The Language of Kata

Originally posted by Steve Klausmeir. -R

During a recent conversation, Bob said practicing kata without having developed the prerequisite skills and attributes is like someone trying to appreciate a limerick who can’t even speak English.  I thought that was a wonderful way of explaining why the practice of kata usually doesn’t result in real fighting ability.  Most people can’t understand the meaning of the kata, because they don’t even know the words, so to speak.  A good deal of time must be spent on learning the fundamentals of the language, before we can appreciate poetry.

So, what are the fundamentals?  One way of looking at a martial art is that a small set of physical and mental attributes are required to develop a slightly larger set of skills.  Then, these skills form the basis of an even larger set of techniques. Each kata is meant to function as a mnemonic and includes a variety of techniques performed within an imagined strategic context.  Pretty high level stuff, huh?  You wouldn’t try teaching a small child to speak English by having them read Shakespeare, but a lot of karate people think they are learning to fight by practicing kata.  I disagree.

The attributes that make someone a good fighter are fairly obvious.  The training methods used to produce them are not.  At TKRI, Bob’s knowledge of modern sports science and corrective exercise principles informs everything we do.  Each class, we spend a lot of time stretching our ankles, hips, and shoulders.  Tight muscles can inhibit a joint’s range of motion and result in movement compensations.  If you can’t move, you can’t fight.  Also, we activate the core muscles by performing front and side planks.  These require us to stabilize the shoulder joint, too.  Strong core muscles allow us to effectively transfer momentum from the ground, through the waist, and out the arms.  If you can’t hold the plank position for at least 30 seconds, you shouldn’t be punching.  It’s as simple as that.

In addition to these foundational exercises, and others, we do a lot of balance and power training.  At the end of our last power cycle, I was able to catch and throw a six pound ball with one hand, while standing on a wobble board.  I felt pretty good about that.  And, squats emphasizing eccentric stabilization combined with agility ladder training have definitely put some extra bounce in my step.  These kinds of things are the attributes that will allow us to develop fighting skills.  No matter what you are trying to do to an opponent, your body will always be the delivery system.  Fighting is an athletic endeavor, and the same things that make someone a great football player, gymnast, or track and field star, also make you a better martial artist.  Think about it.  How much more confident would you be in your next sparring session, if you were put together like Bo Jackson was back in the day?

After a certain level of athleticism is achieved, you can just expect your body to respond the right way.  When you move your center, your feet will sort of automatically end up in the best position for whatever you’re doing.  But, in the beginning, an important mental attribute to develop is the awareness of your body, or kinesthetic sense.  If you are doing floor bridges and your hamstring on one side engages more than the glute, something’s wrong.  The most important thing is how a movement feels to you, not what it looks like.  If you are able to mimic your instructor’s kata moves exactly but don’t have the feeling of being “stacked,” then it’s no good.  Bob says we have to discover the best way to perform the techniques based on our own unique morphology.  You can’t do that, if you’re not “in tune” with your body.

The specific skills necessary to execute a technique properly are a little less obvious and will have to be the subject of a future article.  But, you get the point.  Kata practice can be an enjoyable and rich experience for someone who has already mastered the basics.  For someone just starting out, they are virtually useless as a training device.  There are much better ways to develop the fundamental attributes and skills required in fighting.  And, that’s what is special about Bob’s method.  He’s put together a system that introduces skills gradually through a series of exercises and drills.  You don’t have to start out being a super athlete.  An “average Joe” can get there by taking baby steps.  At TKRI, nobody gets left behind.  That’s what it’s all about.

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4 responses to “The Language of Kata

  1. Right on Steve. A further word on kinesthetic sense development: A common rationale for mimicry of kata as a tool for learning fighting skills is that “the movements become muscle memory.” This is hopelessly naive, and does not take into account several principles of learning, memory formation and retrieval, and consolidation of motor patterns in the cerebrum and cerebellum. This technical language can be expressed in one relatively simple question: “what are we making a memory of?” Having a student copy your kata performance can have some benefit as far as increasing their own proprioceptive and kinematic sense goes (where their own body is in space in relation to itself), but does absolutely nothing for the haptic (touch and pressure) sense and an associative memory ability known as “affordances.” Why? Because there is nothing being stored other than a movement pattern, with no context to relate it to. The “muscle memory” will be no good against an actual attack because the conditions it was learned in do not resemble a conflict. In fact, the conditions are more like an aerobics class than martial training. The movement pattern will not extend to the perception, movement and judgment processing centers that are required in fighting. For example, having a baseball novice swing the bat over and over again may make him good at handling that bat- against thin air at least. Learning how to hit the ball requires a whole different, and complementary, set of skills, skills which the simple bat-swinging cannot develop. Activity-specific forms of training are required, and those skills must be linked to the movement pattern in order to create an association for recall. The air-batting batter might look pretty good, but he will be less than stellar when it comes time to actually hit a fast moving, small white ball.

    It does not take much imagination to extrapolate this to the inadequacies of kata as a learning tool. Further, the student trained to memorize the shape of the kata has developed none of the skills required to track a target with vision or touch, to move in relation to another body, to merge or separate centers of gravity, or how to deliver force in all planes of motion and angles of relationship to the target. The idea that simply putting on a white suit and performing some movements in empty air has somehow become a status-quo for many, and the idea that kata are inefficient teaching tools is heresy to adherents of that method.

    However, if our training goals are in line with Madonna’s concept of “Vogue-ing” while under attack, imitation of kata can be a highly successful method. Hitotsu: Strike a pose!

  2. Addendum:The common defense against contextually-based training is that learning a bunch of defense skills will slow down one’s ability to use them in an emergency- however, as motor skills are learned and elaborated upon, they are transferred from the frontal motor planning areas, which are consciously applied and subject to much change, to the cerebellum. Movement patterns and skills stored in the cerebellum are accessible without conscious direction, lending them to the “automatic/reflexive” response that is such a fetish with the traditional karate types. When an affordance is encountered that bears a similarity to something learnt in a similar context, such as someone running at you with a cocked fist, an appropriate response pattern is selected for action- without the student standing there flipping through a mental Rolodex of responses. The more elaborated these skills are with other brain regions, the more easily they can adapt and mutate to the changing circumstances of the attack at hand- with or without conscious involvement.

  3. People can do the kata correctly dress right dress and make it look as textbook as possible and still come up with wrong ineffective applications although they are athletic.

    As a munchkin I learned Shotokan in the JKA model of kihon kata kumite (this included Taekwondo) , and many Shotokan books took the kata literally. (Same with Taekwondo. Most people do forms in Taekwondo to pass rank examinations, and put them on the wayside. )

    In the old JKA Shotokan model and Taekwondo the kihon were the letters of the alphabet- and the kata were the sentences which derived from the kihon (except for a few “esoteric moves” like manji kamae).

    They had the idea that the words they had were the correct words- but they missed the “vocabulary” for grappling. The “literal” approach does not lead to conclusion that these “words” have double meaning or that to really understand the word and what is going on in the sentence one has to know more and gain insight about the culture and history behind the plot and actions of the actors (this is true about Shakespeare).

    Fast forward many years later, martial arts mavericks with a more reality based approach like Iain Abernethy, Patrick McCarthy and Robert Miller start to really understand what is going on in the kata- thanks to improved training methods and historical research.

    Peter Consterdine, karateka, bodyguard and security expert (friend of Iain Abernethy and Geoff Thompson), says the following in an interview:
    (http://www.theshotokanway.com/peterconsterdineinterview.html)

    Karate, as its been taught for the last 50+ years in the UK has analogies with writing. The basic punches, kicks and blocks are simply letters. A short combination of techniques can be compared with a word and a more complex combination can be like a sentence and set sparring and Kumite may be paragraphs. However, to come back week after week, year after year, and go up and down a dojo, is like simply practicing the alphabet, it’s just futile. I always say that traditional Karate seldom gets any further than “the cat sat on the mat”. The chances of someone writing a piece of Shakespeare is remote and I disagree firmly with the belief that Karate systems develop great players. The great players would have been great whatever they had done and are not simply products of the system.

    To develop in martial arts we have to expand our repertoire, work with a range of complex training drills and incorporate drills and technique that fit naturally into what we do. Doing a right cross to a focus mitt should not be anathema to a Karateka as it is only a small variation on Gyaku.

  4. “The cat sat on the mat.” I like that:)

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