How to

A Simple Way to Improve Kata Understanding

For a traditional martial artist the word ‘Kata’ has a defined meaning, but for those outside of martial arts it can be a confusing term.  Kata is a Japanese word that means ‘form’.  In Karate this form is a set of movements that are performed in a sequence.  All of the movements replicate self-defence techniques without the need for an attacker to be present.

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Kata represents a codified platform of possible self-defence applications.  The process of analysing these applications is known as Bunkai.

In most Karate schools students learn Kata in order to progress through a grading system.  The most common teaching mechanism is to learn the Kata pattern first, master it, and then move onto the analysis of the movements by breaking the form up into its constituent applications.  This is a very quick way of teaching the pattern and works on the principle of “monkey see, monkey do”.

This method of teaching results in students learning very crisp moves with the consequence that their flawless techniques look more like a dance than a martial art.  It is beautiful to watch, but often you can see that they really do not appreciate or understand the Kata.  The reason for this is that when you have engraved a pattern in your brain and muscle memory without a practical application it is very difficult to then adapt those moves to a self-defence situation that would work on a resisting opponent.

This is because our brain is unable to easily make the leap from the perfectly performed technique to one that takes account of variation in the moves of an attacker.  I have found that for those students that have been taught Kata without the applications struggle to make the switch to performing a Kata that is effective in reality.


In my Dojo (another Japanese word that literally means ‘place of the way’ and is commonly used for a place of training) I adopt a different approach to teaching Kata.  I start by teaching the application so that students are shown how and why the techniques work, then we move onto the pattern.  In this way it is easier for students to visualise what they are doing at any given point in the Kata.  In this way I try to involve students in the practice of an application on a partner so that they can understand why Kata is important, which is aligned to the following Chinese proverb:

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”

A drawback to this method of teaching is that the performed Kata is not always so sharp, as the techniques do not need to be perfectly executed in order to be effective.

Once students understand the Kata we can then work on polishing their techniques.  In order to do this we have three ways of performing a Kata, which are interchangeable.

  • Technically correct – to the best of the students ability.
  • Slow – with maximum tension and strength.
  • Fast – without concentration on the technique but focusing on the pattern.

Combining these three approaches stimulates the body in different ways, which helps to improve all round technique, speed and strength.

As this is my preferred way of teaching my Kata is often described as ugly or technically inferior to other systems, but I don’t mind as I know that my Kata works 🙂

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1 reply »

  1. Kata does work, when one understands “flow with growth”. Thus its own zone and zen transcends and becomes the matrix of the self.

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