I think there is a lot to gain from actually making contact starting at about 5th Kyu, or earlier if working with a sensei.
Note: This is part of my working Shodan Thesis. It may change in the final publication.
The second primary focus of this paper will deal with the decline of contact when learning karate. I am not, and have never been, a proponent of instructors beating up their students and calling it “part of karate”. That being said, I think there is a lot to gain from actually making contact starting at about 5th Kyu, or earlier if working with a sensei.
Many people get interested in Karate and then learn that they have a lot of fear of being hit to overcome before they can train correctly. Being afraid of your partner will make it impossible to gain much from training. By becoming used to making contact, karateka will be more prepared for later training that almost requires it.
Kumite is a term that means fighting. In Karate most school will start their students off with Ippon Kumite (one point sparring) and gradually move into Jyu Kumite (free sparring). The intent is to have students focus on one move and one counter at a time in Ippon Kumite so that by the time they begin fighting without set movements they are able to adapt. Contact should follow this pattern. Students should practice making light contact in Ippon Kumite so that when they begin Jyu Kumite they are not shocked by the sudden change in the physical nature of Kumite.
As I progressed through my Kyu ranks, one of the common requests was to be allowed to spar. At my original dojo, the standard rule was that no one sparred before achieving at least 5th Kyu (five belts from black belt). There were very select times as a 6th Kyu that we were allowed to spar with very light contact to get a feel for the idea, under intense supervision. As I progressed and the school moved we began to shift to a policy of allowing anyone (with a waiver) to spar under supervision. I believe this to be a well-intended step in the right direction, but perhaps too big of a step. As was mentioned above, students should be introduced to basic sparring concepts and Ippon Kumite which leaves little to chance, but Jyu Kumite where anything can happen should wait until a karateka reaches 5th Kyu and is able to both attack and block with a decent level of efficiency.
In a standard Karate tournament in the United States’ Midwest requires competitors to wear head gear, hand pads, foot pads, and a groin cup for males. With safety and lawsuits the primary concern, this is completely understandable. Nonetheless, it limits your preparedness for a real fight. In actual fights there are no pads. You would not train to be a police officer using a water pistol, why would you train to defend yourself wearing pads? By 3rd Kyu most students should be at a level of control that they could participate in one point tournament style sparring. Attacks should be meant to score the point, rather than injure the opponent. This seems dangerous if the karateka do not know what they are doing, but that is why rank should never be given out.
Black Belts introduce Kyu Ranks
Another common practice I see plaguing karate is the practice of having two lower ranked karateka spar each other during their first match. This is borderline reckless. Karate, like anything else, requires practice, both experimental and theoretical. You can teach someone how to punch 100 times, but the first punch they throw will be more beneficial to their learning. When two new karateka spar each other without any experience, they are unaware of many things such as their strength, reach, and targeting, to name a few. For those reasons, it is always advisable to have someone who has had many matches introduce someone who has not to sparring. I require my students to have a black belt as an opponent for their first 10-25 sparring matches. This allows them to develop a comfort level. After that they are encouraged to work with people of their own rank who have also had introduction by a black belt. This keeps things safer and more productive in my experience.