Free Sparring

In our dojo we do not focus as much on free sparring as some other dojo in the area and you may be wondering why this is so. I'll try to explain. Some instructors argue that sparring on a regular basis is necessary for a student to hone his fighting skills. The student needs to know how to "get in" and "get out" of his opponent's range. He needs to learn where he must be to deliver an effective technique. Sparring will improve reaction time. I've heard all these rationalizations and quite a few more.

When you spend some time actually watching these bouts, you see what it is in reality. Where the instructor spars his students he uses the time to demonstrate to the student how much "better" he is at sparring that they are. This elevates himself in his mind, and passes the message to the student that "you have a lot to learn yet so don't get cocky." (It's OK if the instructor gets cocky though...) If a student should actually best this instructor, it is not unusual for the instructor to stop sparring with students so they can be the "expert," standing outside the mat area offering advice. Ego is the problem in both arenas. Both of these situations proceed from the false premise that sparring represents "real fighting" (and not a training exercise or game,) or that true karate can be reduced to a sport.

Real fighting must be done without regard for your opponent. He means to do you great bodily harm, or worse. He may be armed. You must end his aggression NOW, before he has an opportunity to succeed. You will act quickly with the fewest number of techniques to generate the greatest amount of pain in the shortest possible time. Given a chance you will break his arm, destroy his elbow, break his knee and possibly cripple him for life, punch his throat and possibly end his life. If you fail to strike when the opportunity presents itself the consequences will be severe - and possibly permanent.

In free sparring you cannot do any of this. By virtue of agreeing to spar, you agree with your partner that neither of you will permanently injure the other. You know that your partner has no real hostile intent. Even if you wear body armor, padding for your hands and feet, a mouthpiece, and full head gear, you will not destroy each other's knees, elbows, or other major joints. You will not punch the kidneys or the spine. A kick to the groin will be controlled. All of this you do because you know sparring is NOT real fighting. You are not defending your family, your friends, your country, your wallet, your life, or your honor.

Just as free sparring is not real fighting, approaching free sparring as a "sport" is equally wrong-headed. Real karate is a martial art. Mars was the Roman god of war and a martial art is an art of war. The first basic you learn is a straight lunch punch to the solar plexus. If delivered as intended this technique can be lethal. To reduce the effectiveness of this or any other technique, you will hold back or "pull" you punches and kicks. The exercise soon becomes little more than a game of tag. If you make a steady diet of this activity it will affect how you react in a real situation. After all, you will fight the same as you train. If you train with little or no focus, when you need focus you will not have it.

If all of this is true, can there be any benefit to free sparring? I have found only one. Kata can teach us to "get in" or "get out", to bridge the distance; basics will teach us the proper mechanics of each technique. For every argument for free sparring, a better argument can be made for increasing the reps of basics or kata - except one. The one thing at which free sparring excels is allowing the student to experience, react to, and learn to deal effectively with the unexpected.

When we spar in class we use the following rules:

  1. Protective equipment is encouraged. At the least, a mouthpiece and groin cup is required.
  2. We do not spar for "points." The proper attitude is one of teach/learn, where you will both learn and teach as you continue.
  3. Acknowledge the successful attack of your opponent by backing away momentarily and tapping the target area lightly a couple of times. This lets them know that they were successful and that there is no malice on your part.
  4. If you attack the same target on an opponent three times without them acknowledging it, back away from them, signal a time out, and let them know what is going on. Be open to the same message from your opponent.
  5. When the match is over reflect on what you have learned. Discuss it with your opponent and get his impression of the exchange too.

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