• Matt Powell

But Sensei…. Set Kumite is so old fashioned!

Recently one of my Senior Students prompted a valid debate. He had been interested in some pragmatic drills on YouTube and asked what I thought of the relevance of set-kumite (sparring drills) to modern day self defence and karate application.


For me this is an interesting subject and an important point of relevance for all karate practitioners and teachers. I believe the essence of validity is found by asking,

Why do we practice certain drills and technique’s?


For those not familiar with the ‘traditional’ pair work practiced in the majority of Shotokan based karate dojo’s, I will explain the premise of our fundamental drills against another person.


For a beginner, pair work begins at a safe distance with exaggerated form true to the Shotokan template. Drills are based on a pre-disposed number of attacks, block’s, and counters with the intention that in each ‘exchange’ the defender will conclude each set-drill with a counter strike.


The drills start and finish with a bow to exhibit courtesy and respect. The ‘attacker’ will declare his attack to their opponent with confidence and vigour. Depending on their level the students will perform 3, 5 or 1 step combinations with a variety of techniques and target areas for the attacks.


Based on this description it is easy to justify my Students position on relevance.

There are many things these drills do not prepare an individual for. For example, surprise attacks, verbal escalation and or the pressure of multiple attackers. However, I believe these drills offer something important to All those who practice them, but they are only relevant and important if trained with Intent!


In my opinion, the biggest problem with set kumite (sparring drills) is that of compliance. Depending on the attitude of the instructor, students can be enabled to ‘go through the motions’ and not really experience the pressure or appreciate their own ability in the truest sense.


Whilst teamwork is an important doctrine, working together with no focus on the attacker or desire from either to overcome their opponent results in no real-term benefit from a self-defence perspective. False confidence can flourish and from my experience that can sadly be the genesis of Ego, especially in Karate.


My immediate answer to my Colleague was that set sparring is relevant, but it is all about context, mind set and attitude! It is also reliant on the presence of a ‘Strong’ Instructor who can manage safety and the attitude of those training to stop things getting out of control.


I believe that set sparring teaches an appreciation of distance, timing and attitude that form the foundation for effective self-defence. It is not an all-inclusive solution, but it provides a fundamental toolkit.


I feel that performed correctly, even the most basic sparring can teach Courage!

An online definition of courage reads as follows:

The quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery.


On the face of it, that quote sounds appropriate especially considering the karate mantra of ‘Spirit first, technique second’. However, I was uncomfortable with it as an absolute description. I have witnessed Brave people operating under duress and sometimes in pain, but they were not without fear. In-fact I realised that those who I considered the most courageous were those who operated or did the ‘courageous thing’ when they were fearful or frightened of something. For me that is the essence of Courage!


I have recently discovered the Ted Talks of the American researcher Brene Brown on Vulnerability. Brene explains that:

the root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant “To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds.


In reflection I believe that Dr Browns description of Courage and my preconception need to merge to fundamentally underpin my thoughts on the relevance to an individual of Courage learnt in set sparring.


I believe that set-sparring is a relevant self-defence training aid if both students train with intent. They must be vulnerable to loss by wholeheartedly attacking for the win. They need to stand their ground when their opponent is intimidating them and applying pressure. They must resist the flinch and not move too soon to take advantage of the appropriate timing.

They must face their fear head-on and operate within the best of their ability for then they will appreciate their own strengths and weaknesses.


If a student is till unconvinced, I would encourage them to watch a young child step into the unknown when competing for the first time. I have witnessed the smallest and most timid of children grow in confidence after fighting back the tears, stepping up and having a go. Equally I would encourage adults to stand in-front of twenty stone plus dojo power-house and focus on breath, controlling adrenaline and rising to the challenge.

These are skills that underpin all that is necessary for true self defence.


The Courage to face fear and exhibit bravery under duress are essential to protect oneself and they must be learnt somewhere.


The beginnings can be laid down in set-kumite.

This is why I teach and practice Set Sparring.

It is all about Context and Intent!


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