Friday, 16 December 2011

The Pillars of Taekwondo training Part Three; Sparring

In an earlier post I mentioned "The pillars of Taekwondo training". I defined them as Basic techniques, Forms training, sparring, self defense and breaking.(The post I am reffering to can be read by clicking here:)This has long been the format of what is usually labeled "Traditional Taekwondo" and I thought that I should write a little more indepth about each "pillar" this time. In this the third part of this rant I will look closer on what many consider "the third pillar" of Taekwondo training namely Sparring. I would recomend readers to go through this series in the order they came out. Click here to go to part one (Basics), and here to read part two (forms/poomsae).

Sparring (or Kyorrigi in Korean) has and is often viewed as the most important part of training in the mainstream Taekwondo comunity. Once basics can be performed at a reasonably level of competence the students start sparring. Traditionally Taekwondo students would not spar until they reached 4th geup (red belt in Taekwondo or a brown in Karate) but these days students often start sparring the first practise session they attend. Sparring is frequently viewed as the most "live" part of our training regimen but in Traditional Taekwondo there are several different kinds of sparring practise. To most dojang around the world today the word sparring equals to "competition sparring" but to a traditionalist it can be any number of things. I belong to a group that calls itself the TTU or Traditional Taekwondo Union. It was founded in the mid 90s to preserve many of the traditinal values and trainingmethods that was rapidly dissapearing in the WTF/Kukkiwon comunity. In our curriculum we have these kinds of sparring practise. Here is a list of our "formal" (fixed) sparring:
  • Three step sparring (1-8)
  • Two Step sparring ((1-8)
  • One step sparring hand techniques (1-8)
  • One step sparring foot techniques (1-8)
  • One step sparring combination techniques (hand, foot and self defense 1-8)
  • Mechigi (losely translated as throwing) (1-8)
  • Seated sparring in formal kneeling posture (1-8)
  • Example of formal or "fixed" sparring
  • Seated sparring in a chair (1-8)
I think that covers the first group of sparring. These are all fixed and formal types of sparring, but we are not done yet. Before I continue if you are reading this as a "traditional Taekwondo student/instructor"; how many of these kind of sparring excersises do you do at your Dojang? I do agree that these might seem like an awful lot to memorise but they are gradually learned a little for each belt promotion so for us who study this system it is not so overwelming as it might seem at a first glance. They all serve different purposes and each can be seen as limited if you only focus on one part, but together they are good to have in your training regimen.

The next catagory is the sparring kinds that are not formal or "fixed".
  • Competition olympic style sparring
  • Traditional style sparring
  • Free sparring
Competition olympic style sparring is what most people in the Taekwondo world today would label "free sparring". That might seem absurd when you think of just how limiting the ruleset is. I do not think I need to go indepth for this kind of sparring excercise as it is extremely well known and documented. Just go to youtube and search for taekwondo in the olympics and you will see what I mean. Many critics label this as "leg fencing". I will let the reader decide. Allthough it is very limiting it also teaches a great deal of value and is relatively safe to praticipate in. You have full contact and you can really use those kicks that you have been practising, but you can forget about hand techniques though. It is extremly good for conditioning and stamina as well as developing other attributes like distancing, timing etc.

Traditional style sparring is the kind most prevalent in the old Kwan before the race to the olympics began. Here you have kicks delivered at all heights, punches to the face, knifehands, and all the bread and butter techniques of the forms are used (the blocks kicks and strikes) at all the heights of the body. It is much less limiting then the olympic style. As this is more inline with the training in the old Kwan I label this as traditional sparring.

The next is free sparring. Are you pracitsing throws and such as part of you Ho Sin Sul (self defense) training?? Well here there are no rules. It is free sparring. You use what you seem as appropriate. The oponent kicks high? You kick low, the oponent grabs your dobok to follow up with a throw? You perform a release technique and lock to hold him before finish him with a strike. Obviously the participants need to take care not to injure the partners. For instance you do not need to elbow the oponent in the face as you could just simulate it. The partner must then acknowledge and respond as if he were elbowed in the face. maybe stagger a little and if the "elbower" wants to finish with a throw he will not resist as much as if he were not hit by an elbow.

The last two sparring kinds are not done frequently or even by all the TTU Dojang, but a Dojang that says it practise Traditional Taekwondo SHOULD practise sparring in other formats than just competition style sport sparring. As the sport part of our art is a very modern and new part of the art as a whole it stands to reason that any Dojang that only use competition style sparring practise "sport Taekwondo" and not "Martial art Taekwondo". It could be reasoned however that the inclusion of "formal sparring" as a method to teach combat (allthoug limiting) is closer to the old Kwan than the ones who do not.

In my younger days of training I thought that the formal sparring was a direct application on the techniques used in Poomsae. After all we did use the fundemental movements in both Gibon Dongjak, Poomsae and now in sparring (allthough formal). I even heard this to be true from black belts during seminars. Training three steps was seen as practising the practical meaning of Poomsae. I now know this not to be true in most cases. Most formal sparring uses the kick, block punch hard style Taekwondo of old. I do not know when these formal sparring kinds were developed, but I can say that the first works of Funakoshi did only have sparring from seated position in them and not until the most famous edition of the Karate Do Kyohan published in the 1950s you have three step, one step sparring etc in print.

Not all teachers say that three step sparring is for poomsae application either, they make the point that three step sparring is for distancing and timing + coordination and conditioning, while two step sparring (usually a hand attack followed by a foot attack) are for foot hand coordination, one step however are frequently seen as the more traditional self defense training in Taekwondo. In our one step hand techniques the blocking and attacking hand works together and not seperate as many other schools do. Also the defender never moves backwords as in three and two step sparring. The defender either moves to the sides at 45 degree angle or (almost) straight ahead meeting the attack and stopping it before it gains full momentum. This difference in our one step sparring vs three and two step sparring does make me wonder if the one step sparring was intended for self defense training, as they are remarkebly closer than the other two forms of sparring.

One step sparring foot techniques are a whole different ball game. I like to think of this as a truly Korean part of Taekwondo, that is highly influenced by Taek Kyon if not directly imported from the art. Here we have defenses using only the feet. This might not be what you would call "street worthy" techniques, but they are great for the "do" part of Taekwondo as they increases the range of motion and stretches the muscles.

Dollyo chagi/roundhouse kicks
Olympic sparrings most used technique.
The most important part of all of this is that the instructor clearly identifies the training goal of each form of sparring so there is no confusion in the students mind. It would be catastrophic if the student tried using the foot defenses against a face punch instead of using more conventional and functional methods to deal with the attack. Taekwondo is a "Do" art (or else it would be called Taekwon:-p ) and as such its focus is not only combat efficiancy, but also health and well being. To be 70 years old and still have good range of motion and ease of movement is a great asset that Taekwondo masters can enjoy. They might not nail the jumping side kick, or do the full splits, but going through the Taegeuks for instance with kicks in the groin height would be nice.

I might go into more detail of the formal sparring kinds (illustrations and videos) that we use at our dojang in the future, but I hope you got a glimpse of how much diversity Traditional Taekwondo really contains. The next part of this series will focus on Ho Shin Sul or self defense. Click here to go directly to the next part of this series (Ho Sin Sul/ Self Defense)

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