Sparring for competition is a different ball game (or foot game) from that of sparring for realistic self defence… we all know that don’t we! Certain techniques are omitted for safety, targets are restricted, contact is supposedly monitored etc.
Competition is fine and adds value to most martial arts in some form or other. It seems however that the sparring in many Taekwon-do competitions, usually billed as ‘light continuous’ has changed dramatically over the years and not for the better. This article refers to the changes in ‘light continuous’ events that are predominant in ITF style Taekwon-do, and is not a reflection on other types of martial art competition formats or their merits or demerits.
When I began a competitive career that took me to national and world titles (I say that just to show that I know what I’m taking about, not as a boast), sparring was quite rough, we didn’t wear head guards or shin pads, just hand and foot pads, a box and we fought on hard floors with no mats. This was all fine and dandy as that’s just how it was back then, technically it wasn’t bad either, good techniques could be seen and being Taekwon-do, the legs were mostly used, with a variety of hand techniques from jabs to reverse knife hands. Opponents were sometimes knocked down due to a good technique with good timing, landing on an open undefended area of the body, not through sheer ‘bulling’ punching power, as this was the Taekwon-do competition way – light continuous sparring – it kept it techniques technical, crisp and sharp!
Then ‘light continuous’ under went a small transition. Head guards were introduced for safety and became mandatory (mostly to avoid the head smashing on the hard floors should someone fall or be knocked over), contact seemed to be monitored more, again for safety, rules were adjusted slightly, gaining more points for more difficult techniques like jumping head kicks and less for just punching your way through, to encourage and reward more spectacular kicking.
With the splits and divisions in Taekwon-do, ‘light continuous’ has changed again, and not for the better of Taekwon-do as a whole I feel and I wonder just where it is actually heading as contact and technique aside, it seems we may have entered a so called grey area with regards to its actual legality, as I will explain later!
To enable more competitors into their events, certain things are now over looked and this is what I want to discuss. For many tournaments, what is billed as ‘light continuous’ should in fact be billed as ‘Heavy Continuous’, as its not quite full contact because the onus isn’t on knocking your opponent out and the emphasis still remains on scoring points, though neither is contact light any more. However, it seems the contact levels are more dependant on the opponents will to take punishment. For example, if we are sparring and I throw a blitz of punches and knock you down, I will often get warned, however, if I do the same thing but you stay up, the fight just continues, if your nose pops I get a warning or even DQ’d, if not, fight continues etc.
I don’t mind a bit of contact and my students can and often have to step up levels in
order to match their opponents after staring in light mode, as that’s what the format
stated (examples can be found on the videos section at www.raynerslanetkd.com), but
all students should be aware of what type of competition they are entering, for safety,
for training and for the organisers… legal reasons!
Last year we entered a competition which had weight divisions and was billed as
“light contact”, but how then did a yellow belt end up with a broken nose in a light
contact event.. only his 2nd ever tournament and it was ‘light contact points sparring’!!
Granted, accidents happen, but this was because the referee let heavy contact go on
and on until the injury happened near the end of the bout (eye of the beholder!!) but
how many injuries can be avoided by good referees enforcing the rules and other
small details at tournaments (like their own rules) properly adhered to!
To me, what’s even more important than the level of contact is the fact that as contact seems to increase, technical fighting decreases. I have witnessed in the last few years ‘light continuous’ Taekwon-do bouts that vaguely resemble poor kick boxing, with only punching and perhaps the odd kick thrown in. If you want kick boxing, enter a kick boxing tournament! I also note how many instructors now advertise Kick Boxing as part of their classes, maybe this is part of the issue, I also wonder how many have done proper kick boxing bouts or training or if its just light/heavy continuous sparring and pad work billed as kick Boxing training for extra income and the attraction Kick boxing has for many! I competed in Kick Boxing events many years ago, they were great fun, but I wouldn’t claim to teach it!
‘Light continuous’ should flow from foot to hand to foot/hand techniques (you get my point)
for the duration of the bout. How many bouts have you witnessed stopping and starting
numerous times due to one competitor simply bulling his way forward with a barrage of
punches forcing the bout to stop by either excessive contact (the ref stepping in or the
opponent turning their backs) or simply ‘bulling’ the opponent out of the ring forcing it to
stop? Many ITF style competitors refute WTF sparring, but at least competitors know
exactly what they are getting into when they sign up, the same goes with full contact
and MMA events.. this is not so anymore with ‘light continuous’ events, as contact levels
are very much ‘in the eye of the beholder’.. this is a grey area!
Another facet to all this is that many tournaments now allow 8oz or 10oz (or higher)
boxing gloves, claiming safety as a key point. We use these gloves in our heavy contact
training at the academy and a hit with an 8oz gloves hurts, as gloves these days are
constructed to be pretty solid. Boxing gloves are not needed for light continuous sparring,
unless you are allowing heavy contact (ie. heavy continuous sparring) but then it shouldn’t
be billed as light continuous! I have often heard organisers that call for boxing gloves as
a requirement say that it is because of safety, but from what I’ve seen over the years,
boxing gloves in light continuous events seem to simply encourage fighters to hit harder… perhaps they are under a misguided impression that the larger boxing gloves means less impact on their opponents, but again, it takes it from a light to heavy contact event! Again, nothing wrong with more contact, but should it not perhaps be descriptively billed as such?
Still other organisers say it is because of the type of ‘open fingered’ semi-contact gloves and how students have lost eyes due to them!! Though I’m sure this may have happened on an occasion (though it might also be Chinese whispers), its very few and far between, in fact I’ve never seen it at an event I’ve attended myself in the last 15 plus years! That said, I once heard of a Karate bout where both fighters threw the same kick, their shins clashed and one broke his leg.. though they didn’t ban kicking in Karate bouts because of it, in any case, whether true or not, I have witnessed far more people knocked down by those wearing boxing gloves at ‘light continuous’ events, and more and more heavy head contact than anyone ever getting poked in the eye, let alone losing their sight.. perhaps that’s a thought to ponder also!
I just finished watching a tape of two top squads fighting for England and Wales, and sadly to say, out of the 10 bouts or so between the teams only 2 could even fit the bracket of ‘light continuous’ (as billed). In one fight one of the fighters threw a single kick through the whole bout, the rest was just boxing… go do a boxing match if you want only boxing! Some of the Taekwon-do demo`s were just as pitiful I’m sorry to say! This is not how I want our beloved art represented and would be ashamed if they connected me and my students to what I witnessed on the tape!
Egos were almost filling up the hall (don’t we teach courtesy and humility anymore in
Taekwon-do), the instructors/coaches were running on and off the mats at every available
stoppage, fights went into clinches, a fair defence, but from here they were yanking each
others necks to throw each other, then when they hit the floor they carried on punching!
Sounds more like Vale Tudo to me! More so was the fact that the whole event was just
boring to watch, with not one spectacular technique thrown, let a lone being pulled off!
Why? Because they were too busy trying to punch each others lights out and that doesn’t
show the world what good Taekwon-do can look like and the tape was billed as `Britain’s
Premier Spectacular` and is one in a series, with the early ones from the late 80s/90s
One of my students went to an large International Taekwon-do tournament recently, and
came back and said it was almost full contact! I asked him to explain and he said that if
you didn’t hit hard you got walked over, the referees (international certified refs by the way)
allowed this level of contact to exist through the whole event, despite the sparring sections
again being billed as ‘light continuous’!
Its funny that for an actual full contact sparring event, as far as I’m aware, all competitors
need a full medical, whereas, for light continuous you don’t, further more the medical requirements for the ring side are considerably more substantial than what is required for a ‘light continuous’ events. I don’t know the full details (as I’ve never organised a full contact event, so stand open for correction) but I’m pretty sure you need a paramedic team or doctor at a full contact event, rather than a couple of 1st aiders like you see at most ‘light continuous’ events (excellent though they usually are).
As I’ve said, many ‘light continuous’ bouts border on heavy/full contact and event organisers are risking serious injury to their competitors! More so, it makes Taekwon-do look sloppy, less technical and without grace! Is that really how we want people to view our beloved art!
The problem is compounded by the fact that many competitors now see this type of contact as a test of their skill (above actual skilfully executed techniques), and event organisers have let it go on for too long to the point where it has become the norm, but as I said earlier, such events are now entering a grey area!
This ‘billed as light continuous/contact’ which in practice is really ‘heavy contact’ came up
in a conversation I had with a lawyer. She felt that technically they are infringing the law as
firstly, events are falsely advertising events as light contact, then allowing heavy contact.
Secondly, she felt they are setting themselves up for a ‘prosecution waiting to happen’ (as
she put it) as she felt that if someone enters an event under the impression by the
organisers that they are entering on the grounds that contact would be light/semi, then
they are continuously hit with heavy contact strikes.. she feels this constitutes an assault
that both the opponent, referee and event organisers could be held liable for! Furthermore,
should someone actually die from a hard blow at an event, a more serious case will occur
as it could be put forward that this was an almost full contact event without proper medicals
for competitors beforehand to ensure they were fit and healthy enough for an event with
such contact, as well as the wrong type of medical staff on hand at the event itself! Again,
serious food for though I think!
If nothing changes it won’t stop my students competing if they wish to, they can go toe to
toe in any format but steer well away from straight brawling as I don’t teach that, because
as an impression of Taekwon-do it looks so poor when bouts go that way, let a lone whole tournaments! As we don’t train strictly for tournament (its only a small percentage of what we train) it doesn’t matter that much on a club basis, but for Taekwon-do as a whole and the world impression of the UK Taekwon-do scene, it matters a great deal!
A competitor should be able to take the format for exactly what it is, ‘light continuous’ should be exactly what it describes itself to be. If you feel its not the right ‘test’ area for you, try a full contact kick boxing event, a WTF format tournament or even an MMA style event. Only a coward enters a ‘light continuous’ event, then deliberately steps up the contact to make themselves feel better and secure a win because they cannot simply pick off their points! This makes them a coward as the opponent is unaware of this intention until it happens and the aggressor has broken the rules to make himself feel better or tougher or whatever.. but it is indeed a cowards way! Those that don’t like the rule restrictions of this type of event simply shouldn’t enter!
These are just some points organisers, referees and competitors should think about, even maybe billing your event as heavy continuous! There are others about that do light continuous fine. We enter a tournament each year which had no weight divisions, no mats, but also no major injuries, due to Taekwon-do rules being enforced well. No boxing gloves were allowed, a combination of punches scored a maximum of 2 points to encourage good leg techniques, and referees strictly monitored contact levels. There were many fast and furious bouts, great leg and hand techniques, flying techniques etc. and it gave a great impression to all who watched it.
Being able to punch the crap out of an opponent doesn’t make you good at Taekwon-do
or martial arts, it just means you can brawl! Even in ‘light continuous’ sparring, with well
controlled techniques accidents happen, with good timing, good technique etc. I once
broke a fellow competitors ribs with a jump back kick that was pulled and controlled (I
have video evidence to prove it – the controlled technique that is), but it goes to show
that even with light continuous it can be hazardous. Black belt divisions are often a little
heavier on the contact than the coloured belt divisions, but should still be able to flow!
I was once pulled up by my old Chief Instructor when I was referring a red belt division,
for allowing too much contact (though this was in the days I mention at the beginning
of the article). I said to him I felt hypercritical telling adult red belts to calm the contact
down, when in an hour, my divisions (black belt divisions) would be going even harder.
To which he pointed out there is a great leap between coloured and black belts (at least
there was back then) and the two simply aren’t comparable and the rules should be
enforced, as when they turn black belt, they will then compete that way! A good point
to remember, even if just for the safety of competitors!
I once asked an excellent Taekwon-do student, a black belt that was exceptional at
sparring, why he never competed (this was many years ago in my early days competing) and he said “I have a young son, he doesn’t want his dad to look worse than he already does, so why would I want to risk my face being bashed up for a piece of plastic and metal and even have to pay for the privilege”.. he had a point!
Now, some may be reading this and thinking what a wuss (I wouldput a stronger word but that’s not appropriate here), but sorry, been there, done that and still do.. but in the right way! When I was younger I didn’t care about contact, about injuries etc, I entered kick boxing bouts as well as the hard and fast Taekwon-do tournaments and simply gave back what I was given. I accepted the contact, the bruises and the injuries simply because that’s how it was then, but now my injuries take longer to heal, I’m not as young or as fit as I once was and have nothing to prove to myself anymore, because to me at least, tournaments were not about glory, but rather about certain things I wanted to prove to myself rather than proving things to others, which I have done and am now contented with. If I compete nowadays its simply because when I’m at a tournament I like to be involved as much as possible, but its more for fun than anything else! When I want contact stuff, myself and my black belts go for it in traditional sparring as I trust them and they trust me, which allows these types of levels in a safer environment!
We do many types of sparring at Rayners Lane Academy, from ‘light continuous’ competition type, to heavy contact with boxing gloves, to traditional sparring (which allows grabs, throws, sweeps etc), but students always know which one they are doing, what’s allowed (which is most things in full out traditional sparring, though only senior grades do that) and what the contact levels are! Sparring and contact aren’t the issues, allowing competitors to enter something they are unprepared for, either physically and/or mentally, is morally unethical, not to mention dangerous for everyone concerned, not least the competitor!
It should ultimately be remembered that students enter tournaments for a number of reasons, yes, some simply want to win, others to test their bottle, some for fun and others simply because ‘its that time again’ and everyone else is entering! A tournament should be a good experience for students… fun, hard work, a learning experience, but a good experience. That experience becomes less pleasurable to the point of putting students off entering any tournaments when, should they drop their guard etc. they simply get battered (even with their guard up this is often the case these days)! As they mature, they can chose to enter heavy contact tournaments, kick boxing events etc, but let’s keep the light continuous’ sparring of Taekwon-do for what it is, as no other art does it as well as us, when its done properly!