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Martial arts training is all about perfecting technique through repetition. As Bruce Lee once said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
But upon attaining proficiency in the fundamentals through rigorously practicing the same punch and kick repeatedly, the student must then learn how to put it all together. There are different ways to train one’s conditioning and muscle memory to turn these individual techniques into multi-dimensional attacks and make them second nature to the practitioner.
Modern training methods including mitt training and shadowboxing. In many traditional martial arts, this is done by performing kata (or form). To this day, it is still one of the most important training methods in traditional martial arts.
Kata is the Japanese word for “form” or “pattern”, and one of the kanji for kata can also be interpreted as “shape”. They are choreographed patterns of movements that can be practiced either alone or with a partner. When referred to something similar in a non-Japanese martial art, it is simply called a form.
With Japanese martial arts in particular, kata had always been effective in turning a student into a competent practitioner by refining every single movement and position to achieve consistency in execution.
A big misunderstanding about kata is that they are to be executed as such according to the current situation. This is not really what performing kata is about; it is merely an elaborate training exercise meant to teach the student how individual techniques can flow into each other.
Upon refining execution of technique, the student must then learn to apply these movements in sparring to further his/her development. It is no different from practicing combinations in boxing and kickboxing, where they are also a series of individual technique arranged in sequence to be used for particular situations.
History of Kata
Forms had always been practiced in traditional martial arts. From Japanese arts like Karate and Judo, Korean arts like Taekwondo and Tang Soo Do, to most Chinese Kung Fu styles, forms are an important part of training as it helps the student become proficient in the different facets of their respective style.
The use of kata has been one of the main reasons why traditional martial arts had been able to preserve most of its techniques through the centuries. It was also crucial in training great amounts of people all at once during times when wars were still fought with close-ranged weapons, thus making it efficient to turn raw recruits into fighting men.
During the late 20th century, martial arts faced a renaissance due to greater interest, and kata performance became known to a wider audience. But it was also criticized by Bruce Lee and other proponents of this new movement, who favored training with particular focus on real life self-defense situations. Along with the rising popularity of various combat sports, the phrase “simple but effective” became a mantra, and kata was a casualty of that new mindset.
But in hindsight, it became more understood with time that kata were not supposed to be seen as set patterns that are to be executed in actual combat situations, but merely a training tool for understanding how one technique can flow into another. As fighters with traditional martial arts backgrounds became successful, skeptics who had dismissed them were made to look back at what had been perceived as ineffective with new eyes due to their refined technique.
There had also been a new movement that has taken kata to a higher level, namely Extreme Martial Arts (XMA). Adding acrobatics and other elements to their kata, XMA practitioners would display both explosiveness and grace, either unarmed or with different kinds of weapons. This and better understanding of traditional martial arts has breathed new life to the use of kata as an important training tool.
In Japanese Martial Arts
Kata training is often coupled with randori training to help students become more proficient, although it’s not always 50-50 for every art. For instance, judo doesn’t have as much kata training as karate, while iaido is almost entirely solo kata. It does seem like weapon-based arts would have more kata training than unarmed arts due additional training prerequisites and safety reasons.
In karate, kata are usually a series of moves executed with tai sabaki (footwork and body movement). There are over 100 kata across different forms of karate, and each have their own variations. The name of these kata commonly denote how many moves there are in it. The number may range from as little as 20 to as many as over a hundred. A lot of the kata in karate would have a specific number of moves that is tied to Buddhism, like 36, 54, and 108.
There is a lot less use of kata in judo, but the Kodokan does have 10 official kata. Each judo kata has around 10 to over 20 throws, practice on both left and right sides. There are also some non-Kodokan kata that are commonly practiced, most of which are composed of counter techniques.
In Other Martial Arts
Forms are not exclusive to Japanese martial arts. For instance, Chinese kung fu (wushu) is well known for their forms as well, referred to as “taolu” in Mandarin (roughly translates to “set path” or “routine”). Taolu is still one of the most important aspects of Chinese martial arts training as a supplement to training combat application
Korean martial arts such as Taekwondo and Tang Soo Do make use of forms called hyeong (also known as pumsae and teul). Different organizations use different terms and sets of forms, all of which are used in developing proper technique and muscle memory, similar to that of Japanese martial arts. However, they do look different due to the kick-based nature of many Korean martial arts.
Southeast Asian martial arts also have forms, both set and freeform. Silat has jurus (set) and tari (freeform), and Filipino martial arts (Arnis, Eskrima, Kali) have something similar as well. In South Asia, where many martial arts can trace their origins to, forms are a major part of their martial tradition with both combat and tactical forms.
As for Historical European martial arts (HEMA), there are plays, drills, and flourishes that can be sourced to combat manuals and treatises written by the likes of Hans Talhoffer and Paulus Kal. They are not really the same kind of forms that you see in Asian martial arts, but they have a fairly similar function.
Non-martial Applications of the Kata Concept
Routines and set patterns are also used in other fields to attain various levels of proficiency and mastery. This is common in Japanese culture, wherein craftsmen would have their own kata (written in a different kanji). A perfect example of this is the traditional tea ceremony, where there are set routines to the making and drinking of tea. This holds true to calligraphy, pottery, blacksmithing, and other Japanese artisan crafts as well.
This has since been adopted in the corporate world, where habits and routines can be formed and modified to increase productivity and safety. This is also true with the industrial world, where accidents and mishaps can potentially halt production lines and decrease production rates due to lackadaisical adherence to routines and procedures.
There is also kata in programming, in which the programmer would write small chunks of predetermined code that they write in one sitting that could range from simple templates to small functional applications, a lot of times repeatedly. This is done to hone their muscle memory and their eye for reading code.
In just about any field, the concept of the kata can be applied to refine one’s skills. The author Malcolm Gladwell is often attributed with the popularity of the “10,000 hour rule”, which he mentioned in his book Outliers. If it does take 10,000 hours of practice for you to master something, then doing kata can help you get there.