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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Self-Analysis - Oi-tsuki Case Study

Shaun Banfield



This is a continuation of the previous article entitled ‘A Balanced Regime’. There, I looked at the vital differences between training and analysis/personal study; where I drew up the debate about how they work together to forge development in your karate.


I’m not going to back track and cover previous material, but instead get down to business here with the topic at hand.


It has long been said that our best tutors are ourselves, and being truthful with ourselves is pivotal in our development, and strict attention to even the smallest of details is vital to fuel this.


I can only speak from personal experience, but I am my harshest critic. As destructive as not being self-critical can be, being overtly self-critical can also be detrimental to development. Training should be enjoyable (despite being tiring, frustrating etc), and should not give you a direct ticket to depression. Having a balance is crucial to a useful and positive regime.


In many ways, Self-criticism is one of the very most important parts of our development. Resting on our laurels is codeword for a stagnancy which will inevitably lead to taking two steps backward to every step ahead that you make; so if we’re going to reference Funakoshi himself, ‘Karate is like boiling water: without heat it returns to its tepid state’.


Standing, whether in a dojo line-up or in front of a bag/makiwara; just doing the techniques can sometimes be a waste of time, as touched on in the previous article. Not analysing your karate and trying to figure out where you could develop is kind of like watching a film and never finding out the end. You’re wasting time and effort to watch it and never getting the reward. Same with karate, taking the time to train but never effectively developing is a waste of time. Therefore, goals are central to our training and the constant striving to meet ‘perfection’ is naturally our desired goal.


Many people find karate terribly difficult as, if we’re being honest with ourselves; we never reach a point of satisfaction. We can never sit back and think ‘Now I’m good’, because in the time it takes to say it, that water Funakoshi was talking about has started on its cooling to tepidness. We never reach ‘perfection’ in the eyes of anyone, most importantly in our own. What is perfection anyhow? This is a true dilemma fluttering around anything and everything in life. No one has the perfect body, no one has the perfect singing voice and no one has the perfect karate. Why? Because perfection cannot be defined. There’s always something to keep tweaking and, pun intended ‘perfecting’. That’s what keeps us Martial Artists training from one year to the next until we realise we’ve been training for thirty five years.


As a central case study, I’m going to look at oi-tsuki, as it’s one of the very first techniques we learn as beginners and probably take one of the toughest techniques to get right.


Heian Shodan is a kata containing seven oi-tsuki. This kata by many Senior Instructors has been described as Shotokan’s most difficult kata to execute. Why? Basically because there’s no hiding in this kata. You cannot hide behind any fancy techniques, beautiful jumps or clever movements. What you see is what you get and if you can’t do the most basic of techniques correctly then you’re in a bit of trouble.


The key to an effective oi-tsuki comes in the minimal and economical movement. Adding minor movements here and there, even though small will slow the technique down and ruin its effectiveness. To attack someone with an oi-tsuki, get it to the target and let it do its job is incredibly hard and is so easily telegraphed. On the flip side, this is also the most powerful punch in Shotokan; making use of a superb acceleration of the body towards the target and anyone who has seen Yahara Sensei fight will see how well it can work. 


So we have a step forward from, let’s say for arguments sake, (Left) zenkutsu-dachi into (Right) zenkutsu-dachi, punching with the right hand.


I think it’s fair to say that pretty much anyone who has been training longer than a fortnight will be able to execute this technique. But what is, or what should be the difference between a 9th kyu’s execution of it, and a 3rd dan’s execution? Well that’s the very essence behind this article.


There are very possibly hundreds of factors that differentiate between a good and bad lunging punch. You could call these major differences and minor differences. Or Dai and Sho if we want to be humorous. An example of a major difference could be that the black belt is faster than the white belt, while a minor example could be that before the stepping action the front foot turns out and then you step (telegraphing the technique). Now the problem occurs in the fact that by having the minor and major titles can lead to the assumption that the ‘minor’ are less important and less of a problem. But in actual fact, it’s this ‘minor’ factor that plays a huge role in the major part.


To explain this a little further, we’re going to compare a good 3rd dan and a bad 3rd dan. The former is very fast and the latter is very slow.


Self-analysis however intends on identifying why the latter is slow and the former is fast. How can one move fast while the other moves slow. One explanation could come in the form of the economical movement of the former. The good 3rd dan may move fast because he understands how the body should move and therefore moves accordingly. This has been achieved through a long bout of personal research into his own karate and self-analysis where he could see where he was going wrong so he could make it right.


So with this in mind, considering the ‘perfection’ of an oi-tsuki, how would you do this?


Repetition…and not mindless repetition, but effective and thoughtful repetition. Way too many people think that just by repeating a movement you will improve. That’s rubbish. You need to constantly be thinking, constantly trying to improve and fine-tuning your machine. There’s so much talk of muscle memory, and how through repeating a technique correctly you will improve it and I couldn’t put it better myself. It’s also important to remember that the longer your repeat your techniques incorrectly the more ingrained that bad habit will become, like a red-wine stain on your white carpet. The more red wine you add to the stain, the worse it will become.


Coming back to oi-tsuki. Lets discuss one of the biggest flaws present in oi-tsuki: not moving as a structured unit. Everyone can step and punch, but can everyone do it so well that the opponent cannot block it?


Too many people step, leading from the head with the rest of the body lagging behind. Others lead solely from the feet, ‘reaching’ as Richard Amos would describe it. This is a problem on so many levels, which I’m not going to explain why simply as it would go off topic for this article. Let’s all just agree that they are a problem that should be rectified.


So how would you identify that you have a problem?


Alone with no technology, the best method is to take the movement slow and feel your movement. Feel what part of the body is moving first; what is moving last, the list could go on and on. Try and be truthful to your fast execution of the technique. So often when doing the movements slow we do them perfectly, then when the time comes to do it fast we lose all sense of technique.


Another very valuable method could be to use a mirror. By watching yourself execute the technique, you can directly see what is and what is not working. When you’re punching, are you economically punching out along the fastest route possible, or is your elbow sticking out to the side then inward following almost a curved route and not the fastest route? Just one example of what you may be seeing in the mirror. The beauty of this is that you can see what you are doing wrong in ‘real time’, so can repeat the technique uninterrupted until you nail it.


Video is also very useful, but unlike mirror training, when you watch the techniques back there is a time lapse in between your execution and your viewing, which limits your ability to immediately alter the problem areas. Video however does allow you to see the technique as a whole. When you are looking the mirror your eyes can only fix on one body part, whereas using the video can enable you to see the technique in its entirety so you can see how all the elements of body movement work together.


Having a trustworthy training partner to watch you is also useful. Someone you can speak honestly with and take criticism. So much of the time, whether watching it on video or in the mirror we never have an honest view of ourselves. We’re either watching ourselves too critically or two leniently so having an honest training partner is good for this.


So what do you do when you know you have a problem?


Again, speaking from a personal point of view, I spend a huge portion of my time self-analysing. As I’ve said, I’m my worst critic and realistically speaking I’m the only one who can make a difference to my karate as it’s my body and I chose when I’m lazy or when I make the effort to change.


I train in a dojo as regularly as I can, but I also spend a great deal of time studying and training alone. This is a very personal and important part of my development.


Anyone unlucky enough to watch me train will see some really funny things happening. I will experiment a great deal, trying numerous approaches to a single technique to locate, which method best suits me and I will then spend time fine-tuning it.


Tonight I did a combination that included the very simple sequence Uchi-uke, Kizami-tsuki, Gyaku-tsuki from Zenkustu-dachi. It would have been very simple for me to just run through the sequence and be happy that fatigue didn’t stop me. I prefer however to experiment with my hips, locate my problem areas and find ways of solving the problem. This kind of experimental line training is very important to me and is central to my development. To those around me, I probably look like a fool, but to me I’m doing some very important research into my own karate.


Thinking of oi-tsuki, what kinds of experimentation am I talking about? Well, for instance, many have a problem with getting their feet working as fast as they would like. Experiment with driving the rear leg into the ground to instigate the step, experiment with pulling the rear leg upward (as Abe Sensei advocates) using the front leg as the anchor during the first ½ phase of the step, or possibly play around with both. I know which I prefer, which will most definitely be different to the next person. But that’s what I’m talking about, all of this is very personal and specific to you and your body. Personal experimentation is the only way you will find the best method that suits you.


So, once you’ve located your problem area, something quite important is repetition as I’ve said. Locating the problem area is not enough, but experimentation is also not enough. Once you have experimented and found the method most suitable for you, you need to make it completely natural to you.


After a certain and indefinable amount of time, the beginner techniques start to feel relatively natural to you. You don’t have to use the mental energy of a car battery to figure out what you’re doing, and so many of us don’t like change, as it’s such an effort. This I wonder is possibly a major reason for people settling for their ability, because change takes too much effort. Location and experimentation will take you so far, but ironing these problems out properly is what will make these changes natural to you.


Alone, in a dojo, wherever you want to train, repeat the action over and over again. Be thoughtful and seriously consider what’s right and what’s wrong as you’re doing it. Be healthy in your approach however; don’t do anything unnatural to your body that could encourage damage to the machine.


For example, last year during a session with Sensei Hazard he told me I wasn’t timing my techniques effectively with my hips. They were fractionally off. There I had one of the most senior karateka in the UK telling me a big problem area. I was determined that next time I trained with him it was a little better. Otherwise what’s the point of training with someone like him.


Equally, what’s the point of training at all if you’re just going to go through the motions with ambitions of improvement if you’re not interested in pursuing your errors and making changes.


Many people have told me over the years that they have gotten bored with karate. Why? I could never imagine.


Karate is so full of possibilities and gives huge scope for personal development. I can only guess that these people did not see the value of perfecting their skills. I hate not being able to do something the way I want to, or more importantly, the way I should do and that gives me the fuel to keep this machine going. I get frustrated, so terribly badly sometimes, but you need to be able to gain perspective on why we train. If we could all do Unsu like Yahara, or Sochin like Kagawa then where would the fun be?


Treat yourself to some self-criticism and watch your karate develop.