27 December 2010

Prearranged Sparring: Definition, Purpose and Value

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):

  1. Prohibition of attacking the vital spots.
  2. Limited number of attacking tools. (For instance it is illegal to bite.)
  3. Limited number of attacking areas. (For instance it is illegal to attack the groin.)
  4. Limited space for fighting.
  5. Limited number of attacking methods. (For instance joint breaking techniques or ground fighting might be illegal.)
  6. Safety equipment.
  7. No full contact and so on.
In a manner of speaking, even tournament sparring is somewhat “prearranged” because of the “arrangement” imposed upon it by the rules within which it functions. Because tournament sparring is much less abstract and therefore tend to mimic a real fight a little closer, it is easy to fall into the trap of focusing too much on it. I discussed the problem with tournament sparring here and here.

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.


Further Reading: 

6 comments:

Ymar Sakar said...

There should not be a list about the restrictions. The rules should be posted, and the goal of each drill or method should be clearly explained and labeled.

The number 1 reason why students get fixated on certain things like winning in sparring is because they think winning in sparring means they have obtained skill and the ability to handle themselves outside the dojo/dojang. That's not exactly hot it works. But since nobody told them this, and they certainly weren't told this every day in the dojo, they got into a habit.

SooShimKwan said...

"There should not be a list about the restrictions. The rules should be posted, and the goal of each drill or method should be clearly explained and labeled."

Hi Ymar,

The rules are very much outlined and the goal of each drill is explained. However, the fact that the ITF Encyclopaedia actually takes the time to say how such drills are not realistic, I think, is quite unique. Most styles do not take the time to remind students that what they are doing (e.g. step sparring) are not "real fighting", misleading many practitioners into thinking that such drills are actual combat training instead of mere skill development exercises.

Ymar Sakar said...

I've not often heard of the ITF Encylopedia mentioned in TKD users in the states, however.

The ITF E seems to be a set of videos, correct? Many American martial artists, especially the ones that learned the "real traditional arts" after having seen too many mcDojos, don't tend to favor video learning for beginners. Thus I don't think they would even mention it, even if they had made use of the ITF E. Whether due to price, lack of availability, unpopularity, or intentional misleading of students, this knowledge is not widely available from what I've seen, even for students of TKD in the US.

The US primarily uses firearms for civilian self defense and the largest gang infested urban cities are coincidentally the most heavily restricted in terms of firearms and knives. South Africa dojangs and dojos may go out of their way to highlight the difference between having fun in sparring and getting killed because a student thought sparring was a life and death training scenario. In the US, the only people that need such knowledge live in urban neighborhoods or heavily gang infested cities, and their first option is the gun, not the kick.

I live in Georgia, right on the SW corner of the US. In Georgia and Florida, sometimes the SWAT teams come busting in trying to raid drug lords, but somehow got the wrong address. The first SWAT guy through the door of "no knock raids" got blown away by the resident. The resident was either arrested or killed in return. But that just proves a point. Here in Georgia, if the police wants to do stupid things and lord it over the rest, they're going to pay a price. Both publicly and physically. Against criminals, there are many households in Georgia that a criminal can go in. But can't get out without being in a body bag.

So often criminals in the entire state carefully stake out houses and burglarize them, when they absolutely know nobody is at home. This has resulted in a pragmatical low demand for H2H knowledge and realism.

This should help to explain TKD's reputation in the US, if you also look at the Korean founders of the ATA and other TKD organizations inside the US.

There has been a resurgence of uniquely American methods of training, such as Larkin, Rory Miller, or Peynton Quinn and other "reality based" systems in the last few decades, but as of yet, they have almost zero popularity or name recognition amongst American martial artists.

SooShimKwan said...

No, actually the ITF Encyclopedia is a 15 volume set of books that were authored by Gen. Choi Hong-Hi. Up until recently few people had the full 15 volume set, but most ITF TKD instructors invest in the cheaper and more convenient one volume "Condensed Encyclopedia", aka ITF TKD Bible.

In recent times I have come across the encyclopedia in electronic form (the pages have been laboriously scanned in) and made available online.

While on the topic, I just recently got hold of a Korean version of the 15 volume set -- definitely a rare thing to own.

Stuart said...

Nice article,
I read this some time ago, maybe when it was first posted, and put it in the 'things to think about later' folder. But essentially I saw no value in the pre-arranged sparring at the time.

I have entirely changed my thinking since. One key aspect I had not previously seen was the continuum from three-step to free (traditional) sparring, despite actually reading this post - sometimes the epiphanies need to be experienced, as opposed to learned.
In my case it was a reverse-engineering type situation (sidenote: anytime I actually make real progress it usually involves some sort of reverse-engineering).

I began to introduce free sparring (half speed, no rules or gear)into my classes but then found I needed support drills to introduce the necessary skills. Even well seasoned competition sparrers were at a loss when the gloves came off and the rules went out the window.

It quickly became clear that the various step sparring and semi-free drills, if drilled properly, made up the support structure I was looking for, and had almost certainly been designed for the purpose.

Competition sparring is something I would see as a support drill and not part of the main sequence. It teaches valuable lessons, many that can't be safely learned elsewhere, concerning speed, aggression, and pressure, but is too far removed technically to be a good fit.

SooShimKwan said...

Hi Stuart,

Yes, a version of this post was submitted for Totally Tae Kwon Do.

Like you I found the same problem with students that just didn't have the skill for traditional sparring when they did not have a good foundation in pre-arranged sparring.

There was a time when I required my students to only do improvised step sparring without giving them any prerequisite attacks and defenses, but I soon realized that they just do not have the virtuosity that such a drill requires. So I returned to providing them with a specific set for three-step sparring and then slowly gave them more and more freedom as they progressed, leading them from initially very fixed set sparring, to eventual complete freedom and improvisation.

With such trial and error as an instructor I came to really appreciate how the sparring-continuum works. It turns out that General Choi's pedagogic is very sensible after all!

I probably also agree with you that "Competition sparring is something I would see as a support drill and not part of the main sequence." It teaches valuable lessons, so I wouldn't want to abandon it, but it doesn't really fit in with the "systematic progression from prearranged abstraction to 'reality based' [combat]".

Btw, it is nice to see you around here at Soo Shim Kwan!