I am at the point in my martial arts training where I get into a lot of trouble – both with my instructors and with myself. You see, although I’ve got a black belt in American Form Karate (and studied Aikido for more than a decade as a youth), I am by no sense of the word an ‘expert’ in it. I liken myself to a freshman psychology student: you’ve been learning material and you start to obsess about the theory side of things without having the practical application in place yet. You’re diagnosing your friends, family, and self with every mental illness in the book. In other words, I’m someone who knows just enough to be dangerous to himself and others.
One of the places I run into the most trouble is with something that has becoming increasingly important to me as my training advances: adding practical application of forms and techniques. Most forms of modern karate training you’ll find out there are focused on tournament training, health, fitness, discipline…all great things.
While kids do learn the basics of each movement — proper striking, blocking, stances, and movement — there doesn’t tend to be a whole lot of emphasis on the application of the techniques in situations (beyond those techniques that can be used in tournament point sparring). And, honestly, for the kids who make up the bulk students, it isn’t needed — the same way high school students who take wrestling aren’t trained to break arms or gouge out eyes.
My personal martial arts obsession — the OCD that powers my existence – needs more than that. When I teach, I do things a little different from what you might find at most other studios. I like to teach the individual movements to my students first to insure each movement/attack/block/throw/etc is understood and internalized before a kata is learned (why we perform hikite after a block or punch is something most modern students can’t answer!). The kata then becomes what it was meant to be.
What is kata meant to be?
I’m glad you asked!
Kata are really simplified shorthand for practical techniques. Think of a kata as the CLIFF NOTES version of a fighting system — a cheat sheet for memory. You’re using the kata (the SOLO kata — in other words, a kata performed without interacting with an attacker or partner) to build muscle memory for a series of movements. Teachers use kata to make sure all forms are taught and remember-able — as a teaching guide.
For my private and more advanced students, I take that training to another level (or try to) by adding a kata-based sparring regiment. By that I mean, I have my students pair up and perform kumite. They free spar using only techniques from the kata we are learning. We focus on two levels of kata-sparring. In the old days they would have been called Gohon Kumite and Jiyu Kumite.
The first level, Gohon, is essentially one side attacking and the other blocking and counter-attacking. This is the simplest form of sparring where specific combinations are practiced to where they become second-nature to the student. Attacks are performed normal and ‘at speed,’ but are pulled because we don’t want anyone getting knocked out! The key, though, is that the attacks are on-target and normal, not locked-out to make it easier to perform a defense. If a block or lock requires an opponent to leave his arm stuck out to give the student enough time to perform, then it isn’t practical and isn’t being learned or taught correctly. It’s ok for demonstrations, but if you want a technique to work out in the real world then you need to practice it correctly!
The next level for us would have been called Jiyu, or free-sparring. Now, this isn’t full free sparring where anything goes. For kata-based free-sparring, the attacks/defenses must come from the kata itself, still performed realistically. Students choose a section or sections of the kata to use and then go out it — each side attacking and blocking based on what is ‘allowed’ in the kata.
These two levels of kata-based free-sparring allow a student to see how their forms work in a more practical setting and in a free-form manner. It adds to their real world self-defense tool kit in a way that allows their bodies to react correctly to an assault. There are additional levels that can be added to this basic training (including full Jiyu Kumite free-sparring where your students are not limited to one kata or one section of a kata) and I’ll talk a lot more about the benefits (there are TONS of them) of adding them in the future.
From my point-of-view (which I admit can be a bit off-center), it is important for anyone interested in continuing their martial arts training to black belt level and beyond to add this sort of practical application to their training regiment, especially if they are interested in self-defense or in exploring a form to its fullest. After all, most of the martial arts were meant to be ways for someone to defend themselves out in the real world…and without that real world application, you’re only getting half the picture.
(A quick follow-up note: Yes, I realize that a lot of instructors already do what I’m describing — or study the bunkai of kata (something I want to talk about in more detail at a later date). It’s all pretty obvious, but as I said, I’m still very early in my own journey as a martial artist and a karate geek, and this site is very much made up of my experiences along that journey. In other words, you’re going to have to bear with me as I have epiphanies on things you may have already discovered!)
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