What You Need To Know About Making Karate Look Easy

By Jesse | 15 Comments

The other week I was teaching a self-defense (= Karate) technique, where you slip under your opponents attempted neck grab and take him down in the process.

Nothing special, but not the easiest technique in the book for a beginner, you know?

So, I show the technique a couple of times; slow, fast, medium pace, with elaborate explanations, without explanations, with some humor, with some seriousness – the same old song – when I suddenly hear somebody whisper “He makes it look so easy!”.

“He makes it look so easy!”.

I pretended I didn’t hear anything, because frankly I didn’t care much for the comment at the moment (let’s just say I’ve heard it a couple of times before), but afterwards I gave it some second thought.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t want to hear it.

“He makes it look so easy”

Ever again.

Perhaps you’ve heard it (or even said it) yourself?

To most people, I guess “He/she makes it look so easy” is a compliment. Indeed, in many ways it is: Having practised a technique for years will quite often make it look pretty easy, even though it might be hard for others, because, well, for you it IS easy. It’s a fact. That’s why you practise, right? To make thing easier? Because when things look easy to do, you are doing your best? Right?

Wrong.

Hogwash upon hogwash.

She makes it look so easy...

To the best of my knowledge; making things look easy means you have successfully achieved a satisfactory level of performance (optimal for your current stage), and your body has now adapted to the situation. It’s like driving a car. At first we struggle with shifting gear, checking the mirrors, using the brakes and so on, but eventually we put it all together. Suddenly you might be driving to the store without even remembering how you drove there. You just drove.

Recognize yourself?

So, for a kid who is about to take his driver’s license, you are a driving god. You don’t even think twice about talking on the cell phone, reading a book, eating a sandwich and driving at the same time. It’s nothing. Just driving. It’s an automatic process.

You are, in other words, making it look easy.

Because it is.

You have been driving for years.

And – here’s the catch – you have absolutely no intentions on improving your driving.

Nobody has, except professional Formula 1 race car drivers. Your level of driving is satisfactory. You can handle most normal traffic situations: drive in wet conditions, darkness, snowy roads, mountain roads, highways… You can do it all, son. You have nothing to gain by trying to actively improve you driving everytime you hit the road.

And that is precisely why I never want to hear people tell me I make things look easy.

Because when you reach that final stage, where a skill has become automatic, your rate of improvement slows dramatically.

And I definitely don’t want that.

Neither should you.

At least not when it comes to Karate.

You see, frequently when we see great performers doing what they do, it strikes us that they’ve practiced for so long, and done it so many times, they can just do it automatically. “They make it look so easy”, right?

But in fact, what they have achieved is the ability to AVOID doing it automatically.

And that, dear Karate colleagues, is the key.

Or else they wouldn’t have become who they are.

Michael "makes-it-look-so-easy" Jordan.

Great performers, whether it’s in Karate or Formula 1, golf or tennis, chess or boxing, never allow themselves to reach that automatic, arrested-development stage in their chosen field. They never want to make things look easy, at least not when they’re practising on their own. Because that is a failure on their part, and defeats the whole goal of training (unless training consists of active recovery).

Purposefully avoiding going beyond automaticity means you’re always getting better.

Continuous improvement.

And that’s exactly what we want.

I see it like this:

(move over, Picasso!)

First, we have the Comfort Zone.

99% of your peers will be found in this category most of the time, regardless of what field we’re talking about. But let’s talk Karate for now, mmkay?

In this field, training is always comfortable and enjoyable. Hence, the label “Comfort Zone”, and why it lies closest to us. People who come to you after training, telling you that “today’s practise felt great, I kicked everybody’s ass and then went through all my katas effortlessly, without even thinking!” are deep in the Comfort Zone.

Way too deep.

In fact, though these people may be enthusiastic some of the time, most of the time they’re more like zombies, going through whole sessions without even ONCE stopping and saying to themselves “Yo, hold up son, stop. What the frick am I doing? Why am I doing this? And what do I hope to accomplish by doing this, in this fashion?”. Thoughts like these are very foreign in the Comfort Zone, because they serve no purpose here. Actually, I even know people who achieved black belts without ever dipping their toes into other zones than the Comfort Zone.

They train like they’ve always done. And they like it.

Nothing wrong with that.

(Unless you’re me…)

Now let’s look at the Panic Zone.

The Panic Zone is, like the name implies, not a good place to be. A few of your peers will always be found in this zone, struggling with everything, every class. Both mentally and physically. They are, in other words, “doing too much”. To use a car analogy again; they either don’t know where the breaks are located, or don’t like driving slow. It makes them feel like losers. Either way, they’re ultimately headed for eternal fame.

James Dean kind of fame, that is.

Because no matter how nice your Porsche is, you can’t be driving around the edge of the Panic Zone cliff expecting to come home safe and sound.

(what? too much?)

People who train in the Panic Zone are quite often absent from class in periods (injured, hurt or sick) but when they do show up, you know all hell will break loose, much to the amusement of people in the Comfort Zone who view these daredevils as enjoyment, lunatics or people better than themselves. The downside is, of course, that Comfort Zone people think Panic Zone people are doing it all right.

Which frightens them, making them bury their heads even deeper into the sand of comfort.

But, they’re not.

They’re just misinformed.

The truth is, only by choosing activities in the Learning Zone can one make any significant leaps of progress in Karate, or any other field. And choosing the Learning Zone is all about locating skills and abilities that are just out of reach. Not aiming too low, and not way over your head.

But just in front of you, just out of reach.

That’s where the Learning Zone is.

That’s where YOU need to be.

But everything has a flip side. The downside of being in the Learning Zone is that you will never feel like you are a master of anything. In fact, most of the time you will feel a slight sensation of suckiness. Like you’re almost there. And that feeling – of pushing the edge further and further – is one not many people like. So they either purposefully avoid it, continuing on their automatic behaviour of the Comfort Zone, or they blow it out of proportion, flip out totally, go “all in”, leaving no enemy behind (Panic Zone).

Don’t.

Just don’t.

Training is not a tryout for the national squad. Nobody is there to judge you. You don’t need to chillax in the Comfort Zone because of other people, or work your butt to pieces because of other people. Sure, people will be wondering why you don’t look more comfortable or more excited – because that’s the two zones most other people are in – but that’s just because they don’t know about the Learning Zone. And when you tell them that “Well… Jesse told me to press on, and always maintain in the Learning Zone” they will think you’re fooling them.

Because only two zones exist for them.

However, if a lie told often enough becomes the truth, so too must a truth not told often enough become a lie.

Or at least treated like one.

So stay in that zone, and keep doing your thang.

And if people start judging, put the info on your foot and have them facing the facts. Comfort Zone people and Panic Zone people are as eager for your conversion to their group as they are indifferent to any degeneration that you undergo as a result.

So, with that being said, I think you can safely divide every black belt holder on this planet into one of three groups:

  1. People who got their black belt because they had been training for so long.
  2. People who got their black belt because they had been training so hard.
  3. People who got their black belt because they had improved so much.

Or, to put it another way:

  1. (Comfort Zone)
  2. (Panic Zone)
  3. (Learning Zone)

But, to me, volume (1) and intensity (2) means nothing if you don’t have a direction (3).

And herein lies the biggest challenge that any teacher, across any field, will ever face: getting your students to the Learning Zone, and making them stay there. Without making it neither too comfortable nor too uncomfortable.

In other words, make them get used to gradually working away suckiness, while at the same time finding new areas of suckiness to work away.

Never making things look easy.

Which, in closing, reminds me of another thing that happened after the class where somebody whispered “He makes it looks so easy!” the other week:

As I came out from the dojo later that evening, having pulled off an awesome Kobudo session, a bald man in his 50′s, with orange belt, sweaty as an Okinawan ice cream cone in August, is sitting on the bench after his Karate class.

Looking slightly in despair, he looks up to me and says: “I could be at home right now, having a grog. But here I am!” and starts laughing uncontrollably.

Wow.

Seems somebody was having a rare case of zone specific introspection.

If he only knew…

About the author

is a self-titled Karate Nerd™, best-selling martial arts writer, unreasonably handsome elite athlete, autodidact, karatepreneur and carrot cake aficionado. He really thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

15 Comments

  1. lionel

    October 31, 2010 at 12:09 am

    “Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.” (Leo Tolstoy)

    Just replace “truth” with “making it look easy.”

  2. Hichokei

    October 31, 2010 at 12:32 am

    Amazing…

    I haven’t thought in this issue. I use to be in the learning zone, perhaps this is the explanation about why I feel exhausted for training and feel that never improve, because I always see mistakes, and need more and more.

    But when I train with other people, I see very much better.

    Thanks.

  3. Tommy

    October 31, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    Yikes, I fear I might be in the psychotic insane crazy panic zone.
    How can I be sure? I tend to try to give as much as I can every training. Is that a bad thing, trying to make my body comfortable with faster and harder movements? I wonder; where do you draw the line of “wanting to improve” and “being totally reckless”? For example during the waem ups I tend to give it “all-in” thinking I need to improve my stamina and strength, is that being in the panic zone? What really got me were the lines about getting injured (I’m currently recovering from a small fracture in my pinky) and being sick for long periods (I’ve currently contracted some nasty flu thingie).
    Do you mean “sick” for long periods or sick for long periods?
    I don’t wanna be in the panic zone! Please still my fears :) but if I am come down on me like a f****ng hurricane!

    • Jesse

      October 31, 2010 at 4:53 pm

      Well, ask yourself: Have I been steadily improving? Highs and lows? Hard to know, perhaps, but there’s only one person who has the answer.

    • Szilard

      November 1, 2010 at 11:17 pm

      “For example during the waem ups I tend to give it “all-in” thinking I need to improve my stamina and strength, is that being in the panic zone? ”
      For me warm up is to warm up. Strength training is for strength, stamina training is for stamina. And both of them require proper warm up, and that warm up is neither strength training nor stamina training.
      I wonder what do you do during meditation. I don’t want to pick on you, but really: how many % do you give during mokuso (or mokso if you prefer that spelling)? I could never 100% empty my mind and listen to how my breath moves “in and out”.

      • Tommy

        November 2, 2010 at 6:11 pm

        Well if you put it that way I guess my version sounds stupid. But perhaps our warm up differs? For example we usually start by gently jogging in a large circle, for me going all in during that excersice would be, don’t cheat! (not cutting the edges and succumbing to the brain trying to make everything as easy as possible). And for instance if we do “high jumps” I try to jump as high as I can every time. IMHO that probably gives me more than simply bending down and rise back up fast enough for my feet to barely lift from the ground. What I’m trying to say is that there are different parts of a warm up, some are “slow and easy” and some are “hard and exhausting” but all of them can be done “all-in”-style. That not meaning I run like a sprinter during the slow jog. A slow jog is still a slow jog.
        Ps. Warm ups and learning a new technique are two different things though.

  4. Dan Djurdjevic

    November 1, 2010 at 10:02 am

    Great post Jesse -- keep up the good work!

  5. Szilard

    November 1, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Not too long ago you uploaded a video:
    Luca Valdesi -- The Champion Speech.
    He seems to say that you always have to work in the Panic zone. Also there is this link here about the Active Recovery. Well, Luca Valdesi seems to disagree on that one. He said something like “Always do things 100%, if you don’t die for it, you just get stronger.”
    So I am thinking what Luca Valdesi is talking about might have some prospectors’ bias. When everyone who tells the story is a success, and the success stories are told very loudly, and nobody is interested in the failures, methods that grant extremely low success rate can become Golden Rules.
    Maybe it is not the champions from whom we should learn how to train. After all they have trained to be a champion, and that is not what I train for. Sometimes it seems karate is just a selection machine to create champions (and a lot of failures). In some countries, especially in smaller ones, the belt tests can include some insane requirements (I have just seen 40 seconds hand-stand/walking on hands in an East-Europan Kyokushin dojo as 1st kyu requirement), so it ensures that only champion material gets to black belt. It also ensures that very knowledgeable karateka will compete in color belt categories, because they just can’t pass the next test.

    • Jesse

      November 1, 2010 at 9:17 pm

      What I believe Luca Valdesi is talking about is the last phase (or pre-competition phase) of sports periodization. Most people don’t use such advanced training planning, so… Anyway, his speech is basically a text book description of it.

      Oh, and when we’re speaking of great athletes and their road to success, remember “The Jing Method”? (http://www.karatebyjesse.com/?p=5839)

      Yeah.

      • Szilard

        November 1, 2010 at 11:41 pm

        Ah, you are talking about all the things that would not work for us. Yeah, I see your point. That Jing article is really good too.

  6. Jesse

    November 2, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    I got a great e-mail on the subject, and thought it deserved to be posted as a comment right here:

    “Hi Jesse,

    This is a bit off topic, this is why it is not a comment on your blog.

    In the last 10 years it seems to me I forget more than what I learn while advancing in ranks. I am contemplating exactly because of this to completely abandon the style I am doing and start over from white belt in something else. Why did I forget so much?

    I have learned things that I wanted to learn, but that somehow does not count, because that was always in me, and learning those things seemingly made things worse. For example; in sai-jutsu I learned things rather quick, because I was always interested, I just can not see what I know, the only thing I can experience that I still don’t know, this , this, and this, blast, I have to do more to get where I want to be. Maybe I am practicing this too eagerly and I am in my panic zone. I was holding myself back in several ways exactly because of this. I didn’t call it the panic zone, but I have learned the hard way, that proceeding too fast will result in disaster.

    Still when you want something to know really bad, it is difficult to hold back and stay with the basics long enough.

    I have run head on in disasters in professional life too. Professionally I am mathematician. So there is something really interesting. I want to know that stuff. So I work on it an pass over little details, because I want the next thing, and I don’t even know properly the basics. And these little holes build up, and I run into something that I just can not grasp, because my entire knowledge is like a sponge instead of a brick. Lots of holes. It looks like a brick, it covers the area, but it does not hold. This happened to me when I studied Lie Groups, universal algebra, hyperbolic differential equations and conservation laws, etc… The only way to fix this is to redo from start.

    If I had the chance now to learn eagle claw kung fu, or a few semester training in sticky hand techniques, or tai-chi uprooting techniques, I would face the same problems. I would learn a lot, but the only thing I would feel that I know less and less, because the learning uncovers a lot on that field that I could not see without learning. The field I wanted to learn looks much smaller when starting to learn it. As I learn the proportion of things I have to improve or learn to the things I learned changes rather unfavorably.

    Or with your terminology: the size of the comfort zone divided by the size of the panic zone seems to converge toward zero for a long time.

    When I started to learn something new, it seems I always have to forget a load of things. When doing kumite, well, the things that work well change a lot.

    - At white belt I had a killer maigeri and a killer gedanbarai gyakuzuki.
    A year later they did not seem to have the desired effect.

    - When I was orange belt I loved to do nagashi-zuki, and a rather basic defense against maigeri: shield away with your palm while moving towards the kicking side of the opponent, and pull it a little, so you end your move behind him.

    - Guess what, neither of these techniques work on blue belt level. By that time I loved to let the opponent capture a weak mawashi geri, pull in and smack them with both hands. Since one of their hands are busy with my foot, I have 2 hands against 1, and I can score before they unbalance me. I loved to kick with the leg they attempt to sweep out from under me, I loved to unbalance their kicks on various ways.

    - At brown belt all these stopped working for obvious reasons. Again I had to forget the old reflexes because they got me in trouble. For my surprise both maigeri and gedan barai + gyakuzuki started to work again.

    - At black belt, there are people I have no chance even to score against (absolute panic zone), there are people who have no chance against me (absolute comfort zone), and there is just maybe a few with whom kumite is really fun, and they have stopped coming to the kumite classes because it stopped to be fun for them.

    Szilard”

    Much to think about right there!

    • Fraser

      November 4, 2010 at 9:34 am

      Dear Szilard

      I studied Pure Maths at University as well I would like to share a few observations. Maths is not taught, working is put on the board and if you think like a maths person you follow it. Must university professors seem to think there main role is research so they are shockingly bad at teaching as they do not see it as there job. A lot of maths people are poor at spelling and often have a musical apptitude. Basically the way we learn is different we are trying to copy someone else’s learning method without adapting it. I have real memory problems as most people verbalise everything. I can hear the words but I cannot understand what they are saying. I have to remember everything as muscle memory or pictures. If I verbalise it it is so slow. I tend to sponge learn must things understand the concept and use the concepts to fill the gaps. I love panic can’t get enough of it. Basically people learn in different ways I don’t think you have just forgotten, one recalls things in different ways. Of course I have always been told I am stupid because my english is poor so do I have issues or are we different?

      Best Wishes Fraser

  7. Dojorat

    November 4, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Anybody who ever looked at somebody else and said they make something look easy forgets or doesn`t know how the person they are looking at reached that point.

    Nothing that requires practise is easy from the first time. Remember when you started karate. I remember when I first saw some people doing kusanku or gojushiho. I was flabbergasted at how smoothly and easily they did it. The kata looked impossibly long and complicated to me. Now that I have learned those and become able to do them without fumbling I realize that they are not so hard.

    The more you practise something the easier it gets(obvious truth). When I hear people say `he makes it look so easy!` I always remind them that `making it look easy` is what happens when a person endures years of frustrating and sometimes painful practise even it seems looks impossible. That is why some people appear superhuman to the rest of us but when compared to people of similar skill, they are normal.

  8. herrle 58

    May 27, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    Everybody seems to think out of his `box`, even me… i guess.
    Never thought of what you postet here as comfort/learning/panic zone.
    But i`ve gone through all those zones before.
    And thats why i dont like to use the word training in connection with the martial arts.
    At my classes the students (and i) get a lesson, learn something.
    There is no time to waste on push ups, stretching or anything they can easily do at home.
    Little warm up everybody, thats all.
    Its up to every single student to work out the things he learned or was corrected for.
    Except for the applications of course, because you need a partner. (by the way, teaching my way is show a movement-learn to copy-practise a more or less difficult application-show where it is in the kata)
    Everybody is encouraged to demonstrate his/her skills if he/she believes to have made progress…at the end of the class. When he/she does should try his best.
    TRAINING is at home, for yourself, adopt it to your condition, mentally and physically.
    If you work too hard (panic zone), you gain nothing…except injuries maybe.
    Better work with patience and concentration (learning zone)pushing the limits NEAR the panic zone.
    Sometimes its also ok to take a break in the comfort zone (if you think about muscle-growth theres a need for a break, so is for your mind), but NEVER do nothing at all.
    Swimming against a steam!? No gain without pain!?
    Right!?

    But while teaching i dont like some panic-zone-rambo`s mess up the calm and concentrated athmosphere of a `willing to learn class` of many different temperaments!

    Easier said than done, i know, because i find myself too close to the panik zone in my private exercise sometimes.
    Hard to cool down then. Seems i´m not a master yet.

  9. Boban Alempijevic

    August 8, 2011 at 1:41 am

    Whoa, how one learns. I loved this article to be honest. I read all the comments and I loved them as well. before I retook my karate as an adult, finally finding my way back to what I dream for so many years but did not dare to go back to, I was proud of the way I could learn so fast things. When i took up my karate I noticed that I suddenly stopped looking at it in the same way. I can speed read a book and still remember not just the basics but the concepts of it and even details for a very long time. I keep on reading other books in same genre or as with school, in same area and that what I learned will not go away…but that is books, that is life outside my dreams.

    I remember that first training session for sensei Hämäläinen in Nurmijärvi ( 40Km north of Helsinki in Finland), when I first stepped in to the Dojo with a brand new White belt, knowing full well that the concept of Karate was not new to me, but I simple could not take on my green, not after 13 years of no training. I remember standing at the line with all the other new white belts, most of em kids, looking straight forward, feeling like I was in an army where NO one knew the rules except sensei, and I. I remember when Sensei told me that I could train with the adults if I wanted to, the non white belts that is, since I actually was a green belt and I had earned it.

    Two days later I stepped into the Dojo with my white belt and I felt like everyone was looking at me ( even though I am aware that is was only I feeling it like that). For 4 months ( 2 weeks after start Sensei asked me to please put back my green belt by the way), I trained like there was no day tomorrow, I went home with so much energy that I had not felt in years, and I kept on training at home. I was going to relearn all the Kata up to green belt, and I was going to pound them into my mind and body so hard that I would never forget them.

    looking back now as a 1Kyu I realize that I did not only rush, I also forced in so much knowledge into mu muscle memory that I now can not force myself to go fast. I hate the comfort zone, training is not supposed to feel easy, I am not going to the Dojo to sweat a bit and get a toned body, that I can do at the gym. Panic zone has never been there for me, I have always been a train ( as a old friend used to tell me whenever we did sports), and I always train until my body wants to give in…. and then I simple have to keep on pushing with my will forward since usually we still have about 30 minutes left by that time :D

    I never thought of it as comfort zones, as learning zones or panic zones but I do recognize them when reading them. I have people training with me fitting in both zones ( yes, both, since the learning one fits into so few :( ). In my eyes, the ones that want to be in the learning zone are the ones wanting to learn, the ones wanting to grow and to change from outside in and vice verse. A true karate lover wants to learn and is prepared to do it the hard way, constantly. For me that means that I have chosen to stay put on my brown belt until I not only know all the katas all the way up to 1 Dan, but also have repeated them so many times that I started feeling bored a LONG time ago. I also need to know the History of karate, understand the Kata and what they stand for, each block, each attack, and how they can be both depending on the situation. To choose to live such a life is for most people hard it seems, I just can not understand why.

    The failure to understand why not everyone wants to try there hardest to learn, to be constantly in the learning zone gives me problems as well. I keep on getting annoyed, even though I never show it at training, at most of the people when they simple don’t even try to actually USE some force in there attack, don’t even try to Improve, but keep on doing same errors as they did a year ago.

    I guess if I learned how to let such annoyance flow of off me like it was water, I would be able to push myself even harder ( meaning putting even more effort in learning, not killing myself with a heart attack :D )

    Jesse, like always you make me think, and I thank you deeply for that.

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