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How to Teach and Learn Three Step Sparring

Three step sparring, or sam soo sik dae ryun in Korean, is a drill used in Tang Soo Do and many Karate styles to build up the necessary skills for sparring while maintaining control and safety.  Students start out with one step sparring, ill soo sik dae ryun in Korean, at a very early rank but don’t start three step sparring until much later.

One step sparring is when your partner executes a single, straight punch and you perform a pre-determined counter technique.  Three step sparring is just an extension of this with your partner executing three continuous punches while taking three consecutive steps towards you.  You then move or defend against the first two punches while countering with a pre-determined technique on the third.

Both one step sparring and three step sparring are intended to build the following key skills:  distance, timing, and targeting.  For more details on the purpose of one step sparring and/or three step sparring, check out the previous articles I’ve written:

Purpose of One Step Sparring

Purpose of Three Step Sparring

I will not go into detail on why we do one or three step sparring as that was the reason behind the articles linked above.  The purpose of this article is to go over how to teach, train, and learn three step sparring to get the intended benefits of the activity.

When was first taught three step sparring over 30 years ago, there was not much to it.  At a certain rank, around green belt, we just started doing one steps with three punches instead of one on occasion.  Eventually we just got the hang of it.

Unfortunately, I see many instructors and studios still doing it like this.  I also hear about more and more instructors getting rid of three steps altogether because they don’t see the value in them or because the students dislike them.  Whether or not students like them is irrelevant.  There are many things in life we hate but do anyway.  If you don’t see the value in three steps or think that you get the same out of them as you do with one step sparring and they are therefore redundant, you don’t understand why we do three steps and need to read this article thoroughly.

While there is nothing wrong with just letting students do them and learning as they go, there is a better way.  With an efficient, systemized approach to teaching and learning three step sparring, you will minimize bad habits that require fixing later.  You will also have a better understanding of what you are doing which will make you a better practitioner, as well as a better fighter.

On a side note, I feel many studios and instructors have the same approach towards free sparring; put the gear on and go at it.  Worse yet, I hear of studios sparring only once a month or less because students don’t like it.  Again, what students like is irrelevant.  I have an efficient, systemized approach to free sparring that will help alleviate student’s fears while also improving their skills.  That will be the topic of a future article though…

The first thing to understand about three step sparring is that the final technique is irrelevant.  The final techniques we do in three step sparring are the same as those that we do in one step sparring.  Three step sparring differs in that it is all about how we get to the end.  

In addition, we must understand that three step sparring is for intermediate and higher ranked students.  The reason for this is that beginner students need to learn several different ending techniques (aka one step sparring techniques) before tackling three step sparring.  Three step sparring teaches you how to get to the inside and outside using various evasive angles.  Knowing only one or two techniques will limit the student’s ability to understand this concept.

With these two points in mind, we can implement a systematic approach to training in three step sparring.  The following is the approach I use to teach three step sparring.

Step 1:  Footwork Only

In three step sparring, there are 3 ways (not directions, ways) in which we can step.  These are: full step, shuffle step, and angle step.

A full step is when you step backward linearly by picking up your front foot and placing it behind your rear foot, making it your new rear foot.  Your stance switches when doing this.  I like to think about this like walking.

Full step for sparring movements

A shuffle step is when move backward linearly by picking up your rear foot, pushing off of your front foot, hopping backward, and sliding your front foot back.  You keep the same foot forward when doing this step.

Shuffle step for sparring movement

An angle step is when you step inside or outside of your opponent at any angle relative to the centerline.  This could be a full step or a shuffle step.  This step is typically done on the third and final punch of the series.


Step 2:  Stationary Blocking

In step 1, we isolated the footwork.  In this step we are isolating the hands for blocking.  Just like with footwork, there are different ways you can block.  To practice this, have students face each other in a horse stance.  One student will be designated as the puncher and the other the blocker.

The puncher will execute continuous center punches, alternating hands.  The blocker will execute blocks as follows:

  • Outside/inside blocks to outside of the wrist
  • Outside/inside blocks to inside of the wrist
  • Inside/outside blocks to outside of the wrist
  • Inside/outside blocks to the inside of the wrist
  • Alternating outside/inside block and inside/outside block to the inside of the wrist – right hand only
  • Alternating outside/inside block and inside/outside block to the inside of the wrist – left hand only
  • Alternating outside/inside block and inside/outside block to the outside of the wrist – right hand only
  • Alternating outside/inside block and inside/outside block to the outside of the wrist – left hand only
  • Freestyle blocking – no pattern, just use all the blocks above

The puncher will start off slow and pick up the speed if the blocker will allow it.  Do each method 30-60 seconds.


Step 3: Moving punching and blocking

After isolating the hands and feet in steps 1 and 2, we can now put them together.  This step will consist of doing three step sparring without the final technique.  In addition, the instructor will give the students a pre-determined step/block pattern.

To perform this drill, one student will step back as the puncher and the other student stands ready as the blocker.  The puncher will step 3 times, executing 3 punches and the blocker will step back 3 times, executing 3 blocks.  The students then switch roles.

I like to have students perform preset blocks/steps in increasing difficulty as follows:

  • 3 full steps with 3 alternating outside/inside blocks to the inside of the wrist
  • 3 full steps with 3 alternating inside/outside blocks to the inside of the wrist
  • 3 full steps with 3 alternating outside/inside blocks to the outside of the wrist
  • 3 full steps with 3 alternating inside/outside blocks to the outside of the wrist
  • 3 shuffle steps with alternating outside/inside and inside/outside blocks to the inside of the wrist – right hand only
  • 3 shuffle steps with alternating outside/inside and inside/outside blocks to the inside of the wrist – left hand only
  • 3 shuffle steps with alternating outside/inside and inside/outside blocks to the outside of the wrist – right hand only
  • 3 shuffle steps with alternating outside/inside and inside/outside blocks to the outside of the wrist – left hand only
  • 2 full steps/1 shuffle step with lead hand blocking to outside or inside of the wrist
  • 2 shuffle steps/1 full step with lead hand blocking to outside or inside of the wrist
  • 2 steps (shuffle or full) with lead hand block to either side/1 step to inside 45-degree angle
  • 2 steps (shuffle or full) with lead hand block to either side/1 step to outside 45-degree angle
  • Allow students to step and block in whatever combination/pattern they choose

Step 4:  Continuous flow

In this step we take the final round in step 3 a little further.  The puncher will execute 3 punches and the blocker will execute 3 steps/blocks.  The only difference here is that there is no reset.  The student who was the blocker will start executing 3 punches immediately from their last position.  The students will continue this back and forth with no resetting. 

Start off slowly but allow students to build up speed and timing as they get proficient at it.  The purpose of this drill is to build timing and speed.  There should be a continuous flow between the two students with no hesitation.


Step 5: Traditional Three Step Sparring

The fifth and final step is to do three step sparring the traditional way by adding the counter technique(s) to the end of the three punch sequence.  By following the 4 steps prior to this step, students will have learned how to step, block, develop speed and timing, and should be more confident in executing the full technique.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I use this building block approach to many aspects of training.  Stay tuned for upcoming posts on how I use this approach in other areas.

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