Why Reconsidering Kata is a Good Idea Post-Pandemic

Why Reconsidering Kata is a Good Idea Post-Pandemic

I am not against teaching kata as an art form. That is great. It’s like being a museum curator.

However, I am strongly against kata being presented as a tool for self-defense. That is fraud. That is what I am addressing here. 

I spent a decade of my life learning to be one of the country’s top kata competitors and teachers, only to discover that what I believed and taught was pure fantasy. At the bottom of this page, you can see me execute a kata and bunkai in my 3rd-degree black belt test.

Kata for practical training is worse than a waste of time because it creates terrible habits that can get you killed.

It’s confounding to me how many reasonably intelligent adult black belts believe that kata is the end-all to a martial arts curriculum. 

Unless it’s only for the art how can you justify spending 50% or more of your classroom time teaching traditional skills and kata?

How can you justify advertising that you teach self-defense when you’re spending 50% or more of your classroom time teaching traditional skills and kata?

In my experience, the best thing a martial arts school can do is to eliminate kata from the curriculum as fast as possible because there are so many far more effective drills and skills you can work on during the time that is wasted on kata.

Traditionalists talk about the “secret moves” in kata that you can only learn if a master reveals the hidden and protected bunkai of the form. These guys are in an eastern hypnotic trance.

Why not just teach the secret move instead of burying it in a bunch of useless moves? Remember, the root word in bunkai is bunk.

Before I get into the bad habits traditional martial arts create, let me help you with some perspective.

Kata was created by Asians that were probably about 5’ 5” foot tall and 130lbs. 

They did not fight 6’ 5” 250 lbs drunken males intent on smashing their faces.

As far as I know, they did not collaborate with law enforcement, prison guards, the military or anyone who deals with violent adults day in and day out.

Kata is one size fits all self-defense, which is foolish.

Where in kata can you adjust for a taller fighter? Where in kata can you adjust against someone trying to tackle you? Where in kata can you adjust to fight a shorter, stronger bull of an attacker? Where is there an in-direct attack using a fake in kata?

You can’t. You must execute all the steps in order or you are penalized by your instructor. 

Bunkai reveals that all kata are against multiple attackers. Why is the form designed so that you are standing between your opponents rather than moving to the outside and lining them up. That is rule one in fighting multiple attackers, yet kata does an awful job of teaching how to defend against more than one attacker.

Karate and Kung Fu Kata are all theory and teach TERRIBLE HABITS.

  1. Pulling the hand back to the hip instead of the face.
  2. Leaving a punch out for good form instead of snapping it back to a guard.
  3. Thrusting punches instead of snapping them.
  4. Squaring the center body-line to the opponent instead of turning it away to protect the groin, solar plexus, and throat.
  5. Becoming “one with the earth” in a deep stance rather than keeping your feet under you for instant mobility.
  6. Keeping the chin up for good form instead of tucking it down for protection.
  7. Pulling the shoulders back for good form instead of pulling them up for protection.

The best move I made was to replace traditional karate with modern skills that are much easier to learn and to teach. This is the basis of my  Empower Kickboxing curriculum at EmpowerKickboxing.com.

2 Ways to Teach Upper Elbow. Which Do You Like?

Do you think in the post COVID world, people are going to have the patience to spend 3 – 4 years to get competent at your martial arts style?

Pre-COVID, we were already in an “everything I want is just 1-click away” world.

This is a typically outdated and overly complicated presentation of an important skill. Most instructors who are still teaching this way are simply doing what they were taught. I am not trying to embarrass anyone. I did the same for decades.

But the truth is that these kinds of traditional skill presentations are full of smoke and mirrors and founded in folly.

1. It’s the black belt in a gi with stripes.
2. It’s the bowing in just to demo a skill that creates an “aura of authority.”
3. It’s the silly fake punch attack that a regular person would buy into, but we SHOULD know better.

That is all smoke and mirrors.

I don’t blame anyone. I’m just trying to open your eyes to see what is REALLY going on.

These skills were developed in a vacuum in a small village in an Asian country nearly 100 years ago. They did the best they could do at the time.

1. No collaboration with international experts.
2. No video to share and study.
3. Many skills are based on animal movements rather than real experience. Monkey kung fu?

It’s fine if this was a historical demo of, “How they used to do this in the 1930s in Japan…” But, it’s not. It’s presented as being valuable for self-defense in 2020. That puts us all in a sideshow.

I used to teach the same stuff, so I get it. I just want to help instructors move into the present and release the baggage of our collective traditional past.

This could be anyone teaching the same stuff, so I’m not faulting anyone. I’d like to help move us out of the mystery and mysticism that clouds our reality and perpetuates bad info.

There is an alternative. EmpowerKickboxing.com

martial arts curriculum log

There is a better way

Escape the Jail Cell of Style

Escape the Jail Cell of Style

Escape the Jail Cell of Style


I recently posted this “Fighting Form” from our Empower Kickboxing program on Facebook. I designed the forms in the late 1990s to replace the traditional TKD forms I practiced and taught since 1974.

While the video didn’t quite go “viral,” it did stimulate over 100 comments and a number of “debates.”

I loved kata. I won more trophies in kata than fighting. I was the first center judge for the WAKO World Kata Championships in Berlin in 1986-ish. I was the US Open Korean Forms Champion in 1982. Just like my instructor Walt Bone, I was a kata guy.

However, after opening and running my school for a few years, I had a few revelations that I’d like to share with you.

Traditional kata creates confusion and contradiction.

1. It makes zero sense to teach my students to pull their hand to their hip during basics and kata in the first half of the class only to yell at them to put their hands up during mitt work and sparring. 

2. It makes zero sense to make students memorize and perform a clunky series of skills in stances that are way too deep and static only to yell at them to keep their legs under them and move during mitt work and sparring.

3. Each form and skill has an Asian name that students had to remember. For instance, one brown belt form was named Kwan Gae after the 15th Empower of some Korean dynasty. What do I care?

Why was I teaching Korean history in class? If I was going to teach history it would be American history. Remember, we won the war.

I wanted forms that taught the skills of sparring and self-defense.

Today, we can see what really works in self-defense because YouTube has hundreds of thousands of security and iPhone videos of real self-defense. 

Do you know what I’ve never seen in a real self-defense video? I’ve never seen an attacker in a deep stance holding his arm out with his other hand on his hip.

Why on earth would I spend time teaching what is clearly decades old impractical theory? 

Some will argue that the deadly skills of self-defense are hidden in the kata. Maybe they are, but people do not pay tuition to learn tedious forms in the hopes that one day they might figure out how it really works or, even worse, doesn’t work.

Think about it. Of all the skills that can be taught in a martial arts class, why would you pigeon hole yourself into the limiting jail cell of a style? 

How often have you had a prospect contact you can say, “I want to learn traditional kata.” Never.

When I replaced my TKD forms with these fighting forms, the students loved it and retention skyrocketed. I replaced basic TKD blocks and lunge punches with dynamic boxing and martial arts based combinations that they could apply that night in sparring.

The reason that most of us are so emotionally attached to a style is only because that’s what the school nearest taught. If the school taught a different style, you’d be just as attached. 

Attachment to any style is limiting. It’s limiting in what you learn and what you teach. Style attachment is like a brainwashing experiment reminiscent of The Manchurian Candidate. 

In my first white belt class, my 14-year old brain was ripe for influence when my instructor Walt Bone said, “We teach Tae Kwon Do. It’s the best style because it emphasizes kicking. Your leg is a much longer and stronger weapon than your arm. An attacker has to get past our kicks and then our punches in order to get to us.”

Three years later, a dad of one of the students didn’t think karate worked so he challenged Mr. Bone. Bone put sparring gear on the guy and bowed him in. After an initial clash, the guy tackled Bone. It was not pretty. 

So much for the power of the style. Walt Bone is facing the camera in the dark grey gi. 

Grab a copy of The Dark Side of the Martial Arts at WaltBone.com

Three Curriculum Questions for Martial Arts Instructors

martial arts curriculum

NOTE: There is a link to the curriculum at the bottom of the page.

1. What is easier to learn? A hook kick or a sidekick? I say the hook kick.

Which do you teach first? I’ve always taught sidekick first. Why? Because it’s always been taught that way.

In truth, when you are teaching hook kick, most students are actually doing a low hook kick. Why? It’s a more natural movement.

2. What is easier to learn? A spinning hook kick or a spinning back kick? I say the spinning hook kick.

Which do you teach first? I’ve always taught spinning back kick. Why? Because it’s always been taught that way. The reality is that most kids can do a spinning hook kick on their first day in class.

3. As white belts in your school, do students have to first learn the basic tradition blocks and stances before they move into more applicable strikes and kicks? Why?

Traditional anything is more complex (not more advanced) than most any strike or kick. The application of traditional material is also harder to grasp for the new student.

Do the traditional arts have value? Yes! Absolutely. It’s just a bit of a hard sale to retain a new student when he is hit with this kind of complexity right out of the gate.

For the past few years I have been working on a curriculum that makes teaching and learning martial arts easy.

Rather than spreading practice time over dozens, if not hundreds of techniques, we focus on a much smaller amount of techniques so we can spend more time on each.

The idea is that if you spend 45-minutes practicing a half-dozen techniques in various applications your students will feel much more progress than if you spend that class teaching or reviewing a 24-move kata.

We call a month a Module. Each month the focus of the module changes:

Three Modules  = One Term

Term One

1. Kickboxing

2. Weapons / Ground

3. Martial Arts

Term Two

1. Kickboxing

2. Weapons / Ground

3. Martial Arts

Term Three

1. Kickboxing

2. Weapons / Ground

3. Martial Arts

Term Four

1. Kickboxing

2. Weapons / Ground

3. Martial Arts


The Recipe Book for Your School

I had lunch recently with a fourth dan in Uechi Ryu. We talked about how the Eastern mind-set is so different from the Western, and the confusion that creates for many instructors. Culturally, the East is more about conformity, or as I call it, cloning, than the West, where rugged individualism and innovation are instilled.

This prompted him to tell me a story of the greatest fighter in his system. This was a Japanese fellow who, as a young man, went to his uncle to learn karate. The uncle turned him away, but the guy kept returning. Finally, the uncle took him but made him clean the school, wash the toilets, and generally play the role of school janitor for a year or so before teaching him any karate.

When he felt the student was ready, he took him to other schools where he would get the heck beat out of him. Sometimes American GIs would come into the school to spar, and the uncle would have them fight his nephew, who got pounded. This lasted years, until finally the nephew began to win some of the fights. Eventually, he won them all.

The guy told me this with pride and added you just don’t see that level of dedication anymore. I said, “Of course not. That’s a stupid way to teach.” He was shocked. That is one of those stories instructors tell students to inspire them. And, as usual, the student doesn’t question it. I can’t help but be curious as to why someone would teach that way.

My comment to him was here you had someone with this kind of talent and potential, and you risked losing him by making him clean toilets for a year and then have him get beat up. That’s just dumb. That guy could have been a great martial artist years before he finally reached his potential. Luckily, he stuck it out, but who knows how many others with similar potential dropped out due to such an insane program? The instructor may have been a great master, but his curriculum was nuts, even if it does make a nice story.

If there is any area of your program you will want to scrutinize mercilessly, it should be your curriculum. Your curriculum is like a restaurants’ recipe book. Do your recipes have your students asking for more? Or are they choking down your offerings for a few months before giving it up and excusing themselves from the table?

Most of us either inherit the curriculum we came up in or we join an organization and adopt their curriculum. Because of our Eastern roots, there is an inherent bias towards conforming to existing methods. This, in time, leads to a one-size-fits-all approach to martial arts.