It takes some significant time to amass enough skills to be good at sparring. Mastery of fundamental punching and striking skills, stepping patterns, stance transitions, octagon angles, and guard positioning are essential, but they are not sufficient. It takes three essential things initially to become good at sparring. The first is working with someone who is more experienced than yourself. The second is practice. The third is understanding and exploring some new concepts. In the following sections we will explore some essential sparring concepts that you will likely want to incorporate into your training.
This article makes use of octagon angle abbreviations. If you are not familiar with these abbreviations then you may wish to review the article on The Octagon referenced at the end of this page.
Countering refers to striking at an opponent who has just struck at you. It may or may not involve an intervening block. More commonly you simply evade the incoming strike while you concurrently strike with one or more impacts of your own.
Countering is often initiated when you are at the outer edges of your opponent’s reach. This allows you time to notice an attempted strike, to assess how best to move, and to then close some distance and strike with a more powerful striking sequence. As you become practiced much of this becomes rather instinctual. You will become quite practiced at countering certain types of strikes, especially if they are commonly used by one or more of your training partners.
It is also common practice to counter a strike when you are in relatively close. Here the nature of a counter can be different. You might counter at a different level or angle than your opponent. For example, if the other person strikes toward your abdomen you might immediately strike toward his or her head. If your training partner strikes toward your head you are unlikely to immediately strike to his or her abdomen since it would leave your face unguarded. Instead you might elect to block the initial high strike and then subsequently strike to the abdomen since it may remain unguarded. You could also elect to step to a different octagon angle and strike toward your partner’s head from a somewhat different angle.
Countering can also be done using a different trajectory. If your opponent has thrown a direct linear attack (Tsuki) toward you, then you might want to move off of his or her center line and then strike them with a circular strike of some kind, perhaps a Mawashi Geri or Haito Uchi. Conversely if someone attacks with a circular strike then it is relatively easy to move to a different octagon angle and then strike directly toward them with a Mae Geri or Ken Tsuki.
So countering generally involves striking concurrent with or immediately after an opponent’s strike (during their retraction) and usually attempts to strike to an unguarded target with a different striking strategy and/or from a different angle or elevation. Some people become very accomplished at counter striking and they are often labeled as a counter-striker or counter-fighter. This is a very good trait to acquire, but if you find you are consistently being labeled a good counter-striker, then it is time to seek a more balanced approach to sparring.
The key to good sparring skills is a fundamental understanding of great footwork. This does not come easily and is a learned skill that comes only from practice against a thinking opponent.
When you first begin sparring you will undoubtedly feel you are under significant emotional and mental stress. You may notice that as your opponent steps back you step forward to attack. This is pretty mentally and emotionally satisfying. As your opponent attacks you will probably find you step back to place yourself out of range of the opponent’s strike. This should feel emotionally troubling.
What is occurring in this scenario is that you are simply moving forward and back. From your opponent’s perspective all they need to consider is their range. Range is the only variable you are using against them. Shuffling forward and delivering an Oi Tsuki may be all the opponent need do to effectively strike you. You have made things simple for your opponent, and in doing so you have violated fundamental Tensoku Ryu concepts and precepts. All of those octagon movement drills that you have done over the years were there for a purpose. Direct conflict with an opponent is that purpose.
When I work with students who are shadow boxing I will consistently tell them to move in at one angle, and to then move away at a different angle. For example, you might attack directly along angle one, but then disengage and move away from the opponent by moving to angles 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8. You should definitely avoid moving directly back to angle 2 with any regularity.
Similarly, if you always attack directly along angle one then you are nearly as predictable as before. The opponent need only defend against that angle. You are again making things simple for your opponent. Instead, attack from different angles. That sounds hard, since your opponent will naturally move their orientation so you are always coming directly toward them. But things are easier than they seem.
Consider moving R7L3 or R7L5. This will cause you to come at your opponent from their angle 5. Naturally you might also consider moving L5R4 and L5R7 to attack from the opponent’s angle 7. These movements can be useful as an additional means of closing on the opponent, especially if you catch the opponent while they are repositioning their feet.
Simply moving R7L7 into Heiko Dachi F7 would put you in position for a Hidari Yoko Geri T5, which coincidentally would be right where your opponent is standing. You will likely catch them just as they are turning their torso in your new direction. As the old Batman television program might exclaim, “Kaaaapowww!” You might now exit non-linearly by moving L8 into Migi Sochin Dachi F1 and striking with a Mae Ashi Mawashi Geri. Yes, this is the original angle 2, but it is no longer angle 2 because your opponent has changed their orientation. Think about this, it is important to understand it.
Now you might cross step R3L5 to escape in a completely non-linear manner, which forces your opponent to turn dramatically to face you. You have a tremendous number of options available to you both during and after this escaping sequence. This is referred to in martial arts parlance as opportunity. You should explore as many different possibilities as you can envision.
Your goal should be to remain completely unpredictable in your movements. Your opponent should always be unsure of where you will come from, or where you will move to next. Try to devise patterns that allow you to attack the opponent from any of their local octagon angles and to escape to any alternate angle. Think back to the Kuikku Bouei Kata for some ideas.
When moving you will want to generally utilize a shuffling type movement. The foot closest to the direction of travel moves first, then the other foot slides into its intended position. Neither foot should leave the ground, at least to any significant degree. You are involved in a conflict and raising a foot leaves you open to a potential sweep. At the very least it makes you less responsive to a sudden movement on the part of your opponent. Move by shuffling so that both feet remain on the ground whenever possible.
There are times when a shuffle movement is not utilized. This might include certain jumping kicks or other movements that require you to cover a greater distance than usual. These usually require one or more steps to cover the required distance. These movements are riskier since you remain ungrounded during some or all of the movement. Therefore these movements should not be used with sufficient frequency that your opponent can predict them. Instead, use them sparingly and shuffle in almost all other instances.
At times it can be beneficial to suddenly switch your orientation relative to your opponent. You might switch sides to take advantage of a perceived weakness or tendency on the part of your opponent or to prepare for a specific attack or defensive strategy. It might also simply be used to change things up in an attempt to confuse the opponent. Switching sides can be accomplished quickly in a numerous ways. Some are more risky than others.
The first method is commonly taught and involves simply rotating your hips and torso 180° as you spring up slightly allowing both feet to leave the ground. When you land again, your left foot will be where your right foot had been. Naturally your right foot will be where your left foot had been. This usually happens quickly with your feet just barely clearly the floor during the rotation. However, since both feet are indeed off the ground at the same time you are at increased risk if you are attacked at that moment. Therefore it is best to do this form of switching sides when your opponent has initiated a retreat.
A variation of this method is to use it to change your orientation relative to the opponent. Imagine that you are oriented in a Hidari Seisan Dachi facing angle one. Now initiate a sudden hop and twisting motion similar to the first switch step version, but allow yourself to travel generally toward angle 7 as you turn, landing in Hidari Seisan Dachi F3. In this case you have switched the angle of attack, but you have not switched the relative positions of your two feet. One moment you were in front of the opponent, the next you are off to his or her side (though perhaps not directly beside them). You have not switched sides as far as you are concerned, but you are now facing a different side of the opponent.
Stepping forward or backward into a Juji Dachi is another common method for switching sides. Stepping forward with the back leg into a Juji Dachi will move you closer to your opponent, allowing you to strike or even push as you move forward. Then simply untwisting from the Juji Dachi will allow you to switch sides and to be closer to your opponent. Stepping back into a Juji Dachi will allow you to strike as you retreat and then allow you to change sides at the completion of the retreat. There are obvious risks with doing a Juji Dachi directly in front of a confrontational opponent, but there are times when this can be quite effective, if timing and circumstances permit. The Juji Dachi essentially masks the side switch so it is less detectable as it is being initiated. Be careful though, not all Juji Dachi will allow you to switch sides in the manner described above. Experiment to see what I mean.
Naturally you can switch your stance at any time by simply moving your front leg back or your back leg forward. This is slightly different since it will result in you being at a different distance from your opponent than you were before, something the first method did not do. This switch is safer than the first method and is often used when you need to close distance or effect an escape.
Another commonly used strategy for switching sides is to move one leg until it is adjacent to the other in a stance like Heisoku Dachi, then moving the opposing leg near where the first leg had been. Like the Juji Dachi method, this allows you to strike as you move, masking your true intent. Naturally this does not afford you a strong strike, but it may keep the opponent from noticing that you are switching sides. There are plenty of Onna No Atemi Waza that can be used during this transition.
Keeping both feet on the ground
We have already mentioned that is important to keep both feet on the ground whenever possible. Naturally this is hard to do if you are kicking, but in that case you will definitely want to minimize the amount of time you are standing on only one leg. Consciously drive the kicking leg back to the floor with purpose and intent to minimize your Ippon Dachi vulnerability.
Moving in a shuffling manner, as previously discussed is essential for stability. This really cannot be stressed enough.
Within the curriculum of this belt you have been introduced to a number of jumping kicks (Tobi Geri). These are interesting and intricate kicks that require great coordination, balance, distancing, dexterity, and timing. There is a temptation to try these kicks when sparring. They can work, but they can also fail catastrophically. They work better against an opponent who moves linearly. They fail often when your opponent moves along the lines of the octagon. Imagine that you have launched a flying snap kick only to watch your opponent move to his or her R7L8 as they strike with Gyaku Tsuki to angle three. How far you will travel in the direction of angle three or eight before landing is the only remaining question.
I am not saying that jumping kicks are useless. I am saying that you will want to use kicks like this only when your opponent is disoriented, retreating linearly, off balance, exhausted, or somehow similarly compromised. Pick how and when you use such kicks with great care. Otherwise, keep both feet on the floor and find some other beneficial method of attack.
Every stepping pattern you have learned in Tensoku Ryu is applicable to sparring in one way or another. Even the escaping patterns can be used to escape an opponent or to attack them. It would be beneficial to review these fundamental stepping patterns to explore how you might utilize them when sparring while always keeping an eye open for how they might be used offensively.
There are many other stepping patterns you might utilize. There are so many it would take an entire book to cover even a substantial number of them. But we will start with a few you might find beneficial. You should always be on the lookout for new stepping patterns you might add to your repertoire.
We will cover several different patterns for you to consider. We will only cover those patterns that move to the right. You should be sufficiently familiar with the Octagon to figure out how to use the same pattern when moving to the left. Each of the following paragraphs involves a different stepping pattern sequence.
The first pattern is a simple R7L7L8 pattern. The first two steps move you into Heiko Dachi or Heisoku Dachi facing your opponent at global octagon angle 3. This moves you out of the line of attack. The final step then moves you directly in toward your opponent from his or her side. If your opponent had been striking you will attack from his or her local angle 3. If they were relatively stationary then you will likely attack from his or her local angle five (in which case you might wish to step L3 instead of L8). As you move in by stepping to L8 you might initiate a Hidari Mae Ashi Geri, Hidari Uraken Tsuki, a Migi Gyaku Tsuki, or some form of Nage. This is a quick and effective pattern that both gets you off of the line of attack and immediately initiates a counter.
A similar pattern that is a bit more difficult is to step R7L7R5. This will place you somewhat behind your opponent and simultaneously makes it more convenient to employ your left hand. This also allows you to strike with the left knee or use the left leg to manipulate the opponent’s front leg (most convenient if his or her left leg is forward). This movement is a bit more difficult than the first because of the quick weight transition that is required at the L7R5 stepping sequence. But again, think back to a similar movement sequence found in the Kuikku Bouei Shodan Kata.
Stepping R4 allows you to use the left knee or a Hidari Mawashi Geri to strike at the opponent, depending on the opponent’s distance from you. Returning the kicking leg to angle 6 will allow you to immediately strike with Migi Yoko Geri or perhaps Migi Tettsui Uchi, depending on target availability.
Stepping L2R4L4L8 can be used with an aggressive opponent. The movement to L2 is intended to draw the opponent inward. They will see the movement to L2 as being a retreat on your part. As the opponent begins moving forward you step R4 and pull the left leg in to establish a very temporary Heisoku Dachi facing angle 3. Stepping to L8 will move you in toward the side of your opponent who will now likely be directly in front of you. Enjoy.
After kicking with a Migi Mae Geri, return the kicking leg by stepping R4. This allows you to kick immediately with Hidari Mawashi Geri or to step L7 (into Heisoku Dachi F3) and then R5 to strike at your opponent from his or her left side.
There are thousands of possible patterns that might be employed. As you spar with others consider the typical behavior characteristics of your sparring partners. Then consider Octagonal stepping patterns and methods of striking that might be used to take advantage of their innate tendencies. Also note how your training partner moved when they have been able to take advantage of you. You can learn by studying how your opponent has been able to overcome your defenses. All of this analysis will dramatically improve your sparring abilities over time.