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Violence Prevention: More Fight in the Dojo, less Fight in the Street

Violence prevention is a major part of Karate. The one who trains in Karate becomes less prone to be violent. The reason for this is that Karate comprises of two aspects other sports usually do not offer: The experience of controlled violence as an attacker and defender as well as the regulated setting for learning how to deal with violence. A good Karate education with regular Kumite makes children, adolescents, and adults less violent. Therefore, more fights in the Dojo means less fight in the streets. By Thomas Prediger

The Violence Prevention Paradox of Kumite

From a violence prevention standpoint this may sound odd: more fights in the Dojo leads to less fights in the street. But every experienced Karate teacher will make the same observation. Let’s say, for example, that an aggressive and violent adolescent joins a dojo. The young person has difficulties controlling his anger and gets into fights on a regular basis. But after some months or years the adolescent calms down, gets more control over himself, and starts reacting less emotionally and more rationally in stressful situations.

One school teacher reported to me recently: “We can clearly see which students attend the Karate group in our school, and which do not. The ones who train Karate twice a week have become calmer, even when they are provoked or bullied. Even when another student hits them they maintain their cool and do not let the situation slip out of their hands. One year ago, they would go ballistic.”

No child, teenager, or adult from an unstable and challenging background with many years of experiencing violence will become Gandhi over night. But Kumite helps them to understand themselves and violence in all its facets. Eventually, they learn life-skills “that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life” (WHO 2012: 29) and which aggressive and violent people lack most of the time.

Kumite: Violence in a Structured Environment

What is the concept of violence in Karate and Kumite? At first, one experiences violence through physical pressure and contact. When two Karateka face each other even in the simplest form of Kumite like Gohan Kumite, the Uke (defender) has to defend his or her position. Tori, the attacker, has to put pressure on Uke by attacking with speed and power. The more advanced the Karateka become, the higher the likelihood that an unblocked attack will cause pain and injuries.

However, Kumite takes place in a very structured environment, unlike a street fight. Adherence to rules prevent the Kumite from becoming a brawl. They are structured in a way to evoke certain actions.

Kumite as Role Play

Gohon, Sanbon, Kihon Ippon, and Jiyu Ippon Kumite are all settings for role play. One plays the role of Uke, while another plays the role of Tori. Both roles are equally important. One has to execute violence in order to understand what happens when one does it. Especially in Kihon and Jiyu Ippon Kumite one also has the role to take and to cope with violence inflicted on oneself. In such a situation one cannot act based on raw instincts. First, Uke has to analyze and understand the situation. Second, Uke has to react within a prescribed set of techniques.

This role play offers an interesting insight: The Karateka cannot avoid the situation. Thus, he or she has to deal with it. Through this pattern, Karateka learn to deal and experience both roles: Being an attacker and being a defender.

The outcome is twofold: They see what happens when they apply violence, and they experience what happens inside them when they become a recipient of violence.

Introspection and Self-reflection

To master this inner state of uncertainty, any Karateka will need Kihon training. During Kihon, which requires introspection and self-reflection, they become aware of their own physical and mental processes.

But the prerequisite for the deeper understanding of violence is physical contact. Tori must step into the physical comfort zone of Uke. One must learn to deal with the intruder, and not become stressed by the opponents behavior. Especially at the beginning, Gohon Kumite requires courage. One must stand and wait until Tori attacks. Uke is not allowed to retreat or flee. So, Tori sets the pace. Thus, Uke must control his or her impulses and reactions. Maybe the intuitive reaction would be to run away or to attack. Both are prohibited.

The highest form of the role play is Randori like Jiyu Kumite. It increases the complexity and degrees of freedom for both Karateka. It is a double-role setting where both Karateka are Uke and Tori at the same time. Depending on the rules, dangerous punches and kicks are allowed. Hence, Randori requires experience and skill to manage one’s emotions and impulses to be successful. It is not a brawl. The winner will be the Karateka who manages the unpredictability of the fight, not the most aggressive one. Literally translated, Randori means “chaos taking.”

During training the Karateka will become acquainted with different violence situations. The exposure to violence in a controlled setting trains their understanding of violence.

The Role of the Instructor in Kumite Training for Violence Prevention

What is the role of the insctructor during the process? Karate is rule-based, but not self-structured. Thus, the instructor has at least two functions:

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  • First, the instructor must be trustworthy and a role model. Students will follow when they believe that the instructor has experienced what he or she teaches.
  • Second, the instructor must recognize when situations become too intense. Then, the instructor has to intervene immediately. That does not mean that the instructor stops the exercise. Rather, it means to redirect the rising tension. The instructor has to create situations that push the students out of their comfort zone so that they experience some stress. That requires some experience and education on the part of the instructor.

A good Karate instructor is, therefore, somebody who knows situations of high emotional and cognitive uncertainty for Karate students. That counts even more for students with a history of violence as an aggressor and/or victim.

Kumite teaches Life-Skills, which lead to Violence Prevention

What actually happens to a Karateka during Karate and Kumite training that leads to violence prevention? They learn, improve, and strengthen their life skills. In its briefing about Violence Prevention from 2012 the World Health Organization ranks life skills as one of seven major factors for the reduction of violence. But what does the phrase “life skills” mean? According to the WHO they mean:

“abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life.” (p. 29)

The list of life skills that prevent violence:

  • Self-Awareness: self-esteem and confidence building, self-monitoring, self-evaluation, goal setting, etc;
  • Self-Management: anger and stress management, time management, coping skills, controlling impulses, relaxation, etc;
  • Social Awareness: empathy, active listening, recognizing and appreciating individual and group differences, etc;
  • Relationships: negotiation, conflict management, resisting peer pressure, networking, motivation, etc; and
  • Responsible Decision-Making: Information gathering, critical thinking, and evaluating consequences of actions

Karate is one piece of a larger puzzle. All these life skills become habits during Karate and especially Kumite training. But it further depends on the social environment where a student is embedded, relationships to parents and caregivers, etc. But through Karate’s focus on etiquette and ethics, as stipulated in the Dojo kun and Niju kun, regular training can have a specific effect on violence prevention. Karate has the potential to create a value system for students in how to behave and abstain in violent situations.

Children and Adults Learn to Cope with Violence

Karate training has a high education value for children. They are a tabula rasa and must learn to judge their own feelings. The concept of violence is abstract for them. They know that violence in any form is uncomfortable.

But it also holds a high value for adults and violence. For Adults, who have had already experienced violence as a victor or aggressor, can also gain a more productive relationship to it. Most of the time they are blocked to talk and reflect about it because societal rules declare violence to be a taboo. This attitude leads to a counterproductive effect: It creates enormous inner tension that can lead to more physical violence. However, this tension has to leave the body and mind. Karate offers a relief and teaches the life skills to cope with it. Hence it has a huge effect on violence prevention.

Conclusion: Kumite and Violence Prevention

Violence stems from, among other factors, a lack of life skills. Karate teaches these life skills, and does so in a structured and controlled violent setting. Karateka learn through their education to deal with violence, to feel empathy, to understand the consequences, to control their fears and aggression, and to resist pressure.

In Kumite they develop these skills in actual violent situations in order to control and tame the violence. They training of Kumite mitigates violence instead of increasing it. Therefore, Karate has a huge potential for violence prevention and is a active means to help individuals to “deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life.” Hence, the paradox of more fights in the Dojo leads to less fights in the street dissolves. Violence prevention does not mean eradicating it, but rather, civilizing and developing an educated relationship to it.

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