Controlling emotions in sparring

Controlling emotions in karate sparring & fighting (kumite)
by David Walker
Shintokukai Founder and Technical Director (
Editor: Dr. Stephen A. Ogden

Karate sparring—kumite—challenges as much the emotions as the mind and body. The emotion of fear—of injury, for instance—is the foremost internal challenge inkumite, followed by anger and frustration. In this article I detail from my experience how anger and frustration have caused opponents to commit technical errors and, ultimately, lose matches, and I then explain how breathing techniques, correct posture, and persistent kumite training can control anger and frustration and lead to more successful sparring. Fear control requires separate treatment; elsewhere, from Michelle Brooks Sensei.

The focus of this article is on dojo sparring directly, and not on real-life fighting. Although sparring and fighting in real life do share several characteristics, they are not the same. Real fighting may be understood as sparring with modification, and this is properly taught (as must be) in our weekly Shintokukai classes.

Kumite involves a primal activity—fighting—which naturally provokes one’s primal urges. However, although anger, for instance, may give a fighter a feeling of increased power, brute force is no match for superior technique. Man is the dominant species because of intellectual, not physical, superiority. Karate technique is a product of this high intelligence and thus is diminished by countervailing emotion. Successful karate demands emotional self-control.

Likewise, frustration during sparring is necessarily counter-productive. Although becoming frustrated may result in higher motivation and thus greater effort in kumite, to ‘try harder’ in Karate is frequently to fail. A karate koan, or ‘wise paradox,’ is that trying less often results in improving more. This is admittedly a higher and inherently difficult concept, but the simple truth at its heart is that proper execution of karate technique requires precision, balance and timing: attributes not achievable in states of anger or frustration.

Because mind and body are a perfect symbiosis—any cause has equal effect on both—aggressive thoughts instantly produce a physical response. Consider the fight-or-flight instinct and its varying levels of intensity proportional to the strength of the associated emotions dominant in the mind. Highly-trained and experienced fighters can use a managed level of the instinct for fight-or-flight to heighten their fighting sense. For the less-experienced, however, unregulated emotion results in merely instinctive reflex, and then certain defeat.

That elevated levels of stress and anxiety impair judgment and inhibit the higher learned responses is a truism among not only martial artists but also sports psychologists, police trainers and all types of professional athlete. Situations of extreme stress produce correspondingly extreme detriments to martial performance. A physical confrontation in real life is perhaps the ultimate stress, and accordingly even highly trained martial artists may revert to innate survival responses—tunnel vision, large lunging motions and wild swings—which effectively countermand their training at the critical moment.

Accordingly, it is crucial that fighters, in street or dojo alike, have trained themselves specifically in advanced techniques of emotional control. The lower the state of emotion and instinctive response the better. There is no time for self-counsel during a high intensity sparring match or fight: no opportunity to analyze feelings of fear, frustration, anger or any other emotion. Therefore, ahead of time one must spend time in what can be called the Three P’s: Pneumatics, Posture and Practice. I will deal with these in order.

Pneumatics refers to the study of breathing. From the beginning of a kumite match, breathe naturally, which for most people means through the nose. When striking (and strike hard and often) purse the lips and breathe out forcefully. Air rushing past the teeth mixed with saliva creates a hiss: a sound historically common in boxing clubs and martial art schools. It will be necessary to breathe increasingly through the mouth thirty to forty-five seconds into the bout, until the body’s ever-higher demands on the respiratory system for oxygen makes the need incessant. This is good. Listen, in this case, to the body.

Breathe naturally as the body requires, but expire forcefully through pursed lips when striking. This simple and effective approach to breathing will keep the blood oxygenated, and allow the muscles to respond properly and the brain to perform its learned response functions. No matter what his levels of physical training, mental rehearsal or psychological conditioning, a fighter without sufficient blood oxygen will be absolutely unable to perform. He will be reduced to fighting with mere instinct, perhaps managing some poorly-performed and rudimentary learned technique, or will simply quit.

It should be noted that there can possibly be exceptions in cases of matches lasting less than thirty to forty-five seconds, where oxygen already in the bloodstream may possibly suffice. In the same way, it is not unusual to be able to run one hundred meters at full sprint while holding the breath. Notwithstanding, the common case is for matches to exceed thirty to forty-five seconds, and so correct breathing is essential.

Posture comes next. Combine the correct breathing with shoulders held down and the body as relaxed as possible. An effective technique here is to avoid grinding or clenching the teeth by partially relaxing the muscles of the jaw. Allow the arms to simply float in front of the body, and keep the elbows down to protect the mid-section. Seasoned Karate fighters take these posture rules seriously, and train themselves to act on them unconsciously, thereby improving their calmness and self-control during kumite irrespective of events. To be an expert at emotional control is to minimize error and to recognize and exploit the unconstrained emotions of the opponent.

It is argued that anger in a match actually provides a fighting edge: even an additional burst of energy that outweighs the benefit of posture. While the specific point is mootable, the higher truth remains that anger’s putative advantage is more than cancelled out by the manifold harm caused by emotional outburst, most especially when fighting an experienced opponent. A fighter needs exceptional posture and the emotional control that it brings. Energy gained from anger should be quite unnecessary. The expert concentrates on the proven technical issues at hand. Relaxation, then, is essential in accomplished kumite, brought about by proper technique: breathe properly, partially relax the jaw, keep shoulders down, and allow the arms to float smoothly. Loss of control and uncontained anger is merely sad testament to lack of experience, and an invitation to the experienced fighter to devastatingly exploit the neophyte.

Relaxed posture, it must be said, is notoriously difficult to achieve. When training for fighting relaxation, there is a natural tendency toward carelessness and even sloppiness. Take the time to train for that perfect but elusive balance between relaxation and attentiveness, and the reward will be the ability to manage the change and surprise which is the nature of kumite.

Finally, practice. Success at sparring requires practice, much practice, and at varying levels and pressures—grading evaluations, or Shinzen Jiai performance to an audience for instance. Police regularly attend the firing range. Aeroplane pilots spend hours on emergency landing practice at flight simulators. The military are perpetually at drill and on manoeuvres. Martial artists, then, should be no less diligent in their approach to sparring: constantly practicing, constantly improving. Cliché or folk wisdom, it is inescapably true: nothing substitutes for practice, practice, practice.

And a last word for the next time when emotions of anger or frustration arise when sparring—as they indeed shall. Let no emotion be allowed in the eyes for an opponent to see and exploit. Whatever the opponent sees must be there at the fighters’ own will ... and put there to make the opponent angry.


David Walker
Founder and Technical Director of Shintokukai

Editor: Dr. Stephen A. Ogden 

& "Zen"     

 - zen, emotion & conflict

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