Monday, August 24, 2009

Are High Kicks Practical?

Tang So Do is but one of a hundred different martial arts. Some of these are 'strike' oriented (Karate), some are based more on grappling and throws (Judo), and still others focus on weaponry. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Korean art I study is the use of high kicks, kicks which can reach an opponent's head. To be sure there are many aspects of Tang Soo Do which make it effective; powerful stances, the defensive nature of the art, and the traditional means in which it is taught. From an on-looker's perspective, though, the most notable difference is the high kicks.

I have heard it said that these kicks are not practical. In fact, I've heard:
  • Compared to a punching jab, the speed of a round kick to the head can be timed by a sun dial
  • Only a small percentage of the practitioners have the flexibility to reach the head, but anybody can kick out a knee
  • If your foot gets tangled or grabbed, you are in serious trouble

High Kicks are too slow
Having watched a fair number of boxing and martial arts matches, I can tell you that everything is too slow. Punches, jabs, kicks, knees. Anyone who lived through the Muhammad Ali era will tell you that highly skilled boxers at the top of their game could not hit him. Period. Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee were not just words of a slogan - he embodied them.

The best of the best cannot jab so fast that an equally trained fighter can't get out of the way. Ah! Did you catch the key words - "equally trained." First, most fights don't happen between equally trained fighters, especially not the fights that erupt at sporting events, back allies, and bars. The speed and reaction times of a trained martial artist versus an average Bob, especially a Bob that's had too many Buds, is nowhere near the same.

But more important than the speed of the kick is the timing of the kick. I am forever telling my students, "Don't lead with your feet, lead with your hands." Beginners often want to kick first and punch second because their legs are longer and they think they don't have to get as close to the opponent. I teach to block and punch strong, hard, and fast; and when the opponent is retreating, take them out with a kick. Kicks need to be fast, not because you're trying to outrace your opponent's reaction time, but so you can take advantage of an opening for the brief time it is present.

A high kick is only for a young kid
Well that might depend on the what the definition of is, is. Or maybe, what the definition of high, is. I started training at the age of 36, and believe me when I say I was no Radio City Rockette! I was doing good to kick above my own waist. At the grand height of Smurf plus 2 inches, I wasn't reaching anybody's ear socket. It's now fifteen plus years later, and slowly, with lots of patience, I can kick above my own head, and my back wheel kick can easily reach the temple of a full grown 6' mountain troll. OK, 6' is not giant, but it's 5 inches taller than me.

But more important than kicking straight up in the air, is kicking effectively to the rib cage, the sternum, or if possible to the collar bone. If you can break a collar bone, even bruise it, the fight is over. Cracking a rib - fight's over.

A grabbed foot is a liability
Absolutely wrong! It is nearly impossible to grab a kicking foot with one hand (you can hold it with one hand, but it usually takes two to grab), Assuming you have reasonable flexibility, and you understand the physical dynamics of balance, the brief moment that your opponent is trying to control your foot (BEFORE they have control), you have a distinct advantage in that both of your hands are free. Concentrate on punching the bajeebers out of the attacker. Also, just because they have your foot is no reason to voluntarily disable it. Keep kicking, while you punch, punch, punch.

Of course, if you're doing the kicks correctly it is nearly impossible to grab the foot. A properly executed round kick, for example, strikes and recoils so fast that it is almost invisible. The hard part of a good kick, the reason it takes years to master, is that it is easy to kick hard, with follow-through; and it is easy to kick very fast with sting but no power. What's hard is to do both; execute a hard kick with follow-through that also recoils too fast to be ducked, blocked, or grabbed.

Lastly, if a practitioner can do a good high kick, they can certainly still do a good low kick - there is no downside.


  1. On M. ALI Dodging Punches.

    The high-kick practicality issue is a good one. But first I'd like to address the boxer's mantra of dodging punches.
    My comment lays my groundwork for addressing the "high kicks" issue.

    The boxer's mantra is that footwork & head movement plus hands up, can negate getting hit (usually). And that's true for boxers, or for those that fight like boxers. Why?

    Because boxers punch at the target and not to the target. The sport fighting crowd will now cry "semantics." Let me explain.

    If there is a heavy bag in front of me, I can physically wail away AT that target and pummel it to death. And that's what a lot of karate practitioners do too.

    Under traditional karate, we do not punch at the heavy bag, We strike the target with the full capability of mind & body. This process requires much more concentration, mental involvement than the muscle memory of boxing practice. We literally shoot (think) a karate punch out with as much of the speed of thought as we can muster.

    If the latter is accomplished, the opponent has no time to react, be it with footwork, head movement, duck & roll, whatever.

    There's no way you're going to out-react M. Ali. That's been proven by his record. I guarantee, however, I can think faster than he can react. The countless repetition ingrained in traditional karate is to develop the mental discipline to do just that.

  2. Brief Summary on High Kick Issue:

    First, IMHO, all three of the stated criticism's of high kicks are valid. The larger truth, however, is that just coming up with criticism's of the "high kick" practice is 1-dimensional.

    Furthermore, non-karate people saying you shouldn't train an art like TSD because of it's high kicking is less than 1-dimensional.

    For one, the high kick is an alternative. You don't have to kick high. Karate teaches 3 zones of height in fighting, high-middle-low. High is 1 option.

    Tactically (for another), if can pull off a solid high kick, say a high round kick to the head, this is a good way to KO. Kickboxers & MMA competitors use it.

    OTOH, I also believe a high kick leaves you more exposed to counter-attack or even defense by a capable opponent. There is inescapably a greater commitment.

    M. Meredith provides sound arguments pro high-kick. The idea is to always have an answer to your opponent's move.... IMHO, his best is his global one that Karate requires good judgment.


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