What makes a “great” kata?

As judges, students frequently ask us how we decide what score to give a kata.  Sure, it is relative to what we see from everyone, but how do we separate a good kata from a great kata?

At the most basic level, the kata needs to be performed with the correct set of moves and in the correct directions.  This is an essential fist step and basic requirement to get a good score.  But, where do we go from there?

The answer lies in the details. 

Let’s dissect a great kata.  It starts when the student’s name is called.  You never get a second chance to make a first impression.  The great kata starts when the student enthusiastically gets up and quickly gets into ‘choon bi’ stance ready to present.  When presenting, the student is confident and assertive, and lets the judges know he is ready and excited to present his kata.  Then, there is a bow and a salute.  Is the salute rushed, or is it showing that the student is ready to go and knows the details?  At this point a judge cannot say that the kata will be great, but if there is a poor presentation, a judge can probably predict with accuracy that the kata will not be great.

During the actual performance of the kata, here are the details that are examined:

1. Stances must be strong and correct.  The lunge stances are low, the cat stance shows your weight towards the back, etc.

2. Hand positions must be accurate.  Are you using a crane’s beak when appropriate?  Are you fingers together when you chop?  Are you using a vertical fist for your punches?

3. Kick location must be precise.  Are your kicks to the correct parts of the body?  For example in our school’s kata, master form, on the move “hooking thunder”, the first kick is a snap kick to the groin, and the second kick is a sidekick to the knee. 

4.  Are you looking where you strike?  It is obvious to the judges if you are not looking where you strike that the strike would unlikely be effective in a real fight.

5.  The best katas look like you are actually fighting someone.  This means you have to have intensity and strength in your moves.  Blocks need to be hard and controlled, etc.

6.  A great kata should flow smoothly and there should be good transition between moves.  If it starts and speeds up and then slows way down, it will appear as if you don’t know what comes next.  Keep it appropriately paced is an often-overlooked attribute of a good kata.  Some moves are intended to be performed at a faster pace, but your overall speed is important.

7.  Do you have well placed accents, like fluid growls and kias?  These small punctuations can separate you from your opponents in the overall score.

8. A great kata always ends with a full salute and bow.  Show the judges that you are proud of the work you just performed and that you believe that it deserves a great score.

One of the great things about martial arts is that there is always room to improve.  Everyone’s kata can always be worked on by adding small touches here and there.  So, the next time you go to a tournament and wonder about your score, try looking at your kata through a microscope and see if you can improve all the little details.  One of the best ways to do this is by recording yourself.  Play it back in slow motion and examine it move by move.  If you take all of this advice to heart, it won’t be a surprise when you are holding a trophy at the next tournament you enter!