Many martial arts schools stress the fact that they teach "realistic" combat applications. For sake of conversation, let's explore that for a moment. Real combat applications come from real attacks. They do not come from simple grabs or perfectly timed and executed seiken (karate) punches or open-hand strikes such as shomenuchi (aikido). Real attacks are sloppy, unplanned and scary. They can come in the form of a "haymaker", a violent grab or various weapons. If someone intends to hurt you, they will come at you full speed with no regard for your safety. Violence has no rhyme or reason; it's just violence.
One of the main goals of martial arts training is for one to train himself/herself to remain calm in a violent situation and react instinctively. In order to do that, we have to "rewire" our nervous system through a process of regimentation. It's no different than learning how to walk, hit a baseball or learning how to type. In essence, it is neuromuscular patterning and that takes a lot of repetition. In terms of budo, that means kata; movements performed in a sequence emphasizing correct posture, footwork, body position, breathing and all of the other elements that go into each movement.
In karate, for example, kata is mostly an individual exercise performed after as student has learned basic stances and techniques. A well-rounded karate teacher will instruct his students in bunkai - the practical application of a given kata. However, in other budo such as judo, aikido and jujutsu, kata is performed with a partner against varied attacks. These attacks typically start with simple holds and grabs. Once a all of the elements of an individual movement is understood, the attacks become more dynamic such as a punch, a kick or a strike.
One of the reasons aikido gets a bad wrap from people who practice "real combat" systems is because traditional dojos raley teach technique beyond kata movements. In particular, shomenuchi, yokomenuchi, stuki and simple or elongated grabs. All of these training sequences a vital for learning good technique and for on-going practice. But if that's all you ever practice, your aikido technique will be limited to these nicely timed, highly regimented simple strikes. I have met and trained with many polished and precise aikidoka whose technique crumbles under the weight of a full speed punch to the face, a leg pick or a violent grab to the chest or throat.
Let's look a shiho nage, for example. Anyone who has attempted to use shiho nage from straight punch to the face learns very quickly that it's almost impossible using a traditional entry. You have to modify your technique and entry to adapt to the trajectory of the attack. It's that simple. We posted a short video at the end of this blog to highlight this point.
The fact is, if you want aikido or any budo to work effectively, you must place yourself in realistic situations and study the technique. In our dojo, I frequently have my advanced students contend with several uke wearing MMA gloves during our randori sessions. The attackers will strike and grab at 75-100% speed as nage attempts to utilize aikido technique. As you might expect, nage's technique doesn't look as graceful and well-timed as the professional demonstrations we're used to seeing.
We all know there is far more to aikido than fighting. My point is, in order to fully understand and appreciate the depths of aikido and budo, we must step outside our comfort zone and confront reality. Am I saying that kata training is useless? Absolutely not. As I said, kata training is vital to learning and mastering technique. It is what separates budo from basic pugilistic forms of self-defense. But you have to get your hands dirty once in a while or you truly won't understand what it means to be "clean."