Some lessons I've learned from
The importance of training as realistically as possible cannot be overstated. Experiencing the techniques we are practicing being applied to us is every bit as important as being able to experience applying the techniques to others; like Bruce Lee famously asserted, "boards don't hit back." Certainly there is a benefit to hitting boards, makiwara, and heavy bags, but to feel what it is really like to hit an actual person is of the utmost importance. As is knowing what it feels like to really be hit by an actual person.
I still remember the first night I practiced contact Kumite. I had been training in Martial Arts since I was a child, in many styles and systems, but never once had anyone actually hit me. I mean HIT me. Sure, when I was practicing Shotokan, we had some prearranged sparring, and 3-step drills, and even some light Jiyu-Kumite, but never was there real contact. Punches and blocks were full power, so there was forearm to forearm contact, but should an attack not be blocked, it was considered to be a sign of expertise that the blow should stop short of its target, so as to not hurt the defender, even in sparring. But now, here I was learning old-school Okinawan Karate, and this was contact Jiyu-Kumite (free sparring). Strategies that work great in tournaments or point sparring were immediately useless to me. I used to fair quite well in sparring, but this night, my first night of contact Kumite, I was bounced off of walls with kicks, I had a rib cracked, and I was repeatedly dropped to the floor by well timed sweeps, among various other embarrassing episodes that evening. And, worse yet, almost nothing I tried got through their defenses, or if it did, it was ignored and ineffectual, only setting me up to be hit more. This made me realize the error of non contact training. I had been convinced over the years that Kata and Kihon were sufficient for you to handle yourself, and that pulling punches was a sign of expertise and also a testament to the deadly nature of these attacks. I think there is an unspoken implication in non-contact schools that the techniques are too dangerous to be used against a training partner. So here are a few of the lessons I learned from full contact fighting, especially in Bogu (protective "armor" and head gear, originally similar to what Kendoka wear, but now are available in many varieties), that were completely missing from my experience with non-contact/point sparring. Hopefully these points will help someone else along their path, as they have for me.
|Even for Daniel, no Kumite, no Karate...|
- Follow up attacks: In point fighting, only one clear technique can be awarded the point. In order for the judges to see your strike and award you the point, there is a tendency to only throw one strike. Whether a counter to another strike, or a direct attack, a judge cannot score a flurry of techniques so that is not advantageous to a competitor. Also, in Kihon practice this view is often reflected as well, as in practicing block/punch combinations like "rising block/reverse punch". In contact Kumite, it is very clear what attacks went through, and the only judge is you and your opponent. While a tournament judge might just call a clash, and award no points, a full contact fighter knows that when two techniques hit simultaneously the stronger or more well placed attack wins. Point training also has the effect of making you pause after a successful strike. While you expect someone to separate you and say "point" for your reverse punch to your opponent's midsection, your opponent continues attacking you. What is the point (so to speak) of hitting your opponent in the abdomen and then stopping? In a real fight, or contact Kumite, your opponent is going to continue attacking you. You landed the reverse punch first, but your opponent immediately back-fists you to the face, followed by a face punch, followed by a sweep. This is life and death, not a game of tag. Point fighting creates the dangerous attitude of "I got you" by rewarding a practitioner for being able to quickly touch their opponent before their opponent can touch them. There is a pervading sense of "imagine that was a deadly blow instead of tapping you on the stomach". You are rewarded for speed, not for efficacy. A police officer is trained that if they draw their weapon, they must have the intent to fire. And, if they fire, they fire until the opponent is dropped; not just one round. No warning shots, and no wounding shots.
Karate do yes, or Karate do no. There is no Karate do 'guess so'...
- Proper distancing: The practice of pulling punches and kicks without landing them fully is entirely detrimental to understanding proper distancing. Just as one can't expect to play violin by practicing
Jimmy Fallon and Ashton Kutcher demonstrate
excellent point-fighting technique. Kutcher gets the point here...
- Proper timing: Closely related to the distancing point above, having good timing is very important for successfully defending yourself. Not having proper distancing, and not having contact during training result in the inability to accurately judge when a strike will hit you (since you are used to people being further away, usually Maai, or a distance such that an opponent would have to take a
step towards you to hit you). Blocking too early or too late are both bad, and striking
A lot of what Japanese Karate think of as Karate ritual or concepts
are actually traced back to Kendo and Judo practice, and not
present in Okinawan Karate. Maai and other concepts are owed
to Kendo as above.
- Targeting: Chuck Norris described a tactic he used in which he would feint a punch to the face, and then land a reverse punch to the stomach. While that would get you the point in a tournament, in reality it would open you up to counter attacks that a point fighter need not be concerned with. Also, Bogu Kumite will quickly absolve you of any interest in punching people in the stomach. While it is useful in certain situations, it will never drop someone, at least not while you are actually fighting (maybe a sucker punch), anywhere near as effectively as by attacking the face. If you disagree, consider this: would you stand still, hands at your side, and let someone strike your stomach? Now would you let the same person strike your face? I bet most Karateka would say yes to the first question. It's even a popular training method for body conditioning. Many arts practice striking various regions to strengthen them. But never the face. When you practice point sparring, you are concerned with regions that earn points. You attack those areas, and you defend those areas, and you ignore areas that are "illegal". In contact training, you are always focused on vital areas. You train to attack the legs, groin, throat, eyes, face, etc, and you train to defend those same areas as well.
- Being hit: Nothing can prepare you for what it is like to get hit in the face like getting hit in the face can. Even with a full face mask on, the impact of being hit hard in the head is staggering. Not only does it hurt a lot, it will temporarily confuse you and disorient you as well. This isn't exclusively about head hunting either. Even the experience of having someone side kick your thigh, or roundhouse kick your shin, or even the feeling when two people kick at the same time and smash shins together, is exactly the sort of things point sparring avoids, and real conflicts cannot avoid. In point sparring, you are rewarded for kicking above your opponent's head! In Bogu Kumite, you learn quickly that there is a reason old-school Karate kicks are always aimed low.
- Punching is nearly useless: The bread and butter of point sparring is the reverse punch.
Point fighters practice this... ...though traditional Karateka pratcice these (among others)...
- It is better to not attack than to have a weak attack: Point sparring creates a safety zone where practitioners are encouraged to try tactics like hopping towards your opponent on one foot throwing light roundhouse kicks (that even if they made contact would amount to being slapped by a foot). Sometimes this tactic can force your case in a real fight, or in Bogu Kumite. By "testing" your opponent, you are creating vulnerabilities in your own defenses that will be exploited. When you throw that
- Precision and timing are more important than speed: The aspects that make for a successful Karate technique include Timing, Accuracy, Speed, and Strength; or what I like to call TASS (I've literally never called it that...). These are akin to what is sometimes called the "Triple Constraint" of Quality: Time, Cost, and Scope. That is to say that the product will be affected by changing any of those three areas, unless at least one of the other areas are also changed. Imagine you are given a month to create a product, with a budget of $100, that will perform 10 functions. Now, imagine that the person ordering this product wants 20 functions. In order to achieve this new goal, it will require an increase in budget, or an increase in time, otherwise the quality will be negatively affected. The same is true of Karate. It is crucial to identify the most important aspect to emphasize, realizing it is at the cost of the other attributes. To a point fighter, power is absolutely meaningless as there is no contact allowed anyway. Precision isn't terribly important because you are scored for hitting areas, such as the midsection, not specific points, such as the solar plexus. Timing is of use in point fighting, but speed is by far the most important aspect for a point fighter. Speed at the cost of power and precision. For a full contact fighter, precision and timing are by far the most important. You don't have to be overly strong or fast to poke an eye, or throat, or the groin; but you absolutely have to be precise, and strike at the right moment. Speed, in many cases, is actually your enemy as a very fast punch doesn't mean a punch that will land in a significant target, with significant power. Timing, when coupled with precision, is indistinguishable from speed.
- One should avoid fighting if at all possible: This is by far the most important lesson of Bogu Kumite training. You will get hit hard and often, even if you "win" the match. In non-contact fighting, even the fighter that is defeated, has not been hit. No matter how excellent you are, you will be hit nonetheless, and it will be in the face. Having the experience of fighting full contact, you understand the potential for injury to yourself as well as the opponent, and you also have any notion of ending the altercation with a single blow completely eliminated from your mind. Point sparring can have the effect of making people think they are really tough, and that a fight won't go further than hitting someone a couple of times in the stomach (or worse, even once).
After landing a weak punch, Daniel attempts to shake hands and end the confrontation,
but Johnny is now embarrassed by getting hit, and is only more angry.The reality is quite different, and to stop a real attacker from continuing to attack you after you have hit them requires brutally effective techniques and the ability to execute them full power against another person. There is no "OK, I got you man, now we're even", there is only incapacitating the opponent.
|Shigeru Nakamura, founder of Okinawa Kenpo, creator of Bogu Kumite.|
So, MMA is a wonderful tool for developing a realistic idea of combat, but it should not be an end in itself. If the focus of your training is on saving your life on the street, then MMA style competition is excellent as a part of your overall training. Bogu Kumite is the best way a Karateka can still train the more authentic Karate techniques without risk of serious injury, but still gaining an understanding of combat. But here too it is important that one train to defend one's life in a real situation, and not slip into training for Kumite. Point fighting is responsible for the overall decline of Karate in the last 40 years, as it has ushered in an era of people training for non-contact sports. As a result, most of the authentic Karate techniques have been eliminated from their training, and they are more concerned with how they look to a judge than if they can handle themselves in a real situation.
|This isn't what Kata is for...|
And another point of misunderstanding in the Karate community that really bothers me is the misunderstanding of Kata's place in relation to Kumite, or sparring, or competition. Funakoshi, though not a proponent of sparring of any kind, still has incredibly valuable advice that, I feel, has been misinterpreted over the years. Funakoshi said: "It must be emphasized that sparring does not exist apart from kata, but for the practice of kata, so naturally there should be no corrupting influence on one's kata from one's sparring practice. When one becomes enthusiastic about sparring, there is a tendency for his kata to become bad. Karate, to the very end, should be practiced with kata as the principal method and sparring as a supporting method." Unfortunately, many Karateka misinterpret this quote entirely. As one Shotokan website states, as an explanation of the preceding quote: "The original intent of kumite practice was to allow students to apply the offensive and defensive techniques practiced in kata against real, instead of imaginary opponents." That isn't quite it (or, honestly, even remotely it). When Funakoshi says "sparring does not exist apart from kata, but for the practice of kata" he is not saying sparring is there to use the techniques from Kata. He is saying that if anything, sparring is only useful to help a student understand what the movements in a Kata are for. Sparring is not separate from Kata, it is for Kata. Kata is absolutely not for sparring. He goes on to say that "naturally there should
|Motobu demonstrates what Kata is for...|
I hope that this has helped some people to understand the place sparring of any kind has in true Karate, and that without contact, sparring is useless to Karate; in fact it is detrimental.