Taekwondo SparringBy Jennifer Shipp
I’ve taken Taekwondo classes from four different martial arts schools. I’ve attended classes at Kung Fu schools and Aikido schools as well as a school that taught Kenpo Karate. In each of these schools, I sparred with other students. Through my experiences sparring, I’ve developed my own philosophies about teaching sparring because people, or at least American students who take martial arts classes, tend to all behave the same way when they first start sparring.
There’s always a tough guy and there’s always a flimsy female who laughs every time she throws a punch. In a group of students who are learning a martial art, there’s always someone who’s terrified and another person who’s so pumped up and ready to strut their stuff that it’s inevitable that someone’s gonna get hurt. When you’re first learning to spar in Taekwondo, you’ll probably be paired up with some very predictable characters if you’re taking a class in-person. If you’re taking Taekwondo classes online, you may still encounter the same personalities among your friends. Either way, you need to establish rules in order to keep order and prevent tragedies that end in the emergency room. Sparring can be expensive and a liability issue if you and the people you’re sparring with don’t follow some code of respect.
Of course, the most important thing you do when sparring is wearing headgear, mouthgear, and at first, arm and leg protectors. But before you do full-contact sparring, you’ll want to practice no-contact or light-contact sparring. If you’re super excited about punching and kicking people, this may be a bit of let-down, but no-contact/light-contact sparring teaches control and before you win a fight with someone bigger than you, you need to learn how to control what you’re doing. The rule is: if you can’t control yourself, you can’t control another person. Learn how to hold back and you’ll also learn how to predict your opponent’s next move. The subtleties of holding back can help you spot micro-movements that your opponent is making that will give away his next attack.
When you do light-contact/no-contact sparring, you have to watch your opponent more and you have to exercise more care in executing your attacks. It may seem like a silly thing to do; to kick toward a target without ever actually touching it. But you can spend as many hours as you’d like kicking a bag at full-power if you’re concerned about your ability to follow-through. Light-contact/no-contact sparring is about learning to read the people you’re sparring with and to be watching so closely that you can change your mind mid-move to hit a different target if you suddenly realize that you need to use a different tactic. Being receptive is part of being an amazing martial artist. If you’re a giant brute of a man, you may not have to be receptive. You can just hit smaller people really hard. But even big men are sometimes the smallest in a street fight. If you wanna know how to defend yourself in any situation, begin your sparring attempts with light or no-contact moves.
If you’re new to sparring, as you practice no-contact/light-contact with a partner, be sure to be respectful to each other. Kicks and punches can come really close to making contact and may sometimes graze the surface of the skin or the uniform, but they shouldn’t be painful. At the same time, the strikes need to get close enough to the target that you (or your opponent) can react to them organically. A kick aimed at your head that ends two feet away from you isn’t something that you could successfully block and nor would you block it. . .a kick that ends this far away isn’t even a threat to you. In no-contact/light-contact sparring, the kicks and punches should get so close as to graze the skin or land perhaps only about an inch away from the target. Then, you’ll be able to react to them as though they made contact, which helps you build your blocking skills (and all those skills related to anticipating your partners next move).
Don’t compete for points with your partners because you’ll end up losing lasting sparring opponents over competitions that go awry. Instead, work together experimentally. If your partner is able to kick you in the face (it’s no contact, so you may see his foot, but you shouldn’t feel it), acknowledge it. There’s no need to deny it. Urge your partner to own up to getting hit by you. Observe yourself flailing at times. Observe yourself closing your eyes at the wrong moment. Teach yourself how not to do these things in the context of no-contact/light-contact sparring. Then, you’ll get better at it.
Finding respectful partners who will respect you too is key to learning how to spar and getting really good at it. You need to find someone you can experiment with to develop your own style. And practice using control at first before moving on to full-contact sparring with chest gear. There are some subtle rewards to light-contact work that you don’t want to miss out on.