14 posts / 0 new
Last post
Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture
One-step sparring podcast: Your help requested?

Hi All,

I am currently in the process of preparing a podcast on one-step sparring. I’m not talking about the isolation of technique in a realistic way, but your common or garden one-steps where the “attacker” assumes a very formal posture (typically a lower block or “fighting stance”), lunges in with a formal punch from a long distance, and then remains stationary while the “defender” executes a convoluted response.

I have made no secret of the fact that I do not believe that such training has any real value. While the argument is often made one-steps are a good way to teach timing and distancing, I maintain that the timing and distancing employed in one-step training is entirely different from the timing and distancing associated with both self defence and sparring. Therefore, there can be no progression from one-steps to anything applicable.

Nevertheless, one-step training is still very common and, in the interest of ensuring the podcast is balanced and covers all of the issues, I would be grateful if members could point out the positives they see in this kind of training?

If you are like me, and see no real value in one-step training, I would still be very grateful if you could repeat some of the arguments you have heard made in favour of one-step sparring; regardless of whether you agree with them or not?

Also be sure to let me know of any issues surrounding one-step sparring that you would like me to address in the podcast?

Thanks in advance for all your help – it is greatly appreciated.

All the best


Wallace Smedley
Wallace Smedley's picture

I recall one instructor responding to my note that I teach one steps only because they are a test requirement with, "Forget testing, these are reality!" 

For me one steps serve a very small role. They are a single component in a bigger process. Beginners need a "feed" in order to see placement for techniques. Once they understand where the technique goes, a bigger process of working on angles and timing and such begins. Test requirements aside, one step style training ends at this point.  

I agree with your point of view. I wish one stepa would go away. 

Wastelander's picture

In the first style that I studied, we had three types of "one-step sparring"--one that was focused on power, one that was focused on speed/flow, and one that was intended to be more "realistic". In my opinion, there doesn't need to be three entirely different sets of drills for these things, and they used traditional karate techniques but only used the most basic applications of them. Even the more "realistic" drills, which used less formalized methods, were still highly unrealistic for the reasons already mentioned--the attacks are not realistic, the attacker just sits there and the defender does a long series of techniques in response. I also found that some of them required the attacker to react in a certain way in order for the subsequent techniques in the long sequence to "work" in the drill.

In my current style, we have yakusoku kumite, which are longer and require both the attacker and defender to work through multiple attacks and responses. These, I believe, have more value than the one-steps I describe above, but are still not really teaching a great deal of practical skills. Mostly, they just give you a feel for how different angles, blocks and deflections can be used at a basic level, with a few more realistic and practical techniques thrown in for good measure. Still, they are usually done at too great a distance (although still close enough that you will be hit if you don't block or move successfully) and the techniques tend to be very basic, only sometimes making use of hikite or datum-setting. The yakusoku kumite can definitely be fun, but from a practical standpoint I prefer bunkai-based self defense drills.

I have seen a video from someone on another forum that shows his system's one-steps, which are literally one step (a rarity, it seems). The attacker does an attack (usually from a boxing guard and more realistic distance, although the punch is still left out for the drill) and the defender responds with a simple tai sabaki movement, a deflection and single counter strike. Those I thought would be much more effective for teaching timing and distancing that can be applied realistically, since the distance is closer, the attacks a bit more realistic and the defenses are very simple, straight-forward and short.

As for the arguments for one-steps, in general--it really depends on what you want out of your training. Here are a few I can come up with:

  • They can be fun
  • They can be used to train your reaction time and speed
  • They can make you focus on a real person "attacking" you (good for children and beginners)
  • They can be a form of moving meditation

My personal opinion is that I would not miss them if they were gone :)

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

The only good argument I have heard for these sorts of drills is that they are a less-boring way to teach people simple mechanic features of the style. I.e., point your body this way, move the foot this way. look here with your eyes, look in this manner, You can learn the same stuff in a variety of ways though, partnered and otherwise.

Suffice to say, I think that generally most "one step" practice goes so far beyond that into artificiality that i'm not sure it's a good reason to use them or not, as they also teach some exceptionally bad habits in addition to the good ones.

Matt Perlingiero
Matt Perlingiero's picture

I fear I may have misread the initial post, so if this is about how step-sparring is done in ways such as this:

Then please ignore the rest of my posting and keep fighting the good fight.  If, however, this is about step-sparring in its entirety, then here is my take.

I feel that one-steps get a lot of unwarranted hate, but mostly because that idea is entirely misdirected.  What I mean by this is, it's not the drills themselves that are bad, it's the way they are practiced.  The intention changes the very core of the set, and from what I observe, that's all the argument consists of: step-sparring is form over function.  Karate is being preserved, not lived.

The way we practice in my dojo is based on "Shu-Ha-Ri" in the sense that the sets are practiced differently as one progresses.  First, it is close to what you normally see for step-sparring (although much closer spacing).  As the student progresses, so does the urgency of the drill until finally we are, with control, trying to murder each other.  Here's Shinjo Kiyohide essentially doing what I'm talking about.

These sets are always modeled after the kata, either a literal section or techniques found within so as to better familiarize ourselves with it and its possible messages.  Here's some guy none of us have ever heard of doing something similar, just when he says "drill" with his awesome accent he means what I mean when I stay "step-sparring" with my US one:

These are done as practical methodologies where form -IS- function and in that, intention is key.  There is no difference between what we practice and how we fight.  Step-sparring is just one tool we use for improvement and is, in a way, no different from kata. 

Too long; Didn't read version: Step-sparring without a proper mind-set devolves into what we oftentimes see, and what I conclude is so disliked.

In ending, I agree entirely with Mr. Abernethy in that how step-sparring is practiced today is in its entirety unrealistic.  I conversely maintain that this is because of the -HOW- and not the -WHAT-.  The idea of step-sparring is as sound as any other method of training when used properly and is in use by anybody who employs a partner at any point in their training.

Just my two units of basal monetary value.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Everyone,

This is great! Just what I was after with some great points being raised that I could easily have overlooked if left to my own devices. I really appreciate this and please keep your thoughts coming!

Matt Perlingiero wrote:
Here's some guy none of us have ever heard of doing something similar, just when he says "drill" with his awesome accent he means what I mean when I stay "step-sparring" with my US one:

His accent is pretty awesome :-)

All the best,


Joshua.Harvie's picture

A couple of questions:

Wasn't the introduction of one step sparring based on training used fairly commonly in traditional Japanese Bujutsu? Surely this would indicate some level of utility in approach. Not a historian on the ways of the samurai here, so obviously I could be wrong but it seems odd that something which is fairly unique to the Japanese martial arts would survive if it had the peculiar characteristic of getting Japanese martial artists killed.

The second: Do we have a history of one step sparring in Okinawa, or indeed anywhere else in the world? I'm aware Motobu made some one step drills but for all I know (having not read his book yet, like the uncultured swine I am) he could have gotten the idea from Otsuka, Kano or a great deal of other people.

All the best


Micke's picture

Hi everybody,

one-step-sparring is heavily emphasized in shotokan. From what I understand, this type of training was developed by Yoshitaka Funakoshi during the early 1930s and he used kendo as a model. The reason for this new form of training was supposedly a request from the Japanese miltary and from Gichin Funakoshi's early students to make karate practice more combat oriented; Gichin Funakoshi emphasized repetition of basics and kata.

I think one of the ideas is that the defender should learn to keep a distance to the opponent where the atacker has to perform a large movement, usually take a full step, in order to be able to launch an attack and this is a strategy is also used in Japanese fencing. This might not be an applicable startegy in most civilian self defense situations but certainly useful in a duelling scenario.

This type of training can also be used to teach the attacker the skill to attack from an uncomfortably long distance. According to Kase Sensei who trained at the shotokan dojo during WWII, lunge punches were normally proceeded by a sliding step with the front foot (yori ashi) to cover as much ground as possible. The scenario was a sudden confrontation with an enemy soldier who you needed to kill before he could use his weapon.

So in conclusion, I think that this type of training was not part of original karate for civilian self defense, which also explains why so many kata moves appear unrealistic when used in this context. I think this is a Japanese way of budo training which was introduced to karate to meet new requirements. I guess it then became more stylized and unrealistic after the war.



Matt Perlingiero
Matt Perlingiero's picture

Joshua.Harvie wrote:

The second: Do we have a history of one step sparring in Okinawa, or indeed anywhere else in the world? I'm aware Motobu made some one step drills but for all I know (having not read his book yet, like the uncultured swine I am) he could have gotten the idea from Otsuka, Kano or a great deal of other people.

Heck yes there is!  I think there are some pictures floating around of Chojun Miyagi and Kyoda Juhatsu engaging in such activities, along with quite a few from China -AND-, this is a real kick in the pants to everyone I've encountered who professes the impotence of Asian martial arts and their archaic dances, tons in the west!  Check out one of the spear-plays of Paulus Hector Mair circa 1542:

I'd like to talk about connections like what you mentioned about Japanese bujutsu, but I fear that would be off topic.  However, it would make sense for step-sparring to have been prevalent in Okinawa, yet I don't believe what we see today (particularly in some of the younger styles) is really representative of what how it was utilized back in the day. 

Concerning Motobu, I feel it is actually safe to say that that's not the case looking at his heritage (meaning outside of the family).  Regardless of the origin of the idea I'd go so far as to say those sets were still synonymous to his teachings.

Joshua.Harvie's picture

Thanks mate, you've given me some stuff to look into.


Shoto's picture

Hi all,

One-step-sparring is easy!! You can teach children one step sparring. But try close combat distance with kids...its probably going to end in a disaster :-) I tried.

Especially in the beginning of ones martial arts career, you can learn and teach fighting skills without fear. Hence you know the specific attack, the proper defence technique and a counter attack, there is little room for mistakes and insecurities of the participants. 

Plus, if your class consists of experts and beginners they can train together in a controlled situation.

This leads to quickly gained self-assurance of beginners and opens new ways of proceeding in developing advanced fighting skills. 

nielmag's picture

Shoto wrote:

Hi all,

One-step-sparring is easy!! You can teach children one step sparring. But try close combat distance with kids...its probably going to end in a disaster :-) I tried.

Especially in the beginning of ones martial arts career, you can learn and teach fighting skills without fear. Hence you know the specific attack, the proper defence technique and a counter attack, there is little room for mistakes and insecurities of the participants. 

Plus, if your class consists of experts and beginners they can train together in a controlled situation.

This leads to quickly gained self-assurance of beginners and opens new ways of proceeding in developing advanced fighting skills. 


Although Im not a huge proponent of 1 step sparring, its not realistic for self defense or free sparring (sport sparring) for that matter.  However, I must agree with shoto, if you are teaching kids, and even some adult beginners, it is a decent way to introduce techniques/skills in a safe way.  However, I would highly recommend if we do choose to use this in a drill, to frame it as a learning/intro tool. 

miket's picture

Personally, I think one steps are valuable, but only as part of a larger learning continuum... The point was already made above that 'beginners need a starting place' to see where their basics 'fit' in larger motion applications. More importantly, they need to see how a unit of 'one' attaches to other techniques. And, they need a **base-level** INTRODUCTION to a person who at least is showing the INTENTION to strike/ throw etc. We might call the introduction of 'real' intention on the part of a striker, for instance, 'emotional content 101'... As the trainee, if I mess up, I get hit. So there is a 'real' consequence for failure.

To the degree that these one-steps are repeated, they can be useful in building larger 'chunked' combination motions. So a+b+c (three distinct motions, block+punch+sweep) become a larger thing (Say 'A' or 'outside entry'); and likewise, units c+d+e (jab+cross+hook) becomes simply 'three count' represented with a capital 'B'.

So personally, I see one-steps as a useful late-beginner / early-intermediate level exercises for developing what I call 'pathway' (sequential series motion) and 'attachment' (one motion to the next, or one chunk to the next) in students, and to a very (very elementary degree, as useful for introducing the concepts of risk/ consequence and emotional content to beginners.

The trouble emerges when people start to think that a one step so-called 'attack' (which like Wallace, I tend to call a 'feed' in order to specifically separate it) is the same as, or even similar to a 'real' violent attack. Which of course they're not.

So, if training does not immediately pass BEYOND one steps to higher level drills (even, in most cases, in the same class period), people can be left with the false impression that they are somehow 'fighting'. Especially, if the one step is more 'interactive' in nature, i.e. where multiple 'feeds' are being provided for the 'defender' to respond to, or where the choreographed pattern may have alternating 'you go, I go' turns to it).

My 13 y.o son had an experience of that recently. :-) He had his friend 'attack him', ostensibly so he could 'demonstrate' his ability to defend. And, to his credit, he entered quite effectively...

...Against the FIRST punch. :-) The untrained kid then immediately tagged him in the ear with the other hand. :-).

Point: My son's 'one step entry demonstration' was not the other kids play 'fight'. The other kid didn't follow the 'rules' of my son's EXPECTATIONS, which he had falsely developed as a result of over-investment of the ASSUMED degree of 'reality' in his controlled one-step training. :-)

By contrast, my personal feeling is that perhaps the so-called 'highest' level training drills are just relatively 'pure' attempts at 'doing', and at 13, he's actually had very little exposure to these. But my belief is that in such cases, we do NOT 'do' our martial art, we USE our martial tools to accomplish some tactical purpose.

Obviously, there can be only the minimal structure for such 'drills' or scenario based fights (or 'ballistic micro-fights as I think Tony Blauer calls them?). The only 'rules' that exist are those that are necessary for participant safety, OR those set by the instructor in an attempt to force or allow OPPORTUNITY for certain technical outcomes to transpire.

So, a scenario STARTS with one person in mount because that will encourage at least SOME degree of counter-grappling from participant A, and correspondingly, some degree of G&P skill use from Participant B as they try to hold position. There is no REQUIREMENT that the student use this or that escape technique, or this or that striking technique. One student is simply told: you stop him from leaving and the other is simply told 'you, escape' (reverse, whatever)

But, while the tactical objective in such exercises is 'given', the 'means' are left mostly wide-open to the participants. Weapons may be used or not used. a Backup partner might be introduced. Other parameters might be given ('no closed hand striking') But, mostly, the drill is left open, and, to the largest extent possible, is NOT choreographed. So, these are almost the OPPOSITE end of the spectrum from 'one steps', which are, by contrast FULLY choreographed.

For my part, I disagree with the assertion that one-steps even build 'real' timing, or 'real' stimulus DISCRIMINATION.

In the former case, they cannot build 'real' timing, because REAL timing in almost all cases is contingent upon the latter. And, by definition, you cannot DISCRIMINATE something (i.e. identify it as being unique from something else') that you know in advance is about to happen. The ninja-like (:-)) sixth-sense FOREKNOWLEDGE of what is ***ABOUT TO** happen is the comparative 'sin' and failing of the one step, as it is with literally ANY form of choreographed, controlled training. It is NOT 'doing' in an 'alive' (Iain: "all in") training context, it is instead PRACTICING doing in a choreographed training context. It is, in fact, almost entirely OPPOSITE OF doing in a live context. Therefore, the confusion that one-steps are fighting is the basis for 95% of outside of dojo-thrashings. (My assertion). Like with my son, the 'fight' that the trainee has PREPARED to face does not emerge, and they are instead faced with something much more violent, faster paced, and requiring of adaptive skills then any dojo one-step.

Likewise, I also do not believe one can learn the deployment of REAL power in one steps, in which case you are literally PULLING your punches. So, the only ways to develop the coordination, balance, and TIMED muscular flexion necessary to deliver 'real' power is to either a) 'really' punch a person (the 'not friendly' method) or b) 'really' punch impact equipment (the 'friendly' method).

However, all that having now been said: I still see one-steps as being 'valuable' within the confined parameters I initially listed.

My belief: The mechanical action and sequencing produced by one-step motion training (almost?) NEVER manifest in 'real' fighting, or even in objective-oriented training facsimiles of real fighting.

However, I have simply had WAY too many experiences where I have 'plugged into' combinations, follow-ups, entries, or other PATHWAYS and 'nodal' connections which were INITIALLY DEVELOPED in one step training, in response to a SPONTANEOUS intersection or momentary opening in fighting.

And that is, I believe-- where 'real' timing is developed, in the live action. Because, if you have 'done it live', then you have 'done it', then, haven't you? (to turn your phrase to that effect on it's contra positive, Iain.) I.e. If I have not only successfully identified THE OPPORTUNITY to act (discriminated), but have also ACTED effectively-- or even 'mostly effectively in a way that allows me to achieve my objective' when we get to the level of tactically-oriented training scenarios-- well, then I can have some 'real' FAITH in my underlying CAPABILITY to similarly be able to act when it is 'for real'. (And assuming, of course, that my training has also dealt with acclimation to the emotional aspects of combat).

So, one-steps, I believe, provide a framework for the development of APPLIED basic TECHNIQUE (which application is NOT yet even 'real' application, due to the presence of foreknowledge), but which is nevertheless very important in building the underlying effectiveness or 'ability TO CONNECT TO technique' that just 'comes out' in real fighting, and which separates it from mere animalistic or biologically driven flailing.

One thing I tell students is that if you hold down an unfamiliar animal, it will STRUGGLE by nature. It may bite or claw naturally. However its ability to RESIST or THWART your efforts to contain it or hold it in place, however, are determined by the presence of its weapons, it's ability and willingness to use them... i.e. a dog with no teeth can't bit, and if, for instance, it is muzzled, it cannot bite, even though it has both the weapons and the willingness. The definition of RESISTANCE is, therefore, I believe, at least partly contingent upon and inseparable from the underlying notion of EFFECTIVENESS, which in the human animal is merely improved or ENHANCED (but not guaranteed) by the presence of something we happen to call acquired 'technique'-- literally 'special knowledge' about HOW and WHEN to attempt to use whatever weapons we have at our disposal in a manner that is comparatively MORE effective, we hope.

So, any human, presented with violent threat to self existence, has the inherent ability TO STRUGGLE within them, and most will to one degree or another. But the underlying EFFECTIVENESS of that struggle-- i.e. the learned and developed 'ability TO RESIST'-- is at its core fundamentally predicated on the ability to TAP INTO whatever training the defender has had and to 'bring it out' AS NEEDED to fit the desired outcome, at the precise moment WHEN it is most likely to succeed, or when the odds of it succeeding are at least 'improved'.

That last is meant to be explanatory, not to descend into fortune cookie philosophy. But, it is, in my opinion, our ability to bring 'our A game' (highest level ADAPTIVE skills) to 'the game' (crisis event) that determines outcome. If we can't ever TAP the training, we can have loads of it and it won't mean anything.

Paul_D's picture

Having listened to the Podcast on one step sparring it reminded me of why I gave up Karate in my twenties. I struggled for a long time to understand how what I was being asked to do in the dojo related to what happened in reality.  I assumed of course, being young that the problem lay with me and my inability to understand.  So many people did Karate, so it couldn’t be Karate that way the problem, it must be me, right?  I now know of course  why I struggled to relate my training to reality, because my training was unrealistic. 

My memories are of the three K’s:-


For those of us that agree with Iain Podcast, Kihon has unrealistic attacks, from unrealistic distances, performed in a unrealistic manner, and has little or no benefit which can be transferred to a live situation.


Most clubs it seems concentrate on winning plastic trophies in completions, but this again doesn’t really transfer to a realistic situation.  People trying to glass you in a pub do not stand in Hidari Gamae with their hands up from six feet away using techniques designed to score points.  As more than one instructor has pointed out to me, you will not be stood in Hidari or Migi Gamae when you are attacked, and you certainly can’t walk round Tesco’s doing your shopping in Hidari Gamae to ensure you are always “ready”.


The main (and often exclusive) focus of kata training is the repetition of the kata, and little or no time is spent practising the techniques contained therein.  Which reduces Kata training to little more than a dance lesson.

I therefore spent the entire time I was training performing things which have almost no benefit in a live situation other than the ability to throw a pre-emptive strike. Which, ironically, was discouraged due to my instructors misinterpretation of “There is not first attack in Karate”

Although I no longer study it, knowing what I know now I do now regard Karate (the way Iain and others like him teach it) as the best from of civilian self defence.  But I wonder though how many clubs have moved on from what I remember.  When I scan websites and Facebook pages form Karate clubs (at least in my area) they all seem to be doing what I was doing twenty years ago, and don't seem to have moved on.