Managing the emotions of Kumite

I often hear people talk about sparring—Kumite- and often they identify a range of emotions… for some it’s fun and challenging ( I like to think of it as a physical game of strategy ) but for others it a serious no-go. Some see Kumite as a necessary evil for gradings, but never even an option for them in competition. I often see the classes that are focused on Kumite as a subject matter swell before gradings/competitions and you can literally feel the tension in the dojo! Then there is the labels that are used, fear, nerves, anger and pain.

Frank Brennan and Toshihiro Mori

For me this is an odd standpoint, I grew up loving kumite and so when I was exposed to the science behind Kumite and learned to fight in a more structured manner, I started think about why people are so nervous. I do come back to my thoughts from a previous blog where I highlighted the layering effect of Kata against Kumite. As an aide memoire, I talked about the way in which we build up our Kata training over time and with increasing difficulty. We don’t throw new starters into advanced Kata like Supraempi or Unsu, rather we start them with Gekisai Dai Ichi or Kihon Kata and gradually increase the level of difficulty over time. I’m not so sure that this happens in the same structured fashion in Kumite, in fact I know it doesn’t and because of this, we have variety of Kumite experiences/outcomes. This is of course just my opinion.

One aspect that I see right across the Kumite piece is the aspect of emotions and how they develop before and during sparring. The main output may manifest as anger but there are really a range of emotional responses to the situation.

The first of these may begin as fear, a new opponent, a higher grade, someone who looks like they might be ‘handy’, or just in better shape can trigger the fight-or-flight response. This is especially true in those who are just starting to fight for the first time.

I’ve talked a lot about the way in which the subject of Kumite is introduced and really boils down to the skills that they feel they are able to execute comfortably. It goes without saying that the relationship between the training partners is crucial to the overall outcome but I look at that later on.

All of this means that the Sensei needs to be very much in control of the situation so as to help ensure the best outcome for all Karateka.  Of course I’ve seen some Senseis who have created a situation where the more junior student is plucked from their comfort zone in the belief that they will adapt to the situation… this is rarely good for anyone involved.

So there are loads scenarios to consider here, but , the first is the total immersion approach. We’ve all seen it at some stage, the Sensei says, “pads on, face a partner, bow”, and off we go. For those who are more able to fight and deal with the situation, comfort factors will dictate the pace and the experience of those less experienced. What I have seen over the years is that the less experienced individual will, in trying to deal with the situation, tighten up and probably throw one or two techniques that can be misconstrued as overly aggressive by their training partner. What happens then is an escalation of violence. This does not often end up going the way of the less experienced person and they then tend to be more apprehensive of Kumite after this point. I do not think that this is a pure anger, this tends to be more a mixture of fear and frustration because of a lack of knowledge about how to deal with a situation.

So, what then is anger. Well text books will say that anger is typically triggered by an emotional hurt… anger is usually experienced as an unpleasant feeling that occurs when we think we have been injured, mistreated, opposed in our long-held views, or when we are faced with obstacles that keep us from attaining personal goals. In the case of Kumite, many of the above could apply. 

It should be further clarified that we are talking about anger in a dojo or competition sparring situation during this article, not what might happen on the street in a, dare I say it, real fight.

If we reconsider two fighters, one pretty expereinced and one who is less so.. Then there will be a range of stages that the bout can go through depending on the intentions of the fighters.


Kumite is of course the closest many of us will come to real combat. As it is a situation that has (for the most part) rules and expectations, when Karateka feel that they have been taken advantage of or are in a situation that is unfair for whatever reason, they may build a sense of anger. This anger will usually manifest in a physical manner, the Karateka will tighten up and more experienced Karate will be able to physically discern this. Techniques will become somewhat unconventional and often times take on a flailing manner. The level of power also increases with a greater intent per technique. I generally see this in more junior fighters, where they really are trying to take control of the situation, sore a point in their mind and find a position where they feel they are able to compete on a more equal footing.

This is why, for me the layering of technique is really important when it comes to Kumite. Where the Karateka learns one or two techniques and really starts to understand how those techniques fit together in the changing environment of a sparring match. Only at this point can then they start to really understand distance and timing as well as start to have an appreciation of how they might react to the movements of their partner. This will build confidence over time and negate the effect of pushing a Karateka into a situation where they need to try and learn the techniques themselves, often times in charged environments where they are unsure as to the rules etc. This does not create strong fighters.

In competition anger is something that is best avoided. I am certainly someone who can attest to this, on many an occasion in the past I have been guilty of losing my temper and either throwing the match or, in many many occasions, being disqualified. Of course, for competitors there is the aspect of nervous energy going into the match and a sense that there is of course a clear win/lose situation. For those less trained, in this environment we see the manifestation of the fight-or-flight instinct and generally a thoroughly physical response, an instinctive reflex and mostly likely a negative outcome. More experienced fighters will have a way of dealing with the pressure, but at the end of the day, a match goes through a series of emotions. Go 3 points up or down and you are dealing with a very different psychological situation. This is to say nothing of situations where points are given to the wrong person or for a technique that may or may not have existed… 

Fighting is emotional and physical. I’ve been on the mat against people who should have beaten me but for whatever reason, be it my ability to read their intention, or the fact that I was able to remain calm I managed to succeed. I’ve also stood opposite people who should never have beaten me, but they did and more often than not they did so because they were able to trigger an emotional response in me lead to a situation where I put my own success in jeopardy. 

I worked really intently on my emotions when I was competing and also in my business life. It’s not always been easy and I do remember times when people have come up to me after matches just shaking their heads and hugging me. I did get better over time, but you know what, even in the dojo I can sometimes feel the red mist descending! I do try tho. 

We have a saying that has stuck with me over the years since I heard it… it’s something that I wish I had known years ago. 

“When your temper rises, lower your fists – when your fists rise, lower your temper.” — Chojun Miyagi

I feel that is a good place to finish!

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