How To Practice Karate Alone

Here’s a question I get a lot:
jesse_enkamp_alone

“Dear Jesse-san,

Training Karate alone is very hard for me. I know the key is to stay motivated & avoid getting bored – but the big question is how?

I would love to read your take on how to keep training when it is not possible to attend a dojo or get guidance from a sensei.”

Great question!

I have lots of experience training alone.

Allow me to split this article into a short answer & long answer.

Short Answer:

First of all, stop using the word “motivation”.

That’s just a word people made up so they can have an excuse to avoid doing boring stuff.

Because when you’re having fun you don’t need any “motivation”.

(Except motivation to quit!)

And that’s the first key.

Your training needs to be FUN.

But hey – nothing is fun all of the time.

For instance, sucking at things is not fun. And sometimes we just fail to remind ourselves of why we’re doing stuff in the first place. That’s the second key.

You see, I once heard that “motivation is remembering what you want”. If that’s true, then anyone who requires motivation to do stuff needs GOALS.

Remember what you want.

In summary:

  1. Have GOALS.
  2. Have FUN way to goals.

That’s it!

These 2 points will help you do Karate alone.

Long Answer:

Okay…

Let me tell you a story from when I lived in Okinawa – the birthplace of Karate.

To begin with; my apartment, located in the middle of Torihori village in Shuri district, was dirtier than a hobo in a mudwrestling match.

(Well, I personally didn’t think so, but my brother certainly did when he visited me – a fact which was made very clear upon his arrival.)

Yet, although I didn’t care much for cleaning my own apartment, I happily cleaned the local park once a month, together with my neighbors.

In other words, I cleaned up other people’s mess, but not my own!

Why?

Human nature is fascinating…

  • Why are doctors smoking outside of the hospital, despite knowing the health risks?
  • Why can some people be on point to work, but fail to pick up their own kids from school in time?
  • Why do we give other people advice on diet, but don’t follow the advice ourselves?

Why can many Karate instructors teach people several hours a day, but fail to even train one hour on their own?

Do we lack mastery of ourselves?

I mean, we, Karate Nerds, are supposed to be real good at control and stuff, right? Both physical and mental.

So why didn’t you file your taxes last week? Why haven’t you done the dishes? How come you were reading that awesome Karate blog all day instead of finishing your dissertation?

I’ll tell you why:

Because these things are not “winnable”!

(Read that again.)

And if it’s something humans dislike, then it’s un-winnable stuff.

This is why silly mobile games, gambling and sports are so popular.

They’re short, fun and winnable.

And they have a goal!

You see, the reason to why I never bothered to clean my lizard infested apartment in Okinawa was that I couldn’t win at cleaning my apartment.

  • There was no real starting time.
  • There was no decided ending time.
  • There certainly was no clear goal state.

The local park on the other hand…

“Okay, Jesse-san: When you arrive at 8 o’ clock tomorrow morning, cut this grass, put in these five plastic bags, throw onto this white truck, repeat until 10 o’clock, then eat this sweet bean jelly and go home.”

Perfect!

Cleaning the park had a guaranteed start time, a set end time, tons of fun subtasks and mini-games (hanging out with friends and dojo mates, practising my Japanese, playing with big stick-bugs) and even a sweet reward.

So I did it.

We all did it!

The same principle applies to your own Karate training.

Follow these 6 points:

1. Start by setting a proper (measurable & specific) goal.

Let’s say you want to improve your Karate, and generally become better. That’s your goal, okay?

Well – newsflash – you can’t measure your improvement if your goal is to become “better”.

Better than what? Better in which way? How? When? Why? It needs to be measureable & specific.

Instead of saying that you want to become “better”, say you want to get rid of “these five technical errors” that your sensei always tries to correct you on, or say that you will “get that next belt” (pass the grading test) or “do a perfect kata in a competition next week” (which is a measurable but hard goal).

These things are specific.

  • Abtract goals = bad
  • Specific goals = good

Next…

2. Split it up (mini goals).

Countless studies confirm that your chance of  completing a task increases dramatically once you have started it.

No matter how small the start is!

Starting something sets a process in motion (in your brain) that will nag you constantly, until you finish the task.

So, use this to your advantage by making it easy to begin.

Take baby steps.

I mean, imagine if Game of Thrones, the coolest TV series on the planet, had been made into one 9-hour long episode, instead of ten 55-minute episodes? Nobody would want to see it, no matter how much explicit nudity, blood, violence and awesomeness it contains.

However – if you watch only one episode – you just neeeeeed to see the rest!

Use that principle.

It will help you overcome the resistance to start.

3. When internal motivation lacks, use external motivation.

You’re training your kata in the living room, when you notice the clock.

“Hey, isn’t Family Guy on?” Next thing you know, you’ve completely lost interest in training and you’re stuck in front of the TV.

Not good!

So, use external motivation to discipline yourself.

For example, a timer (i.e. maximum X minutes rest) or visual aid (when I lived in Okinawa, I used magnets on my fridge to keep track of how many kata I had left to do each day).

The possibilities are literally endless.

But perhaps the biggest external motivation is having a friend to train with, especially if you’re the social type. As a bonus, you can give each other feedback and practice kumite too!

Other external motivation includes Youtube, videos & books.

Or just subscribe to Karate Nerd Insider™.

Don’t be a martial artist. Be a smartial artist.

4. Get organized. Have routine.

Always set a start time.

Then set an end time, or a specific number of repetitions.

Then decide what will be done during this time, and how often it will be done.

Decide for how long this will go on (weeks, months, years?). You don’t need to write it down, just check with yourself.

Never allow yourself to be confused, because when we’re confused we freak out.

Personally, I prefer to write these things down.

Routine & clear rules are essential.

5. Reward yourself like a king.

“Wow, today I did really good! I’m freakin’ awesome!” you need to think after training.

Because when you’re practicing alone, nobody else is there to praise you after a successful workout.

That’s a huge downside of training alone; you don’t get that pat on your back (which most of us need).

So… you’ll simply have to reward yourself!

Give yourself something nice after training, and tell yourself that you can only have it AFTER training.

Of course, if your goal with training is to lose weight, then rewarding yourself with a fat chocolate bar is like shooting yourself in the foot.

You need to be smart here.

  • After strength training? A yummy protein shake.
  • After jogging? A nice lunch.
  • After kata training? A fun movie.

It should be something you reeeeally enjoy.

Your special reward!

6. Switch it up. Cross-train.

We humans are hardwired for variation.

New things catch our attention and fire up our brain cells.

That’s why you need to have variety in your regular training.

Mixing variety with routine might sound like a paradox, but it’s not. You can schedule variety. Or, if you’re experienced, don’t schedule it at all. Improvise! 

For instance, if you regularly train specific katas, try some new katas? If you regularly do jogging, try hill sprints? If you regularly do weight training, try only bodyweight exercises?

For optimum results, do stuff in the same general movement area as your primary thing (i.e. martial arts).

Your cross training should just momentarily break your habitual training pattern, but not mess up your Karate skills.

That’s it!

Follow these 6 points and you’re all set.

But remember – the most important thing is to have 1) clear goals and 2) a fun way to these specific goals.

Finally, one last piece of advice…

Never train Karate alone!

Train with yourself.

(Get it?)

Good luck! 😉

33 Comments

  • Dojorat
    Thanks Jesse,Your article gave me some ideas. Personally what motivates me more than anything is having at least one other person to practise with. Kata lottery is one way I use and it is very simple: I write each kata on a small card and shuffle them. I pick 2 each day and do those 2 as many times as I can in an hour plus basics. It works because I don`t have to think about what to practise.
    • Fraser
      I agree with the thinking part, if I starting thinking instead of doing the time can slip away. Then I find I can train automatically and suddenly find I have stopped and cannot recall what I have done becuase of the thinking and lose the quality. The longest journey starts with the first step. I am going to take today's first step. Thanks
  • Whoah, what a comment storm! Hold back your enthusiasm folks! ;)
    • Fraser
      As you keep saying all over your blog go to a dojo. As you say in your post you are not inclined to do much training on your own when not leading a class. Perhaps people need others to validate their training and their motavation is focused around others. If a tree falls in a forest does it fall if there is no one to hear it? Is there anyone that leads a class that will except if the are good leaders that there students could become better than they could hope to be. Are they generous enough to pass on everything? Becoming king of Sweden is more likely than becoming better than a Karate instructor. Most instructors concentrate on their strengths and your weaknesses. They do encourage their students to take responsibility for their own learning. Maybe many feel unable to comment on this topic for some of these reasons. Are you ironic or sarcastic?
    • Thomas aMcCall
      Hi Jesse l thought my training alone tech might help. When l train l find somewhere out of the way most times in trees l become the Sensei and talk myself through the training session and say hai just like in the Dojo by doing this you dont have any time to think you just do.
  • Szilard
    I don't watch TV, so that distraction is out for me. I have kids, which works much better if you want distractions.Doing karate as a little break in activities a few times a day, giving myself just 15 minutes, and cheating and pulling it out to an hour, that is what works for me.There is no better way to push myself hard than having only 45 minutes, with a rigid deadline, like when I definitely have to finish at the end of lunch break and get back to work; or saying that OK, I practice Kushanku just a little before doing my tax return or some other nasty stuff.Limiting myself, like "no, I will not do Chatan Yara Dai no Sai, until fix these things in some basic kata" makes me really work hard on the boring stuff. And of course the revard is doing Chatan Yara at last.I know an Olympic target shooter, who rewarded himself by 5 minutes "western movie quick-draw stile shooting" after every 1000 practice shot.Max Barry limited himself to 1hour/day writing time when writing his first book. He could not stop thinking about it all day long, and he was hard pressed to write down everything he wanted in this short time frame. So he didn't feel writing boring, it became the time of the day he waited like kids wait for Christmas.[b]So I would say limit your time frame with boring everyday activities, and reward yourself with your favorite martial arts activities.[/b]
  • lionel
    I have a "layered rotation" training strategy. It's like this: There's something I am working on monthly, things I am doing for the week, and then there's stuff I come up with that day. The sum of these is my workout. These long, medium and short term "plans" are all highly elastic; and, with rotations, trainings are always different.On the "monthly scale," I work on one (or two) kata (karate and/or kobudo). I might experiment with it... trying different bunkai, stretching it to make that application explicit. Sometimes, I will keep an experiment in the kata for a while.On the "weekly scale," I have a small set (2, 3) of kata to work on. These "sets" are based on which kata I associate together... for whatever reasons. I practice these more for consistency than understanding, so I might do these in some form of pyramid (1 each, 2 each, 3 each... or 4 each in ascending intensity). If I have a problem with any of these... the corrective work is shunted off to the next category.On the "daily scale," I include other kata and "whatever else"... and miscellaneous cross-training. That probably sounds too general to mean anything.... but I am following some guidelines, like these: Fix problems/deficiencies, seek holistic balance, understand, strengthen and improve. For example, if I train legs severely one day, the next day I am more likely to do something for the upper body.Some of my favorite cross-training exercises are.... walking up stairs (2-3 at a time or sideways, crossing legs), and one-legged table stands (from ground, put one foot on solid picnic table [or thigh/hip-high concrete wall].... stand up, then step back down with control.)
    • Interesting approach, kind of like how the top elite athletes and their coaches plan seasons (linear/conjugated periodization) with micro cycles, meso cycles etc. Nice!
  • Dojorat
    I guess I am one of those countless karateka whose practise and motivation is very closely linked to other people. Especially others in my own association and current dojo.I`m convinced that I am not unique. Traditional dojo tend to become like families. Since I began karate at 12 years old there was always 2 advanced sempai who I ALWAYS and still use as a reference. Wanting to be at their level and looking up to them is what motivated me the most.Training and practising alone requires a lot more effort and creativity to keep doing it for a long time. Measuring progress is also challenging because there are no references like in the dojo. To me the goal of self-training has always been to refine and maintain what I could do up to the point had to leave for a while.
  • Diego Romero
    i approve this article with great vengeance!
    • Hey, no additional comments from Mr. "I-motivate-myself-by-uploading-videos-of-myself-training-in-my-livingroom-to-youtube" himself?Yeah. I know allright! ;)
  • Francis
    That was your best article, Jesse!
  • Bob Patterson
    Nice article! Incidentally, I thought I was the most handsome man on the interwebs...
    • Don't sweat it, you're not the first one to make that mistake ;)
  • Carl
    Great article. Thanks
  • Igor
    Isnt this how grading with belts came to be?P. S. you saw Phasmatodea? Dude, Im jealous...
    • You bet, and it was a big one! Played with it for hours upon hours! It was totally sweet...
  • Igor
    Lucky bastard... first the lizards and now this... ::) P. S. this is one of the motivators (one of) for me going back to serious working out and martial arts after 3 months stall...
  • Manuel
    thankyou, thankyou very much, thans to your blog, I wasted an ENTIRE morning reading your amazing posts, instead of going ahead with my final dissertation...across four hours, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and I feel so bad right now...I'd like to gyaku-tsuki everything up! I want my morning back! =P
  • Gerry
    I've been self-training since January 2010 so self-motivation is very important for me to make progress. I've adjusted my training methods in the last two years since I believe being flexible in regards to training methods. Currently I begin with about 15 minutes of dynamic warm-ups to stretch all muscle groups and break a light sweat. Next I jump rope for 5 - 10 minutes to work on Cardio. After that I work on a single kick using a heavy bag (each day I only work on a specific kick so I'm getting alot of repetitions). Next I work on one kata a number of times (typically 10 - 20) at varying speeds focusing on different aspects of it. Next I work on some bunkai for the kata I was just working on. Finally I'll do about 10 of weight training with dumbells workin a specific muscle group. This basic methodology has been working for me for the past two years.
    • Gerry
      I should note - it's 10 minutes of weight training. Also in good weather my kata is done outdoors at a local park, then the jump rope, kicking and weights are done when I get home. Total time spent each session is 1:15 to 1:30 hours.
  • Dan
    Your post is spot-on, Jesse-san! But, when it comes to goal-setting, we souldn't use negative terms, such as "losing these bad habits". To our brain, losing is bad, regardless if the matter is about weight or money, for example. It's always better to use positive stuff, such as "correcting these bad habits" instead. It's a small verbal change, but it can make lots of difference to the brain!Also, you have a face! You're human! OMG, I always thought you were some alien AI gone rogue, training us to defend ourselves against the invasion of your brethren. hahahaha
  • Jim P
    The man in the arena - Theodore RooseveltIt is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.-- A reminder to keep fighting the 'good fight'.. Stay inspired, all!
  • Ian
    Training alone ... to many of us I think it seems "un-karate".We have become so accustomed to the "military/industrial' version of karate training (everybody lines up, sensei calls out a technique, "ichi', "ni" ...) where no real "thinking" is required ... just following. Even when sensei has you do "individual" work or train with partners, you are still doing what sensei tells you.But when you are alone, there's nobody but you to call out the next kata, or give you the old "damatte keiko".So imagine yourself as your own sensei. Figure out what direction you (as sensei) would give you (as student) and go for it.
  • DynamicFisticuffs
    I currently am in a stage of my martial arts journey (read: My whole life) where self-training is the only training I am doing now. A lot of things written here I do do, but I FOR SURE need to do more, and incorporate these methods into conquering other goals (so much reading of this blog instead of other things xD') Abstract goal: Redevelop Karate. Problem: How the heck do I do that??? "Karate begins and ends with kata." Morio Higaonna. A good place to start since while retaining much of the kihon, I had forgotten much of the kata. So mini goals have been to "Relearn Pinan Shodan" for example. BUT I needed to take it further and really UNDERSTAND Pinan Shodan. So with the help of a few other valuable sources (Iain Abernathy, an instructor from Shukokai, and a VERY HANDSOME person who happens to own a blog I'm posting on), I soon had a MUCH HIGHER QUALITY of understanding Pinan Shodan than I did before. Hence redevelopment. Measurable in terms of one kata out of several I knew/is in my style/want to know, and also in terms that I could actually make a list or describe what this move is for, how it fits together with this other move, how it relates to the kata as a whole and so forth. OTHER things I do is WRITE DOWN kata I've done/need to make up (I have an entire note section on my iPhone for this), MIX THINGS UP in terms of order, Bunkai variations, trying to come up with my own personal Bunkai, doing the kata in a reverse order, BREAKING UP HOW MUCH I DO AT ONCE (so it's winnable), and of COURSE I REWARD myself. With either moving onto the next kata, exotic drinks, whatever! I also cross-train and do many different types of exercise to supplement my training as well. I am especially fond of cross-training because of Bruce Lee, MMA, and the old karate masters themselves! Kobudo, Kung fu, Muay Boran, jujutsu, NINJUTSU (that one still blows me away), and so on.
  • Raisa
    Hello Jesse-San, I do Tang Soo Do Korean martial arts and in my last competition I won grand champion (first place sparring, first place kata and first place weapons) and I have a competition next week. As the days go, I am not as hopeful as I was before. I do extra training with my dad and go extra hours at the dojo... I want to win again but I don't feel like it. I'm positive, don't get me wrong, but I don't know what to do anymore. Since I've recently graded to a brown belt, I'm going as a green belt but I will have brown belt girls in my category. I feel confused, nervous, confident, scared etc.etc. What should I do?
  • Chantal Denise
    Good you dug this article out. I think training alone is more for the advanced Karateka rather than for the beginner. I need a lot of instructions (and corrections). In terms of the goals you are absolutely right. At the moment I do have two main issues I have to work on: My stance (now it is low enough (thank god!!)but apparently it has become too narrow in general) and that I'm way too tensed when practicing Karate (so no one really sees I'm actually having fun). On the other hand, my senseis are quite happy with my technique. One of them really made my day by highlighting my yoko geri, a technique I got frustrated with earlier.So I have to work on making it looking more effortless and a bit more 'snappy'. It does help me to look at higher ranks to figure out what I can do to improve my own performance. Practicing alone is not really the key for me (at the moment);)
  • Claire
    Great articles stand the test of time, thank you Jesse! For 3.5 yrs I've been figuring out a way to train beyond class that is practical and sustainable. I've had a lot of fun, made a few ineffective turns, over complicated it, and learned a few useful things that work for me. (1) Basic strength and dynamic fitness practice is essential (not too much, 30 mins 3 times a week plus physio exercises - better to save energy for karate!). (2) Educating myself on budo philosophy and teachings is inspiring - but less is more! (3) Having a personalised strategy that reflects our overall reason for training and current lifestyle is vital. I like clear goals and everything in my practice needs constant improvement, but I also like just showing up and finding my way from there. It's such a gift to have a whole hour and so many ways to fill it and have nothing special to achieve. I took up judo recently and being a white belt again has reminded me to appreciate and value what a 24 yr on-off relationship with karate has taught me, and reconnect with why I still care to train. That right now is inspiring how I approach my own solo training. It is also set to change as I train for my next grading, where I'll need to do specific techniques and katas. This ebb and flow of change has become a part of the way.
    • Fritz
      I like this comment a lot. I'm at a difficult stage of my journey with karate, so it is nice to read from someone who shares similar ideas and values.
  • Moisés Fallas
    This is the best answer you ever wrote, great Jesse Sensei. Thank you!!
  • Chamandeep singh
    Thanks Jesse for amazing article on Practicing karate alone .
  • Thanks for the motivation. This is what i asked for ;)Karate Nerds are never alone.We train toghether in diferent places :D

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