In this post, I will share with you five tips to improve your kata that I learned from a third dan.
I have found them to be very helpful and they are unlike many common kata tips that I have read before on the internet, so I hope you’ll find them beneficial in your kata practice as well.
A flawless kata performance by an amateur
Kata performances by the best elite competitors can be a work of art.
You can spend hours watching them and feel in awe at the lightning speed and the breathtaking power of their techniques.
Their performances seem to be the very definition of perfection.
And if you enjoy practicing kata like me, you probably would wonder how on earth did they become so good?
One time, however, I got to watch a kata performance by someone who is not a professional athlete but it gave me exactly the same goosebumps feeling.
I attended a three-day gasshuku and, on the last day, as per usual practice, we got to watch kata demonstrations by senior students and instructors.
I particularly liked the kata demonstration of one of the instructors very much.
He was generally quietly spoken during the gasshuku but was totally different during his kata demonstration.
He seemed to have been transported to another place, a battlefield, and became a fierce fighter, a warrior.
His techniques were sharp and powerful sometimes and slow and flowing at other times.
His kata didn’t have the feeling of being rushed.
I could feel his energy and fighting spirit throughout.
The whole performance looked flawless and effortless to me.
Apart from speed which is affected by his age, I would say that it was on par with professional levels.
Afterward, I went to talk to him and told him that his kata was awesome (I couldn’t find a better word to describe it) and asked him for some practice tips.
And so we began talking about kata and martial art and I was able to continue the conversation with him and a few others at the gasshuku dinner.
The tips below are the essence of what I had learned.
Five tips to improve your kata performance from an amateur
1. Master your basics
Your kata will likely improve in some aspects if you practice them a lot.
However, to bring it to the next level, your need to nail your basic techniques.
If you can’t perform a proper gedan barai from a natural stance, it’s guaranteed that you can’t do a good job of it in a shiko dachi stance in a kata either.
If you can’t properly execute a simple punch from a stationary position in a natural stance, it’s unlikely that you can do it in a kata in various stances or when it is accompanied by transitional moves.
People like to “snap” their karate techniques during a kata performance because it looks and sounds impressive.
That’s fair enough.
But if you can’t create “snappy” movements from a stationary position, you won’t be able to “snap” those techniques in a kata.
And you can’t create “snappy” movements even from a stationary position if you don’t master underlying principles on speed, relaxation and power generation.
So, go back to your basics and practice your kihon. Practice a lot, ask questions and continually look for ways to improve your basic techniques.
You need to learn your ABCs before you can read and write.
You need to lay the foundation for a good kata performance by mastering your basics.
There are things in life that can’t be rushed and a good kata performance is one of them.
Even basic kata like Kihon Kata, Heian Kata or Gekisai Dai Ichi kata still take years to master because it takes years to master the basic techniques.
Don’t look for shortcuts and quick fixes. Spend your time wisely and that would be on your basics. It will pay you off soon enough.
2. Practice micro sequences of your kata
Once you’ve learned the overall pattern of the kata, it’s not a good idea to perform the whole kata thousands of times in the hope of improving the kata.
You should break the kata up into smaller sequences of a few techniques each.
If it is still difficult for you to perform these micro sequences well, break the kata further into individual techniques. And if the individual moves are still challenging, it’s a sign that you need to go back to practice your basics even more.
Practice those micro sequences or those individual techniques hundreds or thousands of times until you’ve perfected those techniques or until you are completely happy with them.
Of course, you should regularly practice the whole kata but when you are learning or trying to master the kata, spend most of your time practicing those micro sequences.
Of those sequences, focus on the ones that you find most challenging and, in every practice session, work on those first.
3. Understand and practice kata bunkai
A good kata performance should show genuine martial spirit, not just a series of empty physical moves put together.
And you can’t fake martial spirit, it is either there or it’s not there.
To show your martial spirit, you need to be mentally and physically engaged in a fight with an invisible opponent when performing your kata.
To be mentally and physically engaged in a fight during a kata performance, you need to really understand the meaning of each technique.
And to really understand the meanings of kata techniques, you need to practice the kata’s bunkai a lot.
Practice by yourself and practice with a partner.
Practice the bunkai you are taught and practice the bunkai that you figure out yourself.
Every time you practice, show your martial spirit and treat it as if it’s a real fight where your very life depends upon it.
When you perform your kata with the same attitude, your martial spirit will show.
And that alone can make a huge difference.
Your kata will have a soul, not just a series of motions with faked spirit and empty kiai.
4. Focus on one kata intensely for a few years
“I focus on only one kata intensely for a few years”.
You’ve probably heard something similar before. That’s how karate masters taught their students in the old days, nothing new here.
However, nowadays, with official curricula, rankings and gradings, no instructor teaches one kata for a few years.
But while following what he was taught in the dojo, at home he mostly spent time practicing the kata that he focused on until he felt that he really knew that kata.
If he had the opportunity to participate in a tournament, he’d perform only that kata, a few years in a row. This gave him the motivation to improve the kata even though places in competitions were never his goal.
When I asked him whether it’d be boring to practice one kata every day, he told me that “the more I practice, the more I understand the kata and the more I enjoy practicing it, so it was never boring“.
He also said that he still practiced other kata, bunkai and drills for grading purposes but he spent most of the time he could on only one kata for a few years.
Once he felt happy with a kata, he would move on to the next kata but would still practice the old one regularly.
Later on, when I thought about this advice, I realize how important it is.
If you spend an equal amount of time learning, for example, 7 kata over a 20-year period (i.e. roughly 3 years per kata) but don’t give each kata an intense and total focus for a sufficient period of time, it’s likely that you don’t really know any particular kata really well.
You will know all of them for sure but probably not in-depth.
But if you spend a few years focusing on one kata, practice it daily, think about all the possible applications with each technique or sequence of the kata, and visualize yourself fighting using those techniques, you will really know the kata indeed.
Quantity does not equal quality in this case.
Many karate masters have said that each kata can be a complete fighting system on its own and only through knowing a kata really well that one is able to apply it in actual combat.
It is better to know at least one kata exceptionally well rather than 10 forms only moderately well.Mas Oyama
5. Tell a story with your kata
This last tip is about the aesthetic aspect of a kata performance and I believe it is especially important for people competing in kata at tournaments.
“You need to tell a story when you perform a kata”.
I thought he was joking when he said that but he wasn’t.
Since then, I have read more about storytelling and the classic three-act structure of a story and I couldn’t agree with him more.
A kata is a collection of defensive and offensive techniques organized into a meaningful pattern.
When performing a kata, you can treat those techniques as separate and unconnected techniques and execute them at an even speed, for example, one technique per second, etc.
But that would be very boring to watch even with good techniques.
Alternatively, you can perform those techniques in a manner that you choose in order to tell a story which would be way more engaging and interesting to watch.
And how do you tell a fighting story with your kata?
By following a classic three-act structure of storytelling.
Okay, by now you are probably asking what all these have got to do with kata and martial art, but please bear with me, I promise I have a point.
A typical story will have the beginning, the middle, and the end.
A story would begin with an event that hooks the audience. It then continues with rising tensions and conflicts that keeps audience engaged. The tensions and conflicts will keep escalating until they reach a boiling point called climax. And this is where the main conflict of the story is resolved and the story ends.
Storytelling from the beginning of time till now, from Arabian Nights to today’s Hollywood blockbusters, have been following this structure.
Let’s explore below how you can use this story structure to tell an engaging martial story with your kata.
The beginning of a story vs the beginning of a kata
The beginning of a good story needs to contain something that hooks the audience and captures their interest.
At the opening of the first Die Hard movie, Detective John McClane went to a Christmas Eve party at the Nakatomi tower, wanting to reconcile with his estranged wife.
But shortly after he arrived, the tower is seized by a group of armed terrorists led by Hans Gruber and everyone in the tower is taken hostage.
John McClane must face the gang of terrorists alone to save his wife and everyone else.
That kind of opening is sure to grab viewers’ attention and glue them to their seats. Everyone wants to know what John McClane is now going to do and what happens next.
For a kata performance, you can capture the audience’s attention with how you dress, the way you walk onto the mat and bow in, the intensity and focus in your eyes, or the first few sharp and snappy moves.
If your gi has dirty marks, your eyes are darting around, your nerves get the better of you and you mess up the first few techniques, it’s not a good impression and it’s difficult to hold the audience’s attention afterward.
The middle of a story vs the middle of your kata
The middle of a story contains the bulk of the story where the protagonist faces increasingly difficult challenges that prevent him or her from reaching their goal.
In Die Hard, John McClane faces many challenges that the terrorists throw at him. He struggles but manages to overcome them with his NYC street smarts.
If you are an action movie fan, you’ll notice that the complications that the protagonist faces are always progressing, i.e. the next obstacle is invariably tougher than the last.
If the protagonist faces a lone gunman in a sequence, he’ll probably face a group of gunmen or the ringleader in the next sequence.
If he jumps a fence in a sequence to escape, he probably will jump out of a car, a tall building or a helicopter in the next sequence.
It will never be the other way around because it won’t hold the viewers’ attention.
Kill Bill is also another great example of classical story structure. The Bride’s next kill target is always more powerful than her last.
A similar thing should happen in your kata performance.
The middle of your kata will be the central bulk of the kata’s techniques.
In a kata where the level of technical difficulty gradually increases, you will be able to progressively showcase your technical ability and keep the audience engaged.
However, not all kata follow this pattern.
Nevertheless, even a seemingly simple technique can have many different applications.
As the kata progresses, visualize yourself fighting a more difficult battle with tougher, stronger, and more skillful opponents even using just basic techniques.
If you fight as if your life and that of your loved ones depend upon it, your spirit and intensity will show and the audience will feel it and be there with you.
Varying the speed and rhythm of your techniques and adding appropriate pauses between sequences can further help keep the audience engaged.
The ending of a story vs the ending of a kata
The ending of a story is where the climax happens.
The protagonist faces the point of no return where he or she faces the antagonist in the final showdown and fights the ultimate battle.
In Die Hard, John McClane faces off with Hans Gruber, the leader of the gang who has also kidnapped his wife. He is at the point of no return and must fight Hans to death to save his wife and the hostages.
In karate, it is much harder to give the audience the kind of climax feeling that a blockbuster can give because you must perform the kata as is and can’t alter the pattern.
However, if the last part of your kata does not allow you to demonstrate the best of your technical ability and give some sort of climax, appropriate pauses can help create contrasts, highlight your strength and maintain the audience’s attention.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart once said, “the music is not in the notes, but in the silence between“. I believe the same thing applies to kata.
For example, if there are six consecutive techniques at the end of a kata that have the same level of difficulty and if you just perform them the same way, one after another, snap, snap, snap, the ending would feel flat to the audience like something is missing.
But, for example, if you are to break them into two equal sequences, perform the first three techniques, pause for a second or two and then perform the last three techniques in a fast and explosive sequence, it would feel like the kata has a satisfying ending.
So, next time when you practice a kata, think about the martial art story you want to tell through your kata.
Think about the opening, the middle and the end. Think about how you face a tougher opponent as you go along and think about the peak of your battle with your imaginary opponent.
Think about where pauses can be added to help with your story structure.
Break the monotony, give your kata a meaning and feel the difference.
I know this may sound crazy and it’s not the way karate masters or most karatekas practice and perform their kata. However, before you discard this advice as total bs, please try it out and see whether it works for you first.
A classic example of a great kata performance
Rika Usami’s performance of Chatanyara Kushanku at the 21st WKF World Karate Championships Paris 2012 is a perfect example of how a kata should be performed.
You can see in the video that she makes a perfect entrance and immediately grabs the audience’s attention from the very beginning: her gi fits perfectly, the ends of her belt hang evenly, her bow is at a perfect angle, she announces the kata loudly and clearly without screaming, and her first few techniques are precise, clean, snappy and lightning-fast.
And she continues to amaze the audience throughout the middle part of the kata with speed, power, balance, timing, and grace. The perfect 180 degree turn and landing is the highlight of the middle part of the kata.
She ends the kata with a perfect flying kick and a perfect landing.
A couple of sharp techniques after that is a fitting end that lets the audience savor the moment for a little more.
There you have it, five unconventional tips from an amateur:
- Master your basics
- Practice micro sequences of your kata
- Understand and practice kata bunkai a lot
- Focus intensely on one kata for a few years
- Tell a story with your kata.
Please do test them out and let me know if they work for you, I would love to hear your comments.
Other posts you might be interested in
- What is the Purpose of Kata in Karate?
- What Is the Philosophy of Karate?
- Karate vs BJJ: Which One Is Better for Self-Defense?
- Karate vs Wing Chun: Which One Is Better for Self-defense?
- How to Systematically Improve Your Karate Sparring
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