Kata: The Lonely Man’s Sensei

By Jeremy McLean

Solo training has been a taboo subject for quite some time now. Critics suggest the practice of karate is always best suited for more than one person. Partner drills, kumite, grappling skills, and conditioning in some cases lend themselves to having someone else participate. However, kata can be and is designed to be performed by one person.

One could argue that the entire spirit of karate dwells within each kata.

The idea that kata is merely exercise or robotic movements is a gross miscalculation. Kata not only provides basic movements, it also illustrates the practicality of those movements in combat situations. Kata also enriches stamina, endurance, power generation, and when done correctly, physical recovery of connective tissue. The goal of this article is to examine how we can rethink kata practice and its benefits from the perspective of personal training.

First and foremost, why would we train by ourselves? Solo training is done for many reasons but the following stand out:

  1. Supplemental training: Let’s assume that you have a dojo or club you enjoy attending and are deeply rooted in practice there. It’s always a good idea to actively pursue improving your technique and proficiency on your own time.
  2. Necessity: But what if there aren’t any quality instructors or dojos within a manageable distance from your home? With the boom of MMA gyms and “McDojos” quality instruction may be hard to come by.

Going at it alone….

One of the main components of solo training for karate is kata practice. Kata was designed to be done by the individual, requires no equipment, and minimal space. All that is really required is knowledge of the kata itself and of course the discipline to put in the necessary work. Kata in and of itself, is the soul of traditional karate.

To neglect kata makes a karateka incomplete.

Methodology for Kata Training

As with all aspects of karate training, kata is all about focus, repetition, and accuracy. Below are some methods I have found to be successful when learning a new kata and refining familiar ones. They are categorized but feel free to mix these methods in any arrangement that solidifies your learning experience.

Segmented Repetition

Segmented training allows you to break up a kata into sections, usually based on its pattern, and focus on that particular movement set to ease cognitive retention. In the broader spectrum, the intent is to add small sections of movements to each segment repetition until the kata is complete. This is the most basic method for learning a kata and could be considered a variation of the “counting” method found in most dojos.

Slow Repetitions

Running an entire kata sequence slowly allows for focus on individual stances and positions. The added benefit of holding certain stances for extended periods of time also increases muscle endurance. Cardiovascular endurance also improves through breath work while performing the kata sequences. The slow method has also proven beneficial, at least for me, for recovery in stiff knees and mild tendonitis of the hips.

Dynamic Repetitions

Once you have perfected the individual movements and their sequence kata can be practiced in a dynamic manner. Higher intensity levels, variances in speed, and timing changes will stress the cardiovascular system and challenge muscle memory. Performing kata in this manner yields quicker physical performance results. However, it is incredibly important that the integrity of the kata itself stays intact.

Correcting Errors

So how do we know we aren’t making any mistakes during training? There are a couple of handy ways to review your efforts and make improvements. The least expensive way is using mirrors to watch your positions and correct as needed. Secondly, in this the age of technology, video has become a major asset in solo training. Filming sessions and playing them back for review has been done by professional athletes for as long as video has been around. The same applies for solo training. Set up a camera in your training space, film for a while, then review it at your leisure. Be honest in your critique and compare yourself to footage of more advanced practitioners doing the same kata. You could also look to online forums and social media groups for feedback, tips, and critique.

Closing Thoughts…..

Obviously, having a club or dojo to attend where you can get active instruction is always the ideal situation. However, that may not always be available. Factors like living in a small town, restricted finances, and time constraints are all real possibilities that can limit our ability to train. Another obstacle may simply be that the discipline of karate you are interested in isn’t very popular. MMA, BJJ, kickboxing, and other popular arts usually take the forefront of modern training facilities.

With that said, karate is an individual journey that can span a person’s entire life. There are no rules saying you can’t learn on your own. Seek out legitimate information on the karate family of your choice. Read, watch DVD’s and historical videos, and consult social media and online forums for technical information. But most of all have fun and learn.

This article was written by Jeremy McLean, an enthusiastic karateka with rankings in both American Karate and Shotokan.  His willingness to be our first guest author at karateculture.com exemplifies the open mindset that karate needs to thrive.