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There can be broadly categorised four styles of karate kumite styles. In the tradition of eastern philosophy, they are named after the four elements Wind, Fire, Water and Stone.
Whilst these are stereotypes and not every karate-ka will fit the mould of just one, they do help us understand how we can play to our strengths and also develop our style of kumite to best fit our body type.
Typically Lightweight sometimes Medium weight.
Move like the wind. Wind fighters attack in strong gusts and as fast as they hit you they have gone again. And like the wind, you may sometimes anticipate a storm coming but you cannot detect the exact moment a gust will engulf you.
Usually Middle or sometimes light weight, usually tall.
Like the volatile and unpredictable flames of fire, this is the most spectacular of all styles.
In the immortal words of Bruce Lee “Be like water; water has form and yet it has no form. It is the softest element on earth yet it can penetrate the hardest rock. It has no shape, if you pour it into a cup it becomes the cup. It flows but then it can crash. Observe the nature of water my friend.”
Almost always heavy weight and if not they must have a strong body and powerful technique.
Like a stone, these fighters try to develop to be impervious to wind, fire or water and also have the power to roll over and crush them.
Developing a style to your kumite to help you play towards your strengths is an invaluable lesson. Let me explain this concept using some examples of contrast: I often see a small person of slight build and low strength trying to hold their ground against some one much bigger and stronger who easily drives them back. While the smaller person may be testing their skills if they are in the dojo, if they were “playing for keeps” they are pushing a bad position, they would be far better to evade and escape the encounter, rather than fight a battle that is all in the favour of the bigger opponent. Likewise I have seen a big but relatively slow opponent repeatedly try to lunge forward to attack a much lighter and agile opponent only to be picked off on the way in and the lighter defender then escapes away anyway. The bigger opponent should wait for the smaller opponent to get closer, even waiting for them to attack before lunging in.
The reason why someone would opt to push a bad position or use tactics which really don’t play to their strengths is that they haven’t really thought about what their strengths are or what kind of skills best suit them.
Being aware of the style that best suits you also allows you to develop your skills to complement your style. For example, if you are a slow mover you have to work on becoming excellent at defending and in particular counter attacking, (either that or work heavily on fitness until you become fast on your feet).
This may even lead you to conclusions you may not want to hear. I was talking to a student and they were saying “I don’t have the speed to be wind, I don’t have the reach to be fire, I don’t have the size or strength to be stone, does that mean I am water?” I answered “probably yes” they replied, “But I am not very tactical either.” To me their choices at this point are clear, if you don’t have abilities or “natural advantages” that lend themselves to being good at kumite, becoming tactical is a clear way you can develop an advantage. Or train harder to develop skills, speed, flexibility or strength to give you an advantage.
The last thing that understanding these styles helps you with is seeing the weakness in all of them. Use this to firstly exploit the weaknesses of your opponents style and secondly to be aware of and try to eliminate the weaknesses in your style.
Again these styles are not absolutes, although I constantly observe karate-ka who fit these stereotypes I also see those who don’t but are still very successful and confident.
When I was a coloured belt I worked very hard to master my style “wind” and these skills and abilities still serve me very well but as a black belt, your goal should be to become a more rounded fighter incorporating if not mastering elements of all the different styles. After all what if two stone karate-ka come up against each other? There are two answers: you will either see who is best at being stone OR you will see who is the most adaptable karate-ka.