The age old argument against kata training has started to rear its head lately. Kata training is basically a series of predetermined movements that are practiced over and over en route to mastery. Some believe this to be too rigid which takes the fluidity and spontaneity out of one's ability to deal with unexpected events such as in a "real" fight. I can see the argument and this can be true. However, how is one expected to gain skill if one does not practice something predetermined? Someone naturally gifted or athletically inclined may be able to fell their opponent without prior training but the rest of us might not be so successful. People without some type of prior prowess need training in order to be successful. I believe this to be true in any endeavor. What would are children be like if we left them to their own devices?
In Japanese training the stages of a student's learning is referred to as shu ha ri. Shu (守) means to follow or obey, ha (破) means to break and ri (離) means to detach or transcend.
The shu stage is where the student struggles to learn how to follow en route to mastering the form. The form itself isn't that hard to master but most of struggles come as a result of our egos. Remember the ego exists to protect us and keeps us safe. This stage is characterized by repetition after repetition as we put these moves into our muscle memory.
The kanji for ha translates as break and many believe it means to break from tradition. For me, ha means to break the form down and discover its many nuances. A student masters the form in the shu stage and then deepens their understanding in the ha stage. True mastery is not knowing what to throwaway but knowing what not to throwaway. True understanding comes by breaking the movement down into its smallest parts.
Once understanding is acquired the student finds liberation or ri. Here we see mastery at its finest that is characterized like with all art with a sense of spontaneity and fluidity that at the same time has form but no form at all.
So a kata can be good or bad. It depends on where we are in our practice and where we strive to be. If one stays too long in the shu or ha that is not good but it's just as bad if we move forward too soon. The real thing, I posit, that the kata is developing is self-confidence. If we have confidence then we can meet life's challenges with a sense of calmness, composure and spontaneity. After all, isn't that what we are trying to learn anyways?