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Why Kata training is so valuable?

Updated: Aug 16, 2022

Bo Kata

Kata is an interesting training methodology. Many sporting orientated martial arts deride the contribution and benefits that kata brings often considering it unrealistic, impractical and too fixed. It is ironic therefore that many of these sporting forms then focus heavily on drills.

Like most points of confusion, it ultimately comes down to a lack of understanding. Particularly in an age with an abundance of expertise, it is scary the lack of even rudimentary levels of understanding. The average keyboard warrior has watched the world champion demonstrate their kata and therefore they know what kata should be and its limitations. I would however go as far to say that perhaps Kata is the 2nd most misunderstood concept in martial arts after ki(chi).

Let’s begin with the basics. Kata has no direct translation into English, but nor should it. For me one of the most fascinating and rich aspects of the Japanese language is the beauty with which you can convey so much, both emotion and meaning, with so little. Kata is a concept. If we consider the English meaning of the word concept, many know the word and therefore think they understand but really miss all of the nuance. A concept is an idea which cannot be reduced to a single succinct definition. For example, energy is a concept it has no single definition. You can try of could you could describe it as the “ability to do work” but that definition on closer scrutiny very quickly collapses as reductive and insufficient. That being said almost everyone has some intuitive sense of meaning for the word energy. This intuition however would often fail quickly when posed with genuine physics problems. Energy probably benefits from not being tangible as since it can’t be observed directly this requires people to have it explained. Kata however suffers in this regard because it can be “seen”. Therefore, intuitive understanding of kata can be formed from watching someone perform a series of predetermined movements with some sense of pace and purpose but a purpose which often isn’t clear since the movements are often out of context and without a prior understanding of the movements the meaning is ambiguous. You can begin to see where this distortion of perception begins. Compounded by the confusion around the purpose of kata practice itself (not the purpose of the specific movements but the overall methodology). It should be understood that purpose of kata practice is not in itself to just be able to defend oneself in the same way weight training for a swimmer is isn’t the end the product of increased speed in the water.

This being said, Kata is often “translated” to mean “form”. It is often assumed that by form, “routine” is an appropriate substitute, however, a Japanese interpretation of a kata could be a single move. To exemplify this let’s consider the action of entering with the feet and raising the sword above the head before returning to a starting position. A very simple movement but necessary to practice so that you move efficiently, free from tension and without indicating to your opponent intent prior to the main movement. Also ensuring the final position is mechanically correct to allow the subsequent cut. Then speed must improve which risks compromising balance and stability which must be worked in conjunction with pace without losing form.

Then consider that the action of raising the sword can also be applied as a block or parry in its own right. With or without a sword. The “obvious” action of raising the sword now begins to represent much more. If you being to multiply this type of thinking to each movement in a sequence you can be begin to see why kata can be described as containing never ending avenues of inquiry.

Now let’s for a second remove the solo practice of kata as we often think of it and consider “a drill”. Many of the points I’ve just made could be considered a drill but too me the word “drill” is a reductive western term for only one phase of kata training.

There is often discussion around phases or stages of kata. Some describe 3 or 4 phases others 6 or 7 plus. For me I would describe the phases as follows.

1. Repetition and feedback of fundamental movement – Repetition is essential as to build specific muscular response and reduce reaction delay of the studied movements. Feedback will be both internal and external primarily dependant on a student’s level of study. This is no different at all to practising the action or movement of a drill either as a whole or in individual components such as footwork and then rhythm.

2. Feedback and challenge from the fundamental application with a partner – Of course everyone can do that beautiful straight arm lock in Seipai until they try and execute it on a 6 foot 5 weight lifter with arms best described as freakish! Refining the technique still further through partner work is important to emphasis the most important components.

3. Consider the broader sequence – once the initial movement has been worked as a single technique then its time to begin to place in within a deeper strategy. What came before, how to follow up, what if they counter, how to reverse and switch the movement.

At this point, it is important to point out a significant amount of time has passed where as stage 1 and 2 can be done in an hour lesson, to fully realise stage 3 takes years of study.

Let consider for a moment Brazilian Jiujitsu. A system whose practitioners often criticize traditional kata practice. All of the 3 stages thus far described would be practiced in the average BJJ dojo in fact their grading system which often takes students approximately 2 years between grades promotes these levels of development with a student at purple belt expected to be able to take any of the basic movements and apply them in context as described in stage 3. And perhaps that hits the proverbial nail on the head. They are expected to apply them in context and as weakness of the way Karate is often taught (not the way is it or should be but the way it is taught) is often the application in context is missing as it is misunderstood therefore this is why kata can get a bad rap it simply doesn’t deserve.

So, what comes next?

4. Consider the principles – It’s important to remember that kata isn’t random and is structured for a reason. It is imperative that, the reason is considered. For example, does a kata contain a particular frequency of specific technique types for example gyaku waza or reverse techniques using the rear hand first to engage. What is the consequence of this? How does this change the dynamics of the conflict? What opportunities does it generate?

Now consider that your perspective of technique should constantly be evolving throughout this entire process hence why I’ve described kata before as stimulus through which to reflect. As you progress through each phase of kata training you should cycle back and apply your new perspective through the previous phases. In this way it is important not to see this process as a linear one.

5. Mapping – The fifth stage is very important to embed practice. Mapping is to build and develop connections between and across kata and then linking this to your own strategy. How is a maegeri in one kata different to another?

6. Remove the structure – The final stage is to remove the structures given by kata to find your own truth. This is important as the kata doesn’t care how tall, strong, flexible or fast you are but you should and so your execution should become personal reinforcing all general principles of Bujutsu.

As much as I could attribute Japanese terminology to each of these phases, I’m going to resist the temptation as I only think this will retract from the purpose of each phase and in some case prompt further reductivism.

For me when kata is described as too rigid, inflexible, invaluable I often feel this is born of ignorance but again often because of the way it is presented not because of the way it is. I suppose as a final thought for now consider the following.

Does Kata provide answers or ask questions?

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