Sparring Strategies

Sparring strategies is another topic that lends itself to a full book discussion, but we will cover a few basic strategies you might initially employ to get you started. Learn from your opponents by adopting some of their winning strategies and by finding ways to exploit their inherent weaknesses. Each paragraph below explores a unique strategy you might wish to explore. Again, only the right side movements are discussed with the assumption that you can easily figure out how to do the same thing on the opposite side.

The discussions on this page refer to the octagon and octagon abbreviations with some regularity. If you are unfamiliar with these references then you may wish to review the article on The Octagon referenced at the bottom of this page.

General Strategies

Establishing a pattern is usually a bad thing. It allows your opponent an opportunity to exploit your demonstrated common movements. But establishing a pattern can also be used against an opponent. If you strike several times up toward the face, then you might subsequently fake a strike to the same location but instead strike toward the abdomen. This is conditioning the opponent to think of one thing while your intent all along was to ultimately do something completely different. The most common variation of this strategy is the basic high-low pattern. Striking multiple times to a high target will eventually leave a lower target unguarded. The inverse is also true. Try to envision other repetitive patterns you might employ against an opponent.

You can use changing speed to your benefit. Strike with blazing speed at your opponent; stepping in quickly, striking quickly, and just as quickly stepping back again. Do this several times in a row. Now slide in with a relaxed and nonchalant manner, almost slowly, and then strike. The opponent has become acclimated to fast movements and it may not register to them that they are being attacked if you move slowly. Even though this may seem counter-intuitive, it often works quite well.

Step in and strike your opponent in some manner, then step back in a linear fashion. If your opponent retreats when you attack, but comes forward again as you retreat, then you have the ability to set them up for a pattern attack. Shuffle forward and strike, then step back into Hidari Sochin Dachi. Repeat this pattern several times. If the opponent follows you each time, then step in and attack as before, but fake stepping back by simply shifting into a Hidari Kokutsu Dachi without moving your feet. The opponent may think you have moved back again and may advance. In reality you did not move back and the opponent has unwittingly stepped in range for you.

Established a Gai Bu with your left leg back at angle 6. Place significant weight on your back leg. As your opponent comes forward to strike step R7 and strike with your left hand toward angle 5. You might also have the opportunity to pull the opponent forward (possibly using sticky hand) and to then strike them in the back as they stretch forward. This combination of movements works well in Kumite. It is a bit less effective in full contact sparring, but unusual strategies often work well when used quite infrequently.

Closing Strategies

Closing strategies involve ways in which you can get closer to your opponent so you can more easily strike them. It also involves methods for accomplishing this that minimize your chances for being struck.

In Kumite your fingers are usually exposed under your gloves. This provides you with the ability to use your fingers and palm for grasping. A common closing strategy in Kumite is to use your front hand to pull down the front guard of your opponent as you concurrently step forward. You might then circle your front hand back up toward the face (watch that head contact!), or use the opposite hand or leg to strike somewhere on the torso. Closing on your opponent while concurrently laddering their front guard down will give you the opportunity to strike to the face with Tettsui Uchi. You will then want to step off to a different angle of the Octagon to avoid the likely counter strike from the opponent.

You can use a related strategy with the back hand. Assume your opponent has his or her right leg back and their left hand functions as the forward guard. You are positioned with your left leg back and your right hand is the forward guard. If you step to your local angle 7 with your right leg you can then use your back (left) hand to press the opponent’s front forearm in toward his or her center. You can then strike with a Hidari Mawashi Geri with little risk of a counter strike from your opponent. You might even use your left hand to grasp the opponent’s forearm and pull in briskly to provide your kick with a little more impetus.

Another similar method is useful when the opponent holds his or her front guard too near their face. Strike at the guard forcing it back and into the opponent’s face. This allows you to close by both striking the opponent (with their own hand) and blocking his or her vision temporarily.

Many of the Stepping Patterns you studied in earlier belts may also prove useful now. These patterns often provide insight into how to use the opponent’s current position and stance orientation to your advantage. If you move appropriately you may be able to position yourself in close to an opponent who is then unable to rotate or move quickly enough to avoid your strike.

Overpowering an opponent is another common closing strategy. This is frequently done by delivering a rapid succession of jabs or combination strikes. Striking with perhaps three or four extremely fast jabs (with much more focus on return speed than extension speed) may cause an opponent to become defensive or to alter their guard position. You then step in and strike with the opposite hand or perhaps deliver a kick (this can be especially useful if the opponent has stepped back somewhat). In some cases you may overpower an opponent by striking with alternating hands in rapid sequence. This can backfire on someone who knows how to step aside and who is good at counterstriking, but it works very well against someone who is less experienced.

You can also use countering as a closing strategy. Blocking may also be very effective in some instances. For example, if someone kicks with a Mae Geri, you can block his or her leg downward, upward, or inward. If you block the leg downward then the opponent will be forced to step forward unexpectedly. You have closed on them. If you block the leg upward then you have probably trapped it. You can easily now slide in slightly with a reduced risk of a counter strike (but the risk is not zero). Finally, blocking the leg to the side will cause the opponent to rotate on his or her pedestal leg, creating an opening into which you can advance with a strike.

In the section on Feinting below you will find some other strategies that can be useful for closing on an opponent. There are an unlimited number of ways in which you might close on an opponent. Sometimes you will want to move so you can close, but at other times you will want your opponent to move so that you close. The latter is a little harder to appreciate, but it is a very useful closing strategy that you should explore whenever possible.

Exiting Strategies

Now that you’ve been able to get in on an opponent, how do you get away? Exiting is very important in Kumite. It is still important in full contact sparring, but is less of a strategic advantage. In full contact sparring you will want to exit if you need a breather, if your movements are proving ineffective, or if your opponent has proven to be more skilled at close contact fighting.

In Kumite you are dealing with one or more judges who may not be able to see everything from their position relative to you and your opponent. It is very common for one sparring partner to close and make a clean and effective strike that goes unseen by judges. If your sparring partner then lands an effective counter strike that is seen by the judges, then your opponent will probably be awarded a point. Your only defense against this very common occurrence is to get away immediately once your strike has landed. This often clues the judges in that you have landed a clean strike and have escaped. Sometimes they will recognize that you have scored a point. Even if you do not get a point, you may have prevented your opponent from scoring one.

Whether you are participating in Kumite or full contact fighting your goal on exiting is the same. You want to create distance from your opponent and you want to avoid being struck in the process. The latter is not always possible, but it is certainly a fundamental goal.

The best way to avoid being struck as you create distance is to strike while you are creating distance. A common tool for this purpose is the humble jab. If you jab at the moment you move back you may force your opponent to be defensive during the time it takes you to create some distance.

Another exit strategy, especially useful in Kumite where you have some use of your hands, is to grab the opponent’s upper arm, shoulder, or other convenient location and use it to turn or reposition your opponent. So you are, in effect, making your opponent exit. Pushing works too, though you may find this strategy is not favored in some tournaments. But a similar movement can be accomplished by pressing forward quickly with your forearms held rigidly near your center. This appears to be more of a clash than a push, but the result is the same, the opponent exits in a somewhat uncontrolled manner.

You might find that kicking can help you exit. A sound kick might propel your opponent backward. If you lift your pedestal leg as you kick then the power of the kick might propel you away instead. Either way space is created between you and the opponent. The latter case works better in cases where you are quite close to your opponent; the former works better if there is some space between you and the opponent.


Feinting is essentially trickery. When you feint you suggest (sometimes strongly) to the opponent that you are going to move in one direction, and then you immediately move in another. You might do a “shoulder fake” by shifting your shoulders right to convince the opponent you will be moving to your right, only to move to the left instead. This is a pretty common type of feint. A sudden shift in one direction and a step in another is all that is required.

A different type of feint involves suggesting you will strike to one location when your actual goal is to strike another. For example, you might look to the groin and then raise your knee, suggesting a Mae Geri to the lower body, but then raise your knee higher and kick with a Wheel Kick toward the head. Feints are often used to mask the intended level of the kick or to suggest a strike with one side of the body only to strike with the opposite side.  Suggesting a Migi Ken Tsuki but delivering a Hidari Mawashi Tsuki is a typical example.

Sometimes a feint is used to actually deliver the strike that the feint is faking. Confused? You might feint with a left jab, but then deliver no other strike. You might then feint again with a jab, but deliver no other strike. If your opponent begins to think that you always fake the jab, hit with the jab next time.

A pattern feint occurs when you perform a pattern of movement a few times. You are suggesting to the opponent that this is a habitual movement on your part, when in fact you plan to change this pattern of movement the very first time the opponent appears to think he or she has you figured out.

There is no limit to the ways in which you might use a feint. Different opponents are susceptible to different feint maneuvers. One person may easily fall for a feinted jab, while another may ignore such a tactic and punch you immediately. If you are working with someone you do not know well then you simply need to experiment with different feint strategies to see what might work. Just try to make sure you don’t fall victim to a feint yourself. This is where experience is beneficial.

Distance Masking

Another action related to a feint is to mask your distance. Using this strategy you appear to be in one location when you are really somewhere else. Here is an example.

Establish a pattern of movement where you slide your back leg forward until it is adjacent to your front leg as you strike with your front hand. Then step back with your back leg and slide your front leg back slightly and jab again, as though you are simply trying to keep the opponent at bay. After you have repeated this movement a couple of times to establish a pattern, do not step back after the first strike, but suggest by shoulder movements that you have stepped back. Strike as your opponent approaches.

I learned the next example from the late World Champion Joe Lewis in a seminar he provided at a school where I taught for a great many years. Start by circling your opponent to the right (or left) so that he or she must turn to maintain their center on you. You remain just out of range so that neither you nor the opponent can strike. After a few circular movements and just as your opponent begins to step to turn again, you step back and directly across the circle so that you pass immediately in front of the opponent. Strike with Uraken Tsuki as you pass by. You might pause for a second to deliver a Gyaku Tsuki and then continue on your way until you are again on the circumference of the circle but on the opposite side of the opponent.

Sometimes footwork can help. For example, if you are standing with your left leg forward and your right leg back, you might shuffle in place without turning your center so that your right leg is forward and your left leg is back. You have simply reversed the placement of your feet without otherwise moving. But by doing that you have, in this example, placed your left leg in striking distance of an opponent who was previously just out of range. So while it doesn’t appear that you have moved, you have in fact moved close enough to strike your opponent.

Again there are countless ways in which you might disguise a closing movement. As with all feinting activities, creativity is an extremely beneficial attribute. Pay attention to the tricks and ploys opponent’s use against you and adopt any that you find potentially useful.

See Also

The Octagon

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