I remember a kid asking me once, “when do we learn to break boards?” and I responded with “when trees attack!”
(Shut up, I thought it was funny.)
For the most part, that usually settles the discussion, but tameshiwari (translated as ‘trial by wood’) keeps cropping up in my reading and research. I remember the Taekwondo club at my university dojo also incorporating board breaking. They were our perpetual rivals, because they always got way more money than we did and had more sign-ups because they did the flashy stuff people wanted to see. Some of my skepticism is definitely rooted in that, I admit.
For the most part, I have always seen it within a showmanship, McDojo-ish kind of situation. Something done in malls to attract students, a display of sheer machismo. But like my attitude towards tournament karate, I am finding that this opinion needs to undergo some revision as I expand my understanding over time.
(But, it turns out my gut feel was right in the first place, as we’ll see closer to the end.)
In Know Karate-do by Bryn Williams, he writes,
The body’s various striking points can be backed by quite remarkable power but this power can only be released when one has removed the fear of hitting something hard. Breaking is therefore a psychological as well as a physical ordeal, especially when performed in public…If one believes oneself capable of breaking the object then one can release one’s entire physical energies into the act. Any mental reservations inhibit the maximum use of power….Its successful execution gives self-confidence and self-knowledge. – Know Karate-Do, Bryn Williams, 1975
Perhaps the definition that encompasses the value of tameshiwari is best given by Mas Oyama in his book Essential Karate:
Tameshiwari…is not a purpose of karate, but rather serves as a barometer of acquired strength and technique..[It] requires exceptional balance, form, concentration of spirit, and calmness. Essential Karate, Mas Oyama, 1975
Undoubtedly, anything that requires relentless self-discipline and practice that lends itself to honing the body can have some value. After all, hojo undo in Okinawan karate is entirely centred on strengthening the body through supplementary training with equipment, some of which is homemade.
Like many things, tameshiwari is a tool that can be used for great self-improvement. But as observed well by Salick’s Karate and Martial Arts, board-breaking is at its worst when it is used by clubs to advertise with and for kids:
But again — and I hate to be a broken record here — my central disagreement with board and other breaking is the flawed message it sends to the adolescent mind . When instructors and parents shower praise upon a child for breaking little boards, what kid isn’t going to want to reach for more? What do you tell them? That breaking little things for applause is ok, but breaking big things for more applause is really dumb? Good luck with that one.
The human hand can only take so much damage, and this loops us back around to the same kind of damage done by ill-informed practitioners using makiwara. Big, calloused knuckles are cool in the same way that gothic dragon posters are cool – when one is thirteen and still easily impressed.
We also know that damaging the growth plates at the end of bones will cause those bones to stop growing. These plates only close over at the end of puberty, and must be protected as best as possible. With the knowledge available to the modern instructor, we need to do what we can to protect the health of our students, even when it means stopping them from doing what they think is cool stuff, like smashing super hard punching bags and makiwara. No doubt, sponge and bag work is invaluable for teaching them how to generate power (and fresh air doesn’t teach us anything about the quality of a technique) but breaking boards? That’s only going to end in tears, and not the useful kind.
Overall, if an experienced adult student or instructor wants to commit themselves to a challenge, and does it in the privacy of their garden/dojo/garage, and with supervision and care, then they will probably(?) be fine. But I would not recommend it for children, novices or anyone with any predisposition to injury or overzealousness. The same concept can be taught with a sponge or training pads, and allows some cushioning to prevent damage. Staying safe and training for decades is far more important than a moment of glory (and the cost of roof tiles that no one can use afterwards).