The key to continuing progress in karate is consistent practice, but what’s even more important is how you practice or the quality of your practice. Perseverance, blood, sweat, and tears are critical, but they don’t guarantee success.

If you practice a kata daily for six months, but all you do is mindlessly repeat the whole kata day after day, you won’t progress much. On the other hand, if every time you practice the kata, you concentrate on improving a very small part of the kata or even a single technique within the kata, over time, those tiny improvements can add up to substantial progress and take your kata to the next level. Mindless repetition is the enemy of progress whereas purposeful repetition acts as the catalyst for improvement.

So, in this short post, I want to talk about why having a clear goal in mind in everything you do can help you progress faster in karate and in any other aspects of your life.

A typical training session in the dojo goes like this: a warm up session, kihon training, moving basics, and finally kata and/or kumite drills. You follow your sensei’s instructions and do what you are told down to the specific techniques, the speed of execution, the number of reps, or who you partner up with. You may repeat some of the practice that you’ve done in the dojo later at home.

This is fine and you will pick up new things and progress gradually if you train consistently. However, one small thing that you can do to accelerate your progress in karate over the same amount of time is to always train intelligently with a clear goal in mind.

Take, for example, a simple straight punch. This looks like a very easy technique and is usually amongst the first karate techniques taught to beginners. It goes like this: you start with making a fist and place it by your side in a chamber position with the palm facing up and then thrust forward the fist. As you thrust forward, rotate the fist inward 180 degrees so that when it reaches the target, the palm will be facing down.

The whole movement is simple enough and it won’t take long before many beginners think that they’ve mastered it and they want to move on to learn something new and more complex.

But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it is extremely difficult to execute a straight punch correctly with optimal speed and power. To achieve this goal, you need to have a good understanding of body mechanics including hip rotation, body mass involvement, elbow movement, ground reaction force, relaxation, and muscle tension. All of these aspects require years of dedicated practice under competent guidance.

High-level professional kata competitors are able to produce “snappy” punches that look and sound awesome. This is partly because they train hard for many years, but I believe the main reason they reach this level is that they receive quality instruction from competent instructors – in other words, they practice hard and practice correctly. The reason I say this is that I’ve seen karate practitioners with 20-30 years of training, and they still don’t have much to show for it – their techniques just don’t look that “polished”. You certainly can practice hard and practice a lot, but if you practice incorrectly, you will just become very good at doing something badly.

As most of us are not elite karate athletes and can’t train under those renown karate masters, the question then is: What can we, the ordinary folks training in those average dojos, do to avoid the mistake of “practicing hard and practicing badly” in order to not waste our time and progress faster?

My view (this is just my personal view, so take what resonates with you and discard what doesn’t) is that in order to avoid the pitfall of practicing hard and practicing badly and coming to the realization decades later that you haven’t nailed the fundamentals and your techniques still look mediocre, you’ll need to always maintain a beginner’s mindset and constantly seek ways to improve your karate.

Whatever you do in your karate training, ask yourself: What is the purpose of this exercise, and how can I best achieve that goal?

Let’s get back to the straight punch example. If you want to improve your straight punch and produce that “snap” in your technique, doing thousands of punches mindlessly is not the best way to do it. Quantity can sometimes lead to better quality but it is not a guaranteed way to achieve it.

So, every time you practice punching, ask yourself questions such as: What exactly is my goal here? If my goal is to relax, how can I achieve it? If my goal is speed, what do I need to do? If I want to improve the power of the punch, what steps do I need to take? What is the correct hip rotation motion? Should I place my body weight on the ball of the foot or on the heel at the kime moment?

Once you’ve got the answers to these questions, test them out and see if they actually work. For example, if you believe prior stretching and deep breathing can help you clear your mind and relax more, test those out. If they prove effective, great. If they don’t, keep searching and experimenting. Only through lots of trials and errors that you will arrive at the truth and find out what actually works for you.

“Experience isn’t the best teacher; evaluated experience is.”

John C. Maxwell

It doesn’t matter how many punches you do; what matter is whether you are actively working on your goal while executing those punches and whether you are making any progress in what you do, even just a tiny bit. If you know for certain that how you punch today is different from how you punch two years ago, you must have progressed a lot. But if you aren’t aware of any material difference, you’ve certainly wasted a lot of time.

When practicing a kata, don’t set a goal of performing your kata 5 times or ten times each day. Instead, ask yourself which part of your kata needs attention and focus solely on just this part. Break it down further to individual techniques, stances and transitions if necessary and work specifically on those parts. Again, you need to ask yourself how you can improve those techniques, stances and transitional moves. Seek answers, ask for help if you need to, and test all of them out.

When sparring, your goal shouldn’t be to win over your opponent but to improve your fighting skills. This could involve testing out certain combos to see if they work for you, practicing evasion techniques, refining your timing, or getting the distance right. Winning or losing doesn’t matter. If you win over a weak opponent and you learn nothing, the win is meaningless. On the other hand, if you lose over a strong opponent and learn something valuable from the experience, you’ve actually won something and made some progress. Ultimately, what counts is the battle in the arena or on the street when your career or life is on the line, not the wins or losses on the dojo floor.

In karate, you certainly need to push yourself physically but pushing yourself intellectually is even more important. Maintain a beginner’s mindset, stay curious and constantly ask yourself what you can do to improve your karate further whether you are practicing kihon, kata or kumite or preparing for a competition, regardless of whether you’re a white belt, black belt, or fourth dan.

It is likely the case that most of the time you don’t feel like you are making much progress at all. This is one of the reasons many black belts quit as they don’t see much progress in repeatedly doing the same things that they have done thousands and thousands of times. If they don’t dig deep and continually search for those small incremental progress at every training, they won’t progress much nor progress in the right direction. But this doesn’t have to be your experience. If you persist and keep a laser focus on your goal with everything you do in the dojo or at home, progress will happen.

And if you apply this mindset to other endeavors and aspects of your life, you will go far and transform yourself while others remain stagnant. Make each day count and aim for small progress regardless of how minuscule it may seem for it helps you take one step closer to your ultimate goal

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