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Sparring tips

Intro

Tips on sparring to help you become a better fighter.

Disconnection

When within range, if you move so that the opponent loses the ability to use one or both of his or her arms or legs freely, it is called disconnection. If the opponent's weapons are disconnected, you are free to score with less chance of being scored upon. For example, if you constantly move toward your opponent's weak side, your opponent must constantly turn to keep properly guarded. The opponent's front foot constantly must be picked up and moved while pivoting on the rear foot. This movement disconnects the opponent's rearfoot and partially disconnects the front foot. If you coordinate your movements properly, all your weapons will be free to attack.

Time is relative

  • For the attacker, it seems like a minute between the beginning and end of an attack.
  • For the defender, it seems only an instant.

Use your head

  • Where the head goes, the body will follow. So, if you want to move an opponent’s body, move his or her head. To move an opponent’s head, use all the available handles to your benefit, such as nose, ears, hair, piercing, etc.
  • If you lose your head, you lose the fight. If you lose your head emotionally, you will lose the fight. If you lose your head due to injury, you will lose the fight.
  • Keep your mouth shut. Thinking about talking means you are not thinking about fighting. Also, it prevents biting your tongue.
  • Keep your eyes open, even if it means watching the punch as it hits you.

Fighting dirty

  • For a midsection kick, trap it or spike it with your elbow.
  • In a clinch, keep your gloves over the opponent's face so he or she has difficulty breathing.
  • In a clinch or on the mat, use your chin to dig into your opponent's face or body. A few days growth of beard makes the dig more effective. The growth also helps attacks slide off the face.
  • In a clinch or on the mat, keep the forearm across and rubbing on the opponent's face.
  • While being clinched, hook kick around the side of the opponent and pull it back into the opponent, digging the heel into the back of the head or neck.
  • When throwing a hand technique to the face, like a hook, angle things so it hits with the bony part of the wrist rather than the fist since this area is not protected by the glove.
  • It is usually illegal to punch or kick an opponent who is down, so get the hits in quickly before the opponent gets to the mat.

Take initiative

Winning means knowing when to attack and seize the initiative. Opponents are vulnerable to a successful attack when:
  • They are thinking of attacking. This is the best time to take control and suppress the opponent's desire to engage in a fight. Convince them that an attack is futile.
  • They decide to attack. At this moment, the opponent's mind is preoccupied with sending orders to the muscles.
  • They begin the attack. This is the realm of the counter fighter. While the opponent is attacking, he or she is not thinking about defending.

Fight smart

  • Don’t just throw techniques haphazardly. Use the combinations you practiced in class. 
  • Use a combination once or twice, then use it again but change the last technique. 
  • Many fighters repeat certain combinations, so look for them, and use counters to score when they are used. 
  • Try using several hard body punches then fake to the body followed by an immediate kick to the head. 
  • Look for openings when they occur or make openings. 
  • The best fighters dance around, make quick combination attacks, counter any attack, and look for telegraphing movements or openings and react instinctively.

If you cannot avoid, then block

  • It is usually more desirable to avoid a kick than to block it. If you must block, you are in your opponent's kicking range.
  • If you block a kick, make sure it stays blocked.
  • Block with power so the kicker feels the block. People tend to avoid pain so if you make kicking painful for your opponent, it will probably discourage other kicks.
  • If you are effective at avoiding and blocking, you may frustrate your opponent and cause openings for your attacks.

Don’t show weakness

Don’t act frustrated, injured, or get angry. It gives your opponent confidence and may cause the judges to give him or her the "superiority" point.

Anticipation/perception

Anticipation is dangerous; it has much to do with guesswork. You are trying to presume or guess what an opponent will do and wait for it. You may get it right and your plan attack could work, but you could just as easily get it wrong. Anticipation is awaiting the future; it is not about what is happening "here and now."

Perception is not just about visual assessment, intuition, and guesswork. With perception, we feel as well as see. It allows us to do as little as possible or cut out unnecessary movement. If our perception is good, it will usually be right. Perception is seeing, feeling, and being in the "here and now."

Waiting

One of the biggest errors of novice fighters is to get close to an opponent and then wait for an attack, try to read it, block it, and then counter. This approach only works against novice opponents. Experienced fighters attack with combinations so even if your block and counter works, you will still get hit by numerous other attacks.

Don’t whine

If you are merely in pain, deal with it, and keep fighting. Don’t express pain to opponents; it gives them confidence and shows them where to strike next. It also lets the judges know your opponent got in with a good technique. If you are injured, it’s up to you and your instructor/coach as to whether you should continue. For an obvious injury, the referee may decide for you. You don’t see animals whining during a fight, they finish the fight and lick their wounds once it is over.

Basics

Stick to basics unless you are overwhelmingly better than the opponent. Tournament sparring is not the place to impress spectators with your expertise. Your only goal is to score more points on your opponents than they can score on you.

Power

In Olympic style sparring, you must have power. If you do not have power, then you might as well forget about scoring. You must strike your opponent with enough force to visibly “move" them for the judges to see or to cause the automated scoring to register the score.

Without power, you cannot score even with a technique that makes contact. To conserve energy, save kicks for the ones you want to score with. Add power to kicks by pivoting and using the hips. Don’t stop kicks at the chest protector. This will probably make a loud sound, but it will not score a point since it is not a "shuttering" blow. Try to punch a hole in the protector.

Do not try to hit "hard" when you punch. You will tense your shoulders and back and exhaust yourself quickly. Hit with relaxed speed using body snap. People who hit with tension tend to punch with just their arms, which do not have much mass. Use the entire body’s mass to punch. Tense fighters also tend to telegraph their punches.

Target the head

In Olympic style sparring, you must move your opponent to score a point. The head is easier to move than the body, so head kicks are more effective than body kicks. They are also more noticeable to the corner judges. However, your kicks must be controlled, and the contact must be light, or you might be penalized, especially if you are a color belt. In no-contact sparring, you receive more points for kicks to the head, but you must exercise good control since any excessive contract will result in a penalty.

Ignore garbage

In Olympic style sparring, don’t get so caught up in whether you get hit that you miss opportunities. Take a weak shot to the abdomen and counter with a knockout shot to the head. Never throw weak shots yourself.

Breathe

Fighters tend to get excited and nervous and hold their breath. It is important to maintain breathing and breath control to remain relaxed and in control of the match. One excellent way to do this is to kiai frequently and loudly. It forces you to take deep breaths, demonstrates a fighting spirit, and may demoralize an opponent.

Don’t stop attacking

Do not stop attacking after you score a point. You may think you scored an obvious point, but the judges may not have seen it, so keep attacking until told to stop. Likewise, when you are scored upon, do not stop your action; instead, quickly respond with counterattacks. The judges may not have had a clear view of the opponent’s technique and may be unsure if it was a scoring technique, but if you react as if it was a point, they may call it a point for the opponent.

Abdomen target

Many fighters new to tournament competition focus on the abdomen targets too much. First, because it is a low, many times exposed target, and then, since they are unsure of their control, they do not want to excessively strike the head. Also, many junior belts who try to go to the head too early in the competition are too restrained for fear of hitting their opponent. The abdomen is always a good target, but don’t get caught up in the competition and let it become your primary target in all situations. Learn to attack all legal targets.

Focus

Focus your physical (power), breath, and mental (kiai) strengths into every attack to instill fear in the opponent by showing a commitment to the axiom “one strike, one kill.” This also helps ensure that your adrenalin is released for power and endurance.

Know your opponent's style

Do your homework. Know your opponent’s style, strengths, favorite techniques, and weaknesses. Your strategy should be to become proficient in all areas so you will be prepared to act instinctively to the opponent’s favorite techniques. Your size compared to the opponent will be an important factor in your choice of offensive and defensive actions.

Shoulder shots

If hand techniques to the head are not permitted; then aim punches to the front of the shoulders since the center of the chest is usually well guarded.

Don’t telegraph

When fighters stand relatively still in the ring before they attack, they telegraph the attack. When fighters, without changing the rhythm or tempo of their movement, initiate their attack, they don’t telegraph the attack. Attacks should be like the way a fencer quickly and non-telegraphically closes the distance on the opponent. The attack should take the shortest route to the target without any preparatory or telegraphic set-up movements. As Bruce Lee said, "Use the longest weapon to the nearest target!"

Don’t concentrate on techniques or combinations

If you are thinking about a technique or combination to use, it may be the wrong one to use by the time you use it. Instead, concentrate on reading the opponent, watching for openings, and creating openings. When an opening appears, fire your nearest weapon into the opening and follow up with combinations that are appropriate against the opponent's blocks. Trying random techniques and combinations are a waste of time and energy unless there is an opening for them to score.

React

React, don’t think. During the fight, do not try to analyze your performance. Analyze your performance during the breaks between rounds (with your coach if permitted) and then put it into practice.

Exposure

Most fighting stances are too exposed. They are either facing to the front so you may fire with both guns or they are tucked away where it is difficult to use rear hand or leg techniques. When you give too much front exposure, the trade-off for being able to throw more angles is that you are more open to being hit. On the other hand, when you are too closed off, it is just a short step for your opponent to get around the outside of your lead foot, leaving you exposed.

The solution is a compromise. Draw a line from your rear heel through your lead big toe to the opponent's centerline (as in a back stance). Now you are in a position where with a small adjustment you may open up and fire away, or, with a small adjustment, you may close up.

Concentrate on a few kicks

There are countless kicks and combinations in taekwondo, but you only need a few of them to be successful in tournaments, such as the basic front, side, round, hook, and axe kicks. They are simple and more effective and efficient than other more "aesthetic" kicks, such as the butterfly, tornado, 540 side, etc. The most frequently used kicks are the round/roundhouse (most used), back, and axe.

Side kicks are used mostly by traditional fighters, but successful competitors may effectively counter these kicks. Kicks to the torso score points more frequently than kicks to the head score, but head kicks score more points. Spin kicks are the least likely to score.

Foot fighting

Do not get into a foot fight with an opponent. A foot fight is like a sword fight where swords are swinging around banging into each other with no clear injury to either fighter. In a foot fight, both fighters are trading kicks, wasting energy, and getting nowhere. Only kick when you see an opening, not in response to an opponent's kick.

Distraction

To pick your pocket, a pickpocket will bump into you hard enough that you feel slight discomfort and are distracted enough that you do not notice that the pickpocket has picked your pocket. Therefore, to distract and confuse your sparring opponent, use a slightly painful but quick less effective attack to one area to distract the opponent and then strike to another area with a powerful blow. A hard block to an opponent's attack may also distract him or her enough so a more powerful blow may be delivered.

Don’t step into an incoming attack

Do not mistakenly step into an attack. It hurts. You may step inside or outside an attack if you have an effective counterattack planned.

Fakes and combinations

Use fakes to set up other attacks but make the fake realistic enough that the opponent must react to it. If the opponent does not react, the fake should be effective enough that it may score. Always attack in combinations of kicks and punches, high and low, left and right, up and down. Always keep your opponent off-guard and confused. Fakes should be used sparsely and only when there is an intention to attack.

Fakes that don’t work

Don’t be concerned if most fakes do not work. Smart fighters move when you move. If you fake one technique to set up another, they will attack over your fake, catching you off guard. Or, when you fake, they may shuffle back increasing the range, so they are not there for your follow-up technique.
Be aggressive from the first moment

Do not wait to feel out your opponent, come out fighting and keep the pressure on. In the event of a tie, the first criterion for determining a winner is "Which one of the fighters demonstrated technical dominance?"

Footwork

Use your footwork to prevent your opponent from using his or her specialty attacks. Moving into your technique from a stationary position allows your opponent to predict your movement. If you are moving, you may move smoothly into your technique without losing any valuable time. Therefore, it is important to develop footwork that works for you. Footwork requires strong leg muscles and stability.

Missed opportunity

Never miss an opportunity to take advantage of your opponent's error. Maintain constant vigilance for mistakes. Even a well-trained opponent makes one or two mistakes in a match. If you create a situation that makes your opponent blunder, it is even better. As related to opportunity, use the strategy of Take—Wait—Create. Take an existing opportunity or wait for one to appear or create one.

Endurance

Endurance is paramount. A highly conditioned fighter with lesser fighting skills may defeat a more skilled fighter that has poor endurance by overpowering him or her with a multitude of techniques until he or she is exhausted and unable to block effectively or mount an attack. It is common to see participants who start aggressively and then tire during the last half of the match. You must have enough stamina to move and attack with full power during the entire match.

Time

Time is important. The goal is to end the fight as quickly as possible, but don’t rush. Every technique must be executed smoothly and quickly.

Don’t stop to admire your work

This happens when you focus on what you just did. A lapse in concentration, even for a split second, may cost you a win. Do not pause to admire your work or wonder why your last technique did not score. Develop a mindset that your task is to win, setbacks during the quest are not important, just focus on winning. Keep sparring until the referee calls break.

Be friendly but aloof before your match

Don’t give away your strategy and don’t let other fighters "psyche you out" before you even enter the ring. The most dangerous fighters are those that sit by themselves and mentally compose themselves before the fight. In general, the fighters who brag about their wins in the last tournament do not make it to the finals.

Do not allow yourself to be "psyched out" by the guy in the corner kicking the hand target paddle hard and fast. There is a big difference between hitting a paddle and being a good fighter

Miscellaneous

  • Don’t judge an opponent's ability by his or her appearance. You may be in for a rude awakening.
  • Every time you get hit, you learn something, even when you accidentally hit yourself.
  • The stronger you are, the harder you will hit. The bigger you are, within limits, the harder you will hit.

Use your eyes
  • Defocus your eyes so as not to concentrate on any one thing. Slightly crossing eyes may defocus them so you see the whole picture.
  • Keep your eyes open and the opponent in view.
  • Look through the opponent with a piercing vision.
  • Learn not to blink when attacked and use feints to opponent’s eyes to make him or her blink.
  • Keep your eyes on your opponent's upper chest. Do not watch your opponent's eyes or head. It is easy to fake with eye movements and head bobs. A common technique is for the attacker to look in one direction and move in another. The upper chest controls the arm muscles of your opponent's punches and is crucial for balance as he or she attempts to kick. By watching your opponent's upper chest, you will "see" punches and kicks before they begin.
  • Never take your eyes off your opponent, even if a punch is coming directly at your face. Try to slip it and while keeping your focus on the opponent.
  • Do not look at an incoming attack. An off-road motorcycling trick is never to look at a rock in front of you. If you look at it, you will hit it. Just be aware of the rock and take evasive action.
  • Don' t look at your opponent’s eyes, look between the eyes, that place called the third eye or eye of intuition. 

Don’t be distracted by extraneous movements

The primary movement that should concern you is a movement toward you since it decreases range and may be an attack. A secondary concern is a movement away from you since it increases range and may affect your attacks.

Strike like lightning

Taekwondo is known as a kicking art, but it is actually a kick/punch art. Blazing fast hands can score, intimidate, and set up kicks. Half the observed speed of a punch is not related to motion, but to the absence of motion, a stealthy punch score more than an obvious one. A punch should occur with no warning, pre-movement, or telegraphing.

Memorized combinations versus free form

When sparring, you can use memorized attacking combinations, or you can just go with the flow. If you practice a few attack combinations until they occur spontaneously, they may be effective against many different types of opponents. If you learn to "read" your opponent and react accordingly, you will become a much better fighter.

Balance

Always keep your balance. Never allow yourself to get into an off-balance situation. All blocks and attacks are ineffective if you are off-balance. Always keep feet at least a shoulder-width apart. We are earthbound beings, so keep both feet on the ground as much as possible. We cannot fly, so don’t take to the air except for the finishing touch to an injured, ineffective opponent.

More balance tips:
  • Balance is critical for power and speed.
  • You must keep proper body alignment.
  • Keep your weight centered between the feet.
  • Keep the heels light on the ground, with the rear heel slightly raised.
  • Always keep your knees bent.
  • Keep your center of gravity steady.
  • Don’t over-commit your balance into an attack.
  • Balance comes from subtle body movements; don’t use arms for balance, they are for protection and attack.
  • Do not have too wide a base; it is too slow. 

Breath control

  • Make a sharp exhale during the technique with a momentary stopping of breath at impact. Inhaling tends to relax muscles while exhaling contracts them.
  • Do not hold your breath during a technique.
  • Do not inhale during a technique. It impedes movement and results in a loss of power.
  • Breath through your abdomen, it keeps the center of gravity low.
  • Use disguised breathing. Disguised breathing is a psychological strategy used to conceal signs of fatigue or to feign fatigue to deceive an opponent into attacking too soon.
  • Be aware of the opponent’s breathing; watch for habits such as taking in a short quick breath before attacking and try to attack when the opponent is inhaling
  • Breathe deeply, fully, and slowly in through your nose and out through your mouth to help you remain calm and help you focus your attack.

Empty the mind

Be natural, instinctive, and detached from intellectual processes and free of distracting thoughts. Always maintain full alertness, concentrate the mind, and show no weakness under stress. Free-sparing is not only a physical battle, it is also a psychological duel between two opponents.
When the match begins, be ready to abort any strategy you have in mind in favor of an instinctive response. Avoid being too rigid, have a flexible and receptive mind, and be patient to see what happens. When the opportunity arises, react without hesitation and with conviction.

If you are defeated, you have no cause for regret. If you win, remain calm and prepare yourself for the next opponent.

Specialties

A good kicker is hard to score on with kicks and a good puncher seldom loses by being outpunched. This is because each fighter has a deep understanding of his specialty and therefore, knows all the tricks that may be used against him or her. For example, after having practiced thousands of repetitions of, say a back fist, a puncher knows what an opponent looks like when he or she is setting up to attack with a back fist. Whatever your specialty, you should train hard to develop every facet of it. 

Mental attitude

Mental preparation before competing is a vital link between the physical and the psychological side of free-sparring. Remove all thoughts of self-doubt but be realistic within your capabilities. Visualize scoring on a superior fighter using your favorite technique; this is the first step to achieving the desired result. If you don’t believe you can do it, there is little chance of it ever happening.

Use this strategy as often as possible; raising your objectives as each success is achieved. The positive images will be self-fulfilling, and the mental conditioning will become an integral part of your training.

Cultivate a strong, determined attitude before competing. Do not concentrate on using a specific technique or think about the outcome of the match, this distracts the mind. Respond intuitively and simply aim to do your best.

Telegraphing

Avoid preliminary movements or actions that may be read by the opponent, such as a big breath before an attack or tugging on a pants leg before a kick. This contradicts fundamental biomechanics (human movement) that dictate that basic techniques require preparatory movements. There is no time to “prepare” in free-sparring, you should develop an explosive start to all techniques. While you should avoid inadvertently telegraphing, you can us purposeful telegraphing to make your opponent think you are going to attack one way while you attack another way.

Learn to interpret the opponent’s intentions, such as feet in line may indicate a sliding side kick is coming. Learn to read the hips. Whenever a hip comes toward you, that is an advance notice that something is coming from that side. Some fighters also telegraph with their shoulders, but this is overt and amateurish. Also, try to read when the opponent is loading up in the hips in preparation for an attack.

Timing

When using more than one technique in sequence, you must allow time for the opponent to react. For instance, when using a double jab, the opponent will pull his or her head back from the first jab. You must wait for the opponent's head to begin its return to its normal position or the second jab will also miss its target.

You may purposely miss-time your step and punch, so that they are not simultaneous, by punching early or late to confuse the opponent.

Timing, like range, cannot be improved by practicing basics. Good timing requires anticipation, total awareness, and intuition; otherwise, you will become a victim of the opponent’s feints. Good timing can compensate for a lack of speed. Develop timing by doing lots of free-sparring.

Sources

  • Hanho. (1992). Combat Strategy: Junsado, the Way of the Warrior. Connecticut: Turtle Press
  • Hee, D. (1992). Tae Kwon Do Fighting Strategies: The Ring Tactics of an Olympic Gold Medalist. Black Belt Magazine, August 1992.
  • Prime, N. (2001). Bridging the gap. Niagara North Newsletter, Volume 30, July 2001. [Online]. Available: http://www.wadokaikarate.com [2003, February 20].
  • Turtle Press. (2002). [Online], Available: http://www.turtlepress.com/library.asp [2002, October 21].
  • United States Taekwondo Union. (1999). [Online]. Available: http://www.ustu.com [1999, December 4].
  • Verstappen, S. (2002). Fight Smart I & II Chinese Strategies for The Sparring Arena.
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