Lateral NOT Literal

At university, in the Anxiety in Sport module, we were given an outline of the course work at the start of the semester. There were two essays (45% and 55% of the total mark), with the option of an ‘oral exam’ forming part of the second essay’s portion. When the first piece of work had been returned, the second  was presented. The lecturer explained that we could opt to have this work constitute more or less of the overall mark by opting for the oral exam or not. This exam would comprise 15% of the total 55%. The exam would be an hour or so and involved sitting in the lecturer’s office with two hats: one with a theory on Sport Anxiety, the other with a number of sporting scenarios. You’d pick a theory and apply it to the scenario. You were given some kind of concession with the essay too. I thought that was a gift – a chance to get 15% on the board in an hour and an easier essay.  Bargain!

It turned out that I was the only one out of about 80 students to take him up on the offer. I really enjoyed it; we ended up chatting for ages. To me it was easy, and it is – as long as you understand the theory. I was interested in the subject and I enjoy sport. He explained, however, that it was unusual for students to be able to apply theories in that manner. I found that difficult to believe, as I found it easy. He explained they had trouble thinking laterally. At this point I didn’t really understand what he meant as I thought it was normal to apply theory. The lecturer was sufficiently impressed  and ended up offering me a PhD studentship.

lateral thinking

lateral thinking


In the Martial Arts, literal thinking is rife, while lateral thinking is stifled. It’s odd that normally intelligent people will be bamboozled and over impressed by ‘no touch knockouts’, pressure point ‘fighting’ and the like. Often they simply believe the instructor, as they may be famous or whatever but, rather than questioning and thinking laterally, or out of the box, they show an all-encompassing faith in the extraordinary or rather ordinary (see below) similar to that of a Spiritual Church congregation.

Although it doesn’t stop there, the literal interpretation of kata or forms in Martial Arts is shocking. The complete lack of imagination in design of kata interpretation, such as these beauties from Gekisai dai Ichi, are fairly common. OK, these are extremely literal and they are from the first kata, but this illustrates a point. This, coupled with an intelligence deficiency when passing them on, is commonplace. I have been guilty of this myself, in the past, but not now.  Give me lateral every time.

Training with others, and then particularly Steve Morris, has made me more lateral than ever. I now don’t really think of kata in terms of techniques, but rather as principles with examples provided, which can be played with. I’ve explained before some of my views on sanchin underpinning Goju, which gives an indication of how I now use kata.


This thread*, posted by Ken Milling concerning a Morris post on Sanchin, shows a lack of lateral thinking in differing degrees fairly representative of that virtual karate playground and probably of the vast majority of the traditional martial arts world. The irony is, that there are only so many ways to skin a cat, and, as such, traditional martial arts have the ‘secrets’ there but people just don’t have the curiosity to look for them. They seem content to be spoon-fed literal kata interpretations for whatever reasons.

This literal attitude is exemplified in the KU thread when someone says:

“but grappling in sanchin?? A little too abstract IMO. It would be nice to include grappling (or rather takedowns) in karate, but that would require a paradigm shift which might not sit well with organisational/stylistic convention or hubris”

In my honest opinion karate could do with a paradigm shift – from literal to lateral.  Just use your imagination, ignore the limitations of style and get some science into your art.

*I actually mention the advantage of lateral over literal thinking on that thread somewhere.

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2 thoughts on “Lateral NOT Literal

  1. Pingback: Analysing Gekisai « Karatebarbie’s Blog

  2. The problem is that, without the right teacher, you get bogged down in the bunkai and oyo and hidden meanings. You need someone who has the ability to look at it ojectively without all the myth and mysticism clouding their judgement. Someone said to me recently that shotokan bunkai all follow the exact moves of the kata and that goju seems to have all sorts of interpretations some of which seem to veer away from the specifics of the move in question. I dont know enough about shotokan bunkai to be able to comment but I would like to think that the goju kata must have all the clues contained therein. It’s only when you try to look at them literally and as set routines in isolation that you dont get all the answers. The kata must be the sum of all its parts.

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