Variations of jiyuu kamae (sparring position)
By definition, a free-sparring stance/guard is “free,” or up to the individual. Some points should be considered, however, regarding the effectiveness of various possibilities. For example, what is best for a tournament may not be best for a self-defense situation.
Stance and Guard
The free sparring position should be a position from which you can move most efficiently & effectively between various techniques. This means that you should be able to move forward, back, to the side, up, down, block, strike, kick, etc., as quickly and with as little energy as possible. Many mistake this to mean that they should stand up, as to be able to move quickly & easily, forgetting about strength & stability. Even sprinters (whose final position is much closer to standing than when we punch) start their run very low to the ground. There is a reason for this. We should keep our stances low to allow us to move into all kinds of techniques effectively, which usually requires an ending position in a low stance as well. Furthermore, the low stance provides for more stability & strength. The point of relaxation is important, though, and we should strive to assume a stance which allows both freedom of movement and strength in technique.
You should notice that the best way to be ready for any and all techniques is usually to average them. For example, if you are doing a drill which requires you to block or punch (but you don’t know which until the final moment), you should probably be in a position midway between the two techniques, to be ready for either one. Now imagine all the possible techniques and average them. You should find that the resulting positions of the arms and legs are what you often see described as jiyuu kamae.
Why and how are self-defense and tournament stances different? In a self-defense situation, there may be more than one attacker, or some other stimulus of which the defender must remain conscious. Therefore, the awareness of the defender should be broadened and the feet/knees/guard “opened” as well. In a tournament, there are rules limiting techniques. We do not have to worry about multiple opponents. Nor do we have to worry about attackers grabbing excessively, eye-gouging, or kicking to the groin or knee. The various possibilities effect the ideal ready-stance/guard for that particular situation.
The positioning of our feet is really the biggest variable in our stances. The feet can move very close to each other or vary far away, whereas the hips, for example, have a relatively small range of motion. The direction the feet face is also important, limiting the movement of the leg and hip that are connected to the floor through them. In a self-defense situation, the feet may be pointed slightly out. In a tournament situation, it is usually advantageous to keep the feet facing directly front, or as close to it as flexibility allows.
The positions of the knees are limited by the positions of the feet. The knees should always move in a path dictated by the direction the foot is facing. Remember, if your knees hurt, you are probably doing something wrong; check for proper alignment. Keeping the feet and knees pointing directly toward your opponent in a tournament situation provides for more efficient technique.
The position of the hips is even more limited than that of the knees. To keep the knees completely motionless would mean that the hips could not move. However, through a slight movement of the knees along the path of the foot, the hips can move. And through a small movement of the hips, we can create much power. The hips are the connection of the legs to the torso. Proper utilization of the power of the hips is crucial for creating strong techniques.
This is an easy one. Back straight (perpendicular to the floor) at all times. Although easy to remember, sometimes difficult to do.
Once again, the ideal position is one that affords the greatest efficiency between various techniques. The average height of the hands should be around the chest level in a tournament situation, lower for most self-defense situations. Regardless of the height of the elbows and fists, or amount of rotation of the wrists, the elbows should be kept as close to the torso as possible for maximization of both speed and power. In a tournament situation, it is advisable that the forearms point as directly towards your opponent as possible.
Movement between techniques
The most important (and usually most difficult) part of applying techniques from jiyuu kamae is the proper use of footwork. There are several possible stepping patterns. But as with all karate practice, repetition of the most basic patterns is crucial if we wish to move on to higher levels. Remember, the distance between the feet is narrower in jiyuu kamae (than our basic stances); don’t try to narrow this too much further while stepping/shifting. Many people make the mistake of bringing their feet very close together while shifting forward to attack. Not only will this probably not score a point in a tournament–it may help your opponent bring you to the floor very quickly, due to the loss of stability inherent in such a maneuver! But remember, above all, jiyuu kamae is a tool to connect our basic techniques. No matter how fancy our footwork, if we cannot transfer this speed, power and agility to a final, basic technique, it is not worth much.
There are various related topics which can be studied in conjunction with jiyuu kamae training (timing, distance, etc.). Remember though, that before we should expect to be able to control someone else (dominate in a sparring situation), we should first be able to control ourselves as individuals, concentrating on proper technique.
Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published January 1998)