Martial Arts Retention Tips

Martial arts are a lifelong endeavor, but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve how well or how quickly you learn things. I always preach patience when trying to develop techniques or kata, but I’ve noticed that there are a handful of tactics that you can use to improve your retention and learning.

The tips below are not all inclusive, and I’m sure you could come up with some advice of your own (use the comments section to shout it out!). My hope here is to give you some ideas to take with you as you continue to train.


The tricky thing about kata and other forms is how long they can be. It’s no mean feat memorizing 40-50 movements in a row, especially to the degree of accuracy that is required of martial artists. here are some ideas that might help:

* Decide how you like to learn. I wrote a more extension examination on learning kata here, so take a look at that if kata is a priority in your training. For our purposes in this post, learning can be summarized in one of two ways: all-together, or bits at a time. Some people learn kata best by doing the whole routine over and over again, slowly integrating parts into their memory in no particular order. Other people need to learn pieces at a time in proper order, so that their mind can construct the kata ‘chronologically’, if you will. You need to mentally decide which way works for you (or if you’re not sure, try both and find out).

* Avoid leader dependence. When an instructor is narrating a kata and keeping a watchful eye on things, you can improve your technique and pay attention to detail. Unfortunately, it can also develop a dependency on being led. On many occasions I’ve talked to students about their kata, and they’ve seemed quite confident in their knowledge and reps. However as soon as it was their turn to get up and try it on their own, the tension of the spotlight combined with a lack of immediate guidance caused them to freeze up and ‘draw a blank’.

Don’t fall into that trap – take time to practice your form on your own.

* Change directions. It’s common to always start your form facing the same direction (which is something people don’t consciously decide to do, they just always face the ‘front’). By doing this you give yourself the same visual landscape and cues every time you do the kata. For example, if you always turn left and face the door of your dojo, your brain will start to associate the door with that aspect of the kata. To break out of this habit, start your kata in different directions. In fact, don’t always start it directly facing a wall. Use weird off-angles. If you find yourself having to really think about where to turn next, you know your brain was starting to attach to visual cues.

* Utilize the same night / next day approach. There’s a lot of activity that goes on in a normal martial arts class. That being the case, the brain has a lot of gears to switch and a lot to think about. If you were to practice a kata at the beginning of the evening, by the time your training is through your kata could be nothing but a distant memory. That is why I recommend practicing the form while it is still fresh – either directly after class while the instructor is still hanging around to answer questions, or that same night after you get home. Don’t stop there though. Try it again the next day after you’ve had a night to let it sit. These reps can often turn something that is on the outer edges of your understanding into something that has really found a home in your memory.

Self Defense Techniques

Self defense is a critically important part of any martial arts regiment. One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of practitioners get bogged down in how many techniques they can learn, or how elaborate they can design fight skits. I personally find some inherent risk in that mindset, and am much more keen to develop naturalness over impressiveness. These tips are designed to lead to retention of ability, rather than specific technique.

* Start off slow, then gain speed. Sometimes ego can grab ahold of you and make you think “well I should practice at full speed all the time because the street happens at full speed!”. That’s true, but it’s extremely difficult to develop good technique and control of balance without taking time to analyze all the little bits and pieces of yourself and your art. When first learning self defense techniques, keep your practice safe and slow. Analyze the right way to do it without relying purely on force and luck. As you gain confidence build the speed of the routine until you are doing it at full clip.

* Break out of the box. Once you are comfortable with your techniques, be sure to break out of the repetition habit. As valuable as drills like ippon/sanbon kumite are, they are too restrictive and predictable to properly represent full self defense training.

I’m a big fan of these drills, and I included this video because I think it is really well done (and happens to features Hirokazu Kanazawa Sensei!). But as impressive as it is, it still relies on a long series of cues and expanded distances that are only good as basic training. In order to break out of this habit, you must allow attacks to come randomly and without exaggeration. The attacker must be in a natural position rather than the formal stepping back/block down setup (or something equivalent). Control is still vital of course, as we don’t want to knock each other out…good training partners are not something to be wasted.

Traditional training almost always involves boxes because they help beginners learn and program our bodies with muscle memory. Boxes are good and valuable. It’s just important to remember that they aren’t the only thing worth doing. (Aikido Box, Judo Box, Kung Fu Box, etc).

* Let it be ugly and chaotic. Martial arts provide a great sensation of bringing order to chaos. With good technique we can seemingly take something fearsome like physical combat and put it under glass for our examination and control. Unfortunately, this tends to be an illusion of the dojo. When practicing self defense, it is important to give yourself the opportunity to fail. Allow you and your partner to move around, to grip at each other, and to resist technique. However, it is also important to know the limits of resistance so that we don’t actually have to hurt each other in order to get the technique to work. It’s a fine balance.

* Don’t ignore things you don’t practice. Aikidoka should not ignore the value of punching someone in the face. Karateka should not ignore the opportunity to clinch and sweep an opponent. Judoka should not underestimate the efficacy of vital point compressions. Be sure not to ignore things you don’t work on frequently.

Concepts and Ideas

Your understanding of the arts will not come cleanly or neatly. Sure, it would be nice if brilliant bunkai ideas flooded into your brain the moment you need them in the dojo. Sadly, it probably won’t happen that way. As you’re driving home, however, something awesome might occur to you. Too little too late.

Ah ha! moments are few and far between and should never be wasted.

Great concepts and ideas will occur to you at inopportune times, and it is your responsibility to remember them and practice them asap. I recommend getting into the habit of jotting down anything you think might be worthwhile. Make a note of applications, self defense techniques, or sparring strategies that might hold water. That way, the next time you get to the dojo, you’ll remember to actually put those ideas into practice.

There are a few different ways to keep track of your ideas. The first is a voice recorder. They make small, digital ones these days that are very convenient. The second is your cell phone. leave yourself text messages or voice messages with the general gist of your concept. The third is the most primitive…but also the one I love to use. Cut up slips of paper and try to have them nearby when you need them.

The benefit of the slips of paper is that I can sort through them if I am feeling at a loss for ideas. I can use them for inspiration, or to get me thinking in a different direction. I never know what i’ll feel like writing about (or training on) from one day to the next, so having these physically on hand is valuable to me.

No matter how you decide to do it, make sure you follow up an idea with real practice. A lot of techniques will wind up being duds, and that will make you sad. But a few of them are going to be great and you’ll be glad you integrated them into your art.

* * * *

This post was supposed to be short…don’t know what happened. Ohh well, hopefully something in there will be useful for you!