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So What’s This Tang Soo Do Thing All About? (Free Sparring)

This is often the part that adult students fear & child students want to start on week 2. Free Sparring (Ja Yu Dae Ryun) can be seen as an extension of multi-step sparring, but is introduced much earlier in the syllabus (from 6th Gup / Green Belt onwards).

Two women sparring in a competition

Ja Yu Dae Ryun can take on a variety of forms. Many organisations will focus on tournament sparring, teaching their students how to win points in a tournament situation. This will often produce a one-dimensional student in this area of their training. All sparring (non-contact, full-contact, weapon sparring, etc) will always have some rules when taught & practiced in the Do Jang - after all, we all have work or school in the morning! These rules will define legal techniques, objective, level of contact, target areas, etc. Therefore, training in one specific rule set (eg: tournament sparring only) will limit the benefit of your free sparring training.

Regardless of your beliefs around the level of contact & the type of free sparring practiced, a number of elements are common to all.

Firstly, free sparring is not just fighting. It is part of the self-defence system & it is designed to draw out & develop certain skills & attributes. It is where you start to put a lot of what you have learned into practice.


Free sparring teaches the importance of distance management. I explain to all students when they start free sparring that they will get some knocks, bumps & scrapes - not from their opponent, but from their inability to manage their own limbs effectively. Too far away & you’re safe but unable to counter attack. Too close & you can counter but are more vulnerable to getting hit yourself. Free sparring helps students to learn & understand this balancing act.


We teach Tang Soo Do as a defensive martial art but using blocks & defensive movements in free sparring is significantly different from practicing the Basics. Linking your blocks to your movement, your blocks will become faster & more compact & you will need to learn which blocks need to stop and attack & which need to let the attack flow past (slip), opening up your opponent to counter attack. As I often explain, a Block is a Strike that stops you getting hit, so the choice of protection vs offence-like movement comes into play. Many of you will also be used to the cry of ‘get your hands up’ - you need to have a good guard & stance to be able to free spar effectively.


Free sparring teaches us there are different ways to step depending on our objective - we can cover more distance, move quicker, retreat, attack, move inside or outside or we can ‘slip’. All of these are different objectives that can be solved with footwork. Good footwork can help to manoeuvre your opponent into a losing position & it will help you with your defence, keeping you just out of reach of your opponent. You can’t just ‘stand & deliver’!

Adam Ant from the 1980s
Adam Ant - Stand & Deliver


The primary aim of partner work is often defensive in nature - single or multi-step sparring focus mainly on this until the final element. As you start working on free sparring, you need to develop your offensive techniques - poorly executed offensive techniques will open you up to counter attack (observe a Green Belt sparring with a Black Belt - it is often not that they know more that gives them the advantage; it’s the ability to put together the pieces of the jigsaw in a more coherent manner). Students must learn how to properly execute quick, powerful, aggressive offensive techniques safely.

Timing & Countering

With free sparring, students must learn the timing of a wide variety of techniques, done a number of different ways depending on your partner’s size, ability & speed. In addition to timing, free sparring teaches proper counter technique with timing being critical to effective counter attacking. There is a huge variety of counter attacking techniques that can be utilised when free sparring - free sparring helps you to develop your library of effective techniques for various situations.


Up until they become engaged in free sparring, everything that a student does will be pre-arranged. Free sparring brings the element of the unpredictable. Whilst students often have ‘tells’ & may favour certain techniques over others, you have to figure out how to defeat your opponent within the given rules. This is why you are told to spar with students from other centres at Gradings / Graduations - if you spar with the same person week in week out, it becomes nothing more than a pre-determined dance with the same old partner. Stretching yourself against someone new means you will learn to figure out what type of fighter they are - are they strong with legs / hands? Do they favour their left or right? Are they aggressive or counter-attacker? When they circle or defend, do they always go one way? Once you’ve worked this out (very quickly I might add!), you then have to decide how you will effectively combat this style & create a chance to win. Should something not go right, you have to quickly decide on a change of strategy. Free sparring is like a chess match - you need to be several moves ahead of your opponent.

Getting Hit

Whilst we focus on non-contact sparring, particularly with the children, understanding what it feels like to be hit is something all students need to experience at least once. Light contact / touch sparring means you can determine whether your defence was actually effective, whether you were actually far enough away to avoid but close enough to counter. It teaches you to fix what’s wrong. It teaches you to tighten your core & tuck your chin in. Real self-defence in a real life situation will mean getting hit - being able to deal with this effectively is part of the self-defence skill set.

Physical & Emotional Control

Free sparring teaches students how to control their techniques in a non-prearranged situation - getting close enough to count but not too close that it hurts. Different partners will also require different levels of control - some partners will be bigger, more aggressive, more dynamic than others & you need to be able to deal with that. Equally, when sparring with a less experienced partner, you may want to hold back a little in order to de-risk the situation & help them to learn.

Along with physical self-control, free sparring helps teach students how to control their emotions. The ‘Red Mist’ is not helpful in the Do Jang or in real life. If you treat free sparring as a part of your training rather than a way to dominate someone else, you will have a much more pleasant experience & see tremendous improvement. The best fighters are not those who dominate others but those who can bring the best out of their partner too.


As I said earlier, free sparring can bring out fear in even the biggest student. There is an inherent fear for almost everyone the first time they spar. However, overcoming this fear & training yourself to think clearly in the face of this fear can have an amazing impact on confidence.

Photograph illustrating sinking or swimming
Sink or Swim

We don’t like to leave students to ‘sink or swim’ - some organisations will just throw inexperienced students into free sparring with experienced students & expect them to learn. A better approach, & one we advocate, is to bring in sparring techniques into the drills & pad work, commence the sparring practice in a controlled manner & use sparring as an opportunity to learn as well as practice.

When beginning this part of your sparring, we will have little or no contact & rules will be restrictive. As you learn, we will relax the rules & we will look at light contact sparring when appropriate & between consenting students. Learning to spar effectively is a never-ending activity.

I wonder what is next...

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