“Kata will get you killed.”
That was the most memorable headline that a martial arts advertiser suggested that I use to promote my Clayton martial arts classes. At the time, our kid’s karate and adults’ kickboxing curriculum didn’t even include kata, but that suggestion was all I needed to hear to know that working with that specific ad agency wasn’t for me.
As the UFC and MMA were becoming more and more mainstream, traditional martial arts were beginning to come into question as to how effective they would be in the “streets.” Some schools and advertisers looked to capitalize on this and promote their schools by denigrating other arts. At Revolution Modern Martial Arts, we have a modern system for teaching kids karate but felt that denigrating other schools and styles was against our core values.
Kata is a traditional form of practice where the martial artist performs an order of blocks, punches, kicks, and footwork against imaginary opponents. The “make-believe” aspect of kata is what the naysayers would denigrate as useless. However, kata has many practical uses and I came to understand that it has tremendous value when combined with sparring, drilling, and other elements of karate. My favorite part of martial arts has always been sparring, but I realize that it was the kata I learned when I was a younger martial artist that provided me with the footwork and technique that helped me as an amateur Muay Thai competitor in my 20s.
Marcus Davis, a former UFC fighter agrees with me. For a period of time Marcus was a trainer at a fitness gym I owned outside of my Clayton North Carolina martial arts facility. He and I would talk a lot about training and his experience in fighting. He is a very tough customer who started his career as a boxer. When discussing kata one day, he agreed with me that a martial artist practicing kata is not much different than a boxer, kickboxer, or MMA athlete shadow boxing. Both are an example of a fighter competing against an imaginary opponent. The boxer practices footwork and combinations, and the karate student does the same.
Shadowboxing is a vital element of a striker’s training arsenal, with most professionals admitting that they shadowbox every training session. Shadowboxing, like kata, has many benefits. The most obvious is to warm up for training. However, the form of technique is also improved as well as creating a strong connection between body and mind.
As one is practicing kata, they are moving their entire body through space. Not only are the legs moving you around the floor, but they are also kicking and holding stances. The arms are being held in a guard position, punching and blocking. Even your head is moving because in kata when you change directions you always move your head to look first. When I practice kata at the beginning of a training session I work up a good warm-up sweat.
Kata, like shadow boxing, is one of the only ways an athlete can practice the form of their technique under little stress, therefore, allowing much more focus on performing their strikes, blocks, and footwork properly. Other methods of developing striking include hitting bags and targets. This is more stressful than kata, and inevitably the form of the technique degrades slightly. Once a student begins to spar, which is even more stressful we see an additional degradation of form. That is why it is crucial to hone your techniques with as little stress as possible before hitting bags and sparring.
Finally, a strong mind-body connection can be made while practicing kata. As the student is moving and performing their techniques they have to be mindful of where every hand and foot is positioned. There is a very clear “right and wrong” way to perform a kata because it is a predetermined set of combinations and angle changes. By having to focus on this, while also moving fast and hard, the body is working just as much as the mind. In my opinion, this is the most beneficial aspect of kata. If one can learn to think one and two combinations ahead while they are striking. Moving and blocking, they are developing vital skills for sparring and fighting.
As stated above, kata has many benefits for a student who wishes to improve their fighting skills. However, they must also use other methods to get the full benefit of kata. Just practicing kata will not provide the same benefits for fighting that sparring imparts to the student. However, sparring without practicing kata could cause a student to develop more slowly in terms of the form of their technique, leaving them appearing “wild” while training. This wild technique is dangerous to themselves and their partners, saps energy from the student, and is inefficient.
Kata, like shadowboxing, is a vital element of balanced training in martial arts. It won’t get you “killed” in the streets any more than the person who doesn’t train at all. While kata has a less obvious benefit to self-defense than sparring, the person who trains kata has some advantages in self-defense over the person who has never practiced martial arts. The kata practitioner has better fitness than the person who doesn’t train. They also have better striking and blocking skills. Finally, they have an increased ability to think strategically while fighting.
So go out and practice your kata or shadowboxing. And if you never spar because you only like kata, more power to you. Don’t let the naysayers and keyboard warriors detract from your enjoyment of the arts. Practice your martial arts as you like and grow as a student.