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Learn Karate From Book?
Books, videos, and CD-ROMs are useful tools for aiding your martial arts education.
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"Learn karate from book?" says a bemused Mr. Miyagi at the beginning of the movie Karate Kid. Young Danny, having moved out West with his single mom, can't afford to take karate lessons, and so he resorts to training himself at home. Yet from the look on Mr. Miyagi's face, we in the audience know he doesn't approve.

Can books, videos, and other training aids really help?

Nothing Replaces Sensei

I believe that you can't learn martial arts, at least when starting out, without an experienced instructor guiding you and critiquing your technique. As a beginner, the complex moves and foreign concepts of the martial arts are difficult to learn--even with an instructor watching you train. Learning by yourself would be impossible. How would you know if you're executing a technique correctly?

Unlike other sports, like football, track, bowling, or golf, there is no immediate feedback as to the effectiveness of your technique in the martial arts. If your bowling technique is bad, your ball goes into the gutter. If your high jump technique is bad, you can't clear the bar. In martial arts, besides getting into a fight and either winning or losing, you usually can't discern for yourself whether your techniques are "correct" or not. Breaking is one test, but as Bruce Lee always said, "Boards don't hit back," and as such breaking measures just offensive ability. You need someone watching you--who knows what to look for--and who will tell you what you're doing wrong.

Benefits of Study Aids

Once you've gotten beyond the beginner stage, and have a solid base of fundamentals (like stance, movement, and basic blocking, striking, or grappling), it's possible to get a lot out of books, videos, and other study aids. Here's what you can gain:

  • Reference for Techniques: Books and videos and now CD-ROMs serve as excellent references for techniques and in particular, forms or kata. I remember trying to memorize the various shotokan karate kata: Heian 1-5, Tekki Shodan and Nidan, Bassai Dai, etc, and finding it hard to practice on my own without a reference work to consult when I forgot a move. Videos, like the Ertl/Bendickson tapes reviewed on this site, are even better, as they can show pauses and speed of transitions that books can't.
  • Learning New Arts: Lots of folks write in asking about martial arts that aren't taught in their area. For some folks, there just isn't any way that they can train with an instructor--they live in a part of the world near just a few martial arts schools. For these students, exploring other martial arts through books or videos is the only way they'll get to learn techniques of those martial arts.
  • "Training" with Famous Instructors: Books and videos produced by "name" instructors gives you a chance to view how the "experts" do it. Granted, your local instructor is probably teaching you all you need to know. But perhaps you'd like to see Rorion and Royce Gracie perform Brazilian jiu-jitsu--except for seminars or traveling to Torrance, California, videos is the only way you'll get to "train" with the Gracies.
  • Repetition: Books and videos allow you to follow kata (forms) over and over--it's like asking your instructor to demonstrate the kata over and over again until you've memorized it.
  • "Offline" Training: Books and videos also allow you to train outside the dojo (training hall). Combined with visualization techniques, this "offline" learning gives you additional training beyond what you get in class. Even if you're sick or too injured to physically train, you can keep up with your martial arts education through these study aids.
  • Tips and Tricks: Books and videos can also provide tips, tricks, drills, and exercises beyond what you learn in your classes. These additional ways of learning can help you learn your martial art faster and easier than by just taking your classes alone. It's a lot like using study guides for geometry or history, or watching the movie version of the book you need to read for English Lit. Sometimes a different way of approaching the same material can help.

Still Need a Partner

Even with the best books and videos, it still helps to physically work on the new techniques and forms with a partner. Although your partner might be a peer or even a junior student, he or she can follow the material with you and give you feedback on what would work and what wouldn't.

We'd all like to learn martial arts The Matrix way: lean back in a comfy chair, close your eyes, and wake up saying, "Whoa! I know kung fu!". But we all know that a martial arts education requires real training and real work. You can't learn martial arts just by reading a book. But with the right books, videos, and other training tools, you can augment your training and attain mastery. Train hard!

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