10 Kempo Karate Sparring Tips

New to Kempo Karate sparring? Here are ten tips to help you hone your sparring skills.

1. Define your goals for sparring.

Kempo Karate Master Ed Parker defined sparring (or freestyle fighting) as Tournament Freestyle and Street Freestyle – or, fighting with rules and fighting without rules. It’s unusual to find a karate studio today that encourages street freestyle, because of our lawsuit-happy culture. However, it is street freestyle and not tournament freestyle that offers the more realistic way to train for self-defense. If your goal is to train in sparring for the purpose of self-defense, make sure that you make this clear with your Sensei when you begin your Kempo sparring training. Sparring for sport and sparring for self-defense is not completely the same, so make sure you consider what your goals are before you begin. Nevertheless, tournament-style sparring can still help you to increase your reaction time and your understanding of some of what you might see in a “real fight”.

2. Spar with different people at different fighting levels in order to improve.

To increase your skills and your range of techniques, spar with all sorts of different sparring partners. Spar with people bigger than you – they will teach you what it feels like to absorb a blow from someone bigger and stronger than you are. Spar with people smaller than you – they might surprise you with their speed and different attack tactics. And always try to spar with people better than you – it’s the best way to improve.

3. Learn which strike and block combinations work for you.

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Back when I competed in tournament karate sparring on a regular basis, I developed a few signature combinations which worked for me every time – even against people who knew they were coming. The reason they worked so well? They were right for my body type and fighting style, so I could make them work against nearly any opponent. Here are just two of my favorites:

  • Lure in and sidekick – lure your opponent forward by feigning a retreat. Then, as they move towards you, turn swiftly and throw your best sidekick (also called a back kick). I have had several opponents walk right into my kick with very little effort on my part.
  • Jab and reverse punch – the oldest trick in the book, perhaps, but often still effective. Most people have a knee-jerk reaction when an object is flying towards their face at lightning-quick speed: they cover their face! Faking a jab towards the face forces your opponent to raise his or her hands, leaving the body open to a non-fake reverse punch.

4. Value agility and speed over force and strength.

If my karate master said it once, he said it a hundred times: in a fight, speed matters more than strength. Swing as hard as you like; if I am faster than you are, you will never connect with that powerful kick or punch of yours, and I will hit you five times before you have had a chance to recover. Therefore, to truly improve your Kempo sparring techniques, begin by improving foot and hand speed.

5. Move on an X, not on a T.

Watch beginner Kempo sparring students fight and you will likely see them moving forward at one another in straight lines. A more experienced fighter moves at an angle, on an X pattern. Moving on an X makes it easier to find undefended openings on your opponent’s body and head, while making it more difficult for you to get hit. For example, your opponent throws a reverse punch. A beginner will back up from that punch on a straight line. A more experienced fighter will move forward on an X to the side of the punch then counterstrike the now exposed ribs.

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6. Always watch your opponent’s face, especially his or her eyes.

Often a slight darting of the eyes or turn of the head will “telegraph” where your opponent plans on landing his or her next strike. The astute student of body language will be able to pick up on this subtle signal and will easily move out of the way before the punch or kick is thrown. Watching the eyes can also be a good way to detect a feign. For example, if an opponent throws a jab towards your temple but is staring at your ribcage, I’d recommend keeping your body covered!

7. When sparring, keep your hands up!

“Always keep your hands up!” was another one of my karate master’s favorite pieces of sparring advice. When you drop your hands, you are not only left exposed, your hands also have a longer way to travel for a block or a punch. This extra distance costs you valuable time.

8. The best block is not to be there.

But even better than blocking a punch with your hands or feet is to move out of the way entirely. Sometimes, it can be tempting to prove you are “tough” and skilled by blocking a punch or a kick. It seems almost cowardly to move out of the way. But when you move out of the way and that punch or kick cannot connect with its target, you leave your opponent off-balance and exposed. Moving out of the way is a much better defense than blocking – blocking should be only a final resort.

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9. Too much hotdog, not enough sauce.

Ok, we know you’re cool. But while you’re busy showing off your fancy Ralph Maccio moves, I’m going to step out of the way and throw a simple reverse punch while you are airborne in your jump-spin-kick. Nobody likes a showoff hotdog. All your cocky attitude will do is tempt your opponent to hit you harder during your sparring match.

10. Every offensive move leaves a defensive hole.

Finally, whether you are defending or attacking during a sparring match, always remember that every offensive move leaves a defensive hole. A kick can leave you off-balance. A reverse punch leaves part of your temple open. A jab leaves your ribs open. Through experimentation and watching other fighters spar, learn what moves create what openings. Then, in the ring, when your opponent throws that jab, you’ll know what opening to look for.

Good luck with your Kempo Karate sparring!

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