You Need a Big Picture Focus

Do you begin with the end in mind? Do you know what success looks like prior to beginning a new technique or kata? The teacher begins with a picture of success looks like. They have already seen a technique or kata performed and have performed it themselves. The student hears the picture and may even see their sensei or another higher ranking student perform the technique or kata and it looks wonderful. Then, we get our first shot at the new technique or kata and it looks nothing like the picture originally presented or shared with an example. What happened?

We need to know where we are going—the big picture—in order to know if we have arrived. However, when I am leaning a new technique or kata, I just need the first and sometimes second move. I have been working on a weapons kata using Kama. The first time I saw it performed, years ago in a competition; I was amazed by this kata. To perform the kata, you hold a weapon in each hand with a sharp blade and perform cutting motions. It looked like fun to perform and I am sure that when I learn this kata it will be. At this point, I know the shape of the kata and have a fuzzy picture of what it will look like.  My finished picture looks nothing like my teacher’s picture or even the one I recollect from the tournaments and from my classmates who know the kata.

FL kata on the beach

kata on the beach

We do not have a communication problem. My image of the kata in my head does not resemble my ability to execute the kata as it is not in focus. Looking at my kata and my mental picture:

  1. I do not have detailed instructions on the sequence of moves. My teacher has shared them and I have not yet internalized these instructions. My limited understanding has prevented me from learning most of the steps as I am still learning how to use the weapon.
  2. My picture does not match my teacher’s picture of the completed kata. I know from my own experience that when I learn a kata it is hard to look back at a time when I did not know that kata. It is often a short kata after I have learned the kata and a very long kata as I struggle to learn that kata. That does not even count the time needed to add a weapon to the training. I have not put in the deliberate practice required to achieve the mastery of this kata that is required.
  3. I have spent several weeks at the dojo going over the basic moves and I am starting to see the pattern of the kata emerge. One of the reasons I liked Taikyoku Shodan is that I could see it making a block capital letter I for a pattern. I generally look for that pattern, and that tells me I am getting the details correct and my picture and that of my sensei will begin to merge.


Take a moment with me on this. Are you focused on the details here?

  • I am working on listening in class to obtain the details and writing down what I have heard and worked.
  • Practicing at home allows me to see if my picture fits my sensei’s picture. When I then practice at home, I generally have notes to check and that is a check on how well I write out the details in my notes.
  • When I am back at class, I am asking questions to obtain the missing details. This often adds to my notes. With anything new I find that there is too much to absorb in one class.

I have sometimes thought to myself, I should be able to pick up this skill quickly and then have a good reason why. Of course my baseline motive is to look good in class, impressing my sensei and my fellow students. When we are too obsessed with looking good in class, we fail to pick up on the subtle details in the teaching because we stopped being open to learning. It’s being open to learning the little details that will make all the difference when performing that new kata later on, after the class. I generally need to take a step back and observe what’s happening and need to re-draw my mental picture and compare it to the big picture being shared. Once I do, I will try to fit what I know into what I believe is the big picture.

After I write down what I think I know of the sequence of a kata and practice it at home, I begin to see the whole picture. If you are like me, you will also see where your knowledge is incomplete. If you skip the step of writing down after class you will have a much harder time when you are practicing at home. Without writing down after you initially learn something new, you are denying yourself the opportunity to grow and merge your picture with that of your teacher.

Once I have practiced at home and come back to the dojo, I am ready for instruction on the complete picture. Our sensei tells the story of his teacher who would share the first few moves of a kata and no more. The next week he would come back and declare he was ready for additional moves. The teacher would ask for a demonstration of what he had learned and correct and always say, go back and learn these moves before you learn more. When the initial moves were mastered, more were added. This technique helps cement the basics of the kata, and they are then internalized.

How about you, are you seeing the big picture of the skill you are looking to learn? Does your picture match that of your teacher? Take a look at your notes; do you have the details in them that are needed to answer your questions without assistance from someone else? When we sow small seeds in our kata garden, we sow them meaningfully and we gain a large harvest. When we are hasty and try to skip out on the details, our picture is incomplete and we fail to master the kata and move forward in our goals.

See you in the dojo soon!


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