When a new student joins our class, one of the first techniques they learn is the front kick. It is a pretty straightforward technique that involves rapidly lifting up the knee and snapping out the ball of the foot toward the target. Even students with no experience and limited coordination can approximate the kick pretty quickly, which is helpful for providing a good starting point for training and building early self-efficacy (confidence) for martial arts. There is one drawback to the deceptive simplicity of this basic kick: many people early on may assume that they know the kick well enough to go through the motions mindlessly and move on to more advanced techniques.
I’ve been practicing the front kick for almost 22 years now and I’ve given it very little thought for most of those years. When we run through our basic kicks in class, front kick is one of the first kicks we do and it almost feels like a warm-up for the more intricate kicks. Many times I’ve simply snapped the kick out with little focus on the specific mechanics of the kick, and as a result, I have developed a lackluster technique that gets the job done, but doesn’t meet its full potential.
Over the last couple of years I have revisited this most basic of kicks with a newfound interest in getting it right. One book I read suggested enhancing the power of the kick by bringing the heel of the kicking leg up to your butt in preparation for snapping out the kick. A video I watched reinforced the importance of training the “snap back” part of the kick just as much as the snapping out of the extension. A karate instructor offered the wonderful mental cue of imagining that you are kicking sand off your instep (top of foot) into your opponents face to develop a faster extension of the kick. I’ve also been reminding myself to bend the toes more on the preparation every time I teach the technique to a new student. Combining all these lessons with a willingness to explore a technique that I hadn’t paid much attention to provided me with a new appreciation for the technique. I realized that I could make it faster and more effective in sparring. I felt like I could execute a higher and more fluid kick at a better angle during certain forms. It almost felt like learning a totally new technique. Along with front kick, I have also gone back to revisit and revise other basic kicks like side kick and back kick, and have spent a lot of time using books and videos to dig deeper into my lower belt forms to sharpen up many of the details.
In martial arts training, it is easy to get bored. Much of the training revolves around repetition, which can build complacency and a sense of “I already know this, let’s move on to something new”. But do you really “know” the technique? It is tempting to assume you have learned a basic technique and move on to new and more advanced techniques without spending the time and focus building a good foundation with the basics first. Bruce Lee is often quoted as saying “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times”. The gist of this quote is that a person who has dedicated their training to the mindful repetition of a certain technique will be much more effective than a person who aimlessly jumps from one new technique to another without the sufficient practice necessary to develop a high level of skill at the various techniques.
The basics are the underlying foundation for everything that comes after. The basic back stance allows for a good side kick, which will provide the proper structure for building a stronger back kick, which is necessary for developing a well-executed jump turn back kick. If the stances lack balance or the basic side kick is awkward or slow, then all other kicks that build off of that technique will also be clumsy and ineffective. The basics should be well-practiced to the point that they become ingrained and reflexive, but a martial arts student should avoid falling into the trap of becoming complacent from all the repetition of practice. Don’t just rush through the basics to get to the “fun stuff”, take time to analyze the techniques, gain a deeper appreciation of their value, and ask yourself how you can make them better.