Karate has three staple components–kihon, kata and kumite (basics, forms and sparring, respectively)–that make up the curriculum for most schools. The basics are the individual techniques in the style, consisting of stances, punches, blocks, open handed strikes, kicks, etc. The forms are patterns of basics strung together to, on a basic level, build muscle memory, condition your body and practice the techniques you’ve learned when you don’t have a partner. Sparring is fairly obvious although different arts will spar differently, but it is mainly to develop speed, distancing, timing and toughness.
These three concepts are often misinterpreted by people that I will be referring to as “Tapout Dudes”, who were typically jocks in school who wear Tapout shirts and think they know MMA. Most of them base their perception of karate on classes they took when they were 12 at the local Karate Kids and Dance Studio for a few months, and when they see karate they turn up their noses at it. You will often hear them saying how karate doesn’t work and nobody fights like that (usually referring to the hikite, or pulling hand, that is found in kata and usually used while teaching basic kihon). The reason they say these things is because they didn’t train long enough, or they didn’t train under a good instructor, so they were never taught how to properly use the techniques they were being taught. They will typically refer to sparring and how even karateka don’t spar the way they train the basics and kata, and that is true but not for the reason they think–they think karateka don’t spar like they practice kata because kata is ineffective, but it is actually because sparring and kata have separate purposes.
Choki Motobu, a karate master of old who was famous for getting into fights and winning, had once said that you should never have shi-te, or dead hands, meaning you should never have a hand that isn’t doing something. If you watch sparring and MMA you will notice “dead hands” all the time–when you throw a jab, what is your rear hand doing, for example? In kata, however, both of your hands are being used at all times–if a hand isn’t striking or blocking then it is pulling or controlling your attacker. The reason you will see this gap is because sparring is meant to develop your ability to cover distance, maneuver around an opponent, find openings and get used to hitting and being hit in a situation where you are working with another trained person working the same things in a controlled setting with rules, while kata is meant to develop techniques to defend yourself.
Watch CCTV footage of assaults–and no, I’m not talking about “street fights” because you should know better than to get into those–or read about instances of attacks everywhere from the US to the UK to South Africa and you will see that self defense situations don’t look like sparring any more than kata does. It’s fast, it’s messy, it’s dangerous and it is most definitely not a controlled setting with rules. Tapout Dudes often like to counter this as a myth stating that an MMA fighter could handle themselves in any self defense situations, and they would be right, to a degree. Professional MMA fighters are tough–they are used to hitting people and getting hit–and since their training is mostly focused on sparring they can certainly deal a lot of damage to an untrained opponent. That said, they also do not train to fight sloppy opponents who want to kill them, they don’t train against weapons, and they don’t train techniques that they can’t use in competition. Sure, eye gouges and strikes to the throat seem like natural defensive techniques but as even pro MMA fighters say–you fight like you train.
Instead of defending themselves like MMA fighters I believe that karateka should defend themselves more like police officers, and the techniques practiced in kata reflect that. The kata will teach you how to block, deflect, absorb and avoid damage, control your attacker and deal the appropriate level of damage in return so that you can incapacitate your attacker. The only difference is that police officers would handcuff an attacker at that point while karateka are free to simply run away.