The Purpose of Tang Soo Do (Karate) – One Step Sparring

In part 4 of this series, I will be going over the purpose of one step sparring, ill soo sik dae ryun, and how this aspect of Tang Soo Do training fits into the global self-defense system.  One step sparring is probably the area of training that takes the most criticism.  

When someone sees one step sparring being practiced, they see one person stepping into a long front stance, executing a center punch and holding it there while their partner executes a series of techniques.  What I hear most often from people outside of Tang Soo Do is, “no one would actually throw a punch like that”.  These people are absolutely correct.  That is because one step sparring training is not teaching defenses against a punch attack.  Let me say that again, one step sparring is not punch attack self-defense.  When I hear instructors say the one step sparring teaches people how to defend against a punch, I cringe.

If one step sparring does not teach punch defense, then what does it teach?  As with basic techniques and forms, one step sparring is just one more piece in the overall self-defense puzzle.  One step sparring is the logical next step after basics and forms as we start to do techniques with a live partner.  Below are several of the new skills that one step sparring adds to the complete self-defense package.

Distance-being at the correct distance is critical in self-defense.  Too far away and you can’t counterattack, too close and you are in danger.  One step sparring teaches us how to be at the correct distance to use a variety of techniques.

Timing-using a simplified approach with a single, telegraphed punch attack, one step sparring teaches reaction timing.  When practicing one step sparring, we do many different types of techniques which requires different timing.

Targeting-in order to be an effective striker, you need to be accurate.  Striking an opponent to a non-vital target area is useless and could even result in injuring the striker.  One step sparring teaches us to target techniques to vital spots on a live person.  There are many, many target areas such as groin, knees, ribs, solar plexus, neck, etc.  One step sparring teaches you where to strike as well as improving accuracy by training with different size partners.

Angles-when someone attacks you, there are a finite number of directions you can step to evade the attack.  Whether you are stepping at an inside or outside 45-degree angle, straight back, straight in, or any other angle, one step sparring teaches you how to get to these positions.  One step sparring also teaches techniques from each of these positions.  Someone will certainly not attack you with a punch like in one step sparring but in the course of an altercation, you will most certainly end up at one of the positions I just explained, and one step sparring teaches you what to do when you get there.

Control-it is easy to always do a technique as hard as you can.  It is much more difficult to be able to control that level of power at will.  Like the volume dial on a radio, one step sparring teaches us to be able to use different levels of force depending on who our partner is when practicing or to what target area we are striking to.  Use of control is an important yet overlooked skill that is applicable in a combative situation.  We need to be able to control our power and emotions as every situation does not call for the use of lethal force.

Outside/Inside-as I mentioned in the section on angles, one step sparring teaches the concept of inside versus outside.  This is an important concept to understand since some techniques work only when on the inside of an opponent and vice versa.  One step sparring gives us plenty of options for both locations and through controlled, repetitious practice, we build the necessary muscle memory to be able to execute appropriate techniques depending on what location we end up at.

One step sparring has been around a long time

One step sparring is an important step that helps bridge the gap from individual practice to partner practice.  The additional skills mentioned herein are added to the skills we have already begun learning in basic techniques and forms.  One step sparring helps build a foundation that three step and free sparring will expand upon.

So, the next time someone tells you that one step sparring is useless and no one will ever attack you with a punch like that, you have some ammo to fire back at them.

The Purpose of Tang Soo Do (Karate) – Forms

In part 3 of this series on the purpose of Tang Soo Do, I will be discussing the reasons for doing forms.  In part 2, I went over the purpose of basic techniques and forms is the logical next step.  In the most simplistic sense, forms are just a pre-arranged set of basic techniques.  If you dissect a form into small pieces, you get just basic techniques.  Sao, a lot of the concepts I introduced in part 2 will also apply here.  However, when you put all of those pieces together, you get so much more.  That is what part 3 will focus on.

From an outsider’s view, next to basics, forms look like the most useless activity for training someone to learn combative skills.  For some, karate forms look like a dance with no real application.  I would agree with this assessment if solely based on observation of demonstrations and some tournaments.  Showy flips, spins, and stances 2 inches from the ground are certainly just for show.  However, if you were to watch an instructor teach a traditional forms class you would get a much different picture.  Traditional forms have so much to offer practitioners that are directly applicable to fighting.

Karate forms have many important purposes

If you think that only people outside karate feel that forms have no practical purpose you would be wrong.  I was at a large training event many years ago and a high-ranking master was teaching us forms.  This master commented that the only reason he still does forms was for the artistic and heritage aspect of them.  He would rather just do self-defense.  I was younger at the time (in age and rank) so I took this in but did not embrace it fully.  Looking back now, after all I have learned, I am a little shocked that he said this.  Anyway, I think the items listed below for why we do forms will clearly contradict that master’s opinion.

Muscle Memory – as with basic techniques, when you do something over and over again, your body will eventually be able to just do it.  Forms take this to the next level as you are learning to execute sequences of techniques that correspond to a specific self-defense application.  It is important to not only train in forms the traditional way, without a partner, but also to train with a partner doing the applications.  In the Karate Kid Part 3, Daniel is getting is butt kicked by a stronger, more skilled opponent.  Daniel starts doing a form and as his opponent approaches, Daniel executes a hip throw followed by a strike to the grounded opponent.  While this would never happen in a real-life fight or in a tournament, the message is a legit one: practice forms and your body will just take over.

Daniel defeating his opponent using forms

Rhythm and Timing – we are not robots (although I see many students who look like robots when doing forms).  There is an ebb and flow to applying fighting skills.  Some techniques in sequence may need to be done in rapid succession while others need to be more deliberate and methodical.  Forms combine the sequences of techniques within them to provide the practitioner with these skills.  A form is not one giant fight like in the movies.  Forms have several pieces of information that are in follow the same theme.  Think of a form like a blueprint.  You can look at the entire building blueprint to get the scope of the project but when you zoom in on a particular room, you see the details like dimensions, materials, requirements, etc.

Forms teach us to be fluid and not robotic

Breathing – you may think that breathing requires little thinking since we all need to do it to live.  Well, in a combative situation, not knowing how to breathe properly can have a significant impact on your success.  First of all, exhaling when performing a strike will provide more power to said technique.  If you are doing a series of techniques, you need to know how to breathe through all of the techniques, so you are not out of breath.  Also, sharp exhales will tighten the abdomen.  If you were to get hit, you would want to have your core tight.  Getting hit while inhaling will almost certainly result in getting the wind knocked out of you or worse.

Breathing is an important aspect of fighting taught from doing forms

Techniques Done Fully – again, as with basic techniques, doing techniques without a partner allows you to do them fully without fear of hurting your partner.  Forms takes this one step further in that you are not just doing a single technique or even a 2–3-part combination, you are doing a full fighting sequence from start to finish, unimpeded.  Throws and takedowns are also incorporated in forms and since there is no partner, you get to perfect the mechanics of the technique before having to modify it to accommodate different types of partners.

Different Fighting Styles Based on Origination – even though you are doing forms all within your specific style of karate (Shotokan, Tang Soo Do, etc.), each one of those forms teach you different fighting styles since they were created by different people or in different regions.  Some forms were created in Norther China, some in Southern China, and some in Okinawa.  Some forms were created to defend against weapons while some were created quick striking against an unarmed opponent.  One example of this is in the Pyung Ahn forms (Pinan/Heinan).  They were created by Anko Itosu who was a short, strong, stocky guy.  A large part of those forms involves breaking down your opponent’s posture in order to strike them.  So, the Pyung Ahn forms teach you how a shorter person can fight against taller opponents (amongst other things).

Different forms teach different fighting styles for different types of people

Builds Power, Speed, Strength, Balance, and Stamina – when you incorporate all the required elements into your forms and do them with intent, you are improving physically as well.  You get stronger, your balance improves, and your endurance gets better.  Now you could improve these physical attributes by doing exercises, hitting a heavy bag, sparring live opponents, or shadow sparring but by doing forms you are in control and you are improving physically in areas specific to the goal of the form.

Builds Mental Focus – in addition to the physical attributes mentioned above, forms help build mental focus.  Memorizing intricate patterns with numerous details while executing them with power and intensity takes a tremendous amount of focus.  This is the same focus that is required when squaring off against an opponent in combat.

Forms build the same mental focus required in actual combat

I will end this post with a story.  In Spring 2020 my studio was shut down due to the COVID19 pandemic.  Once we reopened, we were still subject to restrictions and safety measures such as social distancing.  Well, things like sparring and self-defense are fairly dependent on NOT socially distancing.  So, I tasked some of my black belts with creating a form based on all of the self-defense techniques we do at the colored belt level (single/double grabs, chokes, headlocks, bear hugs, etc.).  After a few sessions, they had the first 10 moves (out of 40) completed.  One of the black belts commented that when they did the techniques without a partner, and with full range of motion, the movements looked very similar to those in the forms.  The light bulb went off for him.  Hopefully reading this will cause it to go off for more people.

The Purpose of Tang Soo Do (Karate) – Basic Techniques

In Part 1 of this series, I introduced what I plan to do over the course of the next several posts.  In this post, I will start that process with the purpose of basic techniques in Tang Soo Do.  What are basic techniques?  Well, basics are the stances, strikes, blocks, kicks, and combinations that make up everything we do.  Basic techniques are called the foundation since without solid basic techniques, we would crumble.  A large chunk of time is spent on basic techniques during most classes.  When viewed by onlookers, basic technique practice looks very cool but not applicable to actual combat.  This post will debunk that opinion.

First, I will give an overall explanation of the purpose of basics, then I will further explain some of the specific subsets within basic techniques.

Overall

In general, the practice of doing basic techniques is for the following:

  1. Muscle memory-repeatedly doing the same thing over and over will train your body to be able to eventually do it without thinking.
  2. Executing techniques fully-without a partner to work with, you can do the techniques with full range of motion and with full power.
  3. Details-doing a single technique over and over will allow you to analyze its effectiveness, maximize speed and power, and ensure details such as striking area are correct.
  4. Breaks down complicated applications-doing a single technique at a time will allow you to perfect the technique prior to adding it to other techniques in a more complicated sequence.

Stances

When you look at a karate stance, you often see long, wide, and low.  It looks impressive but then you think, no one would actually stand like that in a fight.  You would be right and wrong.  If you watch two people fight, you will never see a horse stance, front stance, or back stance being held by one of the fighters.  If you look closely though, you will see glimpses of the stances, however.  The primary reason for stances is stability.  If someone were to push, pull, strike, or attempt to throw you, a proper stance will help ensure your balance and posture remain intact.  By moving from stance to stance and doing basic strikes from stances, we are maximizing our power and learning to do them from a stable configuration.

A typical low, horse stance in karate

Punches/Strikes

A typical karate style punch has the practitioner in a front stance with the punch fully extended and the other hand (reaction hand) and their side.  If you watch boxing, which is all about punching, you never see this.  That’s because punches in karate are much different.  The reaction hand is sometimes called the pulling hand.  We are training to pull our opponent towards us with one hand and strike with the other.  The hand comes all the way back to the side because we are training to do the technique fully.  By pulling them towards you as you strike, in a stable stance, using hip twisting, you will generate the maximum amount of force.

A karate punch in front stance with reaction hand at side

Blocks

As with the punches, a typical karate block is in a solid stance with the reaction hand at the side.  We never see this exaggerated blocking motion done is real fighting.  If you did a block like this, you would be leaving yourself wide open in several other areas.  In karate, we see many different types of blocks: one hand, two hand, x block, high, center, low, etc.  In each of these blocks, the way you get to the final position is very important.  It is not just about the end; it is how you get there.  Every part of the blocking motion, from start to finish, has a purpose.  We must also think about blocks not being blocks.  They are much more than that. There could be strikes (a block is just a strike after all if you think about it), locks, throws, etc.  Think about a typical low block.  The pulling hand could be pulling on the wrist while the blocking hand is actually applying pressure downward on the elbow, making it an armbar.

Kicks

When you talk with someone about karate, chances are they immediately think kicks.  This is especially true for Korean styles.  The fact is that Tang Soo Do is 60% hand techniques and 40% kick techniques.  We do a lot more hand techniques than kicks.  If you look at our forms (next post), the ratio of hands to kicks is even more skewed towards hands.  So why does karate get known for kicks?  They look good.  Demonstrations, movies, and competitions all show off the most athletic and impressive kicks which happen to be super high.  A side kick to the knee or front kick to the groin is not impressive (to a spectator).  I am not dismissing high kicks.  We should train ourselves to kick at every vital target level whether it is high, middle, or low and also understand the benefits and downfalls to kicking at each of those areas.

People usually think of high kicks in karate

Jump Kicks/Spin Kicks

If someone thinks kicks when you mention karate, it is just a matter of time before the connection is made to jump kicks (thank you Karate Kid).  Again, jumping kicks and spinning kicks look really impressive and are often done at demonstrations and competitions.  In actuality, jumping and spinning kicks are seldom used in karate combat.  That’s not to say never.  They are a high risk, high reward endeavor.  Jumping and spinning will generate a lot of additional power, but they also take more time to execute, potentially telegraphing your intentions.  I also fell jump kick and jump spin kick practice makes our standing kicks better.  By improving our body control via jumping and spinning, our standing kick technique will only get better.

Jump kicks in karate get a bad rap, due in part to The Karate Kid

Combinations

After practicing single hand or kick techniques, we then put them together to form combinations.  This is the critical next step in the process.  Combinations are still small pieces in the combative big picture.  We are starting to put 2-3 things together in sequence.  As with single techniques, we are still teaching our bodies to execute the techniques fully.  We also are learning to do each technique fully and not cut them short because there are now more than one.  Although you can put an infinite number of techniques together to form a combination, thought needs to be put into them such that they make sense and have a useful application.  Combination are the building blocks for the next step which is forms.

So, next time you are doing basic techniques, or are watching someone do them, and you think this is not useful, hopefully you will think about some of the topics I raised here.  In the next post, I will dive into the purpose of training in forms.

The Purpose of Tang Soo Do (Karate) – Introduction

Over the next several weeks, I will be posting 10 separate posts on the purpose of Tang Soo Do training.  These will be technical posts about the different areas of training in Tang Soo Do (and many karate styles as well).  You may have read that the ultimate goal of Tang Soo Do is to become one with nature.  I have written on that topic in the past.  These posts, however, will not be philosophical in nature, rather they will be completely technical.  You may have also read that the purposes of Tang Soo Do training are health, self-defense, and to be a better person.  While this is true, it is also very vague.  I will be going into great detail on each of the core aspects of training to show how Tang Soo Do is a complete self-defense system.  I will not address the health and better person aspects of training in these posts either.

Karate fighters

The 10-part series will be broken down as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. Basic techniques
  3. Forms
  4. One Step Sparring
  5. Three Step Sparring
  6. Free Sparring
  7. Self-Defense
  8. Breaking
  9. Weapons
  10. History/Philosophy/Terminology

The reason I am taking on this endeavor is because as a Tang Soo Do instructor, master, and studio owner for many years, I have on numerous occasions received questions or comments from students and passersby that karate is not a good self-defense system.  These people routinely point to MMA fights and training as the “real deal”.  When you watch an MMA fight you can see right away that is effective in a combative sense.  However, when you watch a karate class you see something much different.  To the layperson karate classes can look like dance class or Hollywood style fake fighting.

MMA fighters

I intend to show over the course of 10 separate articles, that Tang Soo Do/Karate is an effective form of self-defense by dissecting each of the areas mentioned above.  I will not be attempting to show that Tang Soo Do or Karate is better or more effective than MMA.  Many people write or comment on “the best martial art”.  There is no such thing.  Every martial art is effective if understood and trained in properly.  Who would win in a fight between an MMA fighter and a karate fighter?  I don’t know and frankly I don’t care.

A student doctor studying for the MCATs can be used as an analogy between MMA and Karate fighting

I will end this introduction with an analogy.  Two students are preparing to take the MCATs (medical school entrance exam).  Student A has the exact answers to the test and studies/memorizes those questions/answers only.  Student B takes classes for many, many years and learns about every subject covered.  I liken Student A to an MMA fighter and Student B to a karateka (karate practitioner).  I am not saying I consider MMA fighters cheaters!  What I am saying is MMA fighters are preparing for one thing, to win a fight, and they do it quite well.  Karate practitioners are on a lifelong journey to gain wisdom and better themselves.

Teaching During COVID Times

It’s been 9 months since the world drastically changed from a microscopic virus called COVID19.  Just as we started to get back on track and opened up for in person classes, the fall surge hits and we are once again back to square one, having shutdown and teaching only online until at least January.

COVID has changed the way we teach forever

Prior to March 2020, I had spent over 22 years teaching martial arts, 16 of those years as a full-time instructor.  At one point I had estimated that I have around 25,000 hours teaching experience.  Over those tens of thousands of hours, I feel I have honed my craft quite well and have become a very good, effective instructor.

When the pandemic hit and martial arts schools were forced to shut down, we found ourselves attempting to teach classes online.  Oh boy.  What a different world that is.  A very small percentage of the skills I had perfected over the course of 22 years could now be used.  In addition, an entire new skill set had to be developed.  All the while, students expect the same level of instruction they received when still in person.

Pre-COVID teaching was business as usual

Some of the issues encountered are:

  • Teaching partner skills without a partner
  • Teaching 3 dimensional patterns in 2 dimensions
  • The inability to move around a student
  • Not seeing the student’s entire body in order to make corrections
  • Different camera angles can make techniques look incorrect when actually correct
  • Teaching students from only one perspective, directly in front, rather than next to or behind
  • Different computer/internet speeds cause for different delays amongst participants
  • Inability to break off into small groups with a separate instructor

In this post I hope to inform readers how I am going about addressing these issues.  Instructors of martial arts or any activity may find it beneficial.  Students who take any type of activity online may also find it useful to understand how to better help your instructor maximize their teaching capability.

In an in-person class setting I have always tried to teach students by keeping in mind the three types of learners: aural, visual, and kinesthetic.  For more details on this topic, please read this article.  When doing online classes, kinesthetic learning is impossible.  I cannot physically move a high block to the correct position, nor can I tap the arm that needs to move first.  Visual learning is also limited as you can only position yourself directly in front of the student.  Some students learn better side by side and some learn best with other students on all sides of them.  That leave aural learning as the primary mode of teaching.  I have found that it takes a more detailed, clear, and concise communication style to rely mainly on verbal instructions.

Keeping in mind that aural learning will be the predominant method of teaching, here are few things I have discovered while teaching online for 9 months and counting.

Teaching during COVID times can be a little nutty

Go slower: with internet delays amongst different students, go slower than usual to allow for everyone to stay with you.

Demonstrate everything 3 ways: 1) facing students the exact same way they are (your right is their right), 2) facing students like a mirror (your right is their left), 3) back to students as if you are in front of them facing the same direction.

Use verbal or visual cues to work on timing: give a kihap (yell) or a hand signal as a cue for students to execute a technique to work on timing.

Target something at home: when students are doing drills normally done with a partner, have them pick a spot on the wall, couch, chair, whatever and try to strike at that spot (visually, not actually).

Let some stuff go:  make corrections as best you can but you’ll have to let some stuff go.  Some students will not be able to get more complex correction from verbal cues alone, regardless of how good your communication skills are.

Wave/snap/tap your own hands/legs to signify what side to use: this will give students yet another visual clue as to what side you want them to use.

Engage students by name 3 times at a minimum:  I try to do this every class regardless of whether it is in-person or online, but I have found it more important when online as students are by themselves and lose focus easily.  Hearing their name keeps them engaged and not just watching a screen; they feel like they are a part of a class (which they are).

When doing partner techniques, do them slowly, deliberately, and fully: when working with a partner we always have to go slower and utilize control.  Without a partner, we can do self-defense techniques fully with full power.  It is amazing when doing them this way the similarities the techniques have with movements in our forms.

Even when the pandemic starts to come under control, it will still be many months until we are able to teach and do techniques the way we used to do them.  I’m sure I will continue to perfect online teaching skills and hopefully will use what I have learned to make my in-person teaching abilities better when the time comes.

Take the Leap of Faith

The date was October 1st, 2008.  I was a young aerodynamics engineer at Boeing.  I walked into my supervisor’s office and told him my last day was going to be October 31st, 2008.  I was quitting to pursue my dream of being a full-time martial arts school owner.  If you recall, during the fall of 2008 we were in the midst of a financial crisis.  People thought I was crazy to make this move at that time.  Maybe I was a little crazy (and some may say still am).  Despite what people said, I was confident in making this decision as I did diligent planning.  I took a leap of faith.

Quitting your job during a crisis? You’re crazy!

This post is the story of how I made that happen.  There may be some people out there who are considering taking a leap of faith like I did, whether it’s opening a business, getting married, buying a house, or moving to a new city.  It goes without saying that we are in the middle of a crisis in 2020 that far eclipses the crisis in 2008.  Perhaps people are saying you are crazy trying to take a leap of faith at this time.  I am here to tell you that you are not crazy.  Sometimes you will be the only one that believes in you.  I have told this story to many people at martial arts business seminars over the years.  It actually inspired a few to take similar leaps of faith.  I share now to perhaps inspire someone else out there to do the same.

Quitting a corporate job to start a business is like jumping from a plane

Let me first say that I did not just wake up the morning of October 1st, 2008 and decide to quit my job.  Some of the best ideas I ever had come to me while I was in the shower.  This was not one of those.  The decision was years in the making with countless hours of planning.

I moved to Seattle in April 2004 to work for Boeing.  I started researching health clubs, community centers, and YMCAs that would be interested in having a martial arts program.  I created proposals, did demonstrations, and met with directors.  My strongest selling point was that I would volunteer my time so they would get 100% of the profits.  Several places were interested but I ultimately decided to go with the West Seattle YMCA and started the first session in September 2004.  At this time, I was not intending to be a full-time martial arts studio owner.  I knew I wanted to teach martial arts, but I was eager to pursue my Boeing career as I had spent 6 years in college earning Bachelors and Masters degrees in aerospace engineering.  I will admit though, I always had dreams of owning a martial arts school.  I just didn’t think I could make a living at it.

That first session at the YMCA I had 22 students.  I was thrilled.  That excitement would slowly dwindle as by the summer of 2005 I was down to only 1 student.  That was my first lesson in what happens during the only 2 months in Seattle when it doesn’t rain, nobody likes to be inside.  Regardless, things picked back up in the fall of 2005 and by the fall of 2006 I was up to over 50 students.  Even though I was a volunteer, the YMCA could not provide me with anymore class times to grow so I started looking at commercial spaces.  

At this time, I also started creating a business plan.  Countless hours went into creating the plan which was a road map to building a full time, successful studio.  It was still just a dream at that point but at least on paper, I proved that it was a viable idea.  I found a space and had an agreement in place.  Right before finalizing the lease, the landlord decided to back out.  Luckily, I had done ample research and had a backup location which I was able to secure (and ended up staying there for 12 years).

Business plans are critical to success

At the start of the commercial studio in January 2007, I had only 18 students. I kept the YMCA classes going as there were still students who could not afford private studio classes. I would run classes at the YMCA on Tuesday/Thursday and at the commercial studio on Monday/Wednesday/Saturday. Remember, I was still a full time Boeing employee, so I worked 6am-3pm then taught classes from 4pm-8pm. I was working in Everett for Boeing and drove to West Seattle for classes. For those who live in this area, it goes without saying the nightmare of traffic I experienced every day.

Despite all the challenges, the studio continued to grow.  I started reaching the dream numbers in my business plan that indicated I could make a go full time.  I eventually reached that number, but it still took me 6 months to muster up the courage to take the leap.  As I mentioned at the beginning, I did take that leap when I walked into my supervisor’s office that day in October.  There were two things that I will always remember about the conversation I had with him.  First, he tried to get me to work part-time, work from home, or take a temporary leave of absence.  He tried hard to get me to stay on board.  I declined all options stating in order to succeed, I needed to not have a safety net.  Second, he asked me how I came to this decision.  I told him, “When I am at Boeing, I can’t stop thinking about karate but when I am at karate I never think about Boeing.”  That just came out on the spot and had never thought that before but rang so true.

That leap of faith started me on the path to success as a business owner.  My first year I made about 2/3 of what I made at Boeing.  I exceeded that in my second year and continued that growth every year since (except for 2020…but that is a different story).

Take the leap, you won’t regret it

If you are considering taking a risk into the unknown, don’t let anyone deter you.  Do your homework and just do it.  There will always be reasons not to do it, a pandemic included.  Trust yourself and take the leap of faith.

The Point Acquisition Plan – How To Win At Sparring

Fair warning, this may be the absolutely nerdiest thing you have ever seen with respect to karate.  I actually came up with this concept several years ago when I was on a rant in a sparring class.  At one point I went to my white board and started creating a flow chart (yes, I have a white board in my studio).  This flow chart eventually morphed into the Point Acquisition Plan below.

The Point Acquisition Plan for Sparring

Now that you have seen it, let’s discuss it in more detail.  First, it is important to understand why it is that most people fail at sparring, whether in class or in a tournament.  In my experience, there are two reasons: 1) Lack of patience and 2) Lack of a plan.  The first issue, lack of patience, is when a fighter rushes in being very aggressive rather than taking the time to understand their opponent and how best to combat them.  My entire philosophy in sparring addresses this problem.  If interested, check out this Level 1 Sparring Course to learn footwork, distance, and defense, the cornerstones of patient fighting.  

Yes, I am a super nerd when it comes to sparring

The second issue is lack of a plan.  Many fighters just do whatever comes to mind without any thought or reason.  That is where the Point Acquisition Plan comes in.  This plan is a complete outline of how you should approach any match.  Prior to being able to execute the plan, you need to have the following:

  • Your 2 most effective offensive techniques (lead punch, lead side kick, etc.)
  • Your 2 most effective counter techniques (fading roundhouse kick, counter reverse punch, etc.)

If you need some more ideas or help with this, here are a great Offensive Technique Sparring Course and the Counter Technique Sparring Course.

Once we know our most effective techniques, we then need to understand our opponent in order to determine what technique will be effective against them.  We utilize footwork, defense, and distance control to gather the following pieces of information:

Is your opponent,

  • Aggressive or conservative?
  • Kicker or puncher?
  • Fast or slow?
  • Flexible or powerful?

Once we have this information, we know which of our most effective 4 techniques to use as a starting point.  This list below are some ideas to use against each type of fighter above.  This is not an all-encompassing list, there are many more.  This is just something to get you started thinking on the right track.

If your opponent is,

  • Aggressive – be prepared to counter, keep a safe distance with footwork
  • Conservative – freeze them and hit them, be wary of counter
  • Kicker – safely close the distance/jam and utilize hand techniques
  • Puncher – keep them away using the lead leg jab
  • Fast/Flexible – use strong techniques with power to slow them down, even if they block
  • Slow/Powerful – use footwork and speed to bounce around all over the place, don’t stay in one spot; utilize counters but try not to get run over

Once you decide on the appropriate technique to do from your arsenal, you execute and analyze.  If it worked, repeat.  If it didn’t go back to the beginning and figure out why.  Was your information wrong?  Was your execution poor?  Repeat the entire process again.

I tried to explain something rather complicated in a cliff notes manner so if you are completely lost, I get it.  If this is something that intrigues you, I have a lot more information.  Feel free to contact me.

Note: this post is a brief subset of an online course on tournament sparring strategy. If interested contact me.

Martial Arts Gratitude

Thanksgiving is tomorrow and people all over the country will be giving thanks to friends, family, and a myriad of other things for which they are grateful.  Thanksgiving will be much different for just about everyone this year due to the pandemic.  So, I thought I would take a little different approach to the traditional, elementary school project of things I am thankful for by doing a martial arts version.  The pandemic has affected everyone in some way but the effect on those of us professional martial arts studio owners has been catastrophic.  In my area, I have seen several studios close their doors and they rest of us are barely hanging on.  Rather than continuing to dwell on these negatives, I thought it prudent to reflect and show gratitude to the many, many great things in martial arts I am thankful for.

Master Romines

Grandmaster Michael Romines

He was my first instructor who taught me from ages 8-14.  I reached 2nd dan under him.  He was a very hardnosed, disciplined instructor.  Although I feared him tremendously, I also learned a great deal, especially about respect and honor.

Master Ochs

Master Matt Ochs

He gave me my first job teaching martial arts from ages 18-22.  He helped groom me into a good instructor and studio owner, allowing me to eventually open my own studio when I moved to Seattle.

Grandmaster Shin

Grandmaster Jae Chul Shin

I learned about leadership, character, and wisdom from Grandmaster Shin.  He promoted me to 4th dan and made me feel like I was exceptional but still needing lots of improvement at the same time. 

Grandmaster Beaudoin

Grandmaster Robert Beaudoin

I learned about humility and integrity from Grandmaster Beaudoin.  He was a fantastic martial artist and leader.  After taking over for Grandmaster Shin upon his passing, Grandmaster Beaudoin always strove to do the right thing which was continue on his instructor’s legacy, even if it was at the expense of his own ego.

World Tang Soo Do Association

I was a member of the WTSDA for over 20 years before leaving due to personal reasons.  I will forever be grateful for the friends and relationships I made during that time.  I am also grateful to WTSDA for affording me the opportunity to travel all over the world to teach and share my knowledge.

Master Michael Wilson

I only trained with him for a few years in my early 20s, but he had a tremendous impact on my martial arts career.  I learned a great deal about tournament sparring and overall performance from him.  He pushed me to do lots of competitions, even when I was reluctant.  I owe my tournament success as well as my continued love of sparring in a large part to him.

Students I Lost

Losing students this year was like a mass extinction event

It may seem odd, but I am truly grateful for all the students I have lost over the years.  In the past year I have lost more students than in all the previous years combined due to COVID19 and my exit from WTSDA right before that.  I will forever cherish the time I got to spend with them despite the sadness I will forever feel for losing them.

Students I Kept

Just like Elvis says, thank you, thank you very much

It probably does not get said enough, but I am grateful beyond words for the students who have stuck around through the last year’s events which I refer to as mass extinction events.  The support and loyalty they have demonstrated during the darkest days of the studio is and always will be appreciate more than you will ever know.

For all those martial artists out there doing classes online, waiting for this whole thing to end, take a few minutes and write out those things in your training that you are grateful for.  We will be back to generating more grateful events, relationships, and memories in no time.

The Four Types of Forms in Martial Arts

Most karate type martial arts have forms, whether you call them hyung, kata, poomse, etc.  These important aspects of training are set patterns of techniques and movements that teach students a wide variety of principles such as breathing, focus, speed, power, timing, balance, application, and coordination.  In some cases, they are also a link to the past, a direct connection to the original masters.  In the very early days, a form was a form was a form.  Over the many decades, forms have expanded and evolved.  Different forms have different purposes and meanings, and it is important that we classify them accordingly.  In my opinion, there are four distinct types of forms: training, classical, modern, and competition.

Before going into detail about these four types of forms, I feel it is important to note that I am primarily a Tang Soo Do practitioner and will therefore refer to Tang Soo Do forms as examples.  I will also attempt to make a direct comparison to music for the non-martial artists out there.

Training Forms

These types of forms are rather simple and were created with the intention of teaching students simple concepts: basic technique sequences and learning patterns.  Training forms do not have a martial application, they are intended for the primary reason of training.  Tang Soo Do forms like Ki Cho Hyung and Sae Kye Hyung fall into this category.  I would argue that most weapons forms in Tang Soo Do fall into this category as well.  From a musical standpoint, think of training forms like the song chopsticks on the piano.  It is a very simple song that most students learn when first learning to play.  It is not intended to be played in a concert and it doesn’t require a lot of deep thought.

Training forms are like playing the song chopsticks

Classical Forms

I almost called these types of forms ‘traditional forms’ but decided to go with classical instead.  The word tradition gets thrown around a lot and means different things to different people.  We have old traditions and new traditions.  Using the term classical also fits well into my musical analogy.  A classical form is a form that predates organized styles like Tang Soo Do, Shotokan, etc.  These forms were created in order to document martial applications so as to pass on that information.  The purpose of the form was not to create a form, but to teach fighting applications.  Examples of this type include Pyung Ahn/Pinan, Bassai, Naihanchi, and Sip Soo/Jitte.  In a musical sense, think about a symphony by Mozart.  It is beautiful, complex yet simple, and incorporates many fundamental musical principles.  The symphony is unique and one of the first of its kind.  It can take students years to master one symphony or song, just like a martial arts form.

Classical forms are like classical music

Modern Forms

I refer to forms as modern forms if they were created after the formation of specific styles.  The other important criterion is that they were created to be a form.  The techniques in the forms have martial applications but the form was not created in order to explain that application, it was created in order to be a form.  This is the opposite of classical forms.  Examples of these in Tang Soo Do include Chil Sung, Yuk Ro, and Sae Kye Jang Kwon.  These forms are advanced and have detailed, intricate meaning.  They were created however to be forms, not to be blueprints that document a specific fighting style.  For our musical analogy, think Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.  This is a fantastic song that incorporates many different styles with unique characteristics.  In my opinion it is a modern masterpiece.  While extremely impressive in its own right, it does not have the same musical perfection of a Mozart symphony.  It is an influential song that inspired many.  However, classical works have influenced all music, not just specific genres.

Modern forms are similar to music like Bohemian Rhapsody

Competition Forms

The final type of form is the competition form.  These forms were created by an individual with one purpose in mind, competition.  It might be for a tournament or it might be for a demonstration.  The techniques may have martial application, but it is likely because they were taken from another form.  Competition forms are flashy and fun.  They can be extremely challenging, but they are only intended to be for looking good.  In our musical analogy think about you and your buddies creating a song for the school talenkt show.  It probably sounds really good and certainly incorporates elements from many other songs and musical principles.

Competition forms are like songs you and crew create in the basement

The above mentioned four types of forms are classifications I have created.  You may agree with them, you may not.  You may feel that a form is a form, or you may feel that there needs to be more classification.  However, I hope we can all agree that there is much more to forms than just the specific movements.  Their meaning, purpose, application (or lack of), are all different whether we classify them or not.

Counter Techniques for Sparring: Forced vs. Reactive

Throughout my many years of training, I have done a lot of sparring.  I have competed in well over 50 tournaments with varied levels of success.  I have studied sparring with an analytical mind my entire career whether fighting against opponents at a tournament, doing class drills, sparring with friends, or attending seminars.  One thing I learned quickly is that I am a counter fighter.  Most people think of counter techniques as a singular concept; you counter someone’s technique with one of your own.  I have dissected counter techniques much further than that and, in this post, I will be detailing two types of counters: the reactive counter and the forced counter.

The Reactive Counter

I sometimes call the reactive counter the universal counter since it is independent of what technique your opponent does.  Many people think that a counter technique is when you see your opponent do a technique and you react to it with an appropriate technique of your own.  At a macroscopic level this is true.  However, it is impossible to see your opponent do something, processes that information, figure out the appropriate counter, and have your brain tell your body to do it, all in a fraction of a second.  That is where the universal counter comes in.  We don’t care what technique our opponent does, we react with the same technique of our own when only one piece of information is presented: our opponent enters our space.  The only other requirement is what stance our opponent is in, open or closed.  An open stance reactive counter is a hook kick, and a closed stance reactive counter is a roundhouse kick.  For both open and closed stance kicks, it is important to remember the following:

  • The kick trajectory is a straight line from ground to right above opponent’s belt
    • No full chamber
  • Target right under rear elbow
    • Angle trajectory of kick to cut under rear arm
    • Doesn’t matter if shin or foot hits target
    • Target is anywhere along belt line, does not need to be precise
  • Doesn’t matter if it hits the body or arm
    • Make it hard enough to give them something to think about
  • Step to outside of opponent after kick

Check out this short video for a visual on how it’s done.

The universal reactive counter

The Forced Counter

A forced counter is different than a reactive counter in that the technique we choose to use as a counter is dependent, not independent, on what our opponent does.  Therefore, there are many different forced counters since each technique is specific to the attack.  How do we know what counter technique to use?  Didn’t you already say it was impossible to process that information in that amount of time?  The answer is simple, we already know what technique our opponent is going to do before they do it.  No, there is no Jedi mind trick here.  

Jedi mind trick in counter sparring

We know what technique they are going to do because they telegraph it, have a tell, or we bait them into doing it.  We then have the proper counter technique ready to go and just need to wait to pull the trigger.  Since there are many, many different forced counters, I can’t go over all of them here.  I will provide one example, so you get the idea.  The following example is a forced counter to a lead hand punch.  The counter technique will be a lead leg side kick.  We know they are going to doing the punch because they are telegraphing it or have been doing that technique repeatedly.  The counter technique will be executed with the following in mind:

  • Be prepared with weight on rear leg
  • Slight lean backward
  • Arms in defensive position
  • Straight line from ground to opponent’s ribs

Check out this short video for a visual on how it’s done.

Forced sparring counter techniques

If you are interested in learning more about counter techniques for sparring, feel free to contact me.  I also have an online video course on sparring counter techniques that covers this topic in great detail.  Check it out or contact me directly.