If you talk about martial arts long enough, someone will eventually say, “What’s the point of kata? You can’t use it in a real fight. The only thing kata is good for is tournaments.”
I mightily disagree.
Kata is, in simple terms, a series of choreographed movements — punches and kicks, stances and turns, blocks and attacks and evasions. From the outside, it looks as if one fighter is taking on multiple attackers coming at her, one at a time, from different directions. Many martial arts use them as a training tool, with some arts and schools putting greater emphasis on them than others.
A friend recently asked me about the purpose of kata. I gave a short answer, then realized how different today’s answer was from the answer I might have given ten years ago, or even five years ago. My understanding has changed — not only because of my training, but because of my teaching experience.
At first, kata serves to instill rudimentary body awareness and muscle function. We’re talking very rudimentary here. The student must learn, at the bare minimum, to be aware of and in control of what her body and all its parts are doing at any given moment. Most people can stand up and throw a punch with their left hand, but will not be able to say what the right hand was doing without looking at their right hand. Ask if the knees were bent or straight, or if the chin was lifted or tucked, and she will have no clue. Ask her to keep track of all those things while moving from one technique to the next with at least a smidgeon of intensity, and things quickly fall apart.
Taught properly, kata teaches such total body awareness. In my experience as an instructor, it takes most students six to twelve months to perform a basic kata with something approaching body awareness. Even my most athletically gifted kids will take awhile to reach awareness. Certainly they can perform the techniques sooner than other students, but unless they can connect the mind to identify and verbalize, they’ve essentially learned only half of the kata’s first lesson. Body awareness, you see, is another way of saying “focus,” and an athlete who can’t think through what the body is doing is like a general who knows the best tactics but has no strategy. Deadly, perhaps, but pointless unless someone else tells them what to do.
That first level is where some instructors stop. The student memorizes a pattern, puts effort into throwing techniques that look good and works up a sweat, and the instructor calls it good. That’s both the cause and result of all the “Kata is useless!” cries that come up. Let me go deeper into what kata is intended to accomplish, and you’ll see why stopping there misses so much.
Kata teaches muscle memory for fighting techniques, and how the kata is taught — from breath control to muscle tension to transitions between obvious techniques — will influence how the student fights under pressure. A basic kata will include an overhead block. It’s an extremely versatile technique, able to be used as “just” a block, a block on the way to a strike, or a block after a hidden strike. Or it can be turned into an arm lock, a forward momentum throw, a trip-and-throw, an evasion of a weapon… You get the idea. But none of those can be carried out against a determined opponent making a committed strike if the correct muscle memory isn’t there. If small pieces are off — one foot angled wrong, the hips canted, the arm disengaged from the core muscles — chances are high the attacker will overwhelm you.
Self-defense drills are fantastic, but speed and form are more difficult to control, and drills are practiced with people who know what you’re going to do next. Attackers in the classroom (usually) have no desire to be broken, so will follow the energy-lead of the student they’re attacking. It can allow even the best students to get away with less-than-strong techniques. (Very strong students often get away with extremely crappy technique, but that’s another post entirely!)
Correct kata doesn’t let students cheat. If your stance is incorrect, I’ll be able to push you over with my fingertips. If your stance is correct, you’ll remain rooted even if I thump you in the shoulder.
And once the student can run kata with proper muscle memory — as well as strong pacing and intensity — that memory begins to show up in sparring and self-defense. Progress in self-defense is accelerated by the time invested in kata. The student, especially the student who thinks kata is boring and sparring is most awesome, is usually the last to see the connection, even though she stands to gain so much sparring and self-defense skill.
So: Kata provides body awareness, conditioning, and muscle memory, as well as the components of those skills like balance, coordination, focus, strength, and agility. But there are two other benefits I want to emphasize—things I hear too rarely discussed even among talented fighters.
First, kata conditions ligaments and tendons, which increases strength and power while decreasing incidence of injury. Ligaments and tendons are those connective tissues that create a moveable human out of meat and bones. Alas, they are often forgotten in the quest for strength as measured by muscle-isolating gym machines. The trouble is, muscle strength increases at a faster rate than tendon/ligament strength, which can lead to injuries, plateaued development, and weird situations like very muscle-strong bodybuilders being unable to throw a ball any reasonable distance.
In martial arts, muscle-over-connector emphasis leads to stiff movements (and stiffness is usually just a poor proxy for force), sloppy form (as the student tries to create false momentum through a “wind-up” or some such), and painful injuries at the joints.
The repetition of kata sidesteps the notion of building muscles in isolation of natural movement. It teaches tendons and ligaments and muscles to all work together, to contract and relax in the optimum order, and to support each other to increase strength and reflex while reducing injury. And since constant muscle tension isn’t used to generate power, the student’s oxygen reserves remain higher. The result is power that seems to be greater than the person’s strength and stamina that outlasts the opponent. This is not spiritual magic. It’s practiced internal and external coordination.
(PSA: If you’re a martial arts student getting injured a great deal, find a different instructor and a different school. Seriously. Unless you’re an ass who refuses to follow any and all directions, you’re suffering injuries because of the way you’re being taught.)
Second, kata teaches you to move with your center, and your center to move with you. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It isn’t at all. Without a solid center, forward movement is most often initiated from the shoulders, and rapid changes in direction result in loss of balance, injuries, or falls. In other words, we move our upper body and forget to take our legs along. Kata teaches you how to move from and with your center.
Not only does this make everyday life more comfortable, it’s essential in a fight. A fighter who knows how to hold her center won’t lunge to the side and leave a leg sticking out, or raise the shoulders before a strike, or lead with the chin (which results in blocking with one’s face…). Holding center makes it possible to throw someone bigger and stronger while making it difficult for someone bigger and stronger to throw you. Trust me – if you lose your balance, someone else will find it, and Finders-Keepers rules in a fight.
Sure, there are lots of ways all these lessons can be taught and learned. Fighters learn them all the time from drills, from sparring, from trial and error, from any number of methods that provide the means to feel the difference between stability and rigidity and an opportunity to repeat it endlessly. If your student has innate athletic ability, you can get spectacular results by providing some general guidance, letting the talented student find the “right” posture, then reinforcing it with small corrections and encouragements.
But if your student is clumsy, uncoordinated, and distractible, that’s a setup for failure. The student gets frustrated. The instructor gets frustrated. By the time the student hits brown belt (often around two years of training), the difference between athletic and non-athletic become much clearer, and no one is so clear on the difference than the non-athletic brown belt. Many brown belts quit because they don’t see any improvement, and are given little instructor guidance other than, “Keep trying!”
So what’s the real answer? What’s the thing that can keep those students going and growing? What’s the super-secret method, developed over decades?
Kata. Not because of its strikes or kicks, or blocks or turns, or any of its component techniques. Not because the student learns choreographed movements in a controlled environment.
Kata is valuable because everything outlined above–the techniques, balance, coordination, centering, and flow of movement–teaches people with little or no natural athletic ability how to be capable fighters. Armed with those tools, the instructor doesn’t have to wait around for the One True Student Of Great Talent. The student doesn’t have to give up learning what comes easily to others. Kata is the perfect self-defense training tool for the student who struggles.
That’s it, right there. The true and hidden purpose and application of kata.