The Purpose of Free Sparring in Tang Soo Do (Karate)

In part 6 of this series, I will be going over the purpose of free sparring, ja yu dae ryun, and how this aspect of Tang Soo Do training fits into the global self-defense system.  As three step sparring is an extension of one step sparring, free sparring is an extension of three step sparring.  The gap is much bigger between free sparring and three step sparring than between one step and three step sparring, however.  I have a solution for that though (more on that later).

Current State of Free Sparring

Free sparring in Tang Soo Do takes on many forms.  Many studios these days are focusing their free sparring training on tournament sparring only.  This is a mistake in my opinion.  Sparring by definition has rules: legal techniques, objective, level of contact, target areas, etc.  When you train in only one specific rule set, you greatly limit benefit of free sparring training.  What makes things worse is the rule sets many adhere to are getting more and more restrictive.  The majority of Tang Soo Do studios train in no contact sparring without hand strikes to the head.

Free sparring in karate
Free sparring in karate

This post is dedicated to the purpose of free sparring training in Tang Soo Do. It is not a rant on my sparring beliefs (although there will be a little more on that later).  Regardless of the rules you use in training, the following things still apply.  Even with very minimal restrictions and lots of contact, free sparring is not fighting.  It is also not self-defense.  It is another part of the entire self-defense system. Free sparring is not the end of the story, there are many more chapters to write.

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Distance

Free sparring teaches the importance of distance management.  Prior to starting free sparring, students learn how to manage distance up to a few steps at a time.  When free sparring, students are constantly required to maintain proper distance.  If you are too far away, you’ll be safe; if you are too close you can attack but are also vulnerable to getting hit yourself.  Free sparring helps students learn this balancing act.

Learning distance is like riding a seesaw, you need to find the correct balance
Learning distance is like riding a seesaw, you need to find the correct balance

Defense

Tang Soo Do is a defensive martial art by nature but using blocks and defensive movements is significantly different when starting free sparring.  Coupled with movement, blocks get shorter and quicker.  Blocks will also start to have different objectives.  Some are a check, some will grab, some will break posture, some will strike like offense, and some will just protect.  In addition, free sparring teaches students a proper guarding position and stance.  You can’t stand in ready stance and expect to not get hit.

Distance and defense are important first steps when learning free sparring
Distance and defense are important first steps when learning free sparring

Footwork

I like to combine footwork with defense and distance.  Free sparring teaches us there are different ways to step depending on our objective.  Covering more distance, moving quicker, retreating, attacking, and slipping are all different objectives that can be solved with footwork.  Free sparring teaches how to utilize footwork while maintaining proper distance and defensive positioning. 

Offense

Partner work before free sparring is primarily defensive.  Some punches, kicks, or grabs you and you counter with a technique.  Once you begin free sparring, you need to learn offensive techniques.  Doing poorly executed offensive techniques will open you up to getting hit in return.  Using concepts of distance management and footwork as a foundation, students learn how to properly execute quick, powerful, aggressive offensive techniques.

Free sparring starts teaching offensive technique
Free sparring starts teaching offensive technique

Timing/Countering

One and three step sparring gets students started on developing timing but free sparring takes it to the next level.  One/three step sparring utilizes a cadence that is fairly constant.  Also, it teaches timing with respect to only one technique, a punch (a very telegraphed punch).  When free sparring, students learn the timing of a wide variety of techniques done a number of different ways depending on your partner’s size, ability, and quickness.  In addition to timing, free sparring teaches proper counter technique.  Learning timing is critical to effective counters.  There is a plethora of different counter techniques that can be utilized when free sparring.

Strategy

One of the things I love about free sparring is the strategy aspect of it.  Prior to free sparring, everything a student has done has been pre-arranged.  You are now thrown into a situation that is unpredictable.  You have to figure out how to defeat this opponent (within the rule set).  When free sparring, you need to figure out what type of fighter they are: kicker, puncher, aggressive, counter, fast, powerful, etc.  You then have to determine the best course of action to combat this fighting style.  If something does not go as planned or your opponent throws you an unexpected curve ball, you must adapt in real time.  Free sparring is the chess match of Tang Soo Do.

Getting Hit

This may sound a little old school, but I am firm believer in teaching students how to get hit.  Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t line up students and just start hitting them one by one, nor do we have full contact gladiator matches.  I don’t believe in no-contact free sparring.  A controlled hit teaches students many things.  Without contact, how do you know your defense was ineffective?  When you feel it, you know you need to fix something.  

Even with a light contact hit, if you are not prepared for it, you can be adversely impacted by it (wind knocked out of you, knocked out, etc.).  Learning to tighten the core and tucking the chin are important skills to learn.  If you need to fight or defend yourself for real, you will get hit.  If you’ve never been hit and don’t know how to prepare for it, the fight will be over quickly, and not in a good way.

Physical/Emotional Control

This point goes along with the point above on getting hit.  Free sparring teaches students how to control their techniques in a non-prearranged situation.  It is much easier to control a kick or punch on a stationary partner than it is when they are moving.  Different partners will require different amounts of control.  Going against a bigger, stronger, more aggressive partner, you will need to hit them a little harder, so they get the proper feedback described above.  When you are sparring with a smaller, less experienced partner, you want to dial it back a little, so they are not scared, overwhelmed, or get hurt. 

Along with physical self-control, free sparring helps teach students how to control their emotions.  I have witnessed numerous real fights break out during sparring matches.  When you combine competition with hitting each other, it does not take a lot for one person to lose control.  If you treat free sparring as a part of your training rather than a way to dominate someone else, you will have a much more pleasant experience and see tremendous improvement.  The best fighters are not those who dominate others but those who can make their partner look good too.

Confidence

There is an inherent fear for almost everyone the first time they spar.  People are getting hit and it looks like real fighting, so it is natural to be fearful.  Overcoming this fear and training yourself to think clearly whether you win or lose will have a tremendous impact on building your conference. 

At the very beginning of this article, I mentioned that free sparring was the next step after three step sparring.  While this is true, I feel that gap is just too wide for most.  When I first started training, we did basics, forms, one steps, three steps, for months prior to free sparring.  Then one day my instructor would just throw you in a free sparring match and the free sparring learning began.  I think many studios still do it this way, the sink or swim method.

A Better Way

A better approach, in my opinion, is to start students free sparring from the start with more pre-arranged drills that include footwork, defense, and distance management.  Then start integrating some offensive and counter techniques.  After 6 months or so, they have built a small portfolio of techniques and can now start free sparring in order to apply those techniques.  As students progress, they continue to learn pre-arranged offensive, defensive, and counter techniques and can add them to what they already know.

I feel students should start learning free sparring concepts and skills from the very start
I feel students should start learning free sparring concepts and skills from the very start

At the beginning of this article I mentioned that many studios do free sparring training with only a tournament focus in mind.  I feel free sparring is a very broad and never-ending activity.  When students are first sparring, I think little to no contact and very restrictive rules are appropriate.  As a student advances, I feel more contact needs to be made and some rules need to be lifted such as allowing hand techniques to the head, kicks below the belt, leg sweeps, throws, clinching, and ground fighting.  As long as you teach these techniques and drill them prior to free sparring, there is no reason advanced students can’t do them. These skills will get them even closer to an actual fighting scenario.

This was by far the longest post in the series.  I feel very passionately about free sparring and its importance.  I also see many schools abandoning free sparring all together or doing very restrictive sparring as I’ve mentioned.

If you are interested, I have a series of online sparring courses that cover various aspects that I mentioned in this post:

Defense, Distance, and Footwork for Sparring

Offensive Techniques for Sparring

Counter Techniques for Sparring

Sparring Strategies 

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