Edited: December 2014
In a combative encounter (in other words, in a fight) your brain needs to process hundreds of variables, take in thousands of units of sensory information and make ten thousands of instantaneous calculations. Some things that your brain needs to take into account are how many attackers there are, their intend, the types of attacks that are launched towards you (straight punch? haymaker punch? kicks? weapons?), the angle the attacks are approaching, the relative distance and speed of these attacks, your own ability to dodge (or block?) such attacks, your footing and characteristic of the surface your standing on (is it slippery? are there obstacles?), and a myriad other variables. Most of these variables are never consciously evaluated since there is just not enough time to do so. The body has to react instantaneously and all necessary calculations has to happen reflexively. It is believed by some that the only way to practise for combative encounters is just to get yourself into real fights often and then just slug it out, and hopefully, with time, your brain will start to make sense of the chaos, start to recognise certain patterns, and slowly come up with some survival skills. That is, of course, if you are lucky enough to survive long enough to learn from all of this.
Over time the martial arts have come up with a way to actually practise for certain aspects of a combative encounter that is less chaotic and allows one to train very precise skills. The theory is that if you practise some specific skills, based on some typical combat patterns, hopefully these skills will kick in as engrained reflexes when you are thrown into a chaotic combative encounter.
The martial arts achieve this by making the combative encounter more abstract—less detailed; in other words, by removing many of the variables and presenting the trainer with very specific scenarios. The most simple way to do this is to limit the number of attacks. For instance, it is predetermined that your training partner will attack you with, say, three attacks. At beginner level, the type of attacks may even be appointed. Within the limits of these three attacks you have to adequately defend yourself against the attacks using blocks or dodges, and also retaliate with a counter attack. Such exercises where some of the variables are reduced and specific attacks are predetermined are called prearranged sparring, yaksok matseogi / 약속 맞서기, in Taekwon-Do.
The noun yaksok / 약속 means promise or agreement. The word matseogi, usually translated into English as “sparring” is based on two root words. The prefix mat- / 맞- means to be positioned face to face or to oppose, while seogi / 서기is based on the verb seoda / 서다 that means to stand up or take up a position. Matseogi, therefore, means to stand up against a foe, or to face an opponent or difficulty. In its totality yaksok matseogi / 약속 맞서기 is a type of sparring that is agreed upon; literally, agreement-sparring. In three-step sparring [sambo matseogi / 삼보 맞서기] the number of attacks, or steps, are agreed upon; sambo / 삼보 literally means three steps. Apart from three-step sparring, there is also two-step sparring [ibo matseogi / 이보 맞서기] and one-step sparring [ilbo matseogi / 일보 맞서기]. The ITF Taekwon-Do Encyclopaedia makes it clear that prearranged sparring involves various assumptions, like “the number of steps to be taken, the target to be attacked and the attacking tool to be used” (Volume 5, p. 19).
The video below shows one example of two-step sparring:
Since prearranged sparring involves such assumptions it clearly lacks the unpredictability of a real life fight. For this reason, people unfamiliar with the purpose of prearranged sparring will immediately dismiss it as unrealistic and therefore useless. Such a conclusion is based on their ignorance of the purpose of the exercise. Prearranged sparring is deliberately unrealistic (abstract) in order to practise very specific skills that one would not be able to practise so intensively in an actual fight. By reducing the variables, the practitioner can practise very specific skills, like defence techniques against particular attacks. As the skill level of the practitioner improves some variables may be increased and the abstraction level decreased. For instance, at beginner level it is agreed that the attacker will only use straight punch attacks, but over time other types of hand techniques may be included like crescent punches (haymaker punches), upward punches (uppercuts) and a variety of strikes. Eventually the abstraction level is so much reduced that the exercise starts to approach the unpredictability of a real fight; however, by then it is hoped that the practitioner will have honed enough skill (e.g. reflexive responses) to be able to more comfortably cope with the chaos of an actual fight.
To assist the transition from high-abstraction, low variable practise to low-abstraction, high variable practise, there ought to be intermediate exercises that have some arrangement involved, but not too much. One such an exercise in Taekwon-Do is called semi-free sparring, ban jayoo matsogi / 반 자유 맞서기. Ban / 반 means half or semi- and jayoo / 자유 means unrestricted, uncontrolled or free. The ITF Encyclopaedia explains that in semi-free sparring the “distance between players, method of attack and defense used, attacking and blocking tools used and number of steps taken are completely optional” (Volume 5, p. 225). The only restriction is that the attacker may only launch one series of attacks. Once the defender lands a counter attack the sparring stops. Semi-free sparring is similar to point sparring used in some martial art tournaments (for instance Karate kumite – see an example here) where every time a point is possibly scored, the fight is stopped, the point is decided upon by the referees and the fight is resumed.
The next step after semi-free sparring is often tournament sparring, sometimes also called continuous sparring to differentiate it from the non-continuous nature of point sparring.
It would be wrong to think that tournament sparring is free of any abstraction. Tournament sparring still contains some abstraction, i.e. arrangement. The ITF Encyclopaedia is frank about the restrictions placed upon it, saying that while it is “open combat” where there are “no prearranged mode between players, and both participants are completely free to attack and defend with all available means,” there are still, however, requirements of “controlled attacking and prohibition of attacking to certain vital spots” (Volume 5, p. 244). The tournament rules present in such sparring are by definition restrictive of some of the variables one would experience in a real fight. The ITF Encyclopaedia lists at leasts seven points in which free sparring is not “real combat” (Volume 5, p. 257):
- Prohibition of attacking the vital spots.
- Limited number of attacking tools. (For instance it is illegal to bite.)
- Limited number of attacking areas. (For instance it is illegal to attack the groin.)
- Limited space for fighting.
- Limited number of attacking methods. (For instance joint breaking techniques or ground fighting might be illegal.)
- Safety equipment.
- No full contact and so on.
There is often a confusion between tournament sparring and free sparring. The former has a sport focus, while the latter, known as jayoo matsogi [자유 맞서기] in Korean, is another exercise with the aim of self-defence preparation. Because some people erroneously refer to tournament sparring as free sparring, some instructors, like myself, sometimes refer to free sparring as "traditional sparring" [jeontong-eui matseogi / 전통의 맞서기]. For the rest of this post, however, I will stick to the original term, free sparring, which is a sparring drill that does not put a limit on the types of attacking tools, attacking areas, attacking methods, and so on, as is the case with tournament sparring. However, since rules are in place for protection, such unbounded free sparring can be very dangerous. For this reason this type of sparring is usually not practised at full contact and sometimes an instructor might suggest a slower pace, in order to avoid injury. Since such adjustments are also variables that are “prearranged,” even this type of sparring is a form of prearranged sparring. Furthermore, since both parties agreed to the exercise, it is more of a dual, than a real self-defence combat situation, because in a self-defence situation there is usually no pre-intention on the side of the defender to be part of a violent situation.
Unlike non-traditional martial artists that are categorically against all forms of prearranged sparring, I see value in it, if it is taught with its original purpose in mind, which is to hone specific skills, without confusing the exercise for the thing itself. In other words, as long as prearranged sparring is not confused for real fighting, but merely as a tool to learn specific skills that may be valuable in a real fight, I believe it is a very important part of martial art training. If such an approach is followed sensibly and progressively, it will dramatically increase one's ability to cope with the multitude of variables in a fight. Unfortunately many instructors do not properly facilitate true progression from high-abstraction, low variable practise to low-abstraction, high variable practise. The ideal practice should move from prearranged sparring, to semi-free sparring, to tournament sparring and free sparring, to self-defence practise. In the same progression the abstraction level will be reduced (i.e. more variables will be introduced) and the intensity will be increased. The progression will also become more and more “reality based”.
In short, prearranged sparring is a valuable training tool used to hone specific skills that may be valuable during real combat. Because of the deliberate abstraction, prearranged sparring intentionally does not look like real fighting, nor should it be confused with real fighting. The reduction in variables are on purpose so that we can focus on certain specific variables that we wish to train for. Prearranged sparring is part of a continuum of training that becomes progressively less abstract and approaches the real combative encounter in a systematic way relative to the practitioner’s skill level. While there is value in prearranged sparring, an over emphasis can actually become counter productive because practitioners may become too used to the reduction in variables that their preparation is not reflective of the huge number of variables in a real fight. A systematic progression from prearranged abstraction to "reality based" reflection of real combat is crucial.