Kata is very energetic. Once you get on a role, it can feel like an avalanche of focus and momentum.
In some ways, that’s good. It means that the form has been learned and you no longer need to pause, scratch your head, and try desperately to remember what comes next. Unfortunately, that same momentum can carry you away and cause you to miss some of the finer details of kata execution.
One aspect that is frequently overlooked is…looking. Often, when individuals perform a kata, they become transfixed on what their hands and feet are doing. They snap blocks, fire punches, and move crisply. However, throughout the entire performance, their head stays laser straight, looking ahead at all times.
That sounds like a good thing, right? You would want to be looking in front of you if that’s where the bad guy is. The problem occurs in the directional changes.
If we move our entire body without looking where we are going first, we’ve made a conceptual error. Although the kata dictates we go one way or the other, we need to visualize a real opponent in that place. As such, a real opponent can be unpredictable. We can’t simply shift and block and magically know where the attack is coming from and at what distance. We have to LOOK first. Once we spot the enemy, we can then act in accordance with kata.
Often looking means turning our head slightly and shifting our eyes to the new opponent. We do this before committing to a stance or response, as is advisable in a real confrontation. Therefore, during training, we can take an entire pattern and make sure our eyes and head are moving before technique execution.
Of course, as with any good rule of thumb, there are exceptions.
Even though kata tends to turn in many directions, such movements do not necessarily mean a new opponent is arriving. Sometimes it can indicate that you, the defender, have trapped your opponent and are throwing them. Your body movement is then an ample method for creating that throw. If this is the case, you wouldn’t need to be looking all around – you’ll want to focus on the opponent at hand and execute the throw to maximum efficiency. After that, you can either strike the grounded opponent again or move on.
The important factor here is knowing which method of visualization you are employing. If you are keeping your eyes straight ahead during a turn, is it because you are maximizing a throw? If not, and you intend to address a new opponent, would you be wiser to take a peek first?
GUEST AUTHOR: Marie Lazeration Richter began her martial journey nearly seven years ago learning traditional Karate-Do at Shotokan East in York, PA; currently, she studies and serves as a junior instructor in Tai Chi Chuan with Sifu Steve Kleppe at Shao Lin Boxing Methods in Waukesha, WI. As a freelance writer, Marie assisted Master Kwon Wing Lam with the editing of his latest book, “Authentic Five Animals Style Hasayfu Hung Kuen.” She may be reached via email at mlrichter@ mac.com.
Taikyoku shodan. Yoi.
I heard the words. While I was hoping that it was merely a kind suggestion from Sensei, I knew better…it was a command. Karate mirrors life – commands are serious, specific, absolute. My only option was to obey. And funny how it wasn’t the first words that made every muscle seize up, but rather that one, tiny little “yoi.” Be ready.
In this moment, I was to prepare myself to perform taikyoku shodan, one of the first kata, or prescribed series of basic moves, taught to students of Shotokan karate. Ask any higher belt: this was the easy stuff. But somehow my arms, legs, hands and feet became wholly independent appendages – often jockeying for position and colliding with one another while my brain screamed, “Left! Left! No, your other left!” Adding insult to injury is the fact that I am a reasonably intelligent adult who despises failure on any level. Ha! Yoi indeed.
How did I manage to find myself here, blatantly parading my inadequacies in front of men, women and children? Ah, love. It’s true…love will make you do crazy things, especially when you are a mother. My youngest attended classes for awhile and, in the process, piqued the interest of my oldest. Quite specifically, a near-teen boy who still thinks his mom is an ok companion. “Let’s do this together,” he said. Saying no was never an option.
So there we were, my beloved son and I, learning how to block, punch, kick and follow orders in a foreign language. You know how people say that kids are like sponges? Well, let’s just say that while my eldest resembled something akin to a bright, vibrant household cleaning tool fresh from its package, I could have easily been mistaken for some poor, forgotten sea creature whose crevices long refused to absorb anything of value.
Yes, old and craggy I felt, and none too pleased with the realization, either. But something incredible was happening simultaneously: I continued to try. As feeble and awkward as I felt at times, I never gave up. Through the haze of exasperation and frustration, I recalled one of life’s most important lessons: A failed attempt does not equal failure. Who spoke such sage wisdom? Was it Vince Lombardi, FDR, or perhaps inspiration from Mother Teresa? No, wait…I said that. Certainly to my two kids, and quite possibly to my husband, when whatever was looming seemed just too hard to master. I told them countless times that the path of learning – heck, the road of life – is paved with mistakes. There comes a time when you have to stop focusing on all the wrongs and embrace that one, important thing that’s right: your willingness to stick with it.
Today, it’s different…it may have been the love of my kids that landed me in this alien universe of precision and discipline, but it is for the love of myself that I remain. Although I still hear my brain yelling out directions my body can’t quite follow just yet (or, more likely, the voice belongs to a blackbelt doomed to suffer from apoplexy as a reward for his attempts to correct my shortcomings), I try and focus more on what another part of me has to say in the matter. Regardless, I listen. With unwavering certainty, I know the command will come again. But this time, I am ready.
Of the many formalities that come along with traditional martial arts, shouting kata names has to be one of the most noticeable.
The actual execution of the kata announcement varies wildly, from calm utterances to screams that cause nearby glass to shatter. Interestingly, the act of yelling a kata name is extremely old and almost universally practiced among traditionalists.
Lately I’ve been doing it less and less. I’d like to share some thoughts on when I think it’s appropriate, and when you might be able to forego it.
When To Shout It Out
There are a few realities in modern training that make kata announcement necessary. The first, and most obvious, is tournament play.
Judges can’t possibly know what form competitors will be attempting, so it’s prudent to give them a heads up. Of course, judges of different styles many never have heard of the form anyway, and even if they have their style might perform it differently. Nevertheless, it seems like fair courtesy to inform them.
But if you walk up to the judges and tell them the name of the kata, do you need to yell it again right before you start? By informing them of your name/style/kata, didn’t you negate the need for the big name-scream-dramatics?
I’ve always found the polite, informative introduction to be more prudent.
Another time kata yelling seems appropriate is in a big group setting. A teacher has to keep all pupils on the same page. When a student is first learning a kata, it is quite helpful to repeat the name in context over and over again. This repetition helps learn proper pronunciation as well as mental association of the name with the movements.
When I’m teaching, I’ll generally announce the kata and wait a moment for the students to repeat. We’ll all then begin together.
Declaring the kata name puts everyone’s focus on the kata. I can use the tone of my voice to indicate what level of intensity students should be expending. If I say the kata softly and calmly, they can infer that our intent is to go slowly and discuss things. If I say the kata forcefully, they will know that a high level of power is expected.
By saying the name of the kata, I can also transition from one form to the next without an extended explanation. In a dojo environment where there are multiple students, this seems like a reasonable practice.
Foregoing the Shout
When I train alone or via the older Okinawan methods of ‘independent togetherness’ I rarely announce kata because the intent and focus is much different.
When training a kata for depth, a severe amount of visualization must occur. The mind becomes like a taut string. Intensity has to be carefully balanced with control and purpose. This mixture of emotional content and physical expression is directed at the imaginary yet vivid opponent in front of you.
Shouting the name of kata in that environment is awkward and rips you from the moment, reminding you that you are practicing a form. If there were an opponent in front of you, you certainly would not begin your life protection by yelling kata at him/her.
You might argue that yelling the kata gets you amped up or puts you in the right frame of mind for combat, but I don’t think that is a good habit to rely upon. “Flipping the switch” into a mental state of readiness should occur quickly and silently; a subtle shift that causes the hair on the back of your opponent’s neck to stand on end.
There is also a bit of ego and showmanship that can slip in with kata yelling. It’s a moment that can be used to draw attention to oneself, even in a group setting. Therefore a student may become obsessed with yelling louder than anyone else. During individual performance, they could be worried about how tough and intimidating they want their shout to sound.
It’s all distracting, peripheral stuff that doesn’t relate to good performance of kata.
How to Shout
To me, the best kata announcement is serious but not obnoxious. Whenever I have someone screaming kata at me it makes me doubt their focus. Screaming is a result of uncontrolled anger and intensity. These aren’t the makings of a skilled martial artist.
On the other hand, meekness or lackadaisical tone gives me a clue that the practitioner is not yet in the right state of mind. What are they waiting for? I feel like the focus should be activated well before the kata name is spoken.
You won’t catch me lecturing people away from saying kata names before performance if they want to do it. In fact, I do it myself in certain situations. But at times it feels like it goes against the true nature and culture of Okinawan karate (my personal background). As such, I’ll be voicing my kata less and less….