How to Be Creative in Karate (& Why It’s Super Important)


It’s a big word.

Are you afraid of it…

…or enthralled by it?

No matter what feelings the word ‘creativity’ invokes in you, there’s something you can’t deny:

Few things connect us so profoundly to the essence of human nature as tapping into our creative self.

Creativity is bliss.

From my experience, when I get into my ideal flow state – whether it’s performing a kata, fighting a live opponent or writing an article – I can lose complete track of time, space and logic.

It’s like entering into a parallel Universe.

Alas, the importance of this has always been known to great men in history:

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

— Albert Einstein

“Art requires creativity. Creativity requires experience. Experience comes from your life. And your life is expressed in your art.”

— Bruce Lee

“There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.”

— Edward de Bono

The list goes on.

“Okay,” you’re thinking.

“That’s cool, Jesse-san. But I’m not Einstein or Lee. I’m not an artist, painter or musician. I don’t need creativity, and I can’t command it to appear even if I need it!”


So, let me break this down for you:

1. First of all, you don’t need a creative profession in order to harness the power of creative thinking. What are you having for dinner tonight? What clothes should you wear today? How can you get your kids to do their homework? What should you tell your boss when you’re late for work? All of this requires creativity.

2. Secondly, you already are an artist (a martial artist). Don’t forget this. Own it. The human body is your creative tool. Combat is your canvas. Create.

3. Lastly, the reason you often feel “uncreative” is simple: You don’t flex your creativity muscles (the specific neurological pathways associated with creative thinking) enough.

It’s literally THAT simple.bruce-lee-creative (450x640)

So, today I will show you 2 unique exercises I created to improve your creativity in Karate.

One for kata and one for kumite.

But first…

I understand this sounds like a paradox to some people.

“How can I be creative in Karate when so much is predefined and fixed?”

Here’s the thing:

Most of us haven’t been taught the right way to apply creativity in Karate.

You see, there exists a natural order of skill progression in Karate – and it makes no sense to attempt creative twists at the wrong stages (it could even be detrimental).

In Japanese, this concept is known as “Shu-Ha-Ri”.

You must first follow the rules (Shu), then break the rules (Ha), before you have the ability, and necessity, to create the rules (Ri). This is the life cycle of Karate mastery.

You should move gradually from ‘Waza’ (techniques) to ‘Ri’ (principles).


Because, contrary to McDojo belief, true creativity isn’t to flash a gazillion techniques (Waza) around. That’s just memorization and repetition. Like a parrot.

Real creativity comes from understanding and applying principles (Ri); the underlying mechanisms that govern what time, place and shape your technical expression takes.

Makes sense?

  • Techniques are limited and local.
  • Principles are infinite and universal.

Yet, one cannot exist without the other.

And they have to be learned in the correct order.

The day I personally understood this, my whole perception of Karate changed – and I was able to connect the seemingly unconnected in new and creative ways.


With this in mind, let’s look at my 2 drills to boost your “creativity muscle” in Karate.

The first is through kata, and the second is through kumite.

Check ’em out:

1. Kata Creativity Challenge

This exercise is a challenge.

Simply grab a partner and challenge him/her to a “kata battle”.

(Those of you who attended KNX14 will recognize this one.)

This incredible exercise will not only increase your capacity for creative thinking, but also your motor intelligence and memory.

Here’s the concept:

  1. Person A does a free movement, starting from yoi (e.g. gyaku-zuki).
  2. Person B does the same movement, then adds another movement (gyaku-zuki, mae-geri)
  3. Person A repeats the sequence, then adds yet another movement (gyaku-zuki, mae-geri, uchi-uke)
  4. Person B repeats all movements, then adds yet another movement (gyaku-zuki, mae-geri, uchi-uke, tobi-geri)
  5. Etc. etc. etc. until any person a) forgets a movement or b) makes a mistake.

The idea is that you gradually create a kata together – by constantly adding the next movement, while keeping the previous movements in memory.

How many steps can you achieve before somebody loses? 5? 10? 25?

Try it.

The exercise will look wildly different depending on your skill level and experience.

I highly suggest you add some rules, like “You can’t copy the previous movement” or “You can’t use a movement more than two times” or “You must always do a new stance” and so on.

The more rules you have, the higher levels of creativity you’re developing.

Many people think rules and regulations “restrict” creativity. But that’s wrong.

There’s an inherent element of anarchy in all great creativity.

Rules spur creativity!

“Art lives from constraints and dies from freedom.”

 Leonardo da Vinci

2. Kumite Creativity Challenge

Next up is kumite.

So for this exercise you will need a partner too.

The idea is simple, and somewhat similar to the kata challenge:

  1. Person A attacks person B with a free attack.
  2. Person B responds with a free defense/counter.
  3. Person B then attacks person A.
  4. Person A responds with a free defense/counter.
  5. Etc. etc. etc. back and forth until any person a) messes up or b) repeats himself/herself.

Get it?

For this exercise, it’s safest to start by always doing the same attack (but varying the responses) and going slowly in the beginning.

Then you can mix it up with various attacks – and various speeds.

A much more challenging variation is to always do the same defense, but constantly vary the attacks instead.

This exercise develops a VERY high level of martial skill – including the mental capacities of creativity, perception, fortitude and intuition.

Personally, I suggest you start with the kata challenge (#1) before you go to the kumite challenge (#2), especially if you teach these in class.

Try it!


And that’s it for today.

What do you think?

Is creativity something you struggle with? Does it make you happy? Will you try my exercises? Would you like to be more creative in Karate – and life?

Comment & let me know.



  • Ross
    This is brilliant, I can't believe I never thought about this. Thanks for posting :)
  • Excellent article with great training ideas. Definitely putting the kata idea into practice this week. It should be fun.
  • Great! You couldn't choose a better timing to post the article. Our dojo closed in july & august and i spent the summer (in Belgium, summer seems already over) looking for new exercise to teach my student but... never ever thought of that. This is brilliant, Jesse-san! Would you recommend it for kids too?
    • Thanks Junior-san! Sure. It works with kids, but generally they are already 10x more creative than adults. Make sure to explain properly so it doesn't turn into "just" fun & games. Keep a close eye.
  • Awesome! Never thought of that! Same question as Junior, I teach a group of kids, is this recommendable for kids?
  • Sven
    Jesse-san Quite interesting. Most importantly - FUN. I have noticed that, especially when you have to teach little kids like I do, that you do need to get creative and keep things interesting and fun for them whilst simultaneously giving them great and proper technique easily. I noticed that they especially struggle with Dachi. So what did I do? I created this competition in my dojo. It tests knowledge of everything from History of karate, "show me how" moves, True or False, Japanese terms. Basically everything. I draw random questions from my hat and ask a question to each of my students individually. First one to get 10 questions right, wins. That person then gets to choose the first thing we train. Anything their heart desires - whether it be a kata they like or something they struggle with, Kumite or Kihon. Anything. Like I said, they struggle in getting their stances nice - so I let them begin in Heiko Dachi. Get the answer right, Move to Zenkutsu Dachi, get it right and move to Moto Dachi, Shiko Dachi, Neko Ashi Dachi. High stance, low stance, high stance, etc. I found that, if you show them how to do a stance perfectly, and they hold that stance for a while, it improves so much. Karate's foundation is found in the basics after all :) Anyway, just thought i'd share that.
  • Fred
    Hi, First of all thank you for the article. I have a quick question though, isn't the second exercise you propose (for kumite) basically jiyu ippon kumite ? With the additional constraint of not repeating yourself. Overall it's pretty similar to the exercise of jiyu ippon kumite we have for the examination of the 3rd dan in France.
    • Thanks Fred-san! That could be the case, depending on your level of interpretation of the exercise.
  • Ossu! [bow] Sounds like FUN!!! Thank you! Class meets only twice a week, the rest of the time my daughter and I practice in our garage. She's gonna love these exercises!!! At our level, we're not supposed to spar without an instructor present so we'll take the second drill sloooooooowly (think Tai Chi, LOL). Again, thank you!!! [bow]
  • Mike Addison-Saipe
    Great idea Jesse. In our dojo we repeat "kumite should look like kata,kata should look like kumite". One of our exercises is "Kata randori". A kata is selected (e.g Passai), one person attacks with anything they like, the other counters with techniques,sequences or principles from Passai.This is started at "Tai Chi speed"so that each person has time to contemplate where to go to from there. This ends up with very close quarter contact which is continuous.Lots of muchimi! When it speeds up it is interesting to note that most people , in the intensity of the moment, forget to breathe. So, initially, these are limited to 1 minute bouts.However in black belt class there is no limit,and so it goes on until someone experiences a cataclysmic failure. Stop, rei,change the roles. Bouts have lasted 15 minutes!!!
    • Very nice, Mike-san! Thanks for chiming in.
  • Sören
    Just... domo arigato gozaimasu, Jesse-sensei! :)
  • maja
    YES!! ok, so I am a creative person and you just wrote down everything I've learned so far about creativity. you even included that creativity works best within a set of rules or a frame and the "learn the rules, break the rules then make the rules"-thing is so important and is one thing I keep repeating to those who come to me and ask how to become better at drawing. seriously though, these exercises are great! gonna tell sensei stein about them as soon as possible. he'll like them, I'll struggle with them :p
  • vic
    I experiment with drills based on kata.I also explain like any other method do not prepare you for the unpredictability and chaos of real violence but are a method of learning to rapidly change from one technique posture etc. to another.However they can become a trap so I introduce an element of chaos.As in all 2 man practices there is defender and attacker after performing the drill a number of times the attacker at some point inserts a different response to the defenders reaction or performs a different attack than the one in the drill.He does this once only using different technique in each succesive drill then progresses to 2 techniques then a maximum of 3 .As this is close range in fighting it can get very interesting very fast.
  • Fernando
    Creativity is often misunderstood in the field of sport training and many instructors mistake the development of creativity and training sessions and workouts many times turn into just fun & games. I think having a creative approach in training even in life, as Jesse recommends, is very important. However, to become creative in an artistic discipline as in music, painting, dance ... even in a martial art is something completely different, more complex. And that means a lot of hard work and countless hours and years of constant practice. It is a long way to reach creativity. As Jesse states, “…there exists a natural order of skill progression in Karate – and it makes no sense to attempt creative twists at the wrong stages (it could even be detrimental).” This statement reminds me of the phases in the acquisition of motor skills, in other words the natural order of skill progression which is explained by Physical Education and Motor Learning research. There is another contribution from the field of Education that can help us understand creativity in the learning process. This is the concept of Taxonomies of Educational Objectives. Taxonomy refers to a classification of the different learning objectives. Taxonomies divide educational objectives into three domains: cognitive, affective and psychomotor. They respond to a global process and have a progressive and hierarchical structure, that is, learning at the higher levels is dependent on having attained prerequisite knowledge and skills at lower levels. Taxonomies are very useful tools for stating and analyzing learning objectives. There are several taxonomies; probably the best known is Bloom's taxonomy. In the psychomotor domain taxonomy proposed by Ann Jewett is worth noting. This taxonomy classifies the process of skill acquisition in three main categories of learning behaviors as follows: 1. GENERIC MOVEMENT. 1.1. Perceiving. 1.2. Imitating. 1.3. Patterning. 2. ORDINATE MOVEMENT. 2.1. Adapting. 2.2. Refining. 3. CREATIVE MOVEMENT. 3.1. Varying. 3.2. Improvising. 3.3. Composing. Note that the final stage is Creative Movement and remember that taxonomies have a progressive and hierarchical structure, that is, creative movement implies having attained prerequisite knowledge and skills at lower levels. I think this taxonomy matches perfectly the ancient concept of “Shu-Ha-Ri” described by Jesse. Shu: follow the rules. Generic movement: perceiving, imitating, patterning. Ha: break the rules. Ordinate movement: adapting, refining. Ri: create the rules. Creative movement: Varying, improvising, composing. It is no coincidence that after checking several taxonomies of psychomotor domain (Bloom, Harrow, Simpson and Thomas) it turns out that the final stage is described by terms such as origination and art. That means creativity is at the top, is the summit of human motor behavior. Therefore, creativity is not just a matter of talent but also a matter of time and hard work. It’s a long way to the top (if you wanna Rock n Roll). Some talented and gifted people strive to follow the path and to reach the summit. We call them geniuses. They strive for perfection. That is why they usually are fanatical about training, practice and hard work. There are loads of examples out there in the fields of music, dance, painting and sports. Pablo Ruiz Picasso, genius of painting, once said: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child.” I hope these contributions from Physical Education and Motor Learning could be useful to help you understand and improve your karate. After all, karate is all about teaching and learning. “Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.” -Pablo Ruiz Picasso
    • Brilliant, Fernando-san.
  • Mike
    Excellent ideas! Definitely going to try them. Thnx. By the way, Jesse, are you appearing both days this Sat and Sun at the Bhudo-kan here in Okinawa? Looking forward to meeting you.
    • Thanks Mike-san! I'm off on Wednesday.
      • Mike
        Dojo bar? What day?
  • Dawn
    This is a great exercise! Thanks Jesse!
  • Eddie
    AH Jesse-San, Thanks for the article. When I teach my students a Kata, I also explain the principles, theories and concepts. Explaining to them, that the Kata is not rigid nor limit its applications to its Embusen. I rather they look into the deeper meanings and decipher the principles of closing the gap, causing a misbalance by moving the opponent in one of the ten directions and striking a vital area. I explain that the stances are transitional and useful to achieve these goals. Another is that we don't just strike with our hands and feet, but they should consider using their hips, thighs, buttocks, shoulders etc... The Kata should come alive for them as they explore the many possibilities that exists within. I encourage them to constantly think outside of the box, or in this case the embusen of the Kata.
  • donnatello
    I love this! I was recently inspired by the creative genius of Steven Hawking. He says that many of his discoveries have come about through creative visualization. I was so inspired by this and thought it could defininately be applied to Karate. Though I'm sure I'm not the karate version of S. Hawking, I think that I can tap into my own level of potential and use this creativity in my martial arts training. That's one of my goals, to tap into and develope this creativity to make 'discoveries' in regard to martial arts techniques, kata, bunkai, etc.
  • Jeff B
    Great ideas! I'll definitely be trying these in my classes! Thanks!!
  • Sandy herman
    Once shoot the lights out with your main problem is that I do not have a partner to train with....and it is only my imagination that sustains me during my daily practice .....I focus on avoiding sloppy techniques, and practicing with a DVD for guidance When I see a great teacher perform, I imagine that I execute what I see....

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