improving kata performance

or: chasing 'flair'; notes from conversations between kata enthusiasts

watching kata competition, and within the dojo in regular training, it is usually easy to spot a range of levels of kata performance. also sometimes evident within the different levels of performance there can often be the presence of 'flair' specific to certain individuals that sets them apart and can make them exciting to watch. while the moves of kata are rigidly prescribed, it can often be seen that kata performance has depth, as well as a narrative, on top of the moves themselves, and the presence of these elevates the performance to a greater level. in trying to think about what constitutes 'flair' and how to improve kata performance in general, it seems to me that broadly speaking, an individual's kata performance can be classified in one of several ways:

'learning' performance
grade - novice, kyu grades
the pattern of the kata is known, but little depth. mistakes are evident, but feedback and practice give constant improvement. information flows from the instructor, questions are answered. moves are not yet natural, kiai is still reluctant, bunkai is not well developed.

'confident' performance
grade - up to 1st/2nd dan
with more experience, movements are more natural and appear less laboured. with instinctive full commitment to performance, improvements are made and information flow is concentrated on minor details. beginnings of flair, individual understanding/input into the performance, can be seen.

'winning' performance
good competition standard, usually 2nd dan upwards
performance is controlled and confident, and skilled. information flow is now out, with people learning from the performance/asking about moves. presence of 'flair' and interpretation are evident; improvements are no longer in form, but in nuance.

'command' performance
very senior level
kata is masterful, with depth of understanding as well as technical skill. here, there is less 'flair', more 'gravity'. at this level, given to only a few, performance is not an interpretation of the kata but the kata itself, since the a kata (or karate) does not exist independently of it's exponents.

there is also another type of performance, one which is seen all too often:

'stagnant' performance
grade - usually up to 1st dan, particularly brown belts
kata are known and familiar, but there is no appreciable improvement. familiarity prevents study of the kata in depth, often just 'going through the motions'. bad habits may be present, and are hard to break out of. information flow does not occur. individual nature of the kata is usually from bad habits.

progress through these stages takes time and effort, and of course your levels will be different for different kata depending on the relative time studying them, but overall the general progression will be towards a confident performance. at this stage, improvement becomes more difficult, and not everyone will make it further. the key point is to avoid becoming stagnant, or allowing bad habits to begin to degrade the performance. the idea of 'flair', then, must exist outside of simply doing the kata correctly - which is non-negotiable - but, since it is dependent on the person, must speak to interpretation and nuance. it is true that kata judging has a certain amount of leeway for individual 'form', and while this is usually encountered when discussing potential mistakes (and to allow for technical changes to kata over time), it shows that there is an understanding that kata is of the performer, rater than being immutable. it seems to me, then, that flair exists at the junction between doing the kata correctly as you are instructed, and passing the kata on as an instructor oneself.

from learning to confident, confident to winning

learning a kata takes time, long after the pattern has been memorised, and it is important not to lose heart in the process. always focusing on what is not correct - the way we do in training - can be draining, and it can be useful to reflect on your progress. filming yourself from time to time, and reviewing those videos after a number of months, can be a good indicator of your progress, rather than only being a tool to use at the time to highlight your faults. entering competitions is good for getting a sense of how you match to other people of your rank, and putting your ability in the larger context of your experience.

absolutely critical, though, is that for as long as you are training you train in a deliberate way, that is to say with active attention to developing your kata, in whichever small way you can. perhaps one lesson dedicated specifically to foot position, or posture, or synchronisation. simply 'doing the kata' will not help, since you will fall into the same patterns again and become stagnant. one good training in a week is more valuable than training badly every day. exploring bunkai, being creative in your interpretation (without worrying about realism), is a good way of breaking out of engrained habits, and thinking about moves in a new way. but whatever you do, do it deliberately, in a coordinated way and working towards making an improvement. here is matthew syed, author of 'bounce: the myth of talent and the power of practice', on what he calls 'purposeful practice':

"Purposeful practice is about striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making it; it is about grappling with tasks beyond current limitations and falling short again and again. Excellence is about stepping outside the comfort zone, training with a spirit of endeavour, and accepting the inevitability of trials and tribulations. Progress is built, in effect, upon the foundations of necessary failure. That is the essential paradox of expert performance."
-Matthew Syed

i highly recommend his book, an in-depth look at sports ability and psychology with some useful discussion of how to improve performance. fascinating stuff.

the step from a good kata to a great kata is surely the hardest to make; when you are already reasonably proficient, it can be hard to see how to progress. deliberate practice takes you so far, as does feedback from your instructor. the final part of maximising your performance is to allow these improvement mechanisms to be maximised also, and it is what makes particular exponents of kata exciting to watch: running at your peak. somehow, an audience can sense when someone is at their edge, giving absolutely everything. it makes kata exciting to watch. i think perhaps it is the uncertainty, the idea that there is a risk involved, that matters. only when you abandon safety and push the line is it possible to really stretch where that line is. but here's the catch: you have to do that every week in the dojo, too. that is what matters. by pushing yourself, by working deliberately at the edge of your ability, you enable that boundary to move. but there is a second aspect to this, because in karate (as in other sports), your instructor can only help you if they can see what you are doing. if your stance isn't long enough, is it because you're not extending enough, or are you just not trying today? the feedback only means anything in the former case. if your technique takes the wrong trajectory, is it that you have the trajectory wrong and are performing it well, or that you have the trajectory right and are performing it poorly? operating at your limit not only allows your limits to stretch, but allows good feedback (on deliberate practice) to move to those limits faster.

we all know practice is critical in karate, and sports in general. less often discussed is the need for quality of practice, rather than quantity. kata is complex. it takes time, and study. with purposeful practice, and only this way, will you improve. the trick to improving, at any level, is the same trick that is vital to avoid stagnation, and it is simple: never find yourself 'going through the motions'. ever.

-neil jerome, 2012

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