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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Practical Kata Applications in Five Steps

by Michael Gowar


The world of kata application is a dense jungle, any karateka trying to find their way should not be surprised at losing their way.  This article is an attempt to make sense of it all – I’m not going to use any complicated technical jargon or resolve any theoretical debates i.e. oyo vs. bunkai etc.  Instead this article aims to provide a no frills guide to making practical use of kata.  It won’t provide you with any applications that will win a competitions or wow family and friends – but it will assist you in developing your capabilities as a fighter.


Step 1: Fight Club Brain

Let’s get started.  Firstly, you need to stop thinking about kata from a kata perspective.  Kata is designed to help you to be a better fighter.  Therefore to understand kata and use it effectively you need to use a fight club brain. Think like you do when you’re training for free sparring.   In other words what sorts of defences/attacks do you require to fight well?

To simplify things let’s say that for basic self defence you need to know the following:


1.       Punch body/head

2.       Low Kick

3.       Grabbing arms/lapels

4.       Basic Tackle/take-down


1.       A basic combination using hands only

2.       A basic combination using hands and legs

Sure there are lots of other areas you might want to consider, like weapons defence and ground fighting but let’s keep simple for now.

You’ll also note that I’ve also included offensive techniques.  Your fight club brain should tell you that you stand a better chance of defending yourself if you can also throw in a few offensive moves into the mix.  It’s not an orthodox way of looking at kata, but it is very practical.  


Step 2: Finding Solutions

Now that we have a bunch of attack/defences we need to choose a kata.  You can use any traditional kata – if it’s a good kata it should provide you with enough variety of movements to give you ample material to work with.  Lets’ use Jion here (Why? A. Most people know it and B. I have a soft spot for it as it was the first ‘proper’ kata that I learnt).



·         Punch body/head

This is a bit of a no – brainer, just think of all those age-ukes and gyaku zukis! For practical purposes it might be worth considering delivering the punches as jodan, as opposed to chudan.

·         Low Kick

A couple of options here:  My preference is to use the raised knee found about mid way as a checking technique.  You could also use the mae-geri at the opening, instead of kicking, just raise the leg to check then counter with punches.

·         Grabbing arms/lapels

In the spirit of simplicity, let’s say a counter to the above is a quick punch to the face.  Punches abound throughout the kata.

·         Basic Tackle/take-down

A bit of a tricky one.  Here is a controversial technique:  use the wedge block as a sprawl, strictly speaking this one is not for the purists – but this is fight club, so who cares? Depending on how the take down is initiated, you could also use the double uchi-ukes at the kata midpoint as under hooks.



·         A basic combo using hands only

Again, lots of options: The opening punches if split into levels could be quite effective. You might want to utilise the age uke gyaku combo by modifying it into a hook and gyaku jodan attack.

·         A basic combo using hands and legs

Another no brainer, using the opening sequence, a low mae-geri (groin/knee) followed by a flurry of punches (jodan).


Step 3: Putting it into place...

Once we’ve identified our moves we now need to train and develop our ability to use them. This is one area of kata that is sorely neglected.  Avoid this step at your peril!


The best way to train these moves is through partner drill and pad work.  Once sufficiently developed it will then be time to pressure test it in free sparring.  The following are some basic drills you could use:

1.       Your partner stands in front of you and randomly grabs you – try different holds, one handed, two handed etc. Your job is to punch him as quickly as possible once the grab has landed. To spice it up you could include pushing or pulling action with the grab.


2.       Using focus mitts have your partner attack with low kicks.  Check the kick and land a flurry of punches on the pads.  To spice up, vary which leg does the attack.


Finally, this needs to be inserted into your free sparring arsenal.  Ask your sparring partner to throw in a few moves like the grab or low kick every so often while free sparring.  Again to spice it up, you just need to up the intensity of the attacks.

The sparing step is very important – it will give you a sense of how effective the technique really is. You’ll be surprised at how often applications that are touted as super effective simply don’t make the grade when sparring.  If it works in sparring, there is a good chance it will work in other contexts as well.


Step 4: Getting Tactical

An important part of the fight club brain is knowing that tactics are really important.  This isn’t just a question of which technique, but also about how to set the move up.  To illustrate, we’ve all seen Machida’s legendary nidan-geri (Kanku Dai application) to Randy Couture’s jaw.  He didn’t just stick it out; he first feinted, and then kicked. Good tactics! Like everything else, good tactics need plenty of practice.  So think of incorporating tactical elements to your partner and pad drills. 

Lyoto Machida


Lyoto Machida


Lyoto Machida


Step 5: Taking it further

One weakness to this way of applying kata is that you won’t necessarily make use of all the moves in the kata.  You could quite easily get away relying on only a handful of movements. From a purist point of view this is a problem, however as a starting point for finding (and using) applications I believe this is a solid base.   

To develop your application further it is worth considering back up techniques. For instance if the leg check isn’t effective again a particular opponent what alternatives could be employed?  Think about what could go wrong, ask yourself – how could this be countered?  Remember, no matter how hard you train, no move is entirely reliable, so having a few alternatives is a sound investment.


You might want to consider how other martial arts interpret the same moves.  For instance the crane stance movements in Gankaku look suspiciously like the ‘Triangle’ choke in Brazilian Jujitsu.   Obviously this will take you into all new territory - horizontal applications!