Kumite is 1 out of 3 branches (Kata and Kihon are the other two) of karate. Kumite’s rough Japanese to English translation is “grappling hands”, and is commonly known as “sparring”. Kumite comes from a long line of tradition and today, we’re going to break down the what, who, when, where, why, and how of ‘Kumite’ so you can get the inside scoop.
Kumite has been a part of martial arts training since ancient times, but the formal nature of Kumite evolved as karate and similar martial arts became popular forms of self-defense and, eventually, sports. Kumite karate was first included as an Olympic event in 2021 at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.
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As mentioned above, Kumite translates to “grappling hands”, but what exactly does that mean? The act of Kumite is when a person trains against an opponent/partner/fellow student/etc (i.e. sparring) and can be practiced for sport or self-defense. Kumite is NOT a free-for-all! Students and practitioners would get hurt if there weren’t rules, regulations, respect, and the occasional safety equipment.
There are a variety of types of Kumite (listed and explained below) all designed for different levels of karateka (karate practitioners) while performing different functions and having unique benefits (which we’ll discuss in a bit). In Shotokan Karate (our core system) one of the first things we teach to our students are Kihon (basics) so they can do Ippon Kumite or Jiyu Ippon Kumite (1-attack sparring) drills to learn how to apply the Kihon in any scenario.
There are two main groups Kumite can fall under; Yakusoku Kumite and Jiyu Kumite (predetermined Kumite and free Kumite). Within those buckets there are various types of Kumite and every dojo and karate style has their own favorites.
What is it: One-step sparring, typically used for self-defense drills.
What level is it learned: One of the first things learned as it helps you understand what the moves are for and how they work. Can be practiced repeatedly throughout all levels.
What is it: Three-step sparring, typically used to develop speed, strength, and technique.
What level is it learned: Can be done as an early beginner if comfortable with the movement. It’s an excellent way to get used to moving while performing the moves.
What is it: Five-step sparring, pre-arranged attack, and counter exercises.
What level is it learned: I normally start students on this when they’re a little closer to their Yellow Belt tests just as they have a little more experience with their Kihon.
What is it: Similar to bunkai Kiso Kumite is structured sparring drawn from a kata.
What level is it learned: The Kiso Kumite katas as practiced within the Wado Ryu system were developed by Sensei Cecil Patterson in 1963.
What is it: free sparring.
What level is it learned: Can be performed at any level, but free sparring requires lots of control (explained later), highly recommend practicing once the student has learned all of the Kihon (basic moves).
What is it: one-step semi-free sparring.
What level is it learned: Another one that can be performed at any level, it’s a great way to learn the control that’s necessary for free sparing.
What is it: free sparring in Okinawan dialect.
What level is it learned: This is a personal favorite of mine as it helps with conditioning and allows you to try different techniques. I would also save this one for at least Purple Belt level and higher. As it’s definitely a little tougher and requires a lot of body control and respect for your sparring partner.
What is it:an old version of Jiyu Kumite in Uechi-Ryū.
What level is it learned: Uechi Kanbun’s Wakayama dojo.
What is it: Every now and then throughout my years of Training I had the fortunate opportunities to Kumite against multiple attackers. It’s not easy, but it is a skill that is great to learn and can be practiced with control and respect.
What level is learned: This is learned much later in your training, mostly for 2nd Degree Brown Belts and above.
Kumite is for anyone who wants to learn and practice the arts, as long as one is keeping the Karate Precepts in mind. Depending on what level you’re at, any karateka (karate practitioner) can train any type of Kumite, but I highly recommend sparring only when there is a Sensei around to keep track of the match and keep the participants safe.
Anyplace. Anytime. Anywhere. Hahaha, no but seriously. As Kumite is practiced as a sport or self-defense it literally can be done anywhere. Sport Kumite is mostly performed in a dojo or arena with judges who are giving points to clean techniques. Self-defense Kumite can be practiced with fellow martial arts practitioners in or outside the dojo (I HIGHLY recommend training Kumite with a Sensei(s) nearby as sparring can get out of hand for any karateka.
As you can imagine, there’s a multitude of benefits when it comes to Kumite. I believe they fall under two categories; physical and mental benefits. I believe a lot of physical benefits coincide with the mental benefits, for example the bodily and spacial awareness transcends to mental and self awareness. Listed below are the benefits at a super high level as the benefits alone can get super intensive. I’m always open to conversation and if you have questions feel free to contact me and I’ll be more than happy to elaborate on any of the benefits.
Do you remember when we talked about Kiai? Well Kiai are spirit yells (battle cry’s) and you’re in a battle. The use of the Kiai is important, as your sparring you’re not Kiai’ing on every attack, instead pick and choose when to attack and which attack will have the kiai.
The benefits of Kiai in a real-world scenario would be to intimidate or startle your attacker while adding power and energy to your counter. In a tournament the use of the kiai along with a clean technique show judges the control you have on your techniques and power.
There’s a reason Master Gichin Funakoshi made this the 1st of 20 Karate Precepts. It is also the number one thing that should be on any Karateka (karate practitioners) mind as it is crucial when engaged in Kumite (sparring). Respect your partner. I’m a huge fan of “give respect, to get respect”; we already know you’re strong, we are not here to hurt anyone.
There are 3 main target areas when in Karate: Jodan, Chudan, and Gidan.
Jodan: Head area
Chudan: Chest or Stomach area
Gidan: Generally waist and below
These 3 areas are legal in tournament Kumite. When we spar for real life self-defense we can target other areas, but we save those strictly for self-defense Kumite and not Tournament style Kumite.
So the fun thing about Kumite (sparring) in the dojo or under your Sensei’s super vision is that the matches can be anywhere from 30 second speed rounds to 2-3 minute tournament style rounds to even unlimited timed rounds where the main focus is to get to 2-3 full points or practice a technique.
Although we train in 3 styles, when we Kumite (mostly in tournaments and dojos) we can only use Shotokan. If you and your partner are practicing specific techniques under Aikido and Judo, I HIGHLY recommend for a Sensei or Senpai to be nearby as these moves require much more control in order not to lead to an injury.