The importance of kata training

Written by Simon Duckett

It’s a common question: what has kata got to do with fighting? The traditional martial karate training curriculum has four components: kihon (basics), makiwara (striking post), kumite (sparring) and kata (forms). Few karateka question the need for kihon, makiwara and kumite — but the same can’t be said for kata. The benefits of the first three components are obvious, explainable by modern science and can be clearly articulated. In contrast, many of kata’s benefits are mysterious, evidence rather than science-based and can take many years to understand and articulate. Consequently, many karate schools neglect comprehensive kata training or seriously misunderstand its purpose, writes Sensei Simon Duckett, a 7th Dan in the Shito-ryu Kanbu Kai system under Hanshi Shokan Takeda Sun. Here, Duckett reveals why karateka should include kata at the core of their training.  

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Kata training should always be at the core, says Sensei Duckett

In deciding why kata is important, let’s start with the basics, some of which are readily accepted among karateka from all sides. The supplementary benefits it offers the trainee are:

Body conditioning

The ideal karate body is one that is tough and malleable, yet supple, flexible and capable of whip-like motions. When practised correctly, kata provides the most efficient tool for achieving these attributes. Kata forges these attributes through repetition of complicated, multi-dimensional techniques. Many of these techniques, such as shiko-dachi (sumo-stance) and zenkutsu dachi (deep forward stance), have little direct fighting application whereas others, such as shomen nekoashi-dachi (front cat-stance) and ayumi dachi (front walking/fighting stance), have direct fighting application. In combination, these direct and indirect techniques develop excellent balance and footwork via a strong, supple and ‘sticky’ foundation for rapid and fluid movement. Good ashi koshi no kiso (balance and footwork) is an essential launch pad for effective fighting techniques. Year by year, kata training incrementally conditions and hardens the body’s bones, muscles, tendons and organs, assisting with the metamorphosis of the human body into that of a warrior’s. This multi-layer, high-quality conditioning of the body, combined with continual movement of the body’s centre of gravity, is unique to kata.

Martial capacity

Kata is a comprehensive and multi-dimensional training method. It increases the body’s martial ability and capacity because it is all-encompassing, requiring flexibility, fitness, correct form, precision, speed and power. Body mechanics improve with rapid movements left, right, forwards, backwards, up, down, spinning clockwise and anti-clockwise. Combined with these movements, complicated arm and leg techniques are executed with rapid acceleration then deceleration, and twisting within a precise trajectory, all in a fluid and coordinated manner. Balance, posture and breathing in harmony with technique execution are also critical requirements. From a quality perspective, the integrated multi-dimensional nature of kata is second to none.

Mental awareness

Bushido (way of the warrior) embraces a number of mental concepts including zanshin (relaxed awareness), fudoshin (composure), mushin (no mind), shoshin (open mind), kensho (insight) and daigo (enlightenment). Those who have undertaken the bone, tendon and organ-deep training associated with completing 40-to-60 kata repetitions in a day will be able to identify with many of these concepts, many of which (such as zanshin and shoshin) are beneficial in helping to understand complex concepts. High kata repetition assists the brain to develop motion logic, integrating the body and mind. This ultimately results in better coordination and linkage between the hands, feet, left, right, upper and lower parts of the body. Improved techniques, instincts and reaction times work in unison, resulting in more effective fighting methods.

Kata training also requires students to demonstrate kata in front of their peers, placing them under pressure in a nerve-inducing environment. Gradually, students become less nervous and gain confidence even in stressful situations. Visualisation of how an opponent may be struck helps with focus, precision and intensity of kata training. For many, kata is not pleasurable as it requires many years of focused, repetitious and difficult training to achieve its objectives. This requires great discipline, patience and fortitude.

Technique innovation and excellence

There are four basic elements to winning a fight: technique, speed, guts and power. Traditional martial karate’s base assumption is that an opponent is always larger, stronger and has guts. Therefore, technique and speed provide the most reasonable solution to defeating these opponents. Good technique requires timing, speed, rhythm, power and precision. Kata provides the ideal medium to calmly practise good technique without the adrenaline of full-contact kumite. Some argue that kata’s mid-air strikes are useless; however, this is actually one of kata’s most misunderstood benefits. Air strikes allow focus on the trajectory of whip-like casting motions as well as the ‘stopping power’ at final impact. Smooth and supple connectivity between movements and techniques (teisoku) allows power to smoothly transition from one technique to another with momentum to minimise power loss.

High-level kata bunkai (application) should not focus on koubou (defensive) or sente nashi (no first strike) techniques but kakuto (attacking) techniques. This follows the philosophy that ‘attack is the best form of defence’, where pre-emptively striking a larger, more powerful opponent reduces the size and power advantage, significantly reducing the effectiveness of the opponent’s strikes. Traditional martial karate does not undertake a lot of jiyu kumite (free sparring) as permitted strikes (for example, punches and kicks to the torso) are not karate’s most effective techniques against larger, stronger opponents. Kata, on the other hand, provides a sound training medium for practising karate’s most effective techniques against larger, stronger opponents — for example, simultaneous strikes to the eyes and groin.

Retention and transmission

Karate contains many complicated methods and techniques that require significant time and effort to learn and maintain. Kata provides a comprehensive yet compact and systematic way to learn and recall these methods and techniques. For most people, karate skills cannot be easily learned from written text, so kata also provides an excellent mnemonic teaching and learning mechanismLifelong pursuit

One of kata’s most charming attributes is that it can be pursued for life. While this is very rare for most sports and physical pursuits, it is not uncommon in martial arts and other human art forms. It is rare to see 80-year-old men boxing and kickboxing, however, you will find 80-year-old karate masters kata training. At 84 years old, my sensei, Hanshi Shokan Takeda Sun, 10th Dan, still completes 30 minutes of kata training each day.

Health

Secondary benefits of kata training are the associated health benefits. Kata training involves stretching motions, extension motions, agility, flexibility, muscle tension, strength and deep diaphragmatic breathing, all of which are common to Eastern health pursuits such as yoga and tai chi. While karate was never developed for health reasons, to be a high achiever in any activity or pursuit, it’s important to be in good health.

Principle Purpose

Kata’s principle purpose is to provide the means to defeat larger, stronger opponents. This is achieved by unifying karate’s training components into a unique formula that provides excellent technique combined with devastating keiryoku (whip-like) power.

Kata is the most important and central component of the karate training curriculum. This is because it acts as a unifying lynch pin to combine kihon, makiwara and kumite into a highly effective fighting art, where the sum of the parts exceeds the individual components. Without kata’s synergistic benefits, these components remain useful skill sets, but are unlikely to combine in an optimal manner to enable the defeat of larger, stronger opponents. This said, kata is not almighty and, like kihon, makiwara and kumite, it is one of the four karate training mediums. This means kata should not be practised in isolation, otherwise it cannot fulfil its unifying lynchpin role as depicted in the diagram below.

Junbi undo (preparatory training) and hojo undo (body conditioning) provide the body with base-level martial ability. Kihon is for mastery of arm and leg techniques. Kumite teaches the ability to interact and collide with a moving and reactive opponent. Makiwara conditions the hands and arms into weapons and forges the ability to strike sharply. Kata then unifies these separate functions into a fighting system capable of defeating larger, stronger opponents.

Keiryoku Power

Effective traditional martial karate techniques require the development of keiryoku power. This is the intense, lightning-style power generated by karate’s sharp, whip-like techniques. This power originates in fast, focused, squeezing, twisting, upward, spiralling, casting and whipping motions. Such techniques are contained in kata’s multi-dimensional methods, making kata unique in its ability to open the body’s energy channels to generate keiryoku power. Therefore, kata should be practised with smooth, casting, whip-like motions, with fluid transition between techniques so power and momentum is not lost.

Keiryoku power can be inhibited by muscle gain and requires many years of focused, patient and repetitious kata training before it can be mastered. To understand what keiryoku-style power is, compare the power with which a professional tennis player can hit a tennis ball relative to how hard a professional bodybuilder can hit a tennis ball. This power is generated through the tendons and bones of the skeletal system, through coordination rather than simple muscle mass.

While keiryoku power is mysterious and difficult for science to explain, the study of kinetic energy in physics provides insight. Kinetic energy is the energy contained in a moving object and is defined as mass multiplied by the square of velocity, halved (1/2mv2). The equation reveals that while mass is important, a doubling of velocity can increase kinetic energy four times, with a tripling of velocity increasing kinetic energy nine times. There are many forms of kinetic energy, including rotational (i.e. twisting), translation (i.e. change in position) and there is also kinetic energy contained in a system of moving bodies (i.e. multiple moving parts). Many of these concepts are contained in kata training — twisting, spiralling techniques (rotational kinetic energy), multi-directional movement (translation kinetic energy) and complex combinations (kinetic energy of moving bodies). Effective kata training should therefore focus on excellent technique and speed (velocity), which offers an exponential increase in kinetic energy output if technique is correct, thus putting mass behind the velocity on impact. Rhythm and timing are also important in unifying the kinetic energy of various body movements when techniques are executed.

Kata is Key

Kata’s principal purpose is to enable a karateka to fight and defeat larger, stronger opponents. It unites karate’s key training components into a systematic fighting art and is unique in its ability to develop keiryoku power. For this reason, kata is the central component of the karate training curriculum. Without kata, karate loses its ‘martial art’ title and becomes a combat sport like boxing and wrestling.

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