The Purpose of Tang Soo Do (Karate) – Basic Techniques

In Part 1 of this series, I introduced what I plan to do over the course of the next several posts.  In this post, I will start that process with the purpose of basic techniques in Tang Soo Do.  What are basic techniques?  Well, basics are the stances, strikes, blocks, kicks, and combinations that make up everything we do.  Basic techniques are called the foundation since without solid basic techniques, we would crumble.  A large chunk of time is spent on basic techniques during most classes.  When viewed by onlookers, basic technique practice looks very cool but not applicable to actual combat.  This post will debunk that opinion.

First, I will give an overall explanation of the purpose of basics, then I will further explain some of the specific subsets within basic techniques.

Overall

In general, the practice of doing basic techniques is for the following:

  1. Muscle memory-repeatedly doing the same thing over and over will train your body to be able to eventually do it without thinking.
  2. Executing techniques fully-without a partner to work with, you can do the techniques with full range of motion and with full power.
  3. Details-doing a single technique over and over will allow you to analyze its effectiveness, maximize speed and power, and ensure details such as striking area are correct.
  4. Breaks down complicated applications-doing a single technique at a time will allow you to perfect the technique prior to adding it to other techniques in a more complicated sequence.

Stances

When you look at a karate stance, you often see long, wide, and low.  It looks impressive but then you think, no one would actually stand like that in a fight.  You would be right and wrong.  If you watch two people fight, you will never see a horse stance, front stance, or back stance being held by one of the fighters.  If you look closely though, you will see glimpses of the stances, however.  The primary reason for stances is stability.  If someone were to push, pull, strike, or attempt to throw you, a proper stance will help ensure your balance and posture remain intact.  By moving from stance to stance and doing basic strikes from stances, we are maximizing our power and learning to do them from a stable configuration.

A low horse stance in karate demonstrates training in basic techniques
A typical low, horse stance in karate

Punches/Strikes

A typical karate style punch has the practitioner in a front stance with the punch fully extended and the other hand (reaction hand) and their side.  If you watch boxing, which is all about punching, you never see this.  That’s because punches in karate are much different.  The reaction hand is sometimes called the pulling hand.  We are training to pull our opponent towards us with one hand and strike with the other.  The hand comes all the way back to the side because we are training to do the technique fully.  By pulling them towards you as you strike, in a stable stance, using hip twisting, you will generate the maximum amount of force.

Karate punches look much different in training than when used in real life
A karate punch in front stance with reaction hand at side

Blocks

As with the punches, a typical karate block is in a solid stance with the reaction hand at the side.  We never see this exaggerated blocking motion done is real fighting.  If you did a block like this, you would be leaving yourself wide open in several other areas.  In karate, we see many different types of blocks: one hand, two hand, x block, high, center, low, etc.  In each of these blocks, the way you get to the final position is very important.  It is not just about the end; it is how you get there.  Every part of the blocking motion, from start to finish, has a purpose.  

We must also think about blocks not being blocks.  They are much more than that. There could be strikes (a block is just a strike after all if you think about it), locks, throws, etc.  Think about a typical low block.  The pulling hand could be pulling on the wrist while the blocking hand is actually applying pressure downward on the elbow, making it an armbar.

Kicks

When you talk with someone about karate, chances are they immediately think kicks.  This is especially true for Korean styles.  The fact is that Tang Soo Do is 60% hand techniques and 40% kick techniques.  We do a lot more hand techniques than kicks.  If you look at our forms (next post), the ratio of hands to kicks is even more skewed towards hands.  So why does karate get known for kicks?  They look good.  Demonstrations, movies, and competitions all show off the most athletic and impressive kicks which happen to be super high.  A side kick to the knee or front kick to the groin is not impressive (to a spectator).  I am not dismissing high kicks.  We should train ourselves to kick at every vital target level whether it is high, middle, or low and also understand the benefits and downfalls to kicking at each of those areas.

A high kick in karate looks good and is useful in training but not directly for self-defense
People usually think of high kicks in karate

Jump Kicks/Spin Kicks

If someone thinks kicks when you mention karate, it is just a matter of time before the connection is made to jump kicks (thank you Karate Kid).  Again, jumping kicks and spinning kicks look really impressive and are often done at demonstrations and competitions.  In actuality, jumping and spinning kicks are seldom used in karate combat.  That’s not to say never.  They are a high risk, high reward endeavor.  Jumping and spinning will generate a lot of additional power, but they also take more time to execute, potentially telegraphing your intentions.  I also fell jump kick and jump spin kick practice makes our standing kicks better.  By improving our body control via jumping and spinning, our standing kick technique will only get better.

The karate kid crane technique has ruined people's view of jump kicks in karate.
Jump kicks in karate get a bad rap, due in part to The Karate Kid

Combinations

After practicing single hand or kick techniques, we then put them together to form combinations.  This is the critical next step in the process.  Combinations are still small pieces in the combative big picture.  We are starting to put 2-3 things together in sequence.  As with single techniques, we are still teaching our bodies to execute the techniques fully.  We also are learning to do each technique fully and not cut them short because there are now more than one.  Although you can put an infinite number of techniques together to form a combination, thought needs to be put into them such that they make sense and have a useful application.  Combination are the building blocks for the next step which is forms.

So, next time you are doing basic techniques, or are watching someone do them, and you think this is not useful, hopefully you will think about some of the topics I raised here.  In the next post, I will dive into the purpose of training in forms.

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