When I was in Hawaii over the holidays I had the good fortune to meet with Mr. Charles Goodin over lunch. During the course of our conversation he said something to me which left an indelible impression,
“Kata is useless for 99% of Karateka.”
On the surface this sounds like sacrilege and seemingly contradicts the century old tradition of Kata being the heart of Karatedo. Indeed, Kata has always been the focus of study and the primary means of passing down technique in Karatedo dojo throughout Okinawa, Japan, and the world. Just look at the importance of Kata in the early writings on Karatedo by Funakoshi, Mabuni, Toyama, and Miyagi to name but a few.
I must admit that this sound bite alone was deliberately misleading, but it probably got your attention. It was misleading because Charles went on to explain that kata is “useless” for Karateka because in most dojo it is taught incorrectly. I completely agree. I say incorrectly because Kata is taught as little more than a formal exercise or a method of calisthenics. It’s viewed as something that has to be “checked off” as part of a regular Karatedo class. To complicate matters, Kata is also taught far too early and too frequently to students who aren’t ready for it.
So when and how should a student learn Kata? Oddly enough this was partially explained by Chotoku Kyan in an interview found in the monumental book Kempo Gaisetsu in a section entitled “Things to bear in mind for practice”.
Practice should take place as follows: Explain what karate is about; Explain the training attitude; Learn each and every posture as well as how to advance, retreat, and pivot; Practice how to strike with the fist and elbow; How to kick with the foot along with how to release [a grab]; Next teach kata; After becoming familiar with kata, he can move on to matches.
So we can see that in Kyan’s opinion Kata is the last thing that should be taught to a student before she progresses to a match – where techniques can be exchanged freely. Prior to that the student is steeling her mind and learning the fundamentals including postures, footwork, striking and kicking, as well as releases. Notice Kyan doesn’t mention anything about blocking. (Although oddly enough I’ve seen translations around the web of this same section include a sentence on learning “blocks”. I have no idea where that came from.) At any rate, this description should sound familiar. No? It should because if we look at Kyan’s explanation honestly we can see that it is inline with how other physical activities, including modern combative sports, are taught.
This explains the “when” part of kata being taught, but what about the “how” part? How kata is taught is a complex topic, but IMHO Kata needs to be taught in exact detail with the proper body mechanics. This is very important because it is going to reinforce what the student should already have learned. Contrary to what some people may think, Kata can’t be learned at a seminar in a few hours or even in a group at the dojo. Nope. Kata requires hours of one-to-one time with a good teacher over several years! But hell, if you want to go to a seminar and slap down your hard-earned cash to try and learn a Kata in a few hours, all the power to you.
This process of learning kata near the end of a student’s training is not the end; it doesn’t stop there. This process is circular. Once a Kata is learned then the student begins to refine and reinterpret it with the paradigm of the style which leads (hopefully) to greater insight on her part.