Karate-do: Basics

Advanced techniques are nothing more than applying a thorough mastery of the basics.

I remember meeting Sensei Sherman Harrill for the first time in 1983. He was a guest at Wheeler’s School of Karate in Powell, Tennessee. I had just been discharged from the U.S. Army and had a red belt (equivalent to brown in most systems) in Tae Kwon Do. But I was not too happy with Tae Kwon Do.

Not being overly flexible, I was looking for a style that didn’t require me to be like Gumby. I discovered Isshin-ryu Karate. Sensei Harrill taught a few classes I attended at the dojo … and then disappeared. I did not know enough about Isshin-ryu at the time to understand exactly what was going on, but the man really impressed me.

I again saw Sensei Harrill sometime later at an Okinawan Karate-do Union seminar where he did a bo bunkai session. He took the first movement out of the bo kata, Tokumine No Kun, and spent two hours astounding us all by what he could do with just that first movement. Bo’s went flying everywhere, and many fingers were pinched or smashed. It was glorious.

I did not see Sensei Harrill again until the mid-90’s when he and Sensei AJ Advincula gave a benefit seminar in Michigan for Sensei Don Bohan, who was battling cancer. By this time, I was a black belt, had my own dojo, and thought I knew something about karate. However, to put it mildly, when I saw what he was doing, my jaw hit the floor. I had never seen any karate instructor anywhere do anything like what he was doing. It didn’t matter who you were, how big you were, or what you knew. You hit the floor when he put his hands on you. It was the kind of karate you read about in karate history books but never saw on the dojo floor.

What was the difference you might ask? I quickly came to learn it was a thorough understanding and mastery of the system’s basics. Prior to that time, I had trained with just three other world-class instructors who had that same kind of mastery of their art, and who were true masters. They were Remy Presas (Arnis), Joe Lewis (Full-Contact Karate Champion), and Wally Jay (Small Circle Jujitsu).

All advanced techniques are made up of combinations of basic techniques.

If this is not true where you train, I suggest you hunt for another dojo, dojang, or school.

And I am not just talking about the basic Charts I and II of the Isshin-ryu curriculum followed in most Isshin-ryu dojos. Understanding basics, body mechanics, stances, distance, timing, etc. transcends any particular art or style. It is the key to real success in any technique, method, or system.

I remember returning to a dojo I had not visited in some time. Upon entering, I spotted one of the head instructors on the floor going through Isshin-ryu Chart 1. He was performing the techniques precisely the same way I was shown when I was a brand new white belt. How’s that for consistency? Great, huh?

I’m going out on a limb here and say, “No, not really.” If you are still practicing the basics today the way you did 20 years ago, what did you learn? Could you not have improved them over that period. Twenty years and this man had never gotten off the porch (most serious Isshin-ryu practitioners will know what this refers to).

Here is an analogy. I remember in elementary school being taught to write. We were given lined paper and shown how to form the letters. You’d make a row of A’s, a row of B’s. a row of C’s. etc. Do you still write that way today?

Before you say, “but that’s how I show a new student …,” I am not talking about working with a new student. I am talking about your own personal workouts (which is what this guy was doing. Sunday morning workouts were restricted to black belts).

A difference in basics …

The first year I brought Sensei Harrill to Tennessee for a seminar, it was great. Friday night and Saturday, I got mercilessly pummeled in a very instructive sort of way. However, I loved it. Each pain, each loss of breath, or loss of balance was a light bulb going off in my brain. It was effortless, almost casual on Sensei’s part, but totally disruptive to me. And there was nothing I could do about. They were all simple techniques. However, they were executed in a very advanced manner; nothing like I had ever experienced before.

Sunday after the seminar, we had several hours before I had to get Sensei to the airport for his flight back to Iowa, so we hit the dojo to train. I remember it being just Sensei, Charlie Taylor, and myself. But one or two others may have been present.

Sensei asked, “What do you want to work on?”

I replied, simply, “Whatever I have to … to understand what you do.”

The sad but straightforward answer was that I had to start over with how I did my basics. Many trained with Sensei over the years, mostly at seminars, and would sometimes mimic his techniques successfully while at seminars. Often, however, this was with cooperative attackers.

But they never changed the way they practiced back at their own dojos. Therefore, they could never really make the techniques their own and would eventually give up. It’s just the same old adage: You can’t train one way and fight another way!

We went through Chart I, one technique at a time. First, I would demonstrate a technique from the chart. Sensei then showed me how he did it and why. He never told me what I was doing was wrong, but there was no question in my mind after we finished each technique which way was better, and more importantly, WHY!

You cannot learn basics from a book, a website, a blog, or even a videotape or DVD. You need practice time, one-on-one interaction with an instructor who understands all of these things, and enough repetitions to create CORRECT muscle memory.

However, here are a few tips that might help

  • Stand on stakes
  • Never violate the principles of body mechanics
  • As your understanding progresses and your basics begin to smooth out, your hands should start to NOT cross the body’s center line.
  • Always use crescent steps when you move forward or backward (or even sideways).
  • Each technique is a whole-body movement.
  • The “snap” in the “snap punch” comes from your waist (Understand that the knot in your obi is not just to tie your belt around your waist. Pay attention to how it moves).

If the knot’s not moving, you’re not doing it right.

Sensei would always say, when sizing up a new opponent or training partner, watch the knot on his obi. It will tell you whether you want to let them hit you or not.

Isshin-ryu Karate Charts I and II

Practice at least 10 repetitions to each side, several times a week.

Chart I

Chart II

  1. RFF / RH Straight Punch
  2. RFF / RH Upper Punch
  3. LFF / LH Straight Punch
  4. LFF / LH Upper Punch
  5. RFB / LH Low Block – RH Reverse Punch
  6. RFB / LH Mid-Level Block = RH Reverse Punch
  7. RFB / LH Open Mid-Level Block – RH Gouge (Nukite)
  8. RFB / LH Open Arc Sweep – RH Upper Punch
  9. RFB / LH Upper Block – RH Reverse Punch
  10. RFB / LH Bridge of Nose – RH Reverse Punch
  11. LFF / LH Low Block – 3 Punches
  12. LFF / LH Mid-Level Block – 3 Punches
  13. LFF / LH Strike to Mid-section – RH Strike to Base of Neck
  14. LFF / LH Palm Heel Block – 2 Hook Punches
  15. RFB Bear Hug Break
  1. Bend Forward / Touch Floor
  2. Back Bend – 5 Exhales
  3. LH Hold Right Heel – RH Push Knee Down
  4. Leg Stretch
  5. Front Kick
  6. Cross Kick
  7. Angle Kick
  8. Side Kick (Heel and Edge)
  9. Side Kick (Ball of Foot)
  10. Squat Kick
  11. Toe Rip Kick
  12. Knee Smash
  13. Knuckle Push-ups
  14. Side Twists
  15. Breathing

Note:

  • In Chart I, 5 – 15 repeat to the other side.
  • In Chart II, 3 to 12 repeat to the other side.
  • RFF = Right Foot Forward. LFF = Left Foot Forward
  • RFB = Right Foot Back, LFB = Left Foot Back
  • RH = RIght Hand, LH = Left Hand

Remember, simply practicing does not make perfect. It takes proper practice to make things perfect. If you practice incorrectly 25,000 times, what have you gained?

8 thoughts on “Karate-do: Basics”

    1. Thank you. It is difficult to know sometimes with a post like this. You want to share what you have learned, but not sound too preachy or arrogant. I think it is a hard balance to maintain sometimes.

  1. I tell my students that practice does not make perfect. Instead, practice makes familiar. Only correct practice makes perfect.

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