Understanding the use of sparring in Shorin Goju. 

In Shorin Goju we have a comprehensive approach to sparring which is based very much in traditional martial training. We multiple types of sparring and we use them in a progressive system of training which takes a new student from the point of never having sparred to the point of being able to successfully free spar and even more importantly be successful in self defense should the need ever arise.

It has unfortunately become all too common to see martial arts schools focus on free sparring to the exclusion of the other forms of sparring. When a school focuses on free sparring to the detriment of other sparring modalities there is a danger to the education of the student in that the free sparring may ingrain bad habits and the lack of other types of sparring can hinder the balanced growth of the student. To be sure this approach can produce tough fighters but it may not produce people who are knowledgeable in the martial art in a general way. The student so taught can become a mess of poor quality movement habits and tension, and is often very excitable and may have little understanding of true aggression in the performance of a technique and often substitutes a pseudo aggression which is more a lack of control than a skill. This student may become of good tournament points fighter but will be slow to reach mastery of an art if he or she ever does and would be hard pressed to rely on these as self defense skills.

In the early stages of karate training a student has a lot to learn in the way of basic techniques and develops movement skills. In this early stage we apply one step sparring and prearranged sparring which is linked to the use of these basic techniques. This allows the student to become more familiar with the idea of facing someone who is throwing a punch, kick or other attack. It also allows the student to become familiar with the idea of throwing techniques in attack him or herself. Because the student is in a situation where the techniques are known he or she rapidly becomes familiar with it and can relax. In this relaxed state the student is able to see and start to recognize common movement patterns. Because the student is moving in a prescribed manner his or her body becomes accustomed to moving in this way in this type of situation and in this way the use of good form is reinforced.

Self defense training in the early stages is also prearranged and the student knows what is going to happen and is able to again practice without stress at these stages and allow the responses to become automatic and situation reading and patterning becomes automatic. As self defense training progresses it becomes more intense and we intentionally practice in low light situations and start to introduce a verbal component so that a verbal assault accompanies the physical assault similar to what is experienced in real life again starting with a low intensity verbal abuse level that increases with experience. This addition of the verbal component mimics real life and teaches the student how to deal with this detail of assault that often catches people unprepared and excites intense emotional responses in reality. Eventually self defense training becomes randomized sop that the student does not know what the next attack is going to be and the attacker may be wearing heavy protective gear to allow for more realistic defenses.

Prearranged sparring moves slowly and progressively from the practicing of the individual basic techniques to the practicing of the basic combinations. This takes the student from a point of being able to move properly for one or two movements to being able to apply multiple movements with good movement habits and proper form for the techniques. This also gives the student the chance to experience how a combination is applied and to start to become familiar with how a combination looks when it is coming at the student. This develops confidence in the combinations, and an ability to read the combinations so that the student can start to develop the ability to respond to them.

Kata applications or bunkai is another stage ion this process. Every technique learned in the kata should be practiced in a practical manner. This insures a full understanding of the kata and the form of the movements. This also helps to insure that time is taken to make these details of good form and movement become part and parcel of the automatic responses of the student.

Limited sparring can then be used to start to develop the free response and free applications of techniques and combinations. We start this one with the student knowing what attack is coming and being allowed to respond freely to that attack when it comes. This free response type of sparring lasts for a moment only with a single attack techniques and then single attack combination. If at any point the movement of the student becomes poor or starts to break down we stop and practice the particular response as a prearranged sparring exercise and in this way we can correct these problems as they occur. Then we advance free response to the student knowing that there will be a single attack but not knowing what attack will come and he or she is allowed to respond freely. Again if the movement integrity breaks down we use that specific attack and defense as a prearranged exercise. Once the student is able to calmly and confidently free respond to single attacks then the free response moves to a stage where the attack is to be an unknown combination to which the student must respond.

After this the student moves into carefully monitored free sparring situations. These earlier sessions are kept to short exchanges and short rounds and if the student starts to get upset or too excited or form starts to suffer the student is stopped and allowed to retake possession and control of his or her emotions and bring things back under control. As the student progresses intensity and duration of free sparring rounds may be extended.

There are also other additional types of sparring that we may use with advanced students such as blindfold sparring and low light sparring. These are much more advanced and help a student to progress to an extreme level of skill and toughness.

In this progressive manner a student is allowed to progress and yet maintains a safe situation for growth. Each progression through the process allows the student to move forward while maintain calm and good form and does not thrust the student rapidly into an intense situation prior to his or her even knowing much about technique. This relaxed progression also allows the student to develop awareness and recognitions skills where it comes to the movements of others and more readily develops the ability to read an opponent.

Earlier in the essay I said something about real aggression as opposed to a pseudo aggression which is characterized by a lack of control and run away emotional response. Real aggression in combat is an intensely focused and directed emotional intensity which is contributing to the performance of the student rather than a wave of emotional force that the student is trying to ride. This intensity is often demonstrated through the use of a yell which many people call kiai but a kiai is not a yell though a yell may be the outward demonstration of kiai. Kiai is that totally focused intensity and may be completely silent and yet the emotional force is felt.

A Shorin Goju instructor will use all of these modes of sparring as tools in his or her toolbox. This also helps us in dealing with students and parents. If a prospective student has certain nervousness about the idea of sparring an instructor can use the descriptions of the careful and controlled progress through the types of sparring to help alleviate that nervousness. This information can also calm concerned parents as they come to understand the skill of the instructor and the safe method for progression through these skills. If a prospective student is very gung ho about sparring this can be used to demonstrate to him or her that we have lots of sparring methods which can be used and which create a very good ability in this area. All of these things are true and are valid but they are of different levels of import to different students.

Next is the problem of the advanced student who comes over from another school who may have been learning for quite some time and may even have an intermediate or advanced rank but who has lots of problems evident in his or her sparring. The simple answer is to take that student through these levels by introducing these practices and explaining the import of each method and the place that it serves in the natural progression. This is not always easy for the student but it allows us to reprogram the movements in a way that allows them to avoid the mistakes of movement and application which have become ingrained through studies in a less comprehensive approach.

I hope that this essay has cleared up exactly what we do with sparring in Shorin Goju and explained why we do it. The student should appreciate this approach as should the instructor. And anyone who wishes to master an art should embrace this approach even if it requires the discipline to be willing to take yourself back through the stages. For all instructors of all arts this approach will allow your students to progress in a realistic and healthy way emphasizing safety and directing natural abilities into developed and channeled skill. 

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