Kumite means sparring, and is one of the three main parts of karate training, along with kata and kihon. Kumite is when you train against an adversary, using the techniques learnt from the kihon and kata.
Since the word “kumite” refers to forms of sparring, it covers a vast range of activities. In traditional Shotokan karate, the first type of kumite for beginners is gohon kumite. The defender steps back each time, blocking the five attacks and performing a counterattack after the fifth block. This activity looks nothing like the jiyu kumite (or “free sparring”) practiced by more advanced Shotokan practitioners, which is far closer to how karate would look if used in a real fight, especially because it does not require the use of particular stances. Shotokan karate has various other types of kumite (e.g. 3-step, 1-step, semi-free, etc.) which span this large range in styles of practice.
Types of Kumite
Many styles feel it is important that karateka “pull their punches”. Karate training is designed to give its practitioners the ability to deliver devastating power through techniques like punches and kicks. Often the aim of training is that each single strike should be enough to subdue the opponent. However, this clearly would make it difficult to train due to the possibility of injury. While sparring in karate, most karate stu-dents normally aim to deliver strikes with the maximum speed and power possible, but to stop them at the moment of contact (or just before contact, at lower levels of experience) so that your opponent is not injured.
Some styles of karate (e.g. full-contact Karate) focus more on sparring whilst wearing full protective gear so that strikes can be delivered with their full power. Most karate clubs and most styles of karate make use of some sparring with control (“pulling punches”) and some spar-ring with protective gear (from just gloves up to full head and chest guards). Even in full contact karate, punches are often “pulled” to some extent to minimize the occurrence of injuries that would interrupt training for the participating students. Nevertheless, it is believed by many that practicing either type of sparring allows the martial artist to develop both control and experience in delivering powerful strikes against an opponent. However, many practitioners of full contact karate believe that full contact/full force strikes and kicks should be employed as much as possible because they believe that “pulling” the strikes can have a negative effect on the striking power of the karate practitioner.
However, a few more traditional clubs that never use protective gear for sparring (except groin and mouth guards that protect against accidental injuries) argue that a karateka will not be able to make their most powerful strike when sparring in the dojo (against a friend who they no doubt do not want to injure) even if this opponent is wearing protective clothing. Therefore, the karateka will still be using some level of control, as is obviously necessary, and cannot truly capture the spirit of one lethal strike whilst sparring. Except for a life or death self-defense situation, the spirit and power of the single lethal strike can only be achieved when a karateka does not have to avoid injuring their training partner. The traditionalists therefore argue that there is no benefit to sparring with more forceful strikes.
In some forms of competition kumite, punching (“tsuki”) and kicking (“geri”) techniques are allowed at the head (“jodan”) and abdomen (“chudan”). One example of a scoring system is that the first competitor to take eight points in three minutes wins the bout.
Kumite is an essential part of karate training, and free sparring is often experienced as exciting, because both opponents have to react and adapt to each other very quickly. In tournaments Kumite often takes place inside of a ‘ringed’ area similar to that of a boxing ring. If a karateka steps out of the ring, they are given a warning. If they step out of the ring three times, they are often disqualified. Many international tournaments use a “point sparring” form of kumite that requires control (‘pulling punches’) and therefore warnings can be dealt for excessive force on techniques to the head, or sensitive areas. Full contact is permitted to the torso area of the body only. Some tournament rules allow for light contact to the head, whereas other rules do not allow this.
Kumite also includes a series of ‘guidelines’ that if followed correctly, result in a clean and safe fight. These are some of those guidelines:
- A Karateka must remain in some form of proper fighting stance and in the Kamae-Te position (hands up, ready to fight position)
- A Karateka must be aware of all obstacles around him/her
- A Karateka must never deliberately endanger themselves by turning their back to their opponent
- A practiced and well trained Karateka must concentrate on stance and footwork
For the last point about stance and footwork: it is often taught that a karateka who wishes to be fast and agile while competing in Kumite should always be ‘pulsing.’ Pulsing is where the karateka remains almost bouncing on the ‘balls’ of their feet to maintain minimal frictional contact with the ground, allowing them to move quickly.
Another aspect of Kumite which is often seen in international tournaments, as well as many local competitions is what is referred to as “Clashing.” Clashing is where both opponents throw techniques against each other at the same time, often resulting in both getting hit with the techniques. This creates a problem for referrees as they are unable to make out which technique was quick, on target and recoiled - all the things that constitute a clean technique that is scored. Because of clashing, most modern day Karateka’s are taught to practice kumite in a ‘one for one’ situation where one attacks, then the other attacks and so on. However due to the speed of these techniques, and the speed of the footwork of each Karateka, to the casual observer it may appear that they are still clashing when in fact they are not. When opponents are considered to be clashing, the head referee should declare “aiuchi” (eye oochee) which means “simultaneous slaying”, a term borrowed from iaido (Japanese swordsmanship). When a winner is decided, the referee will announce “no katsu (No-ka-tch tch as in Catch) which means “winner”.
The tournament rules of full contact or “knockdown” styles of karate often don’t award any points for controlled techniques delivered to the opponent. In fact, they usually don’t award points for full-force techniques delivered to the opponent either. Instead, points are only awarded for knocking, sweeping, or throwing your opponent to the floor. Kyokushinkai and its “offshoot” karate organizations are the styles usually known to promote knockdown tournament rules. They believe this type of tournament competition is closer to “real life” personal combat.
Most karate associations use the following point scheme:
- 1 point: hitting the adversary’s abdomen or head with your fists.
- 2 points: kicking the adversary’s abdomen.
- 3 points: kicking the adversary’s head.
International competition under the World Karate Federation also includes the following point scoring:
- 2 points: punching or kicking the adversary’s back.
- 3 points: for a sweep/takedown with a follow up technique such as a stomp or a punch. (Any sweep/takedown that is not followed up with a technique may be ruled to be a dangerous technique that can result in a warning against the instigator of that sweep/takedown.)