PART II A Modern View of Kata, a Venerable Training Tool
By Roland Cadiente and Matthew Hemenez
PART 2 of 4
Why do we do kata?
Every instructor realizes that to new students, kata is fresh and interesting. To advanced students, kata is an essential part of karate training. But to the mid-level students, instructors know that kata can become routine, and, frankly, boring at times. They assume that doing a kata from start to finish is the simple summation of karate and therefore a dead end. Of course, that assumption is far from reality.
By understanding the contents on this section, we hope that every reader will appreciate that kata is much, much more than just a “sequence of pre-arranged moves.” We will cover six of the many purposes of kata.
Kata are like living textbooks
Kata scale to the skills and experience of each student
Kata enable solo practice and self-teaching
Kata provide substantial physical benefits
Kata enhance our preparedness for self-defense
Note that the section regarding the physical benefits is more extensive than the rest. This is not to imply more significance to the physical aspects of kata; simply we felt that it is a topic that has not been addressed well by others, so we decided to go into depth ourselves.
First, kata are our textbooks, living textbooks that encapsulate the physical essence of karate. Thousands of books have obviously been written about the martial arts. Videos by the thousands have been produced as well. But if you consider the millions of pages and millions of minutes of video that are available and compare that to how karate is actually taught in the classroom, we would venture to say that 99% of class time is taught without the use of books or video. In a unique way, kata are the textbooks of karate. They provide the platform for real-world applications (bunkai) of martial techniques that range from the very simple to the complex. This is what makes karate such a wonderment, that it has been passed on so consistently over the centuries across global boundaries universally oral tradition and demonstration only. The credit for this consistency goes to the use of kata as the primary training text.
Second, kata scales to the skills and experience of each student. Commonly referred to as the “crawl, walk, run” principle (start slow, then move little faster, then when you are ready, go full speed), Gichin Funakoshi referred to this concept as it applies to kata in Karate-do Kyohan when he wrote, “Until one has learned the order of the kata, he [she] should concentrate on this rather than on applying much strength. After understanding the basic structure of the kata, one should then gradually apply more strength. Finally, once he [she] has completely learned the order and acquired a feeling for the kata, he should then begin study…”
In each phase the karateka has the bricks to transform a stack of bricks into a cathedral. The karateka brings together the muscle memory for instinctual execution of the kata–that is, executing it without thought, or, to use Funakoshi’s words, “acquires a feeling” for the kata – s/he is also developing each discreet technique within. Kata uniquely supports training development at all levels of expertise and experience and skill.
Third, being with you all the time, kata enable solo practice and self-teaching to develop your technical karate skills, whatever your vision. To illustrate this point, think the football three-point stance. Every coach starts a lineman with a 3-point stance. Specific hand and foot placement, specific instruction on how to explode off the line, specific techniques on how to pursue the quarterback are all part of the 3-point stance. But soon after the individual has learned the basic 3-point stance s/he starts to build on the concept to embellish it based on their own strengths and creativity.
Citing sports history, Deacon Jones (1938 – 2013) was an NFL defensive end from 1961-1974 who developed the 3-point stance to levels never seen before or since. In particular he perfected the “head slap” to facilitate his rushes. ESPN writer Mike Sando went so far as to say “Jones, at 6-foot-5 and 272 pounds, refined the head-slap to a martial art.” When asked about it, Deacon said "The head-slap was not my invention, but Rembrandt, of course, did not invent painting." Jones understood the value of technical development of the fundamental “kata” of the three-point stance. Others did the three-point stance and the head slap long before him, but he studied them, experimented on the field, and took them to new levels. This is exactly the same concept of kata. Kata provides each student with a foundation on which they can individually study and develop based on their own interpretation. We will boldly say that the kata that originated centuries ago, are wholly to credit for the MMA that we know it today.
Kata enhances our preparedness for self-defense by transforming memorization to instinct. If practiced regularly kata will result in commensurate development of the body and proficiency of basic techniques. As we continue to advance and we have mastered the basic techniques that kata provided to us, this concept takes on a more complex meaning in the development of neural pathways.
Developing neural pathways-- the connection formed that enable a signal to be sent from one region of the nervous system to another—are essential to any complex motor skills. One example is shooting. Being able to draw a pistol with your hand, engage your eyes to connect the sights to the target, then pull the trigger to hit the target is not natural to most. Do this one-time, and you may or may not hit the target. Do this 10,000 times and the neural pathways are developed so all three steps are accomplished automatically and nearly simultaneously. So too is it with kata. Practice kata enough and the movements that are so foreign to us as white belts become instinctual as black belts and beyond. This is neural pathway development. When we are in a scenario where we have no time to think, those neural pathways that we developed will take over, vastly improving our chances of dominating a violent scenario.
Next Section—Part III goes into detail on the many physical benefits of kata.