The Development of Partner Drills
Many (although not all) martial arts styles include partner drills in their curriculum, but in some styles of karate the partner drills do not reflect effective karate at all, and this can be detrimental to a student’s understanding and skills over time. Partner drills are not new to karate, but many styles choose to develop new drills–some based on kihon, some based on kumite and some based on kata. Doing this is not inherently bad, but often these drills are only considered on a surface level by instructors and students alike, which causes them to be disjointed from the rest of the system.
Kihon Based Drills
Partner drills that are based on kihon waza (basic techniques) are typically very simple to learn and perform, but often have no goal–the karateka practices the drill for no other reason then to string together arbitrary sequences of strikes, blocks and kicks. If two people practice these types of drills, they may become adept at striking, blocking and kicking, but they will not have any realistic context for these techniques. They block in a certain way at a certain time because that is what the drill requires, but it may not be the most effective thing to do in the context of self defense or sport (depending on what you train for).
These drills have the potential to be very useful, but they must have a goal. If one chooses to incorporate kihon based partner drills into their training, the drills should be short and focus on how kihon waza should be used in a self defense context (or sporting context, again, depending on what you train for). Rather than an arbitrarily chosen sequence of techniques, everything should have a distinct purpose and lesson–one example would be teaching how to step off-line and counter different attacks using the most basic (but still effective) applications of karate techniques. It is also possible to utilize basic techniques against other basic techniques so that both partners can practice their kihon at the same time, but care should be taken to ensure that the drill is still realistic. Drills done in this manner provide realistic benefit from the very beginning, but also prepare students for more complex drills later in their training.
Kumite Based Drills
Partner drills that are based on kumite tend to be heavily sport focused, as most people who practice drills such as this do so to become better at kumite (kumite as a goal vs. kumite as a training method). These drills can have benefit for self defense training as well, but in many cases they are designed specifically for fighting another person trained in the same (or similar) style as the people practicing the drill. Often, these types of partner drills will work combinations of techniques intended to score points, but not necessarily end a confrontation, or they will work combinations intended to invoke and capitalize upon a trained response.
Some techniques used to score points in competition are certainly effective for self defense but others simply are not effective, efficient or smart. Some combinations that rely on trained responses can work in self defense because they invoke natural responses (striking the face tends to make people turn or lean away and cover their face, for example) but others will simply result in wasted time and energy in a self defense situation when your attacker doesn’t react. If you pare these drills down to what is effective in self defense, you will likely find that they are so similar to kihon based drills that you will not be able to tell the difference. If you are training for sport, however, then most kumite based drills as they typically exist should not need to be altered for any reasons other than personal preference and limitations.
Kata Based Drills
Partner drills based on kata are typically more complex than kihon based drills, and can also be longer and more difficult to learn and practice. Many modern kata based drills are based on sequences of techniques from kata, but utilize only omote (surface) application. Drills such as those are sometimes effective because the techniques happen to work in sequence at their most basic level (at which point the drill is really a kihon based drill) and sometimes they are highly ineffective because the techniques at their most basic level of application do not make sense together.
The only way to ensure that kata based partner drills useful is to utilize them for practicing kata application. The applications should be realistic and effective, and when practiced with a partner they should be used against realistic attacks. Unlike kihon based drills, where both partners may practice their basic techniques back and forth for mutual benefit, kata based drills must have an attacker (tori) and defender (uke), and the attacker must emulate real violence, which will generally not reflect training or proper form and can include verbal or physical escalation. These drills should also include contact, starting light and slow and over time becoming faster and harder, in order to impart realism into the drill.