5 Little-Known Secrets of Utterly Successful Karate-ka

What defines a great Karate practitioner?

The answer to that question has been debated for decades, and seems to change with the times. Some people claim you need to have amazing technical proficiency to be a great Karate-ka. Other people say you need to be humble, strong and courteous. Yet a third person will mumble something about a hard-to-define ‘samurai spirit’ that oozes from the very pores of every great Karate-ka.

What do *I* think?

Well, after reflecting on some of my numerous trips to Okinawa – the ‘birthplace’ of Karate – along with some observations from my recent experience of the 21st World Karate Championships held in Paris, France, I think I have some ideas. And they are far from pseudo-esoteric oriental mumbo-jumbo.

(By the way, you did read the bad news, right?!)

You see, when it comes to being awesome, no matter what field we’re talking about, there’s a certain set of universal principles that apply to more or less everything. In this case though, we’re talking Karate.

And this goes for all kinds of Karate – whether it’s your hobby, sport or profession.

Because, although we all love hearing about those incredible moments of triumph – the shot at the buzzer, the photo finish and the medals at the podium – the truth of most amazing feats and awesome people is pretty boring.

Endless hours of repetition, constant frustration and daily exhaustion – and that’s just for appetizers.

So, with that being said, if you still (!) want to know what it really takes to be a great teacher or practitioner of Karate, there’s a couple of things you need to realize.

In short, there are five principles that will make it or break it.

Ready?

Let’s blast through them:

1. Talent is Overrated

To begin with, talent is hyped. Like, super duper hyped. Some examples; Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school varsity basketball team, Albert Einstein failed his first college entrance exam and Immanuel Kant didn’t publish anything significant until he was fifty years old!

Actually, a surprisingly large amount of the most outstanding achievers often show very little early promise.

Why?

You already know why.

To really nail home this principle, there is even a body of research that suggests that early giftedness is only a minor factor in later achievement. One study, tracking presidential scholars, even found that just a few of those who were identified during their teens as “exceptionally gifted” by teachers went on to become super famous and wealthy as adults.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that talent doesn’t help.

It does.

Besides the natural ability itself, those who show early promise are often given more encouragement than others – which eventually leads to a multiplier effect. In other words, talented people naturally get more attention and more opportunities to hone their skills. With that in mind, a touch of ability is definitely worth having.

Still, evidence suggests that once a certain threshold is passed, more ability doesn’t seem to have a significant impact.

So keep fighting.

And don’t quit.

2. Deliberate Practise

Now, if talent alone doesn’t lead to greatness, what does?

The answer is to practise.  

(And yes, I spell practise with an ‘s’. Believe it or not, in many parts of the English speaking world (UK, Ireland, Australia, Canada, and South Africa) ‘practice’ is the noun, ‘practise’ the verb. However, in the U.S. the spelling ‘practice’ is more often used for both the noun and the verb. Contrary to popular belief a significant minority of the American population also observe the distinction. Not that I’m American, but still.)

As Anders Ericsson, a noted authority on professional expertise and performance, showed in his highly cited paper on deliberate practise, it takes around 10,000 hours of training to become world class in most fields.

But of course, you already knew this.

Yet it isn’t just the time (volume) you put in, it’s more about how you spend it (quality).

We can illustrate the point with a kumite (sparring) example: When you start out fighting in the dojo, it is hard to hit your opponent effectively enough to score a clean hit.  With some extra practise though (let’s say 50 hours), an average person will be able to hit his opponent effectively and can actually start to enjoy free kumite. However, after that, most people don’t develop much further.

And the same goes for many other areas in Karate.

Why?

Because most people stop trying to improve, since they don’t deliberately work on their weak areas (those areas that aren’t as “fun” to train for regular people).

But if you want to become better, you always need to be improving – deliberately.

So keep “hacking away the unessentials”, like Bruce Lee so famously said, and you’ll surely start noticing some improvement.

(But if you don’t notice any improvement, don’t worry.)

Moving on…

3. Focus on Fundamentals

When I first visited Japan, and Okinawa, I got a rude awakening into the world of Real Karate™ to say the least! It wasn’t that everybody was really, really, really, really, really, really good (I already expected that). Rather, it’s what they spent their time on.

Kihon, kihon and more kihon.

No fluff.

No fancy pansy stuff.

Just the pure basics.

You know; those things you practised when you were a white belt. The fundamentals, the Japanese have realized, are what separates the good from the great. And most of us are really, really bad at basic skills.

Why?

Easy. Because we tell ourselves that the basic stuff is for beginners and “we have gone past that stage”.

But that’s a lie.

In reality, the higher you go up in any field, the more you realize how incredibly important that basic drilling is, has been, and will always continue to be. Look around and you’ll find that in any field – whether golf, chess, engineering, wrestling or blogging – the very best get that way not by learning tons of new, advanced skills (that comes with time anyway), but by continuing to hone their primary skills long after others have forgotten them… probably alone in some dark corner of the dojo.

And remember, you’re never too old to become great.

So keep drilling kihon – and learn to enjoy the struggle.

(I mean, hey, nobody likes beer the first time they taste it, right?)

4. Learn from the Best

Among the most common misperceptions is that top Karate-ka have single-handedly found some secret recipe for success that they keep safely hidden away from the world. Well, some of them might, but not most.

To be the best you will have to learn from the best.

From their ups and downs.

Now, I’m not suggesting you need to travel half the globe to meet awesome people in person. That’s just me. Rather, you need to continually push yourself against friends in the dojo, take inspiration from seminars, YouTube, articles and books and research the theory of your craft – from the best sources you can find.

That’s how you truly learn from the best.

One of the red flags I’ve noticed in many poor Karate-ka is that they have a tendency to talk down other schools, styles, organizations or just the general competition. They assume that their opponents will not work hard or think creatively or devote enough resources to hone their skills. They always assume that there will be some mistake they can capitalize on… instead of learning from other people to become even better themselves.

Big.

Frickin’.

Mistake.

True excellence comes from training to be the best, learning from the best, beating the best at their best and not getting lucky on somebody else’s bad day. In other words, you have to constantly seek out the best competition, teachers and other Karate friends to push yourself to become even better.

Sure, surround yourself with mediocrity and you might find it easier to feel good about yourself….

But you’ll never achieve anything significant.

So learn from everywhere.

And everyone.

5. It Takes a Lot of Love

Lastly, by now it should be clear that very little of this is very pleasurable to regular people. In fact, most of it really sucks. Honing your weaknesses, practising fundamentals till they become second nature and finding the discipline to do away with all of the petty distractions that entertain your ego… well, these things don’t come easy.

They are almost contrary to human nature.

That’s why you truly need to be a bit insane “passionate” about Karate if you want to become really awesome at this stuff.

(Luckily, you’re reading this – which tells me there’s a small Karate Nerd™ living somewhere inside you, just waiting to bust free.)

To be good at anything (truly good, not just good enough for local bragging rights) you need to be pushed and learn to push yourself. It’s most definitely frustrating, exhausting and you go through long periods where it really doesn’t seem worth the effort. You shoot for the Zeno’s paradox of perfection, always closing half the distance, but never really arriving at your destination.

Which is exactly why you need to love the process (the training) – or you’ll have a hard time ahead of you.

So, that brings us to the true secret of success:

To succeed in any field of endeavor, you simply have to love it.  

Not merely want to be recognized or to get rich or to make your mother happy, but to do something for its own sake. Because the quest for getting it right, or even coming close, is something that stirs the very depths of your soul. It is the first thing you think about in the morning, and the last thing on your mind when you go to sleep.

It’s not always fun, but it is eminently rewarding.

And as long as you got the five principles in order, it’ll definitely be worth it.

So keep keepin’ it real my friends.

Greatness is inside you.

11 Comments

  • marcelo Luna
    Hello Jesse! Thanks for sharing this knowledge! I'm in a "dilemma karateka nerd" and this article fell like a glove. It is exactly oq I needed to read!OSU!P.S. Via Google translator. ^ ^
  • Gerry
    I'd also add "Understand what you are doing", so techniques have meaning and relevance.
    • Matt
      Oh my god this. Although it's not something you can have from the get-go, it's that one thing that has everybody laughing at us karateka because of that select few (read: majority).
  • Hi Jesse,my first Sensei summed that up to two principles. He told me to become great at anything you just need Passion and Discipline.Regards Holger
  • Greg
    I always enjoy reading ur informative posts Jesse, again as always thank you for taking the time to help direct the way we think :) Ossu!
  • Matt
    Jesse, You are awesome. 'Nuff said. Best, Matt
  • Morten
    Thanks for writing, I am not into karate at all, I just became curious as a friend linked to this article. It could just as well have been written about music - and especially the part about "working on the weak areas" - I nearly took that personally ;-) - but also the rest of it. A wellwritten post about the art of becoming better.
  • DaveInMinnesota
    Good stuff, Jesse.
  • Barbara Hesselschwerdt
    Excellent article Jesse. I particularly like the last point. You have to enjoy the training otherwise you can do everything that's required and gain nothing. You find yourself with a black belt but still feel like something's missing. Had to learn this one the hard way. Look after your passion.
  • Bhaskar Sen
    the Zeno's paradox caught my attention !!. a thing to ponder upon!!!!Awesome jesse -san .. greetings from india!
  • Sebastiaan
    Hi Jessy,Another good thing is to have the mindset to learn from mistakes.Regards,Sebastiaan ,

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