This question comes up, often, with new karateka, disillusioned karateka, and people who practice (or at least closely follow) combat sports, and they have a fair point–kata does not look much like what most people consider “fighting.” Really, it doesn’t even look like what most karateka consider fighting, which is competition-style kumite (sparring). Kata teach you to use strong, rooted stances, for example, and there are many of them, while in kumite there are just a handful of stances, and you are taught to bounce around and be light on your feet, or you will be too slow to win. Kata have a lot of unusual hand and arm positions in them that would just look silly if you tried to use them in a tournament sparring match, and leave you open to being hit. Not to mention all of the missing kicks in kata–no roundhouse kicks, no hook kicks, no axe kicks, no spinning kicks–that tend to show up fairly often in kumite. You do not have to be a karateka to watch a person perform kata, then spar, and see that they are doing completely different things. Why, then, is there such a disconnect?
The confusion is partially due to a misconception about what methods are contained within the kata, and partially due to a misconception about what “fighting” is. It can be hard to judge the value or effectiveness of something if you don’t understand its purpose, or the context in which it is meant to be used. Unfortunately, this has given karate a rather poor reputation, and led to people avoiding karate, or discontinuing it if they have started training in it, because they feel they are wasting their time practicing “ancient dances” that have nothing to do with fighting or self defense. Now, it can be argued that these people were not cut out for karate training, anyway, or that we simply should not concern ourselves with the opinions of those who do not know better. Personally, I would prefer to educate them, and perhaps spark an interest in them to start training in karate, so that they might one day pass it on to students of their own, who might otherwise miss out on the opportunity. And what if the person who hates kata is the parent of a child who would greatly benefit from karate training, and who might love it? Should that child be deprived of something beneficial and enjoyable to them because of misconceptions? I am of the opinion that it is better to educate than to ignore.
The first misconception to overcome is that most people consider karate to be a “striking art,” which is something that I’ve addressed more thoroughly in previous articles (LINK). To briefly recap; karate does utilize a lot of striking methods, but they are meant to be used in conjunction with (primarily) standing grappling methods, which is the type of fighting that kata contain. It is not, as many tend to believe, a pure striking art, and it is also not a striking art that is intended for use in a long distance, sporting context, despite what you see in karate tournaments. The type of fighting seen in tournaments looks nothing like kata, with the exception of things like a foot sweep or hand trap here and there, so of course, it can be hard for newer karateka to see how kata is supposed to be representative of fighting. They are told that kata are important, and the foundation of karate, and then they go to a sparring class and learn something completely different. One can hardly blame them for their confusion–they are being told one thing and shown another! That is not to say that the sport fighting methods of karate have no value, of course. Many people enjoy karate competition, and that type of fighting develops a great deal of athleticism and skill. It is simply not the type of fighting that old-style Okinawan karate was meant for. Rory Miller, a jujutsu blackbelt and expert on the nature of violent confrontations through his professional experiences, once wrote, rather bluntly, in regards to karate: “When I look at their kata and kihon, they have possibly the best body mechanics for infighting that I’ve seen…then they choose to test it at sparring range, where it sucks. Or, worse, point contact range where it sucks and it screws up everybody’s sense of distance and time.”
When it comes to non-karateka, most people get their idea of what “fighting” is from watching or being involved in schoolyard and barroom brawls, but those are, in turn, influenced by whatever competitive sport fighting is popular in the area at the time. Commonly, this is boxing or kickboxing, although as MMA has become more popular, that has begun to inform the general population’s idea of “fighting,” as well. This can be seen from a somewhat generational perspective. For example, my grandfather is one to recommend that you “box his ears” if you needed to deal with a threat, and I have heard people in my father’s generation talk about fights in their youth where kicking was considered “cheap” or “dirty.” In the schoolyard fights of my generation, however, while kicking was somewhat rare, it was no longer taboo in a fight, and kicks to shins, or downed opponents, weren’t all that unusual. These days, you can watch any number of fights on YouTube that include knees in the clinch, takedowns, and choke attempts, even from untrained people. In all these cases, however, you have some form of unwritten code of honor, because these were generally fights for status–“monkey dances,” as Rory Miller puts it (which you can read more about, here: LINK). In other words, both fighters generally have the goal of beating the other person soundly enough to ensure that other people see them as the victor, but they are not fighting for their life. This is not too far off from a competitive fight, coincidentally. The key difference is that the people who get into these types of status-seeking fights, much like the types of people who prey on and victimize others, are almost always completely untrained. They may emulate trained fighters, and they may have experience with fighting, but proper training makes a significant difference.
The untrained attacker is an interesting subject, because on the one hand, they lack the education, practice, and experience that comes with training. On the other hand, because they lack those things, they can be very unpredictable. If you ask any instructor of a martial art, whether it is a “traditional” art, or a modern combat sport, who the most dangerous person in their school/gym is, they will tell you that it is the new person, for that very reason. It can be an odd concept to wrap your head around, since having more training should automatically make you more dangerous than the untrained person, but chaos is a powerful weapon. The untrained person will not react to your feints the way a trained person will, they will not evade and move the way a trained person will, and they will not attack from conventional angles the way a trained person will. This makes them hard to predict, and the normally good habits you have developed in training could end up exposing you to an attack you never would have expected. Keeping your distance is one way to manage this chaos, which would fit the modern karate style of fighting, but old-style, kata-based karate takes a different approach–avoid, enter, and control the opponent or finish the fight.
One of the most natural ways to stop a flurry of punches is to grab your opponent. You can see this in the clinch of boxing, the desperation takedown of MMA, and even the natural grasping of arms by untrained people who are being overwhelmed. Once you have made contact some part of your opponent, you can tell where all the parts of their body are by feel, you can restrict their movement, and you can affect their structure and balance. This is where the techniques of kata come into play–not in the gap between squared-off fighters, but in the ugly, in-your-face realm of close-range fighting. If the opponent tries to strike, grab, or push you, the kata teaches you a variety of ways to receive (uke) that attack, and use it to take control of your opponent in some fashion. Perhaps, just for a moment to pull them into a punch that knocks them out, or to capitalize on an opening to throw them to the ground, or to quickly wrench a joint out of place to disable a limb. Theoretically, your opponent could do these things to you, as well, but as a (most likely) untrained individual, they would not be nearly as effective. Training methods like kakidi/kakie (hooked/crossed hands, which Ryan Parker Sensei thoroughly discusses, here: LINK) develop the tactile sensitivity necessary for the limb control, the movements of the kata develop the coordination and mechanics for directing your body weight and motion to apply it in various ways against your opponent, while hojo undo kigu (supplementary training tools) like the makiwara and chi-ishi help develop the “short power” needed to do damage with your strikes at close range. We also have evidence (from studies like this one: LINK) that show that martial artists consistently have the ability to generate more force at close range than untrained people, to begin with, so training with that specific goal in mind should widen the gap even further. In other words, you are taking the opponent out of their comfort zone, and into yours–which is ideal, because you do not want to play to your opponent’s strengths.
This approach to fighting is precisely why kata looks the way it does. If karate were meant for long-range, competitive fighting, then it would, logically, look like a scripted shadowboxing session of kickboxing techniques. Instead, it looks something more akin to a scripted shadowboxing session of clinch fighting, with takedowns, joint locks, and all manner of close-range strikes thrown in. In that context, your shadowboxing approach has to look different. You can’t be throwing a punch with your other hand guarding your face, if that hand is already yanking your opponent’s arm down so their face collides with your fist more forcefully, after all. This approach can be seen in some forms of sport fighting, of course, but it is not usually the primary mode of combat. If you take some time to watch the clinch fighting of MMA, for example, and imagine one of the fighters is invisible, you will actually see a good amount of movements found in kata, which look nothing like “fighting,” in the sense that most people think of, despite having been pulled straight from a fight.
Some people do actually refer to kata as “the shadowboxing of karate” in order to defend its usefulness to its detractors, and that is not far from the truth. As mentioned, above, however, it is a scripted session of shadowboxing, if we are to use that metaphor. When a boxer is first taught to shadowbox, they might be taught to throw nothing but a jab/cross combination with a certain step, over and over again. Over time, that will be added to, but the eventual goal is for the boxer to be able to envision his opponent and flow between his combinations and defensive methods in a natural, unscripted manner. If we are to refer to kata as a form of shadowboxing, then should it not have a similar goal? This is something that I do in my own solo training on a fairly regular basis, as do a number of other karateka that I know, but it isn’t nearly as popular as practicing a kata by rote.
In all fairness, the kata are (generally) thorough, and well formulated, so as to cover enough possibilities that unscripted practice may be less necessary. Even so, there is definitely value to be gained in this jiyu-undo (free training) of kata movements. As with shadowboxing, the point is not to do a movement for movement’s sake, but to flow between combinations of movements in a manner that makes sense. With that in mind, it is not enough to simply perform a movement from a kata, then a different movement from a different kata, and so on, without considering the application thoughtfully. Instead of thinking of what movement should come next, think of what your attacker might do next, and then you can pick a movement to address that. This can be done slowly, at first, to work through a variety of ideas, and speed and intensity can be added when you have gotten comfortable with the practice. In this way, you will have truly made kata into “the shadowboxing of karate.” You can even blend kata methods with sport fighting methods, as there are certainly moments where crossover occurs. When you start practicing in this manner, you may discover that your form becomes “sloppy” compared to the kata, and this is because the kata are cleaned-up, formalized practices, and things tend to get much more variable in application. Additionally, most karateka are used to kata being done in “stop motion,” where you do a technique and stop, then do another technique and stop, and so on. This makes things easier to see when teaching, and in practice, but in application, the stops become less important, and the flow between the movements becomes more important. This flow can also help you discover other applications for the kata, as you will notice the lines of movement between your usual stopping points in greater detail when you are no longer stopping at those points.
All of this kata training should lead to kumite, in order to develop applicable skill under pressure, but it will not look much like the kumite that you see on the mats are karate tournaments. When it really comes down to it, the reason that kata does not look like sparring is because people are not sparring properly for the material. It doesn’t make sense to build a battleship and then try to race it like a speedboat–they are simply intended for different things, and work much better if used appropriately. If your kata and sparring to not reflect each other, then your sparring method most likely needs to be altered. There are many ways to approach kumite, but if you want your kata to have real value, and a proper connection to the way you fight, then some approaches are better than others. The modern, long-range kumite of competition karate is not well-suited to the utilization of kata methods, because it is too far away, and the constant stopping and restarting is also prohibitive. If you work continuously, however, and allow grabbing, clinching, sweeps, throws, joint locks, and chokes, you will have opportunities to work your kata material. You will notice, as well, that this is very much like MMA-style sparring. Of course, simply adding these options to competition-style sparring, particularly if you and your training partners are used to sparring under those rulesets, will not ensure that people will start using their kata applications in sparring. People will default to what they are most comfortable with, after all. This means that supplementary sparring methods must be employed to develop that comfort level with the fighting methods of kata. Kakidi/kakie training, as mentioned earlier in this article, is an excellent start, as it forces participants to work at a close range, deal with physical contact and movement, and start working in the techniques of kata. This can then be expanded with training things like tuishou (“pushing hands” training from Chinese arts, as seen in a competitive format, here: LINK), clinchwork (as seen in Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu’s video, here: LINK), standing grappling exercises such as those seen in wrestling (a full instructional video of which can be found here: LINK), Judo (an example grip fighting training, here: LINK), and Sumo (some training footage can be seen, here: LINK), as well as more karate-specific training like kakedameshi (which you can see a slow, light example of, here: LINK) and kata-randori (which I have discussed previously, here: LINK). For self defense purposes, it is important to do scenario-based training, with varying levels of resistance and force (as can be seen in John Titchen Sensei’s DART program, here: LINK). Through training in these ways, you will find many more opportunities for applying the techniques of your kata, and you will be more comfortable and effective and doing so. This makes it much easier to capitalize on openings for those techniques in a more open format, such as MMA-style sparring, as much as it helps prepare you for self defense.
The really beautiful thing about kata practice, to me, is the mental component–not in the sense of “moving meditation,” as is often mentioned in regards to kata, but in the sense of having to really think about your actions. Memorizing techniques is fine, and developing the muscle memory to transition between them fluidly is great, but kata movements can be open to interpretation. While kata were built from fighting techniques, they are, at their core, simply a collection of movements, and movements can be used in a wide variety of ways. The classic “wax on, wax off” and “paint the fence” examples from The Karate Kid come to mind. Even if you have been taught practical fighting applications for your kata, which fit the movements and work well for you, you can still study how the same movements can be used in different ways. This type of exercise can provide for a lifetime of study, which adds extra value to kata practice, in my opinion. Of course, there will be some who will forever reject the idea of kata practice being beneficial, and for them, it will never be beneficial. For those willing to explore it, however, it can be a valuable tool, and a well of inspiration, from which different people will be able to draw different ideas, based on their experiences and understanding. It’s a very personal approach to training a martial art, and you can benefit from it no matter how long you train, or how experienced you become.