Friday, 4 January 2013

Sport kumite – what does it teach you?

Sport kumite is a modern 20th century Japanese addition to the original Okinawan karate. For those that choose to follow a very classical budo Way of karate the sport version represents anathema to them; to others the sport version is karate. After all why learn all those techniques if you have no arena to test them in?

For me personally I tend to swing hot and cold on the validity and worthiness of doing sport kumite. I have no interest in competing and I have philosophical objections to teaching people to ‘fight’ rather than to learn to defend themselves (more on this later). However, sport kumite is a part of our syllabus and I think there are some benefits to be gained from doing it.

There are many versions of kumite in karate so I’ll just define what I mean by sport kumite: I’m talking about minimal contact point sparring with only sparring mitts and mouth guard for protection. The aim is to score points by landing a  punch or kick on one of the target areas i.e. the abdomen, head or between the shoulder blades (kicks only) whilst preventing your opponent from scoring against you. Sweeps are allowed and points can be scored by punching the opponent when on the ground.  My analysis of sport kumite refers only to this type of sparring so if you are use to a more hard core full-contact version then your list of strengths and weaknesses may be different to mine.

The problems with sport kumite:

1.       It can teach a ‘fighting’ mindset rather than a ‘self-defence’ mindset. Fighting requires two people to consent to the ‘fight’. Both are trying to ‘win’ the bout by attacking the other person. Self-defence requires a mindset that wants to avoid fighting and does only what is necessary to avoid, prevent, de-escalate, control or escape a violent situation.

2.       It can cause confusion to the student if both classical and sport kumite are being taught side by side. I found this very confusing when I was in the junior kyu grades.  Until I understood that two different types of karate were being taught I didn’t understand why in one part of the lesson I needed to keep my feet planted firmly on the floor and punch from the hip and then later on I had to be up on my toes moving around and punching quickly without pulling back to the hip first!  I cope with it now by completely compartmentalising these two different versions of karate as if they were two different arts.

3.       It does not provide an arena for testing out skills and techniques (other than sport karate skills and techniques).  It bears no resemblance to how an encounter in real life may pan out, mainly because of the rules designed to maintain the safety of the competitors which means that most of the effective techniques are taken out.

However, though I don’t feel that sport karate bears any resemblance to a real situation and has many negative aspects that doesn’t mean that there is nothing positive and useful to be learnt from it either. I’m always the optimist and generally look for positive things to take away from any aspect of my training.

The benefits of sport karate:

1.       For many people facing an opponent in a sparring bout is the first time they’ve ever been in a ‘fight’ and had to find their courage to defend themselves. Not everyone who does martial arts has a history of getting into street fights or bar brawls as a youth or has worked as a bouncer or in the security sector. Sport kumite is as close as they’ve ever been to a real fight. It can take some people a while to find their courage to spar effectively with an opponent. Finding this courage is essential if you are to have the confidence to defend yourself in a real situation one day.

2.       In sport kumite, despite the relatively safe environment and limited number of techniques in use, the fight is still unpredictable and has a random element to it. This teaches you to be very aware and focused for the whole of the fight. It teaches you to react quickly and anticipate your opponent’s next move. It teaches you to look for opportunities to strike and to recognise telegraphing by your opponent and capitalise on it. You have to keep your mind empty of extraneous distracting thoughts, stay in the moment and control your aggression so that you don’t lose control of the fight.

3.       Sport kumite also teaches you to take a punch. Even in the light weight version of kumite that we do a punch can land a bit harder than intended and wind you or land on your nose which is very painful. A kick can catch you in the ribs. When this happens you have to learn to carry on despite the pain. This comes as a shock to newcomers whose instinct is often to stop once they are hurt or stop if they have hurt their opponent. However, unless the injury is quite serious the referee won’t stop the fight so you have to learn to just carry on. You can’t afford to just stop defending yourself in a real fight when you feel pain – your attacker will just carry on.

In conclusion:

I think that when one is engaged in sport kumite it is important to recognise it for what it is – sport. A real violent encounter in the real world will not resemble a sparring round in the arena and so sport kumite cannot entirely prepare you for this event (neither can any other form of martial sport e.g. boxing, wrestling, MMA etc.). However kumite does teach some skills that are essential to good self-defence – good speed and reaction times, anticipation, focus, defending your head, carrying on after being hit etc. In fact one could question how these skills could be learnt without the random element that kumite provides. 

Never the less, sport kumite is an incomplete package, it leaves out the techniques that are essential to controlling and/or restraining an attacker – slaps, eye rakes, vital point strikes, locks, throws, joint breaks etc. It also focuses your attention on violence and attacking rather than avoidance and escape which would be the self-defence strategies of choice. 

Though sport kumite offers something useful to the martial artist it is important to be mindful of its limitations as well. What do you think about sport kumite in karate?

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Rick Matz said...

You have to think on your feet in real time under pressure. Not the same as an actual self defense situation, but still of value.

R. William Ayres said...

I think your summary is excellent. I have found point sparring to be a very valuable tool in learning to "read" a live opponent, in large part because I haven't had a lot of real-world fighting experiences. But it is only one of many teaching tools - it should never be confused for being "the most real". Still, we teach it and use it, and I am grateful for its presence in our curriculum.

Charles James said...

Mind-set ..... good posting Sue.

Unknown said...

Good post, well as you say sport sparring dose have its place but it can perhaps be compared to a game of tag I have always kept the attitude that its fun and no more. I worry that if given too much emphasis one could build improper reflexes that could hamper your instincts in a self defence situation.

The Strongest Karate said...

Hey Sue. Happy new year!

1. I agree. Worse yet is that it nearly eliminates any advantages smaller fighters can exploit (such as joint attacking or vitals).

2. I dunno about this one. I haven't experienced any trouble not throwing punches from the hip, like we do in kihon, during kumite.

3. Kumite, at best, is a simulator (and often a crude one, at that). But it does provide some aspects of combat effectively.

1. Agreed. The first fight my wife was ever in was during kumite. You're describing her perfectly here.

2. Agreed again. See #2 above.

3. This is the keystone, for me. My most important lessons in Full-Contact karate was to keep my stomach tight when blows are coming in - lest I get floored - and how to press forward when my bruises and injuries are begging me to stop.

Great post!

John Coles said...

SueC - you think. A rare commodity in the martial arts.

I've had occassion to consider the different approaches in 'traditional' martial arts and 'fighting'. In particular, the constant motion.

It is always a trade-off. By being constantly on the move you are avoiding being struck. Based on the trade-off, you are also sacrificing the ability to strike.

A trite example, but an example that may be identifiable. Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. The scene where he is confronted by three sword-wielding attackers. He didn't go jumping around like the modern day fighter in combat sports. He stood his ground, not with the throught of stability, but mobility. Motion in stillness.

This is the way Japanese sword work is taught. Not jumping around. Even Musashi was a critic of 'jumping foot'.

Next time you are 'competing', try and apply what you've been taught. Don't distinguish between traditional and competition. Stillness - then explosion. Let your opponent jump around as much as they like, but wait, coiled. Stalk your opponent with slow, small deliberate actions. Don't write off your training.

Sue C said...


I think it's this being in real time that is valuable. There's not many other areas of karate where this is the case.


A good summary of kumite's value. Thanks


Mind important to get this right :)


I have a similar attitude to it but I think it also teaches something valuable for self-defence. I suppose one could consider it a form of cross-training perhaps?


Happy new year to you too! I expect your experience of kumite is a little different to mine so it's interesting that you perceive the same pros and cons as me.


Good advice. As a mature karate student bouncing around too much is not an option - it's just too exhausting! My instructor says to let my opponent come to me and then strike as they approach - it seems to work quite well and I can pick off some of our more energetic youngsters this way. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

Michele said...

Happy New Year!

Excellent analysis Sue. I believe it is important to discuss the pros/cons/goals of sport kumite with the students. I agree with your comment about the difference between a fighting and self-defense mindset. One of my concerns is for the student who excels at sport kumite in the dojo and believes it guarantees success on the street.

Sue C said...

Michele, Happy new year. I couldn't agree more - the onus should be on the instructor to ensure that students understand the limitations of sport kumite as a means of self-defence.

John W. Zimmer said...

Hi Sue,

I find myself mostly in agreement with you but would like to politely disagree with your "problems" number 3.

"It does not provide an arena for testing out skills and techniques (other than sport karate skills and techniques). It bears no resemblance to how an encounter in real life may pan out, mainly because of the rules designed to maintain the safety of the competitors which means that most of the effective techniques are taken out."

It is true that the point karate world of 'being first' to tag or get a point it the main thrust of sport karate (at least point karate) but if one considers what he/she would do in a real self-defense (aka fight in self defense) - the same skills that one has to be great at in sport karate - are the very same one has to employ to be a good selfdefenser (or fighter).

[sorry I know you are not comfortable with the usage/meaning of the word 'fight' - but it is all in how you use it - at least here in the USA]

Here is my point and I'll use myself as an example. When I started to work the door at a club - I had little fighting experience (other than middle school). At that point I did not have boxing or full contact experiences but just school sparring and tournaments.

While it is true that I tended to fight the way I trained - I found sport karate targets to be easy to hit if I was attacked (and I was attacked a lot).

The open targets while not including eye rakes and shin kicks - did include the groin, body and head.

The other advantage I had is be being first, keeping critical distance and using initial movement I was able to best most of my opponents without ever even getting hit in two years on the door.

Ok I will gladly admit all I had to deal with was beer muscle (guys with too much to drink - and though all of a sudden they were a tough guy) but I successfully defended myself against lots of guys twice my size.

Had I not has the tourney and school sparring behind me - I would have been untested and not had the confidence to know I was a decent fighter and the angry drunk guys had not idea of what they were doing.

By the way after two years of working the door - I quit and vowed to never fight anyone else's battles again and you know what?

I have been in no self defense situations in the last 42 years.

I do agree that you tend to fight exactly how you train. My point is sport fighting target as well as strategy will easily overcome an untrained person in a fight.

I also think one should only fight if attacked. When I worked the door I weighted 160 pounds... most guys I had to escort out of the club were 200 + pounds... and if they attacked me I had to use my self defense skills in the ensuing tussle.

Sorry for the long winded response... again I agree with most of your points.

Sue C said...

Hi John, thank you for so politely disagreeing with me. I can't argue with someone's personal experience of fighting, I'm sure you are correct in what you say. I think that my female perspective of self-defence doesn't include going head-head with a man in a 'fisticuffs' type of fight. I tend to think of scenarios where I am grabbed, pushed or strangled - sport kumite doesn't seem very realistic for these types of scenarios.

Anonymous said...

Sport Kumite--What does it Teach?

The global problem with "Sport Kumite" is that karate is not a sport.

Specifically, sport kumite, as often practiced, has deteriorated from traditional karate kumite, to the use of single strikes with utmost speed. This convention also tends to encourage a lot of bouncing around trying to hit and evade being hit by the opponent.

There's nothing wrong with point fighting per se, what's wrong is the convention I've described above when it degenerates into who has the faster reactions.

Simply, free sparring is simulated fighting. The fact that there are rules is for safety. the techniques we are permitted to apply should use the same foundational karate skills as any technique in the traditional karate curriculum.

I have no conflict between kumite in class and and "sport" arena because principal-wise I fight the same way. I use the same foundational karate skills.

In my opinion, karate kumite is more a test than training. I should be well-trained and well-prepared before engaging in kumite. This is the big lesson in how the traditional karate curriculum is structured.


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