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Kumite -- All The Same

Some time ago, I watched a tournament here in Hawaii. Students of various styles competed in kumite. I thought to myself, "this should be interesting to see Shotokan, Shorin, Goju, Wado, and other stylists compete."

Amazingly, at least to me, everyone sparred just about the same. The Goju people looked like the Shotokan people who looked like all the others. Why was this?

My suspicion is that the rules shape the performance. If people can only do certain things, they will all tend to do those things. The Goju people probably would prefer to grapple and counter, but that was not allowed. Again, when everyone has to play by the same rules, they will all tend to look the same.

Think about dinosaurs. There used to be a dinosaur that looked a lot like a porpoise. The porpoise form is a good one, whether the animal is a dinosaur, reptile, or mammal. In this case, the rules of nature favor a certain form.

Kumite rules, however written, will favor certain forms. One of my friends is a Kenpo instructor. He mentioned to me that in certain tournaments, boxing type punches would never be scored -- only clean reverse punches. The Kenpo student could knock down his opponent with a clean jab or cross but no point would be scored. The Kenpo student either had to learn to punch the way that the judges wanted or find another tournament.

Of course, there are good reasons for rules in kumite competitions. Safety is always the most important concern. But as the rules become more and more rigid, the kumite becomes less and less effective as a method of practicing for self defense. Kumite become its own thing rather than a tool. Students train to win at kumite rather than practicing to survive an attack.

I was first exposed to kumite in a Kenpo Karate dojo. As such, we were allowed to takedown and a light punch or kick would not end the match. The idea actually, was not to win the match, but to practice realistic techniques. We also learned to take and slip a hit.

In Kenpo, we also practiced many pairing off drills. These were practical, self defense oriented sets for grabs, punches, club attacks, knife attacks, etc. This emphasis influenced our kumite. We realized that "scoring" meant very little if the punch or kick could not have "dropped" the opponent (if we had deepened our focus).

Kumite should give us practice in spontaneous self defense.


Charles C. Goodin