Meaningful Kata Practice

When I was young, I used to struggle with kata (prearranged forms, 'shadow boxing' of a type; or as they were called when I was studying Taekwondo, hyung). 

We had many prearranged forms. Some had functional techniques and movements one could use while sparring, the majority did not. I eventually discarded them from my practice completely after I found myself using only my boxing skills, a lead-leg front kick, and a random roundhouse kick when I actually had to save myself from some two-legged predator at school.

Later on, while I was learning Thai-rules kickboxing, my coach told me that shadow boxing was in fact a type of “kata”. I could wrap my mind around this interpretation of kata, because it directly applied techniques and concepts I would utilize in the ring (and on the street).

Years later, as part of earning my black belt, I had to learn all 5 katas created by Enshin Karate's founder Joko Ninomiya. I enjoyed his type of kata also, because it too directly applied techniques and concepts I would use. As I progressed, I realized that some of the chains of techniques and transitions of positioning contained in the katas required too much technical skill and precision that what I could effectively bring to bear during a truly adrenalized state.

When I designed the 12 katas for my particular expression of Modern Karate, I started with some core principles contained within Ninomiya’s original Enshin Karate katas:

  • Use of a modified boxing stance for quick movement and a lowered center of gravity for resistance to low kicks and takedown attempts.

  • Combining strikes, kicks, grabbing, takedowns, and todome (finishing-off techniques) in a logical, progressive sequence that places emphasis on continuously off-balancing the opponent.

  • Attacking or counter-attacking from an angle and/or immediately the taking the blind-spot position for a quick, powerful, devastating finish.

Second, I decided to update kata so they more closely imitate real-world physical threats, including weapons. This meant:

  • Using only techniques that are simple to apply and effective regardless of height or body weight of the threat.

  • Stringing techniques together in a logical progression of target acquisition, increasingly powerful weaponry, and methods of delivery.

  • Use of training methods that increase stamina, explosiveness, and muscle memory.

Third, I told myself to remind my students often to think of kata practice like playing scales on a piano or chords on a guitar. Like playing any instrument, precision and control are required for effective kata practice, especially when first learning a new movement or series of movements.

Real fights are generally fast, sloppy, and potentially life-threatening; so the point of kata practice is to ‘program’ in specific muscle memory (example: straight palm strike) and ‘reprogram’ spontaneous muscle memory (example: taking the act of instinctually waving an insect away from ones face, turning that movement into a block), in order for the student to be much faster, more efficient (i.e.- economy of motion), and less sloppy than his/her opponent(s). 

Kata is also a good opportunity for students to become more acutely aware of their breathing, positioning, weight distribution/center of gravity, and proper use of a closed kinetic chain when delivering any strike, kick, or take-down.

Make your kata practice meaningful, not monotonous! 

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