Kata (Japanese for form or pattern) are an exercise where the novice repeatedly tries to emulate a master.

Kata and other artificial exercises form a large part of the work done by a karate novice. They practice for hour after hour.

Once you get some way into your training, you start kumite, or sparring. Kumite is a supervised exercise between two students, or between a student and a master. Here they learn to assemble the basic moves into coherent sequences, combining offensive and defensive elements into something that works. While kata could be considered static, repeating the same sequence over and over, kumite is dynamic.

Then, to quote Bob Harwood

“Once a kata has been learned, then the kata needs to be forgotten. That is, at some point in studying Karate, typically the black belt level, the time comes to transcend the motions and seek meaning in the kata. The student discovers how his/her view of the world is reflected in their performance of kata, and (if lucky) they learn how to adapt the kata to new interpretations. As a student learns to do this, kata becomes more and more a part of their kumite (sparring). …the skill of self-discovery becomes part of their daily life. The study of koan is often used to promote this learning.”

Koans are questions without absolute answers which are used to break down assumptions and reveal underlying truths. The goal of a koan is not the answer, but thinking about the question. In the supermarket pricing example, when talking about “buy two, get the third free,” the question “does the third item have a price?” is something of a (minor league) koan.

All of which brings us back to the Dreyfus model of skills acquisition (and you thought the title of this blog entry was the name of a law firm). The Dreyfus model suggests that there are five stages in the acquisition of mastery.

  1. We start at novice: unsure and with no experience. We don’t particularly want to know the “why,” we just want to be shown what to do.
  2.  We need to know the rules, because we just want to achieve some goal.
  3. As we get more experience, and progress through the next three levels, we start to move beyond this immediate, mechanical level.
  4. We gain more understanding and start to be able to formulate our own action plans.
  5. Finally, when we achieve mastery, we have all that experience internalized, and we can work from intuition. We no longer need the rules to support us; instead we write the new rules.

There’s a lot of obvious similarity between Dreyfus and the way people become masters of karate. The kata is rote learning, copying the master. Kumite is where you get to start applying the skills on your own. And then mastery, where you teach others, and where you use koan to attempt to discover underlying principles for yourself.

This echoes so much of Mike Rother’s recommendations on how to do improvement – developing using formal repeated practise from rote learning through to the level of mastery where it’s all instinctive.

In my prehistory of music (undegraduate degree: Bachelor of Music), this echoes equally. You want to practise the exercises until they’re no longer needing your conscious brain to direct; your fingers just seem to move to the right places and your conciousness can focus on the musical outcome that the finger movements enable.

Getting to this point took me years of daily practise, with a large total of time under formal instruction from a master – but even after nearly 2 decades of not daily practise, I can still largely do it.

So it is and will be with all learned skills; whether language, coding or achieving improvement.


Originally posted on my Martin Burns: PM PoV at http://writing.easyweb.co.uk/katas-in-code-and-coaching
  Recommend this post
Follow me

Martin Burns

Transformation Consultant at CA Inc (formerly Rally)
Previously: Leader of software delivery portfolios in large scale orgs.
Specialism: Transforming complex delivery organisations to be more Lean/Agile.
Mindset: Continuous Improvement Obsessive
Follow me

Latest posts by Martin Burns (see all)

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Katas in Code and Coaching by Martin Burns is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

%d bloggers like this: