The importance of basics

Over the years, I have often written about basics but I don't think I've ever talked about them more broadly - in particular about their importance.

Recently I have been watching excerpts of David Carradine in the television series "Kung Fu" (my YouTube feed has assumed I'm a huge fan and this is inevitably reinforced every time I watch another video). One thing I notice is just how bad Carradine's technique is. It's downright awful.

In a way, it reminds me of young Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid: as the movie series progressed I kept expecting him to get better. I thought: "Surely he's been training in the meantime?" Only he didn't get better. Ditto Carradine.

With the latter in mind, rather than show you a bit of the series, I thought it would be more illustrative to show you David Carradine demonstrating martial arts after he finished the series and had (apparently) undergone much, much more training.

It's hard to explain exactly why his technique is so truly, terribly, indescribably awful. The best I can do is illustrate my point by way of analogy:

Lately I've been retraining my brain following 2 minor strokes that robbed me of a lot of my fine motor skill for quite some time (part of the reason for my relatively long absence). That retraining has involved relearing to play the guitar. Since I'm very familiar now with the difficulty of learning (or, in my case, relearning) how to play that instrument, I'll use it as an example.

So, take someone with zero knowledge of guitar playing and music generally. Hand them a guitar. Tell them you're going to have them play in a live band after 3 months of intensive training - a guitar bootcamp, if you will - and observe the results.

In all but a small number of cases, you'll find that, despite the 3 month bootcamp, they are still beginners who are utterly incapable of playing anything remotely interesting with a band. Three months is nothing. Heck - three years is nothing in relative terms (unless you're a child and your brain's neuroplasticity is off the charts - more on neuroplasticity another time)!


Because your brain won't have had the time to assimilate the basics - the fundamentals. In guitar these are things like being able to fret a note cleanly, to fret a full chord, to change from chord to chord, to run through a scale... the list goes on. It's a fine motor skill. It takes time to learn.

People assume it's easy to learn martial arts because they don't involve fine motor skills as much as they do gross motor skills - like jumping or high kicking (i.e. they require little more than athleticism). But that is fundamentally incorrect, regardless of what martial art you're trying to learn. Trying to go straight to an advanced martial arts technique is pretty much the same as trying to play an advanced guitar piece like Tommy Emmanuel when all you have is trembling, string-deadening, "how do you make an F major chord?" fingers. In other words, it would be a complete waste of time. You'd be to guitar what Ralph Macchio was to karate. Or, if you don't know any better (or are cynically trying to make a buck), you'd be the David Carradine of kung fu / tai chi.

What are the martial arts equivalents to fretting notes, playing chords and scales, playing songs and, ultimately, improvising and jamming? The notes, chords and scales are the basics. The songs are the forms/kata and 2 person drills. The improvising and jamming is free-fighting (whether sparring, in competition or in defence). 

You need the basics before you can proceed to any form that combines the basics, never mind the to the application of the techniques in an unpredictable environment.

So what are the basics of, say, goju ryu karate? We can start with the hand techniques. I've chose one below: mawashi uke / tora guchi. It's not the easiest basic. But it is a basic. Most beginners struggle with it. I've chosen it as an example of a fundamental hand movement because it is easier to see the relative complexity. Other movements are shorter or "smaller" but are no less complex in their subtlety - but they aren't easy to understand as being difficult to perform for a beginner.  (Also, it helps that mawashi uke / tora guch is so ubiquitous in goju forms.)

Mawashi uke - a goju fundamental

So what about leg techniques? Well, before we start talking about movement, we need to talk about standing. Because standing "correctly" (in a martial arts sense) is in itself quite a challenge. It requires understanding of grounding, among other things.

Grounding in stances - another fundamental 

Once you can stand, you have to learn to walk. In other words, you can put your stances into motion (as they are just snapshots of moments during movement). In so doing, you then apply the hand techniques while moving (either at the beginning of the movement, during the movement or at the end of the movement, as the case requires) - all with the correct approach to technique and its detail (including things like grounding).

Applying grounding in a dynamic context

Once you have managed this, you have acquired some ability to perform basic or fundamental technique. To extend my analogy, you've played a few chords in a row. Maybe you've learned to do it smoothly. Well done. But remember that this is only the beginning. Because while there's nothing wrong with learning chords to play rehearsed songs, martial arts are also designed for application in unrehearsed environments (depending on your reasons for training). 

Either way, you need to know your basics. Without them, you're not a martial artist. It doesn't matter how high you can jump, how flexible you are, how strong you are. It doesn't matter if you "look the part" to the uninitiated or, in the case of actors, in a particular scene (David Carradine and Ralph Macchio never did "look the part" although I have say Ralph did a remarkable job of the latter in respect of guitar in the movie "Crossroads"). 

If you don't have the basics in any art, you'll always be a hack. In fighting, you can compensate for that with brute strength, speed and aggression. But ultimately, you're still a hack. When you get injured, fall ill or get old, you have nothing. A martial artist will still have something: gong fu - skill acquired through effort. And that skill begins and ends with the fundamentals: the basics.   

Copyright © 2022 Dejan Djurdjevic


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