Thursday, 17 February 2011

A Dilemma: Learning Kata Above Your Grade.

I have a bit of a karate related dilemma at the moment, and the more I’ve mulled it over, the more it seems like a good blog post topic. So I’m throwing some thoughts on it out into cyberland to see what comes back at me.

A fellow karateka recently asked me about teaching them some of the higher kyu kata I know and also mentioned that they were interested in learning the patterns of all the kata up to black belt before the year's out (they’re currently at orange belt (7th kyu)). At this point in the post, if you’re reading (which I know you do) you know who you are and I hope you don’t mind me using this as a blog topic! Eek!.

I’ve been giving this considerable thought of late. Mainly because for a reason I couldn’t fathom right away, the request made me a little uncomfortable. At first I wondered if it was a pride thing (tisk! How very un-karateka like! LOL), was I trying to keep this knowledge I had close to my chest? Hoarding what I’d learnt just for me? I soon came to realise that wasn’t the case. I’d happily show any student the kata required for their grade and maybe even their next grading step. I’ll share with them all the little things I learnt whilst I was learning it. All the tips and tricks other people told me to make the kata come together. So, it wasn’t about hoarding the knowledge. Why the wobble then?

To get to the bottom of my indecision I thought I’d try putting myself in the requesting karateka’s gi for a moment. I’ve come to realise that we’re very similar creatures this other student and I. When I first started learning karate (once I’d gotten over the initially shock at my unintentional arrival in the world of martial arts!) I couldn’t get enough information. I still can’t, to a degree. I’m the same with any new venture I embark upon. I have a thirst for knowledge. I need the information, and gad dang it I need it now! LOL. I remember wanting to know more kata. Craving more knowledge than I could possibly retain. Wanting to learn the new blocks, the new strikes, the new stances. Feeling the need to fill my metaphorical karate cup till it was overflowing. And therein lies the rub. If you try to do that, if you try to cram everything you want to know into your little newly purchased karate cup, stuff is lost. It spills over the sides. You can’t retain it.

Blimey, that was a bit deep for a Thursday lunchtime, wasn’t it? Where’d that come from? LOL.

So I think that’s were my hesitation is coming from. I’ve learnt from my own karate journey experience that if you rush to learn to much stuff you risk losing the information you’ve already learnt. I rushed ahead with the first few kata and to my detriment they were never quite as good as they should have been. Later on in my training I’ve had to go back and unpick the bad habits I had and relearn the kata, better. In the rush to acquire more knowledge I ended up making more work for myself. I’ve learnt that lesson the hard way. These days I think about the kata required for my grade and nothing else (except on the occasions I'm instructed to by my teacher). First the pattern, then the techniques and the stances, then tweaking every little thing until I know I’d doing the best job I can. Even then I’m always striving to do it better next time. To make is stronger, tighter, faster. This doesn't only go for my current kyu kata either. My earlier kata are stronger every class because my awareness of my techniques increases all the time and my motor/muscle memory it stronger week by week.

I can see why someone would want to know the patterns to all the kata. I've been there. The argument in favour is sound on the surface at least. To know all the patterns then when you come to it at a later date you can just pad out what’s there. Ultimately though, I don’t think that’s conducive to good kata or good karate in the long run. There are stances and techniques in higher katas that you haven’t covered yet and you need to know the basics before you can think about even the pattern of the kata. They’re the building blocks after all and you can’t build the top of the tower without the lower layers. It’s a recipe for bad habits I think and bad habits are much harder to prevent than they are to unpick, for sure!

I’ve been looking around the web to see if I can find any other discussion for either side of this dilemma and to be honest almost everything I can find comes down on the side of learning kata above your grade being a bad idea. The reasoning is mostly the same to.

There’s here:

It is far better to have a good understating of one kata than a superficial understanding of many. Do not rush when learning the kata or be in a hurry to move on to the next one. Take your time and always emphasize quality over quantity.

and here:

Most students today seems to be in a hurry to learn their much so that they often forget that Kata is a practice of perfection. Rushing through the movements causes the student to lose the deeper appreciation for the fine aspects of this rare art form. Take time when training your Kata to enjoy its finer points. The beauty of the stances, the precision of its defenses and the flowing of the techniques into one complete Kata.

and here:

Never rush through the movements Furthermore never rush to learn a new kata until the instructor recommends you to do so. It is said that in former days of martial arts training a single kata was practiced for a minimum of three years. Today a student will often come up impatiently and say that he “knows” all of a kata and wants to do the next one when in fact the student only knows the sequence of the moves and would actually need to learn a lot more about stances, balance, power etc. before he can proceed to a more difficult one.

“Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect” and in kata practice, there are no pads, no partners, you only have yourself to motivate you, consequently you must overcome your own criteria, discover your own strengths and be disciplined enough to overcome your own weaknesses.

To quote just a few. Different schools of karate. Different kata probably, but the same emphasis.

Quality Over Quantity.

I’m particularly fond of this statement:

“Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect” *

*ETA. I've been mulling this over since posting and I came to the conclusion this isn't quite right. I don't think anything in karate (or elsewhere) can really be "perfect". I'd amend it to "perfect practive makes progess" I think :).

Time to wrap up those thoughts into an answer then. Sometimes it’s hard to say no to people. Most people strive to be helpful to others (I would hope anyway) and saying no doesn’t always seem conducive to being helpful. Let’s face it, no one wants to come across as an unhelpful bitch, do they? In this case though, I think no probably is helpful. Especially with an explanation of why the “no” is given. In the long term it’s better to go slow. Take your time. Perfect the grade kata you’re on and the ones before it before you move onto higher things. Cement your learning with perfect practice until you find that your karate cup has grown that little bit bigger and can hold just that bit more information. Time for advanced kata will come – and when you get there you might well wish you hadn’t! LOL.



  1. Wow, your orange belt student is in a rush! It didn't even occur to me to learn a higher grade kata than I needed to - it seemed enough just to learn the one I was on. Your student needs to realise that he/she won't learn more karate just by learning the patterns of more kata - kata need to be studied not just learnt. One cannot rush learning a budo - our minds may race ahead but our bodies can't be rushed. Perhaps you could remind your student of the three Rs in budo training - Repetition, Repetition, Repetition. You will be a wise woman if you refuse to teach all these kata to an orange belt - it won't help them.

  2. Thanks Sue.

    The karateka in question isn't really "my" student (it's a fellow student in the seniors class, another adult). I definitely agree with what you've said though. Hopefully they won't hold it against me ;) LOL.

  3. Hey marie stop talking about me. Ha Ha, I've only practised my first two katas for the last two months I'm not rushing (a lot) I learn the katas by going over them in my head not by actual practice, the only time I ever do them is when in the class and I can copy stances etc so its all good. Oh and I am your student somewhat because you do teach me things.

  4. Great topic.

    We try not to let the students get too far ahead of themselves. We had a group of brown belt students consistanly ask for the "advanced material". The instructors kept telling them to focus on the material they needed for shodan. Eventually, we had to completely stop working on new material so they could focus on refining their technique and basics. They were not happy at first. They only realized the benefit after they successfully tested for shodan and passed with ease.