Why Don’t You Spar?

For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Dusty has a blackbelt in CTF Taekwondo as well as To-Shin Do.  So, he has experience training in an art that puts emphasis on “Free Sparring.”  He isn’t making this decision without understanding both sides.

When most people talk about sparring, they are talking about putting on padded gloves, padded feet, maybe a chest protector and most likely a padded helmet.  Once you’ve done that, they line you up, make you bow to each other, touch gloves and begin.  By begin, this means you and your opponent are expected to attempt to punch and kick each other for a preset amount of time or until the instructor calls stop (Go-Mon!)  Sometimes, if you belong to a tournament participating school, you will get to keep score to see who wins the fight.  Scoring is always based on legal striking areas and legal striking techniques or on who successfully applies a submission technique or who can throw their opponent onto their back the best.

This kind of sparring is wonderful in a martial art that is focused on winning within the rules of a sport.  It reinforces the rules of the sport and helps the student develop the skills needed to win at the sport.  To a limited extent, it even prepares the student for a real world situation where his skills are needed.

In my eyes, there are two major problems with this kind of training.

  1. It relies heavily on both participants being the aggressor.  There are no good guys or bad guys in a sparring match.  There is only you and your opponent.
  2. The techniques used are limited to “legal” techniques.  An attacker on the street will only be limited by what they know as far as violence.  It won’t matter the rules of your dojo.

These are urgent concerns in the realm of personal protection.

How do we rectify this in our martial art?  By training with a hands on attacker from day one.  When we practice, we don’t practice solo.  We can shadow box solo, but we always have an Uke to train with us, to give us living energy.  We train with more than one person so as to get a different energy.  A different expression of the threat presented.  We go into our training knowing that failure is an option, especially if you’re the Uke for the exchange.

But we never practice at full speed.  That wouldn’t be safe.  We do, though, practice with full intention.  As “bad guys” we attack with the desire to do harm, not just play tag.  Not just to prove I can throw a punch faster than you can avoid it.

How, then, can we practice an unscripted fight?  Where the winner doesn’t know what their attacker will do?

Two Words- Free Response.

Students get a taste of unpredictable violence when they earn their Yellow-Black belt.  They have learned the various threat concepts for their level and now they have to identify and diffuse them.  Attackers get to choose their own attacks.  This allows us to eliminate both of the issues I mentioned earlier.  Because there is a defined Uke and Tori, only the bad guy has to be aggressive.  Because the student has learned the concepts behind the attacks, they don’t have to be cardboard cutouts of the practice in class.  This allows us the freedom of training realistically while maintaining a safe, non-competitive environment.

Here’s an example of free response.  If you pay close attention, you may actually recognize some of these students.