Do The Karate Kid Training Methods Work? Truth vs Myth

I guess all of us as kids wanted to have special powers or abilities. We loved the stories of the ordinary becoming extraordinary through hidden or secret means. The training montages in The Karate Kid movies fed right into those desires. Yet, with all the scoffs some give these scenes is there some truth to the methods?

Yes, The Karate Kid training methods most definitely work. As a matter of fact, it is how we learn most everything. It is called disguised repetition. Time under pressure breeds growth and proficiency. We disguise the repetition to make it palatable.

With that being said, there is actually much more to it if we want to move away from movie fantasy into reality. The reality is actually admitted right in the movie itself. Daniel was only taught a few basic, traditional techniques.

  • Daniel: I don’t know if I know enough karate.
  • Miyagi: Feeling correct.
  • Daniel: You sure know how to make a guy feel confident.
  • Miyagi: You trust the quality of what you know, not quantity.


Get your family a copy of this Karate classic from Amazon today at this link. One of my teenage sons had never seen it though I have talked about it often. We sat and watched all of them recently as a family and it was a great time.

What Is Disguised Repetition?

There are two aspects to this question. One is the efficacy of repetition itself and the other is the use of covert methods of delivery. First, we will look at what some major research says about the ability of repetition to produce the desired results. Next, we will look at the need for distraction and variety in said repetition.

Research Backs Miyagi’s Karate Kid Training Methods

In a combination of three in-depth studies published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, researchers found overwhelming evidence of the effects of repetition on human learning and retention. As the title of the findings expresses, the results were both quantitative and qualitative.

There couldn’t be a more definitive defense of the methods employed by Miyagi’s character in The Karate Kid movies. These studies go into great detail about how these subjects were affected by repetition. If the students were presented with the material before in a portfolio format, it had no affect on reaching retention milestones.

It was claimed that the portions that were stressed and brought out in the presentation of the instructor were also understood and recalled as more important than other information. This indicated that not only the understanding of the material itself was accomplished, but that the instructor’s use of repetition taught intended hierarchy of its importance.

In another advanced study published in The American Journal of Psychology the positive correlation of the frequency and size of the intervals of repetition employed by instructors and the repetition intensity itself was corroborated. Furthermore, “additional data (was) presented showing that the experimental group retained better than did the control group after a retention interval of 1 week.”

Social and material scientists as well as the experience of successful instructors have all converged on optimal amounts and times of repetition for learning. For most people the intensity required is slightly shocking. A high amount of effort is needed to succeed, proper rest is required, and adequately long intervals of repetition is essential.

I would highly recommend this great set of movies. The Karate Kid single-handedly transformed the marital arts and its practice in the United States. In one fell stroke, Karate became something that the average person trained in and magically took on a sense of normalcy for children. Because of this martial artists started earlier and eventually gained in skill tremendously.

What About Hiding Teaching Methods? Isn’t This Oppressive To Students?

One primary problem that today’s society has in regards to the student teacher relationship is summed up in one word: respect. The student is not the teacher and deference should be readily given, is a foreign concept even in current elementary school levels. Students, it is taught by modern liberal theories, are oppressed by such concepts.

This is utterly and categorically false. Students of any subject and of any age do not have the understanding or experience to judge the teaching methods of the teacher. The sole evidence supporting or critiquing methods of instruction is the transformative effects on student comprehension and ultimately performance. Student feelings about the process are inconsequential.

If as a parent it is believed that this not the case, why then would that parent put their child under the instruction of that teacher? Why would that adult be in charge of teaching any children for that matter? This also applies to adults and their roles as students.

The truth is that especially in children of middle and high school ages, we find a rampant disrespect for the difference in quantity and quality of experience, education, and ability between themselves and teachers.

It is common for the inexperienced to judge how they are being taught and demand to be informed about reasons for methods in order to pass unqualified judgments on efficacy.

Hiding and disguising repetition is essential for teachers especially in subjects where performance goals are expected to be met. When the rubber meets the road and a student must adequately produce results, it is overwhelmingly the students that were given specific, varied, and appropriately intensive tasks that succeed.

In a paper published in the journal Management Science, the roles of intensity in specialization of immediate tasks and the variety of tasks over longer periods is found to be foundational in learning and productivity.

In short, we learn better with intense repetition directed toward specific actions and the variety of these methods keeps us able to perform the tasks over longer periods of time. This results in greater learning and productivity across the board.

If you would like a life changing experience, well as much as a book can accomplish this, then the book by Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers is a must read. His assertion is that not only is repetition essential in the top performers in the world at any task or profession, it has to be maintained for such extended periods of time that most people fail because of a lack of fortitude not ability.

To read the book for yourself, get your copy here on Amazon. I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to raise their level of performance to world class levels.

All of this is to say that the role of a teacher is much less about simply delivering information or demonstrating techniques. The role of an educator is to inspire students to push through personal inadequacies in order to put in the amount of repetition required to master a subject. This is most successfully done by disguising repetition.

How Did Mr. Miyagi Use Disguised Repetition As His Method With Daniel?

At first glance this may seem obvious. On the surface the way Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel the techniques he used in the All Valley Karate Tournament was to hide the techniques in manual labor around his house. This is true, but there was something that Miyagi-sensei was teaching that was more important.

Daniel was a bullied teen that simply wanted to turn the tables on those bullying him and become the bully himself. If the martial arts and in this case Karate is devolved down to the point of who can impose their subjective will on the other, then we are doing nothing more than transferring the title of bully from one person to the other.

Yes, Miyagi was disguising the repetition that it took to get the techniques for Daniel ingrained in his muscle memory and strengthen the body in order to be able to pull them off. But, the real lesson that Miyagi was tricking Daniel into thinking he came up with on his own was centered on good character.

Some may say this is inconsequential. I say that it is everything. Bullies will not continue to train, students of good character will. Bullies will bring on ‘fighting’, students of good character will not be in the situation to begin with. Who will be the more prepared and less likely statistically to be injured in a confrontation?

The student that learns good character is a statistical giant when compared to the one that only looks to impose his will. What Miyagi in this film represented was the voice of reason in our cultures that is always right, but seldom listened to. The lessons reason teach are subtle and hidden in some of the most mundane and even humiliating tasks.

Reason is our teacher and she disguises the repetition of the merits of good character in everything we do. We learn the core of everything through disguised repetition.

Time Under Pressure Equals Growth

Anyone who has lifted weights for strength or size knows this phrase. Without sustained and calculated stress on the muscles over specific amounts of time, no progress can be made. There are many different theories and plans on how to go about this, but one thing remains constant: time under pressure.

In an article published on, Hunter Labrada extols the benefits of time and tension (pressure) for the growth of muscle mass and the all important muscle length. For those in this sport, the shape of the muscle is something that is ever pursued. It takes laser focused dedication to achieve.

Simply working hard is not enough. Working smart is much more important. If you want to get a certain result you have to put the muscles under a specific type of stress for a very specific amount of time.

With the situation we are looking at with The Karate Kid training methods, it is different, but still the same. Sure Daniel is not trying to compete for the All Valley Bodybuilding trophy, but he is doing essentially the same thing in a different sport.

The body has to be trained in a high pressure situation in order to ‘trick’ it into increasing strength, conditioning, and muscle memory. The same can be said of applications of these techniques in real world situations. This is the whole reason for martial arts tournaments of any style in the first place.

The competitors are put in a high adrenal state where small muscle movements are hard to perform and ingrained large muscle movements have a chance to be tested. Not only was Daniel being trained during his time preparing for the tournament, but the competition itself is designed to train for real world confrontations.

This in classic movie fashion comes to play in the second film of The Karate Kid trilogy (The Karate Kid II). This truth is known by the writers, and though this is all surrounded by the improbable that many movies deal in, the training to tournament to real world situation story is given a place.

Time under pressure relates to specific skills and more importantly to practical application of those skills. These two things are separate and have to be trained equally in order to make any skill effective.

A Technique Can’t Do More Than What It Was Designed To Do.

Here is where we deal with the myths associated with the training methods found in The Karate Kid movies. These are common misconceptions though in certain cases and situations there may be some grains of truth to them. This is usually what gives a myth legs in the first place.

All of these are not false in all instances. The intent and focus of a technique in the martial arts plays a significant role in how and when it is applied. The same holds true for a training method. These myths deal in absolutes and don’t take into account many circumstances that would call for just the thing they deride.

Myth #1: The Karate Kid Training Methods Only Work In The Movies.

Here we have to make the vary important distinction between what is taught and how it is taught. What we are talking about here is not the potential effective use of the techniques taught to Ralph Macchio’s character. We are concerned with how they are taught.

Would learning a handful of blocking techniques, even to a high level allow you to win a tournament with experienced competitors. I would say the odds are on the lottery winning level. Yet, that is precisely what we watch movies for. Life smacks us in the face every day. We want to watch someone win the lottery, not lose their life savings buying lottery tickets.

Could Daniel in some universe have actually done what he did with those few techniques? Maybe he could have. That is what makes movies enjoyable. The possibility of the fantastical is what is fun.

Is it probable that this could happen in ‘real life’? Not a chance. I have competed in competitions around the world. There is a reason beginners are not matched with advanced practitioners. It just isn’t fun to watch. The massacre that ensues just makes you feel sorry for the over-matched competitor.

This is all a great rabbit hole to go down, but it says absolutely nothing about the training methods themselves. If a traditional body block or side block used by mounted soldiers in ancient warfare worked in a modern day point Karate tournament, Daniel would be absolutely in the contention for the title.

The methods in the movie would have made him extremely proficient at the specific techniques he was practicing. This says nothing about their real time application or their usefulness. The usefulness of the techniques in The Karate Kid movies are a subject for a whole other article. They have to be separated from teaching methods.

I go into this some in an article when comparing Karate vs TaeKwonDo. If you would like to read more about what makes techniques applicable or not in different situation, read my article here exploring this while contrasting styles.

Myth #2: No One Learns The Martial Arts This Way.

If you have read to this point then you know my answer to this myth. This statement is false. Everyone learns the martial arts this way. If you go into any MMA gym, Judo dojo, or TaeKwonDo dochang you will see everywhere evidence of seemingly unorthodox training methods.

What has become common place equipment and practice in these training facilities to the outsider can look strange. This is actually intriguing to many new students. The imagination wonders at what skills each of the items can magically instill in them. The difference in The Karate Kid movie and what is done at the local Karate dojo is simply a variance of practicality.

No one is going to actually pay an instructor that has an army of kids doing manual labor around his house. Yet, practicing on specifically designed, logoed, and colorful pads and targets is acceptable.

No adult is going to want to tow an instructor’s pontoon boat down the lakeside with a giant rope. But, get that same rope, tie it to a pole in a gym, and you will have a line of people ready to pull and yank on it making waves. These have become acceptable versions of the same techniques we see in The Karate Kid movies.

The difference is, in a movie we don’t have to know how Mr. Miyagi makes the money it takes to keep up his lavish back yard garden, quaint house, and antique car collection. He is teaching Daniel out of the goodness of his heart, seemingly because of independently acquired wealth.

Gym owners, dojo senseis, and dochang instructors do not have the luxury of straying too far outside of accepted training methods and equipment. Students simply will stop paying.

This is not to say that apparently unorthodox methods are not at times employed. It just means that if these unorthodox methods are easily implemented and successful, they simply get adopted into the norm.

Myth #3: Learning Fewer Techniques In The Martial Arts Is Ineffective

Shihan Gokor Chivichyan with the winning Ippon at the U.S. Winter Nationals. Photo was taken by Gary Wagstaff

Right off the bat here I will point you to nearly every successful Judoka that has ever competed. Usually in their win loss records you will be able to count on one hand the number of scoring throws and on the other the number of scoring newaza (mat or grappling techniques) they used.

There is a good reason for this. It is the same reason you don’t see boxers switching from to south-paw and back in bouts. To become good enough to compete on those levels, the used technique base needs to be mastered to such a degree that there is only enough time in the day to bring a handful of techniques to the table.

Those techniques are specifically chosen and repeated Ad nauseam. They are ingrained in the reactions of the competitor to such a level that adding very many other techniques that do not immediately aid them is not only unnecessary, but even detrimental.

To be an instructor one has to know a huge amount of techniques in order to teach the proper ones for each specific student’s needs. All other martial artists have no need to know every technique. This is actually detrimental to successful performance.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean the instructor doesn’t have their own set of specific techniques chosen for their body type and personality. They have repeated these in all types of environments to create techniques that they personally own.

These instructors do not own all of the techniques they teach. They have spent enough time with many of them to become adequately proficient with them in order to teach them to someone that may choose them as one of their core techniques.

It is not only acceptable to train in a small amount of a style’s techniques most of the time, but it is also advisable if a high level of proficiency is desired. There is more to be said on whether this level mastery is needed or even advisable, but that is a whole other article in itself.

It suffices here to say that it is not only common practice, but in many sport environments best practice to limit the trained techniques in a style. This brings about much better results in most any competition.

The Karate Kid Training Methods Takeaway…

At this point you can see that the methods spoken about here are separate from the techniques taught. If you repeat how to do a sewing backstitch over 10,000 times and then enter a bass fishing competition, your going to be very disappointed at your results.

That being said, the proficiency gained by disguised repetition in the specific technique or set of techniques will enable the practitioner to perform at a high level the tasks they were intended for. There is no doubt that the methods in The Karate Kid movies were sound and in fact foundational to how we learn everything.

The techniques on the other hand can be debated in a different context. Whether ‘wax on, wax off’ to develop a body block or outside middle block is a good use of training time is a different issue all together. It did make for some great story telling in a movie though. I highly recommend picking up a copy of these great films of your own today at this link from Amazon.

Mathew Booe

Mathew Booe is a father of four, husband to Jackie since 1994, retired international competitor with over 50 wins, an international seminar instructor, a master instructor of hundreds of Little Ninjas each week, and the one bringing you the great content like you just read. Sign up for the newsletter to hear about his upcoming books before they are released to the public.

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