What’s Wrong with Kata?

What’s Wrong with Kata?


According to most traditional karate practitioners, kata is a major conerstone of karate training. Along with kihon (basics) and kumite (sparring), many instructors make a point of including kata practice in almost every training session they lead.

Kata can be a good workout, expand on our basics and offer some training useful in developing kumite strategy. But what in kata cannot be found elsewhere? Why not just practice longer and more intricate sequences in basics and add more realistic self-defense scenarios in kumite?

Although you will see by the end of this article that I am not really against the practice of kata, let’s look at several arguments that question the value of kata practice.

“It’s Just More Basics”
Most traditional karateka spend much time on training in kihon, the fundamental techniques and movements we call “basics.” While kata may focus on techniques and movements not often practiced during the kihon section of our training, what is stopping us from expanding on our basics to integrate that which is found in kata? Is it simply that instructors are too lazy to come up with such complicated combinations? Why not just add a hammerfist strike and move to different angles in kihon, for example? The rest of Heian Shodan is already practiced often in our kihon training…

“We Mess Up Kihon When We Do Kata”
Overemphasis on kata could thwart our efforts in developing proper form in our basics. Many instructors insist on students returning to the starting mark when performing kata, for example. This sometimes results in deviation from basic form as students alter stepping and angles to accommodate. People also often rush through kata and rise in their stances as a result. In these ways, basic form can be negatively affected by our kata practice.

“Not Good Self-Defense Training”
Some people argue that kata is our chance to practice self-defense otherwise not included in basics and kumite. Basics usually focus on long-range techniques/movements that are not very practically performed as-is in a real encounter on the street. For safety reasons, many dangerous techniques are not allowed in kumite practice. Yes, kata lets us train these. But why not simply create more realistic self-defense training? Is it again that instructors are too lazy? We can tack on all sorts of possible application interpretations to kata sequences. But how effective are these as done in the kata? To make these techniques work, we sometimes need to significantly alter our performance. So why not scrap kata completely and start from scratch to create reality-based training if self-defense is our goal?

“Too Many Kata”
Depending on whom you ask, Shotokan has 15 to 30+ kata. Other karate styles may have as few as 8 or as many as 50+. In many organizations, students are expected to learn a new kata at a rate of approximately one every three months for at least the first few years. That is a lot. Wouldn’t we be better off devising more sets of basic sequences to study? Don’t we risk unnecessary confusion by piling on so much kata?

So Why Do Kata?
So do I advocate discarding kata altogether? Not at all. While I believe in creativity in structuring training to include more than just the standard “3 K’s” (kihon, kata, kumite) as well as varied training within these.

Integrating Kata with the Rest of Your Training
Most instructors would agree that kihon, kata and kumite should all go hand-in-hand, the practice of one helping the others. But as these different training categories are trained in many dojo, they share little more than a superficial relationship. Students jump around during kumite and rush their kata without understanding application, treating basics as no more than a necessary and boring set of exercises.

Of course this is not the case in YOUR dojo… But the point is that the integration of these training categories is often not meeting the claims of the instructors. Kata is a series of basic techniques/movements, with each having various potential applications in kumite. Training in each of the “3 K’s” should help progress in the others. And each helps complement the others as there are certain components in each not found or emphasized in the others. For example, we may sometimes in kihon practice stepping to the side in side-stance, delivering a side-kick. This is not seen in standard JKA kata, for example. Nor are round-house or back-kicks. In kumite, we are allowed more flexibility in where we move and what techniques we employ, exploring variations in timing and distance, as another example. In kata, we have some techniques not allowed in kumite and we can easily imagine we are using our skills against multiple assailants.

Something for Everyone
Whenever people challenge Shotokan’s effectiveness against Jujutsu in UFC or actual combat-effectiveness on the street, I like to respond that self-defense is but one of very many possible benefits of training. And since we do not have self-defense as our only goal, others SHOULD be expected to do it better. Some people may also point out that there are better ways to get a workout. Sure there are. But again the workout is just one of many components to the practice of karate.

Depending on who is doing it and why, kata can be so many things.

  • Exercise
  • Training in the basics
  • Training of strategy and footwork to use in kumite
  • Self-defense preparation
  • As an art form, as almost a form of dance
  • As part of a personal journey and self-reflection


Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published July 2007)