How training for sport Karate impacts on practical self defence

Graham Palmer and Neil CookMany Karate clubs include aspects of both training for sport Karate and training for practical self defence but very few have an even balance between the two. In the majority of clubs one type of training tends to take precedence over the other. However, every Karate club advert I have seen has promoted Karate as a form of self defence. So how does the balance of teaching between sport Karate and practical Karate affect the delivery of the promise of self defence training? The origins of Karate are as a fighting art for civilian defence. It developed to enable a practitioner to stand a fighting chance against an unarmed or even armed opponent. During most of that time Karate had to be taught and practised in secret. It was a weapon, and posed a threat to the ruling classes, so was banned with harsh punishments for those caught defying the law. It was even sometimes practised by disguising it as dance.

Testing Karate skills

It is human nature when learning a skill to want to test it in some way and Karate is no exception. The ultimate test would be involvement in an actual violent conflict of some form but injuring your training partners tends to hamper training so other forms of testing became popular. Full contract sparring is the closest thing to actual combat but not many people have the physical ability, fitness or inclination to compete in full contact events. It is possible for full contact to be incorporated into practical Karate training to target specific points with relatively low risk so long as it is used in a very controlled manner. Semi contact has a much wider appeal with the distinct advantage of an acceptably low injury rate. The addition of safety equipment, such as pads and sparring mitts, and sport Karate becomes an activity in which most people can participate.

The problem with any kind of combat test for Karate is that it has to involve rules. In the ultimate test of a fight each opponent would do whatever they could to win and survive. Nothing would be off limits but for any other form of sparring there has to be rules to ensure both participants are able to live and function afterwards. Even in full contact Karate or mixed martial arts there is a list of fouls which will result in disqualification. Having rules for such contests is essential and the lower the event risk the more rules there tend to be. Sport Karate has a clearly defined set of rules which moves a contest away from a pure combat test towards something far more strategic. This is not a criticism of sport Karate, I have great respect for anyone who participates in Karate competitions but what effect does that have on a practitioner’s ability to use Karate for self defence?

“He looked at me wrong”

Should a Karate student be unlucky enough to be involved in a situation requiring them to defend themselves or others then their skills and ability will be tested. In an all out fight an attacker may ignore the rules governing the amount of force required for self defence as defined by law. The attacker may be out of their mind with rage, lack sufficient knowledge of the law or simply have no regard for any consequences of their actions. Listen to the accounts of people convicted for unprovoked assaults on members of the public and they usually have the same theme; the attacker was somehow justified in their actions by some perceived threat or disrespectful behaviour, e.g. “he looked at me wrong”.

Karate students are not naturally violent people and those people who are naturally violent tend to shy away from martial arts because they struggle with the discipline involved. At one class I saw a young man, who was contemplating joining, watch for half an hour before leaving in disgust stating “I’m a street fighter, I don’t need this”. When a Karate student comes up against someone who is prepared to use any level of violence, with no thought for consequences, then any training which involves strict adherence to a set of rules can create a dangerous disadvantage.

The transition to violence in a social situation

In a real, self defence situation the transition to violence often goes through a series of stages. In each stage the chances of harm increase and the ability of an opponent to think rationally reduces.

Stage 1 – Presence

For any fight to occur the participants have to be present. That might sound obvious but this is the point where practical Karate training begins. Do you really need to pop to the corner shop at 11pm at night just as the local pub is closing? Nothing fuels a fight more than alcohol due to its effect of incapacitating parts of the brain and so reducing the ability of someone to think rationally. Watch any of the shows on television which feature people in police custody and compare their behaviour when they are first brought in after a “cracking night out” and after they have sobered up the next morning. This does not mean you should never venture outside if there is a chance of conflict but practical Karate training involves the risk assessment of situations and practicing methods to minimise any potential threat.

Stage 2 ‐ Social trigger

For a conflict to arise between people there has to be an initial trigger. This could be knocking someone’s drink over, wearing the wrong colour shirt or simply looking at someone in the “wrong way”.

Stage 3 ‐ Communication

Once the event is triggered then the conflict moves to the communication stage. This stage may last for a few seconds or several minutes depending on the severity of the incident and the ability, or lack of it, of the participants to communicate effectively. As a person becomes angrier the mind and body prepares for the ‘fight or flight’ scenario. During this time processes which would hamper a person’s reflexes becomes subdued and unfortunately this includes the ability for rational thought. As a person nears the end of communication they have lost any ability to listen to another view point and tend to repeat a few short sentences or phrases.

During this stage practical Karate training involves adopting body postures and stances to minimise risk and try to predict and even influence the type of attack an opponent could make. Practical Karate teaches de‐escalation techniques and even such techniques as the ‘youtube stance’. With the proliferation of mobile phones the possibility of an incident being videoed has become highly likely. Successfully defending yourself against an attack is a small consolation if the result is a lengthily prison sentence for what a jury decides is excessive force.

Stage 4 ‐ Attack

The communication is over and an opponent has made the decision to attack. At this stage any thought of consequence has gone and an enraged attacker is just trying to do as much damage as possible as quickly as possible. Hopefully the Karate practitioner has managed to influence the situation to provide them self with an advantage. At this stage the opponent may consider there to be no rules for the combat. Unfortunately, a court will often consider anyone with even a small amount of martial arts training to possess skills far beyond reality which may then reflect in what could be considered as reasonable force for them.

Sport Karate training for self defence

Sport Karate takes place in a designated area of a predetermined, standard size. The location is not exposed to the elements, is clean and free from trip hazards and has first aid facilities to hand. The competitors are prepared for a fight and have a clear understanding of the format the conflict will take. No alcohol or drugs are allowed and all competitors are in a good state of health. The start of the fight is clearly indicated by the head referee and will be stopped every time a predetermined set of conditions is met. If one of the competitors does get carried away then there are plenty of people to step in and advise, admonish or even restrain them as required.

The fight is stopped every time there is the possibility of a point being scored. The points are awarded according to how well a technique is executed but do not reflect how effective the blow may have been on the opponent. At the end of the bout the opponents bow, shake hands and walk away.

Sport Karate begins at the final stage of the transition to violence. The stances adopted by the fighters are fairly standard and they begin facing each other a set distance apart. The priority for techniques is the speed of delivery enabling the combatants to win the point as soon as possible. There is no consideration of escaping or of other combatants becoming involved. If either competitor is injured then the bout is paused while first aid is rendered.

All of this is necessary to provide an environment where a Karate fight can take place in a format which is as safe as possible and where all the competitors will finish the event in a state which will not adversely impact on their daily lives. The question is what relevance does any of this have on the use of Karate for self defence?

Ideas for incorporating practical Karate into traditional Karate clubs

Key points

Any type of practical Karate training should not lead to an increase in injuries or result in a higher risk to students than that of current training methods.

All practical techniques should be suitable for any grade of students and not just those of higher grades. Simpler techniques have the advantage that they are easier for a student to learn and more likely to retain. Practical techniques should be effective for any student at any level of ability. Practical techniques should be based on Karate techniques and not taught as separate, unrelated, self defence techniques. If the techniques are based on Karate techniques then there is more chance of them being remembered and this often leads to a better understanding of other aspects of Karate.


Conflicts in real life very seldom begin with two people facing each other in a fighting stance. There is usually an escalation to violence which starts with some form of communication and often includes threats, attempts at intimidation or unexpected attacks. The speed of conflict escalation will depend on the initial circumstances and the character, abilities and actions of the participants involved.

A defender will nearly always be facing their attacker. Exceptions to this usually result from the presence of multiple attackers or the defender being subject to a surprise attack from an unexpected direction.

Practical Karate should start with the teaching of techniques for dealing with a single attacker. Some instructors describe Katas as “a series of defences against multiple attackers coming from different directions”. If that statement was true and even Heian Katas are teaching defences against multiple opponents, then that would be like turning up at primary school and covering quadratic equations in the first maths lesson.

If a technique relies on a defender having to keep watch on an attacker located to their side or behind them before it is initiated then the realistic effectiveness of the technique should be questioned. From a logical point of view, if there was a single attacker then the defender would simply turn and face them but if there are multiple attackers then the defender would need to watch the one in front instead and should ideally be trying to get out of the situation.

After an attacker’s initial technique, it may be possible to influence their subsequent actions but any defensive technique which relies on an attacker having to learn a specific sequence of techniques to coincide with a combination of defensive techniques from the defender has no place in practical Karate.

The normal rules of competition Karate, i.e. no eye gouges, groin strikes, etc, do not apply to practical Karate. Practical Karate training can include techniques forbidden in sport Karate but all techniques are practised using safe training methods. Habits gained from training for competition Karate can be detrimental to practical Karate. For example, the habit of stopping as soon as someone shouts stop does not apply in real life where a defender should only ever stop when there is no longer a threat.

The rules for competition Karate and practical Karate have very different goals. The competition rules are designed for a one on one conflict and only apply from the point the fight begins until a point is scored. The rules for practical Karate training cover a wide range of conflict situations with any number of attackers and scenarios.

One of the Dojo kun precepts is ‘to seek the perfection of the character’. The discipline and dedication of Karate training tends to ensure that students are good natured and carry no malice towards each other. While this is desirable it creates a problem for effective practical training. In real life attackers usually have no concern for their opponent and no regard for the possible consequences of their actions. It is very difficult to overcome this problem in most Karate Dojos and especially in a family friendly club where students shouting aggressive obscenities at each other would terrify younger students and probably get the club thrown out of the venue.

Effectiveness of techniques

Unfortunately many of the techniques traditionally taught in Karate classes simply would not work in a real life situation. One example of this is the three move combination at the start of the kata Heian Nidan. The bunkai traditionally taught for this combination is first blocking a punch from an attacker coming from the side, then blocking a second punch and simultaneously breaking the elbow joint and finally hitting the attacker in the head with a hammer fist. The second technique is unlikely to be able to cause any significant damage to the attackers arm unless the attacker is much weaker than the defender. The direction and amount of force involved is simply not sufficient. This bunkai also relies on the attacker knowing a specific sequence of attack as mentioned previously.

Teaching students techniques which are unlikely to succeed in real life gives them a false sense of confidence which can be more dangerous than knowing nothing at all. They are better learning techniques which provide them with a realistic idea of their own abilities and limitations. Knowing your own limitations is particularly important to bear in mind when considering the effects of adrenaline. Complicated combinations which may work in a training environment could be dangerous if relied upon in real life.

Techniques are sometimes taught which involve a defender completing multiple movements supposedly before an attacker can react. If a defender carries out two movements to the attacker’s single movement then that is effectively assuming that the defender can think and move twice as fast as the attacker. Video evidence of real life attacks usually indicates that once an attack starts the attacker does not pause after each technique to give the defender a chance to recover.

The OODA loop

OODA Stands for ‘Observe, Orient, Decide, Act’. This is the sequence of events which everyone goes through before launching an attack or defending against one. An attacker has already completed these stages before launching an attack while a defender will be starting on stage one. This will always be the case unless a defender can turn the tables on an attacker or unless they decide on a pre‐emptive strike.

Karate training can help to replace the ‘decide’ and ‘act’ steps by replacing them with a trained reaction. However if an attacker can sustain an attack with multiple techniques then it becomes increasingly difficult for a defender to recover and gain the upper hand. To help with this issue techniques such as ‘bursting’ should be taught. These can include bunkai techniques from the first moves of Kanku Dai or Tekki Nidan.

Initial stages of a conflict

Any conflict in which the defender is aware of an attacker will start with the opponents facing each other at a distance and this is where the ‘Youtube stance’ is effective.

The Youtube stance is roughly described as a high fighting stance with the hands open and palms facing the opponent. The idea is to remain alert and ready while portraying a defensive posture to the attacker and anyone else watching. With the proliferation of mobile phones and CCTV it is highly likely that an incident may be recorded on video. The Youtube stance provides a defender with options while maintaining a defensive posture which could become important in a later court case. As the distance between an attacker and defender decreases, the possibility of a defender successfully reacting to an attack also decreases rapidly. Maintaining a reasonable distance from an attacker can be taught using evasion techniques but so long as a student is aware of the issue that may be enough initially.

Once an attacker has closed the distance to the point where they can lay hands on a defender the option of a pre‐emptive strike may be appropriate and this is something which students should be aware of. Students have occasionally stated that “you can’t do anything to defend yourself until someone has hit you”. Of course that is a disastrous belief and students should be aware of where they stand with regards to the law and any pre‐emptive actions. The law recognises certain circumstances in which a pre‐emptive strike can be used.

Hands on conflict

Basic self defence for hand holds can be taught by using bunkai from the Heian katas. This has the advantages that it makes the techniques easier to remember and provides the students with a better understanding of what they are actually doing in the kata. Without learning practical bunkai katas are effectively relegated to ‘aerobics with menace’.

Same side, single wrist grab

The fourth move of Heian Shodan provides a simple way of teaching the concept of removing an attackers grip. Removing the grip may even be enough for the attacker to back off. The level of response has to be appropriate to the threat level. Learning how to break someone’s neck is not really practical if it happens to be your angry teenager who has grabbed your wrist. The Juji Uke from Heian Godan can also be used if a harder response is required.

Cross, single wrist grab

The initial moves from Heian Godan work well for a cross grip and can be used for different response levels. The first moves of Heian Nidan also work well.

Double wrist grab

Kaki waki uke is a nice way of removing a double wrist grap. If used from Heian Yondan it can be followed up with kicks and punches if required. Double wrist grabs may be a precursor to a head butt attack so kaki waki also has the benefit of helping to block such an attack.

Single lapel grab

A single lapel grab is often followed by a punch so the use of the Youtube stance is particularly effective here. The position of the front hand can be used to try to influence an attacker to opt for a hook punch. This can then be blocked with an extended uchi uke followed by a strike to the back of the attackers neck then the bunkai from the uranken and yoko geri moves of Heian Yondan can be used to remove the attackers hand etc.

The additional extra bunkai using kaki waki uke can be used to counter an attacker raising their elbow during the technique.

Double lapel grab

One of the classic ‘street’ attacks is a double lapel grab followed by a head butt. The final moves of Heian Yondan work well with this type of attack. They also allow different levels of response to the attack ranging from giving the attacker a painful pause for thought to killing them if that is what is necessary.

Double throat grab

This is a full on attack intended to kill an opponent. The defender would probably find themselves faced with a stronger attacker and will not have much time to react and escape the grip. This is one of the most common methods for men to kill women in attacks motivated by rage. The defender is often backed up against a wall or lying on the floor with the attacker sitting on them so any potential counter technique must take that into account.

Kaki waki uke is often used as a basis for a defence for this attack but it is not very effective. It is usually practised by pairs of students of similar sizes and the attacker is not really ‘trying’ so the defender can get a false sense of success.

A better defence which works well with a much stronger attacker comes loosely from the kata Heian Godan. It can be followed up with the throw and shoulder lock or break as required.

Incorporating practical techniques into family friendly Karate clubs

Some clubs prefer to teach practical techniques and self defence in special courses. The problem with this is that often too many techniques are taught in one session giving the students information overload.

Teaching practical techniques using the ‘little and often’ strategy is much more effective. If the techniques used are practical kata bunkai then the students often get memory prompts when they are practising the katas. If a few pratical bunkai techniques can be included at the end of a kata lesson then that helps students to remember them as well as giving the katas more relevance.

Other aspects such as distancing, the OODA loop and the Youtube stance could be incorporated into kumite lessons especially as these subjects are often relevant to standard kumite techniques and competition kumite.

Kata choice for practical techniques

Most of the practical techniques described here are taken from the Heian katas but of course there are plenty of variations and alternatives found in other katas. The reason the Heian katas have been mentioned is because these are the first katas learned by students. As such they are usually seen as just a required hurdle for the next grade rather than being correctly understood as a physical manual
for a full fighting system of practical Karate theory and techniques. Some instructors even write them off as “nothing more than training for higher kata”. Hopefully if students are aware of a few of the practical bunkai they will have a better understanding of the Heian katas and begin to appreciate the depth of information they contain.

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