There is this age old argument that people who practice karate will never actually be able to defend themselves in real life. True? False? I guess that all depends on how you train.
You see, unfortunately, in todays day and age, the true purpose of karate has basically been completely whipped. Karate had been westernized and now it is more about winning trophies and getting to black belt, rather than learning to actually defend yourself. When we train kata, we train to remember it. Not to learn the self-defence behind it. When we train basic techniques, we train to make it look pretty, rather than be effective. When we train self defence or sparring, we train and practice against other karate attacks. The real world doesn't work this way. The odds of getting into trouble against someone that knows karate are slim to none.
Now, don't get me wrong, there are a lot of schools out there that don't fall into this generalization. But for the most part, this is what happens and the owners or Sensei's themselves probably don't even realize it's happening. It's what they knew growing up so it's what they pass on with a little bit of their own "spice" added to it.
Think of it like a game of telephone. You start with the original word but by the time it gets all the way around the circle, it is not the same word you started with. This is because things can be misinterpreted when they get passed from person to person. Sometimes it is done unknowingly, but sometimes, there is someone along the line that messes things up on purpose. In the karate world we call those people/dojos the "McDojos". (You can read all about them in a previous post entitled "What is a McDojo? And How to Spot One")
Let me give you a few real life examples. Someone comes up to you in the street and tries to punch you. Odds are, they won't be punching you with a straight punch. They will be swinging for the hills. In class, you were taught how to block a punch so you've got this, right? Wrong. You were taught how to block a punch, yes, but it was probably a straight perfectly placed punch. Or perhaps someone comes up to you and grabs you by the shirt. You know how to do this one right? Probably...yes. The issue you will have is that your partner in class was your size or they were going with the flow of the defence. It becomes harder to defend yourself when your attacker is resisting.
Like I said before, this doesn't always apply to every dojo out there, and if it applies to your dojo, it may just be because your Sensei may not realize it. It could also be because you're a beginner belt and you have to get the hang of a few things before they put you into a more realistic scenario.
Another great example of this is when we practice kata. I have always told my students, kata is an imaginary fight. Not a dance. Do we memorize it? Yes, for learning and development purposes. Later on we take chunks of a kata and apply that sequence in a self-defence situation. A lot of schools that I know do this actually. The problem is, they only teach one way that the specific sequence can be used in defence. A real life situation is not going to go as you had planned so it is important that we learn these chunks in as many ways as we can. Not just "block and counter strike" like we often see. This video by Jesse Enkamp gives a few more realistic examples of some sequences in some of the kata we learn at Lion's Heart: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PtYD_6W7BY
There is a saying: A block is a strike is a blow is a throw". What in the world does that mean? Well, in other words, each basic technique you learn is not just what you call it. They are not "basic at all really. For example: your low block can be used as just that...a block. But applied properly, it can also be used as a throw or a strike to the groin or leg. If you look at the picture to the left, it shows what looks to be an inside middle block. But in the photo they are using it as a strike/blow rather than a block for a punch. This is where it's fun to break down and look at different ways to use your techniques and look at how it could flow into your kata.
So to answer the age old question of whether or not karate would work in real life...there is no right or wrong answer. It just depends. On how you train, where you train, who you train with, and whether or not you are open to learning more than you are taught and/or questioning (politely) what it is you are learning.