Kumite, or sparring is a necessary part of Karate training. All students will be eligible to participate in 1-step sparring upon achieving the grade of Sichikyu, and will allowed to free spar upon achieving the rank of Rokyu. Students are required to free spar once graded as Gokyu or above.
The purpose of sparring is to practice both defensive and offensive techniques in a manner other than kata and striking pads. Practicing the techniques against another person who is able to move around and block as necessary allows the student to more effectively understand the concepts of control, distancing, breathing, transitions, and strategy. In addition, sparring helps to develop self-confidence, courage, and composure on the part of the participant. Sparring allows the student to practice what other forms of Karate training do not. This being said, however, Tenshin Shoden Ryu does not condone the tournament-style mentality that has been developed throughout the world in regards to kumite. The rules we use are in place for reason of safety, not for scoring points to win a trophy or a medal. Sparring other students and even friendly matches with other martial arts schools is allowed and encouraged, however, never in the pursuit of a trophy, medal, or similar prize. Our purpose for sparring is to make a stronger karateka, not vanity.
The two classifications of sparring are pre-arranged sparring and free sparring. Tenshin Shoden Ryu uses both. There are three primary types of sparring: ippon kumite (1-step sparring), jiyu ippon kumite (free 1-step sparring) and jiyu kumite (free sparring).
Ippon kumite is pre-arranged, and the uke (attacker) attacks only one time. The tori (defender) then responds with a block or evasive technique, and strikes the opponent. The Ten-No-Kata Ura is a perfect example of ippon kumite. Also under pre-arranged sparring fall sanbon kumite and gohon kumite. These are where the uke attacks three times and five times respectively, with the tori blocking each strike and then returning the final blow of the series.
Jiyu ippon kumite (free 1-step sparring , sometimes also known as semi-free sparring) is almost exactly like the ippon kumite describe above (and also include jiyu sanbon kumite and jiyu gohon kumite), however, the techniques are not pre-arranged. Therefore, the tori is reacting to defend against an unknown attack from the uke. All other aspects are the same.
Jiyu kumite is completely free sparring. Neither the tori nor the uke know which techniques the other will be using, and this is as close to real fighting as possible. In Tenshin Shoden Ryu, padded sparring gear is required, however, some other schools participate in jissen jiyu kumite, which is when padded gear is not allowed to be worn and full contact strikes are allowed. For our purposes, required sparring includes padded hands, padded feet, groin protector for males, mouthguard, and padded headgear. Recommended equipment includes a chest protector, face mask, and custom-fitted mouthguard. Lower belts may only have light contact to the body, while upper belts (Gokyu and above) may have moderate contact to the body and light contact to the head and groin.
All kumite matches must be conducted responsibly with safety as the number one priority. In addition, it must also be understood that the purpose of kumite is to practice the learned techniques. Therefore, the goal is not to win against an opponent, but develop the necessary skills to better perform the techniques if required in a real self-defense situation. It is important for the sempai (senior student) to recognize this when sparring with the kohai (junior student) and to usually spar at the level of the person they are training. Otherwise, the kohai may never have the opportunity to strike their opponent, and never develop the necessary skills or their self-confidence. It is perfectly acceptable for a sempai to "lose" a sparring match in this fashion. This is an important part of the sempai/kohai relationship, and shows the level of care and love in the training from one to another.