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Teaching Sparring Skills to Distinct Groups of Potential Students

By Robert Augenlicht



Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for promotion to fourth-degree black




This paper will present a general approach to teaching sparring skills to several

distinct student populations. Prior to beginning this undertaking, it seems prudent to

address certain foundational issues; what is sparring and why is it part of our training

regimen? The ideas put forth here represent a framework for thinking about sparring and

consequently how to teach it to UTF students.

A succinct definition of sparring is difficult and it may therefore be easier to begin

with a self-evident proposition; sparring is not fighting. Fighting has no rules and a

participant’s only real measure of success is the ability to walk away. The physical

maneuvers of Tae-kwon Do are self-defense tools that a practitioner can use in a fight, but

actual fighting is impossible to practice for reasons of human dignity and physical safety.

Nor does it seem appropriate to say that sparring is Tae-kwon Do’s practice or preparation

for fighting. Tae-kwon Do is a martial art and all areas of its training are in some sense

preparation for fighting. Any practice that does not in some way enhance a student’s selfdefense

capability has no place in Tae Kwon Do.

The key feature that distinguishes sparring from other areas of Tae Kwon Do

training is that it deliberately places students in situations with two key features; practice

that is stressful (in the sense of creating time-sensitive demands) and interactive. Other

central categories of Tae Kwon Do training, such as basics, patterns and forging, allow the

student to shut out external stimuli during practice. Indeed, students are encouraged to

ignore the external result of their efforts in basics practice and focus entirely on how the

technique “feels” internally. While patterns involve different considerations of rhythm and

flow between movements, it is essentially the same training scheme present in basics;

external stressors are removed to allow the student to practice their “best” possible

technique. Sparring, as this paper uses the term, develops distinctly different areas of the

student’s overall martial skill.

For purposes of this discussion, “sparring,” refers to a broad set of training practices

currently in use with the UTF; three-step and one-step sparring, slow-motion sparring,

push-kick sparring, dyna-strike sparring, and all varieties of free-sparring. Essentially,

any drill where a student must employ both offensive and defensive skills under time

constraints. Rather than viewing these different drills as distinct practices, they should be

seen as part of the continuum of sparring practice.

The different sparring exercises allow the student to practice their technique in

increasingly stressful situations that simulate some of the challenges present in fighting.

Even under full control, hands and feet flying towards a student’s body place pressure on a

student executing a block; knowledge that a counterattack is imminent makes execution of

a strike more difficult. Learning to perform techniques under the stress of an interactive

opponent (different drills from the student’s perspective present an increasingly interactive

opponent) is essential to a marital artist’s physical and spiritual development. The physical

development is self-explanatory: self-defense requires the ability to react to externally

created threats. The spiritual development is intimately linked to the “martial” nature of

the art; our understanding of ourselves and the world around us is the most complete when

we are using all of ourselves. Sparring requires the student to use their “total self.”

Different sparring drills provide students with distinct challenges both in terms of

“intensity” and the specific skill areas that they train. Consequently, instructors should

expose students to different drills while keeping in mind how the skills developed in each

drill builds on a student’s “sparring foundation”: the practical skills and mindset needed to

effectively use sparring to enhance a student’s overall Tae Kwon Do development.

Additionally, premature exposure to more advanced sparring exercises can foster bad

habits in beginning students that require extensive effort to correct.

Lesson Plans

The above-mentioned principals should inform the lesson plans for teaching sparring skills

to the following groups:

• teens with behavioral problems

• children under the age of 10

• women

• people over the age of 50

(A) Teens with Behavioral Problems

The unique training areas addressed by sparring pose particular challenges for

troubled teenagers, as well as great potential benefit. As discussed previously, a major

component of sparring as a distinct training area is the ability to control the stress reaction

and emotions that normally occur when people are placed in situations that they perceive

as demanding and threatening. Coping with stress and powerful emotions is generally an

area of weakness for teenagers with behavioral problems. The inability to do so, may in

fact, be a major cause of the difficulties that they experience as many are prone to adopting

a very negative or panicked mindset to problems that they encounter in daily life. Thus,

the emphasis of sparring training for these students must be for them to use sparring

exercises to develop the mental focus and discipline necessary for them to control how they

perceive and interact with challenging situations.

In teaching students the different sparring exercises, the instructor should increase

the degree of difficulty as students progress, keeping in mind that an overload may be

detrimental to the student’s development and actually set him or her back. This is

particularly true when teaching troubled teenagers as an emotional meltdown during

training could cause the student to discontinue training or become dangerous to the other

students. Consequently, it is very important that the instructor know the students as well

as possible and use his or her experience to assess each student’s overall situation. Thus,

Master Han’s advice seems particularly relevant: “bend, but do not break.”

It is particularly important that instructors dealing with troubled students ensure

they create a positive environment when teaching sparring skills. This will facilitate the

student’s ability to experience difficult situations as challenges rather than threats. One

way to bring this about is to focus on the sparring training as group activity and experience;

the students are not each other’s enemy, but rather, partners in developing their collective

sparring skills. A few techniques that may be useful for an instructor in this endeavor:

1. Tell students that Tae Kwon Do practice is a family and it is the job of each family

member to ensure the family’s well being.

2. Strictly enforce the traditional Tae Kwon Do courtesies relating to sparring.

3. Prior to sparring inform students that they must identify one thing that there

partner does well (or has improved on) in sparring and one thing that could use


4. After bowing in conclusion of a sparring exchange, students could shake hands and

verbally thank each other for the training.


The goal of using practices such as these is to enable the instructor to establish the

proper atmosphere for the students to experience sparring training. Emphasizing Tae

Kwon Do courtesies can help to give students the feeling that they are in a safe and

controlled environment within which to encounter the challenges presented by the

instructor. The pauses occasioned by bowing at the end of each session can also provide an

opportunity for students to recollect their emotions and regain focus that may have been

lost. Requiring students to provide each other with immediate feedback helps them in two

ways: (1) they must pay more attention to what their partner is doing (a good sparring

practice in general) and (2) to understand that they are responsible for each other’s

training. Having students give their peers both negative and positive feedback can help to

give students a sense of perspective: a necessary element for controlling how one perceives

and reacts to situations. Lastly, while shaking hands is not traditional to Tae Kwon Do, it

may be a useful custom for student groups comprised of troubled teenagers as an extra

measure to encourage camaraderie and mutual respect.

It is important to note that a student “loosing control” or otherwise having an

emotionally intense experience during training is not necessarily bad. The dojang should

be a forum for students to grow and develop; students must sometimes address their

weaknesses and step out of their comfort zones for that growth to occur. A student

becoming particularly flustered or angry can provide instructors with a “teaching moment”

if handled correctly. An instructor should try to stop the student in that moment and help

them to examine their thought process and see how it led to their loss of emotional control.

Instructors must take care when counseling the student not to do so in a way that may

cause the student to lose face. Rather, the instructor should point out how the lesson for

that student is applicable to every member of the group and reaffirm that having

difficulties is normal and necessary in Tae Kwon Do training. The challenges of sparring

can then be used to help troubled students learn to master themselves in potentially

stressful situations; an essential skill for their growth as martial artists and human beings.

(B) Children Under the Age of Ten

The primary focus of teaching our youngest students should be in developing a solid

foundation (spiritual and physical) for more advanced training in the future. Sparring

instruction for children should therefore focus on developing the student’s ability to control

their body and maintain mental calm under pressure. Because advanced sparring practice

to some extent simulates fighting, instructors of young children should be certain to

reinforce the philosophical opposition of Tae Kwon Do to violence; children must be told in

definite terms that the physical techniques of Tae Kwon Do are exclusively for self-defense.

Children learn in fundamentally different ways than adults (and even teenagers)

that create both challenges and opportunities for instructors. While younger children often

lack the focus for prolonged repetitive exercises, they often bring tremendous energy and

enthusiasm to their training. Sparring drills for children should capitalize on that energy

by emphasizing movement and requiring active engagement of the mind. Although

children can potentially be taught all of the sparring exercises, including contact sparring,

instructors need to always provide close supervision of their training. Instructors should

remember that young children’s lack of judgment can lead them to make unsafe choices. As

with any other group of students, it is imperative that the instructor know the capabilities

and personalities of the children that he or she teaches.

Small children often have difficulty focusing, especially when they are presented

with an open-ended task. Consequently, general sparring exercises like one-step or free

sparring may be problematic, especially for children more junior in their training. Sparring

practice where they can use all of their techniques may be so broad that children loose

focus. One approach is to have children perform the drills with special conditions attached

that will help develop particular skill sets. For example, three-step practice, where the

receiving student has to dodge the last punch prior to counterattack or combine a strike

with a take-down maneuver. By giving children more guidance they may be better able to

stay “in the moment” and learn to react to what their partners are doing. These more

focused drills may be able to more effectively harness the energy that children to their


Children’s natural predilection for games and competition provides a good potential

teaching tool for instructors seeking to impart sparring skills. For example, sparring drills

such as group knife-hand sparring where all participants must keep a foot in the circle or

the “back tag” game that Ms. Vimont often uses with her younger students can impart

fundamental skills for successful sparring. While instructors should not make Tae Kwon

Do training into mere recreation, children should learn that even serious endeavors can be

fun and should be engaged with enthusiasm.

Additionally, making sparring training “fun” can help children that are shy or more

easily intimidated, perceive potentially stressful situations as challenges. These exercises

can also help to remove a major impediment to learning; the fear of failure. By giving

children the chance to safely experience a partner “getting in”, they can learn to perceive

their imperfections as an opportunity to improve their technique. The ability of a student

to not lose their mental focus after being “struck” is one of the most important lessons of

sparring training; it is necessary to persevere in the face of adversity. Instructors should

impart this lesson, like all others, in steps that begin small and increase in intensity with

the student’s ability. Competitive games provide a good opportunity for children to take

those initial steps.

Instructors teaching children should keep in mind that children lack the emotional

and intellectual resources of adults. In particular, children may react more strongly than

adults to negative experiences, such as becoming scared after being struck or otherwise

intimidated during sparring training. Each child is different and their ability to cope with

adversity varies widely, it is the instructors responsibility to be aware of how their students

are doing and to keep communication open. While children should not be shielded from all

difficulties, instructors must keep in mind the limitations of their students.

(C) Women

Women, as a group, generally come to Tae Kwon Do training with less prior

experience in sparring or combative sports/activities in general. This provides both

advantages and disadvantages: while women are often less comfortable with “combative”

activities, they may be easier to teach, due to a lack of preconceptions. As a broad

statement, female students tend toward a more defensive approach to sparring.

Consequently, instructors should focus on teaching sparring skills that favor a more

defensive approach and work to counteract advantages from male opponent’s superior size

and weight. The instruction must address both the physical challenges faced by female

students (unfamiliarity with sparring-type activities, smaller size and weight) and the

psychological challenges (intimidated by “fighting” and aversion to behavior perceived as

aggressive) faced by female students. As with all groups of students, instructors should

teach sparring skills to female students in a way that builds off of their strengths to develop

their deficiencies.

Instructors can help female students to develop their offensive sparring skills by

using drills that emphasize the role of “offensive” techniques in sparring defense. For

example, one-step drills that focus on using “check kicks” or “blocking kicks” to control

space and disrupt an opponent’s offensive movement. Teaching female students these types

of techniques can help them to gain skills necessary to offset some of the disadvantages of

height and weight that they may face with male partners (or attackers).

Sparring instruction for female students should also focus on how to use the

openings created by the overly aggressive tactics of larger opponents. Sparring drills that

focus on mobility and counterattacks are particularly appropriate (these are also excellent

drills for any set of students). For example, drills where dyna-strike targets are presented

in different locations to a retreating student can help students learn to control their posture

so that they can effectively counterattack under pressure. In the context of self-defense,

female students can gain an advantage by feigning retreat to create vulnerability in their


The psychological barriers that female students may face from apprehension about

sparring often stem from unfamiliarity. The idea of being hit, especially for newer female

students, can be very intimidating and cause an unwarranted degree of anxiety that

interferes with the development of sparring skills. Instructors should help students to

overcome these apprehensions in the same way that they would approach any other new

area of training to a student: present the challenge in manageable increments that increase

with the student’s level of confidence and ability. The goal is to get the student to

understand that being hit, while not fun, is also not the end of the world.

Exercises that force students to deal with incoming techniques can help to allay

sparring-related anxieties that female students (among others) may experience. For

example, drills where one student has their back to a wall and blocks push-kicks or slow

motion techniques from their partner (or partners) can be useful. The defending student

has a good opportunity to develop their sparring defense and will inevitably get struck. The

reality of being hit (never pleasant) will replace undefined fears and apprehensions that

stem from the unknown. At more advanced levels, contact sparring can also be useful for

the same purpose. The ability of a student to master these types of anxieties is a major

component of the physical and mental development that sparring training brings to Tae

Kwon Do.

(D) People of the Age of 50

The main considerations for an instructor teaching sparring skills to older students

will be the physical limitations of the students themselves. The physical capabilities of

people over fifty vary widely based on the student’s age, habit and health. Some people

over fifty may be in excellent physical condition and be able perform like a person in their

thirties, while others may be severely limited. Given this variability, it is especially

important that instructors of older students pay attention to their student’s physical

condition and tailor the instruction accordingly. Instructors should make a point to become

aware of any health problems that older students may be dealing with and any pre-existing

injuries that they have experienced. Furthermore, instructors should make it absolutely

clear to older students that they should feel free to step out and take a pause any time that

they feel it necessary.

Sparring instruction for older students with limited physical capabilities should

emphasize smooth movements and transitions between techniques. Teaching older

students economy of motion can be especially helpful to relieve some of the stress on the

body that often occurs during sparring drills from rapid movement. One exercise that may

be helpful is the “mirroring” drill, where students touch palms and one student leads while

the other keeps the physical contact from breaking. This exercise teaches students to be

sensitive to the movement of the leading partner while being aware of their internal

balance points; students learn to only move as necessary from their center with a balanced

posture. Applying these movement techniques can reduce the stress on joints that can

occur during sparring drills (as well as lead to overall better technique).

Instructors of older students should keep in mind that the purpose of Tae Kwon Do

training is to help the student develop their physical and mental capabilities to the utmost

of that person’s potential. Older students that are more severely restricted in their physical

activities can still obtain benefits from sparring practice. Slow-motion sparring offers

students the chance to develop their mental focus by applying their techniques to

unanticipated situations. Instructors may consider using “tai chi style” slow-motion

sparring, wherein the students execute techniques in combination with deliberate

breathing. This sort of practice can provide sparring training while limiting any impact on

older student’s joints.

When older students are present in a class with younger students, instructors

should be cognizant of the student’s dual role; the respect for older people that is embedded

in the Tae Kwon Do tradition requires us to view them as both juniors and seniors. This is

especially true when children are present as respect for older people is a core value that we

wish to impart to our younger students. Consequently, older students should be referred to

as Mr. or Ms., so-and-so in front of the class. Instructors should admonish children that are

senior in rank to an older student of the need to show that individual appropriate courtesy.