Kumite (“a blending or braiding of hands”) is sparring. If kihon are the notes of our victory song, kata are scales, and waza are covers, then then kumite would be jam sessions with other artists, where we find our own unique sound. Sparring must always be conducted in an “alive” manner, meaning that:
- All movements are spontaneous, without any defined script, pattern, or rhythm.
- There is no pre-arranged outcome.
- The opponent actively resists at all times -- and in turn, you must actively resist them.
- All techniques are performed with the “malicious intent” of defeating your opponent; they are not simply demonstrations of technique.
Alive sparring is always preferred, because it uniquely qualified to teach how to:
- Perform/think clearly under pressure.
- Quickly adapt to opponent’s actions.
- Endure pain.
- Respond without anger or panic.
- Develop physical/mental endurance.
- Overcome fear.
- See and exploit an opponent's vulnerabilities.
Free sparring is critical for building confidence, and it quickly teaches students to overcome their natural inclination to freeze up. Many martial arts schools spar infrequently, or reserve sparring for advanced students. Some schools forego sparring altogether, claiming that their techniques are “too deadly.” Goshin-Jutsu karateka are not among those people -- Sparring is mandatory for every student, at the end of every class. What is the purpose of gaining knowledge, or cultivating a skill, without knowing how to apply it? In the end, karate is not an academic discipline; it is a physical discipline. Karate is not something that can be read or studied; it must be done. If you do not spar, then you will never be good.
Be mindful that a website cannot show you all of the variations. This website cannot recreate the teacher/student relationship; we can’t develop your attitude, critique you, or point out your shortcomings, mistakes, or bad habits. However, this can be partially overcome through frequent experimentation, while maintaining an attitude that seeks knowledge and skill, rather than rank and status.
Sparring will teach you, if you are wise enough to learn from it.
Originally, karate had no sparring; there was no need for it. The feudal world was a dangerous, lawless place; combat was everywhere. The industrialized world is much more comfortable, so sparring intimidates new students. Remember that sparring is not fighting; sparring is practice for fighting. Sparring is like a fighting simulator; it is a game that teaches a skill, like fencing or target-shooting. In kumite, there are limits and rules, which must be adamantly obeyed to ensure the safety of everyone involved. Your partner will do everything in their power to strike you, but in the end, they will not harm you. Those who harm their sparring partners only harm themselves, because if someone breaks their partner, they do not receive a new one. Without an opportunity to spar, they will have no opportunity to improve. The great emphasis that martial artists place on their mutual safety is why karate is one of the safest physical activities; karate is safer than cheerleading.
Our kumite matches have no set time limit, so no one is “saved the by the bell.” Matches continue until someone is completely overwhelmed, or if there is a definitive, scoring blow. For a technique to score, it must be:
- Thrown with full power.
- Carrying a “malicious intent.”
- Directed at one of the opponent’s anatomical weak points.
- Fully-controlled; meaning the technique completely stops 1” (~2.5 cm) away from your opponent. Training partners are hard to come by, so you need to make yours last. Our critics claim that “pulling our punches” teaches students how to not hit people, leading them to fail in the crucial moment. However, this is not a problem if striking focus pads or heavy bags is a regular part of your training regimen.
Examples of scoring and non-scoring techniques are given in the video below:
[Punch someone in the face several times. Throw a good technique, a photoshop in a green check mark in the corner. Then throw a lazy technique, a far technique, etc. with red x’s in the corner]
Even the popular “no holds barred” mixed martial arts cage matches have a series of limits and rules, which we, for the most part, agree with. For the interest of safety, the following acts are expressly forbidden during all kumite:
- Hair pulling.
- Grabbing the throat.
- Deliberate attacks to the fingers or toes.
- Head butts.
- Fish-hooking (i.e., the practice of inserting your fingers into an opponent’s mouth to manipulate them by pulling on their faces from within).
- Fish-hooking an open wound.
- Pinching or clawing.
- Spiking (i.e., throwing someone head-first, like the “DDT” or "[Piledriver]" from professional wrestling).
- Clavicle grabs.
- Spearhand strikes.
- Axe kicks.
- Any and all attacks to eyes.
- Any and all attacks to the knees.
- Swearing or cursing. (These are the precursors to useless drama.)
- Hitting after the break (i.e., continuing to fight after the judge has stopped the match).
- Attacking someone being looked after by the judge. If your partner becomes injured, immediately return to your starting line, turn away, and sit in seiza until ordered to do otherwise. (Stepping in to help could be misconstrued as a continued attack.)
- Faking an injury.
However, there are certain maneuvers that are explicitly forbidden by many MMA organizations, which are completely and totally cool with, provided that they are performed in a controlled manner. Be aware that the following techniques are permitted:
- Attacks to the groin. (“Groin attacks are not permitted -- they’re encouraged!”)
- Grabbing the opponent’s uniform.
- Attacks to the spine.
- Attacks to the back of head (e.g., “rabbit punches,” and other attacks to the brain stem).
- Attacks to the kidneys.
- “12-to-6” downward elbow strikes.
- Strikes to the throat.
- Stomping a grounded opponent.
- Leg sweeps are permitted as long as they connect no higher than the opponent’s ankle. (The difference between a high leg sweep and an inside crescent kick to the knee is purely semantic.)
While throws and joint manipulations are uncommon occurrences in karate kumite, they are permitted. Matches which go to the ground are only stopped for high-quality takedowns, grabbing to submission, or delivering a scoring strike from a mounted position.
In the interest of safety, it is absolutely mandatory that all men wear groin cups while sparring -- with no exceptions, ever, for any reason. We cannot stress that enough.
Many martial artists, particularly those on the tournament scene, will mummify themselves in foam rubber padding before sparring. We do not. Foam padding is intrinsically dangerous. For one, padding throws off your sense of distancing, since your arms and legs become 1” (~2.5 cm) longer once you’ve entombed them in foam. The true danger though, is that foam pads give the option -- or at least the perception -- of halfheartedly, "kind of" striking people. You can’t kind of punch someone, in much the same way that you can’t kind of pay your income tax, or kind of get arrested -- it is an all-or-nothing proposition. Mildly "kind of" punching only fosters a timid, milquetoast spirit, which is the antithesis of karate training.
Sparring matches require no specialized equipment or facilities. Matches can be conducted almost anywhere (and the places where you cannot are obvious; schools, bars, courthouses, etc.). Ideally, your sparring area has a flat, level floor, which is free from hazards, such as stairs or load-bearing structural columns.
For safety’s sake, we typically confine kumite matches into rings. This allows multiple independent matches to occur in the same room without the groups colliding with one another. Also, when kumite matches are allowed to spread out anywhere, they typically get out of hand, ending in a preventable and often-sickening blunt trauma injuries. Since there are many karate organizations, each with different opinions, there is no standard ring size. We typically use a square ring with 20-25’ (~8 m) sides. Centered within the ring should be two starting lines roughly 3’ (~1 m) apart, to ensure that matches start out on equal footing.
The center judge will stop the kumite match if the students leave the ring. Driving someone out of the ring does not mean that you’ve won. Sparring is not a tournament contest, it is a fighting simulator. The ring is a teaching tool to help keep students from stepping backwards, because a real opponent will just continue to drive forward, attacking with greater ferocity. The ring places students in the correct fighting mindset, where movement is primarily forward, or to the side. The ring also defines sidelines, from where the other students, can study the match, and hear the lessons and advice given between rounds.
Do not sit next to a kumite ring. People often fall or are pushed out of the ring, and the ring is not a real thing. The ring is an imaginary construct -- usually, some tape on the ground -- which cannot protect anyone. One needs to be able to move quickly to avoid being crushed by these flying students.
To preserve safety and order, kumite matches are controlled by a center judge, who is typically the head instructor, or their designee. The judge's authority is absolute; it is intrinsically fruitless to argue with them. Judging matches is subjective. This is a good thing, because you should never need to argue about whether or not a technique scored. Proper techniques are as clear and decisive as a headshot with a rocket launcher, and anything less than that indicates a need to improve. The fact that you need to arguing with judges will only reinforce their doubt. Instead, keep training, so that your techniques can leave no doubt.
If they choose to do so, the center judge may be assisted by two, or four extra judges standing on the corners of the ring. These "corner judges" have the authority stop matches upon seeing a scoring technique. If a score is being kept, it is decided by a simple majority of what the judges saw.