Kata Technique Drift

By Erik Hofmeister

If you watch old videos of kata that we know in Yoshukai, or kata from related arts like Chito-Ryu, you’ll notice some differences.  How did they get there? Is there a reason for these differences, or are they just random? I don’t know for sure, but there are three likely possibilities.

The change is due to deliberate decisions made by higher-ups, like Soke.  There are some specific instances of this. When the WYKKO was formed, our upper block changed from using the lateral part of the arm (ulna) to using the anterior part of the arm (ulna and radius).  Several counts changed in forms, as did some of the placements of the kiai. All of these changes were made by Soke to bring our kata more in line with how they were done in Japan. Soke was also always continuing to learn and improve his karate.  As he had realizations and deeper understandings developed, the movement was changed to be more effective.

The change is due to mis-remembering by higher-ups.  Humans have a problem with memory. Our recollection is subject to so many biases and faults, it’s amazing we can retain anything accurately.  It’s not only high ranks, but, since they often have the responsibility for passing on information, if one high rank remembers something incorrectly, it is more likely to be propagated throughout the students and dojo.  This is compounded by the problem that we have a high degree of confidence in and belief that our memories are true. When confronted with contradictions to our memories, we tend to believe our own memories. This can make correction of misremembered techniques difficult.  I had taught the uraken in Niseishi as having an angle to it for years. Master Culbreth corrected this recently and, looking at videos that were made more than 10 years ago, the uraken was indeed the way Master Culbreth said it should be. How in the world had I misremembered this technique for so long and not had it corrected?  The illusion of memory is powerful, and we need to always be aware of it.

The change is due to mis-learned techniques.  Anyone who has ever taught anything knows that sometimes the student doesn’t learn what you had intended.  I have read answers by some students on an exam and thought, “Where in the world did you get that idea?” The same happens in martial arts- you may intend to teach the technique a certain way, but it isn’t learned that way.  This student then teaches it incorrectly to someone else, and so on.

In general, relying on people to learn and remember perfectly is unwise.  People are fallible. This is why movies and pictures are so critical to preventing kata technique drift.  Deliberate changes by the higher-ups are important, as their understanding and mastery of the art develops.  Accidental changes, though, can lead to frustrated students and conflict among higher-ups.

Video Improvement

By Erik Hofmeister

Improvement in your karate can come from a number of sources.  You may think about karate, imagining yourself doing a kata. Your instructor may observe you and provide feedback.  Your peers may have different ideas to impart. At camps, you may be able to learn different ways to do things from different instructors.  Reading and watching videos can be tremendously helpful. Most martial artists never do one thing to improve their skills. Most organized sports players, particularly on school and professional teams, do this one thing.  They watch themselves on video.

Self video review is one of the most powerful tools we have for improvement, but it is remarkably underutilized.  People hate seeing themselves on video. They are highly self-critical of their videotaped performance. They don’t like how they sound.  It’s hard to set up the camera and then take the time to watch it. Video has many barriers. But the benefits are impressive.

My first time doing self video with the intention to improve was in preparation for the 2014 Athens Tournament.  All of the head instructors agreed we would enter the competition in order to shame our blackbelts into competing.  I chose to do San Shi Ryu, which no one around Athens knew or could help me with. So I recorded myself. I’ve known this kata for a long time.  I tested to 4th degree knowing it. I thought it was pretty good. The video was really just to confirm that it looked good, not really to help me improve.

The first recording was… not great.  Maybe it was good, but I saw about a dozen things I was doing not as well as I knew I could.  So I fixed some of them, and did another video. I did about 4 rounds of this over the 2 weeks preceding the tournament, and my performance improved noticeably.  In teaching students in the classroom and the dojo, I have learned so much by watching myself, and my student evaluations improved as a consequence.

Even if you have access to a knowledgeable instructor, sometimes you need to see yourself doing something in order to understand it.  I have students who do a technique which I have tried to fix in several different ways, with minimal progress. Showing them a video of themselves has resulted in them immediately changing something I had spent the last 6 months trying to change.

If you are training on your own, or are higher ranked than most of those around you, or are preparing for a high-level test, self video is huge.  I regularly do self video to make sure I am constantly _improving_ my karate, not just _doing_ my karate.

Student Engagement Pt.2

By Erik Hofmeister

This is the second of a short two-part series.


One of the greatest obstacles to improving student engagement is that instructors don’t know how to engage their students.  Most of us have learned from the apprenticeship of observation- we teach how our instructors teach. Maybe that is a good model for some, but it leaves out the important component of WHY our instructors do certain things.  This post presents some strategies you can implement to improve student engagement. While they work for all ranks, this set is focused on color belt students.


Ask questions according to Bloom’s taxonomy.

If you don’t know about it, Google it.  All students can handle questions aimed at all levels of the taxonomy.  Even simple questions like “What part of the hand do we punch with?” are valuable.  They promote engagement, they allow you to check student knowledge to make sure they are learning what you want them to, and they help the students learn what is most important.  More complex questions like “Why do we punch with the first two knuckles?” helps students reflect on their knowledge. Even more complex questions like “Is the ridge hand or knife hand a stronger strike?” allow students to begin to evaluate their knowledge.  Now, this is martial arts class, not a discussion seminar, so don’t go overboard. Try adding two questions to your classes for the next month and see what happens.


Have students interact with each other.

Students can learn from each other, help hold each other accountable, and increase engagement by interacting.  This can be stimulated by a question- “You three discuss what you think the best response to this attack is and be prepared to show us.”  It can be stimulated by a reflective discourse- “You three talk to each other about the hardest part of this kata for you and what you are doing to overcome it.”  It can be stimulated by a creative exercise- “You two come up with a short self defense routine that you can show the class.” The key is to get students talking and working with each other, not just following your explicit commands at every turn.  Try at least one cooperative learning exercise and see what the students think of it.


Have students demonstrate and describe/explain to the class.

One of my favorite tools is to call out a student who is doing a technique exceptionally well and show them off to the class.  “Everyone pause and look at Sensei Dawkins’ angle- that is how it should be.” This not only makes the student proud- rightfully so- but can be a springboard for a new way to learn something.  “Sensei Dawkins, briefly tell us what you are doing to accomplish that.” This causes the student to reflect- and engage- and they may provide some tidbit that will help the other students. Each time you run a kata or a drill, try to identify one student who is doing particularly well, have them show off, and ask them to share how they are able to be successful.


There are three simple but effective strategies to improve student engagement and enhance learning.  Try them next time you teach martial arts students!

Student Engagement Pt.1

By Erik Hofmeister

This is the first of a short two-part series.


Tell me – I forget.

Show me – I remember.

Involve me – I understand.


Students pursue martial arts for a variety of reasons.  One thing is consistent: if they aren’t engaged, they probably aren’t learning, and they probably won’t stay long.  Engagement means a student orienting to a task, having some interest in it, being challenged by it, and ultimately being involved in learning.  Disengagement is usually easy to get- just stand in front of a class and drone monotonously for about an hour without asking any questions, changing your pacing, or changing your style of presentation.  Many college classes are like this, and are terrible at getting student engagement.

Encouraging engagement is complicated, but it’s not complex.  Give students something to do. Ask them intriguing questions.  Make them active learners and not passive learners. Have them interact with each other.  There are dozens of strategies, some of which we will go over in the next few posts.

Besides this short blog post series, how do you learn about exercises, or drills, or questions to ask to engage students?  Talk to your peers- everyone has different exercises! Books can be good resources- almost every martial arts book has its own set of exercises and drills.  Of course, the internet if filled to bursting- “martial arts exercises” is a fine place to start. Be careful about making everything new all the time.

When Sensei Blumreich and I were first getting to work out together, he showed me many binders filled with elaborate and detailed warmup plans.  This contrasts with my warmups, which are pretty routine and similar from class to class. He initially felt he would be bored by my warmups. After doing them for a while, though, he said he actually liked having a similar routine.  It allowed him to zone out and just focus on his workout and pushing himself, instead of trying to figure out all these different exercises. So change it up a little bit, or on occasion, but realize there may be value in regularity and consistency, too.


What are arguments against increasing student engagement?

Complaint: You have to learn new skills.

Solution: Learning new skills is GOOD for you.

Complaint: You have to practice something different.

Solution: You practice your karate- why not your teaching?

Complaint: It takes too much time.

Solution: If you spend 30 minutes teaching a technique but the students are disengaged, you didn’t teach them anything.  I would rather spend 40 minutes teaching them a technique with engagement, so they will actually learn.


Many instructors don’t understand engagement or know enough about it.  Let’s fix that.