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Kumite: The art of sparring

The secrets of karate are found in its kata. By practicing a system of self-defence principles through repeating different iterations, we form muscle memory and develop knowledge of body mechanics. After years of study, we start to understand the underlying energy that flows through the human body through muscles, nerves and breath. The more we practice, the better we understand.

After years of study, I still have a limited understanding of kata. It seems as though each technique opens another door to discover yet another concept. The masters spend decades of training towards this higher understanding. Miyagi's students were taught only one “personal” kata and many studied only that one kata for decades. Kata is an all-encompassing artistic expression that practitioners can study for a lifetime.

If kata is so great, why do we need to spar?

The early karate practitioners certainly didn't spar. Fighting was not something to be “played at” - it was something to be avoided. During the early development of Naha-te, forms and conditioning were fundamental to the training system. Kumite concepts were expressed as regimented partner drills with set patterns of movement. Hard attacks and hard blocks practiced with a partner to promote conditioning, but with the rigid control needed to prevent injury. This type of sparring is still practiced today, with pre-determined attack and defence sequences similar to Renzoku Kumite or Ippon Kumite.

Some of the early explorations of Okinawan "free sparring" were disastrous. In 1905, a 75 year old Shuri-te master Yasutsune Itosu was asked by the Japanese government to select a student to compete against a Judo champion. Disgusted by the invitation, he famously walked in and said "This kind of competition is wrong, since Karate is a lethal martial art, intended for self defense, not for show. I will not ask a student of mine, to do anything I consider wrong. Since you say someone must fight, I will." Itosu easily disabled the younger judo player with a reverse punch to the solar plexus, ending the competition moments after it began. After the bout, Itosu denounced the practise of sport karate and cautioned karate practitioners that people would die if karate moved into the sports arena.

Itosu's dire prediction wasn't entirely wrong. When Miyagi began researching free-sparring in the 1930's he started to equip his students with kendo armour and allowed them to explore sparring. The injuries that resulted were not, to my knowledge, fatal. However, the number of concussions and neck injuries led Miyagi to discontinue the practice only a year later.

If Miyagi gave up on it, why do we spar in Canada?

Perhaps the danger in Miyagi’s approach to sparring is linked to the environment in which his students were training. They were pounding on makiwara boards, focusing on hard conditioning and rooted stances. Miyagi’s approach was based on the "one hit, one kill" principle that Itosu so deftly applied to his judo-ka opponent. Miyagi's students were living in an occupied country that had a history of being a pawn in the wars of other nations. They weren’t training for fun, they were training for survival.

Although Miyagi’s attempt at introducing free sparring to his students was short-lived, Japanese Goju practitioner Gogen Yamaguchi introduced free sparring to his classes with more success. It may have helped that the Japanese government was starting to promote the ideals of sport through the global Olympic movement, so the cultural focus in Japan was quite different than Okinawa. An example of this was how Jigaro Kano developed a "non-lethal" system of jiu jitsu by removing all striking concepts. At the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Judo was a full-fledged Olympic sport, bringing a glimpse of Asian tradition to the whole world.

Over in North America, the men and women who had been stationed at the Kadena US Air Force base in Okinawa were back at home. Although there had been dojos in Canada and the US since the 1920’s, these were culturally insular and typically closed to the public. The people who had experienced karate in Okinawa started to look for local dojos where they could continue their training. Seeing Olympic judo-ka training in their white uniforms and black belts normalized the idea of Asian martial arts in the west. The movies of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris became well-known and karate became firmly embedded in the mainstream culture.

Still, it was difficult for many Americans to relate to the esoteric expression of Kata. Kumite struck a familiar chord with those who enjoyed boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling. Unlike the severe environment of post-war Okinawa, the western audience was accustomed to “civilised combat” for recreation and entertainment. If boxing was a sport for gentlemen, kick-boxing was a testament to the calibre of a man’s toughness. Yamaguchi-style karate was proliferating through North America through notable instructors like Peter Urban and Bob Dalgleish. Kyoshi J Purdy speaks of his early days of training with Bill Hind, when full contact was the expectation and only limited attention was paid to forms. Not surprisingly, there were very few women (and no children) who embraced this type of training.

Kyoshi Purdy, a musician by profession, was drawn to the artistic merits of kata training and began to seek out the roots of Okinawan karate, travelling to Naha to train with Dai Sensei Meitoku Yagi in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The hard kumite that Kyoshi practised in the 1960s and 1970s was tempered by a return to the traditional way of kata training. Today, even though Kyoshi has spent decades studying kata and advocates the importance of kata training, he still embraces kumite training for its many benefits.

But how do we manage to spar in the dojo safely?

CNGK dojos have a unique approach to sparring. Although we’re not a “sport” style, we practise kumite almost every class. Instead of using expensive equipment, students are taught progressive drills that encourage respect, control and accuracy. They must demonstrate emotional maturity and an appropriate skill level before they are allowed to participate in free sparring. As the students’ skill increases, so does their freedom. Children and white belts are strictly non-contact, with an introduction to physical conditioning through blocking. Black Belt level kumite is more intense, with body strikes and take-downs permitted. At all levels, contact to the head, face or spine is forbidden. Unintentional head contact results in 50 push-ups and disqualification. With these stringent guidelines in place, students are able to trust each other and have fun with it. Well-developed kumite programs have lower injury rates than most Canadian sports, including golf and hockey.

As a result of structured kumite training, students relate to their kata better because they are able to “see” their opponents in the context of their kumite matches. Conversely, the sparring experience can be related back to the imagined battle of the kata. Real time feedback is important for learning. If you kick someone in the elbow, you learn pretty quickly that the elbow is a bad place to kick. That’s a pretty big incentive to improve your accuracy. Speaking of elbows, there’s no doubt that pain is not really fun. But it’s not all bad news – that pain response activates your endocrine system and gives you burst of adrenaline, which kicks in your natural defense systems. The human body will attempt to protect itself naturally, but having a reference point for foot work, strikes and blocks from kata gives structure to your natural instinct. Learning how to deal with getting hit helps you to realize that, for the most part, you are strong enough to take it – and your body will work that much harder to avoid another one. Getting hit is a great teacher.

Getting hit doesn't really sound fun - why do people keep sparring?

Sparring isn't about getting hit, any more than football is about tackling or hockey is about cross-checking. Yes, you'll get the occasional bruise or jammed finger, but it’s enough fun that you don’t care. It’s really fun. Sparring is like a game of tag – with each player following specific rules – but its still just a game. Fun is a more important factor in understanding karate than you might think. Like kata, kumite requires skills built through repetition and retention. Bag work is great training, but it can be boring – especially for junior ranks. During a sparring session, players can easily throw out hundreds of techniques without realizing it – and all while having fun. The most obvious benefit of kumite training is the physical conditioning. Strength, endurance, flexibility, quick thinking and strategic thinking are all developed through sparring. There are many studies that demonstrate links between cardiovascular exercise and brain function. Kids who are regularly active are able to learn more easily than sedentary kids. Sparring makes it easier to learn kata, and kata training makes sparring easier, and on and on in a self-sustaining cycle.

Sparring is an undeniably intimate experience. When you bow in, you acknowledge your intent to train seriously. It’s impossible to participate in a sparring match without being aware of your partner. I’ve learned a lot about people (and myself) through sparring. Sometimes you have to partner with someone you don’t really like. Sometimes you get hit and it makes you angry. But you have to deal with it, and for the most part, you learn to control your emotions. I’ve learned that I am capable of protecting myself when I’m scared. I can stand up to bullies in my daily life because they don’t scare me anymore.

It's not just about the sparring - it's about balance.

A balanced approach to training opens the door for all people. Some people struggle with learning the forms and others struggle with the sparring. Even the most timid student can find his or her fighting spirit through kumite. All sorts of different kinds of people come to karate for a variety reasons, and by training together they learn more about themselves and the world around them.

Kata develops concepts of defense and builds muscle memory. Kumite cultivates practical application and conditions the body. Kumite and Kata represent the Hard and Soft of Goju-ryu Karate. Practicing both aspects helps to improve overall understanding of the Art of Karate.

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