When considering the combative nature of kata and how it fits into the civilian self-defence model of old-style karate (whatever 'old-style' may be, we'll leave for another blog post!), we have to first start with some simplistic truths. Once these are understood and appreciated, it is not too difficult to see how the movements of kata fit well into that model.
The first aspect to consider is that from a practical standpoint, there are really only two states when applying 'self-protection' against a threat to our safety. We are either 'escaping' from the threat, or we are 'engaging' that threat in such a way so that we may facilitate escape at the earliest appropriate opportunity. This is in stark contrast to consensual violence, where physical confrontation is actively sought out and time spent in that confrontation is often purposefully drawn out.
In terms of engagement ranges, there are again, really only two to be concerned with. You're either engaging the threat 'unattached' or engaging them 'attached'. These can of course be both pre-emptive and reactive, but the key contrast is the physical attachment. Your enemy may attach to you, you may attach to your enemy or both. Although crossovers exist, these two states require different combative tactics and it is obvious that being unattached will naturally facilitate an escape much easier than if already attached.
So based on the above, the list of priorities for the context of civilian self-protection may look something like this:
Practicing karate for personal safety requires a holistic strategy that covers far more (and sometimes the opposite) than the skills normally practiced in the dojo. Even if the practical methods taught are contextually aligned and effective for civilian self-protection, these still only represent a small part of a viable personal safety game-plan, as they tend to focus heavily on the last resort of a physical response. Of course, there are numerous options available before the requirement to go physical that unlock initially through the ability to maintain a healthy level of situational awareness and perceive potential threats before they may become a significant problem.
I'll be honest...watching karate in the Olympics wasn't really on my priority list. But from what little I did see, I have to say I was very impressed with the incredible level of athleticism displayed by both the kata and kumite contestants.
After learning that the gold kumite medal was won via a disqualification for excessive contact following what was in every other aspect a nicely executed jodan mawashigeri (see above), my initial thoughts were...well, there's some more fuel to add to the fire for those who view karate unfavourably and consider it very much a watered down system. The contestant who 'combatively' lost the match, ends up earning the win! However, I think it also emphasises a very important concept for the application of our art and indeed, something that all martial arts practitioners can learn from:
Context Determines Content!
Real world application of the somewhat formalised movement pathways in karate kata for percussive impact require the ability to maximise function away from the clear and uninterrupted line of standard performance. Specifically, strikes need to be able to work under pressure, at varying ranges, with modifications on the fly and from uncomfortable positions. This can never be achieved through repetition in thin air or even against a makiwara, heavy bag or focus mitt for instance unless of course such levels of pressure, range, modification and restriction are thoroughly explored and incorporated.
For self-protection, Hick's Law suggests that it pays to have a single 'go-to' striking technique that's been comprehensively honed to provide a high level of confidence in its ability to serve you well should it ever need to be relied upon. However, repetitively generating a powerful palm strike for instance against a heavy bag does not equate to a technique that's been 'comprehensively honed'. Here are a few ideas to try during training to help check if your strikes are really as functional as you need them to be.
Please check out this incredible playlist that features a series of short interviews with some of Okinawa's most respected karate masters...
These genuinely heart-warming interviews have been beautifully produced and serve to create a very valuable record of 16 teachers who not only have direct links to the pioneering masters of our past, but who have also contributed greatly to karate's continual evolution and inspired so many to find passion in this incredible art.