"Football in a Karate Suit".

The other day, my three-year-old daughter spotted a cricket match on a local park. “Look daddy!” she exclaimed, indicating the men dressed in white. “Those men are playing football in karate suits!” “Foolish child”, I thought. ”How impractical that would be. The karategi is designed specifically for its particular job. Useless on the football pitch, but perfect for the dojo.” Then I thought again. “No it’s not. It’s riddled with faults.” That got me thinking. Why do we wear these daft get ups for training? Yet again, I fear the answer is “Well it’s always been that way”. 

So what’s wrong with the good old white gi? Where shall I start? 

Firstly, the fabric. The traditional canvas is far too heavy for effective comfortable athletic pursuits. Any extended activity can lead to chafing, especially around the armpits and the neck. The weight alone restricts movement, but when laden with sweat how many of us have found our kicking ability restricted by the gi sticking to our thighs?  And canvas! The label on my Japanese- imported, hundred quid uniform instructs me to “cold wash only”. Yeah, right. After two hours of sweat, tiger balm, blood and grime from the floor ingrained in a heavy canvas material, I’ll gladly take Shane Bloody Ritchie up on his doorstep challenge! So what do I do? Wash it cold and watch the thing go murky grey after three weeks of training, or wash it hot and gamble on which phenomenon renders it useless first - the rotting of the stitching, yielding an expensive pile of rags; or the whole thing shrinking to a size such that I can pass it on to my daughter as pyjamas? 

And the cut! The wrap-around design has caught many an unwary thumb. The drawstring around the waist is near impossible to free once soaked in sweat. You have to be a Houdini to get undressed after a heavy session, and it takes half an hour to adjust your groin protector, or answer nature’s call because you can’t get into your trousers!  I suppose it would add another fifty quid to get a fly sewn in. Then the fabric around the waist bunches up as you tighten the drawstring. More chafing, rubbing and discomfort. Nice. The sleeves can allow fingers and toes to get trapped. The jacket never stays done up. The little ties that hold it in place either come untied or fall off with wear. For those of us whose karate involves grappling, one little tug will ensure the detachment of those little ties. 

The belt. Regular readers know my view on the ranking system, and the potential problems of the black belt. Part of the problem is the oriental mysticism that surrounds the whole karate scene. The gi and obi are saying to the occidental practitioner, or observer; “Look at us. What we are doing is mystical, mysterious, maybe magical”. 

What about footwear? These days mainstream sport is practised in high-tech equipment and modern materials from head to foot. Good athletic clothing optimises performance. It does not restrict it. For the self-defence devotee the emphasis should surely be on realism. That means clothing that reflects the attire likely to be worn in the environment where conflict is likely to occur. I don’t see that many thugs barefoot in my local, so realism is certainly not a key factor here. I have already hinted that barefoot training is inherently unsafe. For example, in most dojo the floors are likely to be slippery, splintered, or littered with debris. A decent pair of trainers will not only ensure the floor is not the enemy, but will protect the foot from injury from elbows, knees etc., and absorb the dangerous shock to the ankles, knees, hips and spine that a body weight impacting a wooden (even concrete) floor may impart. Furthermore, professional boxers would not even fleetingly consider hitting a heavy bag without taping then gloving their hands. So why do karateka think it’s safe and sensible to kick a bag with naked, unbound feet?

When I was a kyu grade we were made to run, barefoot around urban streets. I hope and believe this barbaric practice is now all but eradicated with the ubiquity of modern light weight, high-impact sports shoes, but who knows?… 

And now to the instructor. Why does the instructor have to wear the gi? A good coach needs to communicate his teachings well to the class. Being in gi tempts the coach to get too involved with the practice, to join in with the group. This both diminishes his authority and impairs his ability to view the whole group and make accurate assessments of ability. Often the uniform can give the instructor an air of mystique, and make him seem unapproachable. I suggest it’s an ego thing. The student is encouraged to believe that a good teacher must be a good doer, and the coach tries to live up to this image.

So what are the advantages of the traditional white do gi? Perhaps with everyone dressed the same, there is no room for prejudice, no social stratification in the dojo. Unfortunately this is not the case. There are gi with long pants, short skirts, long sleeves and all combinations. There are designer labels, various cuts, and styles, and a whole variety of fabrics available to the image conscious karateka.

So, we have a uniform that is impractical both in design and in construction. Worse still it perpetuates a myth that is damaging to the image of the activity, and to the practice. It misleads and confuses the public and practitioner alike, and deifies the teachers. Further it not only offers minimal protection from many of the commonplace hazards of karate practice, but can even present hazards of its own!

So are there alternatives?  Of course. This is the twenty first century. Lycra and similar man-made fibres are ideal for free range of movement, wicking away sweat to reduce discomfort, and warming the muscles. (Incidentally, for the technique-conscious, such fabrics allow much better visibility of posture and movement for the coach, and allow close scrutiny of such details as correct muscle tension.)

Training shoes protect the feet from debris on the floor. They protect the skin and bones of the feet when kicking a bag, and guard against shock to the skeleton via the soles and heels.For grappling, the softer, stronger jacket of the judogi, or, if you prefer the fitted jacket of the Sombo (or Sambo) uniform are far superior to the canvas karate jacket. Put the coach in a tracksuit too and you have a kit appropriate for the modern forward-thinking karate athlete. 

OK, you might feel a bit self conscious the first time you practice Sanchin kata in a Lycra unitard, but you don’t do karate for the good of your image. Do you?

Copyright: Martyn Skipper November 2001

Martyn Skipper holds third dans in Henka Ryu and Shotokan karate but has avoided the constraints of style by exposing himself to many schools and styles in 25 years of training. To contact him for seminars, or to discuss any issues from his articles, email him on: