Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Thoughts on sparring

(Ramble alert:) I have been thinking more and more on sparring and its role in taekwondo. In most
modern taekwondo dojang (taekwondojang) sparring is in reality based on competition rules. If you do more kicks than punches, if you do no grabbing, no sweeps, no low kicks etc when sparring then that is the case in your dojang wether you admit it or not. There's nothing inherent wrong in this, as long as we can freely admit it, the trouble comes when people start to equate what is essentually sport sparring with real life violence.


Now I will be the first to admit that the Dojang I have belonged to these last 19 years do practise our free sparring pretty much competition based, allthough we do tend to include more hand techniques than what you might see in a modern olympic style sparring competition. Originally however taekwondo has martial roots, and the pioneers seems to have had other goals or another place for sparring within taekwondo than what the current competition based sparring provides,

If you go back to the 1960s for instance you might find views like this one: «One of the ultimate objectives of Taekwondo training is free style fighting. Of course, free style fighting is a substitute for the real ultimate of Taekwondo, self-protection against any attack at any time under any conditions» (Son & Clark 1968 p 267). This view obviously places free sparring into a preperation for self defence and not as a means of competition. What has changed since 1968 is that taekwondo has specialized into striking only, the goal being to defeat another taekwondo-athlete using mostly kicks at a long distance. This specialization is not something that has only occured for taekwondo, based on my research it looks as if this is part of human nature and this is the natural evolution for martial arts. Some keep their eyes on the goal, and if that goal is self-defence you will probably see a well-rounded system. That system might specialize at certain skills, but they will have some grappling and some striking, they will probably not be so specialized that they only strike with their feet as most modern olympic sparring taekwondo does, or hands like modern boxing does etc. 

In the root arts of taekwondo when the martial arts was a matter of life or death, trained for civillian self-defence or for millitary application the arts seems to have been fairly well rounded. Western Boxing included throws, locks, trips, elbows, etc as a part of their normal repetoire. Today we only see the arms used. Likewise other arts has evolved into a specialized art in modern times. One very grappling oriented art that at one time was designed for self defence among other things was Judo. Today it is the prime example of a martial sport and most casual readers might be surprised that Judo included strikes as part of their syllabus in Kano's time. In fact I will share with you a lengthy quote from Kano where he laments how the sparring done in Judo had evolved away from self defence preperation into sport specialization to win a match.

"Randori practise (sparring) page 139 in "Mind over muscle" By Jigaro Kano founder of Judo

The reason for the kinds of abuses that have arisen today is that people have forgotten that randori practise means fighting in earnest. If one fights in earnest, a stance in which you lower your hips, spread your legs, and tilt your head forward is extremely disadvantageous. Both your face and your chest are voulnerable to your opponents atemi (strikes). It is also diffucult for you to move quickly to fend off your opponent's attack. 

Atemi (strikes) is not used in everyday randori practise (sparring practise) only because it is dangerous, but you must nevertheless practise with the expectation that your opponent may attack using atemi (strikes) at any time.

The failure to give sufficient consideration to this is at the root of today's mistakes."

When I first read this I was struck at how fast Judo had evolved for the founder of Judo to recognize the change so vividly. Judo for Kano was ultimatly for self defence (fighting in earnest). He admits that sparring is not the real thing because he has done away with striking (atemi in Japanese) so sparring for them is grappling based where the participants are safe from strikes. He never meant this omitting of striking to be used to tactically change sparring into specialized strategies where your aim is to beat a grappler. If you do not want to be thrown and there is no chance of being struck emplying a low wide stance makes sense if your aim is to beat a grappler that wants to throw you. He specifially laments this evolution of Judo sparring. This mirrors taekwondo sparring exactly. What are the main gripes of traditionalists when it comes to modern taekwondo sparring? Its a high upright stance, hands hanging down at the sides, only kicking each other. In other words we are seeing the exact same problem in modern taekwondo sparring that Kano saw in Judo sparring, but funnily enough it is the other way around. We will never encounter anything resembling grappling so we employ tactics and strategies that work because we will never see any grappling. 

Another point that I should make here is that there is nothing wrong in using a limited sparring rule set to base sparring on. We should be critical however on how the "rules" for safety affects the training, and if your goal is self defence oriented we should be VERY mindful on the shortcommings of sparring and not use the "rules" for our own gains. Once that happens we start seeing the problems. Modern boxing punching defences works in the sport environment, but there are no gloves to hide behind when you remove the sport aspect. Sure it will be better to hide behind the guard than doing nothing, and evasion will still work, but once those gloves are off you have to adapt. The hands hanging down at the sides is something you can get away with in modern olympic taekwondo simply because we do not punch to the face, and we have time to lift our hands if a kick is comming. We can withdraw one hand to our hip without anything in it in modern shotokan sparring simply because the rules says we have to, and it is not full contact sparring etc. We see the same thing again and again once the rules are used to gain advantages and we lose the overarching goal: self-defence. 

I hope this rambling was of any interest to you :-)

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