For the past 40 years I have been training and studying Karate, which has included Kata training. My first class way back then was teaching me a Kata and that seems to be everyone’s introduction to the study of Karate, even today. Kata is an arrangement of various stances, techniques and movement methods to help a person learn the principles behind the Karate they are undertaking. The use of Kata is one of the most controversial things in the martial arts today because some swear by it and other absolutely loathe it. Regardless of a person’s opinion on the use of Kata, or its purpose, it is important to note that even combat sports (such as boxing and mma) use drills to teach skills which are, in essence, Kata.
Now I am going to move on to the point of this blog post before I get all frustrated at the inability of people to understand Kata. Recently I had a conversation with a fellow black belt about why Kata is so “repetitive”. He said that he doesn’t see why they would have developed “fighting” methods into a Kata where you do the exact same thing on your left and right sides. It is his belief that, since we have inherent weakness due to having a predominate left or right side ability, that we should forgo the study of repetitive techniques in Kata and focus on removing them. I just smiled and he inquired as to why to which I told him “I was there once too when I was first beginning to teach”. This made him even more inquisitive as to my thoughts so I promised to write them out on my blog.
Kata does repeat equally on both the left and right sides in almost all of the known Kata available today. That being said we need to also look at other aspects of our training before I get to my point on why the repetitions on both sides are important. When we practice waza in the dojo we use both sides of our body. We don’t just throw strikes, blocks or kicks with our predominate side. Back in my kickboxing days we used a predominate side (either right or left) in the ring but we still drilled both legs with kicks, knees and evasion footwork. We drilled both arms equally as well. We also do this in our study of Kumite within Karate, working both right and left sides. The main reason is, for the purpose of combat tactics, to eliminate our weaknesses so we can use each side equally in a real self defense situation.
When I was a young brown belt and was competing a lot I only fought with my right side forward. I had a hell of a right leg side kick and hook kick that were my bread and butter. My right back fist was lightning fast and almost never missed my opponent too. After earning my black belt I didn’t fare too well in tournaments for about a year. Then, one day, at a tournament one of the guys who had beaten me told me a secret…he said “You only fight right side forward and we all watched you coming up as a brown belt so we knew how to beat you”. It was the predictability that I only could fight one side forward that caused me to fail against more seasoned fighters. So I began working my left in the dojo, taking some good beatings until it eventually became almost as strong as my right side. Then, thanks to my competition buddy for telling me his secret, I began beating many of the guys in the ring, including him.
As a young Sensei I often neglected caring if my students could perform Kata (or other aspects) equally on both right and left sides. It was this narrow minded approach to the training that had led to my own weakness in my own Karate. So a new approach was needed and I began drilling, both my students, and myself to make our right and left sides equally capable, strong and effective. We did through our Kata training because, as I stated before, you repeat techniques on both right and left side in them.
So, to answer my friend who asked about the “repetitiveness in Kata” I feel that we must train to make our combative ability ambidextrous. We must drill and work hard to eliminate our weaknesses that are caused by “favoring” one side over the other. Through training in various other combative type of arts and having some career choices that allowed me to witness (and participate) in violent confrontations I have also learned that, no matter how good a fighter you may be, you can break an arm, twist a knee, dislocate a shoulder and more during a real life self defense situation. If I rely on my right arm for powerful striking and it were to get broken then I am in serious trouble and will be on the losing end of the attack.
That repetitive nature of Kata builds our ability to progress beyond being predominately right or left sided in skill, but it must be trained with equal dedication to build this skill. I often find myself stopping and redoing a technique on my left because I knew it was equal to my right when training Kata. Let’s face it, if you are predominately one sided you will have to work twice as hard on your weak side to build it better. To me I see this value heavily in Kata and personally believe that is why the people who built these Kata 80, 100 or 1,000 years ago made them so you perform and train both sides in this manner. They knew the secret to combat situations is to eliminate your weaknesses and the one very important aspect of that was train both sides to be effective.
This is why I stress and place high value on working both left and right sides equally. Sure, you will always have a predominate side by nature but you must not accept it as being infallible because it isn’t. As I stated earlier if you lose the use of your predominate striking tool you better have a back up that works…if you don’t you will lose. When I was training Judo we always worked the throws both left and right side because, once your opponent knew you couldn’t throw on a certain side, they would change their stance and game to defeat you. This principle is as old as the art of war itself. Even Sun Tzu said “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither your enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”.
One of the many aspects Sun Tzu is referring to here is about knowing your enemy’s strong and weak points. In military strategy it is important to know your enemy’s weaknesses and to exploit them for a certain victory. Next time you are training your Kata take a hard look at your weak side and begin developing it to be equal to your strong side. This is just one way that Kata is an invaluable tool and why, even with all the internet “gurus” claiming Kata is useless. Kata takes a lot of discipline to master its training resources and most people that disparage people from its study never had the discipline to truly master it. It is a shame to because, inside of the Kata, there is literally millions of methods to better one’s skill and ability as a martial artist but I will always admit that Kata training, along, is never enough. Train hard and work hard my friends.
Steven Franz, Rokudan
Shorin Ryu Shorinkan