A lot is written these days about how the basic blocking techniques in Karate/Taekwondo are not really “blocks”, but close quarters strikes, releases from grabs/holds, joint locks etc. It is often pointed out that though we practice these “blocks” against straight punches, the creators of Karate would not have been facing that type of attack. So we have “blocks” that don’t really work, practiced against techniques that we are not likely to be attacked with. They only really work with a compliant partner with a pre-arranged attack. The true meanings of these techniques have definitely been dumbed down in mainstream Karate/Taekwondo, yet many instructors are researching and uncovering much more workable applications for these same techniques.
So why is it that so many instructors who challenge the conventional wisdom of how these “blocks” should be applied, yet still teach these techniques in blocking drills against straight punches, despite the fact that they know full well they won’t work when applied this way in a real situation?
Is it simply for because it’s part of the art so we have to do it even though we know that it won’t actually work in reality?
Is it just to allow students to pass gradings (with unworkable applications)?
It probably is partly because it’s an accepted part of the art and part of the grading syllabus. But having said that, these basic blocking drills do still have some useful and practical functions with which to develop our Karate/Taekwondo.
Firstly, there is the reason for which much of the dumbing down started in the first place. That is that it is taught to children and you don’t want to teach then to break arms and legs then have them use it in a playground brawl. But what about adults who want to be able to use it in a real self defence situation against a mugger or rapist?
Well if we take for example an upper rising block (age uke), which works much better as an attack to the neck or under the chin then it does for blocking a straight punch. If this is done full force, smashing the forearm upwards under somebody’s chin whilst pulling them down at the same time with the other hand (hikite), then you could feasibly break their necks and kill them. You obviously can’t do it full power and would always have to pull the technique when practicing with a partner. Practicing it against a straight punch however, always allows you to practice and apply the technique full power against a moving target with an whilst being put under pressure of somebody coming at you fast and powerful (miss and you get hit). You can use your opponents arm as a substitute head which you can hit as hard as you like without the fear of damaging them.
There is some limitations within this principle as I’m sure that some will argue that blocking the forearm is not a realistic substitute for striking the head. However, the mind is a very powerful tool and if you keep focused on what the real intention/target should be, then it can still be an effective training method. Besides, you can still practice against the head as well (as long as you pull the technique) as there is no reason not to practice both ways.
It is also a convenient tool to teach a sense of distancing and timing. When these techniques were created, they were designed by warriors for warriors who would have probably had a keen sense of timing and distance already. But most of us who train today can’t really describe ourselves as warriors, so it is a useful exercise for us to learn these skills early in our martial arts training.
So I’m in favour of keeping these practices. Even though we know our blocking drill will not work as such in a real situation, they do teach us things that are useful building blocks in our journey through the martial arts. We just have to keep our mind focused on what the end objective really is!
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Bonus: Historical look at Bassai Dai, one of Karate’s most pivotal katas