Kumite is the actual fighting aspect of karate, which is practiced with a partner. In kumite training, emphasis is placed on learning the timing and distance of interactions with an opponent, yet good form must be maintained such that techniques still hold speed and power. This is why a beginner will spend most of their time training in kihon, or basics. Without extensive training in the basics, good form will go right out the window when a karateka is faced with free sparring, where anything goes. For this reason, a beginner often trains in kumite with a series of drills that allow them to focus on mainting proper distance and good form.
In kumite a student learns to be aware of the distance between themself and the opponent. This is typically done by judging the distance between torsos. A karateka learns the distance needed to execute a punch so the arm is fully extended and reaches the target. Different techniques have different distances they can reach, and must be learned. A kick will require greater distance to an opponent than a punch, obviously. Working with a partner, a student must also keep in mind the potential distances an attack could reach them at – how much range their opponent has. Shotokan is a non-contact martial art, meaning these techniques are practiced without hitting each other, and no padding or protective gear is worn. Techniques are still practiced with full speed and power, but the distance is controlled such that the technique will fall short of making contact by one to two inches. A punch ends when the arm is fully extended, not because its motion is halted by the arm muscles. If a student learns the distance his or her body must be away from a target so the arm will just fall short of a target, then a punch can be delivered with full power, and no contact will be made. Of course, punching so that the fist falls a foot away from the target is useless. This is why distance and control is so important. A karateka must always be acutely aware of the distance to an opponent, otherwise there will be accidental strikes, or a technique will be too far away to be practical. When a student learns enough control of distance, if he or she wanted to make contact with a real strike, only adjust the distance several inches, and the punch will land. A student begins learning these distances with stationary opponents – but later moves on to more freestyle drills, with moving targets. Now the timing of an attack comes into play. A student must be aware of the static distance, but must also be aware of the distance to an opponent by the time a technique “lands”, if an opponent is moving, and this requires a solid understanding of the speed of various strikes.
Good timing means that a strike catches an opponent off-balance. An attack is initiated when the opponent is momentarily off guard. In kumite, a good student tries to strike inbetween the actions of an opponent, in the open spaces of his or her movements. Several modes of timing are used in kumite. A karateka also learns to read an opponent – do they wind up their attacking arm slightly? – does their facial expression give away an oncoming attack? – do they tense up? If one can anticipate an incoming attack, then the “counter” attack can be made at the same time, or even before the opponent initiates. This is called sen timing. Go-no-sen timing means that a strike lands between an opponent’s actions. The technique is made after an opponent’s dodged or deflected attack, before they can initiate a second strike. When free sparring, a good fighter will learn an opponents’ rhythm at the beginning of a match. Then, he or she can take advantage of that rhythm, attacking between the opponent’s motions, and disrupting their attacks and train of thought, keeping them off balance and unable to execute any strategy.
Tournament kumite is designed around the idea that a karateka defeats an opponent in a few, or one blow. Matches last only a couple minutes, and a full point wins a match. A single clean technique can be scored a full point, but this is seldom seen. A strike is judged on its speed, power, posture, placement, use of breathing, distance, and timing. A technique missing some of those criteria may score as a fractional point, or no point at all. Judges are looking for a blow executed to the full potential of the karateka, delivered to the opponent’s weakest area, at the moment the opponent can’t defend against it.