"Boards Don't Hit Back..."
There is a famous quote from Bruce Lee, "Boards don't hit back." Well, he's right. They don't. But breaking, or tameshiwari, is an important part of martial arts training, when undertaken with the right mindset. It teaches focus, builds confidence, forces commitment, and can be a test of your own ability and how it has improved over time.
There are many ways to break boards, and many types of boards to break. In fact, breaking isn't limited to wooden boards at all. Some schools break roofing tiles, slabs of ice, baseball bats, and bricks, among other things. There are many ways to prepare for your breaks: with type (fixed, speed, or free), technique (striking surface, level of difficulty), position and angle (down, horizontal), etc. There are even some "tricks" to make breaking easier if you're trying to impress people: You can use spacers to limit the amount of force needed when breaking a "stack" of material, and you can light boards on fire to make them weaker. Some schools may even buy special "martial arts" breaking boards, or bake wood to dry it out and make it more brittle. Anyone who has been at martial arts long enough, will know these different tricks. And, while they all have a place in demonstrations and for fun, real breaking is something different.
Why you should break during testing
The real reason to practice breaking during testing is just that, to test yourself. Breaking can be a psychological battle that will force you to learn to commit to the execution of a technique. Any experienced karateka will tell you that it doesn't hurt so much when you successfully break, but that it really hurts when you don't. And, on those occasions when you fail to complete the break, 9 times out of 10 it is a commitment issue, not a power issue.
Above, I mentioned some of the "tricks" you can use to make your breaking seem more impressive. While those types of breaks have their place in competition and demonstrations, I feel that during testing, you should focus on simple breaks with high percentage techniques most of the time. Why? it's simple. Those are the techniques that you are likely to use if you ever have to defend yourself, and you want to know that they work.
If you're going to home depot to buy construction lumber to practice your tameshiwari, and you don't bake it in the oven or "prepare" it for breaking, and then you stack 2, or 3, or 4 of those bad boys together without spacers, you'll learn very fast whether you know how to deliver a successful and powerful technique.
The faintest hint of a grin
My teacher, who is now over 70, taught me both "traditional" and "demonstration" breaking. And, although I have seen him do many different kinds of breaks, he values the basics above all else. So, he specializes in a simple break but with regular frequency. Every couple of months, he goes to home depot and buys 2 bricks. These are the regular, house building variety, red bricks, not the long paving border bricks. Then, he sets them up for a speed break (with no space between them), which is when you must hit with sufficient force to break the materials before they move from their unsupported position. After this set up, and a few focused breaths, he horizontal chops them to smithereens and calmly picks up the pieces. I once asked him why he did that same break, over and over. He told me, "I have to keep my skills sharp. No matter how old I get, I have to know that I can protect myself and my family. This is an easy way for me to see that I still can hit with sufficient force to stop a determined attacker. Unless he's wearing armor, I don't think that his body will ever be harder than two bricks put together." Then he would let out the faintest hint of a grin.
There are few things that will give you a tangible appreciation for striking prowess like breaking practice.
A word of caution...
The mark of a successful technique is that you are able to break the materials with no significant damage to yourself. This demands an attention to the finer details, and discipline to use technique while breaking instead of reverting to brute force. Too much force, poorly directed, can and will likely lead to injury.
You should never practice breaking without a qualified, experienced instructor guiding you. Many techniques you may think of as "basic" may require a tremendous amount of conditioning before you are able to deliver them without risking injury or major damage to yourself. A prime example of this is the regular punch using a basic fist, or seikan. If you have not properly conditioned your hands, you may try this "basic" technique and walk away with a broken hand. Not something you want to deal with or find out on your own. A qualified instructor should guide you towards techniques that are mentally challenging, but skill level appropriate.
Remember that breaking is not fighting, and doesn't denote anything other then the fact that you can break an inanimate object or objects in a particular manner. It shouldn't be misconstrued to mean anything other than what it means. But, it is a piece of a larger puzzle that will make you a more effective keeper of the peace, if you have "used" your techniques before with full power and commitment against something that requires force and concentration to dominate. Master Funakoshi said, "Spirit first. Technique Second." Breaking can help to develop those two things, in that order.
Basic breaks by Yuuki Defense White Belts
The GIFs in this article are from a recent test that we conducted for our traditional karate course, The Bamboo Program. You can see that none is particularly flashy, but no one had ever broken before. This is a true test of newly learned skills that builds confidence, forces technique commitment, trains focus, and demonstrates usefulness. Not only that, but it can be fun way to engage and challenge yourself along your martial arts journey.