This one tip backed by science will massively improve your progress in karate without the need to increase your training time.

I came across this technique when I was at university and applied it in my study with great results.

I would say it was the main reason that I got many As and was awarded First-Class Honours for my postgraduate degree.

This technique is called “spaced repetition” or “spaced retrieval” designed to tackle a phenomenon called the “Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve” which some of you might be familiar with.

Recently I was accidentally reminded of this simple technique and I asked myself whether I could apply it to my karate training.

So I began to experiment and started seeing improvements in my karate techniques without increasing my training time.

I know this is a subjective judgment but there are a lot of research findings that back the effectiveness of this technique.

This post covers what the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve is, what spaced repetition method is and how you can apply those to your karate training and improve your karate skills.

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

In 1880, Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist, carried out a series of experiments on himself on memory and recall and found that memory of newly acquired information deteriorates very rapidly if no effort is made to retain it.

Subsequently, it has been found that, if the initially learned information is reviewed at regular intervals afterward, the retention rate would improve drastically.

Ebbinghaus’ experiments

Ebbinghaus carried out a series of experiments on memory and recall on himself and the results of which were published in 1885 in a book titled “Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology“.

Ebbinghaus began testing his ability to recall memorized information using tones, numbers, and poem stanzas before he decided to create a series of nonsense syllables.

Ebbinghaus created over 2000 nonsense syllables such as WID”, “XOP”, “PUY” and “ZOF”. He believed those meaningless syllables had more uniform characteristics than existing words, did not link to anything he already knew, and hence would reduce testing errors.

After a series of experiments from 1880 to 1885, Ebbinghaus concluded that there was a significant loss of learned information as time went by.

Immediately after memorizing a list of nonsense syllables, Ebbinghaus was able to recall 100% of the syllables. After that, the retention rate dropped rapidly and he needed increasing amounts of time to relearn as shown in the table below:

Time lapsedSavings
20 minutes58%
1 hour44%
9 hours36%
1 day34%
2 days28%
6 days25%
31 days21%

Graphing the percentage of retained information vs time lapsed yields the following shape which has been commonly referred to as the “Forgetting Curve”.

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve

After one month or more, Ebbinghaus found that he had to almost re-learn the list from scratch.

This is devastating news for learners out there but it makes perfect sense.

Our brain is the most intelligent machine of all. If we learn something new but don’t recall it afterward, our brain considers that piece of information unimportant and unnecessary and will eventually discard it.

If it does try to retain all information it ever processes all the time, information overload will soon occur. Our brain will be full of everything which is mostly junk.

Several studies have subsequently replicated Ebbinghaus’ studies and found similar shapes of forgetting (for example, Heller, Mack, and Seitz (1991) and Murre and Dros (2015)).

The Serial Position Effect

Another important thing that Ebbinghaus found was the serial position effect.

Ebbinghaus found that, in a series of syllables, he tended to have a better recall rate with the first and last few syllables than those in the middle of the series.

In psychology, the tendency to recall the first few items of information is called the primacy effect and the tendency to recall the last few items is called the recency effect.

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve with Spaced Repetition

A discovery related to the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve is that one can “flatten” the forgetting curve by regularly reviewing the learned information subsequently. This practice is often referred to as “spaced repetition”.

This important finding has been wrongly attributed to Ebbinghaus because Ebbinghaus never did experiments on the impact of subsequent revisions on the rate of information retention.

Some sources have attributed the invention of “spaced repetition” to Piotr Wozniak, a Polish researcher and creator of the SuperMemo method.

In the 1980s, Piotr Wozniak was a computing science student at the Poznan University of Technology.

After struggling to retain course materials, he came up with the idea of spaced-repetition and later on wrote a Master’s Thesis on learning optimization. He eventually founded SuperMemo based on the spaced repetition principle.

The basic principle of the spaced repetition technique is relatively simple.

If you review or repeat a newly acquired piece of information at some specific intervals following the initial learning event, your retention rate can improve substantially.

By investing small amounts of time to revisit the learned information subsequently at specific intervals, your recall rate will improve over time and the forgetting curve will be flattened.

Let’s have a look at the chart below.

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve with spaced repetition

The red line is the original forgetting curve without repetitions. The blue lines are the forgetting curves with follow-up repetitions.

You can see that there is a significant deterioration of recall rates shortly after the initial acquisition of knowledge if no revision attempts are made.

However, if you review the material one day after, the subsequent recall rates will improve significantly.

If you do another review two days later, the forgetting curve will have straightened out a lot more, and so on.

As your recall rates improve, eventually, reviews or repetitions do not need to happen very frequently. Once every few months may be enough.

The repetition intervals can vary greatly between individuals and the type of learning materials.

How to apply the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve and Spaced Repetition to your karate training

The Forgetting Curve is unforgivable not with just your karate training but with everything else you learn and the only way to combat it is to use spaced repetition or, more appropriately for karate students, spaced practice.

Why do you forget a lot of things you’ve learned in your karate training?

Have you ever learned something that you thought was deadly cool in a training session or at a seminar and then quickly forgotten it and thought what a waste of time?

I have. So many times.

To keep training interesting and students engaged, your instructors usually vary the training materials regularly.

Apart from kihon training which, because of its foundational nature, is pretty much repeated the same way at every training session, kata, bunkai, or kumite technique combinations are guaranteed to change regularly.

As a result, you usually don’t have the opportunity to systematically repeat newly learned material until it becomes entrenched in your memory

In one training session, you might do a lot of kakie drills and learn a few new things. But, in the next training session, you might learn practical self-defense techniques and are likely to have forgotten most of the insight gained from the kakie drills.

If in the subsequent training session, your instructor decides to focus on kata, most of what you previously learn about kakie and practical self-defense techniques will have been lost if you do nothing about them.

If your instructor revisits these materials in the future, you will still remember some of them, but most of them will be gone and that is a huge waste of time.

And, as you know, memorizing techniques is only the first step in karate training. It’ll take you hundreds if not thousands of hours of subsequent training to create deep neural connections and muscle memory and to be able to actually use the techniques in practice.

But without the first step of actually remembering the principles or techniques you have learned, other steps can’t happen to advance your skills.

How can you tackle the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve with spaced repetition?

1. Practice or take notes immediately

As shown in the above Forgetting Curve, there is a steep drop in the retention rate that happens shortly after the learning event if there is nothing done to reinforce what has been learned.

The best way to halt this drop is to review the learning material immediately and then follow up with spaced repetitions.

In karate training, that means practicing what you’ve just learned immediately or as soon as you can.

Go through the content of the training session that you just completed and ask yourself what new things you have learned in the session. Be it a refinement of your current grade kata, a kumite strategy, or just a tip to improve your basic techniques, practice those immediately.

This may not be possible for many people, however.

Most karate training for adults happens in the evening after work. By the time you get home, you’ll then have dinner and kids and family to take care of.

After a long day at work and then karate training, most of us will be too tired and just want to blob in front of the TV or go to bed.

If this is the case for you, an option is to immediately note down what you pick up from the training session and then practice it the next day or at the earliest opportunity possible (preferably not a few days later because by that time you’ll have forgotten most of what you’ve learned).

This is what I have recently started doing. I keep a small notebook in the gear bag and after a training session, I would sit in the car and immediately write down key things that I just learn.

Just recalling what you have just learned and noting it down will significantly improve your retention rate.

If you can’t write it down or forget to write it down, visualization is another option.

Before drifting off to sleep, go through the new stuff you’ve just learned in your head and pick out the key points that you want to practice later on.

In the same way as physical practice does, visualization helps create and maintain neural connections. Your brain actually can’t differentiate between real actions and vivid imagination.

While this might sound like pseudo-science to some of you, but visualization in sports has been extensively researched and supported. Michale Phelps, the most successful Olympian swimmer of all time, credits visualization or mental rehearsal as one of the keys to his success.

2. Practice regularly afterward

After the first review, over the next week or so, regularly practice the new techniques, kata moves, or whatever new things you’ve learned.

Each practice will strengthen your memory and understanding further.

By spending as little as five minutes daily to go through the new learning material during the week after, you will substantially increase your retention rate.

If you can’t physically practice, visualization is a great alternative. Plenty of research has found that visualization can significantly improve endurance, motivation, and performance in athletes.

You can practice every 24 hours or every 48 hours until you think you’ll unlikely ever forget those new techniques.

The ideal intervals can differ from person to person and the only way to find out is to test it out yourself.

For one week, you might write down and practice the new moves immediately and every day after. For another week, you do them within 24 hours and every second day after that. Another week, you may practice them every third day or so. Take notes of the outcomes and compare them and find out the best repetition intervals for yourself.

Once you commit those new techniques into memory, for karate practitioners, it’s the only beginning.

The next step is to polish the techniques, make sure they are powerful and effective, and then find ways to apply them to your actual sparring practice as much as possible.

3. Apply what you learn as much as possible

The main purpose of karate is to teach you self-defense techniques.

To be able to use those techniques naturally and effectively, you will need to spend thousands of hours practicing them until they become your second nature.

The ultimate goal is to be able to use them unconsciously but competently and this is not easy at all for any type of martial art.

If you have a look at the typical four stages of competence listed below, you will see that your goal is to reach Stage 4 “Unconscious Competence” where karate skills become an integral part of you.

The four stages of competence or four stages of learning are:

  • Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence: You are unaware of your weaknesses and incompetence.
  • Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence: You become aware of your limitations and realize the need to learn.
  • Stage 3 – Conscious Competence: You learn new skills and are capable of performing them well if you focus on the given task.
  • Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence: You are able to naturally perform a skill well and the skill has become your second nature.

If you are currently a karate student, you would have gone past Stage 1 and are likely at either Stages 2 or 3.

Karate masters are expected to be at Stage 4 “Unconscious Competence”.

To reach the state of “unconscious competence” in karate, there is no other way around it other than practice intelligently and practice a lot.

Once you commit a technique to your memory, you will need to learn to perform it competently and use it frequently enough to create deep neural connections in your brain that you can actually apply in fighting without conscious thoughts.

There is a saying that “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand”.

What I’d like to add to this saying is: “I use it often enough and it’ll become mine”.

Below are some tips to help you memorize and practice new moves with better outcomes.

Tips to help you remember and make new techniques become your second nature

1. Understand before trying to memorize

You will be able to remember things much easier if you understand them.

For anyone without a medical background, trying to memorize the following text is a real challenge.

LDL particles bind to an LDL receptor on the plasma membrane, forming a receptor-ligand complex that is internalized in a clathrin-coated pit that pinches off to become a coated vesicle. After endocytosis, the LDL particle and its receptors are internalized by receptor-mediated endocytosis and degraded in the lysozyme. The clathrin coat depolymerizes, forming an early endosome which fuses with a late endosome where the low pH causes the LDL particles to dissociate from the LDL receptors.

Source: Pirahanchi et al ((2021)

But if you have a medical background and understand it, memorizing this passage is likely not a problem at all.

The same principle applies to other types of learning material.

If you don’t understand something being taught, please find an appropriate opportunity to ask your instructor or a senior student to clarify.

Explanations and further discussions can help you understand the whys and memorize the material better.

Memorizing, in turn, can also help with understanding because it helps you, later on, connect those memorized facts and potentially create logical connections between them.

2. Give meanings to the moves you learn

Instead of trying to remember them as pure physical moves, give meanings to the moves you learn and it’ll be easier to remember and you’ll be able to build stronger neural connections as well.

For example, try to remember this sequence of techniques: hidari soto uke, hidari uraken, migi mawashi tsuki, hidari mawashi tsuki, yama uke, and hiza geri.

You certainly can remember it after a few repetitions but are likely to forget it quickly shortly after.

However, if you give the sequence a meaning and visualize a sparring scenario, it’d be something like this:

  1. First, block a middle-level attack with a left soto uke and immediately follow up with a back fist strike to the opponent’s face using the same hand
  2. Next, launch two roundhouse punches with the right and left hands to the opponent’s head
  3. Lastly, bring both hands up around the opponent’s head in a mountain block, pull the head down, and finish off with a knee attack to the opponent’s face.

It will definitely be easier to memorize and recall the sequence later on.

3. Reduce stress

Stress can affect your learning, your ability to form short-term and long-term memory, and your ability to recall information.

When you feel stressed, your body thinks your survival is threatened. Energy in the body will be diverted to the tissues that are likely required during the fight for survival like the skeletal muscles and the brain.

And, because your body always prioritizes survival, other activities that are considered less critical like learning, eating, growth, and sexual activities are of lower priorities and negatively affected.

Long-term or chronic stress, therefore, can have serious impacts on all systems of the body including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems.

Accordingly, it is important to find ways to minimize ongoing stress because chronic stress can negatively affect all aspects of your life, not just your learning and performance on the dojo floor.

There are many resources available out there to help you reduce stress.

If you think you are suffering from chronic stress, please do seek help.

I came across this quote recently: “every man has two lives and the second one starts when he realizes he has just one.”

When you realize that you have one and only one life to live and that life is pretty short and there are only so many tomorrows, you tend to stress a lot less about the small stuff.

And life is indeed full of small stuff.

As to the “big” stuff, treat it as an integral part of life, and proactively face it head-on.

Instead of worrying, blaming, pitying yourself, or losing sleep over it, ask yourself questions like:

  • What exactly is the problem?
  • What are the possible solutions to this problem?
  • Which one is the best solution?
  • What resources do I need to pursue this solution?
  • Do I need help and, if so, where can I get help?
  • What would be a good action plan to achieve my goal? etc.

4. Get enough sleep

Poor sleep quality, insufficient sleep or irregular sleep routines can all adversely affect your learning and general cognitive performance including your ability to concentrate, think clearly, react timely, memorize and retain information effectively.

I consider sleep to be one of the five main pillars of health which are a healthy diet, a physically active lifestyle, good mental health (a positive mindset with low stress), sufficient sun exposure, and sufficient quality sleep.

You can have the best diet out there with an active lifestyle but if you don’t get enough sleep, your body won’t have enough time to repair and rejuvenate, produce growth hormones, consolidate memory, process information, and improve problem-solving skills.

Here are some tips from the Sleep Foundation to help you get from 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night which is the amount of sleep most adults require:

  • Establish a realistic bedtime and stick to it every night, even on the weekends. Sudden and major changes to your daily routine affect your circadian rhythm and cause “jetlag” effects
  • Maintain comfortable temperature settings and no lights or low light levels in your bedroom
  • Keep a comfortable sleep environment by ensuring you have a suitable mattress, pillows, and sheets
  • Impose a total ban on televisions, computers and tablets, cell phones, and other electronic devices in your bedroom
  • Abstain from caffeine, alcohol, and large meals in the hours leading up to bedtime. The last meal should be consumed at least three hours before the scheduled bedtime
  • Refrain from using tobacco at any time of day or night
  • Exercise during the day; this can help you wind down in the evening and prepare for sleep.

5. Be emotionally invested in your learning

Emotions can greatly affect your learning experience and outcomes.

Positive emotions like interest, joy, hope, inspiration, awe, happiness, and excitement can improve attention span, effort, focus, memory creation and retention, reaction, and overall performance.

Negative emotions like stress, anxiety, anger, fear, sadness, boredom, disinterest, jealousy, resentment, and hubris can cause inattention, disengagement, slow reaction, poor memory and recall, and a lack of motivation and effort.

One simple thing that can help you create positive emotions and achieve a better training outcome is meditation before each training session.

There is usually a short meditation at the beginning of each training session when you sit in seiza, close your eyes, relax, take a few deep and slow breaths and empty your mind.

Take this opportunity to clear out all the negative emotions, leave all work and family problems behind, focus on the here and now, and tell yourself: This is my “me time” and I am going to give it my best, have a great workout and learn something new.

A right mindset can have a considerable impact on your training experience. Please try it out and see it for yourself.

6. Be selective in choosing what you want to focus your practice on

There are an innumerate number of technique combinations. There are also a lot of katas that you can practice, for example, Shito Ryu has over 60 kata in its curriculum.

Unless you devote yourself to training karate full time, it’s likely that you can only spend a few hours a week practicing karate.

The less time you have, the more you need to be really selective in what you want to invest your time on based on your goal.

If you enjoy kumite practice and hate kata, perhaps you can start by thinking about the most common types of attack that you are likely to face.

Next, pick a few techniques to deflect each of those attacks and choose follow-up counterattacks. Focus your personal practice at home on those to see which one works and which one doesn’t. You then can concentrate your practice on the technique combinations that you think work for you.

Real success in martial arts is based on the ability to perform a few things very, very well, rather than knowing a large range of items only a little.

Robert S. Weinberg, 9th Degree Black Belt in Shorin-Ryu Karate, New York Rendokan. Inc.

If you enjoy practicing kata, pick one or two favorite katas and focus on practicing those katas. As mentioned above, it takes years of practice to be able to unconsciously use what you learn. Therefore, it is essential to focus your time to master a few techniques or kata rather than learning many and only knowing them superficially and being unable to use all of them.

During your training, make a mental note of the new things that you learn that fit in with your goals and immediately follow up with home practice at regular intervals afterward.

You certainly don’t need to review everything and try to apply everything you learn, but you still need to learn them deeply enough to understand what does and what doesn’t work for you.

7. Practice important techniques first and last

In your personal training, try to practice whatever that you consider important or really want to master either first or last.

As shown above, Ebbinghaus discovered the “serial position effect” which means you tend to remember the first and last few items of a series better than those in the middle.

When practicing the new moves or techniques at home immediately after a training session, place those that you consider the most important either first or last.

I think placing them first would be better to avoid situations where you run out of time or get interrupted and miss the opportunity to practice the most important part altogether.

Similarly, when practicing a kata, don’t go through the whole kata over and over again. Pick out the moves or sequences of moves that you feel you need to work more on and practice those first.

You can also apply this strategy to your work and personal life to become more productive.

If you have a list of 10 things to do for the day, start with the most important thing that absolutely needs to be done or that is most critical for the growth of your business.

8. Make connections with existing knowledge

When you learn something new, ask yourself how this new move or this principle fits in with what you already know, whether it makes more sense or creates confusion.

For example, you are a beginner and have just been taught uraken (back fist strike).

Your first step would be to learn the motion and then how to whip your hips to get more power in your ukaren.

Following that, you can ask yourself: In what sort of situation would I use uraken? Can I combine uraken with other techniques I know to create a few realistic applications?

You can then try out those combinations and see if they work.

By making connections with existing knowledge, you will understand the technique better and remember it better.

You will also have the opportunity to logically organize your karate knowledge and be more likely to use it and other techniques you already know in practice.

9. Use what you learn in practice as much as possible

This is just to emphasize once more the importance of practice in achieving mastery of karate techniques.

The road from “conscious competence” to “unconscious competence” or the “mastery” stage is simple: thousands of hours of practice to build deep neural connections that make those self-defense techniques become your second nature.

In the Kung Fu Panda movie, when Po finally got his hands on the Dragon Scroll, he was very disappointed that it was blank. There was nothing in there that would grant him limitless power and turn him into a Dragon Warrior as he had hoped for.

Later on, while evacuating from the Peace Valley, his father revealed to him that “there is no secret ingredient” in his famous “Secret Ingredient Soup” and that “to make something special, you just have to believe it’s special”.

After hearing this, Po opened the Dragon Scroll again and saw his own reflection staring at him. He then realized the hidden message in the scroll.

Indeed, there is no secret or magic ingredient for attaining success, happiness, or anything worth having in life.

To achieve something great, we first need to believe in ourselves that we are worthy and capable of achieving that and then consistently put in the hard work day in and day out to progress towards our goal.

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