30 November 2010
What I Have Against Tournament Sparring -- Part 1
I'm not fond of tournament sparring in Taekwon-Do. A primary reason is that tournament sparring tend to cause a skewed emphasis on certain aspects and techniques, resulting in the negligence of other aspects and techniques. Furthermore, I really think that tournament sparring enforces some behaviours that are in contradiction with self-defence logic. It is not that there are no value in tournament sparring; there are. However, tournament sparring is often overemphasized and I believe this to be a grave mistake. Following are some reasons:
The “Composition of Taekwon-Do” contains five parts: Fundamental Movements, Conditioning (Dallyon), Patterns, Sparring, and Self-Defence. This means that sparring constitutes only a fifth of ITF Taekwon-Do and with “sparring” it is not by default meant “tournament sparring.” There are various types of sparring in Taekwon-Do; tournament sparring is only one of many types. Prearranged sparring involves three-step, two-step, one-step, semi-free, model-sparring and foot sparring. Then there is also traditional sparring (anything goes), and some schools also teach ground technique sparring. And, of course, tournament sparring. Each type of sparring teaches different skills. By focussing primarily on tournament sparring the skills taught through these other types of sparring are neglected and sometimes never even taught.
One problem with an over emphasis of tournament sparring is that it results in a loss of techniques. Tournament sparring narrows down the target areas and also the attacking tools. Practitioners might never learn how to do low attacks, or may never learn how to do certain “illegal” techniques, like elbow strikes and knee kicks that are highly effective in self-defence. Apart from low attacks, like kicks to the legs, other ranges of attack that are not conducive to getting points or which are discouraged because of the rules of the tournament are also ignored. Examples may include fighting in the clinch range, or doing throwing and trap-boxing, i.e. stand-up grappling techniques. (Do you even know what the “clinch” range is, or what “trap-boxing” is? Have you learned how to do throws? And if you are thrown do you know basic break falling techniques to protect you from the impact of the fall? If you answered no to any of these questions, it is likely that you are spending too much time focussing on tournament sparring.)
As explained already, an excessive focus on tournament sparring could be detrimental for self-defence because it limits your training in more different ranges of attack, it limits the targets you get used to attacking, and it limits your use of different types of attacks and attacking tools. Many techniques that are perfect for self-defence are hardly ever trained because they are considered “illegal.” The inverse is equally disconcerting. Because such “illegal” techniques are hardly ever practised, many practitioners have no idea how to defend themselves were they to be on the receiving end of such techniques. Many Taekwon-Do stylist that focus on tournament sparring have no idea how to defend themselves against head butts, elbows strikes, kicks to the groin or to the knees. Since they almost never practise these techniques themselves, they also have very little experience in defending against such attacks.
A further problem is that tournament sparring creates a certain type of mindset that is not conducive to self-defence. For instance, in tournament sparring you are trying to score points and may be penalised for knocking your opponent out. These two aspects of tournament sparring—scoring points and “pulling” your attacks—teaches you to fight longer. In a self-defence situation the longer the fight lasts, the more dangerous it can get. In a self-defence encounter your aim is to end the violence as quickly as possibly, and this often involves acting with ferocious and aggressive intend; a quick blast of high level violence. Sport sparring, on the other hand, tones down the violence and spreads it out over a couple of minutes. The tournament setup also causes one to think of your enemy as a single individual that you conveniently know will attack you from the front, with certain types of techniques, and only when the bell rings. This is far removed from a self-defence scenario where you do not by default know the number of potential attackers, nor do you necessary know when they will attack. Tournament sparring can therefore get you into a dangerous mindset where you think that your attackers will always come one at a time, always from the front, and play by some rulebook, like kicking above the belt.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that we ought not have tournament sparring. It has a place within this big thing we call Taekwon-Do and from it we can learn some valuable skills, but it ought to be put in a proper relation and not be overemphasized as is most often the case. Of course, for some Taekwon-Do athletes to whom tournament sparring is their main focus—people competing at world championship level—a major emphasis on tournament sparring is obviously appropriate. However, as ITF practitioners the “Composition of Taekwon-Do” is the guide we generally ought to adhere to and this clearly shows the relation of sparring to the other aspects of Taekwon-Do training.