Learning is impossible without failure, and any kind of improvement is equally impossible without making mistakes while trying. Even worse; beginner karate students need to accept the fact that they experience more failures than successes, and, as the saying goes, ‘the master has failed more times as the novice even tried’. It is, however, an unfortunate fact that in the Western culture mistakes may be seen as a personal disaster, as something to be avoided at all cost, which is expressed in the common management principle of “failure is not an option”. The resulting widespread attitude of avoiding failure is counterproductive to progress and it impedes learning.

Differences Between Specific Characteristics of Incorrectness

There are differences of utmost importance between errors, blunders, and mistakes and to understand their specificity allows to specify the needed consequences for teaching and learning. A sensei can correct two of these peculiarities, namely errors and blunders, by pointing out the correct way, which allows students to adjust moves; the sensei, however, cannot correct the third version, mistakes, by simply pointing them out; karateka need to do go through a long and arduous process to correct those themselves. To understand this statement, a clarification of the three versions of incorrectness, as well as an explanation of the underlying neurological process involved is needed.

Errors, Blunders and Mistakes

All three versions of error, blunder and mistake imply that something has been done wrongly. Errors are made due to one’s lack of knowledge or one’s lack of information. Hence, errors usually are made only once and can be eliminated after the relevant information is understood. Using the example of learning a new kata, errors occur at the beginning of the learning process and are unavoidable, because the student does not know some moves in this kata, meaning that some action is unavoidably wrong because the karateka does not have the needed knowledge yet. As soon as the knowledge is shared and all necessary information is known, errors can be avoided. Hence, the modern management motto of “make your daily mistake” to increase risk-taking and thus creativity of employees in some firms, actually should read “make your daily error.”

Blunders on the other hand occur accidentally although the karateka does know the correct way. Blunders are the accidental repetition of an error in spite of the fact that one should have known better. While learning a new kata, this often happens when the student progresses from a counted performance (each kata move is separately triggered as a response to a sensei’s count) to a no-count performance (the kata is uninterruptedly performed per the karateka’s own timing). The karateka knows the correct moves, but in this no-count setting the previous incorrect moves slip back in. They can, however, be eliminated, after sufficient repetitions of the kata while persistently being corrected by the sensei.

Mistakes, however, are a completely different category. They may be categorized as ‘permanent blunders,’ as incorrect actions contradicting the karateka’s body of knowledge, lastingly occurring, and seemingly ineradicable. The author’s United States Sensei Noel Smith, 8th Dan Shorin Ryu Shorinkan, calls these permanent mistakes a karateka’s “individual idiosyncrasies,” which he cannot correct in the dojo; neither through encouraging, nor through feedback, nor through yelling. Karateka have to correct those mistakes/idiosyncrasies by themselves through home training and/or through working individually in front of mirrors for a long time. Examples are plenty, e.g., not sitting down as low as possible in a position and thus unnecessarily limiting body-weight-transfer into a move; not looking at an opponent but instead looking down or at one’s own hands or feet; permanently placing a foot at an incorrect angle after stepping, and so on and so forth. All these mistakes do sometimes look like a karateka stubbornly neglecting a sensei’s correction, which is not the case though; it is rather rooted in the nerve cell connections within a karateka’s brain, which have to be disconnected and ‘reprogrammed’.

The Neurological Background to Correcting Errors and Blunders

Whereas the reduction and elimination of errors and blunders may be achieved within weeks or months, overcoming mistakes takes years. Neuroscience explains the reason for this as specific impacts on the connections within the karateka’s neural system. This neural system is a relative stable and unfortunately a relative inflexible information-processing arrangement. During an individual’s development and socialization, the system of neural connections were established and provide a personal pattern how new information is integrated into this existing system without changing the system as such. This makes the process of integrating new, especially contradicting, knowledge difficult and explains the rigidity of existing mental patterns like attitudes or opinions. Information processing within the existing system means that the number and the intensity of already existing neural connections is strengthened by new information. In other words, new information is perceived through an “individual lens,”unconsciously re-interpreted, and “forced” into the existing system; sometimes even bent to fit. Based on their existing connections, karateka will act subconsciously, automatically, and apply the very move they have used in their life before to a new situation; thus, using the application which has worked throughout their life so far, but which may be inappropriate for a karate move.

The neurological translation of the common phrase that “learning occurs outside our comfort zone” is that learning something new means that new neural connections need to be created in one’s brain. This perhaps can be achieved within a couple of weeks or months, but which as well may need quite a bit longer to be created. Such a process is scientifically called ‘tuning’ and is the basis of and illustrates how errors and blunders are corrected. In karate, learning to move with controlled C-steps [called as such because of a half-circle-shaped move of the stepping leg] may serve as an example. Everyone starting to train knows how to step and did this unconsciously lifelong by bending the torso forward, thus moving weight, in parallel moving a leg forward and falling into the step with an angled hip. If an obstacle physically hinders the unconscious leg movement, one stumbles or falls. Learning the fundamental C-step means that a karateka has to create new neural brain connections that allows to keep the hip squared while moving a leg circularly forward, and while simultaneously pushing with the back leg. This controls the travel of the center of gravity during the entire time while stepping ― hence, this C-step can be interrupted at any point before its completion without losing balance, stumbling or falling. It takes karate beginners quite a long time to transform their everyday step into a karate C-step, but this usually is achieved within a couple of months, and the new neural connection of nerve cells is established. 

The Neurological Background for the Importunity of Mistakes

To correct mistakes, however, to eliminate individual idiosyncrasies, creating new neural connections is not enough. It requires that existing synaptic connections in the neural system have to be unconnected before new connections can be stablished. Something has not just to be modified, but unconscious habits have to be completely unlearned before something new can be learned. Examples are plenty; from unconsciously looking down instead of at an opponent, over not pulling one hand while using the other one, up to keeping shoulders up instead of down — just to name a few. Changing this happens through a neurological process scientifically called ‘reconstructing’, where unconscious life-long trained habitual motoric patterns and routinized ways to process information need to be erased and reprogrammed; to be substituted by new patterns and processes which fit the new martial arts requirements. Reconstructing eliminates mistakes in the long run during a time-intensive and burdensome learning process which, in the author’s experience, takes years of cumbersome working towards a seemingly unachievable objective, while constantly falling back into previous incorrectness.

There is no Quick Way to Obtain Solid Skills

Tenacious persistence and self-discipline is the key for karateka to eliminate mistakes, individual idiosyncrasies on their never ending path of continuous improvement. The higher we climb up the performance ladder, the smaller and harder earned the gains will be. Our passion will carry us only so far, and when passion wanes, all that remains to carry us forward is our mental discipline.

However, a search for “quick wins” dominates today, i.e., a search for prompt rewards without the need to invest corresponding efforts and sweat. All tinsel and glitter are wide-spread, and dojo-specific entertainment- and reward-systems to keep karateka motivated too often paint over the widespread lack of self-discipline. Consequently, unaltered mistakes may mistakenly be accepted as “individual interpretations”.

The above is an excerpt from Analysis of Genuine Karate Volume 2: Socio-Cultural Developments, Commercialization, and Loss of Essential Knowledge by Hermann Bayer, Ph.D., publish date July 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594399244.