Personal Kata training – taking the red pill

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

Morpheus, The Matrix

Kata is a form of training that divides the martial arts community.  As martial artists our obvious focus is on paired activity, with its immediate feedback on our strengths and weaknesses and clear benefit for the development (and ‘measurement’) of fighting spirit, timing, reaction time, telegraph reading, distancing, power and speed.  Against this the solo exercise of Kata on the surface seems to develop little that is not already worked by Kihon drills.  Even amongst Karateka whose systems drill kata as a core syllabus requirement, there are experienced people who view them as no more than a traditional ‘chore’ to be trained for the purpose of passing gradings.

Kata can be studied and trained for many different reasons.  What I’m discussing below are my thoughts on personal Kata training with a view to improving close quarter combative ability, rather than attempting to improve the look of the movements to conform to an aesthetic ideal, or using Kata as a vehicle for recovery and injury management after an accident.

When engaged in solo training you need to visualise your opponent(s). Visualisation is not necessarily the best term since it only implies seeing, whereas what we should be doing is imagining an event.  See the attack, hear the attack, imagine how the impact feels on your body, how your movements affect the other person.  You should try and build from your strengths into your weaknesses.  Start with the strongest perceptual sense that you can recreate – be it sight, or sound, or touch, or smell – and create that memory. Each technique, each sequence should be practiced in context when training solo.  Don’t do a move for the sake of a pre-determined sequence, you move to create an effect.  Visualisation is not difficult, but it requires practice to become an effective training tool.  One of the limitations of visualisation is that it generally requires experience.  What I mean by this is that to effectively create a memory and reinforce that memory you need to have had real experience of the physical practice of elements of that training.  For example it would be difficult to recreate an arm bar in the mind (even if doing the physical movement concurrently) if you do not have the visual and tactile framework of reference of applying the technique.

This is controversial.  I recently had a long conversation over some liquid refreshment with a friend in the early hours of a morning about conflict management.  He was convinced that his past training, in a martial art which will remain nameless, enabled him to snap another person’s arm with a simple crossing of his arms, despite the fact he had never done this for real.  In fact this seemed to be his solution to any form of violence against him.  There is an issue between the disconnect between practicality and student gullibility when it comes to many of the ‘too deadly to spar’ techniques in martial arts.  It is very easy to give a compliant training partner an unpleasant injury by applying a locking technique with too much force, too much speed, or a poor angle of attack.  The reality of causing a fight ending injury against an actively resisting (and striking) opponent under pressure in an adrenaline fueled environment can be very different.  You will get good at what you train for, and if you want to get good at striking or grappling, you need to get your hands dirty and work those physical skills.   Tactile memory is vital for building accurate and useful visualisation skills.

Speed is a variable, not a constant.  Work slowly as you create your visualisation.  When it is strong in your mind, you can move fast, but there is little pressing need to move fast when you are creating such important pathways in your mind to reinforce appropriate behaviour.  If you run before you can walk here you will begin to dance rather than shadow box.  One further aspect of slow speed training with regard to visualisation is that many people experience ‘slow time’ under the influence of high adrenaline levels.  Time does not actually slow down, it is merely a perceptual distortion, just like ‘fast time’.  Given that this perception of slow time is relatively common in high stress encounters, rehearsing in slow time and imagining things in slow time can actually help make the rehearsal more beneficial.  Training at high speed is an important part of training overall, but it should not characterise all your training.  Speed can instead be used for the supplementary impact training on pads and bags, which in turn helps create tactile memory.

Treat Kata like an exercise book, not a short children’s book.  People tend to want to do a Kata from start to finish, because that is how the memory of the movements is taught in class.  When you train Kata solo, treat it like a school exercise book, working methodically on a page at a time rather than reading quickly from cover to cover like a simple picture story book for young children. Pick and choose exercises, and work on them.  A single short exercise done for 5 minutes well is better than 3 rushed repetitions of a whole Kata.  This is  a crucial element of good quality solo Karate training.  Too often people feel that they need to set aside 30 minutes or an hour to train properly, or that they need to sweat buckets and elevate their heart rate.  I do not dispute the value of longer periods of aerobic training, but for many people it can be difficult to fit these regularly into their daily lives.  Furthermore, the key benefits of such training are the development of the grit to carry on and the aerobic capacity to sustain a fight.  I would suggest that these qualities do not necessarily have to be developed through Karate practice, and that in many cases running/rowing or swimming could have similarly beneficial effects (and be easier to do).  Returning to the concept of short periods of training, the vast majority of people cannot effectively focus intently for more than 20 minutes at a time, so training for short periods of time is not necessarily a bad thing.  A focused five minutes can not only have greater value, but also be easier to fit into a daily routine.

In class each Kata performed as a whole takes up a fairly large amount of space in a particular shape.  The advantage of breaking down the Kata to focus on small sequences (as described above) is that far less space is required, which in turn makes it easier to find a moment to practice.  Combinations can often involve little more than a shuffle in terms of footwork and can be practiced in an area smaller than 1m squared.  More complicated applications that involve moving and changing direction can be done in areas of 1m by 2m.   The recognition that less space is required may seem to be common sense, but it brings with it (as does working for smaller amounts of time) a greater freedom to practice.  Visualisation training with Kata does mean that space and movement can be unnecessary, and indeed studies have shown that even the muscles (as opposed to the mind) can gain a small benefit from visualisation without movement.

Kata as performed and learned in class is a generic model of techniques that hint at applications and tactics.  Kata is often executed and taught as a group activity in the Dojo (students moving to a called count, or doing the same Kata at the same time) and as such is rather like a stretchy T shirt on a shop manikin.  When you train at home you are wearing that T shirt, not the manikin, so it now conforms to your body.  Essentially this means that while the fibers and colours that make up the Kata remain the same, the content is now free to vary.  Your body has different strengths and weaknesses to that of the average Karateka, and so in solo practice you should allow your body to begin to shape your personal interpretation and application of the movements that make up that Kata.  Through rigorous training you can shape your body to make that T shirt look good, but the T shirt ultimately conforms to you.  Solo Kata should be your Kata.

There is a natural form of evolution to intensive, visualised solo Kata training that has to be accepted if the individual Karateka is to truly make a Kata their own.  If a Kata is regularly broken down into individual exercises, trained according to visualised (and practised) application, technique preference, space and time, it will change.  A movement trained by a class generically, but designed to suit an ‘original’ martial artist’s specific intention, will change as an individual adapts it for their own purpose and build.  The student might happily practice a Kata that looks almost identical to those of the other students in class, but ask that student to perform the same Kata as they train it alone in front of the group, and the sequence, repetition and shape of many of the movements will have morphed.  Taking this perspective into consideration the sheer number of the overlaps of sequences and subtle variations in movements between many of Karate’s Kata begin to make sense.

The question for the individual student is how far do they wish to go down the rabbit hole?  Do they wish to explore further and in greater depth and see where their personal Kata leads them? Finally, from that stage of development and insight do they wish to save their personal Kata for themselves, teaching only as they were taught, or teach the revised material to their own students as others have done before them?  The further the path of detailed individual Kata study is trod, the harder it becomes to use the older more established generic path.  Both paths have value, but there’s only one way to discover which is actually the best for you.

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