Monday, October 27, 2008

Is One Step Sparring an Oxymoron?

In the martial art of Tang Soo Do, we practice Il Soo Sik, or One Step Sparring as a means of building self defense skills. To the untrained eye (a.k.a. normal people, parents in the waiting room, humans with actual lives), it would appear that One Step Sparring isn't sparring at all, and almost all of the techniques (there's 30) have more than one step.

This is not the only place in our training where the given name doesn't match up with the observable behavior. For instance, if you've ever studied a martial art, you know that the term Free Fighting is anything but. I'm not suggesting that our training is not a great value, only that the word 'Free' is as out of place as a Wookiee at a Trek Convention (trust me, it's out of place).

Classically, One Step Sparring involves two students; one attacking and the other defending. The attacker begins by stepping forward and punching to the face of the defender. The defender then has, as mentioned earlier, 15 defenses using his hands and another 15 using his feet. All of the moves are carefully scripted, so the observer (and some Wookiees) often wonder; so what's the benefit?

There are three primary benefits to One Step Sparring and a couple more which are often overlooked. The first value one derives is the learning of a technique. Maybe it's a simultaneous blocking of the incoming punch along with a counter strike to the attacker's face. Maybe it's a nuanced sleight that moves the defender out of harm's way followed by a side kick to the chest. The important element is that the body is being trained through repetition how to move.

Some call it muscle memory; the notion that the body, through repeated action will learn to respond instinctively, without thought when confronted with similar inputs. Whatever you call it, it works - the body, or mind, or spirit, or ghost of Christmas Present learns to move without having to guide each nerve impulse. So the first thing you learn is a technique.

Next up is distance. Many of the early One Step Sparring techniques we teach involve the defender counter-punching to the face. I cannot count the number of times I've been hit by earnest white belts right smack dab in the mouth. This is always followed by a "Oh my God, I didn't mean to do that." Really, I think to myself - you only hit the very thing you were looking directly at; it's not like you were distracted.

Alas, the length of one's arm, or leg, or elbow, or other appendage (forehead, knee, heel, etc...) is apparently a carefully guarded secret that your do-ables keep from your know-ables. With lots of practice and repetition one learns the lengths of one's extremities, to the point that you can flat out punch towards a brick wall with full force and extension, and stop so close as to slide a piece of paper between the two. So the second thing you learn is distance.

The third major lesson embedded in One Step Sparring is timing; learning how to move with your opponent, neither anticipating or following their actions. This last element is the toughest to learn and takes the longest. In our school, nothing happens until the defender provides a loud 'spirited yell' which signals the attacker to attack.

We recognize this is artificial, and as the students progresses we explain that the attacker should be able to initiate the assault without prompting. Only then grasshopper, can you know if you are truly prepared. So the third thing you learn is timing.

There are some other benefits, for instance the constant repetition of having someone punch at your face reduces the natural anxiety this normally presents. Go figure. The back and forth practice often yields the most social interaction of the training hall - it's where you make really good friends. I guess that's another one of those misnamed exercises.

Question; "Where did you met your best friend?"
Answer; "Sparring!"


  1. 1-Step Sparring--The Misnamed Exercise.

    I always liked the name, "1-step sparring." To me, the significance, to be metaphorical myself, is the training objective--to take the process of learning actual fighting applications--one step @ a time.

    Contrary to the MMA'r / applied fighters-like boxers who fault the Okinawan karate masters for training an exercise so strictly choreographed, I believe in their great wisdom in prescribing 1-steps for most of us mere mortals.

    M. Meredith, you have another post regarding [mental] concentration that IMHO, applies directly here. NOW Comes the TEST! Tang Soo Do is big on testing....


    What generalized traditional karate tactic did Chuck Liddel use in his comeback KO win over Randy Couture @ UFC 52?

    I have never heard any MMA analyst or trainer ever point this out, even come close. Can the C.S. Kim org. / M. Meredith rise to the challenge???

    I'll only give a the very broad and equally vauge hint that it was textbook, traditional karate.... maybe even TSD.


    PART 1: The Issue of Bunkai's applicability

    A FIGHTLAND Author who claims a background in MMA / Karate presents a very detailed review of the Saifa Kata, along with illustrations. His perspective is that kata is only useful as cataloger of historical karate techniques. Furthermore, he clearly is highly critical of the traditional versions of the applications found in kata, here Saifa. He claims the original versions were questionable or altered, and offers his re-inventions to make them workable and practical in actual fighting.

    For his analysis, the FIGHTLAND Author separates SAIFA Kata into five sequences,i.e., his catalog of fighting applications or "bunkai."

    The first sequence is a bunkai which has an Attacker coming in & putting on a same side wrist grab (Step 1), then follows on with a stomach punch with the opposite hand (Step 2). The Defender steps in and turns while reaching over with his free hand to clasp the trapped hand, then sharply pulls the trapped hand away. On Attackers follow on strike, Defender steps back in a side stance, presses down to block the stomach punch combined with a backfist (by the formerly trapped hand) to Attackers incoming face. The Fightland Author has TWO excellent video illustrations that show the 1st sequence bunkai very clearly.

    The FIGHTLAND Author next devotes a short paragraph to the faults of the 1st-sequence bunkai as traditionally demonstrated. He then goes on in subsequent paragraphs to present and detail his 'improvements."

    FIGHTLAND Author illustrates his perspective extremely well. His analysis, however apropos, fails the understanding of traditional karate principles on several fronts. For brevity &clarity, I will address only the first step in this bunkai to make my case. SEE PART 2.


    PART 2: Traditional Karate PRINCIPLES Explained.

    The FIGHTLAND Author isolates out the 1st fighting sequence in SAIFA Kata and criticizes the bunkai in its traditional form. Isolating out a set technical application like this, in essence we karate students are looking at a 1-step sparring exercise or applied self defense.

    The FIGHTLAND Author pro-offers one short paragraph describing the fault & weakness in the traditional bunkai (described in PART 1 Above.). I'm going address Step 1 of that bunkai only, to focus on the FIGHTLAND Author's improper analysis.

    Step 1 has the Attacker coming and putting on a same side wrist grab. Why is this a problem? First, because the attacked has taken away one of my arms from use. I'm down to one arm. Second, the Attacker can now physically use that hold to hold me or jerk me around further limiting or disrupting my own movement. I'm now at a very, distinct disadvantage.

    In response to the same side wrist grab, I step in & turn while placing my free hand to clasp the trapped hand, then sharply pull it away. I'm now free and both Attacker and I are back in neutral position (apparently...).

    FIGHTLAND Author criticizes the use of the second, free hand to grasp the trapped hand for the purpose of escaping the wrist grab. He says this effectively ties up the free hand and commits it so it' not in a position to strike the Attacker. Additionally, he says this makes no sense given the design of the bunkai which call for a strike in Step 2.

    FIGHTLAND Author advances his interpretation is called for since we don't have the Master who created this bunkai at hand and the bunaki has likely been changed over the centuries. Well to help out, I'll step in as the Okinawan Master to help explain all these problems.

    My global criticism of FIGHTLAND Author's approach, however appealing to technically disposed fighters, is that it neglects to address the dynamics of traditional karate underlying the bunkai. I've got 5 or 6 or 7 of these (alluded to in M. Meredith's article here). I'll started with two.

    Traditional karate is about effective self-defense. Well what about the scenario where my Attacker is substantially Bigger & Stronger physically than I am? One arm might not be enough to pull free, to breakaway. Now I've got one arm tied up which Mr. Bigger & Stronger can readily use to pull me off balance, hold me & whack me, whatever. Not good.

    So what does traditional karate call for? The principle of augmentation. I double up two arms against one which also has a body mechanic benefit (in sync with the step and turn) , to make sure I get free. Now I've got my trapped arm back to use as an offensive / defensive weapon, AND my freedom of movement as well for same. Tactically, BOTH critically important.

    FIGHTLAND Author's point is correctly made that devoting the second hand to the escape, it's momentarily out of action. What he ignores & assumes away is the tactical scenario of having to face Mr. Bigger & Stronger where one hand won't suffice to make your escape--and the exchange goes downhill for you from there.

    Maybe, tactically, you don't want to devote both hands to the escape as demonstrated traditionally for Step 1. Then again, maybe you do. Forget all the mental aspects of karate for a minute, there's a body mechanics reason for using the 2-hands and that's two-fold itself. What did M. Meredith write about in his blog that traditional martial arts requires good judgement?

    IMHO, FIGHTLAND Author in attempting to show the Old Okinawan Masters how to do it better, completely missed the karate principles boat...


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