In this article we will cover some common strategies, tricks, and maneuvers you might employ while sparring. By adopting a large number of such skills you will quickly become a more versatile sparring participant. Below are some skills you might wish to develop. You may also find it beneficial to review the sparring skills and strategies introduced in your last belt. You will likely find something you have been overlooking.
We have discussed evaluating opponents at some length in the past. There is little to add to that discussion (though you may wish to review it in previous belt material) but there is a process by which you can do it while sparring. Most of this discussion revolves around evaluating an opponent with whom you have never sparred before, have not sparred with in some time, or with whom you have had limited sparring exposure. You have less need for evaluation if you are sparring with a familiar training partner, though as we will see there can be times where this remains a relevant effort.
If you are about to spar with someone you know little or not at all, then you will want to begin evaluating the person from the moment you see or hear him or her. Watch the person’s demeanor, how he or she walks as well as how your opponent holds their body and hands. Also take note of how confident the person seems to feel, and how they move relative to common Tensoku Ryu principles. These can all provide you with clues as to how the person may behave once your match begins.
Someone who seems to be a bit brutish and clumsy may simply attempt to muscle you into submission. Someone who is svelte and limber may try to dazzle you with speed and dexterity. Someone who seems to focus internally may be cunning and deliberate in his or her actions. These are all generalities, but they provide you with initial clues to consider.
You will not really know how a person performs until after your match is over. Everyone changes his or her strategies and approaches to sparring depending on the skills, capabilities, and strategies employed by their opponent. You will naturally wish to do the same. But you will find it useful to see how much of your initial evaluation remains valid as you engage your opponent. You must be willing to immediately abandon any previous perceptions of your opponent if he or she demonstrates behaviors that run counter to your initial assessment. Once that occurs you will need to begin assessment anew to better understand how to approach and defeat your sparring partner.
In this sense opponent evaluation is a continual process, not a onetime event. Early on opponents tend to go through an evaluation phase where they gauge one another’s general strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has his or her favorite practiced or developing skill they hope to use, but this skill is seldom demonstrated initially. Combatants tend to hold this skills in reserve until there is a better understanding of how and when an opponent may be susceptible to that skill. So what you see initially from an opponent is unlikely to represent the person’s true range of skills. They are likely holding something back.
In a typical three round sparring match much of the first round is spent in mutual opponent evaluation. Each person tries to see how the other reacts to stress and how they generally move, all while probing for areas of weakness. If a person drops their guard while striking or returning a strike you will want to notice that. If a person has difficulty moving backward you want to remember that as well. Every behavioral quirk or failing should be noted. But realize your opponent is doing the same. It is therefore important to not demonstrate too many weaknesses (unless you wish to use that weakness to entrap your opponent). Keep in mind that your opponent will seek to take advantage of any opportunity he or she detects, so it is best not to do anything that leaves you in a vulnerable position.
You should not make the mistake of assuming the second round in a three round match will be similar to the first. The two rounds are generally quite different. In the second round your opponent will attempt to exploit any weaknesses they detected by employing one or more of the skills they have so far held in reserve. This is where the opponent will try to score a decisive and convincing victory. This is why you want to remain in opponent evaluation mode. You may wish to provide an instance of a feigned weakness you saw your opponent notice in order to induce the opponent to reveal what he or she is thinking or strategizing. Even if the first attempt by the opponent fails, he or she will try again. You can now seek to either avoid or induce that behavior, whichever is to your strategic advantage.
The third round of a sparring match usually sees the two people utilizing fewer tricky or deceptive skills. These skills are usually abandoned in favor of a flurry of strikes and kicks in the hope of overwhelming and tiring the other person. No two matches are ever the same, but you can easily find this behavior in the final round of a three round match. If your opponent comes forward in an aggressive manner at the start of the round you will want that to register. Your evaluation might be (cautiously) that this person intends to simply duke it out. You might react to this strategy by keeping just out of range, closing when you see an opening only long enough to deliver a series of effective strikes, then escaping again to make your opponent throw a series of tiring but ineffective strikes.
If your opponent comes out more cautiously at the start of the round then you’ll need more time to evaluate what he or she is thinking (if anything). Now you would want to use your prior evaluations in an effort to probe for weakness. You’ll also want to discern if this is exactly what the opponent is doing to you. In the end you’ll seek to generate a weakness condition that you can use to obtain an opportunity to strike your opponent as many times as possible.
Opponent evaluation should be a continual process. You never stop evaluating your opponent. Is the opponent getting tired, are they now starting to drop their hands, is the opponent becoming more desperate and belligerent as time goes on, or is he or she suddenly doing everything possible to get away from you? All of these, together with any prior assessments you may have made should help you devise a winning strategy. The winning strategy you considered at the beginning of a match is likely to be quite different than the one you are considering at the end of a match. This comes solely from an ever evolving evaluation of your opponent. In a sense, when you stop evaluating your opponent you have begun to lose the match.
You will find many instances when you wish to keep your opponent away, perhaps to provide you with time to think, set your opponent up for a subsequent action, take a couple of quick breaths, or simply to avoid being hit. There are several common strategies that are used for this purpose. None of these will come as a surprise to you, but we’ll cover them anyway for the sake of completeness.
The most obvious and frequently used method for maintaining distance from an opponent is to simply move away. Stepping back (and to the side), shifting around the opponent, escaping to the side or otherwise avoiding the attempts to close distance are all effective ways of maintaining a safe distance from the opponent. There is skill involved in doing this so that you do not get caught flat footed or unable to move quickly. Moving in this way needs to be thought of as a specific strategy rather than a purely reactive endeavor. If you are only reacting to the opponent’s entrees then you are unlikely to react in time. Find a way to make the opponent attack on your terms, then simply move when you know the attack is in progress. This, of course, is not as easy as it sounds. It is a skill that requires a good deal of practice.
Perhaps the next most utilized method for keeping a sparring partner at some distance is to employ the jab. A jab makes it more difficult for someone to encroach on you without running the risk of being struck. Anyone who has sparred knows that behind that front jab is the back hand, which might be employed immediately after the jab. So while the jab itself is not often a terrible threat, what might be used in combination with the jab can represent a noteworthy risk. This can make a person careful when the opponent keeps sticking jabs in his or her face.
While a jab can be effective at keeping someone away from you, it will only be a viable methodology for a few moments. If your opponent perceives that you’re only throwing jabs to keep them back, then they will attack. The attack will come if you’ve throw several non-focused and ill-intentioned jabs in a row. The next time you throw a jab the opponent will attack. So you have a couple of choices. Ensure that at least some of these jabs are quite purposeful and that you throw some combination strikes instead of only jabs. This will increase the risk for the opponent and make him or her a bit more cautious about coming forward. The second strategy of course is to use a series of ineffective jabs specifically because you want the opponent to attack. That is a more advanced strategy that you should not attempt in the early stages of sparring skills development.
A Mae Ashi Geri can also be used in a manner similar to a jab. But again, if these kicks are all ill-focused then the opponent will soon feel that there is an opportunity every time you raise your front leg. Your best strategy here is to make sure that a) every kick is intended to strike hard, and b) that you get your foot back on the ground via the fastest means possible.
You should realize that many opponents will readily take a blow from a front hand or front leg in order to gain access to your head and torso. This is increasingly true if you have been delivering ineffective strikes. This simply invites the opponent to overlook the risk and seek an opportunity. Your mental model, whenever you are attempting to keep someone at bay, must be to make the opponent respect your actions. Your movements must seem to be part of a strategic plan of attack rather than simply as a way to avoid being hit. Doing the latter will cause you to be hit.
Avoid Being Hit
One of the more obvious strategies when sparring is to simply avoid being hit. You might employ distancing, avoidance, blocking, aggression, or any number of additional strategies to prevent someone from hitting you. These can all work, but only for a short period of time. Eventually either the referee will warn you about failing to engage your opponent, or your opponent will find a way to overcome your avoidance strategy (after all, he or she has been evaluating your behavior the entire time and will calculate a way to overcome any persistent strategy).
Yet this remains a good strategy to employ, even if only for brief periods of time. Having periods of avoidance, mixed with periods of more aggressive behavior can help to make your sparring partner more uncertain and hesitant. These are strategic benefits. Striving to avoid being hit is an excellent strategy, but you must not make it your only strategy, and you must not overuse the strategy for long stretches of time. Use it for a few seconds, then move on to something else.
You will also want to use a variety of these strategies and not become reliant on one or a limited few of these methods. If you rely on only a single method, for example, your opponent will eventually recognize when you are attempting that strategy and he or she will make you pay for using it so frequently.
Take a Hit to Get a Hit
At the opposite end of the spectrum from avoiding being hit is the willingness to be hit in order to gain a strategic advantage. If your opponent is using the front arm or leg to keep you at bay, you might elect to simply step forward to accept the consequences of the strike in order to get close enough to throw your own more effective combination of strikes. This is where someone who is referred to as a good counter-puncher can excel. Moving into a strike can make it less effective, allowing you to more readily resist its effects while providing you with a closing opportunity.
Of course this strategy comes with an inherent risk. But it is often a calculated risk. Few people employ this technique as the opening strategy in a sparring match (unless there is great familiarity with the opponent and his or her tendencies). Normally an opponent is assessed for some period of time to see when and if such a strategy might work. Then, when the timing and conditions seem right, you step forward, take a less-than-effective strike, and unleash a series of powerful strikes upon your opponent.
Like most strategies it is best not to use it in excess. If you develop a proclivity for this strategy your opponent will bait you. That innocent looking strike might be a prelude to a powerful Ura Tsuki or Gyaku Tsuki. Your opponent will devise a strategy that will take advantage of your willingness to run directly into an oncoming onslaught of strikes and kicks. Nearly any strategy you employ can be countered with an alternate strategy. Your goal should be to have a large number of practiced strategies that you can randomly employ during a sparring match so that your opponent considers you to always be particularly unpredictable.
When sparring it can be advantageous to quickly change which leg is your front leg. If, for example you have your right leg forward you may find it difficult to strike at your opponent in his or her current position. Alternately, you may spot a tendency, weakness, or opportunity that you exploit if you opposite leg is positioned forward. You can employ a rapid leg switch to take advantage of this situation.
This leg switch is accomplished by quickly rotating your hips forward a full 180°. Both feet briefly leave the ground simultaneously as your hips suddenly twist to change the relative positions of your two legs. Now you should quickly employ whatever strategy you were considering.
This can be a useful way to overcome another person’s viable defenses or to suddenly confuse or disorient an opponent who has become accustomed to seeing you spar from a single stance position. Of course, this switching method has a major problem because you will be momentarily weightless.
A different mechanism for leg switching involves an intervening Heisoku Dachi stance transition. So, if your right leg is your back leg, you might move your right leg forward until you have established a temporary Heisoku Dachi. You can then step either forward with your right leg or back with your left leg to change sides. Alternately you could step back with your left leg into Heisoku Dachi, then step forward with your right leg or back with your left leg to switch sides. This type of leg switching takes a bit more time, but can often be accomplished in the natural ebb and flow of sparring. It also offers the possibility of an intervening strike as you transition from one side to the other. Consider how this movement sequence can be expedited by thinking of twisting the hips as part of the initial movement. And of course, this method of switching leg positions is inherently stable.
Instead of using a Heisoku Dachi as the intermediate stance you might use a Juji Dachi instead. This is often useful if you wish to strike with a or similar kick. After the kick you simply step back to complete the leg switch. This simple maneuver can work well as an inducement strategy as well. Here is an example.
Suppose you have your left leg forward. Step forward with your right leg to form [glossary]Migi Juji Dachi then raise you left leg to deliver Hidari Mawashi Geri. Return your left leg back so that now your right leg is your front leg. You might now optionally lean back slightly. What will normally happen is the other person will back up and to get out of range of your kick. As you move your left leg back they may mistakenly think you are moving back and out of range. If he or she moves aggressively forward they will often move into range of your subsequent Migi Yoko Geri. So this is a kick, leg switch, inducement, and second kick all in a single combined motion.
There are many other ways to accomplish a leg switch, including employing jumping kicks, combination kicks, stance transitions, and distractions to mask or facilitate the movement. When sparring see how many different ways you can reliably and discretely switch your front and back legs. This is not always an advantageous maneuver since it may often cause you to be positioned on your least effective fighting side, but it can be employed in situations where you wish to get around an effective defense or employ a surprise maneuver to gain an advantage. Normally, though not always, you will soon look for an opportunity to again switch back to your more dominant stance position.
Fading is the process of moving your body, or a portion of it, out of the way of an attempted offensive movement initiated by your opponent. There are numerous ways to employ a fade. We’ll discuss a few of the most common approaches to fading, but keep your eyes open for additional circumstances or movements that might call for, or that in fact might be, a fade.
If you find a Mae Geri coming in your direction you might simply retract your abdomen (assuming it is the target of the kick) without stepping. You are in effect creasing yourself. This puts your abdomen at a further distance from the attacker, making the kick more likely to come up short. If it still strikes you then it will be unlikely to have the force it was originally intended to transmit.
Moving your head back in response to a punch is another common fade method. Here you are creasing along the neck and/or lower back to pull your head out of range.
You might use similar strategies to pull a leg, shoulder, arm, or your upper torso out of range. In each case you are moving a limited and specific portion of your anatomy out of the way of an imminent strike.
Fading is quick and can be quite effective. But it is also not without risk. For every action there are potential consequences. If you pull your rear backward so that your abdomen recedes from an incoming kick, then your knees will straighten somewhat and your head and shoulders will come forward to some degree. These could put you at increased risk if your assessment that the strike was intended for your abdomen was inaccurate.
You might initially think of fading as a defensive maneuver. Fading can certainly be used defensively, but it might be used offensive just as easily. If we use the same kicking scenario we’ve been discussing, fading the hips back moves your upper torso forward. You might employ a Ken Tsuki or other hand strike as your upper body approaches your opponent’s face.
Fading your head and shoulder’s back to avoid a strike to your head allows you to concurrently lift a leg and deliver a Mae Geri. If you fold sideways at the waist to avoid a head strike then you might employ a Yoko Geri or Mawashi Geri (depending on the direction of your fold) as part of the maneuver.
So fading is often optimized if you find a way to strike when you are fading. If you simply fade (crease) then your opponent may strike you in that location as you retract the crease. At the very least you should consider moving in a different direction instead of simply relaxing after a crease. This makes it more difficult for the opponent to take advantage of your crease.
There is another class of fading maneuver commonly employed by experienced practitioners. If your opponent lunges forward in some manner then simply shuffle back to angle two (fast but not always the best choice), six, or eight. As soon as the back leg lands you spring forward again with a strike hoping to catch the opponent out of position from his or her missed strike attempt. You could employ some form of Tsugi Ashi Geri or a combination of strikes to take advantage of the opponent’s current vulnerabilities. It is important to strike immediately and to avoid simply returning forward to your original position. Simply shuffling back forward again without a strike makes you a target – especially if you do this repetitively.
Fading off to an angle allows you to change the angle of your attack so it closes on the opponent from the side rather than directly from his or her front. This makes it harder for the opponent to defend against your strike or combination movement.
Sometimes you can use a fade-like maneuver to your advantage. This can be done if you notice your opponent normally fades directly back to his or her local angle two each time you step forward to strike. Now we are going to establish a dance pattern.
Begin by shuffling forward and striking with a punch of some variety (often a jab). When your opponent fades back, pull your front leg back in, step back with the back leg, and pull your torso back over your back leg. If all goes well, your opponent will move closer to occupy some of the space that has developed between you.
Now shuffle forward and repeat the same pattern. Again move back (always to angle 2) and pull your torso back until it is over your back leg. If your opponent again retreats and then comes forward again you may have an opportunity.
Again shuffle forward with a strike. If your opponent fades back again pull in your front leg and shift your torso back so it is over your back leg. Notice that we did not step back. We have in reality maintained our forward position. Your opponent may think we are repeating our established pattern. We did not. Now if the opponent moves forward again they are moving into range. Strike immediately before they realize their error.
In close quarter conflicts you can often fake a retreat by simply rotating your torso. If your training partner or opponent is pushing into your right chest area in an attempt to get you to move back you might elect to fade your upper torso back slightly (very slightly) and then rotate your torso so your chest wall moves away from the opponent. They will instinctively feel that their pressure against your chest has been successful and will move in the direction of their original push. They are no no longer moving into you but instead parallel to your chest wall. They have moved directly into your new center with a compromised structure. Have fun!
See if you can devise a few other ways to appear to move back when in fact you have not. Once you have a few of these skills you will be able to employ them randomly as opportunities arise. They are simply another useful tool in your toolbox. You may not use these tools often (especially if you spar with the same people often), but it sure is nice to have the proper tool when an unusual situation calls for it.
Avoid Head Dodging
We are now going to discuss a topic that is completely contrary to the fading discussion we provided earlier. Keep in mind that fading is a specific and unusual tactic, not a behavioral pattern you will want to utilize frequently. The difference between what we will call head dodging and fading is that head dodging is an instinctual response, whereas fading is a planned strategy or methodology.
When sparring or doing other exercises you may find that you still try to move your head out of the way of an incoming strike in an involuntary manner. It’s time to put that bad habit to rest permanently (except for those cases where you are deliberately using a head fade). When you move your head out of the way you leave your body behind. This means you have induced a condition where your body and head are not in proper structural alignment and you are in an imbalanced condition. You are vulnerable to a subsequent strike or controlling maneuver, a situation you will not be able to handle well.
When moving out of the way of a strike you usually want to move your body and head in unison. This practice will allow you to then subsequently strike or move again immediately. If you simply move your head out of the way, then your next action will be to naturally pull your head and body back into balance and structural alignment. This wastes time and can leave you vulnerable.
You should note that we are not talking about the bobbing and weaving skills we have discussed within the Strike Avoidance topic in this belt curriculum. When practicing bobbing and weaving a person moves the head, but also the torso in order to avoid a strike. This means the legs must also be involved. In effect you are moving your entire body out of the way of an incoming strike while staying in the same physical location. Stance transitions are an integral part of the movement. The head and body remain in proper structural alignment when bobbing and weaving.
While sparring or participating in other exercises in which you must deal with grabs or strikes pay attention to how you move to avoid the attack. If you are only moving your head then work to find other movements that avoid the attack while keeping your body in proper structural alignment. From this point on do everything you can to avoid head dodging.
Remember the concept of Body Follows Head. Unfortunately, if your head is not directly over your body then your body may be easily forced out of a beneficial vertical orientation. You can then be more readily thrown or caused to lose your structural integrity in addition to the previously discussed increased vulnerability to impactful strikes.
In previous material (in this and prior manuals) we have discussed a great many skills that might be utilized while sparring. It will benefit you greatly to review prior material to see what applicable skills you might employ in an effort to gain a strategic advantage over sparring partners of various types. Skills such as feinting, stepping patterns, bobbing and weaving, slipping strikes, simple trickery, centering, blocking, and the many other skills you have learned can all be employed while sparring. Sparring offers you a great way to practice these skills in a more realistic and real time environment. While sparring is not quite what you will experience in a real confrontation, most of the skills you develop while sparring can be employed against all but the most capable opponents. Take time to experiment with a variety of different skills to see how you might usefully employ them for your strategic benefit. Frequently review the many sparring skills and strategies in this and earlier curriculum material. You will constantly discover things you have forgotten or have somehow overlooked, misunderstood, or simply failed to appreciate.