Straw men 2: kata and pretend fighting

I often encounter criticism of kata based on the analysis that it is "pretend fighting" and is accordingly as "useless" as pretending to lift weights or swimming on dry land. Superficially this seems like a very strong argument; until such time as you actually lift something or go swimming in water, you're wasting your time.

The problem with this kind of analysis is that it is an "argument by analogy". Analogy is often useful in illustrating a previously made argument because it gives your audience some sort of context for understanding complex points. However an argument should never comprise an analogy and little more.

In this case the criticism of kata is a straw man. Kata and "pretend weights"/"dry swimming" are not equivalent - even remotely.

Kata is principally a series of isolated techniques. Every physical discipline - including every fighting system - involves some element of technique isolation as part of training.

For example, boxers, kickboxers and MMA practitioners "shadow box" or do "air drills". Are these practices "a waste of time" on par with pretending to lift weights?

A video showing Goldberg and Kimbo Slice doing MMA "air drills" - see 1:22 to 1:27

BJJ practitioners will do drills on the ground without a partner, learning to move from their backs onto their front etc. Why is this any different from learning tenshin/taisabaki (principles of body movement) in traditional martial arts? One of the principle purposes of forms/kata is to teach (and provide a means of isloating and practising) such movement...

A good grappling solo drill

The real issue is whether kata alone is sufficient for realistic defence. The answer would be of course not. But if you think that just because someone practises kata he or she is not effective, you're mistaken. Obviously then you haven't trained with the likes of Morio Higaonna (who trains kata intensively - as well as hitting makiwara, bags etc.).

Morio Higaonna in "The Way of the Warrior" - an excellent fighter and a kata practitioner

In the end, traditional martial arts have a very different tactical approach and a different skill set from modern Western combat sports. Kata might well be "useless" if your sparring is a type of "faux boxing" (as I have called it) unrelated to the kata. I apply my kata techniques and methods. And I suggest to anyone that if you want to use traditional techniques properly you're going to find kata useful in developing that skill set.

I certainly disagree with the assertion that the traditional martial arts skill set "doesn't work" or is "incapable of being applied" or "ends up being identical to [your] Western combat sport if applied" (more on this in due course). Again, visit Morio Higaonna's dojo (as one example) and try your luck there. I suggest that particular dojo because it is an example of "practical" kata-based martial arts in a world where most traditional fighting systems are practised in the suburbs principally for "recreation", "exercise" or "art.1

The flip side to the "kata = pretend fighting" argument is of course the unspoken/unwritten assumption:
    "What I do isn't pretend."
Do they mean to say it's real? That would, of course, be complete nonsense. Unless your training involves real contact with malicious intent it is still "pretend".

When confronted with this observation, proponents of the "pretend" argument back down quickly with the qualification:
    "No - I mean my training is more like real fighting than yours because I spend more time sparring where you devote some time to kata."
But once again "reality" is not the issue. Sparring is nothing like real fighting and can even encourage bad habits (see my article on "faux boxing" for some idea of how sparring on its own can lead you into habits totally opposite to those needed in "reality"). Indeed, many reality-based defence systems such as krav maga have no free-sparring at all: instead they substitute specific stimulus/response drills.

Accordingly what people usually use as a benchmark for "reality" - free sparring - is just one drill of many that you need for all-round effective training. Other training might include hitting bags, shields etc. (in itself still nothing like "real" fighting because, as Bruce Lee famously said, "they don't hit back"), "air drills" (as noted above) and last but not least, exercise and conditioning. Few would dispute that the latter (weights, running, skipping etc.) are useful for fight training, yet none of these activities are anything like "real fighting".

Presumably what proponents of the "kata = pretend fighting" argument mean to say is just this:
    "My training is more useful for self defence than yours because I do more sparring where you would spend time on kata."
I beg to differ. But regardless, in this particular debate the issue of "reality" is a red herring - or a straw man. Nothing more.


1. I think it is appropriate that I choose for my example an elite practitioner such as Master Higaonna since most combat sports practitioners pick their examples of from elite ring athletes (where they could pick one of the many "salarymen" who goes to a "white collar boxing/kickboxing/MMA gym" once per week, kicks a few bags and dons some gloves for third-rate sparring).

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. First of all, "dry swimming" was how I learned the proper stroke to cut my lap time down. The brain needs to understand a series of motions in order to perfect them. My experience with kata was that my form became more graceful and my blocks/attacks more efficient as I perfected each kata. In fact, I'd say that katas were more important to me than sparring...

    That's it. I've gotta find a dojo. Darn you, Dan! Now I'm craving the feel of a gi...

  2. It just goes to show Matt - even dry swimming has a role!

    Now I just need to find a way to make my pretend weights add an inch to my biceps... ;)


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