We do a lot of pre-arranged drills in karate, and for good reason. The development and perfection of most techniques requires hundreds if not thousands of constant repetitions in order for a practitioner to be able to use it on the fly, spurred on solely by muscle memory. Some may argue that drills are useless since you’ll never be able to predict what a random opponent may do on the street. And while this true, there is a means of being able to tell what said opponent may do. I’m referring to telegraphing.
Just to provide some clarification to any non-practitioners out there, the term telegraphing refers to any physical “tell” that may warn you of an opponent’s movement and/or intention. A good example is if you happen to be having a heated discussion with someone who suddenly decides to take a bladed stance. What may have been solely verbal to that point has suddenly become your opponent’s intention to attack you. Another example and the most prominent one, is the lifting or shifting of an opponent’s foot, right before they strike,
Sensei used to be really good at telling me what I’d do before I’d do it. In my earlier days, sparring with him would be challenge, since he’d refuse to attack and insisted that I got used to moving in. So I’d be eyeballing him up and down, tapping into my internal repertoire of techniques and deciding on how best to attack. I’d tense up and get ready for a strike and he’d say, “You’re about to front kick…” or “You’re going to throw a left…” It used to piss me off quite a bit, but he’d be right 99% of the time and the reality is that by observing your opponent, you’re able to watch for those physical tells that will warn you of what your opponent will do.
In some ways (many ways), telegraphing is almost unavoidable. At least to avoid it completely. This is mostly because basic physics teaches us that in order for you to move your body in some given way, there needs to be a shift in weight, shift in centre of gravity and movement of the remaining limbs to maintain balance and precision. The idea is to train yourself to REDUCE visible telegraphing as much as humanly possible so that your opponent won’t catch on to your intended movement. That being said, this is where I refer you back to my earlier comments about drills, which teach you balance and precision and how NOT to flay your hands around because you may happen to be doing a front kick.
Another Sensei story, is how he’d always ask me, “You don’t eat your cereal in the morning like this, do you?” And he’d mimic bringing a spoon to his mouth while lifting the opposing leg each time. The joke was to illustrate that one limb should be able to move independently of the others, and shouldn’t depend on one another unless you experience total loss of balance and need to make them work together to regain said balance. In order words, if you’re performing a kick to your opponent, your hands shouldn’t be falling behind you, or flailing around to keep your balance. If so, you need to work on that kick AND on your balance.
There are plenty of things you can do to try and mitigate telegraphing your movements. Training yourself to push forward from the rear leg as opposed to lifting the front leg to move in, is a great start. However, this requires sliding that front foot as you move, which isn’t always possible depending on what surface you’re standing on, what footwear you’re using, etc, etc… But other things will include performing balancing exercises to help yo stay centred. If you were walking down the street and someone suddenly shoved you from the side, would you fall into a stance and remain standing or would you topple over? Don’t answer that, it’s just food for thought.
Other things you can do is to practice your techniques while maintaining your centre of gravity well enough that you don’t shift your head up and down, don’t move other limbs and don’t lean forward or backwards (or side to side) while performing techniques. I know, I know… It’s easy to say all of this while sitting behind a keyboard. And I’ll admit that it can take a long time and a lot of work to make all of this flow together. But martial arts is a life-long journey, right? Some of it can also simply come down to overall speed and precision. If you’ve trained yourself and are fast enough, it’ll reduce the amount of time for your opponent to be able to identify any tells you may have. As the old saying goes, “Don’t train ’til you get it right. Train ’til you can’t get it wrong!” ☯