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The importance of free sparring

Some schools free spar and some schools don’t. An opinion held by non sparring schools it that our style is not capable of being used in a sparring environment due to the severity of the moves and counters.

This may be true and I am not one to questions their root theories, what I would like to do is present a case for including some form of sparring, grappling, or free-form contact.

The reasoning for presenting a case for free-form sparring is that it allows the student to deal with a cause and affect type environment. This free-form thought process is important for building student confidence and strengthen their core combative skills. It is not necessary to try and use all a student’s skills, only to provide a platform to develop specific skills. It is also not necessary and not encouraged to present the sparring as an “I win you win” encounter. It is important to focus on providing a learning experience.

When doing repetitive structured drills, all students be them the aggressor or the defender will develop a since of commonality to their actions and it can be difficult to get the student to commit with full intent.

One school I attended followed the model of single step sparring. In their scenario they would do one action and one action only with an opponent or two. Each person took their turn blocking and or striking and then the next person would take their action. A participant was allowed to do a block and strike but it had to be a unified action, not a two step move.

This method was greatly beneficial in building body dynamics and core rotation. Invariably the students would get closer and closer to each other until they were in biting distance. The student was encouraged to look for “gifts” and exploit those gifts.

In example, a gift would be a hand/arm left in an extended position. The opponent could then simply grab the extended fingers and apply a grab/takedown or elbow leverage pin. In looking for these gifts you became more aware of the opponents body position and tended to spend more time planning your next move and thinking how will the Uke respond to my strike or block.

A limitation of this low impact one step method was the lack of force and the lack of concern for being punched in the face or really struck with any force. Invariably the students could end up in a grappling position playing the “I am stronger than you are shoving match”. The more senior belts were aware of this tendency and would break contact and restart the drill and focus on the cause and effect of their and their Uke’s actions.

 This method allowed students to experience a free-form method of contact without the possibility of major injury and still utilize their more damaging skills.

A method I use is the hands only or legs only sparring. The goal here is to not beat down your Uke but instead focus your strikes by using a single element of your tool box. Not having your arms to block changes your mental process into one that makes you disengage and reengage with different timing and distance rules.

When you are in the hands only position facing a kicker only partner you would think that you could simply close the distance and work over the Uke. This is not necessarily the case. The Uke learns very quickly to not let you engage and tends to float around your desired engagement distance. This requires the hands only person to learn to bait and pin down the kicker. How this is done is by using your grappling techniques to disrupt the kickers balance and ability to move.

All these methods are not an end all method to helping the student to develop a free-form though process but they do help lay a foundation away from the stand in a straight line and punch or kick and then respond.

A statement I heard years ago really made an impact:

“The process of getting hit or being thrown to the floor when not expecting it is a great learning tool.”

I have remembered this and tried to apply it to my training and teaching.