Kid’s love sparring don’t they? Their faces light up when they are told to get their sparring mitts on and they run off enthusiastically to fetch them out of their bags.
Though I'm not a huge fan of sports karate for adults I do think it’s a great exercise for kids. It develops fitness, courage, reaction times, and a sense of strategy. It also toughens them up a bit and teaches them to show a bit of humility whether they win or lose.
So it is with some sadness that I can’t introduce the kids to sparring in my after-school class. Why? Because they have no sparring mitts! These are kids doing a 6 week introductory course in karate, wearing just their P.E. kits. No gi, no belt, no kit!
To give them a taste of the thrill of sparring I’ve had to be a little inventive. I take in as many belts as I can find (all my old coloured belts, my kobudo club belts and any other spares I can put my hands on) and teach the kids how to tie them on. Then I have cut up several old white belts into strips of about 10 inches long and give them one each to tuck into the front of their belts – this tab becomes the target.
We then do a bit of ‘shadow sparring’ to learn how to move around in sport karate and practice a couple of basic block/punch combinations against imaginary opponents. I then pair them up and get them to use the same technique of moving in to their partner to do a reverse punch but instead of punching (no mitts remember) they pull out their partner’s white tab.
After they’ve each had a few goes at moving in to pull out the tab of an unresisting partner they move on to doing it in a more competitive way with both partners trying to get each other’s tabs. This starts to re-create the energy and flow of a real sparring bout with the kids learning to move around each other, guard their own tab and moving in to grab their partner’s tab.
Once they’ve got the hang of it we have a mini competition which helps to teach them the basic rules and etiquette of a sparring match. I divide them into two groups and sit each group either side of the sparring area. I then call up one from each group (matched for size and age) to compete whilst everyone else watches.
I act as referee and get them to stand opposite each other, bow, get into fighting stance and then at my command (hajime) they start to ‘spar’. A point is scored when one of them pulls out the other’s tab and the match is stopped (yame), the kids are put back to their starting position and the point awarded (ippon). They then bow to each other and off they go again. We carry on like this for a set period (usually a minute) and the winner is the one with the most points. At the end the opponents are brought back to starting positions and the winner announced (kachi). All the kids get a chance to have a go at this ‘shia kumite’.
Alternatives include ‘best of three’ points to win or winner is first to score a point. There are rules about staying in the area and penalties and warnings for bad or dangerous behaviour (not that this needs to be invoked very often!).
The kids really enjoy this opportunity to have a go at ‘sparring’ in this way and seem to get a lot out of it. I have found it a useful way to simulate sport kumite when sparring mitts are not available and many of the same skills can be learnt and practiced in a safe way. I haven’t yet introduced any kicks into this style of sparring but there is no reason not to use roundhouse kicks because our real kumite sessions in the club involve only touch contact anyway and we don’t wear any protective body gear.
Hopefully if some of these kids enjoy my karate sessions enough to make them want to join the main club they will be able to hit the ground running a little when introduced to real sparring with mitts!
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