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Find Function in Your Forms: Part 1

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

You can’t watch a video or read an article regarding a Martial Arts practitioner performing a kata without the naysayers chiming in on how impractical the actions may be. Comments such as “that would never work in real life” or “I never see anyone using that move in the octogen” litter the comment feed. Unfortunately, I believe that the folks who make those comments fail to consider the many potential lessons from practicing forms with intention and specificity. It is also important to remember that forms are only one facet of traditional martial arts training.

If you will indulge me, I would be honored to share some of my thoughts on this subject. I am blessed to study multiple “Traditional Martial Arts” and also train at a “Mixed Martial Arts” gym. In the MMA gym, we focus primarily on Dutch Kickboxing, Wrestling and BJJ, so though I’m not a “fighter” per se, I do have experience in that arena. Where my traditional training is concerned, I have reached the rank of first-degree black belt or higher in American Kenpo, Tae Kwon Do, and Karate. I mention my training pedigree not to brag, but to share that I engage in both types of instruction and have found exceptional benefits from both schools of thought.

So, how do forms fit in? Can they be functional? I will share personal experiences from the different systems in which I train to answer these questions with a special emphasis on American Kenpo, as it is my base art.

First and foremost, it is imperative when you practice forms or katas that they be performed with intention and specificity, as mentioned before. But what exactly does this mean? While working your kata, you must visualize precisely what you are doing and to whom. Anyone can do a sloppy block and kick into the air. It takes a true martial artist to see an imagined attack coming at their face and executing a crisp block followed by a powerful strike directed to a specific target on an adversary.

If this most basic understanding and attempted application is not evident in a form, then the kata is indeed a waste of time and energy. If, however, the mind is seeing the attacks and responding in kind, then the repetitions of the actions can help to positively instill the desired response in times of need.

To further explain, let’s consider the early forms in the American Kenpo system. In short-form one, a clear attack is imagined, and the Kenpoist moves away from the attack, landing in a neutral bow (the basic fighting stance) while simultaneously executing one of four basic blocks.

For conversation’s sake, let’s look past the idea that the block may also be used as a strike. That said, short-form one in American Kenpo begins teaching from day one, the proper foot positioning for the Kenpo fighting stance as well as imparting the skills to perform basic blocks.

As the Kenpoist moves on to long-form one, strikes are added following the blocks. As the punches are thrown after the block defending from the imagined attacker, the Kenpoist now learns to transition into the forward bow stance.

This trains him to turn the hip to generate power with the punch. Also added in long form one is what’s referred to as the “double factor.” This action required the use of both hands in succession, thus coordinating a potentially more practical response to an attack.

When the short two and long two forms are added to the training, the Kenpoist is then taught additional footwork, stances, coordination, and dexterity between the hands as they are frequently doing different actions.

For instance, sometimes one hand is open and parrying while the other is in the form of a fist and striking. The moves become more elaborate and build upon the base created by learning both short-form one and long-form one.

When the American Kenpo practitioner reaches short-form three in their journey, they should have already mastered the lessons of the previous forms and have a basic understanding of how to deal with simple attacks and respond with strikes. At this point, the American Kenpo system introduces “the techniques” into the forms. For those that are unfamiliar with Kenpo, we have several hypothetical ways to deal with any attacks that we may encounter. This is not to say that a Kenpoist believes they will use a technique in its entirety in real life. It simply is a means to teach potential movement in a given situation.

As short-form three training begins, the practitioner imagines the attacks the same as done in technique training and “practices” them alone in a set order to a set direction.

All American Kenpo forms from short-three and upward apply this same approach where the techniques are plugged into set pattern and practiced repeatedly. One great advantage of working through the forms starting at short three is that the student is also practicing these very same techniques on a real body in technique lines. In other words, they learn the techniques one at a time with another person acting as the attacker, so the reference for the resulting action is easier to understand and apply when done solo.

Interestingly, I have noticed a strong parallel between my Kenpo technique studies and the related short three and higher forms training with that of my BJJ training. In BJJ, we train a few techniques to start class. There is frequently a “what-if” phase in these classes. This is where we look at how the other BJJ player reacts, causing the BJJ techniques to flow from one to another. This is not unlike that of adjusting a Kenpo technique on the fly or taking it a step further and working from one technique to another in a form where we are visualizing fighting against multiple imaginary attackers.

One great aspect of the BJJ technique work or flow is that you get to pressure test the technique against a resisting adversary. This is something that we can attempt to emulate in our Kenpo techniques training by working through the “what if” phase or “spontaneous response” practice to random attacks.

This will develop the effectiveness of the techniques and lend to improved flow when using them in the forms. That said, as we practice the forms it is thus vital to see the attacker and imagine truly dealing with them the same as a BJJ player practices transitions while rolling through a flow drill.

The take-home message is this: for Kenpo forms to be effective as a part of our combat readiness training, we must truly visualize the attacker and practice our response in each moment must be practiced with full intent. Be sure to check back next week as we look at how this compares to the katas from my TKD and Karate training and the function they serve in overall self-defense preparation.


Ian Lauer

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