kumite - the battle


the final 'k' of karate, and arguably the most recognisable, is the practice of kumite, or sparring. although not a traditional part of karate training, kumite has, through the advent of sports karate, become synonymous in many minds with the name of the art itself. kumite in karate takes many forms, designed for the student to progress as their skill develops, beginning with very strictly controlled basic exercises and moving towards the freestyle sparring seen at tournaments. this progression is designed to be suitable for the karateka as their skill and control increases, in order to avoid accidental injury.

gohon kumite

the first form of kumite generally taught is gohon kumite, translated as 'five-step sparring'. this is extremely basic in form, and strongly resembles a kihon exercise with its up-and-down direction. in this kumite, the student faces an opponent and performs a series of five attacks to an agreed target, stepping forward in a basic stance with each attack. the opponent steps away in concert, each time blocking the attack. after five attacks, the defender counterattacks with a simple reverse punch, before both the attacker and defender step up (yamae). the process is repeated in the reverse direction, with attacker and defender swapping roles. in gohon kumite, each target area is announced before the attacks begin, and no attempt is made to block the final counterpunch. the kumite is usually performed for the three target areas jodan (head, blocked using rising block age-uki), chudan (middle level, blocked using outside block soto-uki), and gedan (a mae-geri attack, blocked using gedan barai).

while undeniably simple, the gohon kumite exercise allows the student to focus on fundamental points of their karate, such as stepping correctly into stance, adjusting distancing of the step, and correct targeting of their attacks. performing a sequence of five subsequent attacks before the counter allows the karateka to make adjustments as they go, whereas more advanced kumite forms drop this repetition and focus on single attacks, since it is assumed that a level of accuracy and control have been attained.

procedure for gohon kumite is thus:

-opponents face each other and bow (rei)
-the attacker adjusts their distance if necessary
-the attacker steps back, making hidari gedan barai in zenkutsu-dachi (front stance)
-the attacker clearly announces the attack
-the attacker steps forward with the specified attack, the defender steps away and performs the appropriate block
-this is repeated to make a total of five attacks. the fifth attack uses kiai
-after the fifth block, the defender counterattacks with gyaku-zuki
-both karateka step up (yamae)
-the sequence is repeated with swapped roles
-if required, the entire sequence is repeated using a different attack

variations on gohon kumite are many, but common ones include specifying alternate strikes, blocks (taken from kata, for example) or stances. further alterations may stretch novices but are useful for higher-level karateka where it is easy to become complacent about 'basic' kumite forms.

common mistakes in gohon kumite are:

-incorrect distancing, and failure to adjust distancing with each step
-deliberately punching off-target, ie anticipating the motion of the block
-punching before stepping instead of one concerted motion
-moving the 'stationary' foot before stepping with the other
-failure to remain in 'basic' posture on the counterpunch

sambon kumite

the next form of kumite is 'three-step sparring', or sambon kumite, and progresses from gohon by reducing the repetitions of techniques while still retaining the kihon framework. three-attack sparring progresses in the same way as gohon, but each successive attack is to a different level. commonly, the first attack is jodan, followed by chudan and gedan, but the order can be changed at will (the attack sequence is announced, as in gohon kumite). the defender uses appropriate blocks, and counterpunches after the third attack. advanced versions of sambon kumite again involve altering blocks, but also doubling attacks so that the sequence requires double blocks at each step. the progress from gohon to sambon requires a better sense of distancing and targeting, and an increased familiarity with each of the techniques used.

ippon kumite

the next form of kumite is single-step or single attack sparring, ippon kumite. in this form of kumite, each attack is immediately followed by a counter-attack, and it is common to perform a series of different attacks, beginning with jodan oi-zuki, and continuing with chudan oi-zuki, mae-geri, yoko-geri kekomi, mawashi-geri and ushiro-geri. after each attack and counter, the attacker and defender both step up to their starting positions.

the main advance of ippon kumite is that the defences begin to use tai sabaki, the principle of moving the body out of the line of the attack. thus ippon kumite defences often move to the side (and sometimes forwards), rather than moving directly back as the earlier kumite forms do. in ippon kumite there is no set defence, and a multitude of blocks and counters can be employed. in some styles, sets of kumite defences are learned and required for successive grades. ippon kumite can be used in competitions, for children, in place of freestyle kumite; in this event, judges award on the same basis as kata, looking for focus, speed, form, and accuracy.

jiyu kumite

all freestyle kumite comes under the general heading of jiyu kumite, but there are again several levels. the main difference here is that everything is performed from a freestyle stance rather than a basic stance, more upright and evenly balanced to permit fast movement in any chosen direction. in beginning forms of jiyu kumite, attacks are still announced and performed in isolation. in jiyu ippon kumite, as the name suggests, the series of attacks takes the same range as in ippon kumite, and each attack is blocked and countered in succession. no attempt is made to block the counterattack at this stage, such the defender has the opportunity to work on their technique also. an advance on this is that the attacks are still single, but any attack is permitted and is unannounced. there is also kaeshi ippon, where the defender's counter-attack is also blocked and countered, and okuri jiyu ippon where the attacker lauches a second free attack after the initial attack has been blocked and countered. all of which lead up to free kumite itself, where both karateka have free reign to attack with any chosen technique or combination.

as with basic kumite, developing skill at jiyu kumite requires drilling in particular techniques and combinations, rather than simply 'diving in' and trying anything. repetition of a technique allows it to be internalised in muscle memory; in these drills, it is important to practice only the techniques outlined and nothing extra, since this is the exercise of body control that underpins all of karate. it is common to find that in free kumite, people withdraw to only a few techniques and thus limit themselves, and so performing free kumite in a deliberately slow and flowing manner encourages the understanding of movement together with the use of less familiar techniques, perhaps from kata, and experimentation in order to develop repertoire. this exercise has similarity to the 'sticky hands' drills of kung fu and t'ai chi

point scoring and competition kumite

in competition, jiyu kumite matches are generally scored by points according to a set of rules available to all participants. different styles have different scoring systems and criteria as to what constitutes a scoring technique (and what is prohibited), but a strong background in jiyu kumite as practiced in the dojo allows adaptation to most systems.