Persistent myths #2: You can't kick with the ball of the foot in shoes

A standard karate ball of foot kick.  When it comes to
shoes, people fixate on the difficulty of  toes curling
back  the toes to this extent.  But this fixation is
misconceived.  This sort of toe "curl back" is only
necessary in the first place because you don't
have shoes on!
Here's another myth that I keep seeing around the traps:
"Ball of the foot kicking was invented for barefoot training in the dojo.  It doesn't work anywhere else."
It's one of those myths that is particularly popular among younger, less-experienced martial artists, possibly because it seems so plausible.

After all, if I'm having trouble learning the ball of foot kick, there must be a reason, mustn't there?  It can't be because I'm just a beginner and I'm still "unco".  It must be because they're asking me to do something that is:
  • unnatural; and
  • only useful in some artificial, formal Okinawan/Japanese setting.
It can't be any use to me in typical street shoes.  It must be impossible, just like they say.  Right?
Years and years of training on gashuku (outdoor training camps, where we typically wear the stiffest hiking boots and kick hard things like trees, never mind shields and bags) have never suggested to me that there was even the slightest problem with kicking ball of the foot in shoes.  It is absolute, unmitigated nonsense.  A myth.  A false assumption of the most basic kind.  It has no support in either evidence or logic  - whatsoever.

The video below illustrates my point very simply.

"You're cheating!  This was edited cleverly!"
No. I'm an ordinary bloke giving a reasonably decent kick to a couple of very hard, albeit slim, eucalyptus trees (one dead).
"But... you're not kicking full power...!"
Don't be fooled: despite their smaller size, these trees "give" almost as little as a brick wall, so forgive me for not kicking even harder than I do.  You'll note however that I still kick hard enough that were my toes the contact point, it would have been potentially injurious (never mind painful for unconditioned toes like mine).  In other words: I'm kicking hard enough for the purposes of this demonstration, thank you very much.

The standard taiji "toe" kick: notice how the ankle,
when extended naturally, doesn't make the top of the
instep parallel with the shin.  What this means is that
the natural contact point (assuming a correct chamber)
will be the ball of the foot.
It should be obvious that I am not contacting with the toes.  Nor am I kicking the flat of the foot "teep" style.  I'm kicking with the ball of the foot.  And my "shoes" are stiff hiking boots.
Shock horror!  "How can this be?"
Well the first thing to notice is that the ball of the foot kick actually arises from a natural foot shape.  Most folks can learn it very quickly (the important thing to learn is the proper chamber!).

Yes, the "toe curl back" is very pronounced in barefoot karate and yes, in the Chinese arts there are a lot of heel kicking techniques.  But there are also a lot of "toe" kicks as well.
"Aha - those toe kicks are the originals.  People used to kick with their toes!  They had to condition them, of course, like some Okinawan karateka still do."
Erm... no.  Not every martial artist of ancient times had toes so conditioned they could kick through bamboo.  Yes, some toe kick techniques were exactly that: designed to be executed with the toes as the contact point.  But this is far from the truth with other kicks.

Taking just one example, the "toe" kick in taijiquan isn't really intended to contact with the toes.  Rather, it is intended to contact with... you guessed it:
The ball of the foot!
Why do I say that?

Take your average shoe (whether from today or yesteryear) - even one you think wouldn't accommodate "ball of the foot" kicking.  Take the average human ankle.  Extend said ankle in said shoe.  What is your likely contact point?

A good ballet dancer prides her/himself on an ability to
extend the ankle so that it is absolutely straight -
parallel with the shin.
Well, unless:
  • you have a ballet dancer's flexiblity to point your ankle and you go all out to point your toes in a straight line like a ballet dancer and you have shoes that permit extension of this sort; or 
  • you chamber your kick stupidly (rather than in the way karate and gongfu are traditionally taught and should be taught today), 
your naturally extended foot will cause a first contact with the ball of the foot.  I discuss this the video below at 0:20:

Please note: whether you can "curl your toes back" in shoes as much as a barefoot karateka is irrelevant.  Your toes will be away from the action anyway.  The only reason toes are pulled back so firmly in karate is simply this: without shoes you need to be especially careful that your toes aren't snagged as you kick!

In other words, shoes actually protect your toes - and facilitate the ball of the foot kick!  The exaggerated toe curl-back (which may, or may not, be possible in some shoes):
  • isn't required for shoe kicking; and 
  • is only present in barefoot kicking because the shoes are absent.  
An inability to "curl back" your toes is certainly not going to prevent you from kicking with your ball of foot.

A geta at about the angle of impact
For crying out loud, even kicking in Japanese geta (traditional sandals) can be done "ball of foot" - with a resulting contact point as shown approximately in the adjacent photo (ie. the underside corner of the geta "feet") - not your toes!

(Plus the sandal loops allow you to pull your toes back as if fighting bare feet anyway!)

By way of comparison  a heel kick with the geta will very likely result in the sandal flying off your foot up into the sky.  Perhaps your attacker will die of laughter!

Accordingly I hope that another martial myth is well and truly buried.

[Note that I have concerned myself here with the front kick; while some traditional Japanese and Korean arts practice a ball of foot roundhouse kick, this is a separate issue - one I will discuss another time.]

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic


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