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Criteria for Judging a Karate Kata

by on July 13, 2009

What do judges look for when judging a kata? With all the talk going on recently about karate being considered for the Olympic Games and whether or not it can be judged objectively, I thought it prudent to write about this a little.

I’m training for the 29th Canadian National ISKF Karate Championships in Calgary this year and I’ve come upon the ISKF Tournament Rules and Regulations (2nd Ed.) updated in May 2009 which defines the exact judging criteria of competitive kata (among a volume of other information which I’ll try to write about eventually).

Cover of the 2nd Ed. ISKF Tournament Rules and Regulations

So if you want to know what to focus on most when training, and want to ease you mind about how much a mistake during a competition might cost you, here is your answer.

Mistake Penalties

Sometimes there’s sweat (or even a little blood) on the floor that you slip on. While its not really your fault, it does make a difference to your score if you slip. This is just one of many possible mistake a karateka can make. If you do make a mistake, omit a technique by accident, or stop completely, you can expect the following penalties:

  • Competitor makes a mistake and continues smoothly (0.1-0.2 deduction)
  • Competitor makes a mistake, hesitates and continues smoothly (0.2-0.5 )
  • Competitor slips, falls, recovers and continues smoothly (0.5-1.0)
  • Competitor omits a technique and continues smoothly (0.5-1.0)
  • Competitor makes a mistake and discontinues (disqualification)

Falling down doesn’t happen often, but if your unfortuneate enough to have it happen to you, don’t hestitate, think about it, mutter something to yourself, shake your head in dissatisfaction with yourself, or anything else to indicate that you are frustrated or have lost focus. Just continue.

Don’t ignore it, since you’ll want to learn from it later, but don’t dwell on it. A hesitation in this sense is a noticable delay between techniques which is longer than it should be. It may even happen 2-3 techniques after the mistake you made, when you realize what you’ve done. The same applies for making mistakes or omitting a technique.

I once watched a guy at Nationals in 2007 who was performing heian godan and after the cresent kick and empi began doing bassai dai. He was a brown belt and had probably been practicing bassai dai for months and so this mistake is understandable. But he stopped for a second, shook his head and got irritated and stopped the kata, returning to yoi. DON’T DO THAT! You’ll loose a boatload of points, but it’s better to promptly return to the empi and continue heian godan from there.

I once slipped on some sweat that was on the floor while performing heian nidan as a green belt. Standing in kokutsu dachi, my front foot came out from under me and I slipped forward. I quickly corrected it, wiped the sole of my foot in my gi very quickly, and continued on smoothly (well, I thought it was smoothly, maybe the judges thought it was amateurish). I finished the kata without any major problems. In the end, I got 3rd place out of 9 people, beating out 2 purple belts.

Point Evaluations

This next part is something that you hear in every class but for me, until I saw it written down on paper, the paper that the judges literally study for their judges exams, it didn’t hit home completely.

Point evalutions focus on many higher level aspects of a kata that are not based on mistakes, but based on the quality of the techniques you do get right. From the second they call your name and you approach the ring, they are judging you. Think about this: your name is announced and you approach the ring-side. The center judge (or referee) motions you forward and you want up the 4 or 5 paces to the line where you stand in attention. The judge asks for your kata name, you announce it, they reiterate it, and you assume the starting position. This takes, what? About 15 seconds? They are judging you during this 15 seconds! Its under the category of deportment and goes a long way to determining the winner between two people of equal technical caliber. This is important. Write it down.

Here is the list of evaluation criteria used by judges. You can think of the 5 points above as the things that are referred to when you make a mistake, and think of the following as the things that are referred to when you do not.

Basis for Judgement Important Points Range of Value
Deportment (Taido) Be smart, take it seriously, approach the ring with focus and intent. Bow properly and respectfully, stand in the first stance with concentration. 0.1-1.0
Position & Posture Be vertical when necessary, lean only when necessary. 0.1-1.0
Stance (Tachi kata) Length and width of stances. Toes and knees pointing in the right directions. Hip position and center of gravity are #1. 0.1-1.0
Basic techniques The minutiae of each technique. (e.g. thumb correctly over the knuckles when forming a fist) 0.1-1.0
Correct application of power Don’t use strength indiscriminately. Practice Enpi and then Jion to see what is meant here. 0.1-1.0
Speed of technique Don’t rush, but don’t lag behind. Know what portion of a technique is slow and what part is fast. Speed doesn’t mean that techniques cannot have a slight pause in between. 0.1-1.0
Body expansion and contraction Use the principles of tension, relaxation and flexibility properly. 0.1-1.0
Embusen Follow the correct path. With very few exceptions, this is perhaps the easiest to get right, but don’t overlook it. 0.1-1.0
Body movement The performance should be fluid and rhythmical. Don’t be jerky and unnecessarily stamp the feet. Don’t introduce extra movement such as slight movement after a block. 0.1-1.0
Interpretation Understand what the kata means, what each move is for, and don’t just rehearse and execute it, mean it. 0.1-1.0
Continuity Kata moves are intricately related. Demonstrate the cohesiveness of the movements. 0.1-1.0

What is a Mistake?

Some clarification is warranted here to completely understand what a “mistake” means.

A mistake is not the same as a bad technique, and these are not the same as an omision. Considering the 4th technique of heian shodan, here is an example of each:

  1. Bad technique: not properly wrapping the thumb around the pointer and index finger knuckles
  2. Mistake: performing a back fist strike rather than a hammer-fist strike
  3. Omission: forgetting the hammer fist strike and proceeding from geden barai (3rd technique) to oi-tsuki (the 5th technique)

Technically speaking, you can do any of these and still continue a kata. You will be penalized (sometimes heavily) but that should not stop you half way through the kata when you realize that 4 techniques ago you forgot to punch or that you stood in kokutsu dachi when you should have been in zenkutsu dachi. The judges will pick up on that and believe me, you won’t make that mistake again.

The moral of the story: there are many things to practice about a kata and many that the judges will look for. Knowing these is the first step, refining them is the next step.

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