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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Taking one step at a time
by Shaun Banfield

I no longer compete, but every so often I do attend them. My attendance is usually in the role of a coach, providing guidance and support to my pupils that want to participate in this enjoyable feature of their karate career. Sometimes however, I’ll jump in my car with a friend and show up just to watch the talent around. I don’t stay all day, I watch for a few hours, and then make my quiet departure; and since I am an early bird, I usually spend most of my time watching the kata competitors. If it’s an open-style event, I will see an array of beautiful kata from a range of different styles. From the shotokan practitioners, the list of favourite kata are usually consist of Unsu, Gojushiho Dai, Gojushiho Sho, and Gankaku. Thankfully, these are some of my favourites, and are kata that I have spent considerable amounts of time studying, so boredom never sets in.

Within such open-style events, you rarely have an insight into the grade of the karateka, with the red and blue belts acting as a camouflage that removes grade-based subjectivity from the referees. A growing trend I see however is that 3rd and 2nd kyu karateka are committing their time learning and perfecting 4th, 5th and 6th dan kata. Now, on the surface, this isn’t too great a problem. After all, to give their competitors the chance to be judged equally to their senior counterparts, coaches must give them the tools to do so. If a junior-grade competitor uses a Heian Yondan against an Unsu, there is definite opportunity for referees to have judgements influenced, as on paper Unsu has more complexity, so is more worthy of the vote. So this is not necessarily a criticism of the coaches, as they are merely attempting to give their competitors an equal playing field. Nonetheless, guiding students to study such complex senior kata before they are ready can be incredibly counter-productive to a rounded karate experience.

Think of it this way, what would happen if you handed a fully competent English speaking nine year old an advanced degree level English literature textbook? Sure, they would be able to identify some of the words used, perhaps even most of the words used in isolation, but would they be able to make meaning from the sentences? Force said child to give an explanation of what this advanced textbook is talking about, and they would perhaps make links between some of the words they have an understanding of, but true understanding would undoubtedly remain limited. The same exists within the realm of kata.

Not only does Unsu have movements that are completely foreign to a kyu-grade karateka, but some of the movements are deceptive. For example, some of the more elaborate, exotic and, dare I say, ‘flowery’ movements may - on the surface - appear little more than an aesthetic decoration around the more explosive and powerful movements. Kyu grades, because they typically will only have had mass exposure to ‘POWER’ techniques, therefore either a) execute these exotic techniques with power and possible tension, or b) They ignore the subtleties of the movement that render it effective, and just execute a pretty, yet ill effective movement.

Karate, I truly feel, is about maturity, and you have to allow yourself to practice the part of karate that fits with the stage of development that you are at. I never hide this fact, I love the Heian series. I think they are so embedded with invaluable content for development (if used correctly) and the way they are ordered and structured really facilitates a pupil’s controlled progression. The lessons embedded with Heian Sandan take a pupil’s understanding and ability one step further than Heian Nidan. When the pupil gets a strong grip of Heian Sandan however, and return to Heian Nidan, they then give the kata that extra little bit of spice that Heian Sandan has inspired. Equally, there are lessons within Bassai Dai (at this stage I am merely referring to movement, not application) that Tekki Shodan, or the Heian series could not offer. The nature and characteristics of Bassai Dai carry a student so far forward in their ability. If you take pupils from the Heian series, or even from the Bassai kata straight to the more advanced kata, the pupil is being neglected such an exciting journey. Imagine going on a cruise and only seeing the port you left and the one you arrive at…the learning and enjoyment is in the journey.

Another very important point to note is that some of the rules set in the Heian kata series are often broken in the advanced kata. Not because the rules were no good to begin with, but because those ‘rules’ were necessary to the pupil at that specific stage in their learning. Once the body has been co-ordinated to operate within those set of boundaries, at a more advanced level, karateka can deviate from them and be a bit more expressive. Therefore in taking a pupil straight to the advanced techniques, the pupil is being neglected of the chance to fully master certain movements.

Now, I do not want this to be a shotokan-event Vs Open Style-even debate, but I feel that in watching karateka having to go through the early rounds of an event using Heian kata before using their more advanced kata in the finals, you get a real sense of the karateka’s true ability. Truthfully, if you dedicate all of your time (and of course I refer to competition clubs) to the competition kata, you are missing out on so much. Many parts of the advanced kata, as I said, contain exotic and on the surface, quite effectiveless techniques. Pupils’ abilities can often hide within these techniques. Master the flowery, beautiful techniques and you can often hide some fundamental incompetencies. Be forced to do Heian Shodan however, arguably the most basic kata, and there are no exotic movements to hide behind. To pull this off, you must have strong fundamentals – stance, hip, speed, kime etc.

Don’t get me wrong, most coaches give their pupils a fully rounded karate experience, with competition being an additional experience. Therefore, pupils go through the controlled step-by-step processes with some advanced kata training just for competition. Many clubs however seem to make a priority of the advanced kata to the absolute disregard of the essentials of karate training. This I feel is a real shame as these pupils are missing out on so much of the exciting journey that is Shotokan Karate.