Sparring is an important aspect of martial arts. It’s one of the best ways for a martial artist to develop distance control, speed and timing. There are two major categories for sparring in karate. These are full contact and point sparring.
The major difference between full contact sparring and point sparring is fairly simple. During a full contact sparring match, knocking out your opponent is considered a legal way to win. This is very different to point sparring where a knockout would be considered a foul at the very minimum. In most associations, you would be instantly disqualified for striking your opponent hard enough to knock them out.
In a point sparring match, the competitors throw strikes with full speed, but only light contact is permitted. Similar to full contact sparring, the match goes until either time runs out or one of the competitors scores the number of points required to win. In the World Tang Soo Do Association, only point sparring is permitted.
The primary reason for this is to prevent injury. When someone gets hurt they’re unable to train which is never a good thing. One could also argue that it takes greater skill to throw a technique at full speed and yet pull it at the last instant to prevent injury. The drills in this article focus on improving your point sparring but could just as easily be applied to a full contact match.
For those wanting a set of quick tips for improving your point sparring, here you go.
1. Focus on kicking using your front leg. Back leg kicking telegraphs too much and is ultimately slower. I can’t stress how important it is to develop a good front leg.
2. Learn to move diagonally towards your opponent to avoid their attack. This is more effective than constantly stepping back because it creates attackable angles in the process. The best way to avoid being hit by a train is to get off the tracks.
3. Learn to use feints and combinations to setup point-scoring opportunities. As you spar better opponents, this becomes more important. Good sparrers can usually evade one or two consecutive attacks. Three or more is a different story.
4. Spar regularly. The best way to improve your timing is to do a lot of sparring. Putting in the reps will allow you to better anticipate when your opponent is about to strike.
For those of you wanting a more detailed response, read on.
A Game of Tag
It’s important to recognize point sparring for what it is – a game of tag using our hands and feet. We use a combination of kicks, movement, feints and combinations to create scoring opportunities. The following discussion will highlight what I feel are the most important aspects to develop for point sparring competition.
Developing Your Front Leg
During forms and other areas of martial arts, the back leg is typically used for kicks. Actually, come to think of it, not a single form comes to mind where the martial artist kicks using their front leg. If you know of any, drop me a comment below. For most martial artists, this ingrains the idea that when you throw a kick, it comes from your back leg. Unfortunately, kicking with your back leg is the exact opposite of what you’d want to do when point sparring.
If there’s only one point in this guide to pay attention to, this would be it. By far, the most important skill to develop in point sparring is the ability to initiate attacks using your front leg. There a several reasons for this.
Your front leg is closer to your opponent. Throwing an attack with it only requires that you lift your leg. This is very different to back leg kicking where you’re required to first square your hips before being able to throw a kick.
There are several movements that are required before you can attack with your back leg. Most obvious is the need to square your hips to your opponent before being able to throw the kick. This gives your opponent a lot more time to see what’s happening and avoid your attack.
When using your front leg, the only signal your opponent receives that an attack is coming, is your foot leaving the ground. This doesn’t give them much time to react which dramatically increases your odds of successfully scoring a point.
Kicking with your front leg allows you to easily close the distance between you and your opponent. The technique for doing this is called a pulling kick. It’s where you use the momentum of your kicking leg to pull yourself forward. It takes practice to master but it’s a great way to offensively close the distance on your opponent.
A traditional point sparring stance has you standing completely sideways to your opponent. This minimizes the area available for them to hit directly. In this stance, your belt area and head are what’s typically exposed. When you kick using your front leg, you’re able to maintain a smaller attack surface while still being offensive.
If you kick using your back leg, you’re required to square your hips towards your attacker. This gives them a much larger area to hit.
Front Leg Kicking Details
An important aspect of being effective at point sparring is your movement. Good movement serves two major purposes. It helps you avoid being hit and it allows you to position your opponent so that you can more easily hit them.
When facing a strike, it’s human nature to step back to avoid being hit. While this fine for regular encounters, it proves to be ineffective when point sparring. The habit of stepping backwards is an important one to break.
Think of an attack from your opponent as a train coming down a set of tracks. When you move backwards, you temporarily avoid being hit, but eventually they’ll catch you. The best-case scenario is you keep moving back until you’re out of the ring. Unfortunately, if you do this more than a couple of times, you’re likely to receive warnings and an eventual point deduction from the judges.
Much like a train, the best way to avoid being hit is to slip sideways. To continue our train example, this means getting off the tracks. There are a few great reasons to adopt this evasion technique.
The first reason is it’s a much more effective way of avoiding your opponent’s attack. When you slip sideways or diagonally, you’re forcing your opponent to also change the direction of their attacks. This is preferable to stepping backwards which allows them to keep throwing strikes in a straight line.
Turning Defense into Offense
Second, it allows you to create openings for counter attacks. The ability to create an opening in your opponent’s defense isn’t easy to do when your only method of evasion is stepping backwards.
A more advanced version of this technique is to step towards your opponent at an angle. This accomplishes our main goal of not being hit as well as places us closer to them. It allows you to quickly move from a defensive to offensive position. Every move counts when sparring so it’s important to take full advantage of every opportunity our opponent gives us.
Although a more advanced technique, it’s a great one to have in your sparring toolkit.
Feints and Combinations
As you spar better opponents, your chances of throwing a single technique and scoring is going to become less likely. This is where feints and combinations enter the picture.
Feints are used as an information-gathering tool to learn how your opponent reacts. The most common feint I use in point sparring is to fake a step in towards my opponent quickly. When I do this, what happens? Do they freeze in place? Do they throw a kick? Does it cause them to continuously move backwards?
These are all important questions to get answers to because it allows us to know how best to use our available strikes to score.
Combinations are a closely related to feints since they allow us to take advantage of what we learn. The goal of throwing more than one technique in sequence is to get a reaction out of your opponent. If we can predict their behavior or even better make them react in the way we want, our chances for scoring points increases dramatically.
There are countless ways to throw combinations. The ones that I find to be most effective involve throwing strikes at different levels. An example of this would be to throw a side kick towards your opponent’s belt to bring their hands down. This could be followed up with a side kick to their head or a hook kick over their shoulder.
Your goal is to create a predictable reaction that you can take advantage of. It’s human nature that when we see an object coming towards our face to raise our hands to block it. Likewise, if we think we’re about to be hit in our mid-section we typically lower our hands.
“Training” Your Opponent
We can take advantage of this behavior to train our opponent to react in the way we want. If you can get in the habit of throwing multiple strikes at different levels you’ll create more scoring opportunities. It’s like creating an information overload event in your opponent. They see kicks and punches coming at different levels which causes their brain to work overtime.
They’re eventually going to get caught by one of them. When you’re throwing combinations, it’s important to ensure that the strikes are believable. Your plan might be to hit your opponent with the 3rd kick or punch in the sequence but they don’t know that. All of the strikes need to be thrown in such a way that your opponent believes they’re likely to get hit by any of them.
A Quick Lesson from Mr. Miyagi
As we talk about combinations and feints to get your opponent to react in a certain way, it’s important to have a quick chat about blocking. As a general rule, you want to avoid blocking when point sparring. Ideally the only time there should be contact between you and your opponent is when you initiate it.
If you get in the habit of always blocking attacks, you’re making it much easier for your opponent to use feints and combinations to set you up. Another huge reason not to block attacks is to avoid bad calls from the judges. If your opponent throws a kick and you put your hand out to block it, there’s going to be a sound created by that.
Depending on the angle, the judge may not be able to actually see if the strike landed or not but they’ll definitely hear the sound of contact. That may be enough for them to make a call that’s not in your favor. Even if only one judge does this, you’re hurting your chances by developing the habit of blocking attacks.
Much better than blocking is to get in the habit of using good movement to simply get out of the way. Mr. Miyagi had it right.
Dealing with Machine Gun Kicks
If you spar long enough, eventually you’ll encounter the machine gun kicker. These types of opponents have a very good front leg which they’ll use to chase you around the ring.
A machine gun kicker is fairly easy to deal with if you know the correct way to avoid them. When they’re throwing their kicks, they ideally want you to circle or move towards their chest. It’s much easier for them to hit you if you do this.
So, what we’re going to do is the opposite. When your opponent is throwing machine gun kicks, simply circle to their back. It is extremely difficult for them to continue to chase you this way. By circling to their back, you’re essentially turning what should be an advantage for them into a disadvantage. Eventually they’ll get tired and put their foot down.
Sparring Gear Selection
To wrap things up, I’d like to share a subtle but important point about sparring gear selection. If at all possible, choose gear that stands out in contrast to your opponent’s uniform. In Tang Soo Do, we wear an all-white dobahk when competing in regional or world events.
Ideally this means you’d want to avoid using all-white sparring gear. By using gear that’s a different color or at least has some design on it, you make it easier for the judges to determine how close you’re getting to your opponent. This could be the difference between getting and not getting a point called your way.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that by wearing all red sparring gear, points will rain from the heavens. It’s just that something as small as that can potentially make a difference. Our matches only go until one opponent scores three points or time runs out. Wearing easy-to-see gear is a way to give yourself a slight advantage.
Reps, Reps, and More Reps
The techniques in this article provide a great foundation for improving your point sparring. In the end though, nothing beats practice. Much like everything in martial arts, the more you do it, the better you get. Point sparring is no different.
Ideally, you want to spar at least once per week. If you spread your sessions out much more than this, your rate of improvement will be much slower. It’s also important to spar different people regularly. This will allow you to see different techniques and is a great way to judge how quickly you’re able to adapt.
If you’re short, spar taller people. If you’re tall spar shorter people. It’s important to mix it up. Eventually you will face someone who’s size is very different to yours. It’s much better to figure out how you’re going to deal with those differences when medals and a cup aren’t on the line.
I hope you guys found this useful. Do you have any other recommendations for improving your point sparring? Let me know in the comments below!