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The Value of Sparring Systems In Taekwon-do

One Step Set Sparring

Within traditional martial technique application and rehearsal is often practiced through a variety of sparring methodologies. Taekwon-do possess a diversity of sparring systems within its curriculum, each providing the student an opportunity to experience technique application and practice from different perspectives. Essentially, the “System of Sparring” (Matsogi Goosong) with Taekwon-do is classified into:

System of Sparring. Choi Hong Hi, 1999




Foot Technique


Prearranged Free Sparring

Generally speaking appropriate sparring methods are used at all levels, with the specific methodology and techniques used being specific to the grade and development level of the students.

Sparring (matsogi) can be seen as the application of offensive and defensive techniques, under a variety of situations.

“Sparring is the physical application of attack and defence techniques gained from pattern and fundamental exercise against actual moving opponent or opponents under various situations. It is therefore indispensable to promote the fighting spirit and courage, to train the eyes, to read the opponents tactic as well as maneuvers, to forge, toughen or develop the attacking and blocking tools, to test his own skills and ability, to learn other movements hardly to be gained from pattern or fundamental exercise.” (Choi Hong Hi, 1999, p598)

In recent times, the growth of participation in combat sports and competitive arts has served to marginalise the popularist view of sparring, with many considering “competitve free sparring” to be the sole definition of this term. However, each individual aspect with the Taekwon-do system of sparring has individual merits, allowing the student alternative opportunities to better reinforce and practice their technical application. In this way sparring, in all forms, can be seen as a modality of training that intrinsically relies on, and reciprocally benefits, all other modes of training such as fundamentals (line work) and patterns.

“In fact, nearly all students are anxious to move into this phase of instruction. Not only does training become more interesting but for the first time the student begins to achieve a degree of satisfaction through actual application of these techniques.

The danger lies in a student who has not built up a solid basic foundation, developing bad habits that are extremely difficult to lose when a student progresses. Therefore the instructor should encourage the beginner to learn the necessary patterns and fundamental movements before participating in class sparring, especially tournament.” (Choi Hong Hi, 1999, p598)

A further view of sparring methodologies suggested by Tedeschi (2003) is that modalities can be separated into two distinct categories, sport sparring and self defence. Tedeschi (2003) further suggests that within the category of self defense sparring there are a variety of methods used, generally these being divided into two sub-categories: Step Sparring and Self Defence Sparring.

In Tedeschi’s (2003) analysis he suggests that Step Sparring comprises of:

Three-Step Sparring

Two-Step Sparring

One-Step Sparring

Whilst Self-Defence Sparring comprises of:

Pre-arranged Sparring

Free Sparring

He further states that Taekwon-do’s approach to self defence sparring particularly places emphasis on individual creativity in determining counter attacking opportunities.

“Taekwon-do does not possess a consistently well-defined body of self defence techniques that are universally practiced throughout the art as a whole. In fact, specific self-defence techniques vary quite widely among individual schools. This is mostly because Taekwon-do’s self-defence skills are ultimately developed through free sparring. Because this method of practice encourages the development of improvisational skills, and a personalised approach to combat, it is only natural that Taekwondoists would interpret and combine fundamental skills in unique and individual ways. Ideally, these personalised skills are an outgrowth of one’s physique, natural abilities and technical strengths and weaknesses.” (Tedeschi, 2003, p.310)

Tedeschi’s overall view of sparring methodologies supports Gen Choi’s premise that students must have a sound foundation in fundamental movements before progressing into sparring. In his analysis of self defence sparring however, Tedeschi may have been somewhat limited in his view of the benefits and applications that are existent within the Chang-Hon patterns, or indeed the suggested self-defence techniques (Hosin Sul) presented by Choi Hong Hi (1999, p.681). (Whilst it is beyond the scope of this article more information can be found on this by researching the work undertaken by Iain Abernethy and Stuart Anslow amongst others.) On sparring generally, Tedeschi’s categorisation of Sport and Self Defence Sparring modalities however does support the system of sparring originally proposed by Choi Hong Hi (1999). Sport Sparring is simply the competitive activity which often found in tournament settings.

Core Activities in Taekwon-do. Tedeschi, 2003.

Whilst not identified by Choi Hong Hi (1999, p725) as one of the component elements of Taekwon-do (Taekwon-Do Goosung), Tedeschi sees this type of sparring as being one of the five core activities of Taekwon-do. There is a commonality however within the view of the purpose of Sport Sparring.

“ There is certainly a beauty in aggressive yet controlled sparring, in well-executed patterns, or in the awesome spectacle of flying kicks and breaking techniques. Though the contest itself and the competitive spirit of all participants is important, students should also enjoy the match and take advantage of it for making new acquaintances within the brotherhood of Taekwon-do, exchanging training techniques and spreading the physical and mental attributes of the art to the spectators…” (Choi Hong Hi, 1999, p.734)

“The proper method of judging a student’s skill and power would be to conduct a match encompassing several related tests of ability, which might include sparring, patterns, power and special techniques.Through sparring-courage, aggressiveness, spirit, accuracy and speed could be tested;...” (Choi Hong Hi, 1999, p.734)

“The purpose of competitive sport sparring is to 1) hold a contest of skills based on specific rules in which the competitors can enjoy the act of winning and losing; 2) provide a forum in which one can test and develop skills, with less risk of injury than real combat permits; and 3) provide an activity that promotes the cultivation of positive moral values and character qualities that are an essential part of other aspects of life…” (Tedeschi, 2003 p.19)

Sport Sparring can therefore be seen as being very distinct in its purpose and form to other modes of sparring with Taekwon-do. The category of Self Defence Sparring proposed by Tedeschi (2003) is broadly similar to the system of sparring detailed by Choi Hong Hi (1999), being comprised of step sparring, pre-arranged and free sparring modalities.

Pre-arranged Sparring (Yatsok Matsogi)

This specific mode of sparring is typically practiced based on one of three sub-categories:

3-step (sambo matsogi)

2-step (ibo matsogi)

1-step (ilbo matsogi)

The specific nature of the drills practice are based on a variety of assumptions, for example the number of steps to be taken, the target and mode of attack and the defensive actions involved. Typically pre-arranged sparring involves no contact between the participants. All actions and conditions being agreed and set before beginning the activity.

This ritualised form of sparring provides an opportunity for practitioners to become comfortable with the concept of attacking, defending and counter attacking. Moreover, it provides an opportunity to progressively build proficiency and greater control of fundamental movements gauging the timing, distance and speed of techniques. Pre-arranged sparring also provides for techniques to be referenced on a “live” body and as such technical application can be further refined with accuracy and focus being developed, in a progressive, controlled manner.

3-step sparring is the most basic form of pre-arranged sparring. The attacker executing three strikes, with the defender blocking each in sequence. Typically the defender will complete a counter-strike(or strikes) following the final blocking movement.

Whilst often pre-arranged sparring is now completed only one way (han chok), with the attacker stepper forward and defender stepping back, the exercise can be conducted in a two way format (yong chok), with attacker and defender stepping forward or backwards. Additionally attack, defence and counter attack should be practiced on both right and left sides.There is no limit to the variation applicable within this basic drill, with any combination of attacking and defending techniques. The basic principles on 3-step sparring (Choi Hong Hi,1999) detail that only those techniques learned from patterns or fundamental exercises are applied, with only attacking and defending techniques remaining constant and one counter attack being conducted within the drill. 3-step sparring therefore presents an ideal opportunity for high volume technique rehearsal and a controlled environment for investigation into technical application.

2-step sparring is a progression into attacking with and subsequently defending combinations of techniques.

“The main purpose of this sparring is to acquire a mixed technique of hand and foot parts, the attacker, therefore, must use both the hand and foot alternately.” (Choi Hong Hi, 1999, p.624)

Typically the attacker will execute a hand strike, followed by a kick whilst stepping, however there is no prerequisite to ordering the techniques in this way. 2-step sparring again has two basic forms, one way with the attacker always stepping forward (han chok) or two way where defence and attacking techniques are completed both moving forward and moving backwards (yong chok). The variation within 2-step sparring drills again is constrained only by the range of techniques practiced and acquired through patterns and fundamental exercises. 2-step sparring further allows students to add diversity through evasion, varied footwork and multiple counter striking.

1-step sparring was traditionally considered to be the most important form of step sparring, with the defender executing counter striking technique versus one singular attack.

“Virtually, this sparring is considered the most important one from the point of view that the ultimate goal of Taekwon-do in real combat is to win the victory with just a single seasoned blow.” (Choi Hong Hi, 1999, p.630)

The basic premise with 1-step sparring is that the defender blocks or evades the incoming attack, executing counter strikes to appropriate targets on their opponent. This form of sparring therefore allows the student to practice both singular and combination counter striking, whilst culturing a develop in reaction, timing and awareness.

“The secret of this sparring is to deliver a completely accurate speedy and decisive blow at the opponent’s vital spot at the right time with the right weapon while defending against the opponent’s attack effectively.” (Choi Hong Hi, 1999, p.630)

With 1-step sparring we are again presented with the principle that there are a multitude of potential variations, with attacking, defending and countering techniques being limited only by the degree of knowledge of the student.

Semi-Free Sparring (Ban Jayu Matsogi)

The next development in sparring systems is that of Semi-Free Sparring. Choi Hong Hi (1999) suggested that this modality was the final stage of development for the student, prior to engaging in Free Sparring (Jayu Matsogi).

In Semi-Free Sparring a more optional and creative approach is taken toward the distance, method of attack and defence used. There is no requirement for pre-determination of the attacking techniques to be used, or in many cases the number of steps to be taken. The sole pre-determination in this type of sparring is that one student assumes the role of attacker and one the role of defender, where “..only one series of attack and defence motion is exchanged, however, and then for a brief duration.” (Choi Hong Hi, 1999, p.653)

Semi-Free Sparring provides a bridge between the ritualisation of completely pre-arranged and relative chaos of free-sparring. It provides systemisation for students to further investigate their reaction, response and technical applications, without exposing the stress and potential risks which Free-Sparring can involve. As with Pre-arranged Sparring there are no limitations or pre-requisites placed on the attacking and defensive techniques used within Semi-Free Sparring. This further allows an opportunity for students to be creative and find a personalisation in respect of their own reaction and technical application.

Free Sparring vs Sport Sparring

Free Sparring (Jayu Matsogi)

Free Sparring is essentially the purest application of technique within training. The basic principle is to spontaneously improvise personal responses based on the fluid, chaotic and unpredictable nature of actual combat. Within a training modality, for purposes of safety, there is a prerequisite for certain controls and precautions (for example, certain techniques or vital spots may be prohibited).

There is no pre-determination of technique within Free-Sparring, nor a set allocation of role. Students can attack,defend and counter based on the conditions presented. Within Taekwon-do, as previously stated, a differentiation exists between Free Sparring and Competitive Sport Sparring. Competitive Sport Sparring can is a sport. The players are seeking to score points by contacting areas of their opponents body, with valid techniques being limited within the confines of the specific rule system. Free Sparring in the context that we are presenting here however does not rely on point scoring, rather it relies on accuracy in determining attacks to (and defending against attacks to) vital spots on the body. Whilst precautions must inevitably be taken in regard to safety, Free Sparring allows students to investigate and research the physical application all techniques within Taekwon-do. As highlighted by Choi Hong Hi (1999) technique experimentation is indeed one of the key aspects of Free Sparring:

“Most students have a tendency to use a tested or favourite technique only. Certainly in an actual combat situation the best technique applicable should be used.”

“In open combat or match, the kind of technique to be used depends entirely on the actual situation, therefore it would be meaningless to practice free sparring against an opponent who moves according to a fixed scenario” (Choi Hong Hi, 1999, p.659)

In true Free Sparring the limitation on technique (aside safety principles) should be again only be determined by the underpinning knowledge of the students acquired through patterns and fundamental exercises.

“Remember that the pattern represents a free sparring against imaginary opponents whilst the sparring is the physical application of techniques logically, against actual moving aggressors.” (Choi Hong Hi, 1999, p.660)

Free Sparring within Taekwon-do allows for application of all techniques learnt, including locks and takedowns against singular or multiple opponents.

Foot Sparring (Bal Matsogi)

Taekwon-do is historically driven from an amalgamation of a variety of traditional Korean martial arts, with strong influences from Japanese striking arts. “Taek Kyon” and “Soo Bak Gi” were two ancient Korean martial arts, which predominantly used kicking techniques. Foot Sparring is a “symbolised” form of sparring which is incorporated from these arts, to better promote the development of kicking techniques within Taekwon-do.

Within this system of sparring students are freely able to attack and defend using kicks and leg techniques. No hand techniques are permitted. There is no pre-arrangement involved in respect of available techniques or roles, with this essentially being a type of leg technique only Free Sparring.

Model Sparring (Mobum Matsogi)

This system of sparring is considered that which best exhibits Taekwon-do, demonstrating the agility, capabilities and skills of the exhibitor to the spectating audience. Typically Model Sparring uses repetition of the same technique, often performed at both full and slow speed, to demonstrate physical application and precision. This is a completely pre-arranged form of sparring for exhibition.

Pre-Arranged Free Sparring (Yaksok Jayu Matsogi)

This type of sparring is again effectively for use in demonstration or exhibition. It is based on the principle of Free Sparring, however the participants will follow a prepared and pre-agreed scenario which allows for the demonstration of proficiency in a variety of techniques. Generally speaking this is a safer form of sparring ideally suited for demonstrations, with attacks and defensive reactions being based with guidelines without the non-linear, chaotic nature of Free Sparring. Again, as with Free Sparring, this system of sparring can occur on a 1:1 basis, or against multiple opponents.

In conclusion then it is clear that Systems of Sparring within Taekwon-do are diverse and can be employed as training modalities to achieve a multitude of training results. There has in recent times been a question of value served against the more traditional, ritualised pre-arranged forms of sparring with many practitioners moving away from these due to lack of realism. The value of all systems of sparring however cannot be under emphasised. Within each form, there is an opportunity for students to progressively investigate and refine their personal understanding of Taekwon-do. Pre-arranged Sparring in many associations has become codified and constrained within set routines of attack and defensive movement. However, if we look beyond this codification and return to the original principles on why these systems of sparring were originally included, there is a clear and valid purpose to retain them as valuable training modalities.

Moreover, if we consider that as Choi Hong Hi (1999) suggested the Chang-Hon patterns are essentially Free Sparring against imaginary opponents, we need to allow for a progressive approach to developing the physical application of these techniques. Pre-arranged sparring gives us this opportunity to investigate, reinforce and develop this technical application and personal capability.

The final a fundamental value in all systems of sparring, regardless of modality, is in the intrinsic development of the student. Sparring without question will allow for physical developments. However it is the fundamental growth in one’s character and confidence that is the most crucial aspect of sparring. Through participation in sparring drills we are provided the opportunity to individually manifest and exemplify the core values and tenets of Taekwon-do.

“At this point, the student must realise that the primary purpose of a free sparring is to develop tactics, maneuver, fighting skills, courage, self-control, extemporaneous sense and indomitable spirit.

The exploitation of techniques is secondary.” (Choi Hong Hi, 1999, p.660)


Choi Hong Hi, 1999, Taekwon-Do(5th Ed), Canada, International Taekwon-do Federation

Tedeschi Marc, 2003, Taekwondo: Traditions,Philosophy,Technique (1st Ed), USA, Weatherhill Inc


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