The ultimate goal of pre-arranged sparring is to drill two important skills: attaining superior positioning and simultaneous defence-and-attack (SD&A). Acquiring the ability to always attain superior positioning and apply simultaneous defence-and-attack is no easy task, and requires a systematic learning schema, which will be the topic of this post.
Let’s start by discussing the value of superior positioning and of simultaneous defence-and-attack in turn. Although I think it is obvious why we need to practise these skills, it may be worth it to just review these concepts in case you may not be familiar with them since the ITF Encyclopaedia sadly doesn't discuss them in detail. Nevertheless, they are part and parcel of the ITF Taekwon-Do pedagogy and their importance is touched upon in the ITF Encyclopaedia.
The concept of positioning is often discussed under the concepts of “distance and angle” in ITF Taekwon-Do. Good positioning should do two things: take you off of the opponent's line of attack, and position you so that you can perform an easy and effective counter-attack that doesn't require any further set-up (i.e. no additional steps or positioning adjustment required). We call this advantageous positioning, in which you have both avoided the attack—you are not on the line of attack—and you are in a position for economical and effective counter-attack. Although there is much value in advantageous positioning, the ultimate aim of ITF Taekwon-Do is not merely advantageous positioning, but superior positioning (or a “position of superiority” as it is referred to in one instance in the ITF Encyclopaedia). Superior positioning has you in an advantageous position, but also has your opponent in a disadvantageous position. If your appoint is in a disadvantageous position, it means that he cannot easily attack you from that position and is so positioned that he cannot easily defend against attacks towards openings in his defence. If you have superior positioning you have the advantage of being in a relatively safe position with regards to your opponent and you also have easy access to certain of your opponents vital spots, while your opponent is in a disadvantaged position and will find it relatively difficult to protect his openings and perform immediate counter-attacks without repositioning.
Now let’s look at the concept of simultaneous defence-and-attack. A (self-defence) scenario is usually considered to have two participants: the attacker and the defender. From the very start, the attacker has the advantage because he has the element of surprise and has taken the initiative—he is in control of the action as he is the acting agent. In other words, the defender is re-acting and is therefore innately one-step behind the attacker’s action. Consider the following thought experiment: two people engage in a fight, but each are allowed only one “technique” per move. The attacker’s first move is to attack with a punch. The defender’s first move is in reaction to the attacker’s attack, so he defends the attacker’s punch with a forearm block. The attacker is allowed to perform his second move and now he kicks towards the defender, who in turn blocks the kick with his second move, and so on. In this scenario the defender will always be “defending,” and it is highly likely that the defender will eventually fail at appropriately blocking an attack and will get hit. While this hypothetical situation is very stylized (and is quite similar to the basic forms of pre-arranged step-sparring), it retains the essence of what often happens in a fight between an “attacker” and a “defender.” The solution to this problem is to switch the roles from being the re-active defender to becoming a defending-attacker, who no longer acts re-actively, but takes control of the action. The method for switching those roles is simultaneous defence-and-attack (SD&A).
Unfortunately the ITF Encyclopaedia doesn't provide a single term for both superior positioning and SD&A. Thankfully, in a recent blog post Rory Miller, a renowned self-defence instructor, discussed similar concepts that he combined under the term “Golden Move.” According to Mr. Miller, a Golden Move should (1) injure the threat, (2) protect yourself, (3) improve your position, and (4) worsen the threats position. These are all the things I spoke about above, but succinctly summarised. With a bow to Rory Miller I will henceforth apply his “Golden Move” term to refer to ITF Taekwon-Do's goal of superior positioning and SD&A.
As I mentioned earlier, consistently applying the Golden Move takes great skill; therefore, the ITF Taekwon-Do system—when properly taught—uses pre-arranged sparring drills to guide the practitioner along a path towards that goal. [Read my related post: "Prearranged Sparring: Definition, Purpose, and Value".]
At the lowest level is the first pre-arranged sparring drill: three-step sparring. This basic drill is used to make the defender aware of simple martial art concepts such as the attack line and centre line. The attacker attacks the defender with three—usually linear—attacks towards the defender's centre line, while giving three steps along the straight attack line. The defender is expected to defend against each attack towards his centre line with a basic block. This is the basic level where the practitioner starts to learn about simple attacks and choosing appropriate blocking tools to defend against attacks.
The beginner is also introduced to simple distances of attack-and-defence and at this level much focus is placed on keeping an appropriate safe distance between attacker and defender. Only the most elementary consideration is given to positioning at this stage. The defender is instructed to use the normal retreat reflex, to simply step backwards, away from the attacker’s attacks. However, the defender must maintain a close enough distance in order to apply a simple counter-attack towards the opponent's centre line after the three-step attack is completed. These various initial principles become the building blocks from which the Golden Move will later be taught. After several months of three-step sparring, the practitioner moves on to two step sparring which is introduced at the 7th grade level.
In two step sparring there is usually still no SD&A; however, the attack lines become more diverse as a greater variety of attacks are introduced. For instance, the attacker might attack with a straight punch and then follow up with a turning kick, which has a different attack trajectory. Such changes in the attack lines forces the defender to transition away from positioning based solely on the retreating-reflex. The defender should now also make use of side-steps and other foot-shifting techniques to not only get off of the attack line, rather than merely retreating, but also stay within an appropriate distance from the attacker in order to be able to launch an effective counter-attack. Emphasis is on advantageous positioning. Again, after an adequate time of two-step sparring practice, the practitioner moves on to one-step sparring, while still reviewing two-step sparring.
One-step sparring is introduced at 6th grade level. It is in this drill where the practitioner will eventually transition from mere advantageous positioning practice to superior positioning. Initially the attack is still first blocked and then followed up with a counter-attack towards a vital spot immediately afterwards. However, after some training there also occurs a transition from this segmented defence followed by a counter-attack to actual SD&A; for instance doing a block and a counter-attack at the very same time. A typical example my look as follows: the attacker throws a right punch towards the defender. The defender steps at a 45° angle towards the inside of the attacking arm, and performs a simultaneous fore-arm block with his left arm, and strikes with his right elbow towards the attacker's left temple. While such a defence is good, it is not yet a Golden Move because being on the inside of the attacker means that he can relatively easily defend against your attack and can also easily counter-attack. Another response to the attacker's punch may be to step to the outside of the attacker's right punch, and this time blocking his arm with the right forearm and doing a simultaneous counter-attack with a left elbow strike. In this scenario, since you are on the outside of the attacker and it is much more difficult for him to defend and counter-attack, the defender has achieved a Golden Move.
It is in one-step sparring where the Golden Move in various manifestations is most pertinently practised, and it is therefore the reason why it is the most frequently practised step-sparring drill by higher level Taekwon-Do practitioners. There exists many variations of one-step sparring to increase the difficulty of this exercise. For instance, the initial attack may be completely unscripted, and also the attacker need not stand in front of the defender, but start the attack from any position, such as from the defender's flank or even rear.
A quick side-note with regards to the idea of SD&A. There might be an erroneous assumption that SD&A means that the move should always include an actual simultaneous block with a counter-attack, but this is not necessarily the case. The “defence” in SD&A need not be a block, but can simply be some form of foot-shifting, side-step or dodge that clears your body of the attack. “Protect yourself,” to use Rory Miller's term, can of course mean to literally block the attack, but it can also mean to simply move out of the way of the attack. An example of such a SD&A against someone doing a front kick towards you might be a dodging turning kick—the dodge functions as the defence that gets you off of the attack line, while at the same time allowing for a counter-attack (the turning kick). SD&A involving such dodging techniques, or even flying techniques, are often practised by higher level practitioners.
While one-step sparring is a pinnacle drill because it focuses on the Golden Move, it’s limit on the number of attacks (i.e. just one step, and attack) that the attacker can perform is unrealistic.
To move beyond this limitation there are two additional “dynamic context” drills. The one, which is not so common any more, is known as pre-arranged free sparring. An example is one-step free sparring: there is still an initial attack by the attacker against which the defender has to perform SD&A, but if superior positioning is not attained—in other words, if the opponent is not at a disadvantaged position—then the attacker is at liberty to also defend and counter-attack, to which the defender should then re-establish superior positioning and apply SD&A. The earlier step sparring drills can also be practised as dynamic context drills and instructors often create different dynamic context drills depending on the principle they want their students to practise.
The other more common dynamic context drill in ITF Taekwon-Do is known as semi-free sparring, and is introduced at 5th grade level. Semi-free sparring doesn’t have any pre-arranged number of steps (attacks) that the attacker is confined to. The drill is concluded once the defender has performed a proper counter-attack. Semi-free sparring is most valuable when the defender focuses on the Golden Move. Unfortunately, since many people are not properly taught to progressively work towards striving for the Golden Move, their semi-free sparring becomes simply a form of point sparring, resembling tournament sparring, rather than a self-defence drill. It is the case that semi-free sparring is indeed used as a transition exercise in preparation for tournament sparring. While there is nothing wrong with using semi-free sparring as a stepping-stone for tournament sparring, the original purpose as a self-defence preparation drill must not be neglected.
Finally, of course, is free sparring (aka traditional sparring) that is traditionally introduced at 4th grade level. (Free sparring is not to be confused with tournament sparring.) Free sparring has very little prescriptions, and allows both attacker and defender a full arsenal of techniques for attack and defence. Free sparring is a very important drill, however it is not to be confused as an actual self-defence drill because it assumes that both fighters have “agreed” to the dual. There is therefore no “defender,” defending herself against an assailant. This doesn’t mean that free sparring doesn’t contribute much to the progressive learning curve of the practitioner. Because free sparring has the least amount of restrictions and the most amount of chaos, it does resemble a real combative encounter better than most step sparring drills. It therefore requires the practitioners to constantly improvise over an extended period of time—whereas the step sparring drills hampers such continuous need for improvisation.
Nevertheless, the step sparring drills, and particularly one-step sparring, represent the ideal that the martial arts strive for, namely the Taoist goal of efficacy, often promoted as the idea that a single technique (the Golden Move) should effectively end the conflict; or as the ITF Encyclopaedia puts it: “the ultimate goal of Taekwon-Do in real combat is to win the victory with just a single seasoned blow” (Vol. 5, p. 108).