a note on balance

i was recently given reason to think about balance when teaching ushiro-geri to a class of relative beginners; though technically a 'back kick', the tendency of shotokan clubs to teach this as a kick forwards following (and thus requiring) a spin makes this kick difficult to master. and while i felt the class did quite well with the kick, i was rather disappointed with my own ability in the demonstrations i gave, finding myself off-balance at completion of the kick and needing to hop to remain in position. i was embarrassed, and rightly so: what manner of instructor asks students to do something that they cannot?

i think most karateka would agree that ushiro-geri is a difficult kick, even though many of us (including myself) have idiosyncrasies with other specific techniques that are nominally simpler. and so it is that when i have even a short break from training, even on the order of a couple of weeks, i find it is ushiro-geri that suffers the most. and while that is a good argument to not miss training, it also brings up the subject of why it happens, and this is what led me to start thinking about balance.

on balance

a couple of exercises to start; try them. i) stand side-on to a wall (either side is fine), in a natural stance, and have your foot and shoulder both touching the wall. without taking your foot away from the wall, raise it up six inches or so and put it down again. easy, yes? now, without moving the wall-foot, try to lift the other foot in the same manner. predictably, this is not so easy; but why? ii) a variation on the first exercise is to stand away from the wall, again in natural stance, your weight evenly distributed between your feet. try to lift either foot up (you need to do this quickly) without shifting your centre of gravity over the other foot. and lastly, iii) is simpler still: balance on one foot, lifting the other high. when you feel stable, close your eyes and try to remain balanced.

these exercises all become possible with a short amount of practice, but the point of them is to feel that initial protest your body makes. don't lift that leg or you'll fall over; open your eyes or you'll fall over. these responses tell us a number of things, some more obvious than others. we rely heavily on visual clues for balance, we prefer to have both feet on the ground, and we have natural instincts (stay upright) that can overrule or delay our intended actions.

so what does this have to do with balance? the last exercise alone tells us that our balance is not naturally good, and this is something that is worth hammering home - your balance is inherently poor. yours, mine, everyone's. of course at some point we learned to walk, run, and jump, and some even learned to walk on ropes or use unicycles, so we can also conclude that balance improves with practice. anyone who ever did a ushiro-geri that contacted solidly with its intended target will attest to that. so the problem, realistically, is that we never practice balancing. or not in 'real' life, anyway, where we tend to indulge heavily in that greatest of man's inventions, the chair. chairs are easy to balance on; they should be, they're designed that way. and beds, where we nominally spend eight hours of every day, are even easier. and while it is man's prerogative to invent such things to make life less precarious, it should come as no surprise that we have to earn the right to those dramatic but technically demanding spinning kicks.

so your balance is naturally underdeveloped; it gets worse, though, when you consider that the odds are stacked well against you. four-legged mammals don't really fall over, ever (excluding myotonic goats perhaps), and it's fairly clear why with their combination of a lower centre of gravity and a larger base created by a positive surfeit of contact with the ground. our bodies are not only long, but we insist on walking upright, halving our ground contact and placing our centre almost a metre off the ground; in doing so, we sacrifice much of our potential stability.

the surface area of the sole of my foot is something around 30 square inches - i know because i drew around it on a sheet of graph paper. on one foot, my centre of gravity must be directly over a part of my foot's outline in order to keep me balanced. but if i stand in a natural stance i get not only twice that area, but the space between also (figure one). that's roughly five times the ground coverage of a single foot, and if i extend that natural stance to kiba-dachi i get something in the order of twelve times that single foot. now, those ratios don't pecisely translate into the same ratio for being 'more balanced', because balance can really only be measured by how easy it to move the centre of gravity of the body outside of that ground coverage area (figure two). so here, moving from one foot to natural stance (or kiba-dachi) changes the minimum (horizontal) distance for unbalancing from around one and a half inches (half the approximate width of my foot, assuming it is a perfect rectangle) to around five and a half inches (half my approximate foot length). so this is a 'balance improvement' of three to four times, and this is the worst case where we assume your opponent is able to attack along this most vulnerable line (or into the 'void', as t'ai chi neatly describes it). we spend most of our time making sure this line is inaccessible, so the 'balance improvement ratio' is likely to be higher than four in practice (consider a front stance, towards your opponent, being as wide as your shoulders). attacking on this vulnerable line, and putting the centre of gravity outside of the balance 'shadow', underlies every sweep, takedown, or throw you will ever learn: prevent your opponent from moving their feet to regain balance, and the most you will ever have to move their centre of gravity is around six inches.

but the lesson is clear; having only one foot on the ground for any prolonged period is a bad idea, and drastically reduces your chances of remaining upright - particularly if we assume an opponent capable of launching appropriate attacks. those high kicks look flashy, sure, but they make no sense. your balance is inherently poor, because you do not passively 'practice' it in everyday life, unlike hand-eye co-ordination or distance perception. walking is not balancing, but rather a controlled perpetual falling forward, and is no more developed as a skill (find a large flat open space, walk twenty paces, turn round, close your eyes, and try to walk the twenty paces back without tensing, raising your hands, or shortening your stride). everyday activities do not challenge your balance, so unless you dedicate time to challenging it (practicing ushiro-geri, unicycling, practicing ushiro-geri while unicycling) there is no driving force for it to improve. in everyday life we are creatures of comfort; if we are not laying we sit, if are not sitting we lean, if we cannot lean we stand, and do so with both feet out of habit and good sense. but it gets worse than that even; like all skills, phyical and mental, sense of balance deteriorates unless effort is made. there is no everyday activity which requires you to spin 'forwards beind yourself' the way ushiro-geri does (novices most likely struggle to grasp the turn for precisely this reason), and there is no way to improve your balance without active training. so if you have ideas about launching long spinning kicks without having put the work in, know that the odds are stacked against you. so train, train regularly, and train hard. even better, though, be realistic: kick low, kick swift, and recover the kicking foot as fast as you can. there's a phrase that means 'to be realistic', after all, and it is "having both feet firmly on the ground".

-neil jerome, 2009

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