Sente and Gote in Karate

Sente and Gote in Karate

3rd Dan research project

By Chris Goldsmith


Sente and Gote are terms typically used in relation to the ancient eastern board game known as “Go”, also known as Igo (in Japan), Weiqi (in China) and Baduk (in Korea). Go is about 4,000 years old and has been studied in depth for a very long time.

In Go, players take turns to place stones on the board, each with the object of surrounding the most territory. This article doesn’t explain the rules, but interested readers can find an excellent introduction at

This article introduces the terms from Go and analyses how they can be applied to Karate.

What Sente and Gote Mean

The terms sente and gote are important terms in Go, they relate to who has the initiative. The player with the initiative is said to have sente, and the other player is said to have gote.

Written using kanji they are as follows: -

  • sente (先手)
  • gote (後手)

先 (sen) means “ahead”, 手 (te) means “hand” and 後 (go) means “behind”. So sente literally translates
as “ahead hand” and gote as “behind hand”.

Why are Sente and Gote Important in Go?

Having sente is highly desirable, because you are in a position where you can control the game, you can continue to improve your position by making moves that demand an answer from your opponent. In other words you can pretty much dictate your opponent’s response (this can extend over very long sequences in Go).

If you have sente then you aim to keep it for as long as possible, by making moves that your opponent cannot afford to ignore. Conversely if you have gote then your aim should be to take sente, by either playing in a different area - tenuki or by answering the move in a clever way tesuji (the te part relates to “hand” or “move” in the context of Go).

Sente and Gote in Karate

Recognising Sente and Gote

During kumite it is important to look out for and recognise whether you have sente or gote. If you’re in a position where your opponent is spending their time defending, then you have sente. If you’re the one that is defending, then you have gote.

Giving these situations names helps us recognise and analyse them. Being aware of your situation is the first step to improving that situation.

Typical Stages of Jyu Kumite

Typically in jyu kumite we see 3 stages: -

  1. The karateka are not directly engaged in combat, but are measuring each other up, assessing how and when to attack.
  2. Both karateka are exchanging blows more or less turn for turn.
  3. One of the karateka is consistently attacking and the other is defending.

The fight will switch between these three stages quite fluidly; stage 3 is the least balanced where one karateka has the upper hand (sente). The karateka who has sente the most during a fight has the best chance of winning as they’re in a position to control the fight.

The next two sections deal with keeping sente when you have it, and taking it when you do not. These are really two sides of the same coin – knowing how sente is kept implies knowledge of how it might be seized, and knowing how it might be lost entails knowing how it might be kept.

Keeping Sente

If the karateka has sente, then they should try to retain it for as long as possible. Some simple techniques for keeping sente follow: -

Attack in Sequences

Only performing single attacks allows the defender an opportunity to make their attack (this is more like stage 2 above). After an initial attack, follow up with a sequence of subsequent attacks – denying the defender the opportunity to take stock and launch an attack of their own.

Effective Use of Range

The relative range of sequenced attacks is very important, for example starting with mae-geri is likely to drive the defender further away, thus severely limiting the next attack. If the distance cannot be covered quickly enough then subsequent attacks could be ineffective, or even worse - predictable.

Selecting attacks that complement each other in terms of range means that the subsequent attacks can be launched from the correct range.

For example by starting with kizame zuki, to drive the defender backwards then following up with mae geri the range of these two attacks complement each other.

Discover Your Opponent’s Fallback Defence

Most people have a fallback defence, which they use in order to cover attacks that they are not expecting. This might be as simple as stepping back out of range, or uchi uke. This is usually used to help them regroup before attempting to take sente.

If you know your opponent’s fallback defence then you can exploit holes left in their defences.

Don’t be Predictable

If the defender doesn’t know what’s going to happen next then they are more likely to use their fallback defence. The attacker can try a few “dress rehearsals” of a particular sequence, and change the follow up to catch their opponent.

Dress rehearsals serve two purposes: -

  1. They suggest to the defender that they can predict the order of attacks.
  2. They allow the attacker to try and predict the defender’s responses.

For example the third attack in a particular sequence might be mawashi geri – this sequence could be performed 3 times, each time observing the defender’s response – they might duck away from the mawashi geri towards their left. Changing the third attack to ura-mawashi geri which approaches from their left would mean that they move into the third attack. This works even better if the ura-mawashi geri can be disguised as a mawashi geri.

Disguise Your Intentions

Most karateka develop the ability to read particular signals, for example if their opponent raises a leg knee first, then that might indicate a kick is coming most likely mae geri, leg to the side might mean mawashi geri, if their feet are in one then ushiro geri is a possibility.

The earlier the defender can detect the attacker’s intentions the earlier they can prepare for it, if one move can be disguised as another, then there is less likelihood that the signals can be read accurately.

Taking Sente

In order to take sente the karateka needs to develop counter-measures to the techniques for keeping sente.

Light Movement (tai-sabaki)

Moving in a straight line increases vulnerability to sequences of attacks. Using tai-sabaki, or body shifting techniques attacks can be evaded allowing the opportunity to make counter attacks.

Moving more fluidly is also a way of defending in that the attacker must adapt their lines to be able to attack effectively. It also has the additional benefit that the attacker becomes vulnerable to side attacks.

Attack Whilst Defending

Using techniques that simultaneously attack and defend, for example deflecting an attack whilst making a counter attack, provides an excellent the opportunity to seize sente. In order to complete this switch in sente, availability of a follow up attack is very useful.

Learn When an Attack is sente

Blocking every attack is a sure fire way of keeping gote, bad attacks need to be recognised and their weaknesses exploited. If an attack cannot reach the defender then it cannot possibly be sente. In this situation that attack can be ignored and the opportunity used to launch a counter attack. In Go the term tenuki is used to describe this change of focus.

Some karateka are in the habit of making “dummy attacks”, they don’t expect the first attack to land, and so they don’t commit to it. These are a good example of an attack that isn’t sente.

Effective Use of Distance

If the participants stand a long distance from each other then sente becomes a lottery biased in favour of the one who has longest reach. At a closer distance the bias switches the other way. The correct distance needs to be chosen for the opponent.

Sometimes it is useful to move towards an attack, this can change the whole balance of the fight in an instant, catching the attacker off guard and changing who has sente.

Read the Signals

The earlier a karateka knows what is coming, the more likely they can respond to the attack (making a rehearsed defence) rather than react to that attack (using their fallback defence). In the simplest terms this response could be a side step and immediate counter attack.


In karate the concepts of sente and gote translate very well from the game of Go and some of the techniques developed in Go to seize or keep sente can also be adapted for karate.

Many of the items mentioned in this article should be common sense to most karateka, but when we analyse them in terms of sente and gote we realise that these techniques deal with the shift in focus we see during kumite.

This article talks about taking and keeping sente, and the reader might conclude that they should not loose sente. It should be born in mind that the karateka with sente will be expending more energy than the defender; this will make it impractical to keep sente indefinitely. It is better to understand that sente should not be surrendered unnecessarily, and how it might be re-taken when the time is right.