There are many different ways to spar, but almost everyone who spars does so to become better at sparring. When sparring is the goal of a person’s training, then what you are training is a combat sport, but not necessarily a martial art. MMA fighters, boxers, submission grapplers–all of them train and spar to get better at sparring so that they can compete against other similarly-trained athletes by sparring harder against them. If this is the intent of your training, then kumite as a goal is perfectly acceptable. A problem arises, however, when you want to develop your self defense skills but still treat kumite as a goal rather than as a training method.
|Typical point sparring competition|
When I first started training in karate I did point sparring–you faced off with your opponent and the first one to land a strike (little or no contact) scored a point, at which time you were reset at your starting positions to repeat the process until someone accumulated 3 points. This is a very specific type of sparring that you can only become effective at by participating in it more often, and if you do that then you are training to get better at sparring.
|Me (right) sparring at an open sparring event last May|
Now when I spar, we use controlled contact (usually between 30% and 60% power for adults, depending on who you are sparring) continuous sparring where we face off with our opponent and then spar until the timer goes off. This is a more free-form method of sparring, and the contact is great for learning how to fight through being struck and how committed you need to be in your defense. From a self defense standpoint, this is a much better type of sparring than point sparring, but it is still something you have to train to get better at.
|What kumite should be|
What sparring should be, and what I would like to move toward in my own training, is a training device to become more effective in self defense. This means utilizing sparring as a live self defense drill, rather than as a competitive kickboxing or MMA match. There should be no timer, no points and no set starting positions. There should be contact from both participants, one of whom should be the attacker while the other defends, and the attacker should utilize realistic attacks (hook kicks, for example, are not a realistic attack) and should not stop their attack until the defender has ended the threat. This takes cooperation from both participants, of course, and some precautions must be taken for safety’s sake (eye strikes should be to the forehead, for example) but I feel that this is a much more effective use of kumite. The word “use” is the key, there, because right now I do not feel that most of us actually “use” kumite, because we aren’t utilizing it as a training tool but instead as a sport that happens to have parallels with our training.
|Competitive MMA sparring|
If you train specifically to be good at competition fighting then it makes sense for sparring to be a goal, but if the goal of your training is to become effective at defending yourself, you may want to re-evaluate your sparring.