Condense and Expand (part I)

Most of us who train have either asked or been asked the same question. “How does kata relate to fighting and self-defense?” To the novice eye the connection seems iffy at best. Sure, there are blocks, punches, and kicks, but the stances seem too formal, the postures too stiff, the choreography too mechanical. Fights, on the other hand, are free-flowing chaos. There are no stopping points, and rarely time for anything like a “block.”

Much of this blog has been written to address this issue from a variety of perspectives. I feel strongly that kata are an absolutely necessary training tool for self-defense, especially if you are practicing by yourself. This is what they were designed for and they are full of useful, real-world technique. To get at that “reality,” you have to see your basic kata as a starting point, and not an end unto itself. You have to consider each technique and sequence of techniques with realistic combat in mind.

In this first of two posts, I want to look at one approach to this type of training: condensing time in kata. In a nutshell, this is the act of shortening the time it takes to complete a sequence of movements. This may sound obvious but it is surprising how few people consider it. And the results can be surprising too. Many of you have a version of this simple example: You look left, turn and step out with your left foot while blocking with your left hand; then step forward with your right foot while punching with your right hand. To condense time, put these moves together. Turn and step all the way through to the right front foot position while executing the block and punch, all at the same time. Remove the “stops” and now your striking hand reaches your target at roughly the same time as your block. If your opponent is throwing a classic one/two punch, your block and strike will beat the second punch.

Two things will stand out immediately when you try this. First, the block will feel wrong since it is no longer tied (for any length of time) to a stepping leg. Second, the whole sense of completing a one/two combination is lost because you are now competing all the techniques in a single count. And, since you never want to just do one thing, you need to keep moving with a second and third count, both of which can also be condensed sequences from the kata. It is easy, as the speed picks up, to leave things out. Don’t! Make sure all the parts are intact and return often to the foundation version to practice those parts as strong individual components. Having said that, don’t feel that you have to practice all the sequences in the correct order, or even choose sequences from the same kata. Once you start, there are no limits to where you can take this. The key is simply to protect yourself in a realistic manner, with realistic timing, and good technique.

It should be noted that many people try to improve timing by simply improving speed. You see this a great deal in kata competitions. Techniques are strong, crisp, and fast. What I am advocating is undeniably messier. Crispness is not the goal. These competitors are very good at what they do but, even when fast and strong, their movements rarely bear much relationship to fighting. The techniques are clearly defined and therefore easy for judges to assess. This means that, no matter how fast they are, these same techniques are also easy for an opponent to see.

Ask yourself this question. Would you rather be attacked by an opponent using one strike at a time, or  a flurry of strikes all at once? Which opponent would you be better able to defend against? Now practice your katas like the other one.

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