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When is Fast Too Fast?

In Karate, it is generally better to be fast than slow. I believe this. When someone attacks you, you don't have time to respond. You have to be able to respond instinctively, without thinking.

When we practice kata, we have to decide how fast we are going to move. Sometimes we might move slowly, and other times fast. Sometimes we might move lightly, and other times with power. It all depends.

There are multiple ways to consider how fast we should move in a kata. You could look at how long it takes from the beginning to the end of the kata. You could consider how long it takes from the beginning to the end of each individual movement. You could also consider how long it takes to execute or throw the technique once you have moved into position.

I have seen kata performances where the student tried to complete the kata as quickly as possible -- like a race. The movements are all run together and hurried. This is sort of like a contest to say the Pledge of Allegiance as quickly as possible. I don't see any value in this. It would be like saying a prayer as quickly as possible so that you can eat sooner. I guess you could say that God can decipher what you are saying, but it just doesn't seem right.

In the case of kata, you have to ask whether a raced kata has any relation to self defense. Could the student apply the techniques as quickly as he is performing them?

This question could also be asked when the student races in each movement -- trying to move from the beginning to the end of each movement as quickly as possible. Say you are going to step forward with your right foot and execute a right punch. You could make a race out of this, even have a contest in your dojo. But does stepping and punching fast mean that you can punch well? How is your body shifting? How does your weight shift? Does your punch penetrate? Are you stable? How quickly you can get from Point A to Point B means very little in and of itself. It might be better than madly racing from the beginning of the kata to the end, but not by much.

I prefer to see speed in the execution of the technique -- after you have properly moved into position. Using the example of the step and punch, I would step into position using basically a walking pace and when my body shifting and weight shifting was just right, then I would punch very quickly. The punch itself would be fast. I would not just move from Point A to Point B fast.

But even then, you have to ask, "Is moving fast always the right way to execute a technique?" In the case of a punch or strike, I would generally think that speed is appropriate. More speed generally means more power (if done correctly). However, one technique can have multiple meanings (imi or bunkai). Say that a technique can be executed as a strike. That should probably be done fast. But stay that the same technique can be executed as a throw. Would the timing of the throw be the same as a strike? Probably not. You could move your hands fast, but that does not mean that you could throw an attacker that fast -- maybe you could, maybe you could not. So how fast you execute a technique depends on what you think that you are doing.

I suspect that in my form of Shorin-Ryu, there is a general rule that all movements in a kata are executed with the strike interpretation. By default, we will move with the timing of strikes, even if all the movements in the kata have multiple levels of application. This is just for consistency when we perform kata as a group, and also to hide the meanings when people are watching. When we perform kata by ourselves, however, we are free to move in accordance with our personal interpretations of the meanings of the kata.

So here is my point (at long last). I occasionally see people executing techniques so quickly that it could only be to impress people -- not to reflect a real application. A movement that is too fast might impress the general public, but not skilled Karate people. Such movement is like a jabbering person -- all talk and no meaning. My mother-in-law used to say something about a person talking like a monkey. We certainly should not move like monkeys!

Every movement must reflect its meaning, and the speed of the movement must also reflect the intended meaning. Speed has little or no value in and of itself. Hummingbirds are fast, but we certainly don't want to hit like hummingbirds!

I should add something. In many ways, I am faster now that I am 53 than I was in my 20s. This is because my body dynamics allow me greater speed and I am also wasting much less energy. However, just being able to move quickly does not mean that it is always appropriate to do so. We have to move in accordance with the intended meaning. This is something I observe in skilled Karate students.


Charles C. Goodin