Get your kata right! Or else!

Recently one of my subscribers, Michael, asked:

“My sensei had me teach some kids the first taikyoku kata last night and he told me that whenever one of them did a movement incorrectly to make them do pushups. So we get going and I have them drop down to do pushups a few times before I realize that one of the youngest kids maybe 10 or 11 isn’t even trying and getting it wrong all the time.

I ask him if he is sick and he says he is tired so I ask him if he wants to sit down and he says no. So we keep going and he still isn’t even trying. Every time the group has to drop down to do pushups he lets out an upset sigh and is dragging the group back. It got to the point to where I just didn’t even focus on him and focused on the rest of the group. But I’m not sure how to deal with kids like that who don’t really want to be there.

What’s your take on it?”

I told Michael I’d answer his question in today’s post since this type of thing, seems to be all too common in martial arts. My answer is below:

First, thanks for your question Michael.

This type of an approach for correction is a low level response to the real problem. Sure there are times when I use pushups to motivate or incentivize students to do better, but I do this sparingly. I use pushups usually to “amp up” their energy, or on the rare occasions I have a group of students who insist on being apathetic when I know they’re capable of better.

In a beginner class however, patience is required as basic skills haven’t yet been honed. Giving students pushups because they keep making mistakes doesn’t usually make them any better. It makes them feel badly and makes them more tired. It also takes away from their practice time in which they could be practicing the correct way to do their technique.

It reminds me of a t-shirt I have that states, “The beatings will continue until morale improves”.

Get it right... or else!

Maybe it should read, “The pushups will continue until the kata is right”. Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

An alternative to pushups whenever there is a mistake is to start the kata over. That way, students feel the pressure of needing to perform but aren’t physically exhausting themselves. I’ll use that approach every now and again, however realize there is a mental fatigue point also.

The longer this process goes on, the more likely mistakes are going to happen. However, this approach does get students thinking about making the right movements, and it also reinforces the repetitions.

If you simply have a student who keeps making mistakes you need more information before choosing a course of action. Is he making mistakes because he hasn’t learned the skill yet? Or is he making mistakes because he’s feeling apathetic?

These are 2 completely different issues and should be addressed as such. One requires more or better instruction, while the other is motivation related.

If it’s the latter, then you need to find out what’s going on. Is he generally a good student, but he’s been up since 6am and his Dad yelled at him before class? Or is he nearly always lethargic and really doesn’t want to be there? (Sometimes this can be diet-related, or lack of water / sugar to the brain.)

However it usually comes down to interacting with students in a way they can relate to. Some respond better to the carrot, some respond better to the stick. Also it would be helpful to know what kind of learner he is. This will help you understand him better, which will allow you to teach better. You can read up on my series about the different kinds of “learners” below:

Great question, hope this helps!

– Jason

P.S. For anyone else who has a question you would like answered please email me. Maybe yours will be featured here on the blog…

18 thoughts on “Get your kata right! Or else!”

  1. I am always surprised at the way kata is taught anyway. There seems to be little in the way of explanation or justification for doing kata. It’s just “Now we’ll do some kata”. I think making sure the students know what it is for would help a lot. Particularly at the lower coloured belt grades, it is just done as one of the things you need to grade rather than as a way of learning techniques and training independently.

    What are your views on the “why” bit of doing kata?

    • Great question Adrian… My answer will be too loooong for here. I’ll post it next week in an article.


      Stay tuned.

      Thanks for your input.

  2. I love this post..

    I used to have my students do pushups as well to motivate until I discovered it was not the best idea at all. Of course no one ever teaches us in Karate how to be good Sensei’s, how to teach children or motivate them, Nor have we ever been shown how to build our dojos from the JKA or any association for that matter – LOL.

    I found the best way to motivate is positively. I also use the “Start over” method as a game with a big group to challenge students to finish without mistakes and winning is simply getting it right all the way through.

    HOWEVER, I also agree with Adrian. What is Kata even for? Its just ONE tool for training but not the “end all” in Karate. Consequently, I don’t even teach younger students Kata anymore.

    KATA is a very good tool to perfect our Karate, BUT I do not think our Karate will suffer either if we don’t do Kata at all. Many martial arts don’t have Kata and are very effective methods of self defense and sports and do no have a problem being preserved. (another topic for another day)

    I feel Kata is very visual and that in order to teach something visual we need to teach the function first. NOT the other way around like so many of us were taught.

    Bunkai is one way, but in reality, bunkai is not a true telling way to teach a whole Kata. So I have resorted to teaching segments at a time regardless of age or rank. I also resort to functional training for individual technique. Grappling arts like Judo or Jujutsu are perfect example of having lots of success using functional training. “if it works you will know right away” this is not the case in Karate. Its the opposite, We never really know until we add functional feedback to our training and KATA can lead to a sense of pointlessness regardless of age.

    But as I was saying I no longer teach Kata as a mandatory tool for rank advancement either. I used time and attendance and effort as my measuring stick for rank.

    I do not think it is that important if all we are doing is using KATA for rank instead of knowledge enhancement. That is something KIDS have a hard time understanding too. It must be more than that.

    Also if Kata is required for rank simply to justify our credibility as a good dojo/art, I think that in itself is just as silly as saying you need to be able to kick to the head “jodan” to earn a black belt, regardless of age or physical ability or injuries.

    After over 20 years of teaching full time, I have learned that KATA not only wonderful but it has an appropriate time to teach it and offer it.

    Anyone under 11 years old should not “have to” learn Kata in my opinion. Even though my own children started Kata training at 6 years old. It took them 7-8 years to finally appreciate and love it like i do.

    In a several surveys I have done conducted over the years, Kids rank KATA and KIHON last on their list of “likes”. When asked, they all 100% of the time say Sparring technique on bags or each other, partner drills, Pad work, grappling, games, jumping kicks, reaction drills WERE ALL top of the list while KATA & “air Kihon” were the boring and last on the list. What a Surprise that Kids would say that! LOL

    Adults appreciate and can understand Karate and love it for what it is more so than kids on a more regular basis, but even adults gave similar feedback with a few exceptions.

    So back to the point, I No longer teach kids Kata until after 11 years old and they only after have trained with me for a while.

    I have found that in a modern times, Kids are motivated differently. They are visual BUT cannot visualize internally as much as being STIMULATED visually from external souces like video games and special effects.

    In the 70’s “when i was a kid” imagination was part of playing. So was going out and playing physical games like hide and go seek or Climbing trees. Getting holes in your pants on a regular basis and scratching your knees/elbows from accidents was normal.

    It’s not like that anymore. KIDS are inside being PLUGGED IN or they are bored if they have nothing to “Stimulate” them.

    They NEED a visual or physical example and have a very hard time VISUALIZING more than ever without some sort of functional feedback example.

    So I have resorted in teaching FUNCTIONAL first and visual FORM as option not mandatory. Teaching a technique with a target to hit is so easy.

    In fact I no longer teach Kihon the traditional way either. Everything needs physical feedback.

    Lastly, Physical feedback gives the positive or negative understanding of doing something “well” or “not” and takes the instructor completely out of the picture in a negative light while giving him the opportunity to be “part” of the “positive” feedback that the “function factor” is already giving the student.

    KATA and AIR Kihon force instructors to to give %100 of the feedback themselves with nothing else for the student to absorb. So you either become the negative or the positive person telling them how to do things.

    WE all know it is impossible to be %100 positive in KATA/KIHON because we will always have something to fix/adjust/correct/modify. BUT with functional feedback “physical feedback” we are always able to be left in a positive light in the eyes of our students because the feedback itself teaches the student without us verbally reminding them to improve. Its all internal and self learning with OUR encouragement.

    Think about the term “NICE TRY!” or “Way to go!” or “U Almost did it!”
    We usually hear that in baseball, basketball, soccer ect. ect. But can we say that in KATA or KIHON in a dojo as effectively? I have never heard any sensei say, NICE TRY you almost got that Choku Tsuki/ gyaku / Mawashi geri / Kata.

    In team sports, NICE SHOT does not mean the kid MADE the shot. It goes along with “nice try” Unfortunately the challenge in Karate is to find a way to be able to say similar things in teaching. I believe it starts with flipping thing upside down regarding what and how we teach our beloved art of Karate-do. I would rather have 5 students who love KATA and 45 student who love everything who strive to do well than have 50 students who could care less about Kata and most drop out anyway.

    This is heading to another topic but I hope with all that i have written here I hope it relates well enough to shed some light on the idea of KATA and kids having a hard time with it.

  3. I found a good way is to get them thinking about the bunkai of the kata. Teach them one bunkai… then pair them off with a partner and they have 5 minutes to each come up with a bunkai for a particular part of the kata and demonstrate to the class. They won’t forget that part of the kata then.

    • Good one Mark.

      Reminds me of the Confucius quote, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

  4. Totally agree that pushups should not be used as punishment. No desired progress is made and the students leave feeling down. While it’s important to work hard, it should also be enjoyable. If they don’t feel a little stronger, smarter, faster, more kind, more mature, [insert desired quality here] every time they leave the dojo, don’t expect them to keep training. Our role is to challenge them, but with intent to teach, not punish. At our dojo, thehead instructors make extra time to meet with struggling students after class to get to the root of the issue. Parents are included, but we really strive to get the kids speaking for themselves. Often, that little bit of extra attention clicks and we see remarkable improvement.

    Jason, thanks for sharing this. -TS

    • You’re welcome Todd and thanks for your input.

      Love the line “…with intent to teach, not punish”.

      Perfect. I wish more instructors focused on this.

  5. l find l get a good responce to a student who is “lagging” to excite them to punch quicker if they imagine that there is a fly on the back of the student in front of them and they have to be so fast to be able to hit the fly before it escapes !
    These little mind incentetives change their thought pattern they may be in at the time.
    Other than that, the mention if we do this really well we will have a game after it !
    Hope this helps…

    • Thanks Gary…

      Thought pattern interrupts are an awesome way to change the mental state in a heartbeat.

      However, I’m curious how many students have been punched in the back of the head using this method?


  6. Hoi Jason,

    Long since I posted once a comment. But new season is now gone for about 2 months, ans like in every club I also have some brand new children who want to practice karate.

    In big lines I work like this, during the first lessons:
    1) learning the rough form in ‘shizentai’ position
    2) executing this techniques in progress with stance
    3) kumite from distance with the techniques (this way there is ‘no’ danger of ‘contact’
    4) kata itself

    Of course you have to keep them entertained with performing slow, speed, … Kiai not to forget.

    Honestly, I really have very good results this way. I only have I student (if you can call him this way) who is not able to follow the group. He’s sleepwalking the whole time.

    I informed and it seems that this kid is going to sleep around midnight and awake at 6 o’clock in the morning. Everyday … Of course that he’s sleepwalking! If you ask me: it are the parents who deserve some push ups to perform, no?

    Andy Willaert

    • Andy! Nice to hear from you… Hope life in Belgium is good.

      Thanks for sharing your method.

      And as for the the sleepwalkers – we have them here too – and yes, the parents often need the push ups!


  7. I had this problem with my young I made a game of it(but still kept the kata the focus)but make it fun for them.. I had all the students line up and do the same kata and one by one eliminate them one by one(if they did the wrong stance, punch or turned the wrong way, things like that) until the best 2 were lift, at first it was easy to pick the ones that were going to the go first, but by making it fun for the kids, they made it into a competition and so when it came time to do there kata, they were champing at the bit to show me how good there kata was, and now they look forward to doing it and go as far as to ask to do it.

    • Good one Geoff… anytime you make a “chore” a “challenge” it creates a mental shift and kids will often respond well. The only thing I would say is the ones that are eliminated are the ones who probably need more work. Maybe this exercise could be done at the start of class, and the ones who are eliminated need to go practice. The ones who win or do well, are rewarded with learning the moves of a new kata, etc.

  8. In my dojos we don’t give pushups as punishment. I want the students to appreciate exercise as being good for them, hard to do when you are punished with it. Within my club we ask a more senior student to help the lower grade with their kata, this means that the higher grade has to articulate his movements which aids in his own understanding. People learn differently so what I can’t get across, someone else may. I also agree with Mark above, teaching meaning with movements aids in understanding.

  9. One of the greatest ‘Sins’ an Instructor can make is punishing the whole group continually for the mistake of one Student ~ it is an injustice..!! and the other Students see it as just that ~ Punish the perpetrator only..!! ~ I have found ignoring that Student until the Kata or whatever is over then taking them aside and spend a few moments one-on-one in motivating talk achieves best results.

  10. I don’t agree with punishment with pushups. There is always something you can do to make a student retain Kata. I teach by example, I practice Kata on the floor with them with alot of spirit. When a student is doing Kata next to his teacher they seem to pay more attention. Its not often I get to practice Kata with my sensei but when it happens its special.


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