of wood with padding. This is what a makiwara consists of: a post and some padding, which is traditionally a roll of rice straw attached to the top of the post. In addition, this is also where the name derives from, maki for roll and wara for straw.

What is a Makiwara?

The makiwara originated from Okinawa where, with very little natural resources, they do have wood or rice straw. The length and the width of the posts vary but ideally reach about head level and are at least 12 cm (about 5 inches) wide. The resistance of the posts varies also, from not giving at all (good when hitting combinations) to flexing on impact. For the post oak, cherry, maple, walnut, or just plain pine are the most common types of wood. The padding is usually foam rubber covered with leather or wrapped with duct tape. Some people still go with the traditional straw pads. The posts are than attached to a wall or driven into the ground.

My Beginnings With the Makiwara

Over time and through the length of my karate career, the makiwara had vanished from most dojos. That is true for western countries as well as Japan. At least when it comes to Shotokan karate. As a result, the makiwara became almost a myth. The first generation of karateka in Germany still hit this wooden post, but it had long disappeared when I started with karate in the late 1970s. Then one day this guy showed up at our dojo, Siegfried Trapp was his name, and he had brought with him a makiwara. His goal was to market his version of a makiwara and he gave us one to try it out. Well, that was in the mid-1980s and you can image his success rate. I never saw him again. But at least our dojo had its first makiwara.

It was the time when sport karate started to get more popular. With weight classes, protection gear all around the body, and a multiple point system, there was clearly no need for this kind of training equipment. And who needs a makiwara for belt tests anyway? As a result, the makiwara was plainly uncool. When people saw me hitting the post, they would only give me a pitiful smile. Maybe even try to get me some professional help. I kept hitting the makiwara anyway; I was hooked for life.

Limited Knowledge and an Okinawa Master

Back then I practiced the only way I knew, by throwing gyaku zukis with both sides and a lot of them. A regular karate class would run 90 minutes and so I would hit the makiwara for almost that long, after warming up a little. In the early 1990s Sakumoto Tsuguo, a former kata champion from Okinawa, was staying for one year in Cologne. Ochi Hideo, the German national trainer at that time, told me to take care of him and so I did. We practiced almost daily together at our dojo, the Sportcenter Bushido in Cologne, headed by the late Horst Handel. We lifted weights and, of course, hit the makiwara.

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First thing Sakumoto did, though, was change the padding. He bought a wooden board, about 30 cm (about 12 inches) long and wrapped a rope around it. That was our pad. Imagine my knuckles after the first practice.  (After Sakumoto had left Germany it took months to get them back into their original shape.)

Techniques From a Short Distance

However, the other thing he introduced me to were techniques from a short distance. Punches, but also strikes. I wasn’t convinced at first. You know, he was a rather short man from Okinawa, a kata guy. So, he was thankfully very patient with me. Firstly, he gave me a demonstration. He had me tightening my abs and then hit me with his flat hand from a distance of about 5cm (2 in.). Now he got my attention and for the next few days I would witness all imaginable discolorations appearing on my stomach. So, I started hitting short techniques as well.

Why I Changed My Makiwara Training

As a result, I had changed the intensity of my makiwara training. Instead of hitting non-stop for 90 minutes, I went with 10 repetitions and varying number of sets. As a sports major I took some inspiration from weight and athletic training, especially from track and field coaches. I was also competing in the shobu-ippon-system. So, I focused on punches and hit 10 gyaku zuki alternating right and left and repeated that a second time. Then I took a 1-minute break.

The idea behind the breaks were that I was able to hit at 100% until the very last punch. These two rounds made one set, with 10 sets in all. After gyaku zuki I hit tate zuki (straight punch from a shorter distance with a vertical fist) with the same structure but only in 5 sets. That resulted in a total of 300 punches for each side. I did this program 3-times a week. My goal here as a competitor was to be able to stop any opponent, also much heavier ones. I was part of the JKA-group and we didn’t have weight classes. Meaning, I would encounter heavier fighters, the biggest I faced off with was about 40kg (90lbs) heavier than me. This program worked well for me.

A Variety of Techniques

As I mentioned above, Sakumoto also introduced me to strikes. After retiring as a competitor, I added those to my program. All kind of strikes, shuto uchi (knife hand strike), teisho uchi (palm heel strike), haito uchi (ridge hand strike) etc. I also kicked with mae geri, added combinations and did some techniques gliding towards the makiwara. I added different punches, yama zuki and kage zuki for instance, hook punches from above or a different angle.

Less Repetitions But 100% Focus

Over the years I have been doing less repetitions. But I still hit the makiwara 3-4 times a week. I still go with the 10-repetition structure but usually only with 3 sets. With 7-8 different techniques each time, that makes 200-250 punches or strikes with each side. Working on my hitting power is still my goal, so I hit each time with 100%. But I also want to include more muscle groups in my workout with the makiwara. Training in a more balanced way. So I hit from different distances, angles, and with a bigger variety of techniques.

How do we get the most out of our makiwara training? The characteristic of the makiwara is the increasing resistance on impact. That means, the best way to use this karate tool is to hit with thrust techniques. Techniques that go deep into the target. We would therefore hit from a distance that allows us to hit deep.

Makiwara Gives You Direct Feedback

The makiwaras’ big advantage is its direct feedback. It tells us immediately if there is anything wrong with our techniques. Positioning of the joints, hitting with the wrong body part (hitting too much with our fingers instead of the basic joint when doing haito uchi), unstable stance, etc. To make use of this immediate response of our wooden coach, we stay a little longer than usual on impact. This gives us the necessary time to control our posture. With more experience we shorten this time on impact. With more experience we also look behind the target, in the distance. This prevents us from looking only at the target and helps us make use of a more peripheral vision. Adjusting the vision behind the target will further help us hitting deeper into the target.

The most important aspect of a karate technique is that it must hit an opponent in order to eliminate him, the opponent who doesn’t want to get hit and even fights back. If the opponent sees our technique coming, we are not fast enough! So, we always focus on an explosive acceleration first and a strong technique at impact. This is important, also when working with the makiwara! We need to stay sharp! Until the last strike.

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Always start with lightening speed and then hit with a strong impact! We call this power, speed and strength. Don’t fall into this rhythm that works with an even, rather slow speed. Sadly, that is the one we often witness. That is a rhythm that relaxes us more than it forces us to work harder. So, stay sharp and stay focused the whole time! Use speed and strength to increase your hitting power. Especially when working with the makiwara.

Hitting From a Fighting Position

Most beginners will go through the whole range of movement and start their techniques from the hips, as in basics. There is nothing wrong with that. But eventually we should advance from that starting position and hit from a fighting position. When doing so, and especially when hitting from a very close distance, make sure to hit directly towards the target, do not wind up.

Some advice for more experienced karateka. Hit the makiwara with the intention to do some damage. Hit target oriented, don’t be concerned with technical issues. If you do punches, think about your knuckles and the target. Knuckles – target, knuckles – target…Then get the knuckles as fast and as strong as possible into the target. That also means starting the attack from your fist, not from your hips! This is an important point. The fist starts first, and the rest of the body needs to catch up and unites at impact. If you start with a hip motion you will give the opponent more time to react.

The Focus Must be to Eliminate an Opponent

Remember, the makiwara is only a training tool to increase our hitting power in order to eliminate an opponent. The makiwara is a means to an end. It doesn’t help us to hit hard if an opponent sees it coming and is able to react. What I said here about punches is true for all techniques.

Further, add hitting while out of your ideal position, or when off balance. For instance, when you have a wooden floor, put on socks. Add movement to your strikes. Strike from an angle that might not allow the perfect support of your body. Change the time of day when working out. Hit the makiwara after your normal class, just when you’re exhausted. And if you are a competitor, add short punches. Even when you are not using those in competition. But as with sprinters who practice a lot of 10-30m (10-30 yard) sprints, your long punches will benefit from practicing short punches as well when you make sure to focus on a rapid acceleration.

Makiwara Will not Lead to Arthritis

Let me also touch here very briefly on a reappearing myth in karate. “Makiwara training is dangerous and will lead to arthritis.” This is nonsense! Makiwara training is no more dangerous than other work out programs. Just use common sense. Move forward progressively, start slow and easy with an increasing intensity over time. That way you will maximize your hitting power and toughen the body parts you hit with, without getting injured.

In my first book I also have a chapter about makiwara training. When working on it, I talked to several physicians, all karateka, about makiwara and arthritis. Turns out, there is no correlation between these two! There is a strong genetic correlation though. If your parents and grandparents have or had arthritis, you are more likely to suffer from it too. There is also a correlation between joint injuries and arthritis. That is why it is so important to work out in a progressive way and stay focused throughout our workout. But this is true for all different kinds of workouts.

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The Renaissance Of The Makiwara

For a long time and for the past few decades, the makiwara was a tool that the karate world would despise. As mentioned before, it was considered uncool. I am not saying that working out with the makiwara is being regarded as cool now. We are not quite there yet. But the makiwara is being taken seriously again as an important training tool. I don’t know of any other tool to strengthen our hitting power as effectively as the makiwara. In addition, the makiwara increases our overall strength, without damaging the joints (like when hitting without impact).

The Makiwara Is a Honest Tool

In Japan, they say that hitting the makiwara will increase the density of our bones. If lifting weights increases our bone density, than it is likely that makiwara training does the same. The makiwara is an honest tool. It gives immediate and blunt feedback about the quality of our techniques. If we ask the right way. Maybe we karateka are ready for this kind of honesty again. The makiwara is a simple tool, just a piece of wood with some padding. It is a solid tool. In this time of rapid changes and constant stream of information, it is maybe this simplicity and solidity that will make a comeback for the makiwara. The makiwara is loyal. It is always there for us when training partners are absent. Honest and loyal, simple and solid – the makiwara, a traditional karate tool for our modern times!

More and more dojos are adding the makiwara to their equipment. I was even invited to teach a clinic solely on makiwara training the other day. People may still look at us confused (like my neighbors do) when they see us hitting the makiwara, but they don’t laugh at us anymore. So let’s keep hitting!

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The Oss-Controversy: A Reply by Michael Ehrenreich

The Starting Point of the Oss-Controversy

Last weekend, we published the excellent article by Andreas Quast “To “Oss”, or Not to “Oss”? The Difficult History of Oss!“. It caused the Oss-Controversy. Andreas historically reconstructed in an impressive way the emergence of the term Oss. Due to his research he came to the conclusion that term has a ultra-nationalistic history and for him it is not question to use it.

Michael Ehrenreich wrote a likewise excellent and a little bit provocative comment about Andreas article and allowed us to share it with you. We wont deprive you about this fantastic dispute which – from our point of view – has long been overdue.

Michael Ehrenreich´s Answer in the Oss-Controversy

“Very interesting article. From a historic point of view. I don’t quite see the political or even ethical implication of it for me or for karate in general.

More then 70 (!) years ago the Japanese military held an important role in Japan. They had the power and set the rules. Not much different from many European powers in the past. It was at that time that the OSS movement started. We learn now from this article that they also did a lot of Kirikaeshi in kendo back then. When we skip OSS, does that mean that we also have to get rid of Kirikaeshi?

Oss is a Macho Thing

Yes, OSS is a macho thing. Always has been. Even though it’s being used by females as well. I’ve heard OSS a lot at Nittaidai, which is kind of a macho school. It came from Karateka and Kendoka of course. But also from soccer and rugby players. I don’t think any of them meant it as a political statement. (And even if, it’s their country. They should deal with their own history in their own way.) I heard it my alma mater Tsukubadai, which is a very liberal, Top 10 university. No nihonjinron here. And what’s more, it is pretty popular with the yakuza. And yes, those guys are rather nationalistic. So, it is being used by a variety of people in today’s society. Without a political statement, just because it so handy to use.

Well, how does that all affect me? Actually, not at all. See, Karate and especially the macho JKA had and still have a close affiliation with Shinto. That doesn’t mean that I need to believe in river ghosts (and mostly I don’t). But I’m still able to practice Karate. Which is actually all that I want to do: practice Karate. We use Japanese terms; count in Japanese; we love to call others (and especially ourselves) Sensei and we also use the abbreviation OSS. Like it or not. It’s about taste, NOT a political statement.

Oss in Okinawa

I’ve come across the issue OSS a few times in the past. Also in Okinawa. It was not so much the actual use of the word that people had a problem with. It was much more their dislike of the popular (at least in many western countries) and still fairly powerful JKA that led them to speak out against OSS. I always felt a little like dealing with a pubescent kid rebelling against her parents.

The True Oss-Controversy

By the way, I’m not going with OSS. Not for ethical reasons. But for the distaste I feel when I see many westerners putting more energy in yelling than effort in actual practice.

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We Fight the Way We Practice! Shotokan Karate as a Fighting Art

Is Shotokan karate a fighting art? It depends. Because the way we fight depends on our training routines. Therefore, Shotokan karateka must choose the right way to practice fighting. By Michael Ehrenreich

You can only fight the way you practice

Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy

If we travel through the Shotokan world we will observe a very common picture. All over the globe, Shotokan Karatekas commit to a very high level of technical skills. This commitment reflects the emphasis of the early (Japanese) instructors. Teaching proper techniques was at the center of their agenda. Over the course of the decades, it has been increasing. The reason for this development is the standardized set-up and structure of Shotokan classes. A strict regime like the trias of Kihon, Kata, and Kumite leads to technically highly skilled Karatekas eventually.

Our ability to fight, on the other hand, has been declining for decades. This is not a mystery. It is the direct outcome of the focus of Karate Training. Because we fight the way we practice!

What does fighting mean?

Fighting in Competitions

What do I mean by “fighting”? Firstly, there are different types of fighting in competitions. Different associations apply different fighting rules. I competed in the JKA-Shobu-Ippon system for over twenty years and I still like that way of competing the most. But there are many other forms and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. As a competitor, you need to practice depending on the requirements of the rule-system of our associations. While all systems share similarities, an athlete needs to focus on the distinct arrangements of his competition model or he will face disadvantages. Just as there are commonalities between football and rugby, the corresponding athletes will focus their practice towards the requirements of their discipline.

At the 1994 World Cup: Michael Ehrenreich in the 3rd round of the individual Kumite competition.
At the 1994 World Cup: Michael Ehrenreich in the 3rd round of the individual Kumite competition.

Fighting for Belt Tests

Secondly, we have “fighting” requirements for belt tests. The whole procedure is predetermined. Both partners know exactly what to do and what the other will do. Distance, timing, and often the techniques become defined up front. Distance in traditional competitions, means that the opponents are about one leg-length apart. The roles of the attacker and the defender determine the timing. The announcement of the attacker takes place in advance. We are usually required to apply a single attack, maintaining our position after the action and also keeping the distance. More often than not, the defender needs to move back a whole step, while blocking with one arm and countering with the other. This basic pattern is the same for all belt levels.

Michael Ehrenreich fighting against JKA Instructor Katsutoshi Shiina at the JKA World Championship
Michael Ehrenreich fighting against JKA Instructor Katsutoshi Shiina

Fighting for Self-Defense

Michael Ehrenreichs book "Selbstverteidigung" at Amazon
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Lastly, we have street fighting or self-defense. The situation here is unlike the ones previously described. It is dynamic and we do not know much in advance. The variables are always different; scenarios are constantly changing, and there are no rules.

In general, self-defense comprises four aspects. First, the distance in a self-defense situation includes the close-quarter (arms-length) distance. Second, hitting power is essential. Third, decisive action is an important asset. Fourth and foremost, there are risks for us of getting seriously injured or worse. Hence, the requirements of real fighting situations must have consequences for our karate practice.

For instance, the training distance must change. Physical action usually happens at very close striking distance, which would consequently require a certain set of techniques, such as close-quarter-strikes with the palm heel, elbow strikes, and strikes with our fingers, to name a few. When was the last time you practiced those with impact or in Randori?

Randori stands at the center of Michael Ehrenreichs Shotokan Karate. Only through Randori Karatekas learn to fight.
Randori stands at the center of Michael Ehrenreichs Shotokan Karate. Only through Randori Karatekas learn to fight.

When people come to Karate, they are only interested in the third form of Kumite. Very few are thinking about a career as a competitor. And even fewer will find it appealing to become an expert in Gohon Ippon Kumite.

Impact Training and Ikken Hissatsu in Shotokan Karate

Speaking of impact training, I’m very happy to see that regular training with Makiwara and pads is becoming common in practice once again in many Dojos. But there is more to Karate than just punches. Shotokan Karate gives us a variety of different techniques. For instance: Shoto Uchi. But a technique like this requires forging and strengthening by hitting the makiwara and pads.

Michael Ehrenreich on the right: Self-Defense must have a higher importance in Shotokan Karate or it will not be a fighting art.
Michael Ehrenreich on the right: Self-Defense must have a higher importance in Shotokan Karate or it will not be a fighting art.

Most experts agree that those who strike first in a real-life encounter have a higher chance of walking away as winners. If we accept this (and there will always be exceptions), then we need to take this into consideration for our Kumite practice. Fortunately, we already have the relevant guiding principle at hand in Shotokan Karate: Ikken Hissatsu – one strike, certain kill.

What is Ikken Hissatsu? The Foundation of a Fighting art

The idea behind this principle (which derives from the art of Japanese sword fighting and was adjusted to Karate by changing the character from “sword” to “fist” without changing the pronunciation) is that we need decisive action to be successful. That means attacking fast and furiously, surprising an attacker by attacking first and powerfully, and by putting all of our physical and mental strength into one attack. Of course, we cannot be sure that we finish off an opponent with one strike. But that is our ideal and guiding principle when establishing a Kumite program. Only then, Karate becomes again a fighting art.

All that has to happen in front of an uncertain situation. The German military strategist Carl von Clausewitz wrote in his book “On War” that war (or a fight in general) is a field of uncertainty. Things always change and we must prepare to adjust to these ever changing situations. This is also something we need to include in our Karate curriculum.

At the Shoto World Cup: Michael Ehrenreich fighting against Junior Lefevre
At the Shoto World Cup: Michael Ehrenreich fighting against Junior Lefevre

Fighting Spirit in Shotokan Karate

The most important aspect in a fighting situation is our fighting spirit, i.e. our mental fortitude. All experts and instructors agree on that. But is fostering up a fighting spirit really part of our Karate practice? Do we purposely create programs to build-up something as essential as fighting spirit? Do our students possess the self-confidence required in a real-world encounter? Are they able to deal with a situation in which their heart-beat rises to 180 or above? Are they able to handle the stress of the situation, while keeping their ability to act?

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Self-confidence is just that: being able to act when under stress. It grows out of the assurance that you have gone through adequate training and figured out for ourselves how to handle a challenge or an opponent. Self-confidence emerges through realty-based scenarios practiced in Karate classes and a step-by-step program in learning how to deal with a threat. As closer a training resembles reality, as more likely we will succeed in building self-confidence and ultimately our fighting spirit. We fight the way we practice! So, as instructors we need to analyze the situation we have been training for and create a progressive Kumite program.

Michael Ehrenreich explains impact training
Michael Ehrenreich explains impact training

Not a Fighting Art: Gohon and Kihon Ippon Kumite

Karate classes and self-defense classes are two different things. That does not mean, however, that our Kumite practice should be totally removed from the reality of a fight. Why do we stick to Kumite drills that not only have nothing to do with reality, but form habits that put us in danger? For instance, stepping backwards, freezing after one step, maintaining the same distance, sticking to techniques we would not apply in a real fight, practicing always in the same, prearranged way. The idea that Kumite drills like Gohon Kumite or Kihon Ippon Kumite will eventually lead us to develop real fighting skills collides with reality.

How many advanced Karateka do you know that are proficient in those drills, but unable to deal with an opponent in real fights or even in free sparring? That even black belts are forced to go through these drills, just proves a serious loss of reality in parts of the Karate community. The areas in our brains, which become triggered by those basic drills versus those required for real fighting skills, occupy different places. It is not possible to transfer one set of skills, where drills have no connection to reality, to another that is reality based. That is impossible.

Efficiency is a sign of quality for a Karate teacher. Teaching drills that do not lead us to the results needed is inefficient. So, we need to get rid of certain drills and focus on those that get us further towards our main goal in Karate as a fighting art: being able to fight under real conditions.

Randori got Eliminated from Training

When I started with Shotokan Karate in the 1970s, Karate classes were still rather simple in structure. No matter what Dojo I practiced with or what seminar I visited, Randori was always part of the class. We did usually for the first thirty minutes of the class. Then in the mid-1980s, things became more sophisticated. Karate Teachers eliminated Randori from most practice sessions. Why? Because they deemed it as too raw, primitive, and unsophisticated (and of course some instructors were concerned about losing students). They looked for more refined ways. For short-cuts, maybe? As it turned out, there are no short-cuts when it comes to build up real-world fighting skills. It is still based on blood, pain, and sweat and necessary for a fighting art.

While it is important for a martial artist to develop further and to seek for ways to get better and stronger. We should not forget the nature of combat and the core of a martial art. “Karate derives from the battle fields of Japan” said my late Karate teacher, Horst Handel. The core of Shotokan Karate Kumite is to finish an opponent, an opponent who wants to hurt you, in a situation, where you have very little control over. Everything we do in our Kumite practice needs to be based on these requirements.

Michael Ehrenreich leading a class and guides through randori
Michael Ehrenreich leading a class. For him, randori must be part of the Shotokan Karate curriculum

The Necessity of Randori for Shotokan Karate as a Fighting Art

Randori used to be a big part of our karate tradition. I recommend that we reconsider it as a main tool for Karate classes and to strengthen our fighting skills. Karate practice and self-defense classes are not the same. But with Randori we possess one training tool to strengthen our fighting skills and work on certain virtues as fighters: toughness, resilience, reflexes, adaptability, for instance.

There are different levels and ways to conduct Randori. But think about the requirements of real-world encounters and you will find ways of making Randori a meaningful tool for Kumite practice. Add the close-quarter distance and do not limit yourself to competition rules. Consider a variety of techniques (different strikes, low kicks), practice with responsible contact to the body. Practice without protective gear, and use the principle of Ikken Hissatsu in Randori. It is a proven mean to make Shotokan Karate a fighting art again.