“ANDRE... WHAT IS ONE TIP THAT YOU RECOMMEND FOR IMMEDIATE TECHNICAL IMPROVEMENT IN ANY ASPECT OF KIHON?”
One thing that will improve anyone is "...the gradual increase of speed with solo techniques (kihon and kata)". Please note: I did not mention 'power' here, and this is intentional (ESSENTIAL). This is because you MUST keep completely relaxed; that is, ‘keep as light as possible’ unless impacting on a target.
Let me provide a concrete example of general daily 'solo kihon practice' (say, first stage stationary ‘kizami-zuki kara gyaku-zuki’ in zenkutsu-dachi).
After getting into a natural and a correct zenkutsu-dachi, and extending your gyaku-zuki, begin punching kizami-zuki (hanmi) then gyaku-zuki (zenmi/shomen) super slowly (what I call 'tai chi speed') whilst keeping as light as possible. Maintain perfect form as much as possible in stance, posture, seika tanden and within each aspect of each technique (for time’s sake, I will not detail this all here). Do this at least 20 times, one tsuki per action. Totally soft in the body, yet freezing at the end of each waza with exactly formed seiken.
Next, with no more power/force of action, slightly increase the speed, but nothing else (not Tai Chi speed this time, but still very slow). Also, remain just doing one 'tsuki' per count. At least another 20 repetitions.
From here, everything the same (as the previous set) but both ‘tsuki’ per count: '1-2'. Be sure that 'the form is not changed at all' (especially don't cheat the kizami-zuki) and diligently concentrate of the clarity of the mind: not to be fixated/internalized but, rather, receptive.
Next, with no changes from the previous exercise, simply increase the speed. Do not increase any power/force and keep aware/receptive in your mind as previous. I thing I like to teach is 'not to get caught in the heat of the moment'. That is, don't let the body override the mind. Keep calm and cool irrespective of increased velocity.
STEP 5 AND BEYOND:
From here each set gets faster and faster. Note, ‘any increase in muscle power’ or ‘loss of form’ means you are moving too fast for your current level of skill. Don't cheat yourself, eventually you will reach the next phase if you are self-honest. With this in mind, with increased speed, it is "...essential to keep the energy in the seika-tanden and simultaneously monitor your breathing whilst maintaining the aforementioned awareness/environmental receptiveness". I'll repeat myself, but more clearly: do not use the jo-tanden nor the chu-tanden, utilize the seika-tanden. The Chu Tanden and Jo Tanden are primarily to understand 'being in the Seika Tanden... If anyone is interested I can write about this in a future post.
OK... And important point to add... Supplement this practice with a strength and power training (based on your current strength/fitness, age and health) and, as mentioned earlier, "...coincide this ‘air karate’ with impact training (makiwara, sand bag, shields, focus mitts, etcetera)". Have fun and train hard hitting stuff! Furthermore, one must practice more advance kihon versions (tai no shinshuku), freestyle kihon, and of course test everything out in kumite. These aspects will not only increase one's speed, they will also make one's kihon (and both kata and yakusoku kumite) functional in jiyu kumite and, indeed, in self-defense also. Shotokan training, when done in the budo/bujutsu way is a highly logical and interconnective system for self-defense. Nonetheless, it becomes compartmentalized and disjointed when it is primarily sports focused (which is now a major problem in karate as a whole). Another, less discussed danger is when Shotokan becomes over-theorized. This karate is even 'less than sports karate' although regarded by many as being 'traditional'. I personally like the word 'traditional', nevertheless, it is so often termed by those in karate who lack the technical prowess to be successful in the sports karate world; thus, they use it as a false platform for having some sort of authority. Remember, people must talk with their karate, both form and practical application in freestyle. These points are inseparable. I'll leave that there!
So, if more impact power is one’s serious aim (beyond form and 'peak speed') the karate exponent will obviously need to increase their mass: ideally by stacking on more muscle. Yes, with precise technical form and maximum speed—having more mass will mean that you will increase your impact power. In my case, I prefer having less mass than I did in the past. These days I personally prefer a cut 75kg and being more reliant on precision (as opposed to the extra power from having a bigger build). In saying that, I always say, each to their own! I have had trainees who I've helped to get bulked up and, contrary to popular ideas, they have not sacrificed speed, mobility nor flexibility (I didn't either, when I stacked on the muscle). On the flip side, I have also recommended several smaller built karateka to gain weight (via resistance training, healthy diets and supplements)--based on their desire to make effective karate techniques. I will quote myself from an article in 1997 here: "TECHNICAL FORM IS ESSENTIAL. EXPLOSIVE POWER IS ESSENTIAL. BEING MENTALLY TOUGH IS ESSENTIAL. BEING ABLE TO TAKE BIG HITS IS ESSENTIAL. AND HAVING MORE MASS, IN ADDITION TO THESE POINTS, IS MORE POWER TO YOU!"
Don't listen to anyone who says 'size doesn't matter'! Of course it does, and it always will 'when it comes to unarmed combat/self-defense'.
OK, to wrap up… Needless to say, there is all sorts of pseudo-science in the karate world. I could name far more than a handful of famous instructors, here in Japan and abroad, who are teaching nonsensical stuff. Some of this is based on their own weird research, training and biases, others just to be unique and stand out, yet others are just based on theoretical crap—feelings—which after being punched in the face will all go out the window. As I have said before, all such coaches are surrounded by 'a sign': the technical level of their own students (in their dojo) is low. This 'sign' is always the case, yet so many people still believe in them due to their verbal presentation and shallow copy of karate movements: 'dancing karate'. It seems to me that now, with all the information available, karate people are even more naïve than ever. The common idea now is: "if it looks nice or cool, it's good karate"... This is precisely the opposite of which I personally learned, from my seniors here in Japan.
Accordingly, I encourage all of my students and trainees to not only follow ‘what I teach’ but ‘to test it for themselves’; furthermore, to independently ‘verify with science’ (in correspondence with their self-training) and based on these points 'find what best works for them! In this regard, as a budoka, I evolve accordingly in my own training, and consequently, in what I teach as well.
Overall, my method of coaching is on 'empowering the individual' by showing the reality as opposed to feelings and theories: this always gets excellent results and why I'm in demand. To conclude, the reality is that karate must be effective in the real world; therefore, training must always lead to this outcome and be on-going to maintain (and further refine) this core objective of bujutsu.
© André Bertel. Oita City, Japan (2021).