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Article 1:The Concept of Sparring

Article 2:Stances and hand placement

Article 3:Combinations, combinations, combinations

Article 4:The Four Fundamentals of Sparring:Speed, Distance, Power, Timing (Already written, read here)

This is part one of a 4-part series to layout the fundamentals of sparring. In equal measure this series will 1) provide great insight for beginner practitioners (as in those who have never sparred before) of stand-up fighting styles and 2) provide instructors with a logic and flow to teaching sparring from the ground up. This latter concept is important as most instructors simply allow students against each other and start from there—the equivalent of telling a student to “punch” before they have taught that same student how to make a fist. This article has the greater goal encouraging instructors to take a more deliberate approach to their teaching.

Note to instructors: Put your pride aside on this one; avoid the inclination to not use this material because it came from someone else.Feel free to use this method as your own.Moreover, realize that while the basics may be from me, the delivery of the material, to include filling the many gaps, will come from you, supported by your experience and knowledge.

The Concept of Sparring

Sparring, also known as kumite, is something that ALL martial arts practice.You name it, they all do it.But for the purpose of this article I am going to confine it to sparring for traditional stand-up styles, namely karate, tae kwon do, and the like.Before a student dons their first, glove, it is critical that they first understand philosophically:why we spar, the strategic mindset of sparring, and the active mindset of sparring.

I went through about a dozen of my books looking for inspiration on the concept of sparring.I found in Louis Mikelson’s book (Aegean Park Press, p. 129), “Ofall the various aspects of training, sparring is perhaps the facet that more than anything else helps to develop and test one’s combative skills.”Sparring takes the hand strikes, kicks, and blocks that we have practiced in stationary positions over months and years and puts them into an unpredictable environment within which we must prevail. Sparring allows us to do this in a safe manner without risk of serious injury (key word “serious,” as injury in sparring is not avoided completely) and in a situation in which opponents are not emotionally adversarial.By sparring opponents are able to help each other reach new levels of expertise.Beneficial by-products of sparring include (please comment with others):

  • Builds appropriate aggression in passive individuals

  • Develops appropriate control for overly aggressive people

  • Builds self-confidence, particularly in children

  • Cardiovascular development and fitness

  • Hand-eye coordination

Sparring is Chess not Checkers

In my mind the absolutely most important concept that instructors emphasize to beginning sparring students-- and intermediate sparring students if they haven’t been introduced to it yet--is this one:

Sparring is strategic, like Chess, not tactical like checkers. This concept will fundamentally guide them each and every time they step in front of an opponent.

Most practitioners who spar step into the ring with no concept on what they are going to do. Upon hearing the command to begin they attack, letting the action dictate their moves. This is completely wrong. The fight has to start before they get into the ring. They need to develop a mindset that sparring is about creating an opening to execute a winning strike. Now the chess analogy. Chess is about actively engaging within the layout of the pieces on the board and thinking 2-3-4-5 moves ahead of the opponent. “If I move here, he’ll move there, then I’ll move there, he’ll likely move there, then I’ll move there and checkmate.” This is the mindset that will lead to becoming an exceptional fighter.

Quickly observing an opponent’s habits, how he holds his hands, execution of repetitive techniques, how limber the opponent is, how fast or slow they are, how close they are to me…and then converting these observations to action. Most—as in almost all—students who spar, be it for competition or as part of training, see it almost as an opportunity to turn their brain off. Analogous to sitting down to a friendly game of checkers, rather than sitting down to a though-provoking game of chess. I emphasize to beginning students to avoid this NOW; when you enter the ring, think strategy, think active engagement…literally talk to yourself “OK, he’s thrown that left round house the last three times, I’ll do this next time.” Whatever it takes, just turn on your brain when you enter the ring. Play chess NOT checkers.

Lastly, is a corollary to the concept above being that when you spar, make it an active effort not a passive effort. I know that most students see sparring almost as a simple outlet where they can exercise while practicing karate. This should not be the case. Actively participate in sparring as if, it is a life or death situation or “do or die” scenario in a tournament. Be disappointed if the opponent gets a point in. Put together the physical and mental duo to outsmart your opponent. Outsmart them deliberately. Each time you score a winning blow, you should be able to say “I meant to do that.”

Next article:Stances and hand placement

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