G.Scott on Kumite

KC Shotokan Karate
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Revised Aug 22, 2011


Tournament Fighting
by Greg Scott
Godan, Garden Grove Dojo

[This article originally appeared in two parts on the Shotokan of Garden Grove Website.]

In the SKA we have roughly five types of kumite we should be familiar with. While nothing is like real fighting, all of these have obvious as well as hidden elements pertaining to a real situation. It's important that instructors see the relevance of these without focusing too much on structure and pass this on to students. The five type are Ippon, Sambon, Jiyu-Ippon, Tournament Jiyu, and "Dojo" Jiyu kumite. Ohshima Sensei feels black belts should have knowledge pertaining to all of these.

Over the years tournament fighting has not been a high priority in SKA, but approached properly it can enhance our training. To maximize the benefits, I feel there are certain key areas to be focused on.

1) While point tournaments are considered a game, prepare seriously a few months prior with a dedicated schedule; this helps motivate training during periods of boredom. As time nears for the day of the tournament, focus on the process of calming your anxieties and developing your confidence. Replace all negative thoughts about injury, looking bad, losing, etc., with positive thoughts. This helps lay the groundwork for this process of preparation, which helps develop our mentality and motivates hours of Jiyu kumite training, and is much more important than who wins the tournament.

2) The knowledge that fighters get hurt in tournaments (and it's never fun to lose) is best handled with a mentality that you'll express yourself 100 percent without intimidation within the established rules. This is similar to real combat where one must not worry about injury or outcome, as these worries create hesitation. Even in a losing situation on the street we must learn to express 100 percent of our mentality. In this way a tournament can benefit your real reasons for training. Many black belts downplay tournaments and competition as not for everybody, but quite often this is a cover up for avoiding the situation. Very few can sit at Nisei week waiting to fight and not have a battle with nerves, especially after watching the previous fighter get his face splattered. This anxiety (while not as severe) is similar to anxieties we may face before a real fight and can be a great learning tool if we focus in the proper direction.

3) Know the rules of each tournament regarding acceptable techniques, amount of contact allowed, out of bounds, tolerance, etc. The best competitors adapt to all of these and still perform strongly.

4) Many feel fighting the "Tournament Game" creates bad habits (some of which we'll discuss later). This only happens when basic practice as well as kata and our other forms of kumite are pushed aside and one's sole purpose in training is to "score points" in a tournament. Handled properly, the benefits of tournaments, such as timing, speed, facing unknown opponents, and dealing with body contact, can enhance traditional training.

5) Some tournaments have warm-up areas. Occasionally fighters use this as a premature display. Being observant of others during this display may assist in your strategy.

6) Watch matches and see what the judges are calling for points. Get a feel for the level of acceptable contact and any biases the judges may have for specific techniques or targets.

7) When the referee begins your match, kamae (step) FORWARD and demonstrate a posture of readiness.

8) Don't be fooled by excessive arm waving or distractions by your opponent. If you keep a tight Ma (distance) just out of reach, your only concern is your opponent's forward and backward adjustments. The nature of this distance is a key to many fight environments (including tournaments) and will be discussed in more detail below.

9. In regards to a tight distance (Ma) between you and your opponent, the more skillful fighters can be just out of reach (or even just inside), and if you move, they attack first, or are gone by the time your technique is executed. This high-level sense of distance is only accomplished by the most skillful fighters, after many hours of intense training, and may apply to street situations as well as tournaments. Ohshima Sensei teaches that this distance is based on "Rank and Rhythm," meaning each fighter's ability, size and timing. Learning to close this Ma is partly based on reading your opponent. And, if you have not trained enough on your offense and defensive techniques to be simultaneous, you won't be able to accomplish this simultaneously.

To have a very tight Ma, you must move when your opponent moves or just prior. If your opponent moves back, you close the gap, immediately attempting to maintain this same distance (assuming you don't attack). If your opponent attacks and you don't engage, shuffle out of Ma instantly. The point is don't stay and try to predict the technique or see it. You are reacting to movements, not techniques.

One of the biggest errors of young fighters is to get close to an opponent, wait for an attack, try to read it, block it, then counter. This approach only works with novice opponents. To sum up, "When opponent moves, you move," either with a defensive technique, an offensive technique, or just maintaining that exact Ma. Most defensive maneuvers are performed by body movement, not with traditional stationary blocks, which are a necessary stepping stone to advanced technique.

Keeping a tight Ma helps your attack reach its target sooner and, from a defensive perspective, decreases part of an opponent's momentum, forcing him/her to execute with less penetration of distance due to momentum loss. If you are new to training and this seems too dangerous or unclear, hang in there and, over the years, it will happen naturally. Remember, as Ohshima Sensei says, "Speed is eyes." A fast ball looks slow to Babe Ruth, an amateur punch looks slow to a world champion fighter. It's all part of the natural progression of training bestowed only to those who train year after year with high intensity.

10. A true martial artist never fakes an injury in a tournament to "earn a point." Quite the contrary. Tournament fighters who compete to enhance their art will conceal any pain or injury (within reason), using it as an opportunity to train for real combat. Any competitor faking or elaborating on an injury to win a match does not understand Karate, and the fighter's instructor should intervene.

11. Never score a point or throw a technique and then turn your back and lose your relationship with your opponent. This is also in preparation to create strong habits for street situations. Too many competitors lose sight of the real reason for competing and get caught up on the "sport." Some hindering their training for years to come. If and when you do turn your back, always maintain a sense of your opponent. This is what Karate is.

12. In competing, always kiai with any significant technique. This will help with your expression of technique. Also, most techniques will follow the same line out as returning. This not only helps make the technique visible for referees, but assists in developing good combinations as well as not allowing your mentality to drop between continued feeling.

13. Always display emotional control. If you can't control your own emotions, you can't control your opponent's. Remember, a tournament is a game, some parts of which you have no control over, and you are competing for a greater purpose. It is only a tool supplying bits and pieces to other parts of our practice.

14. Learn what it means to attack while your opponent it thinking. Learn to put your opponent "to sleep" then attack. Also, often times, an opponent is not prepared the instant after changing their feet and taking a new aspect. All these are a function of timing, a great asset in all types of fighting. Blindly lunging in with an attack towards an opponent who is 100 percent ready and in full balance is the worst time.

15. In your training, learn to get from Point A to Point B as fast as possible. What in your posture tells an opponent you are coming? Find it and eliminate it. Do this over and over until your attack appears un-telegraphed. Note: This takes thousands of repetitions, most of which can be accomplished through isolated drills or repeated attacks using various types of training bags as your focus point.

16. Don't be upset or concerned if most "fakes" don't work (i.e., fake a Mae-Geri, then Mae-te). Smart fighters move when you move. If you fake one technique to set up another, they attack you on your fake, catching you off guard. Or, when you fake, if they are not ready to commit, they immediately shuffle back extending the Ma and are not there for your follow-up technique.

17. If you are a defensive fighter or in a defensive mode, have your best technique ready. Then appear confused or as if thinking (hoping to draw an attack). Always be very subtle with ploys such as this. Your opponent must think you are being outsmarted. As your opponent begins to move, explode in your technique.

18. Many fighters new to tournament competition focus on stomach targets. This allows a more explosive execution and if distance or timing is a little off, severe injury does not occur to your opponent. Also, many junior members who try to go to the face too early in competition, are too restrained for fear of hitting their opponent. This mental block adversely affects feeling, physical expression, and distance. So focusing on the stomach in competition is okay and even recommended as a training tool, but instructors must make sure this is supported with ippon, sambon, and continuous jiyu-kumite attacking the face and other vital areas. Some tournament fighters lose this perspective, getting caught up in competition and the stomach becomes their primary target in all situations. Most juniors under good instruction and training seriously will, at some point, learn a strong sense of timing and distance, eventually applying this to fast attacks in competition. This transition will now help aid other parts of their practice.

19. "Cut skin, to cut muscle." This application of street combat is a primary concept in fighting arts. In tournaments, if someone "cuts your skin" and scores a "point," the "cut the muscle" response is often not allowed as the referee stops the encounter. Thus, sometimes an excellent Ma in street situations may be different than tournament competition. This is also an aspect of tournament fighting. Traditional martial artists must not be fooled when adjusting to real combat.

Many factors and luck come into play in tournament competition. Don't allow the outcome to affect your training negatively. Some tournament champs (even on a national scale) are harmless on the street. Some are deadly. This game is not a real indication of your skill as a martial artist. As Ohshima Sensei once said, "Focus on your preparation, confidence, and strategy before each match and your mentality during the match. Don't wait for the outcome to interpret your skill level."

I hope these thoughts can enhance your practice and help you get through those walls we all face occasionally which are a necessary part of progression. Any questions or comments on training are always appreciated.

Until next time,
Greg Scott
Garden Grove Shotokan

You can send Greg Scott your questions or comments by email.



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