Beyond Memorization (updated)

I have listened to many instructors over the years tell me, with absolute conviction, that if I practice drills and kata enough times, they will become second nature and, subsequently, movements I can rely on in a fight. How many times is enough? In my style (RyuTe RenMei) we have 10 guiding principles and one of them reads, “It has been said that it takes three years to comprehend a kata. In ancient days, a master studied a single kata for ten years. There is no time limit for a kata to be improved. Never be proud, even if much is accomplished. Pride hurts achievement in virtue, as well as technique and will become like a poison.”

(This is an updated post, with revisions
and new ideas, originally posted in 2012)

Imagine studying one kata for ten years, doing it over and over again, thousands of times. Who has that kind of stamina? Who can maintain that much interest in something seemingly so limited? You might be that person but you are going to have to move beyond memorization before you will truly know.

We all begin the same way. Someone teaches us a series of movements and tells us to practice them over and over again. We do as we are told until we can get through the routine without corrections. But, due to short attention spans, and the modern concept that this is, primarily, a hobby and not a job, we want more. And, whereas masters of old might have held off teaching us new material, today’s instructors deliver on that need. Within a few short years you might well have 10-20 kata that you are working on. And you might tell me that you know them all by heart. But you don’t, not really.

Test yourself. Pick any kata at random. Run through it at a breakneck pace. Run through it in super slow motion. Practice the kata with shoes on, with boots on, outdoors, on uneven ground, in a phone booth (if you can still find one), in a closet, in the dark, with an audience. Do a mirror image of the kata, reverse the direction of each step, change the beginning and ending points. These are just a few ideas. If you want more, check out this post from Jesse Enkamp.  Try any of them, and ask yourself if you had to think about what you were doing at all. Sure, the footwork was different but were the hands automatic, or did you get confused? Any hesitation or confusion should tell you that you are not fully beyond memorization.

If the goal is to learn the life-protection skills these kata have to teach, we must be able to use the movements in less than perfect, “loose gi, barefoot, indoor, air-conditioned, comfy mat conditions”. When the katas start to become second nature, regardless of how they are practiced, you won’t be able to help yourself: you will change from student to explorer. You will start to examine subtleties and nuances because now you can focus on them. You may become obsessed with just a few movements and find yourself repeating them in bed at night or in the office hallway. You may find more in certain katas than others. They may seem to fit your body better and become your favorites. And, all of this delving, deeper and deeper, explains how someone might spend ten years on a single kata and still have more to learn.

So, try out some alternative practice techniques, and see if you know the kata as well as you think you do. If you don’t (and you probably won’t), go back to practicing the fundamental version. Break it down into pieces and make sure each movement or sequence is correct. Practice, practice, practice and then test yourself again….

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