Using Strategy in Freestyle Sparring

Using strategy in free-style sparring

3rd Dan research project

By Stef Socratous

Fundamental principles

Distancing (ma-ai)

  • Avoid training to fight at the wrong distance (pre-conditioning)
  • Correct distancing will force the opponent to commit in order to reach you, but not too far to deny yourself the opportunity for attack.
  • Stopping short of the target will not will score a point, but being too close increases the likelihood of excessive contact through bad control which may injure the opponent and result in your disqualification.
  • Can apply basic training skills to jyu-kumite (free-style sparring) e.g. speed, reflexes, focussed power, strong determined attitude, but distancing itself cannot be improved through practicing kihon (basics). With gohon kumite (five-step sparring), distance between opponents is based on the length of the defender's arm, resulting in a large distance between partners for safety reasons. Counter-attacks with arms are made with a thrusting action, with techniques fully locked out and held on the target.
  • Free-style sparring is at the true distance for actual combat. Techniques are not fully extended at the moment of contact, requiring a shorter distance than in basic sparring. Snapping techniques should be used which are 'arrested' on or just short of the target, requiring good mental and physical control. This avoids the risk of your sleeve being grabbed by returning to your guard rather than leaving your arm extended. A point scoring punch would land on the opponent's chin with your punching arm slightly bent, stopping the technique accurately on the target.
  • Use the correct stance and position for long/close range and snapping/thrusting techniques. Vary distance by moving within/changing stance. Use the hips, stance and body rotation to increase reach and find the exact distance needed to fully extend the technique.


  • Timing, like distancing, cannot be improved by practicing basics. Good timing requires anticipation and zanshin (total awareness), otherwise you will become a victim to the opponent's feints. Good timing can compensate for lack of speed. Develop timing by working on kumite drills against a partner.
  • Strategies which should be used sparingly to avoid the opponent identifying a pattern include spoiling the opponent's distance by suddenly moving towards them. Another is deliberately mistiming your step and punch so that they are not simultaneous i.e. Punch early or late. In this case the opponent incorrectly anticipates the delivery of your attach with the moment you focus your stance, which may cause him to block at the wrong moment and open up and otherwise tight defence.

Evading/body evasion (tai-sabaki)

  • Use footwork by stepping/pivoting to attain an advantageous position whilst avoiding the opponent's attack. Use ducking and weaving by moving the upper body and head out of range or line of attack whilst still being in a position to counter attack. Defence should be maintained with arms ready to cover or block. Use body evasion tactics with discretion and follow up immediately with a counter attack to be effective.


  • Basic karate blocks are powerful, and if applied as a strike to an untrained opponent, the deterrent of pain can be very effective. They are, however, inappropriate for free-style sparring. There is not enough time to sue them against a skilled opponent as they leave other parts of the body open to attack due to their committed nature. In modern karate competition blocks are small and fast, but less blocking is now being used in favour of attacking strategies.
  • Use basic blocks as a foundation for the more economical open-handed blocks used in free-style, which are not as damaging but still powerful, since the same muscles are used. The advantage of economical blocks is that rapid recovery can be achieved with immediate counter attack which is crucial after blocking. Interpret the opponent's movement, select and appropriate block and, without escaping if possible, counter attack.

Feinting/inviting attack

  • Feints are useful as part of attaching strategy. They provide a way to unlock the opponent's weaknesses, discovering their preferred responses and style of movement. The idea is to make the opponent react to an imaginary attack to create an opening, or to draw the opponent into responding which you anticipate and counter. This is a useful tactic in 'testing' and opponent who lets you attach first. The opponent can be tricked into attaching by offering them a target in a way that is not obvious e.g. raising your guard to invite a chudan (stomach-level) attack.
  • Feints are uncompleted techniques. To be effective they must look like genuine attacks e.g. raising your knee towards the opponent, as if intending to kick. The opponent is likely to react by lowering their guard. To complete the strategy, you then punch jodan (head-level) as this area will be undefended. Alternatively, after raising your knee for the front kick, you then instead convert this to a jodan mawashi-geri (round-house kick). When using punching techniques, feint with one hand but strike with the other.
  • Inviting attached from your opponent requires a courageous, active approach and not a defensive posture. Gauge how likely it is that the opponent will counter. If they are experienced, they will be constantly poised, ready to out-time your attack or block and immediately counter. Plan your offence to encourage them to respond i.e. feint with and attack that will result in an anticipated response e.g. you attack with a feint reverse punch and opponent reacts with downward block and reverse punch. Your feint will not be a fully committed movement, enabling you to strongly block their anticipated reply and follow up with a further, but this time decisive, reverse punch.
  • Compare kaishi-ippon kumite (reaction, one-step sparring) where the first movement is a committed attack instead of a feint, aiming to defeat the opponent with one blow but ready with a defence in mind. Use feinting as a strategy in the initial stages of a competition when facing an experienced opponent by testing their responses with feints and trying to draw their counter, rather than fully committing yourself. Once the opponent's weaknesses have been found, attack with full conviction to overwhelm them.

Combination/single attacks

  • Do not restrict attacks to single attacks. Develop combination attacks, three or four rapid, diverse and unexpected consecutive hand and foot techniques. Avoid the feeling of building up intensity in combinations with the intention of scoring with the final technique. The first techniques should not be used as distracting feints leaving you vulnerable in the early stages of your attack. Every technique in a combination should have maximum commitment. While the opponent remains off balance and unable to counter effectively, you can score.

Visualisation/your mental attitude

  • Mental preparation prior to competing is a vital link between physical and the psychological side of free-style. Remove all thoughts of self-doubt, but be realistic within your capabilities. Visualise scoring on a superior fighter using your favourite technique - this is the first step to actually achieving the desired result. If you do not believe that you can do it, there is little chance of it ever happening. Use this strategy as often as possible; raising your objectives as each success is achieved. The positive images will be self-fulfilling and the mental conditioning will become an integral part of your training.
  • Cultivate a strong, determined attitude prior to competing. Do not concentrate on using a specific technique or think about the outcome of the match - this distracts the mind. Respond intuitively and simply aim to do your best.

Zanshin (empty mind, total awareness)

  • Be natural, instinctive, detached from intellectual processes and free of distracting thoughts. Maintain full alertness at all times, concentrate the mind and show no weakness under stress. Free-style is not only a physical battle, but also a psychological duel between two opponents.
  • When the match begins be ready to abort any strategy you have in mind in favour of an instinctive response. Avoid being too rigid; have a flexible and receptive mind and be patient to see what happens. When the opportunity arises, react without hesitation and with conviction. If you are defeated, you have no cause for regret. If successful, remain calm and prepare yourself for your next round.

Kime (focus of power), kokyu (breath control) and kiai (expression of spirit)

  • Ensure physical and mental focus at an instant in time with a sudden stop to techniques, using tension of the abdomen, breathe out and kiai - instill fear in the opponent by showing a commitment 'to kill with one blow'. Aim to attack when the opponent is breathing in rather than out as they are more vulnerable at this point. There is no formal warm up before competition & adrenalin will ensure that blood reaches the muscles that are to be utilised.

Your opponent's style

  • Know your opponent's style, strengths, favourite techniques and weaknesses i.e. defender, attacker, kickers or puncher. Your strategy should be to become proficient in all areas. Be prepared for the opponent's favourite technique so that when it comes you can react instinctively. Your size compared to the opponent will be an important factor in your choice of offensive and defensive actions e.g. a tall fighter will use kicks to keep their opponent at bay and intimidate him. A shorter fighter should stay close to the opponent, keeping him under pressure by moving him back with flurries of quick punches.


  • Avoid preliminary movements/actions which can be read by the opponent e.g. a big breath prior to attack/change of expression. This contradicts fundamental bio-mechanics (human movement) which dictates that basic techniques require preparatory movements. There is no time to 'prepare' in free-style - develop and explosive start to techniques. Learn to interpret the opponent's intentions and this will be to your advantage e.g. his feet in line may indicate ushiro-geri (back kick) is on its way.

Kamae (free-style position)

  • The kamae position can be offensive of defensive and is a posture that radiates confidence and intimidates the opponent. Based loosely on fudo dachi (rooted stance), with a slight bouncing motion shifting weight forwards and backwards using footwork to ensure distance between fighters is not fixed, unlike basics. The initial motion assists acceleration into attack compared to launching from a static position. Knees are bent and the stance is flexible (not rigid like basics).
  • Fists guard the body and point towards the opponent ready to punch, snapping back to this position after attacking. Hikete is used (withdrawing hand) for more speed and power. However, the withdrawing hand leaves the body exposed, and so techniques should only be delivered with hikete at a decisive moment, or use the oppositve hand to simultaneously block.

Strategic counter attacks


Kizami-zuki (lead jab)

  • A close range, explosive technique. In defence against opponent's oi-zuki (lunge punch) or ashi-barai (foot sweep), thrust forward attacking jodan kizami-zuki to nullify their attack, spoiling their distance and timing. This requires courage as you are countering without blocking.

Gyaku-zuki (reverse punch)

  • This is a major scoring technique in competition, and it is powerful because of hikete. Increase reach by lowering your stance and driving hip in. In defence against kizami-zuki, use palm sweeping block whilst swaying upper body and face back, moving weight over rear leg. Then drive forward with rear leg and gyaku-zuki before opponent can return to kamae.

Oi-zuki (lunge punch)

  • Stepping may be to slow and can be telegraphed by opponent. Use front stance with bent leg to assist forward movement. To increase reach, the front foot can land in line with the rear foot, twisting the torso so that the chest is facing sideways. Time punch when foot lands, stamping into the floor 'applying brakes'. Alternatively, punch before or after landing you foot to upset your opponent's timing, making it more difficult to block. Avoid pull back of front foot which increase distance and telegraphs to opponent.

Uraken (back fist strike)

  • Use as a counter attack only as it is an inherently weak by very fact technique. In defence against mawashi-geri, parry opponent's kick spinning them around, then use uraken.

Kicks and foot sweeps

Kicks are more powerful and have greater reach than hand techniques. Their weakness lies in the standing on one leg and how to recoil of the blow affects your balance. Kicks are also slower than punches and easier for the opponent to anticipate and respond to. A strategy to avoid this is to raise your leg but not to indicate the kick i.e. bringing your leg up to the side for round-house kick, as in basics, leave the head vulnerable and should be avoided in free-style; an abbreviated (economical) mawashi-geri should be used instead. High kicks require good hip and leg flexibility; know your own abilities and limits - exceeding these can be to your disadvantage.

Mae-geri (front kick)

  • Avoid telegraphing the type of kick - maintaining your guard, lift your bent knee to front, kick with the ball of the foot and drive hips into target, snapping leg back fast to avoid it being caught and swept on to the floor. Step forward after kick, using momentum to gain a strong position. Alternatively, use sole/heal of foot to do front thrust kick to stop opponent's oi-zuki as they approach by using your reach advantage, propelling opponent away from you. Timing and distancing will determine whether to use front snap kick or front thrust kick. Only use mae-geri at the correct distance, aiming stomach height to avoid kicking upwards in an arc.

Yoko-geri (side kick)

  • Avoid basic snap kick to jaw, which is effective but cannot be easily controlled and there is no clear route up in front of the opponent's jaw. Thrust kick off front leg, leaning back if opponent is approaching to increase distance. Kicking off back leg, raise it to the front then pivot on supporting foot, thrust hip in pushing all weight into kick and then return to stance fast. Avoid telegraphing by bringing knee up to side. In defence against kizami-zuki, move to side and block open handed then use side kick.

Mawashi-geri (round-house kick)

  • Use the instep rather than the ball of the foot, unlike basics. Avoid telegraphing by leaning sideways - raise knee to front as for mae-geri then turn hips and supporting foot. In defence against gyaku-zuki, withdraw front leg and block downwards, then attack jodan mawashi-geri with the back leg ensuring you are out of reach of the opponent's hands.

Ashi-barai (foot sweep)

  • Not a scoring technique in its own right, but can be used to unsettle opponent leaving them defenceless on the mat. Requires good timing and use of hips, a sense of opponent's balance and commitment. Consider opponent's weight distribution to decide which leg to sweep. As an attack, use a sharp decisive kick low down on opponent's front leg with the instep or sole of the foot, aiming right through the target. Set up opponent first by moving slightly to the side so that their feet appear on a single line to upset their balance. In defence, use a sweep to the supporting leg with your calf muscle after catching opponent's kick before then can land their foot on the floor. If they attach with oi-zuki, use your sole to sweep their leg towards you before they can lock their stance. Follow up the sweep immediately with a scoring technique e.g. a punch or stamp. A slight hesitation may give the opponent the opportunity to counter attack or roll away on the floor.