I expected Japanese karatekas to kick everybody's asses at the Olympics and rake in all the medals. But in reality, the Japanese excelled at kata but pretty much sucked at kumite (only one bronze). Isn't it essentially proof that there's no correlation whatsoever between being able to do kata well and good performance in kumite (let alone being able to effectively defend oneself in real-world circumstances)? If so, then why on earth do we still have it? As I understand it, kata was contrived as a way to disguise your karate practice from medieval law enforcers when practicing martial arts by regular peasants was outlawed (so no purpose remains now).
The opinions of me, an ITF TKD guy who's a lot better at forms ("hyung") than sparring. (Kind of disjointed, as I read over the finished product.)
First, I've ready that many parts of kata originated as memory devices for more wresting moves than fist-fighting moves. And I know that the purposes of this or that move have been lost to time or are debated endlessly.
Replying to a few of @futilitarian's points...
- If you want to get better at kata/hyung for their own sake, for the "art", sure. For adults, they help a bit with concentration. For kids, they give a sense of accomplishment, that they have to get ok at to pass testing. For smaller ADHD-y kids they are, IMO, just something different from exercises and sparring so the kids don't get so bored and act up.
But "as a means to an end", what is the "end"... doing forms to get better at forms? ....wwwwwwhy bother, what is the point apart from the above? (And the joy of physical exercise.)
Refining individual techniques, increasing speed & power? You'd be a LOT more efficient at that if you practiced with a partner or on a bag or kick pad. And you'd learn to punch a lot more powerfully and more realistically, hitting with 2 knuckles and keeping your wrist straight. Trying to learn techniques from kata/hyung is like learning to be a master swimmer from lying on bench moving your arms and legs the way oriental masters from hundreds of years ago laid down. You throw such a person into a pool, or a kata/hyung proficionado (new word) into a real fight, and they'll both be in trouble.
Increasing aerobic capacity? A lot less than real sparring.
Imagine asking a boxer to practice a defined set of techniques, some extremely slow, to learn how to box. Or a cop to practice a defined stylized set of exact steps, gun draws, pointing, doing fake pistol recoil movements, make "ducking behind cover" movements on the mat and yelling 5 times as they pretend to shoot an armed assailant 5 times center-mass. They'd look at you in astonishment or laugh in your face. People value kata because that's how they were brought up in martial arts.
I know there'll be people who tell me that I'm a philistine who understands nothing of real martial arts. Whutever. We're talking about the practical application.
E.g., @EngrStudent mentioned practicing all of the blocks since each part of the house is essential. OK, but this is for fighting, are they realistic? Do Muay Thai fighters do more than bring up their knee and their elbow down to cover their whole body? Do boxers do more than cover up, duck, and weave? Does any street fight you have ever seen consist of any blocking other than maybe bringing both hands up to try to get in the way of wild punching? OK, yes, at some point in history exact karate moves from a kata have probably worked in a fight, in the same sense it could happen that a World TKD student in a crowded bar does a jump spin hook kick and knocks a guy out.
At least three relevant questions emerge here:
A) "Is there any practical purpose to kata?",
B) "Does proficiency in kata translate in any way to proficiency in kumite?".
C) "Is kata practice an efficient use of one's training time if one is training in order to learn to fight?".
A) Without going into too much detail, Kata has clear purposes, such as:
- Being a means unto its own end,
- Refining individual techniques,
- Providing an experiential connection the karate tradition,
- Developing powers of concentration,
- Increasing aerobic capacity.
- Increasing speed/power.
There are more you may be able to identify.
B) Insofar as sharp technique, concentration, aerobic capacity and speed are relevant to kumite, then yes, kata may translate in some way to ability in kumite.
C) Are there far more efficient, kumite-specific methods of training? Absolutely. Sparring is the most obvious example, but resistance training, bag/pad work and reflex training are other examples.
One of the weaknesses of kata (and arguably much of traditional karate training), is the way it repetitively emphasises highly-specific, mechanical movements which are executed in the absence of an aggressive stimuli. In short, if kata is overemphasised in training, it can be detrimental to the kumite practioner (assuming training is time is limited and kata practice takes over from more specific fight training).
Disclaimer: I'm new.
Right now I see the whole set of kata, my discipline has 18+1, as sequences of movements that together contain the components of form, like you build a house. If you do not have all of them, then you don't have the beams, pillars, or shingles.
The goal is not to memorize the symbols, but to exercise the fundamentals behind them. If you aggregate all the blocks in all the katas, you span blocking. From that set you can have an appropriate block in a moment in sparring. If you aggregate all the kicks, you can have the best kick to use. Rote memorization precedes learning, so having it is not the same as using it well. Using it well requires having it in your repertoire. If you were to sort the katas into one with all upper blocks, one lower blocks, and so forth, you might have a practice of the elements, but the diversity per method, the balance of defense and counter, and the flow between them would be compromised. The span is not just the maneuver element, but the transitions between maneuvers.
One of the challenges is that many kata are built around facing up to a dozen active opponents. It takes choreography to have opponents bring those maneuvers against you in the ring. Many folks do not have even one other human expert in their personal practice area to face for the elements of the kata. If you have the fundamental of knowing an enemy, then you are NEVER about practicing the robot, because that is to build weakness into yourself, so you practicing the thing you have not faced. In statistics it is called giving yourself a non-(falsely)informative prior, you make yourself capable in all situations so you have expected and prepared for all surprises.
Best of luck.
I'm a karate practitioner and also an amateur calligrapher. I have noticed some parallels in my practice in both areas which might be instructive to you.
In calligraphy, we often practice artificial sentences for specific purposes. One is to write a panagram out repeatedly so that you practise all letters of the alphabet in the hand you're training in. Another (especially in blocky hands) is to write a word like minimum the letters of which can look very similar and make it unreadable if not done right. None of these is "real world calligraphy" which involves much more like placement, composition, dominance etc. However, these things ingrain skills in your muscles which manifest when you do anything in the field which makes you a better calligrapher.
Kata, in my mind, are like these exercises. If you practice them repeatedly for rhythm/flow and separately for analysis, you will develop things like transition between stances, optimal use of your breathing and energy during a move, correct form and after a while, when you're doing kumite, you'll notice how your movements fall back to what you trained in your kata and see the value in it.
It's also a useful technique (and this is one of the reasons why it was traditionally done) to remember a sequence of combos or moves. If you, as a karateka, pick up muay thai and want to memorise (in your muscles) a combo of moves, I can think of worse ways to do it than create a kata with those moves by yourself.
Whether it's finally "practical" or not really depends on what you're looking for. If you're looking for the ability to hold your own in a street fight, kata alone is definitely going to be close to useless. You have to practise scenarios and moves with an non-cooperative opponent.