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The Most Problematic Basic Sparring Error

by on July 18, 2012

You see it all the time in martial arts competitions, and especially so in MMA matches. A kick is thrown or a punch launched and the fighter on the receiving end does what? They move straight back. In the case of MMA, they actually seldom move at all.

The Problem

But I’m not talking about MMA here, I’m talking about Shotokan karate. Among all the errors that sparring competitors make in class while practicing and invariably in competitions, not moving or moving straight backwards is the error that unnecessarily results in the most lost points. This error is unnecessary when we consider the other obstacles leading to errors. For example:

  • The opponent is faster
  • The opponent is taller
  • You have insufficient energy to spar
  • Stuff on your mind

The first two of these are overcome by correcting the direction you move when defending. The third is solved with a routine of eating and sleeping well and takes place outside the dojo. The fourth problem is much harder to fixed and I wouldn’t consider it an “unnecessary” error; its inevitable, persistent, and complex.

But improper movement is correctable—maybe not easily corrected, but its not impossible.

Anecdotally, I have never seen someone move backwards as fast as another person can move forwards. It’s a characteristic of our species: our dominent direction of locomotion is in the anterior orientation of our bodies, what with our eye socket position, forward facing knees and flexing motion of the hips and ankles.

I’m guilty of making this mistake. I think we all are. I believe this behaviour stems from an instinctual need to increase the distance between ourselves and a threat. Moving parallel and in the same direction as an approaching threat is the best way of increasing that distance. But increasing distance is not going to provide you with a way to score, in competitions. If the attacker can close the distance between you two faster than you can increase it, they can continue to move forward and continue attacking while you are stuck in a loop of defending or focusing your mind on increasing the distance more. In the context of tournaments, where the commitment of your technique (speed, power, intensity, focus) is considered, few karateka can move backwards and generate the power needed to compensate for the forward momentum the attacker has to add to their own technique.

The solution: move diagonally.

The Solution

Now if the defender moves to the right or left they reduce the closure of the attacher slightly, and by less than moving straight backwards, but the advantage comes by way of changing the angle of the attack, and controlling that angle change. By waiting until the attacker commits a technique and then moving out of the way of that technique, the defender makes it very hard for the attacker to change direction to compensate. Meanwhile the defender, you in this case, has moved very little, has changed the angle, is well-grounded in the floor, and can even move forward slightly to counter-attack.

This being said, breaking the habit of moving straight backwards is a challenge. Fortunately for you, the solution is simple but may take a long time depending on your age, your athletic ability, and open-mindedness.

Practice with a friend as much as possible. Find someone else who might want to practice this same thing. Take turns, starting slowly, being the attacker. The defender moves to one side or the other and counter attacks. Now move the defender so that there is a wall (preferably not drywall) a couple feet behind the defender. Now the defender has no choice but to move to the side or backwards diagonally.

The key to this practice is for the attacker to strike like they mean it. That doesn’t mean it has to be hard or killer, but it has to be convincing. This simple drill is not meant to change the speed of your footwork (although that might be a positive side-effect), but to change your mindset. Do it until your subconscience realizes why it should make you move that way. Do it until your body wants to move that way and you don’t have to remind yourself that moving to the side is more effective. Your chipping away at your instrincts and over-writting it with new muscle memory. As you get better, speed up the drills. As you speed up, make it more free and allow either person to attack. At this stage, both parties still need to remember that this is practice and that your not trying to win points from each other, so have a slight pause between each attack.

Eventually you’ll get to the point where you can free spar and naturally move diagonally to the side, unforced. When you do, you’ll thank yourself for it.

One Comment
  1. I like how you dicuss the idea that a person will always be faster moving forward than moving backwards. My sifu always teaches me to move “off the powerline.” So simple, yet so complex. Good read.

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