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A Practical Way to Teach Kata

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

Recently we have been exploring ways to address the age old question: What is the best way to teach kata? Do you struggle with teaching or practicing kata? We certainly do, and we’ve had time, thanks to COVID-19, to really think through our method of teaching and practicing kata. For the evolved and self aware instructor it's a constant rethinking process of how can you make the most of your time with your students so they can have the most success.

Typically in a traditional karate class with people of varying belt levels, the group begins with the lowest kata and then continues doing them in order. When a student gets to a point where they haven’t learned the next kata, they stop and continue to practice their kata only. I can’t help but think they may have a feeling of being left behind when this occurs. Inevitably the entire group is doing different katas at the same time. This makes it very difficult for the instructor to point out areas of improvement. Also, when left to their own devices and with little direction, students will at best go through the movements mindlessly or break off into side conversations.

Teach in chunks.

We have put into practice a better way to teach and to train all the kata, no matter how advanced. We found it’s easier to teach and learn when we break down the kata into “chunks.” Whether you remember or not, you were taught to read by sounding out chunks or blends of letters, then stacking the 2 or 3 letter chunks with other vowels and consonants. For example, you learned how to sound out Ch, St, Sh, Th, Dr, and so on. Then when you add a vowel and another consonant, it was much easier to sound out: CH-o-p. Chop.

We applied the same principle to learning kata. We separate a series of techniques or “chunks” from each kata and just practice the grouping while focusing on specific elements such as transitioning, and expansion and contraction. We don’t teach the chunks in the same order as they are in the kata. Typically we work a chunk that we know people struggle with.

“Even advanced students may become rusty on the finer points of the lower kata so this is a good practice for anyone.”

Here’s an example from Heian Shodan, the first Kata in the Heian series. And it’s important to note here that even advanced students may become rusty on the finer points of the lower kata so this is a good practice for anyone. Here is the chunk we pull out to practice: down block/front stance- hammer fist - OiZuki. First we’d demonstrate then briefly teach on the body dynamics that are used or any finer points that we want our students to work on. From the front stance we only do the hammer fist portion about five times. If you have time it’s a good practice, but rarely put into action to do the technique on both sides of the body even if the technique is only done on one side in the kata. This makes the learning more dynamic and gets students to be more fluid with their movements. Once you’ve repeated the hammer fist a few times, stack the next “chunk” to the series: the stepping through punch or Oi-Zuki. Here is a video demonstrating this method.

And the results are...

So many positives have come out of implementing this new way of teaching.

  • We have stretched ourselves as teachers by thinking deeply on the best way to deliver information.

  • Our students pick up the movements quicker and each technique is refined.

  • As instructors, our kata has become more crisp and dynamic because we are focusing on the details.

  • Kata is easier to remember because of the repetitions of the smaller chunks.

  • The application of the technique is more apparent and easier to visualize.

You may be wondering, “where is your data proving that this is a more effective way to teach kata?” And the answer is… We have none! We have no data, however based on student feedback, we reflect and review our methodology consistently. I know from my own experience that people don't like feeling stuck only practicing the kata associated with their rank. Our youth classes that are filled with excited kids who are very, very verbal, were constantly asking if they could start learning the next kata. Who are we to hold them back? We like that we can keep the entire class together instead of separating them into smaller groups which just wasn’t a good use of precious training time.

Now we have the second part of the equation to work out: mapping out which and how many kata to teach over the course of a year. We are still working on it but the idea is to rotate through a certain number of kata, making sure they are practiced an equal amount of times. Our old curriculum model rotated monthly between Kata, Kihon, and Kumite. Now we are thinking of only rotating between Kata and Kumite. Kihon will be covered by virtue of practicing the other two.

It is and always will be a work in progress, constantly evolving and integrating new ideas and methods. Stay tuned for an update to this article which will describe our improved curriculum. We may even have some data pulled from very unscientific methods to go with it!

I hope this has given you at least some pause to think about the effectiveness of your teaching as it relates to kata. Or if you are a student, this may be a good way for you to get the most out of your practice time. I want to know all about how you teach kata to your students. Let’s start a conversation and help each other become better teachers and learners! Oss!

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