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shotokanman70
shotokanman70's picture
Step Sparring: A Relic of the Past

Hello pragmatic karateka! I recently started a blog site, appliedshotokan.com 

https://appliedshotokan.com/step-sparring-a-relic-of-the-past/

I have linked the blog post as well as a video that summarizes my thoughts on step sparring, "Step Sparring: A Relic of the Past". Iain has spoken about his dislike for this exercise and I have to say I've felt the same way for a long time.

Happy training,

Andy Allen

David Price
David Price's picture

Hi Andy, Love the article and is very much in line with the way I now feel about set sparring. I'm A Tae Kwon-Do instructor but the basic syllabus has the same sort of format as 3-K Karate. we do basics (line work), patterns (our version of Kata) and sparring (sport based usually) the sparring does also include 3 step, 2 step and 1 step. my problem is I love my club that I train at and I get a great workout from the training, but I don't have that many like minded high grades to train with. as a result all my reality based training or bunkai (boon hae in Korean) is limited to when I teach my own students. Im finding it very difficult to justify teaching the 3 step sparring routines when I no longer believe in them, however they are required for the gradings. Is there a way we can do them and have value from doing them other than just "for gradings" ?

shotokanman70
shotokanman70's picture

Thanks, David. It sounds like you are in a similar situation as I am. Our step sparring is very regimented, leaving no opportunity to vary the technique. It's very frustrating. I would like to implement some use of hikite (pulling hand) and angles but generally speaking that is frowned upon. A couple people who have read the blog have suggested that I offer a better slution. That's on my to-do list. I plan to do a blog and a video. Not sure when I'll get around to it but I'll post here when I do.

Marc
Marc's picture

Hi Andy, thanks for the article and the summary video that comes with it, good idea. Valid points you make. I think you covered most of what is flawed, when you look at it from a practical apporach. The thing is that the kihon kumite forms (3K or step-sparring) are just as useless for competition kumite and for competition kata bunkai kumite. So they are really only there for grading. (See my article at https://kata-karate.de/index.php/karate-kihon-kumite/en for a comparison of different kumite forms.)

I too am part of a club that still subscribes to having kihon kumite forms as a required part of gradings. I do teach it for that purpose, explaining to the students that these are required for grading only and that they are practically useless for any other purpose. In our association we do have an alternative grading syllabus that does not require kihon kumite, but in the club there is some kind of scepticism about that system - something very emotional about tradition and somehow promoting a different kind of karate... Oh well.

In the end it does not take too much time away from training if you do it once a month for 20 minutes.

After all, many students do seem to enjoy kihon kumite for what it is. An exercise you can practice safely with a partner that involves exact technique, body control, speed, a cognitive component (a bit like learning a kata), a certain kind of managing distance. Ok, you could just as well learn to do the algorithm march. What I'm saying is, it can be fun.

Take care,

Marc

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Good post and good video! Like most here, I did one-steps for decades and I can’t point to a single benefit they provided. All they did was waste training time. I’ve never heard anyone articulate a good argument for doing them from a pragmatic standpoint.

The standard “defence” of them tends to be, “They teach timing and distancing, and they are good for beginners”. I would say that they teach the wrong timing, the wrong distancing, and the develop extremely bad habits in the beginners. There are much better ways to train, that are suitable for beginners, and that are not the martial dead-end that one-steps, three-steps and five-steps are.

The only reason we do them is because the karateka of the 1930s and 40s badly aped the practises of Judo and Kendo. If we look at Judo’s nage-no-kata we can see, on throws where it is appropriate, the practise of breaking the balance twice before throwing on the third.  I can see the value of drilling kuzushi in this way in Judo. However, karateka – in a desire to further copy Judo and be accepted alongside it as a legitimate and popular Japanese Budo – aped this “three-step” practise for striking without thinking it though. Add in misunderstandings about the nature of kata – in particular the conflation of self-defence distances with duelling distances (not helped by the influnce of Kendo drills); and the resulting reinterpretation of kata methodology – and you have the abomination that is three-step sparring.

 

Kendo has also similar drills. They work for kendoka in teaching distancing and timing, but that distance – which many karateka copied for their new "three-step" and "five-step" drills – does not work for striking without weapons. Again, karateka wanting to see karate take its place alongside other modern Budo copied many elements of popular arts such as Judo and Kendo. This includes belts, uniforms, the do-ethos, etc and, unfortunately, some inappropriate training methods that, while being a good fit for the arts in which the originate, are a very bad fit for karate.

 

Starting from scratch, there is no way anyone would reinvent the practise. They are an historical oddity based on misunderstandings and inappropriate practises that developed during karate’s rapid expansion in Japan. There is no reason to hold onto them, and every reason to abandon them. It is a valueless practise that is neither traditional nor functional.  

David Price wrote:
Is there a way we can do them and have value from doing them other than just "for gradings" ?

Practically, I would say no. They can be done for the fun of skilfully doing them; and there is nothing wrong with people enjoying them for their own sake. In the past, I’ve certainly enjoyed the feeling of doing them well. However, they have no value from a functional standpoint. They can have value as art, enjoyment, and even for the fun of exploring the historical oddity they represent. However, they have no functional value from the perspectives of both consensual and non-consensual violence. Ultimately, to me and for my training objectives, they are a waste of training time.

All the best,

Iain

David Price
David Price's picture

Thanks for your reply, Yes we do seem to both have a similar situation. I feel that the problem is that 1. The top brass feel that our martial art is a certain way and that’s it, and 2. That they are so far away from the grass roots level they don’t really care enough to change the syllabus and 3. They are very sport based so the rest doesn’t matter.

paul clark
paul clark's picture

Hi everyone, when our club instructor retired for health reasons last year I said I would take the group on but would slowly evolve our syllabus to include  pad work, bunkai and generally a more pragmatic approach to training. We have our foundations in Wado and reduced 3 step to one step. We also still train Ohyo Kumite because I like the way it gets students to tranisition more dynamically between multiple techniques. At higher grades we still train a version of one-step but in a less compliant way or as Iain might put with added dirt! Admittedly they are still semi-sparring but the attacks are more hay-maker than a straight stepping punch. The defences begin from a "fence" ready position and pretty much all lead through to dominance of the attacker with take-downs and finishes. 

When I discovered Iain's approach/books/videos more than 10 years ago I started to try to bring some of that to our group. As Iain often says context is critical to understanding what we are doing and why we are doing it. Years ago no one cared, our Karate was what we did and we did it without question.

What is rewarding now in leading the group is being able to say we are doing this to train for flexibilty, speed, endurace and on occassion self defence. As a group we ask questions and look for rational, plausible, real-world answers and solutions. We are thankfully linking techniques to kata and the ongoing conversation about the angles in kata being relative to the opponent is beginning to resonate.

For my own fitness I train with another group doing thai rounds and this involves a lot of hitting pads with elbows and knees. My Karate group also now really like hitting pads with their elbows and knees as well as their fists and feet and so we are slowly elvolving. 

In conclusion I beleive there is some value in pre-arraged drills so long as they are designed, adapted or developed with a bit of "grit" and the context in which they are being practiced is understood. 

Best wishes

Paul

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

An addtional thought:

Those who want to muddy the waters in an attempt to justify the practise tend to employ the following strawman arguments:

1) An argument against “X-Step Sparring” is an argument against progressive training.

2) An argument against “X-Step Sparring” is an argument against all other forms of compliant / prearranged training.

Neither of the above points to true. Compliant / prearranged training is an important part of the overall training matrix. Training also needs to structured, relevant to the level of the student, and progressive. That should be self-evident.

 An argument against “X-Step Sparring” is an argument against “X-Step Sparring”. Meaningful and honest discussion demands we avoid strawman arguments.

“X-Step Sparring” is a very poor progressive training because it can’t progress. The timing and distancing of “X-step sparring” only exists in such sparring. You never see that timing and distancing in any form of consensual fighting or in self-defence. It’s a martial dead-end.  

“X-Step Sparring” is very poor compliant / prearranged training because it can only work when the partner does as they are instructed. It’s therefore “compliant-reliant” and as such has no meaningful role within a wider training matrix. There is nothing it gives that will survive the move to non-compliance. That’s not the case for good compliant / prearranged training.

Progressive Training? YES

Compliant / prearranged training? YES

X-Step Sparring as a valid from of compliant / prearranged training and a valid part of progressive training? NO

All the best,

Iain

Anf
Anf's picture

Like many others, I did choreographed one step dancing for years. I'd say that initially, literally the first dozen or so times, it does have some small benefit to the absolute beginner, in that it teaches them to keep a clear head and offer a coordinated response to a fist coming towards their face. Most absolute beginners flinch and close their eyes, wave their arms about, or give some other inappropriate response to a fist traveling towards their face.

After maybe a dozen goes though, folk start to relax a bit. At this point, any usefulness of one step, in my opinion, ends. From this point on there are many better alternative training methods.

Since walking away from karate and its copies and moving to aikido and jiu-jitsu, I love how every drill is partnered, and while we start off doing something very specific while we learn the very basics of a technique, we quickly progress to moving faster, offering increasing resistance, working from different angles, keeping things flowing etc. Ours is not textbook aikido, in that we include some of the striking aspects of karate and boxing, and we pressure test everything we do. If we don't get a technique on, nobody dives. I honestly think I've progressed more in the last few months since switching than I did in years and many grades in what I guess would be called 3k.

Marc
Marc's picture

Anf wrote:

I'd say that initially, literally the first dozen or so times, it does have some small benefit to the absolute beginner, in that it teaches them to keep a clear head and offer a coordinated response to a fist coming towards their face. Most absolute beginners flinch and close their eyes, wave their arms about, or give some other inappropriate response to a fist traveling towards their face. After maybe a dozen goes though, folk start to relax a bit. At this point, any usefulness of one step, in my opinion, ends.

In my experience, absolute beginners struggle with the fist coming at them because the prescribed response is inappropriate. The fist is coming straight at their face while they are asked to execute a proper uke-technique instead of just slapping that fist down. Many also want to instinctively move sideways out of the line of attack, while the exercise asks them to step backwards.

It is only after a few rounds that they realise, that their partner will not hurt them, and that with a bit of cooperative coordination they do manage to block the arm as required. Then they can keep a clear head and start to relax a bit.

I've seen this over and over again with children and adults. The beginners instinctively know that this way of defence is flawed. They ask me about it. And I encourage them in their thought. "You are right, that would be a better way of defending, and we train that way too. But this exercise is not about defence. It it about a coordinated partner work, formally required for your grading." I often explain how it entered the karate world via judo as Iain described above. It is very important to tell folks that it is not self-defence but a form of exercise for it's own sake.

Take care,

Marc

Anf
Anf's picture
Marc wrote:

I've seen this over and over again with children and adults. The beginners instinctively know that this way of defence is flawed.

I agree completely. But the same is true of basics. At least the way they are often taught, primarily in line drills, often in highly impractical stances, and usually backed by a completely implausible explanation.

"We do this long, difficult stance so that we can't be pushed over. In response to a punch, we extend our left arm, drive our right fist all the way down to our left hip, twist our core, then snatch our left arm back while uncoiling our torso and driving our right up up across our body and up past our face, to generate power, and we do all of this in less time than it takes for the punch were responding to to arrive". The foolishness goes on.

By this point, we face a choice. Do we believe that our instructor genuinely thinks that, in which case we leave, and never try martial arts again. Or do we think, ok, there's no way he really thinks that, so he's just finding ways to explain concepts and at some point, in 25 or 30 years, when I'm ready, if I train all the time, I'll understand the truth. In which case surely one step is as valid as any other aspect of training.

There's a third scenario. One step is about massaging egos. While the lower grade student is trying desperately to override their basic instincts that make us all capable of violence, and performing one step badly as a result, the higher grade can come over and demonstrate it effortlessly, then nonchalantly walk away while the lower grades look on in awe. As I suspect do the parents of the junior students who are sat watching. It can look awesome. It's great for demos. Of course that kind of goes against the ethos of martial arts, about overcoming the ego.

On the subject of ego, in the context of one step, we all know that martial art is as much about ego as anything else. One step gives a student who can't fight a chance to acquire an ego boost. When a fully compliant partner waits 30 seconds for you to remember how to use their extended arm as a lever to take them down with, that can make people feel good. There are plenty of students that are satisfied with that, and will go back regularly to pay for more classes to learn different ways to defeat their fully compliant stationery opponent. For those students, one step is a fantastic training tool.

Marc
Marc's picture

Anf wrote:
Marc wrote:

I've seen this over and over again with children and adults. The beginners instinctively know that this way of defence is flawed.

I agree completely. But the same is true of basics. At least the way they are often taught, primarily in line drills, often in highly impractical stances, and usually backed by a completely implausible explanation.

Yes, if instructors give completely implausible explanations and force students into impractically long and low stances, then line work basics eventually will lead to frustration.

But that is not a design flaw of kihon training. It is the instructors making bad use of the tool. Done right and with proper explanation, kihon training is an excellent tool for refining the movements we need to execute our techniques in a healthy way and with good alignment and body mechanics. It is a means to a end.

With x-step-sparring the problem is that the exercise is by its design not leading to any practical outcome, be it for self-defence, point-sparring or competition kata bunkai.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

Hello all, 

I am very interested in this topic, and grateful for all the input.  However, I have a terminological request.

I train Tang Soo Do and in my dojang we do a lot of one-steps, rarely three-steps, never five-steps.  But "one-step" seems to have a different definition than is being used here.  *Traditionally*, it involves uke stepping back with a low-block, while tori waits in ready stance.  Then at a signal, uke advances with a stepping punch, and tori does [something].  

But what makes it a "one-step," definitionally, is just that there is a single attack.  Maybe also that the drill doesn't involve any significant  resistance from uke.  The attack doesn't have to be a stepping punch, tori doesn't have to step backward, it could be at any distance and from any stance, etc.  The response could be memorized or it could be free-form.  I have a bunch of old karate books and they are all chock full of "one-steps" by this broader definition.  

So is the claim that one-steps are useless being used in the narrower sense--the regimented,  traditional, memorized variety--or in the broader sense of a single-attack drill from a compliant partner?  

Thanks in advance!

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Heath White wrote:
So is the claim that one-steps are useless being used in the narrower sense--the regimented,  traditional, memorized variety--or in the broader sense of a single-attack drill from a compliant partner?

I would say the former because that is what the term “one-step” generally refers to in karate circles i.e. a long-range very formal lunging punch launched from an exaggerated difference followed by freezing and allowing the “defender” to do their thing unmolested.

Type “karate one step sparring” or “karate ippon kumite” into YouTube and you’ll get to see numerous examples.

All the best,

Iain

Anf
Anf's picture

I did tang soo do for 5 years. One step there is much like 'Japanese' karate one step. In fact those of us that liked to go beyond the dance routine needed for the grading would often get told off for rendering it ineffective by stepping one centimetres to the side or resisting about 10% when our opponent is trying to bend something, or punching too fast or too slow or a degree off course or any other minor deviation from the choreography.

If course my experience is not comprehensive. There are lots of other clubs in lots of other associations that might allow a bit more experimentation, and that would be great. I can see it could potentially be practical in such a setting.

muratmat
muratmat's picture

I do not want to enter the "effective" / "not effective" topic about X-Steps sparring, but I want to contribute to this discussion by providing information about such kind of practice within the Shotokai circles. As someone could know, Shotokai is not the same as Shotokan (intended as a style or ryu-ha), they both come from Shoto (Gichin Funakoshi) but they split because Shotokai members rejected the sportification of karate (i.e. Nakayama, JKA and so on) and wanted to be remain faithful to Funakoshi's view of Karate-do. Anyway, this is just a (really short) premise and i don't want to discuss "Shotokai vs Shotokan" or so.

My Shotokai lineage is Gichin Funakoshi -> Gigo Funakoshi -> Shigeru Egami -> Hatsuo Hiruma

Back to the topic. Since I practice Shotokai (started 30 years ago), I didn't see (nor I was taught) a single time the practice of 3-steps and 5-steps kumite. Instead we practice 3 kind of prearranged "one shot/step kumite" exercises called: Ten No Kata, Chi No Kata, Jin No Kata.

Ten No Kata (i.e. kata of heaven/sky): Tori delcares the attack level (Jodan, Chudan, Gedan) and can attack using a tsuki or a keri. Uke remains standing waiting for the attack and only at the very last moment (when Tori is near to reach Uke) does he take a step back and apply an uke waza of the same attack level (e.g. age uke, soto uke, gedan barai, sukui uke, ...). Immediately after, Uke launches a counterattack by applying (if needed) ashi sabaki to adjust the distance. Even if Uke takes a step back, the attitude must not be to escape (or run away): Uke intention must always be to enter.

Chi No Kata (i.e. kata of earth): Tori delcares the attack level (Jodan, Chudan, Gedan) and can attack using a tsuki or a keri. When Tori moves, Uke moves (at the same time) by going down into a front kibadachi and applying a morote (i.e. two-hand) "receive and counterattack" technique (e.g. at the same time one arm does a gedan barai while the other one performs a jodan shuto uchi)

Jin No Kata (i.e. kata of man): Tori does not declare the type nor the level of attack. Uke must perceive the intention and move ahead (by moving foreward), blocking the attack before Tori can even take half a step.

Historical point of view is the most interesting one: Egami was a friend and a senior of Gigo Funakoshi, Ten No Kata (omote and ura versions) was first presented as a compendium to the 1941 version of Karate-do Kyohan and there are several images of Egami and Gigo F. performing Ten No Kata. So my suspect is that Sambon and Gohon kumite is something more related to developments made by Nakayama &co...

So in conclusion, within Shotokai, the prearranged sparring is just one step and in its 3 variations is intended as a study of timings and on the attitude that must always be continued forward.

deltabluesman
deltabluesman's picture

Andy,

Great video, I really enjoyed it.  I agree; I'm not a fan of x-step sparring.  As you and others have pointed out, it creates bad habits and can make someone worse at fighting.  It's one of the major reasons why I have chosen not to return to dedicated training in Shotokan.  As much as I like karate (and see its potential and value), I can't be a part of a school that frequently practices these drills.  

A while ago, I was at a martial arts seminar and saw two senior black belts try to "go hard" during one-step sparring.  One of them mis-timed the attack and took a hard hit to the face.  Unbelievably bad idea, and it really illustrates how deep the misunderstandings can go (or perhaps how ego can lead martial artists into stupid situations.)

Wastelander
Wastelander's picture

The organization we are a part of requires what are called "yakusoku kumite" (lit. "promise sparring") drills, which are essentially long exchanges of X-step-sparring drills. Originally, there were 7 we had to know, and then the founder died and his son took over, and created three more sets of 7 (designated "basic," "intermediate," and "advanced"). The new ones are better than the old ones, but even so, my Sensei and I never liked them, and would've dropped them if we could. As an example, here are some folks from another dojo practicing most of the original set, although they are doing them at a closer range than most do, and taking some creative license with the finishing movements (which is a popular thing to do in our system):

 

The new ones are generally shorter, and have finishing movements more directly connected to kata, but they are still just exchanges of impractical applications of basic techniques before that.

To me, all of the arguments for X-step-sparring and yakusoku kumite drills can be countered with this; you can make the same kind of drills out of realistic attacks and responses. As Iain says, I don't think anyone has a problem with the broad concept of prearranged drills, but why use prearranged drills that in no way connect to your kata or any sort of actual fighting? If you want to have standard, prearranged drills to introduce students to techniques, concepts, timing, and distance, just do it with realistic attacks, and use realistic defensive techniques. If you decide to go more of the yakusoku kumite route, where the attacker gets to counter and try to attack again, then you can still do that with realistic reactions and attacks.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Noah,

Wastelander wrote:
The organization we are a part of requires what are called "yakusoku kumite" (lit. "promise sparring") drills, which are essentially long exchanges of.

Thanks for sharing that. It’s an interesting take on X-step-sparring drills.

Wastelander wrote:
my Sensei and I never liked them, and would've dropped them if we could.

I can understand why because, while interesting and distinct, they do exhibit the same issues we see with other forms of X-step-sparring i.e. inapplicable distancing, wrong timing, inactive hands, retreating in a straight line, etc.

Wastelander wrote:
To me, all of the arguments for X-step-sparring and yakusoku kumite drills can be countered with this; you can make the same kind of drills out of realistic attacks and responses.

Exactly. We can do pre-arranged drills that do reflect fighting and self-defence; that do have the right timing, the right distancing, encourage sound tactics and that can progress, without huge modification, to semi-live and live drills.

The only reason, that I can see, that people want to hold on to them is because they have invested time in them and don’t want to admit that was wasted time … so they waste yet more training time and the time of others.

What will help karate move forward is to keep presenting the alternative (to win the pragmatists over) and to make clear how such drills are not “traditional” and are a failed attempt to ape the practises of Judo and Kendo (to win the “traditionalists” over).

I do believe the practise is genuinely harmful to karate; particularly when the public – who won’t engage in “logical gymnastics” to self-justify the practise – sees them because it presents karate as a dysfunctional and delusional system.

All the best,

Iain

MichaelB
MichaelB's picture

It is very good difficult to come into a good conversation when so much that is useful has been said. I spent most of my adult life doing 3K karate, every week practising one, two and five step sparring. This practice might be good as an esoteric form of exercise for fitness. From a self defence perspective, you would be better being fit enough to run away from trouble quickly , as this does work in many situations. One of the most difficult concepts to teach a student is the, ‘there is no first attack in karate’ concept. Most people are culturally programmed to interpret this as waiting for someone to swing a punch at you, before you respond For a chance of success in a potentially violent situation, we should learn to attack pre-emptively, whereas one step sparing etc is training the exact opposite. It is wait, standing perfectly still with no fence, then counter attack after the opposition has had one or more shots at your head or mid body. It is a big step to learn to ‘hit first’, as most people in dojo’s are civilised and non-violent. To learn that if you have an honestly held belief you are in danger of assault it is okay to act, can be hard to overcome. This is why in self defence there is so much discussion and teaching about triggers, to avoid freezing under the inevitable adrenaline dump. As a young man I carried this poor training method over to sport competitions and developed a reputation as a decent counterpuncher. The idea of counterpunching in self defence is a terrible tactic, also because you have been conditioned to use and receive ‘karate attacks‘ in the knowledge no one is going to grapple you to the ground, try to gouge out an eye or grab you where you really don’t wish to be grabbed. Both in 3k karate kumite and sport, most of the techniques in karate cannot be used and you cannot get the habit of attacking vulnerable areas such as the eyes or groin unless they are practiced.  On the street, it is literally a long shot, to be at the wrong end of long-range punches and kicks!  

Wastelander
Wastelander's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:

Hi Noah,

Wastelander wrote:
The organization we are a part of requires what are called "yakusoku kumite" (lit. "promise sparring") drills, which are essentially long exchanges of.

Thanks for sharing that. It’s an interesting take on X-step-sparring drills.

Wastelander wrote:
my Sensei and I never liked them, and would've dropped them if we could.

I can understand why because, while interesting and distinct, they do exhibit the same issues we see with other forms of X-step-sparring i.e. inapplicable distancing, wrong timing, inactive hands, retreating in a straight line, etc.

Exactly! We did actually separate out the "finishing moves" of the yakusoku kumite drills and had people learn those against realistic attacks, and they work pretty well that way, without all the fuss beforehand :P. Just for fun, I combined the ending moves of Nakazato Minoru's "intermediate" set of drills into one long flow drill, which was entertaining, and I honestly think was more beneficial than the drills in their entirety.

 

Iain Abernethy wrote:

Wastelander wrote:
To me, all of the arguments for X-step-sparring and yakusoku kumite drills can be countered with this; you can make the same kind of drills out of realistic attacks and responses.

Exactly. We can do pre-arranged drills that do reflect fighting and self-defence; that do have the right timing, the right distancing, encourage sound tactics and that can progress, without huge modification, to semi-live and live drills.

The only reason, that I can see, that people want to hold on to them is because they have invested time in them and don’t want to admit that was wasted time … so they waste yet more training time and the time of others.

What will help karate move forward is to keep presenting the alternative (to win the pragmatists over) and to make clear how such drills are not “traditional” and are a failed attempt to ape the practises of Judo and Kendo (to win the “traditionalists” over).

I do believe the practise is genuinely harmful to karate; particularly when the public – who won’t engage in “logical gymnastics” to self-justify the practise – sees them because it presents karate as a dysfunctional and delusional system.

Agreed! I know that, within our organization, the yakusoku are held in high esteem by a lot of people, and I think it is largely because they are part of the legacy of the founder of the organization, and going forward, the legacy of his son. In both cases, that is a VERY new "tradition" to carry on, and I just don't see the value in it, as it is. Short, practical drills, against realistic attacks, using realistic responses from kata, would be far better.

Perception is also a huge problem! Karate is still seen as a passtime activity for children more than as a practical self protection art because of how much these types of silly exercises are trotted out for demonstrations. As you mentioned, even beginners can tell that it makes no sense, so anyone with an interest in learning to protect themselves will see those types of things and NOT start training in karate.

MykeB
MykeB's picture

I am late to the discussion, and beaten to the yakusoku kumite drills. The video above shows something similar to what we were taught, although we started from a closer distance. We basically measured distance using the aggressor's arm length, and then started the formal exercise.

My first dojo had dropped the "x step" sparring, but maintained the yakusoku format as it was a core requirement for Matsubayashi ryu. We also has an "ukiwaza" drill that was a formal ouch/block drill while walking with a partner. Measure to punching distance and a known attack was thrown to be countered with a known, formal block as you advanced and retreated up and down the floor. The initial movements of a block, the cover and deflection parts became very important. Again, this was a stylistic requirement.

A trap some more modern takes on karate have fallen into, and we have this issue if partner drills are not understood, is replacing one formal x step sparring with another. A haymaker from too far away takes the place of the lung reverse punch, but the end results are the same. I think the pitfall is easy to be caught by, it is a simple, repeatable drill that you can turn a beginner lose on and not worry about them for a minute. Teaching large groups partnered drills is much harder than line work and simple a, b, c drills.

PASmith
PASmith's picture

The ridiculousness of 3 step sparring was highlighted to me a few years ago when I re-entered the world of taekwondo (after Thai, bjj, mma, etc).

I was partnered up with a white belt and we started going through 3 step number one and I had a hard time blocking her punches. Not because she was fast or aggressive...but because she was such a beginner she hadn't yet learnt the "correct" timing (incorrect in reality) and was just punching three times one after the other (without pausing or chambering). I had to slow her down so I had time to chamber and then block in between the steps and punches!

What a silly state of affairs.

To compound matters in taekwondo we also have set 2 step sparring that teaches neither an introduction to sport sparring or how to realistically apply traditional techniques.

If I had my way I'd go with Iain's approach, ditch 3, 2 and one step and instead adopt pattern/grade specific 2 person drills with associated padwork/impact elements and scope for pressure testing and contextualising into reality based self defence.

Sadly such a wholesale change, while improving taekwondo immensely (imho), would be pretty much unthinkable on a large (association level) scale. To make such a change would be tantamount to admitting the last 50+ years of training, gradings and grades were flawed. Not an easy thing for 9th and 10th dans to admit or implement.

dhogsette
dhogsette's picture

This is a great thread, and in my view, the next frontier in “traditional martial arts” is the acknowledgement that x-step sparring is just as problematic in the context of pragmatic karate as is the separation of kata from kihon and kumite training. In Matsubayashi-ryu, we have seven yakusoku kumite drills created by Shoshin Nagamine that “all true Matsubayashi-ryu” practitioners must practice. I guess I’m not a true Mastubayashi-ryu practitioner…LOL. I learned them at one point in my training, along with a host of other one-step and three-step sparring drills. I never thought they were terribly useful for self-defense, and I also noted that I could never even apply the drills to sport sparring contexts. They were there, it seemed to me, as merely more material for rank promotion.

In my current Shorin ryu organization, which is heavily devoted to Nagamine’s Matsubayashi-ryu, the yakusoku drills are emphasized. I do them when needed for the sake of the organization’s requirements, but I do not value them much beyond historical contexts. However, my sensei created a wonderful video and teaching series around these Nagamine drills, in which he identifies key combative principles from the original drills and then demonstrates ways we can recontextualize the drills for training in practical self-defense. I really value his contributions, yet what they reveal to me is, from the perspective of practical karate and self-defense, the original drills are deficient and new ones need to be created based upon the old ones to practice the combative principles in ways that help us develop self-defense skills. Well, if that is true, then it follows that, from a practical karate perspective, the original drills are deficient. But, that is blaspheme for some…

I have also trained many years in Shaolin Kempo Karate. I had a great time learning dozens of “kempos” and “one-step” drills. Each of them cued off of a lunge-punch attack out of low block, front stance position (a position we will never see in a self-defense situation), and the more advanced they were, the more impractical they became. It got to the point that I could not remember them all, and I didn’t think they were terribly effective anyway, so I stopped training that style and began developing my own practical karate training practices, rooted in the kata of Matsubayashi-ryu and based upon the bunkai principles Iain and like-minded folks advocate. This makes the most sense to me.

Best,

David

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

PASmith wrote:
I was partnered up with a white belt and we started going through 3 step number one and I had a hard time blocking her punches. Not because she was fast or aggressive...but because she was such a beginner she hadn't yet learnt the "correct" timing (incorrect in reality) and was just punching three times one after the other (without pausing or chambering). I had to slow her down so I had time to chamber and then block in between the steps and punches!

This is a good illustration of one of the key flaws of such training. It is “compliant-reliant” with both sides needing to play their part exactly as prescribed. When even a minor degree of non-compliance is introduced, the whole thing falls apart. Unlike other forms of initial training, nothing survives the move to non-compliance which renders the whole thing a pointless dead end.

PASmith wrote:
Sadly such a wholesale change, while improving taekwondo immensely (imho), would be pretty much unthinkable on a large (association level) scale. To make such a change would be tantamount to admitting the last 50+ years of training, gradings and grades were flawed. Not an easy thing for 9th and 10th dans to admit or implement.

Absolutely! It’s the “sunk cost fallacy” in full effect. We don’t invest the time in the practise because it is valuable. We do it because not doing so would demand we accept how much time we have wasted … so we waste even more time!

I am very confident that will change though. While there may be an “emotional resistance” to change, the practical benefits in doing so are overwhelmingly self-evident for anyone who takes an objective look. Give it 10 to 15 years and I’m sure “X-Step Sparring” will be a minority practise that will be viewed, quite accurately, as an “historical blip”.

All the best,

Iain

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

dhogsette wrote:
I have also trained many years in Shaolin Kempo Karate. I had a great time learning dozens of “kempos” and “one-step” drills. Each of them cued off of a lunge-punch attack out of low block, front stance position (a position we will never see in a self-defense situation), and the more advanced they were, the more impractical they became.

I think that’s a good observation which may will relate to. Step-sparring is impractical to begin with, and it can’t progress to anything meaningful, so the only “progress” possible is the addition of meaningless complexity which further cements the impracticality of the training method.

All the best,

Iain

Anf
Anf's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:
I am very confident that will change though. While there may be an “emotional resistance” to change, the practical benefits in doing so are overwhelmingly self-evident for anyone who takes an objective look. Give it 10 to 15 years and I’m sure “X-Step Sparring” will be a minority practise that will be viewed, quite accurately, as an “historical blip”.

With respect, I think your optimism commendable but misplaced. You and many (most?) here are a proponent of practical karate. But the majority outside of this arena are, I suspect, largely happy with the status quo. 10 to 15 years from now, it will be today's beginners in 3k that are starting clubs, teaching what they know, what they've been taught. Except they won't be quite as good at it as their teacher, because the culture instilled in them has them hold their teacher sacred. They can never be better than their teacher as that would in some way seem disrespectful. So they won't deviate or experiment. Why would they need to? Their teacher said its this, so it's this.

Of course some will break from the norm. Some will try other clubs and other styles. They'll set time aside to just play. Then 10 or 15 years from now one of them will post on a forum that they believe that in a few years, practical karate will become the norm.

PASmith
PASmith's picture

I think an apt analogy is trying to steer a big cruise liner or oil tanker as opposed to a small boat. People like Iain (and Stuart Anslow in Taekwondo) have jumped off the "Karate oil tanker", gone independent and are happily riding off on their fast speed boat that they can steer and direct in any course they see fit.

Meanwhile the tanker ploughs on and it's so heavy and unweildy it can barely change direction even if the people steering it want go in the direction the speed boat is going.

And then of course you have people actively resisting changing direction at all.

Taekwondo was my first art and after getting my black belt 18+ years ago I left (because of all the problems with "traditional" training we know and love) but came back to the exact same assocoation a few years ago as I wanted something local and convenient where my kids could also train. The syllabus has not changed one bit in all that time. Linework, patterns, set sparring, rote theory, etc. Actually I lie...it's gotten easier as some of the harder elements like breaking requirements have been removed or moved up grades!

It's like the rise of MMA, more holistic training, reality based self defence, animal day, Goeff T and people like Iain and Stuart re-examining kata/patterns has never happened.

And what's more people within the association that have saught to include such things in their classes and training have been warned not to by the head honchos or have had to do so very covertly.

Sadly like Anf I don't think outdated training like 3 step sparring is going anywhere soon.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Anf wrote:
With respect, I think your optimism commendable but misplaced. You and many (most?) here are a proponent of practical karate. But the majority outside of this arena are, I suspect, largely happy with the status quo.

It’s not optimism but an evidence-based prediction.

It is true that my circle is made up of those with a strong practical bias. It is also possible that my viewpoint could be skewed as a result. However, I am VERY confident that “X-Step Sparring” will be a minority practise in 10 to 15 years. Here’s why:

Most people have a limited view of karate which is based largely on the state of practises in their own club / association. I travel globally and hence I would say I have a wider view of what is happening “on the ground” than most.

When I started publicly sharing my approach, I was swimming against the tide. What I – and those like me – was putting forth was a niche practise. In the last decade things have changed radically. We are finding an ever-greater desire for a more pragmatic approach. Using any metric you chose to measure, the interest in pragmatic karate is expanding rapidly.

Conversely, 3K karate is in decline. The number of practitioners is dropping; as is evidenced the diminishing size and influence of the organisations promoting it. If they stick to this failing model, then it is sure that they will decline further. It won’t attract beginners in meaningful numbers. Additionally, as we have seen in recent years, existing practitioners will move to a model they find more enjoyable and productive.

PASmith wrote:
I think an apt analogy is trying to steer a big cruise liner or oil tanker as opposed to a small boat. People like Iain (and Stuart Anslow in Taekwondo) have jumped off the "Karate oil tanker", gone independent and are happily riding off on their fast speed boat that they can steer and direct in any course they see fit.

I think this analogy fails because I’m still on the tanker arguing that continuing to dogmatically sail towards the iceberg of irrelevance is a bad idea. More and more people are listening as the iceberg gets ever closer. The ship is turning.

PASmith wrote:
And then of course you have people actively resisting changing direction at all.

There are certainly the “3K Canutes” (I’ll go this that spelling in case people think I’m saying something else!) who want to deny the direction of the tide, but I guarantee they are already getting their feet wet and they will be washed away if they continue to stand their ground.

PASmith wrote:
It's like the rise of MMA, more holistic training, reality based self defence, animal day, Goeff T and people like Iain and Stuart re-examining kata/patterns has never happened.

The big picture definitely acknowledges those things have happened. I see it every weekend. More and more instructors are seeking information that will help them to shift to more pragmatic approach.

If people belong to a dogmatic 3K club, then they may not be seeing any change … but I’m seeing loads of it.

PASmith wrote:
Sadly like Anf I don't think outdated training like 3 step sparring is going anywhere soon.

It’s certainly not going to disappear overnight, but I think my timescale of it becoming a minority practise in 10 to 15 years is solid.

While at a club level there may be no sign of change in any given club, my vantage point of first-hand, “on the floor”, direct experience of pragmatic karate globally is that things are changing on a huge scale. I see it get bigger and more influential with every passing year.

Back to the initial point: It is possible that my viewpoint of pragmatic karate globally is skewing my perspective … but that’s also true of those only seeing things at a local / club level.

I have a specific macro view, and they have a specific micro view.

They are seeing things staying the same, but I am seeing massive change; with the rate of change in constant acceleration.

The big picture is that pragmatism is rapidly growing and 3K is rapidly declining. I can’t see anything that would reverse the ever-accelerating trend. It is for that reason I feel I can confidently state that “X-Step Sparring” will be a minority practise in 10 to 15 years.

The status of individual battles may vary, but I’ve no doubt of the way the war is going.

All the best,

Iain

Anf
Anf's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:
The big picture is that pragmatism is rapidly growing and 3K is rapidly declining. I can’t see anything that would reverse the ever-accelerating trend. It is for that reason I feel I can confidently state that “X-Step Sparring” will be a minority practise in 10 to 15 years.

I think you're right that 3k is in decline. Even in my own limited experience, the club I've left went from a regular turnout of 40 students per session, to struggling to cover the hall rent with a dozen or so by the time I left. Other clubs in the area seem to be struggling too. The local BJJ, boxing, muay thai and MMA clubs seem to be going from strength to strength. So I think you're right that 3k is on its way out, but I'm doubtful that it will ever really be replaced by more practical karate.

At this point I need to throw in a twist. I actually do think practical karate will thrive. But I don't think it will thrive under the banner of 'karate'. Why do I say that? Simply, as I explore the wider martial arts spectrum, I see karate in everything. Not the rigid line drill karate, nor the karate that says rising block will work against a full speed volley of punches, but the karate that shows that this action has this effect when grappling or throwing or redirecting etc. But does that count? I see karate in a fair bit of MMA on TV. They don't call it karate, and I'm not sure many wannabe martial artists would get excited by it and walk past the MMA gym to visit the local karate dojo. If we consider that karate IS MMA, in that it has evolved from a mix of different arts, then it practical karate will thrive. But if we're saying that karate, the system of kata and grades and pseudo oriental culture, but with practicality thrown in to the extent that it works outside of the dojo, I think that will continue to be a niche.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Anf wrote:
if we're saying that karate, the system of kata and grades and pseudo oriental culture, but with practicality thrown in to the extent that it works outside of the dojo, I think that will continue to be a niche.

I think the “pseudo oriental culture” will diminish, but I am confident karate will continue to be its own distinct entity and thrive as such. This is based on three key observations:

1) The strong shift toward practicality within the karate community will ensure greater relevance to the public who are now, generally speaking, more educated about what practical training should entail. Karate will attract more new students as that shift continues.

2) Karate has a wider appeal across the demographics. The arts you mention (BJJ, boxing, Thai-Boxing and MMA) are popular with younger adults. It’s not that they are exclusively practised by people in those age ranges, but you don’t see many youngsters or over 50s in MMA gyms. Karate, at the moment, has a broader appeal across the age ranges. Karate currently has more active practitioners than BJJ, boxing, Thai-Boxing or MMA. I see no reason for that not to continue as the shift toward pragmatism continues. Karate is not “niche” as it stands and the pragmatic strand within it is growing exponentially.

3) I think the number of pragmatically biased karateka already in existence is being underestimated. That’s the international community I move in and it is HUGE. We are not MMA practitioners and don’t want to be MMA practitioners. I therefore can’t see us being subsumed by MMA in the way you suggest. We will continue to grow in numbers and continue to set the agenda for the future of karate.

All the best,

Iain

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