Importance of Kata Training in the Martial Arts?




For decades, martial artists have debated whether practicing katas (a prearranged set or form of offensive and defensive movements) are important to the study and practice of martial arts.  Historically, martial artists created katas to mimic combat scenarios.  Using katas on a training partner was not feasible due to the risk of serious injury.  Martial arts styles later developed controlled sparring, which would advance progress and decrease the learning time for many of the practical benefits.

Learning katas properly before sparring gives the student a strong foundation.  Katas teach This new knowledge of his natural weapons (kicks, punches, elbows, chops, knees, blocks), and the necessary ability to move onto the more advanced exercise of sparring.

Academically studying and physically practicing katas have many benefits.  Through the practice of katas, the student can improve his sparring skills and self-defense techniques.  Improvement develops from executing strikes, practicing defense techniques, and learning about distance.

Executing strikes during a kata reinforces the techniques the student has in his offensive arsenal.  The student executes punches, elbows, chops, kicks, knee strikes, and other attacks.  Will the student ever use all the strikes from a particular kata in a self-defense situation?  Probably not.  But the movements of a kata are like golf clubs.  Every golf club has its purpose.  Some clubs are for driving the ball over a great distance, some are for chipping, and some are for putting.  However, the professional golfer has all the clubs in his bag.  The professional is ready to use whichever tool the situation calls for.  Likewise, the martial artist is ready to use whatever movements from his kata are necessary for the situation.

Katas also teach the student defense through the use of blocks and movements.  Kata combinations include outward blocks, upward blocks, inward blocks and more.  Evasive movements are also a defense.  During a sparring session, 5th degree Shotokan Karate Master Augustus “PeeWee” Blanco commented that the best block is to never be there.

Learning about distance and how it applies to a fight is very important.  In his book “Tao of Jeet Kune Do,” Bruce Lee said, “The maintenance of proper fighting distance has a decisive effect on the outcome of the fight—acquire the habit.”  Katas teach the student how to create distance through the use of footwork.  I have never seen a kata where the student does not move from the original starting position, nor have I observed a fight that remained in exactly one place.  Fighting is by nature dynamic, not static.  Bruce Lee also commented, “One can only develop an instinctive sense of distance if he is able to move about smoothly and speedily.  The quality of a man’s technique depends on his footwork, for one cannot use his hands or kicks efficiently until his feet have put him in the desired position.”

Through the use of footwork, katas teach the student how to use distance for offensive and defensive purposes.  Offensively footwork closes the distance between the student and his attacker so that the student may strike.  Defensively footwork allows the student to evade an attack by creating distance.  Just as in shooting firearms, a moving target is harder to hit than a stationary one.

             Practicing katas has many benefits, but it will not prove advantageous unless practiced with the utmost seriousness and knowledge of the practical application.  The student should practice his kata like his life depends on it, because one day it very well may.  The student needs his muscle memory to be strong blocks and strikes, not half-hearted techniques.  Lotus Self-Defense Instructor Mack Petry often said during training, “Practice as you will perform.”

             If the student understands the purpose for each movement in the kata, this understanding will transcend over to the execution of the movements.  When something is understood, it is easier to do. 

 The kata should be performed with: knowledge, technique, focus, accuracy, good breath control, speed, and power, so that over time the kata is done without even thinking about the movements.  When the student must use his kata movements in a real self-defense situation, it should be as if he walks into a dark room and turns on the light switch without even thinking about it.  The Japanese call this mushin, meaning “no mind.”

A poster hanging in my high school biology class said, “Knowledge is power.”  The human body has areas that are more susceptible to injury and pain than others.  Most martial arts disciplines exploit these areas.  For example, most kata strikes are aimed at particular areas that are susceptible to injury and pain.  The student should learn exactly what the purpose of the strikes and blocks in a kata are for, as well as the anatomical destination.  The student should train hard, but in a real-life encounter, fight smarter not harder.       

 It may take a long time to master the technique of a martial art strike, throw, or movement.  However, the training toward this mastery begins with the basics.  The American Heritage dictionary defines technique as “the systematic procedure by which a complex task is accomplished, or the way in which the fundamentals are handled.”  Therefore, practicing the basics is of the utmost importance.  The foundation of a house is built first, then the various rooms that make up the house.  Likewise, the fundamentals form the foundation for more advanced technique.

Focus is very important.  The American Heritage Dictionary defines focus as “to direct toward a particular point or purpose.”  The student should not be thinking about performing the next move or strike.  Instead, he needs to think about the strike necessary for that particular moment; Otherwise, he might not make it to the next movement.

Speed is nothing without accuracy.  The student needs to work on his accuracy first.  Over time, when muscle memory and accuracy develops, the student then gradually increases the speed of his movements.  Relaxation and good stamina promote speed.  The more a student practices a kata, his comfort with the kata should help ease his tension.  This creates relaxation, and thus speed.  Practicing a kata for stamina also strengthens the muscles and heart so fatigue does not set in early, and thus cause a decrease in speed.

 Breathing is critical in everything we do.  Breathing is the first thing we did when we entered this world and will be the last thing we do when we leave.  The importance of breathing is extremely important in the martial arts.  Breathing helps circulate blood throughout the body, transports oxygen to major organs, helps relax the body, and can help lower an excited heart rate.  I witnessed a student almost faint during a belt test because he was not breathing while striking.

Breathing should come from the abdomen area.  This is the center of the body and the focal point of ki, which is the Japanese term for internal breath power.  The student can start to develop this long process of channeling ki through the use of proper kias, or shouts of energy accompanying each strike.

Ultimately, martial arts katas generate power.  Power differs from strength.  Power is the amount of force exerted.  Strength is a component of power, but throwing a 250 pound man is different from bench-pressing 250 pounds.  Whether the style requires power from hard snapping strikes or from internal ki, the student should always infuse power in the kata.  Power also flows from speed.  The faster an object moves, the more kinetic energy created.

The debate over the importance of performing traditional katas in today’s modern martial arts continues.  However, the benefits gained from practicing katas apply just as easily to today’s martial artist as they did hundreds of years ago.  Kata training teaches technique, various defense movements, an awareness of distance, control of breathing, and improves speed and power.

Written by Tucker Axum III