Sparring from day one?


Free sparring in karate is a fairly modern innovation, developed post World War II as part of the drive to popularise karate and turn it into a sport. From there sport-based "distance" sparring ("shiai kumite" or "ippon shobu") spread rapidly throughout the karate world. However as I have discussed previously this type of sparring bears little resemblance to actual fighting and, very importantly, bears little resemblance to how karate was designed to be used. This is especially so when you consider that most karate techniques such as deflections/blocks and tenshin/taisabaki are only really applicable in what I have called the "melee range" - ie. the "toe-to-toe" range where blows are furiously exchanged, not the range where sports opponents circle each other looking for an opening.

Parallel to the sport sparring, some Okinawan karate schools developed a form of free sparring that was continuous and free-flowing, based in the melee range and intended as a platform for the application of karate techniques. In goju ryu schools this kind of sparring is variously called "iri kumi" (IOGKF), "jiyu kumite" (goju kai) or "randori" (our name).


A sample of our randori

The concept of this sparring is that you go from soft and slow (where you get a chance to actually implement the karate techniques you’ve learned) to hard and fast and ultimately to a substantial degree of controlled contact (which is more of a test or experience for “liveness” - not really illustrated in the video above).

However this kind of free sparring is not entered into by students from day one. In our school you have to be at the end of white belt in order to start free sparring. This could take one year or more. In other schools the standard time is approximately 2 years. This can be very hard for modern combat sports practitioners to understand. For example a correspondent on a forum recently asked me the following question:
    "I just don't understand why someone needs to spend two years before they can test what they have learned. I have yet to hear what I would consider a valid reason for this."
Well firstly, they should "test" themselves in more limited sparring from day one. More on that in a moment.

As to free sparring, the reason for the delay is because you are actually being taught to fight in a very particular way and to use very particular techniques. Granted, in many schools they never progress past the basics and only do "faux boxing" which are unconnected to their basics. However we try to develop the use of particular techniques in free sparring, such as deflections/blocks. If you just go straight into free sparring you end up doing "your own thing" which doesn't use any of the karate techniques. From a karate perspective you groove habits which are opposite to the ones we are trying to teach (deflect with tenshin/evasion - don't just duck, etc.).

If you look at the sparring video above, regardless of what you think of it, you'll agree that we have a particular way of moving and deflecting/dealing with blows. It takes a long time to learn and develop. Because we spend our sparring in the "hot seat" of the melee range beginners get injured - and cause injuries to others too. So there is a safety aspect to not unleashing them into completely "unrestricted" sparring. We don't use gloves a great deal because we work intensively on the deflection aspect which isn't easy when gloves get in the way. In terms of controlled contact we also try to develop focus or "kime" which means deliberately focussing on a particular point rather than "missing" or "pulling" your punch (a very different concept that I shall discuss in a future article).

Lastly free sparring is not real fighting, no matter how close you feel it might be - it is a kind of "dance" irrespective of the level of controlled contact. You know when it starts and you know when it going to finish. Karate is not concerned with protracted pre-arranged fights but deals with civilian defence scenarios like the single punch thrown at you in the car park etc. Our beginners are taught to groove responses to such an attack via limited stimulus-response drills. I've had many a beginner student come to me over the years and tell me how, after the first few lessons, someone threw a punch at them in an unprovoked environment. The student has blocked, countered and the "fight" was over. Stimulus-response training has served its purpose - and usually with the type of personality that wouldn't last a week in a boxing/MMA gym because the training doesn't appeal to them.

Ring fighting produces very good fighters, but the shorter stimulus response drill is, in my view, not to be discounted as a means of teaching the "ordinary Joe/Josephine" something that will serve him/her well.

For those who disagree I can say this: in all my years as a prosecutor I saw many surveillance videos of assaults; the majority related to just one or 2 blows (certainly the first one dictated the rest of the following events).

The video below provides an example of how many confrontations are principally about a single blow. In this particular case the aggressor does not actually throw an attack: but then again his motives are clear and the threat is real. The defender (a karate instructor) responds to the aggressive invasion of his personal space with what I consider is an appropriate response; he hits the aggressor with a seiyruto (ox jaw strike) to the carotid sinus pre-empting an inevitable attack. This is a knockout blow that we drill in many of our stimulus-response drills.


A surveillance video showing the use of a standard karate technique, the seiyruto (ox jaw) delivered in the melee range. Note the duration of the confrontation.

By contrast, I have rarely seen any surveillance video that approximates a boxing/MMA match (with opponents circling each other, looking for openings, etc.). True, Youtube and other online video sharing sites are brimming with "MMA style" backyard brawl footage, but this is largely consensual (ie. 2 people who have agreed to fight each other); it is not representative of an ordinary civilian facing an unexpected and/or unprovoked assault (which is what civilian defence is geared towards dealing with). If you get yourself involved in contest-style street match you usually have only yourself to blame.

Again, none of the above should be read to suggest that combat sports skills are not useful (if not supremely effective) in self defence; in arguing that karate and similar arts have a workable method of self-defence I am not simultaneously seeking to denigrate the former. However the flip side to this is that the effectiveness of ring fighters generally does not necessarily invalidate the civilian defence strategies employed by karate and similar traditional martial arts.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic