JSKA - The Japan Shotokan Karate Association



Illarionov’s Method

For Vladimir Illarionov

Vladimir Illarionov (1950 – 2017) is known as an outstanding athlete (1st place in the open-weight category in the 1st USSR Karate Championship in 1978 in Tallinn) and in 1981 in Tashkent) and a talented coach (senior coach of the combined team of Leningrad, 1978 – 1980), one of the founders of Leningrad karate school, the leading one in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. His name is associated with the success of the Leningrad team in the 1st and 2nd USSR Championships and the victory in the team event at the 1st USSR Championship in Tashkent.

The role of Illarionov’s personality for karate in Russia is reflected in the articles devoted to him and in memoirs that have appeared recently. His untimely death is an irreplaceable loss for Russian karate.

In the present article the author, who worked under Illarionov as one of the coaches of the Leningrad Team from 1977 to 1982, attempts to analyze the methodological principles underlying the school created by Illarionov.

The author deems it necessary to emphasize that what has been said here is but a subjective view of the methodology discussed, which can certainly be challenged or supplemented.

Methodology Components

1. Teamwork

The 1970s was the time of karate formation in the Soviet Union. At that time, much remote, the sources of information on karate were primarily Western European and American publications and video films, plus fairly rare contacts with foreign karate masters (in the West karate had begun to be practiced ten years earlier). In that situation, of particular importance were personal contacts among Leningrad coaches, Vladimir Shustov, Alfat Makashev, Alexander Grumkin, Oleg and Arnold Rish, and Evgeny Galitsyn. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the remarkable coaches of those days, with whom Illarionov met regularly during training sessions, gaining from this mutual exchange of ideas and experiences all that could be used in his methodical schemes.

The vast expanses of the theory and practice of martial arts open unlimited opportunities of putting forward an endless variety of methodical practices that are, in principle, beyond experimental verification and often lead students, and even worse, teachers, into vague realms of ideas that have no practical value whatsoever.

The coach always has to face a very difficult task, in a limited time of training process, to select from a wide range of ways of developing technical, mental and physical qualities the most suitable ones, and to combine them into a methodical scheme, the implementation of which will lead to the solution of the problem.

Vladimir Illarionov had a talent for finding precisely those methodological techniques that work most effectively to achieve the goal set.

2. Some History

As he used to say, “First you must grow a mushroom bed (it requires a lot of effort), then pick mushrooms. The mushrooms will grow on their own.” Illarionov was working really hard to create this “mushroom bed,” a workable team, a “champion environment,” where athletes learn from one another during training. Very often athletes from other clubs and organizations from regions of Russia, and the Union Republics were invited to train with the Spartacus team he headed.

In 1978, the Combined Team of Leningrad was formed, with Vladimir Illarionov as the senior coach. The members of the team were obligated to attend joint training sessions, as a rule, held in the gym of the “Olympus” club on Mokhovaya Street. The results of the team’s work were not long in coming: our sportsmen’s success at the international Tallinn Bulldog tournament, the USSR Championships in Tallinn and Leningrad, a brilliant appearance at the I USSR Championship in Tashkent (February, 1981), etc.

The early 1980s were the time of the highest achievements of the Leningrad team. The subsequent ban on karate (1984) instantly led to a sharp decline in the level of karate as an athletic discipline.

The situation improved after the legalization of karate in 1989. Groups capable of bringing Leningrad karate to the national level began to be created again, such as the “Union of Oriental Martial Arts of Leningrad” (heads and coaches, Oleg and Arnold Rish and Viktor Ivanov), the “League of Masters of Martial Arts” (Demid Momot), “Leningrad Association of Martial Arts” (President, Yuri Varma, coaches, Alexander Drannik and Valery Nikonov), etc. A new rise took place: outstanding results at the 1989 Championship of the Soviet Union in Alma-Ata (Alexander Savinov and Alexander Khalzov, 1st and 2nd place in the absolute weight category, respectively), four out of six champions in weight categories at St. Petersburg Championships in 1992, 1993, 1994, and in 1995; championships of the Commonwealth of Independent States and Russia (champions and prize-winners Bakhtibek Berdov, Vadim Bushin, Vitaly Konev and Sergey Sizov), etc. Then another downturn, due to the economic situation, in the late 1990s and a new rise after 2010. All this time, up until 2017, Illarionov’s role remained leading, both as a karate organizer and as its theorist, as fighter and teacher.

Creating a team of athletes capable of achieving top performance requires an appropriate training methodology. It is difficult to divide this methodology into separate components and present it in the form of an element-by-element description. In its entirety, it can only be perceived intuitively. The coach, taking into account the practice of competitions or modern methodological developments, must make timely adjustments to the training process. The methodical scheme in the holistic relationship of its individual parts is solely in the coach’s mind and is difficult to describe with words. Therefore, the management of the training process, “senior coach – coaches – athletes,” should be autocratic in nature. At the same time, within the coaching staff and the team of athletes, discussion of tasks and ways of their implementation is, of course, necessary. This is what creates the coaches’ collective. Only in this case we can talk about the sports of highest achievements.

3. Basics

In the early 1970s, the search for the basics of karate and its techniques focused mainly on the Shotokan system, which remains the most popular style of karate. To it, the major part of literature and video tutorials accessible to us was devoted. Illarionov himself, however, called his style Neko-ryu, after the name of the school of the Laotian master Wang. Neko-ryu remained the name of the club even after Illarionov and his students turned, in 1976, to Shotokan. The formation of the style of Illarionov’s school owes much to his contacts with Clément Yandoma of Congo (3rd Dan Shotokan Karate) and the master of Wing-Chun, Hoang Vinh Giang (Vietnam). At the end of the 1970s, both were students of the University of Kiev and had joint trainings, which Illarionov often attended. Several times both masters conducted training sessions in Leningrad.

During trainings under the direction of the Head Instructor of German Shotokan Karate Association, Dieter Flindt, and after 1998 under the Technical Director of the JKA, Keigo Abe, a student of the founder of sports karate Masatoshi Nakayama, Sergey Sizov and myself realized that the basic techniques that Illarionov had taught us were absolutely concordant with the JSKA requirements.

4. “Let’s work slowly!”

An ideal manual of the basic techniques of Shotokan Karate is Dynamic Karate by Musatoshi Nakayama. It should be noted that learning other styles based on different methods (Chinese, Okinawan, Korean, etc.) will only hinder the development of the correct technique of Shotokan. The goal of basics is mastering the correct stereotype of joint movements and developing it to automatism (the skill of a higher order), therefore, studying technical movements based on other principles can interfere with the acquisition of this stereotype. The basic techniques and katas, in which the fundamental principles are laid down, are the initial stage of learning karate. This cannot be a goal in itself, for later on it should be transferred into the art of free fighting. Brought to automatism, the stereotype of articular movements is used in free sparring, where, depending on the conditions at any given moment of the fight, the technique of hitting and defensive actions can be performed with a small amplitude. However, the stereotype thus developed, of putting the entire chain of articular movements to work will help perform a strike with maximum force.

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Often before training began, Vladimir Illarionov would ask, “What do you think will be today’s theme?” Having listened to the suggestions, he would sometimes choose one of those, but very often, he would say, “Let’s work slowly.” By this he meant the system of exercises that he had worked out in training with Master Giang. This system was oriented toward solving the task common for all Chan martial arts (including Wing-Chun, of course) of regulating the toriuke behavior and transition from a successive, step-by-step pattern to a simultaneous one. Both opponents’ movements are conditioned not by their sequential interaction, but by the integral “grasping” of the situation, as it develops, which, in turn, makes it possible to foresee the actions of the opponent and to make anticipatory decisions.

All other conditions being equal, it is the one who more accurately captures the reality of the “conditions of the moment” and takes these conditions into account that wins in a battle. When one receives a multitude of stimuli and signals, the task arises of selecting from them only those that are of importance for the given moment. The emergence of a dominant locus of excitation temporarily prevailing in the regulation allows us to avoid a chaos in the regulation. In our case, it is a reaction to the opponent’s attacking actions. Choosing the dominant and finding an effective method of defense and the right response to the attack is easier to do at low tempos. This is similar to the system of dialogues of Chan teachers with their students (koan), where the teacher can order the student to answer the question at any time. In his answer, without delay of reflection the student reveals the exact measure of the development of his intuition. In doing so, the koan expresses not a private opinion, but a principle equally accepted by all. Persistence in choosing a solution in the koan is similar to making fire with friction. Also in the application to the technique (“working slowly”), the correct answer by defensive and counterattack actions should reflect the general laws of the development of combat. Finding the right answer requires, as a rule, a considerable amount of time under the control of a mentor.

So, a low tempo (number of elementary movements per unit of time) has been chosen, as well as a correct rhythm, that is, the ratio of the duration of the entire movement to its accentuated part, the same as when performing an action with a maximum tempo. If the tempo is chosen properly and it solves the task of practicing the correct defensive and reactive actions, the result will be mental stability, in the form of unambiguous motor reactions controlled at the subconscious level. A failure of rhythm and ambiguity of reactions (“flickering”) may occur when the tempo of exercises is increased. This is a signal that at this tempo a student cannot cope with the correct estimation of the situation. The tempo should be lowered. It should be especially emphasized that in this technique, the only objective criterion of mental stability which is manifested outwardly, is the absence of failures in the ability to maintain a correct rhythm. This technique can be called the “tempo-rhythm method.” At the same time, the system of exercises can be quite diverse. For example:

(1) The tori prepares an attack, then charges the uke and remains in the final attacking position. The uke blocks the attack, counterattacks and breaks the distance. The tori prepares another attack (no more than 3 seconds) and attacks again, and so on.

(2) Continuous work alternately, attack – defense – counterattack – defense – counterattack, etc.

(3) “Working at a wall.” One uke surrounded by three or four toris. Attacks alternate, with any sequence at the advanced level. The attacker remains in the final attack position. The one standing at the wall conducts a defense and a counterattack. Next attack – defense – counterattack, etc.

Many more examples could be given, and in all of them, several important methodological aspects must be emphasized. It is the absence of superfluous movements. Development of a reaction of “waiting,” when the movement begins strictly as a response to the action of the partner. When doing exercises, it is necessary to reduce the tempo, if the rhythm fails, to the level at which the reaction and response of the partner will be unambiguous The complexity of exercises and the tempo of their performance increase with the growth of mental stability and so up to the tempo of free sparring. A smooth transition from working slowly to the pace of combat eliminates the contradiction between the motor stereotype of putting the muscles to work when performing movements slowly and quickly.

5. Anticipation

Our brain is designed in such a way that it constantly projects the development of the present situation into the future. Perception of a situation in its development, in accordance with its inherent internal regularity, makes it possible to foresee the opponent’s action and make anticipatory decisions. Five levels can be conventionally distinguished in this ability of the organism to act with spatial and temporal anticipation, viz. (1) subsensor; (2) sensorimotor; (3) perceptive; (4) level of mental representations; and (5) speech mental, or inner-speech level.

At each stage of the tempo-rhythm training, special exercises solve problems of improving anticipation at all levels of its manifestation. Without going into detail, let us outline the most important elements of the method. At the subsensory level, unconscious neuromuscular pre-settings are performed, responsible for forthcoming actions, revealing visible manifestations of these pre-settings, maximally camouflaged. At the subsensory level, this concerns primarily the muscles of the face, neck, and scapular waist .

According to Sun Tzu (The Art of War) the highest manifestation of form is formlessness, which can be understood as having form in oneself, but not demonstrating it (i.e., one’s state) to one’s opponent.

There are many examples of exercises that train this skill. One of the simplest is “tag game” from natural stances. The defender is in a natural stance, the attacker chooses a distance to attack at the limit of his/her abilities and stays also in the position of a natural stance, not showing aggression. The muscles of the shoulder girdle and neck are relaxed. Pause for 5 seconds. Attack with the aim to touch the partner’s stomach. You will immediately discover that any premature tension of any part of the body or the beginning of the movement with a bend of the shoulder girdle leads to failure: your opponent will easily defend him or herself. One of the most complicated exercises of this type consists in the following: opponents slowly approach each other, the task of each of them being not to show aggressive intentions and not to reveal to the opponent that an attack is planned, until the very moment of attack. If, without choosing the right distance, you start an attack, even more so if you signal to your opponent the beginning of such an attack (so-called “rings”), you will, as a rule, suffer a failure of attack, or, worse, an anticipatory action of the opponent.

Sensomotoric Level (Sensomotorics is the ability to control movements and emotions, coordination of vision and movement, hearing and movement.) This level is responsible for simple reactions in timely response to the actions of the opponent, the correctness of technical actions, control of muscle tone and, what is important for our methodology, and control of movement in a given tempo and rhythm.

Perceptual Level. In psychology, the term is used to denote vague and unconscious perception, predicting the behavior of a communication partner. At this level, recognition of stimuli relevant for the activity is trained, which helps to define the goals. Distances, speeds, accelerations are determined, and the tasks of the timeliness of actions are solved. At this level, reactions of “expectation” coupled with “anticipation” are practiced in order to perform the movement in a well-timed manner. For a clearer understanding of the above, we can give the example of clay target shooting, where in a fraction of a second you need to calculate the necessary deflection of the shot to hit the flying target. The set of correct reactions in response to the actions of the enemy allows you to choose and store in your subconsciousness the most rational behavior under combat conditions.

Level of Mental Representations (representation in psychology is a visual image of a phenomenon arising on the basis of the past experience). At this level, the tasks of anticipation for several actions ahead are solved. To introduce the mechanism of anticipation at this level, we can draw an analogy with the work of singers of epic (see Albert Bates Lord. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1960; 2014.) The singer does not memorize the text of the song; what is important for him is the scheme of how events unfold. The schemes of meaning are constant; they are filled in by means of “formulas,” which, according to Albert Lord, are “groups of words regularly used under the same metrical conditions in order to express a given essential idea.” At the same time, the same meaning can be expressed by different groups of words. For example, speaking in our native language, to express a certain idea, we do not repeat consciously memorized words and sentences, they come from everyday use.

In our case, “formulas” can be standard attacking actions and standard responses to these attacks trained in the basic forms of kumite. When working on the method of tempo-rhythm training, the most common formulas, the first to come into use, set the basic scheme, the pattern, and as soon as the student has mastered this original scheme firmly, he has only to substitute other combinations (defense – counterattack) in place of the key combination. In this case, the main thing in training is to develop a variety of models which allow you to adapt practiced combinations to the conditions of combat and form new combinations, develop the ability to anticipate and react to the enemy action a few “moves” ahead. From the standpoint of our theory, the study of katas is nothing but the development of the formulas of the combat portion of karate. With proper training, imagining the actions of an imaginary opponent and bringing the performance to the level of superior skill, these formulas themselves will emerge from the subconscious in a real fight.

Inner-Speech Level. (Conscious choice of one’s goals and actions. Anticipation of possible consequences of this choice.) At this level, battle planning tasks and tactical schemes are determined. If we proceed from Sun Tzu’s principle “Winning by the skill to consider the conditions of the moment…”, tactics turns out to be but the ability to create a favorable moment for victory by manipulating the enemy. There are two ways to influence an opponent: (1) by creating a threat and making the opponent defend, which reveals weaknesses in the defense; and (2) by showing weaknesses in the defense and making the opponent attack in a given direction. Knowing which way the opponent is attacking enables one to take effective countermeasures.

These two principles underlie all tactical moves. Sun Tzu’s Treatise on the Art of War recommends thirteen tactics, which are divided into five groups: (1) tactical disguises; (2) precautionary techniques; (3) using the enemy’s weaknesses and mistakes; (4) influencing the enemy from within; (5) influencing the enemy’s psyche.

Methodology in Development.

The methodology created by Vladimir Illarionov was constantly corrected and developed. The atmosphere of trainings and the relationships in the team contributed to the intuitive assimilation of the methodical principles and separate aspects of the system confirmed by practice. Certain elements of this methodology could be perceived and, accordingly, interpreted differently. Thus, regional schools emerged, in Donetsk (Valery Medvedev), Minsk (Oleg Kirienko), Novopolotsk (Alexander Kozhemyakin) and others. Although their specific methods varied in detail, they all relied on a single system of methodological principles formulated by Illarionov. (It is important to note that the proposed methodology increases the duration of sports life of a karate fighter. With age, the level of physical qualities decreases; this is especially true of speed).

It often happened that, demonstrating his techniques, Illarionov created

situations unexpectedly awkward for the opponent. Suffice it to recall his fight at the 2nd USSR Karate Championship in October 1980 in Leningrad. Gradually making his opponent slow down to a minimal tempo, Illarionov opened him up to the point where the final blow was to follow. But he “let go” of his partner, and again used his movements to force him into positions in which he was defenseless. At the end, the referees decided that Illarionov’s actions were inappropriate and disqualified him.

I am not arguing that the tempo-rhythmic training is the only way to work on mental stability and the development of anticipation. Everyone who practices martial arts develops these qualities in one way or another. The only question is the time spent on it. As an illustration, we saw an episode at the seminar held by many-time WKF Karate World Champion Rafael Agaev. It was a class for the team of St. Petersburg in a small room of the Palaestra Club. Agaev invited Inga Sherozia, the leading athlete of the Russian national team, to spar for the training session. Working at the minimum speed, Agaev tried to outplay Inga tactically. By constantly moving around, creating a threat and keeping his partner in tension, he forced her to make mistakes in defense. Or on the contrary, opening and forcing her to attack in the direction he wanted, laying traps at the same time. And watching Agaev, with his fighting style and movements, we saw Illarionov, as he had been in the 1980s.


High-performance sport is constantly improving the methodology of the training process. Karate, as an Olympic sport, cannot stand apart from general trends. It is possible to compare the training layout of the national teams of the 1980s and the national team of St. Petersburg of the present time. First of all, it is condensation of the time of the training process. This is a daily (except Sundays) training, or two times a day (morning – evening) in training camps. Training sessions themselves have become much more intense. At such load there are problems with energy recovery of athletes; sports doctor must necessarily work with the team. Increased requirements for speed qualities for competitive practice cause the need for special athletic training. Competitive practice under the rules of the WKF, where kicking is valued very highly, requires additional time to work on this technique. The coach must constantly find the optimal ratios of these sections at each training session and constantly adjust them according to the results of competitive practice. This work is possible only with a high degree of development of intuition, the coach’s ability to cover the entire process of training athletes in all interconnections.

This is the skill and art of the coach, the Teacher, which Vladimir Illarionov was and will be for all of us.

Acknowledgements. The author would like to thank Evgeny Galitsyn for providing additional information about Vladimir Illarionov, Yuri Kleiner for editing the text, and Dieter Flindt for valuable remarks on the final version.

About the author. Alexander Drannik, 8th Dan (Japan Shotokan Karate). Member of the JSKA Shikhankai. Chief Instructor of JSKA/Russia. Martial Arts Instructor Emeritus of the Russian Federation. In 1979 – 82, worked under Illarionov in the Spartacus Sports Society; Director of the Spartacus Children and Youth Karate School; a Coach of Leningrad Karate Team.