shodan jiyu kumite

or: the view from the cheap seats

jiyu kumite, freestyle sparring, is an essential part of karate training and is usually required when approaching or attaining dan grade level. the formal requirement may be simply to engage in sparring and display certain attributes, such as the ability to attack as well as defend, recognise and create opportunities to attack, and so forth, or there may be a requirement to 'win' a specified number of fights. in either case, safety of the participants will reign supreme, and so it is best to think of the kumite as 'a demonstration of sparring' and not as 'a fight', even though is convenient to use that word. it is from this perspective, having watched a number of shodan gradings huddled against the back wall, that i would like to offer the following observations in the hopes that they may be of use to someone approaching their own grading. i speak mainly in regard to the KUGB shodan grading, though i imagine at least some comments will be more widely applicable.

the opposition

there is no guarantee as to who you are going to go up against in your grading, and there is no point trying to anticipate this or to spend any time worrying about it. they may be older, younger, taller, shorter, heavier, lighter, faster, slower. it makes no difference; physical attributes about your opponent may change what you do in your fight, but it should not change the overall nature of what you are doing. the one thing that is guaranteed is that your opponent wants to pass their grading, and you are figuratively standing in their way. do not expect anyone to give you any quarter because they may know you or like you, and conversely you cannot give any yourself for fear of showing someone up, being polite, or some such. you all know what you are there for, and no-one will thank you for giving them an easy time if it means their best is not brought out of them, or they pass without feeling as if they deserved to. you are there to push each other.

the experience

the main thing that strikes an onlooker is the lack of kumite experience that most shodan candidates have; this is not meant as a criticism, though, since it is late on in the kyu grades that people begin jiyu-ippon and jiyu kumite, but it is a useful if simple observation to note that as a 1st kyu, you will be facing other 1st kyus. that is to say, your opponent will most likely not have much more experience than you, and thus does not pose the same threat as the dan grades you may regularly train with. if you are fortunate enough to train with dan grades, especially those who excel or specialise in kumite, then while it may feel like you are always being beaten, it does not follow that you will face the same fate at the hands of your less-experienced grading opponent. in fact, when one is consistently facing stronger opponents, the freedom from 'needing' (or even being able) to win can often be liberating, and allow you to work on your kumite at an advanced level - experimenting with a wider range of techniques, and having to build alternate strategies - without the distraction of pride or ego.

if possible, it is useful to observe a grading before you take part in one. that is, a whole grading, where you will see many people test for both shodan and nidan. the syllabus for each is roughly the same, allowing for different kata, but the place where there is a dramatic difference in the candidates is in the jiyu kumite. first kyu candidates tend to be overly focussed on throwing techniques, on bullying their opponent, on standing right next to them and trading blows. by stark contrast, candidates for nidan are much more circumspect. they wait. they test; they break off and re-engage. the jiyu kumite between shodan and nidan look wildly different. those going for shodan have usually learned the value of attacking, but more skilled fighters have learned the value of not attacking. the difference between understanding opportunity or not, when added to an ability for good technique, is where a good candidate can really stand out.

variety is the spice of kumite

it is inevitable that we have favourite techniques and combinations, but often you can watch a kumite match and it appears that individual fighters only have a couple of techniques at their disposal. even if these are successful, but worse when they are not, to see them continually repeated betrays a lack of versatility and adaptability, qualities that set a skilled fighter apart. by all means have favourite techniques that you specialise in and have developed above others, but try not be limited to these, and explicitly try to develop an ability to recognise patterns in your opponent. the first ten seconds of your kumite match will tell you who your opponent is and how they fight. after that, you should be consciously adapting what you do, how you move, to take advantage of their habits and weaknesses. sometimes, you get a brilliant fighter and there's not much you can do. but most likely, you will get a type of fighter you have met before...

forewarned is forearmed

...and who wouldn't like to be four-armed? there are certain fighter archetypes that appear regularly at shodan gradings, and it pays to be aware of and even be expecting to meet them:

the windmiller

the windmiller is geared up to attack; they mistakenly think that this - and only this - is what will get them through. look sensei, i am fearless and fearsome! windmillers are common, and are a real pain to deal with, since they have no measure of distance or patience, and can often lack control. they come at you fast and simply don't let up; you find them in your space, heads down and off balance, barging you around and continuing to punch - ineffectually - until they get dragged off by the referee. you absolutely must be able to deal with windmillers; they lack skill, but since the thing that would actually stop them - taking them out - is not allowed, they present a problem.

deal with all-out attackers by outclassing them; show them up for their lack of understanding. if they come at you, either hit them first (react forwards with kizami-zuki or mae-kiazmi-geri as they come), or set up an ambush for them by retreating faster than they advance (they often lumber, but you just go as fast as you can), and have a very strong, well-grounded kick or punch waiting for them at the very instant they come into your range. the first of these, reacting forwards, takes courage, and an ability to override your natural instinct to retreat in the face of an oncoming attack. the second, retreating for an ambush, requires well-developed senses of distance and timing. it is not enough to know the strategies in theory; both are difficult to pull off, and require explicit practice.

when you hit a windmiller, if only that first time, hit them hard. hit them harder than you normally would; hit them harder than you think is being suggested by this sentence. you have to hit them hard enough to get through their automatic attacking, to break their routine. give them a reason to re-engage the brain, to stop, to reconsider. shake them up. do it deliberately, and be seen to be doing it deliberately. usually their first onslaught will overwhelm you, send you backwards, you'll lose your posture and composure. you need to follow that with a bold statement of defiance and strength.

then get away cleanly, don't stand around and get bulldozered by them. go somewhere else (sideways is good; go backwards and they keep coming), reset, and wait. they'll come to you. do this a few times, whenever you need to, and keep hitting them until the message is getting through to them. once you have brought them back to a more reasonable attitude, you need to start playing the attacks yourself. outright attacks can be hard, so consider giving them feints, let them open themselves up as they react, and strike through the opening.

the ol' jodan one-two

some people have a desperate need to hit you in the head. this is more about their personality than yours, but be prepared to meet them. fortunately for you, their single-mindedness on the jodan target makes them predictable and easy to work around. this type of attacker will come for your face with kizami-zuki, gyaku-zuki as a one-two in quick succession, both above the level of your shoulder. they may 'launch' themselves and be reaching in order to get to the all-important jodan as soon as possible. their weakness is that commonly this is all they do. be warned, though, they are often very fast and pose a real threat if you are not ready. watch for a slightly higher stance than you might expect, and an apparent aggression in their general demeanour.

in order to counteract the ol' jodan one-two, give them a little space as they begin the attack to keep safe, and block as you need to with the front hand, but then go very deep into stance, pushing hard forward with a clean gyaku-zuki that is a very clear chudan. they are all up top, go underneath. you may want to use the front hand to cover jodan as you punch, and you may want to take the body off-line using a front-foot movement to the side, but the key points are to move (only a little) backwards to allow them to over stretch themselves, and the very low stance to be well clear of their arms as you punch. again, if you can dig them a little to disrupt their plans, they may be more hesitant in the following attacks. you might also want to consider a full step back as they attack, raising the now-front leg for chudan kekomi for them to walk onto; the length of the leg versus their arm puts the clash in your favour (still have your blocks up for their punches). allow your opponent to give themselves a dig by being really solid as they run on to your technique, and then they are even doing your work for you.

it won't take you long to spot someone who likes the jodan one-two; the first two times tell you the pattern. the third or fourth time they try it, you should be ready.

the pointless kicker

my personal favourite! the pointless kicker is concerned with looking like they are attacking, but actually isn't that good at attacking. they use kicks because it allows them to keep a very safe distance and feel like they are crossing the gap to the attacker, but they never actually pose a threat. the pointless kick isn't an attack at all, it is a 'keep away from me please' signal, it is filling time while preventing genuine attacks from happening. the pointless kick could be any kick, but is by far mostly mawashi geri, and is usually delivered half-heartedly. be very careful that you can distinguish pointless kickers from actual kickers; usually the distance that the kick is initiated from is the giveaway. like genuine kickers, most pointless kickers will kick from the back leg, but be prepared for front leg kicks too (with a half-step).

opponents who kick unnecessarily generally have less than ideal technique, and so it is often possible to use their kick to turn them around and score gyaku-zuki to the back. this is an impressive-looking technique, and rightly so: it demonstrates understanding of distance, opportunity, and timing. it is worth developing. if the kick comes in anything other than jodan level, which it is most likely to, dropping the hand and using a big sweeping block (nagashi-uki) with the forearm essentially cannot miss. do not try to block with your hand! the timing for this is difficult and it is a very common way to crunch your fingers badly. forget finesse; use the whole arm as a deadweight swinging across. the block throws the leg to the side, and can entirely unbalance the opponent if done well, leaving the gyaku-zuki plenty of time and room to score. make sure to follow through with the block, thinking of 'throwing' the leg to the side rather than 'hitting' it in place. again, it is likely you will react honestly to the first one or two of their kicks, but after you recognise the pattern you should be fully expecting a third and can really counter in style.

remember why you're there

one more note is to remember the context. this isn't a competition. the fight is not scored by points, and the referee will likely only interrupt when you are approaching the edge of the area or after a large clash. you cannot stop after you have 'scored', because there is no scoring, so you need to keep engaged and ready to continue (whether you continue by moving forwards or backwards). and be aware of what the examiners wish to see: some attacking, some defending. normally the sparring will last for a minute or two, but if you feel like it is lasting longer than you expected, there is a good chance that the examiners are waiting to see something that they haven't yet seen. they are giving you a chance to demonstrate it by letting the kumite carry on for longer. now, it could be the other person they're waiting for, but assume its you. think: have you only been attacking? maybe you should back off and display some skill in block/counter. have you mainly been on the defensive? maybe try to show some attacks/dominance. it isn't a fight, its an assessment; remember why you're there.

block and counter

block and counter. block and counter.

the way to win

jiyu kumite is a complex and fluid situation, and it is impossible to be prepared for every eventuality. the above points can help direct you towards recognising patterns that might come up, but there are no short cuts. there is no substitute for experience, decent instruction, and similarly motivated people to train with. by the time you come around to shodan grading, you should be confident enough to attack, quick enough to defend, and smart enough to bide your time. but all this comes from experience, having faced enough people and repeated enough drills that you are familiar and comfortable enough that you are not phased by the situation, not always on the defensive. experience gives you familiarity, which gives you composure, which gives you time. it is important that throughout your fight, you are not merely reacting and thinking only of your own attacks, but analysing and adapting, formulating counter-strategy. similar to your defence, your attacks should be responsive to whatever your opponent is doing, and the better able you are to read your opponent, the stronger position you will be in. take time to practice - deliberately, explicitly, don't just imagine you get better naturally over time - noticing what your opponent is doing, rather than every time waiting to see if (and hoping) your reactions are good enough. and lastly, lest this article go too far off-topic, always be prepared to get the last punch in a scuffle. if you get into a tangle with your opponent, just do your best to react, but as soon as the tangle begins to resolve itself get your solid punch in at the end. whatever happens, it's not over until you get yours.

over and above all the general advice i am usually shouting out (helpfully, of course) in the dojo, i would add that the distinction between 'sparring' and 'fighting' is important in the context of shodan grading jiyu kumite. you do not need to win. it is okay if you get hit - i remember a lovely kick to my face in my sandan grading - as long as you show that you respond to being hit by stepping up, by regrouping, by not getting hit the same way again. watching, understanding, adapting, improving: this is the way to win. good luck!

-neil jerome, 2014


return to the articles page