Kata and waza are both limited by themselves. They are useless until one learns how to apply them in context.”

Motobu Choki

I’ve been fascinated lately with the struggle to define what karate is, why it is or is not special among fighting arts, and specifically, what role kata play in all of this. A quick look around karate blogs and discussion forums makes it evident that more and more practitioners are looking for answers.

Some seem to content to lean on the dojo kun or Confucian-esque observation of customs and “correct behavior”, which implies that karate is not unlike the Boy Scouts. Often this comes with a distinct air of “if you don’t do it like this, you’re simply a heathen running around on the mats.” When other martial arts groups that use codes of conduct are pointed out, many traditional karate people act like wine critics and put on an air of superiority- even when the codes are worded the same as the dojo kun. So much for open-mindedness.

Others point out the bewildering array of Japanese customs and aesthetics, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with karate per se and more with status and the allure of the unfamiliar. The ritual surrounding Japanese karate has reached such a level of conflation that many traditionalists cannot help but imitate Japanese instructors, or see the separation between training for practicality and training for aesthetics.

Techniques are often credited as distinguishing features of karate and given all sorts of misplaced reverence. Yet when looked at from a global perspective, the techniques really aren’t that unique. Fighting may take many forms, but there are certain absolutes placed on it by anatomy, physiology, psychology and physics. So while certain groups or schools may have a particularly useful or interesting variation on a punch, strike or pin, they are hardly unique to karate. Anyone who is looking for ways to move efficiently under stress and respond to an attacker will eventually recognize the continuum that all fighting techniques occupy. And a funny thing tends to happen to orthodox technician karate people when it comes down to actually hitting a pad, bag or person with force- heels rise up, shoulders hunch a bit, elbows flare out on delivery. If there is a significant functional difference between a boxer’s cross and a gyaku zuki it’s somehow escaping impact testing equipment and slow motion video analysis.

And then there’s kata- this is where it gets really tangled. Almost every karate school and practitioner out there will say that “kata are the heart of karate.” Yet the manifestations of this are often less than clear. For some this is simply performing the routines without any thought to application but rather developing “spirit” or “the budo mindset.” For others it’s taking every current trend in fighting sports and claiming to have “discovered” them in all of the old-school kata. Some groups shill fantasy-inspired no-touch knockouts and chi techniques, or “ikken hisatsu” ideation, blind to the fact that their students are learning nothing useful. For many they are a panacea, supposedly capable of imparting deadly fighting skills, a Zen monk’s training and all encompassing fitness. Yet this is all bound by the firm insistence that karate is not actually for fighting, even though kata supposedly contain deadly techniques that far outstrip anything allowed in the UFC and somehow create enlightened persons.

If you push for concrete answers about the how and why of these claims from the true-believers, expect to be told that you simply haven’t been training long enough, or correctly, with the proper spirit, or with the proper group. At some point it will likely circle back around to “it isn’t really about fighting anyway” (which begs the question: why do you offer self defense on your advertisements?). All of these are dodges to a question that should be simple to answer, assuming the person being questioned actually has an answer.

The question of what is karate for often gets ignored. If no on can figure out what it’s for, then why should anyone be motivated to do it? If I have limited time to spend on pursuit of a martial art, what do shrill pseudo-Confucian edicts, a “tactical dueling system” with no real value outside of the dojo or martially-inspired aerobics in Japanese attire have to offer? All karate groups advertise self-defense skills as part of the their training. If this claim is made, it trumps all others. Instructors have an obligation to their students to actually develop these skills, no matter what else they may think is important.

With that in mind, a look at the claims about kata and how these conflict with evidence-based research might offer some insight into how karate can be approached for practical purposes.

Solo kata and “Muscle Memory”

An argument is often made that repeating movements via kata makes strong “muscle memory” of the techniques, which will then be automatically applicable when a fight breaks out. Students are often praised for being able to perform a kata in a particular way, and instructors or organizations often claim that the movements are direct analogs to “battle tested” fighting techniques and skills. Repetition of the kata will ingrain these into the student and make them automatic responses to violence.  Unfortunately, this is a less than accurate interpretation of motor learning and skill acquisition. It’s also an extremely naïve approach to learning or teaching how to develop skill in something as physically and cognitively complex as fighting.  For a practitioner with significant practical experience, kata may indeed be a useful way to catalog information and reflect upon her abilities and experiences. But without experience to apply to the form, kata are inadequate as a teaching tool; performing the movements as a solo exercise will not develop the skills needed to actually learn something from a kata.

The difference here is a top-down vs. bottom-up approach. The top-down method seeks to stamp the movements in a kata onto training, with the assumption that the movements- and related attacks- have value as is. The bottom-up approach seeks to relate salient experiences from partner work, bag/pad work, sparring and possibly actual fights to kata sequences which bear a resemblance to those experiences. For a number of reasons, the second approach is of the most use to the student concerned with training for practical application. Clearly, kata are not necessary to develop these skills and reflect on them, but for the purposes of discussing kata as a training method it’s worth mentioning. By contrast, the concept that solo kata can be applied to fighting a priori can actually limit a student’s development and encourage the “magical thinking” that has no place in schools that advertise self-defense as a component of training. Solo practice of kata to develop “muscle memory” for dynamic exchanges is a manifestation of the top-down approach.

To take this exact line of reasoning outside of karate, let’s consider the task of learning to play a tuba. I can’t play a tuba. But I can imagine playing a tuba, and I can even move my fingers, mouth and body in a way that suggests that I am carrying a tuba and playing it. Months or years of practice might enable me to look like I would know what to do with a tuba if presented with one. I could even start developing theories about placement, proper aesthetics, the spiritual domain of tuba-carrying, and the best way to condition for carrying a tuba. If given a tuba and told to move around the field with a marching band and look like I was playing with the band I could probably do a fair job (group kata, anyone?). The untrained eye would not notice a difference between my air-tuba gestures and the performance of the actual players.

Yet if given an actual tuba and told to play it I would fail utterly. Despite my repetition of perfect air-tuba technique my actual skills in playing a tuba remain undeveloped. I would not have developed the skills to monitor other players and moderate my own playing in response, adjust volumes and pitches or to produce the correct tones with the proper keying and breathing patterns. When it comes down to it, after all of that time and practice I still wouldn’t be able to play a damn thing on the tuba. Some basic concepts about hand positioning, posture, movement and keying might have emerged somewhere in my tuba miming, but the ability to do it for real has not. By comparison the application of kata done only for the sake of aesthetic performance to actual fighting skills is no different.

Repetition and Visualization

A quick look through a psychology or education text makes it clear that repeated exposure to material does strengthen our ability to recall it. Context plays a large role in this. New information is best retained when it relates to information already stored in memory. The more strongly a new memory is associated to existing information that relates to it, the better. In the case of solo kata the implication is often that practicing the movements while visualizing attackers is an effective way to learn how to fight. While performing kata with visualization may be useful for advanced practitioners whose kata are a mnemonic for things they can actually do or have done in a physical engagement, it does not benefit a student who has never actually done them. The movements have nothing to relate to. Without the rich sensory experience of trading committed punches with a partner or successfully manipulating a shoulder to take someone to the floor, the supposedly sophisticated contents of kata are meaningless. Even if simple kihon-style attacks and responses are included with solo practice, the attacks are too artificial and the responses too algorithmic to be successfully applied to the chaotic and decidedly non-algorithmic nature of physical violence. Practicing use of the opening of Heian Nidan to respond to oi-zuki will not automatically translate to using those movements to respond to a loose hook or flurry or punches.

The concept of visualization to improve performance has gained scientific traction in the last several years. fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging, which can show patterns of brain activity occurring in real-time) research along these lines has shown that visualizing an action for several weeks can produce performance results comparable to a group that has actually done the physical training. Given a few days to train in the actual exercise, the imagery group can achieve the same performance as the physical group in less time than someone who has done neither. This might seem to lend credence to the idea that simply doing kata while visualizing attackers will yield results.

However, success with visualization requires two things: a significant amount of existing experience and skill, and first-hand experience with the attacks and responses in question. Otherwise the association is based on imagination as opposed to experiential memory. The study mentioned above should be taken with a grain of salt, since the task in question was lifting a small weight with a finger. Moving a finger is something that most all human beings have a lifetime of familiarity with, making it something that visualization of a related activity can be associated to. Fighting is not a universal experience, and there are so many variables involved when two (or more) people fight that even someone with fighting experience cannot account for them all.

The other significant finding in visualization training is that perspective has a dramatic effect. It’s most effective when we imagine the event from our own perspective, not an external one. Without going into too much detail, the motor regions of our brain that fire to perform an action will also fire when imagining that action or when watching someone else perform that action. The relevant neural maps fire more completely when it is us who performs the action, either in reality or in visualization.  Of all the types of visualization practiced by competitive athletes, motor imagery is the most beneficial. Again, existing information and skills are required for the visualization to make a meaningful association.

Context and Recall

To develop the ability to respond to certain attack in a certain way the student must practice being attacked and responding in ways that closely resemble both. The closer those representations are to reality, the better. The more varied the contexts for the attack and response are in training, the richer the associations created by training. If these training activities resemble an actual attack and not a “karate” attack they will stand a better chance at forming useful associations.  Given the complexity of fighting, this is obviously a gigantic task that reaches far beyond the woefully inadequate “3 K’s” pedagogy and constant “polishing” of basic technique.

The 3 K’s seek to apply rigidly algorithmic top-down reasoning to training for an activity that is inherently chaotic and unpredictable. Although a student may spend substantial time on these types of encounters they do not associate strongly to the nature of violent assault, so chances of them being successfully applied via “muscle memory” are low at best. Basic skills and techniques must be sharp, but as Motobu Choki pointed out, “Kata and waza are both limited by themselves. They are useless until one learns how to apply them in context.”

It’s worth mentioning that learning and recall are strongest when someone discovers information, or a relationship between information, for themselves. Independent discovery can be seen as a pseudonym for kata as mnemonic. Taken in combination with some of the concepts above, it becomes obvious that using kata as a teaching tool requires that the learner have a substantial vocabulary of experiences to apply to the movements. Testing this vocabulary through partner work is a much stronger learning environment than solo kata practice and visualization. It can be related to kata where appropriate, ie, bottom-up. I would also qualify that by saying that such partner work should resemble fighting as closely as possible (i.e., the nature of attacks and drills, not necessarily the intent or intensity) since we are concerned with developing practical fighting ability. Kihon on kihon style partner work may develop these areas tangentially, but is too artificial (algorithmic) to build the broad vocabulary that’s needed.

Motor Learning and Control

We must also consider the role of various non-verbal representational systems used in performing the actions of training and fighting. These motor memory representations of skills and situations are the source of the so-called “muscle memory.” Conscious motor control takes place in the pre motor and motor cortices of the brain, a strip that runs roughly from ear to ear across the hemispheres. Execution of motor commands is carried out in the cerebellum, a densely folded bundle of tissue that contains as many neurons as the rest of the brain combined despite occupying only 10% of the total brain volume. As motor skills and movement patterns are refined and used their neural maps gradually shift to representation in the cerebellum, where their execution is more efficient and can become tied to reflex actions.

If we examine the practice of solo kata it’s evident that the motor representations of performing the kata are not related to anything external, such as an attack. The representations are associated to proprioception (the position of the body’s parts in space and with relation to each other i.e., movement). While this may be an effective way to enhance physical self-awareness, it does not address the stimulus required to model responses to various types of attacks.

Learning to identify affordances (the possibilities presented by a target to a weapon or maneuver) requires repeated exposure to training activities which resemble those actions.  While this does not mean that training time should consist of fighting, it does suggest a model for skill development that is based on gradual and varied exposure to scenarios that resemble elements of fighting. For example, a simple punch ducking drill can take on a format ranging from simple to complex. In the beginning a student stands toe to toe with a partner who throws looping hooks towards the head at low speed. The student has a relatively large margin for error to learn how to effectively duck under those punches, parry them and find a target to counter strike. After a while the speed of the punches increases and the student learns to do these things at speed. Once he or she can reliably get out of harm’s way, free movement may be introduced into the drill, mimicking the changing angles and vectors of a fight situation. More complex responses, such as slipping the punches, manipulating the punching arm in mid-swing, or going from a duck straight into a double leg takedown can be explored.

All of these skills resemble elements of fighting more than simple repetition of kata. If kata application and interpretation are introduced, the student already has a wide base of skills to draw upon. Their “form” won’t “go out the window” when it comes time to apply it because their form is a product of identifying appropriate opportunities for applying a variety of skills.  At this point he or she may be able to “read” kata sequences and identify movement pattens that resemble the actions and affordances that they’ve already learned.


Kata are insufficient as a physical conditioning method for several reasons, but primarily the physiological principle of SAID applies. SAID stands for Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands.  In a nutshell, the body adapts to the physiological demands placed on it by activity. Imposing the same demands on it over time results in a plateau of adaptations such as stability, strength, speed, agility or power, and long term repetition may actually lead to a deficit in movement skills. It can be thought of like a computer- a computer will only work in ways that it has been programmed to do. The body will only produce adaptations to specific activities which it has been exposed to in a regular fashion.

SAID  applies to kata as a conditioning activity. For someone who is not very physically active or very fit, kata performance may yield some initial improvement in coordination, cardiorespiratory fitness and stability. Compared to the beginner who has not done much since PE class or doing some Tai Chi in college, an active person or conditioned athlete will gain little benefit from simple repetition of kata. But the demands placed on the body by vigorous training to strike, throw, evade and absorb impact are far greater. Activity specific training on a well designed conditioning program will yield much better results in performance and ability, as well as increasing tolerance of percussive impacts and falls. Just as a weight lifter will not get any stronger if he lifts the same weight for years, kata can only go so far in developing physical conditioning.

That leaves training time open to focus on developing a repertoire of techniques, fighting skills and improvement of particular attributes. Traditional karate teachers often lament that they have spent months or years drilling “proper form” into their students. Yet when the pad work, bag work or vigorous sparring begins, the student’s “form” goes out the window. The above discussions on motor learning and context/recall shed some light as to why this is so- all those hours of being given micro-managed instruction on how the hips should turn or where the fist should rotate to have no base of experience to relate to. Air punching has nothing to do with the mechanics of hitting something and experiencing feedback.

Spending time on developing a base of skills that resemble the demands of fighting provides the student with a solid base of motor skill and knowledge that can be applied for practical aims. And if kata are your cup of tea, such experiential knowledge is light years ahead of kata repetition and air-punching in enabling a student to interpret kata in ways that actually resemble fighting as opposed to stilted attempts at “making” them work within stylistic aesthetics. Kata may be more useful if they are introduced as a method of reflecting on learning experiences, not the learning experience in itself. If that doesn’t sound like karate as it has come to be understood, fair enough- but if your training focuses on karate as a vehicle for learning how to fight, give it a shot.

Otherwise, what are you really training students to do?