Sparring Overview


In this article, we will cover the basic forms of sparring that students can study in Tensoku Ryu. Not all of these sparring methods need to be practiced by every student and some of these sparring methods will not be covered until later belt rankings. Though it is rare, you may also find that local regulations prohibit some Dojo from teaching one or more sparring methods.

Learning to spar will teach you a great deal about the dynamics of a conflict. Things seldom pan out as you might imagine in your mind. Sparring is extremely tiring and you will quickly come to understand why you never give an opponent time to think. Sparring also teachings you a great deal about such things as maintaining a proper guard, using combination movements, moving off-center, distancing, and timing. These are skills that are difficult to acquire without having done some form of sparring. Whenever possible spar with a training partner to help sharpen your skills in this area. Better yet, spar with several different training partners over time. Each will teach you something vital.

You need not subject yourself to hard contact to learn a great deal. While being struck has its benefits, it also has potential consequences which we do not wish to minimize.


Shadowboxing is the exercise of boxing without an actual training partner. The name is, of course, derived from the idea that when you spar alone then the only training partner you have is your own shadow. Of course, if you have mirrors in your Dojo then you have another way in which you can view your “opponent”. If you have no mirrors and a brightly lit room with no perceptible shadows, then your imagination will have to suffice.

Shadowboxing has two main benefits. The first is that it provides a very good form of conditioning. In a single minute, you will be quite fatigued. Sparring for three minute rounds, with a two-minute break between rounds will make you pretty tired, especially when you are first starting. But even someone who has great skill can be very winded after such an exercise because they will naturally put more into the exercise than someone who is just starting.

The second primary benefit of shadow boxing is it provides you a way to work on fundamental skills such as legwork, combination strikes, entering and exiting strategies, and multi-level drills without having to deal with the complexities of another thinking mind. Shadowboxing gives you a great way to practice skills in isolation so that only those skills are addressed. This provides the focus you may need to refine a specific skill.

In a related vein, shadow boxing can also be used as part of an effort to eliminate bad habits. If you perpetually lower your guard after thirty seconds or so then shadow boxing may be useful as a way of conditioning yourself to maintain a proper guard. If you have a habit of bending forward as you prepare to advance then shadow boxing may help you focus on eliminating this habit. If you notice that others seem to be able to predict when you strike then shadow boxing will provide you with a venue for learning to better mask your strikes or mislead your opponent.

We often use shadowboxing for conditioning, coordination, and striking exercises, even for students who have not yet begun to spar. It is a great way for students to learn to keep their guard up, practice combination movements, avoid moving in a predictable manner and work on timing.

Shadowboxing can be a practical way for students who have health issues or who are reticent to try Kumite and/or full contact sparring, to obtain an introduction to sparring. You will miss some of the benefits of sparring such as dealing with strikes, working on defenses, and adapting to the movements of an adversary, but it is the best alternative for those who wish to avoid contact. You will still need to demonstrate sparring skills for the belt ranking examination, but you will not need to directly spar with someone else if you select this alternative.

Point Fighting

Point fighting is the most common form of Kumite and the word Kumite is often used to mean point fighting. In most tournaments, the term Kumite will usually mean point fighting, whereas other forms of sparring such as full contact sparring will usually be referred to as something other than Kumite. Within Tensoku Ryu we generally follow this convention and will usually refer to point fighting as Kumite.

Point Fighting is more like a game of chess than it is sparring. Two participants use their skills to see who can strike cleanly on the other person first. The individual successfully striking the other person is awarded a point. Typically the first person who achieves three or five points wins the match.

In most situations, Kumite matches do not allow any contact to the head. You may strike toward the other person’s head to show that you could have landed a blow there, but you may not make contact. If you demonstrate that you could have struck the opposing participant but did not make contact, then you may be awarded a point. If you made contact then you will probably be warned that head contact is not allowed. If you make head contact again you will likely lose a point. If you make head contact a third time you will almost certainly be disqualified and lose the match.

Strikes to the body are allowed but need to be demonstrated as clean and unambiguous strikes. A glancing blow or innocuous contact will usually not be recognized as a viable strike. A very clear strike to the torso will usually score a point, provided your opponent did not strike you with a clean hit at the same moment. Such simultaneous strikes are referred to as a clash and the result is that no point is scored by either party.

Strikes to the legs, buttocks, and sometimes the back are usually considered to be incidental strikes and seldom result in an awarded point, even if the strike is very clean and precise. The primary goal in Kumite is to see if you can get past a person’s guard to score a point in the torso area or demonstrate a clean but non-contact strike toward the head.

This is the form of sparring used in most martial arts tournaments. The non-head contact rule is usually very strictly enforced. Some Kumite tournaments will allow head contact, but these are fairly rare and usually very clearly indicate that head contact will be allowed.

Kumite has its detractors. Often people say that it is not real fighting so it has little value. It is not real fighting, but neither is full contact sparring, Randori, Ad Hoc fighting, Mixed Martial Arts contests, or professional boxing for that matter. The only thing like a real fight is a real fight. Everything else involves various simulation levels of true fighting conditions and a host of rules and regulations.

There are several advantages to Kumite. First of all, aside from shadowboxing it may be the safest of all sparring options. Secondly, it helps you work on strategy and timing since your goal is to get in and deliver a strike and then get away before a counter strike might score a point for the opponent. Thirdly, it pits you against someone with similar goals who will challenge you to do well.

All students must demonstrate a general proficiency in Kumite before they can participate in full contact sparring.

Full Contact Sparring

Full Contact sparring involves a striking and kicking contest between two standing opponents. Participants may strike to any part of the body except the groin, throat, joints, and other delicate locations such as the eyes. In a tournament, the goal is usually to score a knockout blow or to overcome and overwhelm your opponent. It is common in sparring tournaments to have either one or three rounds. When a single round is used the person who has demonstrated the most skills is usually awarded the victory. When three rounds are used the person who has won the most rounds will usually be awarded the victory. These are not hard and fast rules as different tournaments may score sparring matches somewhat differently.

When practicing sparring in a Dojo there may be further limitations put in place during practices. There may be limitations on how you can strike to the head or on the types of blows you can land on the body or the extremities. These limitations are almost always designed to limit the possibility of injuries and to keep tempers in check.

We do not require any student to participate in full contact sparring. Some students enjoy this type of contest and skills-development so we make it available to them where it is legal and can be conducted safely and prudently.


Students who do not wish to participate in Full Contact Sparring may practice Non-Contact Sparring. This involves all of the skills and movements required of full-contact sparring, but all of the strikes are pulled or made to come up short of actual contact. Head contact is specifically avoided. Strikes are thrown toward the head, but they are designed to avoid direct contact.

This type of sparring offers the same elements of timing, distancing, strategy, and exhaustion that are common in full contact sparring. The main difference is the lack of substantial contact. Incidental or accidental contact remains a distinct possibility, but the contact, if it occurs, is generally less significant. But accidents do occur, so you must work to keep an effective guard and to use the Octagon to your advantage. Because accidents will occur, you must also ensure you wear the same safety equipment that is required for full contact sparring.

The disadvantage of this type of sparring is you do not acquire a sense of what it is like to be truly hit hard. This is both good and bad. If you have never been hit hard then you will have a more difficult time dealing with an assault from an actual assailant. If you have been hit many times before then you will likely take such strikes in stride. However, repetitive strikes during full contact sparring can have negative long-term health consequences as well. Whether to practice full contact or non-contact sparring is purely a judgment call each student must make for themselves. There should be no pressure to do one or the other. It is an individual choice.


The term Randori means “free practice” and is used for somewhat different purposes in various martial arts. In Judo and Jiu-Jitsu, it usually means a contest between two persons who wish to exercise their skills against each other in a random and free-form exercise. Often the two persons struggle to see which can throw or otherwise overtake the other. In Aikido the term Randori usually refers to a free form exercise in which multiple attackers randomly engage a single person who then practices various skills against each attacker.

In Tensoku Ryu we use Randori in the same sense as Judo and Jiu-Jitsu. This form of engagement is not practiced until students have undergone some extensive training in grappling.

Ad Hoc

What we refer to as Ad Hoc fighting is similar to what Aikido calls Randori. One or more attackers engage a single person who then uses whatever methods or skills they wish to escape, thwart, or destroy the attacker. They may use any skill they have previously learned to accomplish these objectives.

Ad Hoc fighting is done only between experienced practitioners since the risk of an accidental injury is high. Senior practitioners have the skills, timing, and precision of movement necessary to avoid most injuries to their fellow practitioners. These are not exercises to show dominance or to achieve a knockout or other victory. These are exercises to allow students to practice and hone the skills they would likely use to escape, thwart, or even destroy a combatant in an actual confrontation. These are often fast and furious exercises in which nobody knows what will transpire.

You will not participate in Ad Hoc fighting until you have achieved the rank of Brown Belt.

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