The Relationship Between Point-fighting and Self-Defense

A post on Iain Abernethy’s excellent forum inspired this exploration of the age-old debate about the value of point-style sparring—often called point-fighting or tournament karate—in learning self-defense.

Most martial artists know that self-defense and point-fighting—or any combat sport, for that matter—enjoy a fraught relationship. The strategies, tactics, and desired outcomes do not overlap perfectly, although the skills and attributes that lead to success in point-fighting can improve one’s chances of surviving a self-defense situation.

Martial arts teachers and students must carefully study and remain mindful of the similarities and differences as they train so they can adapt what they’ve learned to what the circumstances require.

Point-fighting Rules

The rules for point-fighting vary from tournament to tournament, but generally, they include:

  • Competitors wear padded gloves, boots, helmets, and mouthpieces. Some tournaments mandate chest protectors.
  • Men wear groin cups and supporters.
  • Competitors can only strike legal targets with light to firm contact. They cannot jolt an opponent’s head back. Excessive contact can lead to penalties or disqualification.
  • When a judge or referee sees a competitor land a clean strike to a legal target, the referee stops the action and calls on the other officials to confirm the point. If a majority of officials saw the technique land, the fighter gets a point.
  • At the end of the round, the fighter with the most points wins.

A Brief History of Point-fighting Rules

Before critiquing the rules of point-fighting, it helps to know how they arrived here.

All rules governing martial arts competitions attempt to serve two irreconcilable goals: safety and realism.

Making competition too safe drains it of realism—without the danger of injury, students lose the incentive to block or avoid attacks, and they fail to prepare themselves for real-world encounters.

Making competition too realistic causes unnecessary injuries, particularly to smaller or less-experienced students. Bigger, stronger students learn only what everyone already knows—that they can impose their size and strength on others, and that fails to prepare them for when they lack those advantages.

The path to finding a balance between safety and realism in point-fighting took a long and winding road.

Karate began to evolve from a pure self-defense system into a competitive sport with the end of Japan’s ban on karate training on Okinawa. Karate practitioners wanted to test their skills against each other, and as they did, rules resembling kendo (the way of the sword) competitions started to take shape.

Early karate students trained with the same mentality as kendo students. In his autobiography, Karate-do: My Way of Life, Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of the Shotokan karate style, recounted the maxim of his instructor, Azato: “When you practice karate, think of your arms and legs as swords.”

In other words, early karate students regarded each strike as deadly. We can see this mentality in karate kata, or formal exercises, where practitioners learn to end encounters with powerful, decisive attacks against imaginary opponents.

In that context, the resemblance to kendo sparring made sense. In a sword duel, a single strike can kill or maim a person. Combatants cannot emulate boxers who might take three or four jabs to land a big left hook if the weapon coming at them is a blade, not a padded fist. They have to end the encounter with a decisive blow before the opponent can strike them.

When American military personnel who trained in karate on Okinawa returned to teach the art in the United States, they brought those sparring rules, and the principles that undergirded them, with them.

Early competitors fought bare-knuckle, full-contact bouts in what we now call the Blood and Guts Era of American tournament karate.

Toward the end of the 1960s, injuries, insurance companies, and state athletic commissions must have forced the rule changes that made bouts into no-contact events—techniques needed to stop short of landing to score, and techniques that landed resulted in penalties or disqualification.

If full-contact, bare-knuckle (and barefoot) sparring presented too much danger for competitors (or insurance companies and state athletic commissions), the no-contact rules also proved unsatisfactory. Competitors didn’t learn how to focus hard, decisive techniques or absorb contact. In fact, by banning contact and the pain it caused, tournaments eliminated a fighter’s incentive to block or avoid an opponent’s techniques. Protecting fighters in competition made them far less safe against criminal assaults.

Then Jhoon Rhee, the father of American tae kwon do, invented the safety equipment that, with minor modifications, tournament fighters still use today. Fighters still need to defend themselves against their opponents—the vinyl-dipped foam gloves and boots take most of the sting out of a technique but not all of the thud. It reduces cuts, particularly on the forehead. This allows fighters to land light techniques without badly hurting each other. (It also allows tournaments to escape the heavy insurance, licensing, and other requirements of state athletic commissions, which frequently govern full-contact combat sports like boxing, kickboxing, and mixed martial arts.)

Point-fighting Rules and Self-defense

Bouts under point-fighting rules can help prepare karate students to defend themselves, but imperfectly—especially against an assailant who inherently disrespects rules in general. Point-fighters must first remember that the rules that protect them and their opponents in competition do not apply in real-life self-defense situations.

Because the small and weak seldom prey on the big and strong, all martial artists need to learn how to overcome larger, stronger opponents. The light-to-firm contact limitation obviously does that by giving smaller students a chance to learn without subjecting them to unnecessary injury risks. But it also forces larger point-fighters to rely on speed, skill, strategy, and endurance, not sheer physicality.

While one weaponless martial arts technique will seldom kill a person, boxing has shown us many examples where a single, decisive punch ended a fight, even when delivered inside a twelve- or fourteen-ounce glove. Many a boxer cruising to a seemingly easy victory quickly found themselves facing a ten-count on the canvas due to a moment’s carelessness or a lucky opponent.

Point-fighting rules emphasize that a single strike can end a fight—especially against an armed or much larger assailant—the odds of which can increase when an encounter drags on. Point-fighting teaches competitors to repeatedly land decisive techniques before their opponents do—and how quickly their fortunes can turn when they don’t.

Despite the emphasis on landing single, powerful techniques in point-fighting, students learn that the best way to do that, as in other combat sports, is to set them up with combinations. The breaks called to score points sometimes interrupt and discourage combination attacks, however, so many point fighters could learn how to do this better—in part by hitting a striking target or through continuous contact sparring, such as in Olympic tae kwon do or kickboxing (bearing in mind those sports’ own imperfect relationships to self-defense).

Despite the reduced injury risk afforded by safety equipment, point-fighters still learn that getting hit hurts. Point-fighting, then, forces combatants to defend against attacks and condition their bodies against impact (for example, through sit-ups).

Light-to-firm contact in point-fighting obviously fails to emulate the full contact of a real-life encounter. Point-fighting doesn’t teach fighters to strike through their targets or learn how to take repeated, heavy impact from an assailant. Students can learn the former by hitting a punching bag, makiwara, or focus mitts, and develop the latter, again, through strength and conditioning exercises.

While point-fighters can learn much from Thai kickboxers, Thai kickboxers frequently fall off-balance or spin into dangerously vulnerable positions when their opponents avoid their leg kicks. The emphasis on controlled techniques in point-fighting teaches tournament fighters not to do that.

Point-fighting, like all combat sports, emphasizes winning—beating or outscoring an opponent. Self-defense, however, emphasizes survival. In physical self-defense training, you don’t learn to knock out or subdue assailants, but to hurt them badly enough that they decide you’re not worth the trouble and let you escape to safety. Point-fighters need to remember this difference, and learn when and how to break off an encounter and let the flight instinct take over from the fight instinct.

Trained martial artists will attack differently in competition than unarmed assailants, and point-fighters will need to learn how to defend against the latter, not just the former. A trained martial artist, for instance, will more likely size up the reach of your legs and respectfully stay out of their range until feel they can attack you without you hitting them first.

This positions fighters outside of punching range. Because most fighters cannot kick to the head, the biggest threat is a kick to the body. This is why many point fighters keep a low guard with their hands—to block kicks. When opponents step into punching range, however, the threat moves from the body to the head, and this can expose point-fighters’ faces to dangerous punches if they don’t shift their guard upward in time.

An untrained assailant may not know an intended victim has martial arts training and thus might not bother to remain out of kicking range. They could attack before a point-fighter has a chance to employ their kicking advantages—perhaps through a surprise attack from behind. And they’ll probably strike more to the head than body, requiring the higher guard positions that boxers employ.

Point fighting, along with other combat sports like boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, and mixed martial arts, places competitors in one-on-one contests. In a real-life self-defense situation, assailants may work in groups, and the tactics that might prove effective against one attacker could prove disastrous against several.

Addressing Point-fighting’s Shortcomings

Point-fighting develops speed, strength, timing, endurance, flexibility, and courage—benefits that will serve martial artists well in life, not just competition or self-defense. But if point-fighting can help people learn to defend themselves, it cannot do it alone. Fighters need to make significant adaptations to what point-fighting teaches and allows to make it an effective self-defense training tool.

To do that, point-fighters must supplement their training. Learning and drilling different interpretations of kata, as Iain Abernethy calls kata-based sparring, can help make point-fighters more well-rounded martial artists and improve their prospects when they need to defend themselves in close quarters. So can cross-training in aikido or jujitsu, which, with kata-based sparring, can teach how to defend against multiple opponents.

Training in fundamental boxing and Thai leg kicks can teach additional close-range self-defense skills. An actual self-defense class might help lay out some of the differences and fill some of the gaps in even the most experienced karate practitioner’s training.

Point-fighters can find in their sport one of many valuable tools that, properly used, can help address their self-defense needs. It can also augment other self-defense and sport-combat training methods and diminish their shortcomings. Practitioners simply need to keep their minds open, critically examine how they train, and never stop exploring where tournament fighting and self-defense overlap—and where they don’t.