Since 1976

October 2013

What is sparring?

With our annual tournament right around the corner, I wanted to address the issue of sparring vs. fighting (or sport karate vs self-defense). For many young students sparring IS the art. They join a dojo to compete in tournaments (to which they travel practically every weekend) and proudly display their trophies at home next to their awards for soccer and baseball.

But to traditional martial artists free-sparring is only a tiny part of their art. Did you know that actual sparring was invented less than 80 years ago!

Maybe you remember that karate was brought from Okinawa to Japan in the 1920s. In old Okinawa the thought of practicing their self-defense art for the amusement of others or to gain trophies was unthinkable. But Japanese practitioners were used to engaging in kendo and judo contests and soon applied the principle to the new import of karate-do.

The first public demonstration of jiyu kumite or “free-sparring” came in the fall of 1936 in Toyko. As Japanese college karate clubs began to hold inter-school matches the Okinawan teachers were horrified. How could karate techniques be practiced “free-style” without major injuries?

Even the famed Masatoshi Nakayama (who would go on to devise the first rules of competition) voiced his concerns about these contests.

“Their original purpose was to promote friendship between clubs. … But the young blood of the students ran too hot to be satisfied with such tameness. … I feared karate would degenerate into a barbarous and dangerous technique.”

That was just before the beginning of World War II which put a damper on the further development of karate as a sport. Nakayama, who spent the entire war working in China, soon came back to Japan to try and help establish karate once again. He developed rules for safe competition that were first used at the All Japan Grand Karate Tournament in October 1957.

But even then he had his doubts about free-sparring. He wrote, “As karate matches become popular, karate practitioners become too absorbed in winning. … Moreover, I cannot say whether the idea of free-fighting styles matches the soul of karate as taught by Master Funakoshi Gichin.” Funakoshi had said that karate was to be practiced by virtuous men for a higher purpose.

In the USA
If competitive sparring was controversial in Okinawa and Japan it was a no-brainer in America. Westerners were used to and loved sports and competition. In fact, it was the sport of karate that put the martial arts on the map, so to speak. The “Blood ‘n guts” era of the sport (the 1960s) proved that karate practitioners were just as tough as Western boxers or football players. They fought to win and they didn’t stop if they got hurt.

That image helped establish the martial arts as effective methods of fighting. The rules have evolved, thankfully, in the ensuing decades and today karate and tae kwon do tournaments are safe and fun events for kids of all ages.

Sparring is a part of the training of practically everyone learning karate in this country and most instructors encourage their students to participate in some kind of competitions whether they be “open” (kinda a free-for-all) or “closed” (a single school or organization). Sparring has many important benefits for the students ranging from self-confidence, improvement of technique and even developing the knowledge that they actually
can withstand a kick to the stomach!

But while sport-type sparring is a popular and even useful training method the martial artist would be wise to put it in its proper place. Most self-defense situations don’t occur at “sparring-distance.” They are often up close and personal. I have known more than one tournament champion who got his clock cleaned in a real-life street fight because he didn’t understand that concept.

As one famed instructor said, “Competition is an enjoyable but non-essential part of karate training. Compete, retire, and then start your real karate career!”

Still, sparring has its place and I encourage you to enter our little tournament (and others) so you can benefit from testing your skills in a pressure-filled situation (even if it is not as realistic as a real street-fight). You’ll gain confidence and experience and, hopefully, have some fun doing it. See you at the tournament!