Monday, February 25, 2013

Banishing self-doubt


I was going to title this essay "In defence of faith". But as you'll soon see, the mindset I am going to defend falls a bit short of "faith" in the strict sense of that word. Rather, I will be talking about the importance of "banishing self-doubt". My reasons for this subtle, though important, distinction will become clear later on.

Regardless of what we call it, I think this mindset is nothing short of critical to your "success" and general happiness – whether in martial arts (as depicted in the adjacent meme) or life in general. I hope to explain and evidence exactly how and why I think so in this essay.

But first, let me first discuss "faith" more generally.

Faith: is it the "antithesis of reason"?

"Faith" cops a lot of bad press from modern skeptical thinkers. And, to a large extent, I can see why. Faith is, after all, "blind": it is the belief in something without (at least sufficient) evidence.

I won't go into the details of the problems connected with faith. Instead I will direct you to the works of people like Sam Harris (see his polemic "The End of Faith"). Suffice it to say, I agree with Sam, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and so many others that, at least most of the time, you really should have a good reason for believing in something.

But at the same time, we can't ignore the fact that faith is, and arguably always has been, a powerful motivator in human affairs. If we are honest, we will recognise it as one of the most important and influential driving forces in the history of human society (I will justify that statement in a moment). Accordingly, I think it that understanding the nature of faith – and appreciating its potential – is crucial to achieving a higher understanding of our own nature and potential as individuals.

As I will argue, I think such understanding also enables us to find an acceptable "middle ground" between "blind" faith on one hand and what is perceived to be an indifferent, cold and seemingly "negative" skepticism on the other.

In defence of faith

Okay, so I have just said that faith has been a powerful force in shaping society. Why do I think this? Let me put it this way:

It was once thought that technological innovations such as the domestication of grain and animals acted as the primary motivation for our species to move from a primitive hunter/gatherer existence into complex societies. Why? These innovations permitted stable settlement (as opposed to itinerant life).

It was generally assumed that more sophisticated practices such mass cooperation, architecture, art, and social organisation – including religion – emerged only after the establishment of early agricultural settlements.

But we now know from, say, the Gobekli Tepe complex that, in fact, the above very likely happened in reverse.

It was at Gobeki Tepe, some 11,000 years ago (at least 6,000 years before Stonehenge and the invention of writing, and at least 500 years before even the earliest agriculture), that thousands of stone age hunter/gatherers cooperated over years, very likely decades, to build a large complex of sophisticated, monolithic buildings and structures. What motivated these early humans? It seems the answer can be summed up in one word:


It seems fairly clear that Gobkeli Tepe comprised some sort of "temple complex": in other words, it seems to have been built purely as an expression of some early (animist) "faith" – that predated organised society. Whatever the specifics of this "faith", the evidence is fairly unequivocal that it was not a place of human habitation – ie. it was not a "settlement" or part of a "society" - at least not in a sense recognizable for at least half a millennium. It seems that it was faith, not agriculture and settlement, that gave humanity impetus to move towards technology and civilization.

How faith still informs a skeptic's actions today

Even if you are a skeptical atheist (as I am), I think you'd be surprised at just how much a certain kind of "faith" still informs your daily actions. "Oh surely not!" you might protest. But think about it:

How often have you motivated, or at least attempted to motivate, yourself through "positive thinking"? How many books, posters and headlines do you accept – usually without hesitation – about the "power" (or at least utility) of such positive thought?

How many sports psychologists, motivational speakers, self-help gurus, CEOs, wise friends, teachers and (now) internet memes tell you that your best chances of "success" lie in "creating positive mental pictures"; in "believing in yourself"; in realizing that "nothing is impossible"; in "never giving up" (or, as our dojo kun says, "persevering despite all obstacles")?

I'm fairly sure you will agree, that such advice is ubiquitous – and almost universally uncritically accepted.

"Faith in yourself" vs. reality

But what if you have absolutely no basis upon which to sustain such belief? What if (and I'm not going to mince my words here), basically, you suck?


You're about to enter a martial arts tournament. It's your first one. It involves full contact. You've competed a bit in the dojo, but never with strangers. And the guy you're now facing is an experienced fighter who is more highly graded, is 6 inches taller, weighs 40 lbs more and looks a whole lot meaner than you have ever been. What possible reason do you have for "believing in yourself" in this instance?

Heck – take any other sport or field of human endeavour, eg:

* you're competing for a job with someone with far better qualifications, experience and connections than you;
* you're vying for government funding with a far more affordable and politically attractive alternative proposal;
* you're racing against competitors who all have personal bests at least seconds faster than yours.

If the odds are clearly stacked against you, why would you possibly persist in "self-belief"? Why believe in something that is, at best, wishful and at worst delusional?

The answer lies in this simple truth: because (short of a "Steve Bradbury moment") this advice still gives you your best chances of success. Is this not "faith" – often of a kind that is manifestly "blind"?

Steve Bradbury's "miracle" gold medal win

In a way, even we modern skeptics appear not that far removed from our Gobekli Tepe ancestors; we rely on a kind of "unreasoned" or "unreasonable" belief on an almost daily basis, whether it is a sense that we won't miss the bus (even though we're running later than usual); that we'll pass the exam even though we haven't really done enough to guarantee the result; that we'll get well soon, even though we know from experience that influenza typically affects us for longer than others; etc.

And when "the chips are really down" we redouble our own internal monologues: "You're going to make it!" "Don't give up!" "You're going to ace this!" "C'mon!"

You see this with outmatched tennis players when they win a point against the top seed - even though they are trailing 0:5 with two sets already lost. We are all prone to doing this sort of "self-affirmation" - precisely when logic should tell us that we have little reason to be optimistic.

Well I'm not about to suggest that we should do any differently. This sort of "positiveness", however "unjustified" in bare logic, might well make the difference - and here is why:

Not adding your own obstacles to those already in your path

Life throws plenty of obstacles in your path. It will do so on a daily, if not hourly, basis - from the moment of your birth (if not before) to your last breath. Yes, sometimes good fortune will smile upon you in the form of a "Steve Bradbury moment". But you can't rely on this. Mostly life is a path strewn with big boulders and sharp thorn bushes, interrupted by gorges and deep, rushing rivers and beset by threats from either side.

So why would we - any of us - place additional obstacles of our own on the path? Why would you, for example, run ahead, topple a tree so that it falls across your route, then retrace your steps only so as to meet the challenge of circumnavigating the obstacle? Why would you run up the side of a hill when a perfectly good road has been cut or tunneled through it? Such additional self-made obstacles might serve us well in training. But life is not a training exercise. In life, you don't need to add to the existing obstacles. There are enough out there already.

And yet, many of us will, from time to time, engage in self-doubt: "I can't do it." "He/she is too good." "I can't go on." "It's impossible." Such self-doubt is nothing if not the addition of your own obstacles.

Your own obstacles can often be bigger than those you are expecting. Even if they aren't, they can make the difference between success and failure. At the very least, it is I think true to say that whatever chances you might have had are likely to be scuttled with such thoughts, leaving you with "no chance" as opposed to "little chance".

Distinguishing "positiveness" from delusion

So how do I square the preceding observation with cold, hard logic? How do I differentiate between foolhardy self-delusion and useful self-confidence? It comes down to a subtle, but significant, difference in mental approach, namely suspending disbelief rather than believing. What does this mean?

Imagine for a moment that you are going to the cinema to watch a movie - let's pick the 2009 film "Avatar". You know it isn't real. There are no such things in reality as "the Na'vi", "avatars" and "unobtainium". There is no planet called "Pandora" (yet). Do you sit through the movie scoffing at everything you find "implausible"? No. In order to enjoy the movie, you suspend your disbelief.

This is to be contrasted with the third option - which is to try positively to believe that what is happening on screen is real. That would be absurd.

[If this seems a little too absurd to contemplate, consider the condition labelled "Avatar Blues" reported in the global community following James Cameron's blockbuster: it seems there were many viewers who so desperately wanted to believe in the reality of the world created on screen that it put them into a state of clinical depression - one that became recognised widely enough to warrant a kind of colloquial "categorisation".]

Belief vs. suspension of disbelief

So there is a difference between "belief" and "suspending disbelief". And it is the same difference you should employ in negotiating your obstacle-strewn journey through life. As the preceding "SUCCESS" meme suggests, it is important to recognize the obstacles that are actually there and treat them with respect. But ultimately you don't want to imagine obstacles that aren't there - or at least imagine them to be larger than they actually are. Or even imagine them as they really are. Because your own imagination can create additional "virtual" obstacles every bit as problematic as the ones in the "real world". Imagining obstacles (however realistically and objectively) can rob you of confidence. And every drop in confidence can be measured as a new boulder heaved onto your path.

Putting a check on the negative side of your imagination necessarily involves some element of "suspension of disbelief" - specifically in relation to factors over which you have no control.

That last bit is important. What stops me, a man approaching 50 who has an immune-related inflammatory illness, from entering a local MMA tournament? Very simply, the fact that I have total control over that decision. I could, on the basis of my past "hard knocks" training, convince myself that I could do well enough. I might imagine that "positive thinking" and "hard training" are all I need for "success". But we all know this would be nothing but self-delusion of the worst kind.

I say "worst kind" not because I would have no realistic prospect of doing well against 20-30 year old opponents, and not because it would be patently bad for my health to attempt to do so. I say "worst kind" because I would also be indulging in some sort of fantasy oblivious to the very real obligations I have towards my young family; obligations I would place in severe jeopardy by taking absurd risks for the sake of some mid-life desire to prove that "I still got it".

In other words, I wouldn't enter an MMA contest because it is something over which I have control. I don't have to "suspend disbelief" about my chances of winning simply because I don't have to enter the contest in the first place.

But, for the sake of argument, let us conjure an implausible Hollywood-style scenario (of the kind that seemed to confront Jean Claude van Damme's movie characters!): What if my "wife and children were held hostage with the threat of execution" unless I entered a UFC match against, say, Jon "Bones" Jones, Anderson Silva or GSP (depending on my weight division)? Well in that (absurd) scenario, of course it would pay me to "suspend disbelief" about my likely chances of being slaughtered. I'd have to do my level best to prepare - physically and mentally.

In fact, my best chances (however slim they might be) of emerging relatively unscathed (never mind landing a few blows of my own) would lie in not only suspending disbelief - but banishing it entirely.

Less extreme instances where banishing self-doubt is appropriate

There are however other, lesser, instances than the "unavoidable" in which you can and should "banish self-doubt" - the most obvious being where you have nothing to lose!

You might, for example, apply for a new job even though it is a "long shot". Why not? If you get an interview, be positive; assume you're going to get the job. Confidence can and does shine through. In this case, you should let it. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It doesn't mean you should actually believe you're going to get the job: it just means you shouldn't focus on not getting it. You should be thinking about positive things and not negative possibilities. The fact that those negative possibilities remain is something upon which you simply should not dwell, because doing so won't benefit you one iota.

Somewhere between the "unavoidable" and the "absolutely nothing to lose" extremes there is the "in for a penny, in for a pound"; where you're irretrievably committed to a course of action.

Clearly this would not include being scheduled to take part in the UFC (I could and would "uncommit" myself as fast as possible)! But it would include any number of social situations in which you might find yourself.

For example, I recently went to Victoria to train with my senior James. On the final night he arranged some live entertainment - some excellent musicians who entertained the seminar attendees with amplified music in the Wu-Lin courtyard. James himself played the harmonica and mandolin with the group on a few numbers and one of his sons joined them on guitar as well. It was a relaxed, inclusive and enjoyable night.

But towards the end I was abruptly cajoled into getting up and playing something. My initial reaction was one of great reluctance if not mild terror: I have never been a good guitarist or singer. And I hadn't played my own guitar in many, many months. More relevantly, I'd only ever played in public once before - and that was in 2002.

But, having committed to the task, I did indeed banish any self-doubt. I could have thought about the fact that I have rarely played a single song all the way through without mistakes. I could have thought about the fact that I might not remember lyrics. There were so many fears upon which I could have dwelt, all of them realistic. Instead I just got up and played as if I'd been doing it my whole life: as if I had a ready repertoire of songs that people actually wanted to hear and would enjoy. In that respect, (if only in that respect) I am proud of what I managed to do.

How did it work out? It seemed to go well enough. I played 4 numbers all the way through. As I recall, I made a few stumbles in my playing. I'm sure my voice wandered off key here and there. But in the end, what did I have to lose? On balance, very little. My friends and colleagues would not hold me in low esteem for not being a polished musician. In the end, "having a go" was more important than any embarrassment and ego-driven concerns on my part.


People will often talk about "the power of faith" or "believing in yourself". Unfortunately "wishing don't make it so". If it did, then some of the worst "American/UK/Australian/etc. Idol" auditions wouldn't result in completely talentless (and clueless) contestants walking away in tears, their far-fetched dreams crushed in an instant by one or more "nasty judges". You have to be realistic in life. Wishing yourself to success is hardly a realistic recipe. It is a gross over-reliance on feel-good, positive-thinking, self-help mantras.

But this is not to say that there isn't a good case for suspending disbelief in many cases - even if those doubts are objectively very plausible. Suspending disbelief at crucial times is significantly different from a positive belief in relation to something inherently unbelievable.

So what rule can one follow in discerning when a "suspension of disbelief" is prudent and when it is not? I follow this one:

You should suspend - in fact banish - self-doubt if that doubt informs an action:

(a) that is unavoidable; or
(b) for which there is no down side; or
(c) to which you are otherwise irretrievably committed.

Recognize the obstacles in your path for what they truly are. But don't let your doubt "imagine extra ones into existence". Life places plenty of obstacles in your path already.

[Follow-up article: "Wanting more".]

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

It's all about technique

I saw this video featuring Michael Jai White on the subject of "telegraphing" quite some time ago, but here is the "extended version". It is certainly worth a watch:

I have posted this video because I often get skeptical looks from other martial artists when I raise the issue of telegraphing and other extraneous movement.

"Surely it doesn't make such a difference," they say (or, at least, they think - I can see the raised eyebrows, if nothing else). "Telegraphing might make a difference if the movement is huge. But some subtle shoulder lift or twitch that happens a microsecond before the punch? Are you telling me I need to be fussed about "refined" technique when my "rough and ready" does the job? Are you telling me that I am being "inefficient": that I can't do a little hip load before the punch - to give it "power"? You obviously haven't seen how fast I hit!"

Well here is my answer:

Yes, you should have refined and efficient (ie. direct and devoid of extraneous movement) technique. The above video shows you exactly why. We all need to eliminate tells, twitches, shakes and other uncontrolled movement in our technique. We should be striving for perfect control. We should be moving as directly and succinctly - ie. efficiently - as possible. While this is a goal that none of us will achieve, intelligent civilian defence methodology relies upon good technique - not simple brute strength and speed and not flashy, circuitous moves designed to "add power".

And even if you're as big as King Kong and as fast as Usain Bolt, you should be striving for this goal. Why? For the sake of gong fu - bettering your skill through diligent effort. This is why we call what we do martial art. It's not just about fighting, but even when it is, we need to have the best technique we can possibly have.

"Are you really telling me you can read my "unrefined" or "circuitous" movement - and that it will slow me down enough to make a difference? By the way, have I shown you how fast I hit?

Actually, yes to both.

I might not be Michael Jai White, but what he's doing in that video is standard in traditional martial arts schools. It isn't "magic" and it isn't "new". It's old hat.

And if you're still thinking that you can get away with "double hip" and "sine wave" when even the smallest, imperceptible shoulder twitch both gives you away and slows you down, then you've really missed the point.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Step-through lunge punches as "stem cell movements"


In my previous article I discussed how the humble "lunge punch" (oi zuki) of karate is largely scorned by combat sports practitioners and other "pragmatic" or "reality-based" martial artists.

I'm not just talking about a "lunging punch" executed the leading arm: that technique is as ubiquitous as any other common technique. No, here we're talking about the standard karate-style punch as seen in basic kata – you know, where you take a full step (with your legs passing each other) into a forward stance (zenkutsu dachi) then, at the completion of the step, you execute a punch with your leading arm.

The classic example of this is to be found in the kata heian shodan.

Defending the step-through oi zuki

I've had various responses to my previous article, many defending the lunge punch after a step-through. But ultimately I've been unable to come up with a single video example of such a punch being executed (at least, literally) except in basics or kata. I couldn't find it in any resistant context. Neither the cage/ring, nor karate sparring/competition, nor in surveillance footage of civilian defence encounters. I couldn't find it anywhere.

That's not to say that I think it is impossible to execute such a technique – it's just rare. It's possibly rarer than I even suspected when I started writing this series of articles.

Be honest – how often have you done a "step-through lunge punch in forward stance"? Can you find a video of anyone else doing it?

Yet despite my preceding observations, in this article I don't intend to add to the chorus of disapproval of this humble basic technique (which I shall call a "step-through oi zuki" from now on for brevity's sake). Rather I intend to defend it as a training method that, while basic, is very useful and effective in conveying vital motor learning and kinaesthetic awareness. In this context it is valuable precisely because of its status as a "stem cell movement" (see my previous articles on this topic).

The shuffle oi zuki as an alternative to the step-through oi zuki

Before we get into the "stem cell" usefulness of step-through oi zuki, let us see what its "practical" or "realistic" alternatives might be.

For example, how might someone go about "improving" a kata like heian shodan to make it "more realistic" by avoiding the step-through oi zuki?

I've previously discussed that an oi zuki is more commonly executed form a "lunge proper" as opposed to a full step-through. I don't wish dwell too long on this option:

Karate has such techniques in abundance and, as you would expect, it is seen in almost every resistant context, from MMA, to karate dojo sparring, to the "street". But this "leading punch from a front foot lunge" concept doesn't really fit with a kata like heian shodan.

For example, you couldn't simply substitute "lunges" for all the full steps. Why? Because apart from altering the character of the kata beyond recognition, it would produce an absurdity: after executing the first step into the opponent with a block, you'd have to shuffle up with a lunge punch on the same arm as depicted in the adjacent pictures. [I hasten to add that this is a cut and paste – it isn't what the fellow depicted did in the original video!]

Now this would feel daft for a very good reason: somewhat dogmatically, you'd only be using one side of the body! This would necessitate time wasting as you "reload" for a punch on the same side. There is a time and place for such things, but this isn't one of them. You have two arms and legs – you might as well use both!

Quite simply, this would be a nonsense.

The gyaku zuki as an alternative to the step-through oi zuki

The most obvious other candidate for "improving" heian shodan is the classic reverse punch. Whether it manifests as a "cross" or the more classical, straight "gyaku zuki" of karate, the reverse punch is undisputed "king" of punching.

This is particularly so if you've just executed a block/deflection (downward or otherwise, and when entering or evading your opponent). This is for the simple reason that you want to use your lead hand to block/deflect: it is your "shield" and there is little point in having your shield held back. Rather, you hold your shield up front, thwart the attack, then counter strike.

So in this context, I would see the gyaku zuki as the most "realistic" application of the opening move of heian shodan. I would execute it in the manner shown in the adjacent photographs and as discussed in my article "How "stem cell movements" in kata morph depending on your experience", ie:

I'd wedge the attack with a gedan uke while reaching in, using a hip rotation away from the attack.

Then I'd follow with a reverse punch, powered by a hip rotation into the attack.

This all makes "perfect sense" to me. Indeed, in the video embedded below I go on to demonstrate this type of movement in a continuous drill form. And yet, I would never change the kata to conform to this model. Why not? Quite simply this:

I don't believe the kata was ever meant to be used this literally.

Rather, for the reasons referred to in my first article on "stem cell movements" I believe that kata like heian shodan were meant to communicate a variety of different options - and provide the necessary motor learning to accommodate all of those options.

The "stem cell" nature of the step-through

So what is the "stem cell" purpose of the step-through oi zuki? In my view it is very simply this:

It trains you to throw your hip forwards into the attack.

What do I mean? Many karateka are familiar with the notion of throwing their hip into a reverse punch (gyaku zuki) - largely from a stationary posture. But this ignores the dynamic (ie. moving) context in which punches are typically executed (by the way, this is yet another problem with the "double hip" theory that is presently so popular). It also often focuses unduly on the "rotation" of the hips rather than the forward moment which needs to emerge from such hip use (indeed, a circular moment is, of itself, not particularly useful unless you are executing a circular technique).

So instead, I suggest that if you are using your hip to add force to your punch, you should think of "snapping the hips forwards" rather than "rotating them sideways". And you should remember to do so in the context of a movement towards your opponent (not from a stationary position). The heian shodan type step offers a unique (yet subtle and totally unheralded) opportunity to practise this.

I discuss this in the video below at around 5:18 onwards (video set to start at the right point):

In this respect you'll be using your hips in much the same way as a baseball pitcher throws his or her ball: any circular movement in the hips, torso and arms ceases as you flick the them into a straight line towards your target. If this didn't happen, the pitcher's ball would be thrown off to one side.

Very much the same process should happen with any punch: you convert the circular momentum of the hips into a forward moment at the last second.

The more forward moment you have, the harder you hit. And the more forward moment you have, the more likely it is for this moment to drag your back foot forward - as inevitably happens with any power punch. Consider the adjacent images of Silva vs. Machida: Silva is so committed to the punch that his back foot visibly drags up almost to the line of the front foot.

[I've previously discussed that this can be a problem for martial artists in the sense that it can leave you over-extended. But then again, this is a risk you take with virtually any committed blow: if you miss, you leave a big opening. This is something every martial artist has to weigh up.]

Indeed, a punch can have so much forward momentum that your back foot overtakes your front foot - leading to... a full step!

Consider the following animated gif of Lyoto Machida throwing such a punch:

Yes, he times the blow to land with the "reverse action". But there is no denying that his back foot quickly overtakes the front.

He might not be executing a "step-through oi zuki" but he is most definitely "channelling" the principles of heian shodan (amongst other kata).

So what if we wanted to develop such forward momentum in an isolated, basic forum? Would we practise our kata just with reverse punches? No, that wouldn't do it; for one thing, it would mean that the stepping component would be utterly divorced from the hip use, heavily restricting our "forward momentum" training (and focusing unduly on stationary hip rotation).

Would we allow the back leg to drag up a little or to the "level" point (as per Silva above)? I don't think so. That would be going "half way" to a "double weighted" point of instability and vulnerability - not to mention the zone where "dead time" occurs. No, I think we'd want to move through that zone as fast as possible.

So I think we would we say:

"To hell with it - let's train the hips to go all the way through to a full step!"

To my mind, this is exactly what kata like heian shodan are trying to develop: a potent ability to project your momentum horizontally directly into (and sometimes away from!) your opponent.

In "resistant" application, such training might manifest as nothing more than a more powerful reverse punch: one that is projecting forwards forcefully. Or it might involve a leg change where back foot does in fact come up to pass the front because even more hip is projected forwards (as per the adjacent gif of me performing a movement from heian shodan in a more "advanced" manner).

[In respect of the latter, this is precisely why our version of heian shodan (what we call "fukyugata") features the punch being executed in a short stance (sanchin/han zenkutsu) rather than a full forward stance: it is our concession to "realism". This however doesn't void the value of learning to step forward into a full zenkutsu dachi as you punch: the latter lesson is just more "elemental".]

Accordingly, while heian shodan (in its traditional form) might require a punch only at the very end of this "chasing" step, this is just a matter of the "stem cell movement" having to pick the most basic incarnation for its primary form.

This is because you don't want beginners to finish their punches well before they've reached their opponent (so that they end up walking into their opponents with what is, in effect, a battering ram). Rather, you want them to wait till the very end of the movement before punching (so as to "drop the bomb" at this point).

With a more advanced student, you tell them to time their punch so that it lands with their front foot.

And for yet more advanced students, the punch can be timed to land even earlier (as per Machida's example and the video below of Enoeda sensei). The "stem cell movement" permits all these permutations.

Note how Enoeda sensei launches a reverse punch that is extended almost into an "oi zuki" to effect "kuzushi". This is the sort of principle that kata like heian shodan teach at higher levels; the same principle Machida demonstrates in the above animated gif.


In my most recent articles I discussed how such "basic exercises" were analogous to "stem cell movements" - ie. movements that teach generalised biomechanical principles pertinent to all levels of experience. And these "stem cell movements" are, in their most "embryonic" state, still capable of morphing into any number of very specialised and sophisticated variants.

I hope that in this article I have established that the much maligned "step-through oi zuki" is capable of morphing into a variety of different techniques and is accordingly well worth practising.

But more than that, the movement is, in its most basic incarnation, a fantastic motor learning method - especially for brand-new beginners. This is irrespective of any "realistic" application we might give the step-through oi zuki:

For example, I've noted previously that we choose to "stay low" evenly while moving in stances for the principle reason that it adds load in training. Having full steps in such stances also adds to this load. And this is of paramount importance to the beginner who needs to develop both explosive strength in his or her legs as well as stability. Indeed, it is clear to me that fighters like Lyoto Machida owe a great deal of their own "unorthodox" MMA fighting ability to such humble kata as heian shodan.

I've copped a bit of flak for the above observation, with some querying why one wouldn't simply practise such stances "in context". My answer is this:

Such basic kata do provide a context - it's just that the context is very "formal", "basic", "fundamental", "elemental" or "embryonic". If it were more "realistic" it would just be more specialised. As it is, the context is sufficiently general to translate to any number of different, equally important, martial contexts. Its generality is directly proportional to its transferability - and is its biggest strength.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Lunge punches: why bother?


The lunge punch is possibly one of the most identifying features of karate (and the external martial arts generally - eg. shaolin gong fu, taekwondo etc.). What is it? I define it as a punch with the leading hand, executed in a forward or "bow and arrow" stance (zenkutsu dachi or gong bu). In arts like karate it is typically launched after a full step-through.

But how "useful" or "practical" is this? Some would argue not at all.

Consider this account from John Vesia's "Martial Views" blog where he includes the lunge punch as one of 3 karate moves we could do without. John says:

"Lunge punch. This is punching that corresponds with the same side stepping foot accentuated with a long stance. Sometimes called a "chasing" punch. Lots of instructors like to demonstrate a self-defense technique against a lunge punch (or a knife in lieu of a punch); the lunging posture puts uke in a compromising position conducive to an easy counter. For this reason, no fighter worth his salt punches or cuts using a lunging stance."

And I have to say, I agree. A lunge punch is very problematic, particularly when performed in the now "standard" karate way, with the punch being effected in an ultra long, lunging step (with a pause at the end of the punch!) - as demonstrated towards the end of the video below.

A good video illustrating the standard "lunge punch" or "oi zuki" in karate

So what is so wrong with this technique? Ignoring any technical comments I am about to make, consider this: when you have ever seen an MMA fighter effecting this technique? Never?

Okay, so MMA isn't civilian defence fighting. In that case. when have you ever seen anyone executing a lunge punch in the "street"? How about just in "dojo sparring"? Never? Hmm...

Things are never quite as they seem

These observations might appear quite fatal to the notion of the lunge punch. But as we will discover, things are never quite as they seem in martial arts analysis!

What if I told you that in any given MMA round you will see dozens of lunge punches? You might call me mad, right? But just take a look at the following images - all taken from standard MMA fights:

In each case, the fighters are clearly punching with their leading arms, their bodies extended into a forward stance - no question. So aren't they doing "lunge punches"? Of course they are!

[There are 2 significant differences, but I'll get to that a bit later. In the meantime, can you guess what they might be?]

Punching in forward stance: powerful, but dangerous!

Of course, there is a reason why photographs of almost all fighting disciplines "in action" include snapshots of "forward stances".

In the case of martial arts, throwing a powerful punch requires more than just hand speed. It requires more than hip rotation. It requires whole body momentum - you have to throw your weight behind the punch as much as possible. And the forward stance is what makes this possible.

Time and time again, in martial systems across the globe, we see the foward stance emerging as the most stable platform for committed punches. And this is hardly surprising: biomechanics are biomechanics. There are only so many ways in which the human body can move.

But the forward stance also carries with it significant danger. Whenever you throw a such a heavily committed attack, you are in effect over-extending yourself.

Consider the gif below: the fellow on the left throws a lunge punch, but misses. He is in a dangerously over-committed position and gets caught by a counter - then it's all over.

[I discuss in my article "How the internal arts work: Part 1" that one of the identifying features of the internal arts is to address the problem of over-commitment, especially as it occurs in forward stance. While they each do so via unique ways of "continuing momentum", xingyi goes even further to avoid using the forward stance altogether: something I hope to address in a detailed article in the future.]

So it seems that lunge punches carry risks, but also benefits. They occur in MMA, implying that they aren't just a "traditional hang over". So why do most "pragmatic fighters" still view the karate-style lunge punch with contempt?

Difference #1: stepping-through

If you haven't worked it out, the first (and main) "differentiating feature" in the above MMA pictures is just this:

The MMA fighters aren't punching after a step-through!

They are invariably punching with their leading arm after extending their front foot. Even if they are punching from a totally stationary position, they certainly aren't stepping-through, then punching with their leading arm.

Consider the adjacent gif and note the punches that are executed with the leading arm.

Ignore the "wild swinging" quality to each lunge punch in the gif (neither here nor there for the purposes of this discussion). It is clear that the distinguishing feature from the classic traditional "lunge punch" is this:

The punch does not get thrown after a classic "ayumi ashi" (legs passing in a "natural" step).

Rather, the front leg (often followed almost immediately by the back leg keeping pace so as to avoid over-extension) launches the punch.

Difference #2: single punch

Now it's true that even in karate the oi zuki is frequently effected after a lunge (extension of the front leg) - not a full step-through. This lunge is called "oi ashi".

A video demonstrating "oi ashi" - lunging - with an "oi zuki" (lunge punch)

The obvious difference between the above video and, say, the animated MMA lunge punch examples above (other than the fact that my video depicts a very formal, basic exercise!) is that only one punch is being executed. Yet we know that when karate is applied it looks pretty much like any other fighting method in this sense: people throw multiple punches. In particular:

A lunge punch is invariably followed by a reverse punch (gyaku zuki) or some other reverse technique.

Why? Precisely because the lunge punch is, by its nature, a transitional move: it is used to "set up" and is not (usually) particularly powerful or determinative in and of itself.

So if you are going to take the risk of committing your body weight into a forward stance, you might as well do so with more than a lunge punch.

Indeed, unless you're throwing a few "test" jabs, any lunge punch will usually be followed by a powerful reverse technique - be it a punch or kick. Seen in this light, a jab or other lunge acts principally as a "lead-in" to the reverse technique.

But this still leaves us with the uncomfortable question:

Why do so many karate movements feature a single lunge punch executed with a full step-through?

Dealing with the "single punch issue"

I'm going to deal with the issues raised above in reverse order. First, why does karate have single punches?

Let us be absolutely clear on this: karate has many multiple punch combinations. What people often can't look past are the very basic kata like heian shodan (as I highlighted last month) which feature such single punches.

Even my own video above of the lunge punch from cat stance concerns only basics - very pared-down, formal exercises that are not intended to replicate or otherwise represent "realism". They are exercises in isolation, intended to teach principles of movement for developing motor learning and kinaesthesia in the particular isolated movement.

Otherwise, any cursory look at karate kata will reveal many "combination" techniques. Yes, non-karateka might be unhappy about the pauses (ie. lack of flow) in and around these combinations, but that is another matter.

By now we should be aware that the primary problem with the classic karate "lunge punch" isn't the fact that it involves only one punch with your leading arm. This is easily explained as basic isolation practice. At the very least, it is easily ameliorated by the addition of one or more extra punches. The main problem people seem to have with the lunge punch is that it involves a step-through.

Dealing with the "step-through issue"

The fact that a "step-through lunge punch" is very rarely seen (in its strict "karate-style" form anyway) - whether in MMA, the "street" or dojo sparring - is probably a direct function of "dead time".

This is an issue which I have previously discussed at length. Readers will recall that "dead time" occurs principally as one leg passes the other in "natural stepping" (ie. a "step-through"). Accordingly, fighters of all descriptions will go to great lengths to avoid such "dead time".

In a nutshell, this is why you don't see much "natural stepping" in the ring/cage. Certainly for the melee range, such stepping takes too long!1

Nonetheless, "natural stepping" does occur in the ring/cage. You see it all the time: it occurs when a fighter has to cover larger ground - ie. when he or she is chasing his or her opponent. In that instance, dead time or not, human biomechanics require your feet to pass each other. Shuffling or skipping steps only work in the melee range. Once your opponent is outside that range, normal locomotion must necessarily take over.

Consider the adjacent gif and count the number of steps the fighter on the left makes: That's right, there are 3 - each timed with a punch.

Yes, each of the punches is a reverse punch - but that is hardly surprising: as you walk or run, your arms naturally counterswing to your legs. So when you're chasing someone, your arms will work opposite to your legs, for both "power" and (more importantly) stability. (These are the factors that make lunge punches both inherently weaker and less stable than reverse punches).

This should make it clear why the lunge punch is rarely going to be useful with a full step-through. More often than not, it will only be useful with a true lunge - a reach to your opponent made with the front foot moving first.

So what possible reason could arts like karate have for teaching step-through lunge punches?

To answer this question I will have to return to my analysis of "stem cell" techniques commenced in my 2 most recent essays. And I will have to do that in the very next article!


For the time being, I hope I've clarified a number of distinct points:

1. "Lunge punches" are punches executed with the leading arm in forward stance (zenkutsu dachi) or similar.

2. Such lunge punches occur in every striking discipline and can be seen in any resistant context - be it the "street", ring/cage or dojo.

3. Lunge punches are necessary and useful because they enable you to move into your opponent quickly with your leading arm, utilising the forward stance to throw your whole body momentum into the blow. They are generally "entering" or "set up" blows, paving the way for a powerful reverse punch or kick, and any number of other follow up techniques.

4. Any punch executed in a forward stance is going to be risky precisely because it involves a great deal of commitment or extension. This is doubly so for a lunge punch because your body is relatively unbalanced by having one side extended (cf. a reverse punch).

5. Lunge punches are generally executed with a front foot lunge and not a full step-through. In other words, the punch is usually launched as your front foot initiates a move towards your opponent - but without your back leg continuing to pass your front. Lunge punches are generally not useful when executed at the end of a full step-through.

6. Such lunge steps are however not suited outside the melee range. In that case "natural stepping" (ie. involving a "step-through") comes into its own (eg. if you need to cover larger ground in chasing your opponent). In that case you are very unlikely to be executing anything other than reverse techniques as you step.

Yes, some karate kata do feature single lunge punches executed after a full step-through. And yes, this would seem contrary to my reasoning above. But, as I have previously detailed, such movements are not intended to be "realistic techniques". As unlikely as it seems, these manifestations of lunge punches have more to do with gross motor learning and basic kinaesthetics; they are "high on principle" and "low on realism" for a reason - one which I will shortly detail.

[Next time: Lunge punches as "stem cell movements": why karate teaches lunge punches after a "step-through".]


1. I have previously noted that certain modern dogmas, when inserted into forms, contrive to increase the dead time even more. Consider:No small wonder that you don't see neither "sine wave" nor "double hip" in any resistant context! Not when both dogmas simply add more "drag" to the already inherently problematic issue of "natural stepping".

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic