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Sport kumite – what does it teach you?

Posted Jan 04 2013 12:00am

Sport kumite in 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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