Jul 30, 2008

Are Katas Useless?

Today is a retooled argument I wrote in a forum thread regarding what is normally associated with TMAs, the water wings of martial arts, Katas and Forms.

Feel free to comment with your personal feelings regarding the matter.

Is Kata Useless?
An Analogy About Dead Patterns and Why People Stopped Advocating Them.

There's something about the word "Kata" that makes most people who spar/fight regularly start foaming at the mouth and start barking and snarling in a murderous rage- memories of Kiddy Karate and talentless TKD and Kung Fu teachers suddenly bubble up to raise blood pressure levels.

I think I can best sum up the argument over whether or not Kata are useful in Martial Arts like I usually do, using a poorly-written analogy that use huge gaps in logic:

Say that there are five Rally Car racers that need to get some practice in for a big race coming up next year.

Racer 1 buys a custom racing simulation gaming rig, with a real racing seat that vibrates a little bit, surround sound, a 60" curved LCD screen, and a PS3 to run Gran Turismo (which, unfortunately, doesn't have the track he will be racing on to download). He spends his year perfecting every track, mastering control over his Logitech controls, enjoying the rumbling of his seat without worrying about the dangers of crashing, or paying for fuel. In his opinion, the "License Tests" are more than enough to drill real-life rally skills. He'll occasionally get inside of his real car, but only to pose in it for pictures to send to the girls he's been bragging to for the past few months about being a pro racer.

Racer 2 buys the rig that Racer 1 bought, and uses that as his main training regimen, and goes out practicing moves and racing for real once every three months or so.

Racer 3 spends most of his time drilling maneuvers with his co-driver, and he goes out rallying once a month to keep his skills sharp, just enough so that he knows he can pull them off in the upcoming race.

Racer 4 decides that the best course of action is to practice maneuvers and racing on different rally courses around the world, racing every week, perfecting his skills under pressure constantly.

Racer 5 goes for broke, and does what Racer 4 is doing, and buys the simulation rig that Racer 1 and 2 bought as well, so that he has something to learn from on his off hours. He uses the rig to memorize entry speeds and angles, as well as a little bit of fun.

Race day comes, and what happens?

Racer 4 and 5 are pretty much neck and neck, 5 with a possible edge.

Racer 3 comes in third, but not too far behind 4.

Racer 2 comes in fourth.

Racer 1 crashes during the race, retires immediately, and goes on to win multiple arcade racing tournaments. He still refers to himself as a "Pro Racer."

It's really not that hard to bring replace a few words above and have it be about Martial Arts, right? Good.
Moral of the story?

Hating on forms is understandable, as the amount you learn/can learn from them is highly limited, especially compared to alive training. It's the ridiculously large amount of people like "Racer 1" in the MA sense, who tout Katas as the only thing really needed to learn how to defend yourself, that really bring down the wrath of serious Martial Artists regarding the forms and how useful they are.

It's fine to do Kata, as long as you know what they are good for, and it doesn't cut into the time you spend realistically sparring. Drilling them doesn't hurt your skills, and may help you refine the fine movements that some techniques require before you go out to use them under pressure.

...However, if you only do Kata and still refer to yourself as a "fighter," you're a f$%#ing douchebag.


Anonymous said...

Totally agree, always keep praticing the basics and practice with aliveness, that"s the real secret.

Erik M said...

kata(s) are cool for form I guess. The trend that I'm noticing with the emergence of MMA is that one specific form of MA is useless (hence the name MMA..) No one technique works in a real fight. If I take you to the ground, will you perform your kata on me?

kung fu, aikido, karate, tkd...what for?

Adrian said...

Greetings from Australia.

I train in BJJ and karate and quite liked your race car analogy. In fact I might suggest that most kata practice is completly useless - when people practice it like a dance again and again. It is even worse than the racecar 1 - they are not even playing car races they are playing tetris.

Properly understood, kata contains defence rechniques that can enable solo practice of drills(somewhat like skiers going through the course in their head) but at the end of the day even if kata are properly understood you still need to drill them with someone in real life, and then also with resisting opponents.

Surprisingly, some kata contain moves that you might use in MMA, but these applications are very rarely taught, and I have never heard of them taught in a MMA context. For example the kata 'Saifa' contains a couple of moves against clinches, both high and low. (Search 'saifa bunkai' on youtube, but sorry, some demos are performed quite badly from a MMA perspective!)

Punch Kick Choke said...

erik- It would be silly to say that every technique doesn't work or that a specific MA couldn't do its job, though I understand what you're getting at- I always talk about it in terms of percentages; "Sure, it could work, but what's the rate of failure/tolerance?" It's just that most things perform poorly even in trained hands, and abysmally in untrained hands.

And thank you for the input from the land down under, adrian. It's awfully terrible thinking about the number of people who think katas are enough to teach them everything they need to know about fighting.

Francisco said...

Well. I have been reading this blog for long time and this is my first contribution.
My backgrounds are: 13 years of Karate (third Dan black belt) and 3 years of grappling and BJJ. I am also teacher of karate so I hope you will value my opinion. First of all I want to address that I'm indeed on the opinion that practicing only kata it gives you a shit to fight. However, I am tired of seen fighter with nothing of technique and a very limited arsenal of strikes and kicks. Kata is one type of training that you will value after years and years of training, it sharps your techniques and gives you a whole new arsenal to apply in the fight. Even more, kata is also a very very good way of training your physical condition. I love to fight and not to dance (like many people have suggested), but I can understand that importance of kata, but for achieve that understanding you have to be a true martial artist and not another non-brain fighter... Now I am 28 years old and I am still young, but with 50 or 60 years old, thanks to kata, I'm going to continue practicing what I love. By the way, It could be a good question to people like Lyoto Mashida. And I don’t liked so much your car parallelism, it seem to me that not entail the real questions of the topic.
Francisco C. (Spain)

Punch Kick Choke said...

The limited number of techniques shown in competition is more or less the result of both Hick's Law as well as the general willingness of professional athletes to boost up their odds of winning. When the paycheck for winning and losing differs so much, it would be kind of silly for a trainer to focus on a large number of techniques, low or high percentage, especially in the striking arts. And so, since it works for professional athletes, normal people who train naturally follow. While it may be boring, the trend has definitely helped overall in the world of martial arts in terms of realistic application.

While katas are a great way to hone your physical condition, it's not that use that has people hating on them so much- it's people who believe that katas have some kind of mysticism that allows practitioners to fight instantly. In that regard, Lyoto Machida is a kata-using Shotokan practitioner (ignoring his other MA training for a second), as he always has been, but does he bring any credibility to the magical and fantastic claims of the extreme kata proponents? I think not- drilling forms are a small (while personally important) part of his fight preparations.

I only wrote the car analogy because the subject of forms in martial arts training has been a dead horse for years, and was just trying to interject some level of humor in a relatively serious subject that has been beaten to death.

The point of this post was just to remind people that practicing without sparring is all but useless, unless you only plan on trying to win kata and XMA competitions, not learning how to defend yourself or fighting competitively.

Thank you very much for your input, and I hope you contribute more often in the future.

Francisco said...

I completely agree with you. We all know fake senseis that believe that only through katas and mokuso (meditation) can achieve the warrior status and been unbeatable. And probably Lyoto only practices kata in “relax moments” not to prepare a fight.
Regarding the limited arsenal of today’s fighters (I’m not talking about the 10 or more super pro fighters like Lyoto, BJ, The Spider and many others), I have to say that, in my opinion, the majority of the MMA “pure” schools teach a very limited number of techniques, approximations, stances, combos, etc. I also think that this problem is more pressing in the stand-up fight than in ground game. People want to fight and to spar as soon as possible, and they forget their technique. In my opinion MMA is the better way to apply your “own” fight style and to test it against other, but, in the most realistic way. Also the reason of why MMA has called the attention of so many people from every style of fight and every form of martial art is because it has shown us that indeed, even if we are black belts in whatever, we are very limited fighters and we have to keep learning, practicing and blooding every day in the gym. In my opinion true martial artists are those that consider MMA more than a fight but the natural evolution of the globalization of the martial arts in the sense that is the compendium of all the martial arts: Mixed Martial Arts.
Thank you very much for your blog. It is a very useful fountain of new techniques and applications to enrich and improve our arsenal, and why not, to knock out, to put out or to submit our opponent. Sorry for the length and for my English.
Francisco C.

Anonymous said...

Good to see a lot people croostraining, it"s not my area but I respect Karate even if I prefer some other striking arts.

shane_is_tall said...

I like the car analogy and Fransisco's input a lot. I was often frusterated in my old TKD school that we spent so much time doing forms and so little time sparring. The instructor insisted that curriculum was important and while I do agree that it vastly improved my technique and cardio (doing each form back to back)it never provided three elements which I find key to a fight; timing, distance, and instinct. I now train at a school for BJJ and Muay Thai (with a heavy boxing influence) and we don't do katas, but I feel like I have all the technical and cario work necessary. To each his own... I prefer to shadow box and visualize an opponant as I run through different combos and techniques in the place of kata.

Anonymous said...

your logic is solid. the whole argument is best summed up in :

"if you only do Kata and still refer to yourself as a "fighter," you're a f$%#ing douchebag."

marcus said...

Good ideas here and agree.

Solo kata performance is not going to help you fight. Actually its got a higher chance of getting you killed

Taking the moves from kata and putting them into live partner drills and sparring will help you to fight (and not get killed)

Keep it real everyone

marcus said...

Good ideas here and agree.

Solo kata performance is not going to help you fight. Actually its got a higher chance of getting you killed

Taking the moves from kata and putting them into live partner drills and sparring will help you to fight (and not get killed)

Keep it real everyone

Karate_Fighter said...

Karate_fighter ("Kf") on "Are Katas Useless? / Katas for people who can't fight."

Kf agrees & disagrees with the author. Kf agrees that you do not have to practice kata to be a good fighter.

Kf disagrees with the author, in that you have to practice kata to get the most of out of your karate training, in particular to attain the high-level of karate fighting capability.

Kata is the comprehensive karate exercise, and contrary to the popular opinion expressed here, one can become a great fighter by practicing only kata.

To get the true benefit, however, you must realize that kata is not a physical exercise, but a mental one. The physical movements of kata are only the outer expression of mental discipline and all the other mental abilities it later confers.

Don't count out kata. Put your 'thinking cap on,' literally.


Mike Jones said...

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Karate_Fighter said...

Karate_fighter ("Kf") @ Mike Jones

Kf thanks you for your acknowledgement. Let Kf say that I understand why MMA competitors, others fault kata.

Kata exercise can be considered theoretical; it's practical application not plain. Kata is not practiced @ the same tempo as free sparring so it's hard to see at first how it applies. The karate techniques & fighting applications presented in kata often don't come across as effective, useful--it's unclear, uncertain how they work in live combat.

Furthermore, many tradtitional karate practitioners perform kata, including in kata competition, like it is a gym routine or physcial exercise (It's neither!). For all of these reasons, kata training does not work for many martial arts competitiors when it comes to full contact competition.

Obviously the in-depth MMA training presented on PKC does well-prepare fighters for MMA. Martial artists have to recognize what works.

Traditional karate can also make you a devastating fighter. The secret is to also recognize that karate is DISCIPLINE, not a sport.

Kf suggests you start there in any evaluation of karate fighting, or of one of its most successful MMA proponents, Lyoto Machida.