What can we learn from Cobra Kai?

Miroslav Imbrišević
Formerly of Heythrop College, University of London

Miroslav Imbrišević is a political and legal philosopher. Until recently he taught political theory at Heythrop College, University of London. In 2018 he began publishing in philosophy of sport, with a particular focus on strategic fouling. Miroslav’s present research area is the normativity of game rules.

Why watch a TV series about American teenagers? Well, much of Cobra Kai is about martial arts. There are also subtle instances of social critique (‘You get a medal just for showing up.’), which I find amusing and which might appeal to a grown-up audience. In addition, the series brings up philosophical questions relating to martial arts and sport (Winning at all cost or winning honourably?). But my focus will be on different things. What is it really like to learn and teach martial arts?

Recently, I have been watching Cobra Kai on Netflix. This is a new TV series, which revives the central characters from the movie franchise Karate Kid (1984 and onwards). In Cobra Kai we find out what happened to the lives of the protagonists from the Karate Kid movies, 34 years later. The series is well acted and full of teenage drama. I took up martial arts (Tae-Kwon-Do) just before the first ‘Karate Kid’ movie was released. Perhaps there was something in the air. Eventually I became an instructor.

Cobra Kai centres around the rivalry between old foes Daniel LaRusso (the original Karate Kid) and his nemesis Johnny Lawrence. Johnny resurrects the formerly disgraced Cobra Kai dojo (a ‘dojo’ is a training hall) and Daniel in turn starts Miyagi dojo (named after his late teacher). They both have teenage children who practise Karate. All of this forms the source of conflict in the series.

I’m not certain how much time passes over the course of series 1, but it appears to be something like 9 months. Most of the students are beginners when they start at Cobra Kai. By the end of season 1 all students (who compete in the Karate competition) amazingly appear to have a black belt. It might be possible to get a black belt in one year or perhaps 9 months, if you are a committed and talented student, and if you have an excellent instructor (who focuses on the ‘sports side’ – more on this below). But this would be exceptional.

It is baffling that all students, who started out as white belts, become black belts. Normally, quite a few would drop out and some might take years to get to this level. As a rule of thumb, out of 10 students who start practising martial arts, only one will still be coming to the dojo after a year – and the drop-off will continue after that. You need a lot of dedication to master the techniques. Progress is often slow, and sometimes you come home with bruises. All of this serves to weed out those who lack the required dedication.

It is actually important not to promote students too quickly, because the skills they are being taught can cause serious injury. Slowing things down gives the instructor an opportunity to observe the students’ behaviour (in and out of the dojo) over time, in order to assess whether they have the maturity to become a black belt. Part of this assessment of character, for example, is that students are expected to help clean and maintain the dojo – something featured in the series.

In a real dojo there would be regular grading sessions throughout the year, where students move from white belt to other coloured belts. If you haven’t mastered the required techniques for the next level/belt you might fail to be promoted. Sparring and breaking (pieces of wood) are also part of the grading. We don’t see any of this in the Cobra Kai dojo.

Some martial arts have a sports side: there are local, national and international competitions. And Tae-Kwon-Do and Judo, for example, feature in the Olympics. If you divorce the sports side from the martial art (spirit) as such, progress might be quicker. But you will get a ‘loss of meaning’ and occasionally instances of ‘moral failure’. Sometimes the behaviour of the competitors is in conflict with the values of their martial art (see here). The problem is exacerbated when athletes compete for prize money.

The moral failure is nicely depicted at the beginning of season 2, when all Cobra Kai students are demoted to white belt. This, I have never encountered, but it confirms the view that gradual progression is preferable to rapid promotion. The reason for the students’ demotion is moral failure. The eventual winner of the Karate competition deliberately targets a pre-existing injury of his opponent. One student (Hawk) is disqualified for violating the rules, and another (Aisha) turns out to be ungracious in defeat.

It is odd that the competitors at the Karate tournament are not evenly matched: a little boy fights a 17-year old, and girls fight against boys. This mirrors real life fighting, but in competition we ideally want evenly matched opponents. The spectacular kicks and punches don’t seem to inflict any lasting damage on the fighters.

Martial arts instructors need to shout out their commands, otherwise they wouldn’t be heard in a big class. But Johnny feels the need to shout at his students (‘Quiet!’) and to humiliate them by giving them nicknames (‘Lip’, ‘Tits’, ‘Princess’, etc.), because this was the method used by Johnny’s ‘evil’ teacher (John Kreese). This illustrates that for novice teachers your ideas about teaching are (initially) shaped by how you were taught yourself. But we will see how both Johnny and Daniel slowly outgrow the methods of their teachers. The message here is: Avoid teachers in the Cobra Kai tradition!

Johnny uses his student Miguel to do repairs in the dojo and to do cleaning jobs. But he is exploiting Miguel’s labour, rather than assessing his character. In contrast, Daniel’s (and Mr. Miyagi’s) method is to use everyday jobs like painting a fence, sanding a wooden floor or waxing a car to teach students blocking moves. It is a nice idea that you could learn defensive moves simply by painting, sanding and waxing. If this were true, then a lot of tradespeople would be great martial artists. There is too much of a gap between proper martial arts technique and doing home improvement – both will improve your stamina though.

Daniel teaches his students defensive moves first and only later attacking moves; it’s the reverse for Johnny. The Miyagi way stresses that Karate is for (self-)defence only, whereas the Cobra Kai motto is: ‘Strike first; strike hard; no mercy’. To strike first might work against people who are not trained fighters, but when faced with an evenly matched opponent, it could put you in a vulnerable position. Sometimes it is better to ‘strike second’. When an ‘aggressor’ attacks, he is committed to a particular move. While he is executing this move, he is at risk. A trained fighter might be able to ‘read’ that move and counter-attack.

Johnny’s students practise full contact sparring right from the start. The result would of course be serious injuries and, secondly, you would constantly lose your sparring partners. This would make it difficult to have on-going training sessions. Cobra Kai students inflict hard kicks and punches on each other. At one point they practise head-butting each other and punching people in the face. Just like in the cartoon-world, everyone recovers very quickly.

Normally, beginners would be told to practise their techniques without any contact, because they don’t have the right control over their kicks and punches. After a while they would progress to ‘light contact’ sparring. Full contact is reserved for actual self-defence or perhaps in competition.

When Johnny starts to teach Miguel how to strike, he gives a brief explanation of striking techniques and demonstrates these on a dummy. This is fine, because a lot of teaching in martial arts relies on showing how it’s done. But this needs to be followed up by constant observation and correction. Miguel begins to punch by himself, but he doesn’t form a proper fist. His thumbs are sticking up like rabbits’ ears. In the next attempt, Miguel’s thumbs have come down, as if he is holding the reins of a horse-drawn cart. After an intervention by Johnny – ‘Don’t punch like a pussy!’ – he starts to form a proper fist. It is somehow ‘miraculous’ how Miguel learns to punch properly without explicit instruction and correction. Contrast this with Daniel teaching Robbie how to punch (season 1/episode 6), first observing the student’s motion, then explaining how to form a fist.

Proper instruction and subsequent correction are important because this avoids potential injury to the student in sparring, but it also stops the student from developing injuries due to practising techniques in the wrong way. Wrong kicking can lead to knee injuries, wrong punching to elbow injuries.

Beginners tend to make a lot of mistakes when executing moves. So the teacher needs to start correcting major faults first and, as time goes by, to explain the finer points of the technique. If a teacher tried to correct the mistakes of a beginner all at once, including the finer points, this would overload the student – and also frustrate them.

Johnny’s method of teaching is – literally – to throw his student into the deep end (of a swimming pool). Miguel’s hands are tied up and Johnny pushes him into the pool. This is supposed to teach him how to kick – in order to float up to the surface. Eventually he does come to the surface, but kicking (much more than punching) is an art which requires careful instruction. It will take some time to learn how to execute a good front kick (the simplest kick there is). I have met people who damaged their knees permanently, because their instructor did not spot that their kicking technique was wrong.

In contrast, Daniel takes time to explain proper technique to his students and he corrects their mistakes. He puts a lot of emphasis on Kata (a pre-arranged pattern of moves, which you perform by yourself). Practising Kata is good for concentration and promotes strength in the execution of particular techniques. In fighting sequences, we see repeatedly how Daniel’s students re-focus through breathing techniques which are part of Kata. Normally, your opponents wouldn’t let you ‘take a breather’.

We never see Johnny or Daniel teach their students the Kiai – an important feature in Karate. This is a short shout (or scream) to focus your energy when you perform an attacking move. A side-effect of the Kiai is that it can intimidate your opponent. At the Karate competition, some fighters appear to shout or grunt, but it isn’t consistent throughout series 1 and 2.

Johnny’s Cobra Kai dojo is about aggression, brute force and often anger. In contrast, the Miyagi dojo teaches its students ‘controlled aggression’; this is a central element of any martial art. Pure anger may temporarily increase your strength, but it narrows your field of vision – you don’t really ‘see’ your opponent, if the ‘red mist’ comes over you. Often, you will let your guard down, and this makes you vulnerable. So far (in series 1 and 2) Daniel is the superior teacher, but the winner of the Karate competition is Johnny’s student, Miguel, who won by fighting ‘dirty’.

The big lesson from watching Cobra Kai is: Don’t try this at home – unless there is a competent martial arts teacher in the house![1]

Series 3 starts in January 2021. Let’s see what more we can learn from Cobra Kai.

Copyright @ Miroslav Imbrišević 2020

[1] I’ve tried to minimise revelations about plot lines. And to my friends in Karate: if I got one or two details wrong: apologies! But note that there is definitely some Tae-Kwon-Do influence present. For example, Johnny uses a Korean command in series 1/episode 7.
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