Randori (乱取り) is a term used in Japanese martial arts to describe free-style practice. The term literally means “chaos taking” or “grasping freedom,” implying a freedom from the structured practice of kata. Randori may be contrasted with kata, as two potentially complementary types of training.
Although in karate the word kumite is usually reserved for sparring, some schools also employ the term randori with regard to “mock-combat” in which both karateka move very fast, parrying and attempting acts of extreme violence with all four limbs (including knees, elbows, etc.) yet only ever making the slightest contact. Total control of the body is necessary and therefore only the senior grades can typically practice randori. In these schools, the distinction between randori and kumite is that in randori, the action is uninterrupted when a successful technique is applied. (Also known as ju kumite or soft sparring).
Another description likens randori to the play-fighting seen in dogs. (Source here, emphasis mine)
I believe that it is for this reason that continuously flowing sparring with light contact is not only useful, but essential in martial training. In our Academy, and in many goju kaiha, this type of sparring is called “randori” – a term taken from judo.
Randori allows you to experiment and put yourself in positions where you can learn. Depending on your favorite, tried and trusted techniques doesn’t give you a chance to grow, no matter what discipline you practice.
Put another way, if you are always fearful or conservative, how can you do anything other than repeat your past successful movements? If you try something new it could mean a broken tooth, jaw, elbow, finger in they eye, etc.
In our Academy we have always believed in randori as an essential aid to training. It is not “real fighting” – it isn’t intended to be. It occupies the same role as play dogfights – a chance to learn without injury. To learn about your strengths and weaknesses and develop new skills in a controlled environment.
The ultimate goal of randori training is learn to realize the possibilities presented in a fighting situation. Because the practice is controlled, such that no damage is done by successful attacks, participants are free to be creative in their technique without worrying about the consequences of a bad choice. The creativity learned through this process is what develops the “sixth sense” so many associate with skilled practitioners of the martial arts.
The intent of our randori practice is for both training partners to explore the possibilities open to them and take part in the learning experience. At some point we actually seem to transcend worrying about who “wins or loses.” What is really important is good technique and taking care of our partner while we both learn.
We first learn randori by going very slowly with movements full of intent but with relaxed muscles. The use of power or brute force is discouraged. When we sense a need for more power it means a change in direction and body relationships is required. All of us make the mistake of trying to overcome force with more force as we are learning. During the learning process, though, we come to understand that adding force and speed when something isn’t working only exacerbates the problem.
The only “cooperation” or agreement in our practice is for uke (the giver) to provide an attack full of intent (no matter what speed and power is being used) and to continue to be dangerous to tori (the taker). Tori blends with the speed, focus, intent, and energy of the attack, gains the lead and ultimately “fits” whatever waza (technique) that naturally happens. If the technique isn’t successful, then uke attempts to turn the tables on tori. Uke and tori continue to make moves and counter moves until something happens which can’t be countered.
After much quality practice our randori leads us to spontaneous creative decision making where things just seem to happen out of nowhere. This is the essence of true budo. As experience and skill levels increase, the ability to train at full speed and power is attained.