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Time to train. You have carved out an hour in your busy day. You have put on your favorite sweat pants and that old T-shirt that your wife wants to throw out. You have driven to that little city park with the quiet corner where you feel inspired and no one bothers you. You have your water bottle, your towel, and your ipod. No class, no students, no teachers; just you, training alone. This is your opportunity to improve your technique.

And yet, many of us waste this opportunity on exercise. We run through all our basics, do a few hundred punches and kicks, practice every kata 3 or 4 times at medium or full speed and power. When the hour is up we feel great. We are covered in sweat, our endorphins are pumping, and we feel like we have made real progress. We FEEL like our technique has been improved by the experience.

While I agree on the need for repetition, what was described above should only be part of your personal training regiment. Without slowing down and analyzing what you are doing, you are repeating habits, regardless of whether they are good or bad. And, as I have previously posted, anything that you repeat enough will FEEL correct, whether it is or not. So, whereas you know you got some good exercise, you really don’t know if you improved your technique.

For many martial artists, what I described is the extent of their solo training. Real technique, in many minds, can only be learned in the company of others. You need an uke to grab you or punch you so that you can practice a throw, or take down, our counter. Otherwise, the key is repetition and nothing says “repetition” better than an hour of sweat.

Not true. Real technique can be learned, practiced, and improved on one’s own. Slowing down and analyzing what you are doing is a big part of that practice. Once you identify movements that need correction, they need to be practiced at increasing speeds until they become your instinctive movements. But, to create workable technique, it is not just a matter of doing moves “correctly”; you have to know why you are doing them too. For many karateka, especially beginners, movements in kata have a somewhat abstract quality about them. Your sensei told you that, when punching, you should pull your opposite hand back to a chamber position. You notice in your practice that this position has shifted, or the returning hand is weak, and you correct it. But, never in that process do you ask “why” it is returning to that particular position at all.

Asking “why” is in part related to the study of bunkai (practical applications from kata) but it is also about helping us understand better and better ways of moving. The more you understand how to move, and how your body works, the more applications become apparent. The advantage of this is that when you practice one move you are actually preparing for multiple techniques. Let’s take the example above. Maybe the “why” is that you are grabbing and pulling your opponent towards you. Maybe the “why” is that you are throwing an elbow behind you and your “punch” is really a move to shake off a grab from behind (imagine this with a high block and it makes more sense). But, even in these cases, you are neglecting the real lesson which is that both hands are moving as a part of the technique. Once we adopt that logic, we can apply it to all aspects of our training and we will never block or strike or kick, with just one part of our body again.

Use your time wisely. Slow things down and think about them. Once you have corrected your movements both to meet the needs of your style as well as the personal “why” needs of self defense, pick the speed back up. If moves get truncated, or put together, or disregarded at full speed, that is OK as long as your fundamentals remain intact. You’ll start sweating again but now you will be getting a lot more out of your training than just exercise.

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