Sport Kumite
by Sensei Neil Prime
June, 1998

There are a number of outlooks on how people view karate and how we view the differences between sport kumite and self defence.

My understanding of karate is self defence. Sport karate is still self defence but can be described as a game. The game to picture is chess and nothing less strategic.

There are a number of physical ingredients that we put together when we train in karate such as basics and kata. There is also the mental training that we strive to refine, but the essence I believe should still be self defence.

One area of karate that can raise some questions is tournament sparring. Why do we compete? How do you show conviction in your technique if you have to pull it? Can you make it realistic so you don't walk away wondering?

I have been fortunate over the years to spar with a wide variety of people. I've won and lost my fare share along the way but have tried to use those situations as learning tools to prepare for the next one. Everyone likes to win and should try to remain humble when they do, and try to make every loss a learning experience without making excuses. No matter what happens though, whether you win or lose, you should be satisfied that who ever you have just sparred with will know that they got best that you can give.

One of the reasons our Karate Federation is so strong is that the beliefs of Sensei Shintani are taught directly to all students. People may have different reasons for starting karate but in this organization they will learn the philosophy that Sensei has shared with all his students. Sensei believes karate should be fast, explosive, realistic, and sincere.

There are certainly going to be techniques that you wouldn't use in a tournament because of the dangers involved to your opponent. There are also going to be strategies and techniques that will work well in a tournament setting that you may never use in a self defence situation. This is when personal judgement and tournament strategies will rule over self defence situations and this should be the only time that rules dictate what is acceptable. This is when the opinion now lies in the personal interpretation of what is going to be effective and what is not if you had to defend yourself in a real-life self defence situation.

I clearly remember being told by the referee when I was kickboxing to keep our hands up at all times, and if he felt we were not defending ourselves the fight would be stopped and the opponent would be declared the winner.

In the rules of karate and similarly kickboxing you are not allowed to strike to the back of the head or the spinal column. In kickboxing, the exception is if you choose to deliver a spinning technique then you have put yourself into a compromising position and if you are hit, no foul will be called. This should make you really think about putting yourself into a compromising position. You should also be aware of this when point sparring even though there is not supposed to be contact. If someone slips, you could get hurt.

I feel that when you are tournament sparring it is like practicing your basic techniques in class. If you show bad habits in the ring you are probably training with these habits. If you teach, you are imparting these same bad habits to your impressionable students. You will also quite likely react this way on the street because like practicing any technique you are programming yourself to react. I'm not necessarily talking about high kicks or even spinning techniques because these techniques can be effective if delivered properly. Any kick has to be set up and setting up any technique shows intention. I feel we should focus on the commitment of every offensive technique you execute and how you react in your defense.

The fact that your not allowed to make contact with the head or the back should not eliminate the fact that you may still get hit. If you spar with your hands down, turn your back on your opponent after executing a technique, or execute technique without conviction, then you not only cheat yourself but you don't allow your opponent to practice the way they should either. What I mean is, if you know that I am not allowed to hit you it does not mean that you should spar with your hands at your side. If I am defending myself on the street then I will go after your head. No questions asked. In a tournament situation though, I am now faced with having to think about being disqualified if I do happen to make contact. This lack of defence can take all realism out of the match.

The same goes for someone who executes a technique and immediately turns their back. There is no guarantee that your technique will be effective and the adversary would at this point take the opportunity to strike to very vital areas of your body... the back of your head and your spinal column. Again, in a tournament you are not allowed to use these devastating techniques because of the rules.

If you turn sport kumite into a game of tag you also lose the conviction in the technique. If you jump and strike or throw light flicky techniques that would never stop a real adversary, you may get a point but if you were to slap someone on the street with that sort of technique you're in a lot of trouble.

I don't believe you have to compete in no holds barred competition nor do I feel that the rules of sport kumite have to be altered, after all they are implemented for our own safety. What we do have to do is be aware of why we compete. Is it a just any game or are we trying to sharpen our skills?

There are rules that state if you turn your back to your opponent then you will be warned, have a point taken away, and then disqualified but the judges have to enforce these issues. It is also up to the judges to call points that have conviction and not just put up the flags any time a technique was thrown in the direction of the opponent. If you have ever had the opportunity to compete when Sensei Shintani has been the center referee you would understand what I mean. Every match is a lesson in sparring and he would verbally tell you when your technique had no ki (conviction) and he would let the judges know that this is not a point. These are real opportunities to understand what sport kumite should be like. After all, when you leave the ring you should know clearly in your mind weather you are really testing your sparring skills, or just playing a game.

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