To Kata or not to Kata? That is the Question!

An important part of studying karate as a high level belt is to explore the art’s history, but also the philosophies behind teaching methods and the reasons for what we teach in the dojo. Some of the conversations about these topics are on online forums and social media for karate practitioners. One of the more interesting questions lately is about the importance of kata in overall martial arts training. Some, however, have expressed the point of view that kata training is no longer necessary.

The other side of the argument contends that you can’t be a traditional dojo without kata training.

Which position is correct? Is the answer somewhere in the middle?

In my traditional martial arts training, now more than 25 years, I firmly believe that kata is relevant in today’s training. Not only does kata keep the student tied to the rich history of the style they are studying, there are gems of self defense techniques hidden in kata. One of my goals, and my duty, is to teach students to see them and explore them. There are other benefits.

Kata training exposes the student to the physical beauty of their style. Coordination, joint locks, throws, sweeps, and other elements are also contained in kata. Kata training is more than just another avenue to achieve the goal of self defense. Kata also makes students more aware of their body’s general health and conditioning. Kata requires concentration. In today’s noisy world with countless and simultaneous interruptions, developing focus and concentration is essential.

Not every martial arts practitioner wants to fight (spar). As we age, some of us have to limit or stop sparring for one reason or another. Kata training, however, can continue, allowing these practitioners to stay involved in an art they love and remain physically fit. I have seen kata performed by practitioners in their nineties. Even at that age, they still seek to understand subtle nuances of their kata and hidden defenses and attacks in them. Many other sports enthusiasts, such as boxing, wrestling, football, or others, have to end their full participation in their pastime, or limit it to coaching or just watching. That is not the case for karate and its kata.

Of course, you can learn offensive and defensive techniques without learning kata. A well trained boxer or wrestler is an example of this. For those whose main focus is life preservation then kata training might not seem to be as valuable to them as learning to kick and punch. Some practitioners pursue professional careers in boxing, mixed martial arts (MMA), military, law enforcement, and other endeavors, and might prefer to devote more time to self defense and less time to kata. Although I believe that their careers will be enhanced by kata training, I understand their motive to concentrate on only the specific mechanics and techniques of self-defense.

The question still remains whether can you be a traditional dojo without teaching kata. I say not. It is one thing to teach people some particular techniques they may need in a crowded city or walk to work for the night shift in a deserted area. Self defense is always good to have in your back pocket to pull out when absolutely necessary. Knowing how to diffuse a potential confrontation is important, especially when schools and workplaces have zero tolerance for fighting. But studying aspects of self-defense alone ignores the deeper experience and benefits of martial arts study that can last a lifetime.

Kata training can maintain your self-defense skills and sharpen them in case you need them in a non-dojo situation. Learning the history of our style, passed down through kata, provides insight into self-defense techniques. This knowledge helps to keep the art flowing from generation to generation.

To kata or not? My answer is clear: we teach kata because it enriches our knowledge of self-defense.