Sparring can be intimidating. While some people love to spar, it makes others anxious, even to the point or avoiding it altogether. If this describes you, know that there are ways to build your confidence for taekwon-do sparring. Sparring may not become your favourite thing, but there’s no need to fear it. And who knows: maybe you’ll even come to like it.
1. Remember: sparring is a game, not a fight
I’ve seen some hardcore martial artists decry that point sparring styles like taekwon-do are essentially games; you aren’t really learning to fight. But that’s OK. While there’s a place for hard sparring and learning to fight for real, that’s not what most people are into. Most people are better off sticking to light-contact sparring.
Taekwon-do sparring is essentially a game of tag using fight-derived techniques. You don’t need to hurt each other. You barely need to touch each other. And you’re definitely not trying to fight each other. You’re trying to tag your partner’s scoring zones so you can rack up points. That’s it.
And you don’t have to win every time. Sometimes it’s fun just to play.
When people enjoy sparring, they can ramp up the intensity, but it’s still a game. If that level of intensity isn’t for you, you don’t need to go there. If you feel yourself getting worked up, breathe deeply, try to remain calm and remember that it’s just a game.
2. Talk to your instructor
Your instructor wants you to spar. And not just to spar: they want you to enjoy it. So they’re your best ally. And if you don’t talk to your instructor, they can’t help.
Tell your instructor about your concerns. Tell them that you have some strategies you want to try to help build your confidence for taekwon-do sparring. Ask if they have any more suggestions. Depending on your instructor’s teaching style, they may help you find suitable sparring partners, they may provide motivation, they may talk to other students to help get them on board with your new strategies, or they may even incorporate some of your ideas into the next sparring class for everyone to try.
3. Try sparring variations
Many taekwon-do clubs use variations on regular free-sparring from time to time, such as allowing only hand techniques, or only foot techniques. These variations introduce some diversity into sparring classes. But they also help students learn by allowing them to focus on only one aspect of their sparring game without having to keep track of everything else at the same time.
You don’t have to wait for your instructor’s command to try a different twist on sparring. As long as your instructor and partner are willing, you could introduce a variation while everyone else is free sparring. For example:
- No contact: Just like regular free sparring, but you and your partner agree that your techniques will not make contact.
- Slow motion: There’s no need for instant-replay super-slow motion. But if you spar at 60-80% of your full speed, you can not only reduce the contact level, but also make it easier to see techniques coming and to think about what you want to throw. This can ease some of the pressure, and has the added benefit of giving you a great way to work on some of the more technical aspects of sparring.
- Sparring tag: I’ve already said that sparring is like a game of tag. But you can also turn it into a literal game of tag. To play, one partner is “it” and can attack. The other partner can only block and dodge. As soon as the partner who is “it” scores a point, the roles switch. Not only does this inject a little extra fun by turning sparring into a more obvious game, but it also helps you work on your defence.
4. Talk to your partner
You’ve already talked to your instructor about your concerns, but make sure to talk to each of your partners as well. Perhaps you want to float the idea of trying a variation on free sparring. Or perhaps you want to stick to light contact. Your partners can’t read your mind. If you don’t tell them, there’s no way for them to know what you want.
5. Have a goal in mind
Each time you spar, try to have some sort of goal in mind. Typically, that goal should be to work on a specific skill. Perhaps you want to focus on using your punches more effectively. Maybe you want to work on dodging. Or perhaps you want to throw a greater variety of kicks. It could be anything. Keeping a goal in mind can help you focus on you instead of on the person trying to kick you back. Over time, you’ll hopefully see your skills improve, which can improve your confidence.
Can’t think of a goal? Ask your instructor. They’ve seen your sparring, and will know where you need to focus most.
Bonus (for instructors): Talk about sparring—a lot
The more you talk about sparring in class, the more you normalize it. It becomes a part of day-to-day taekwon-do life instead of this big, scary thing.
When you do pad drills, talk about how the students can apply them to sparring. Throughout your classes, give you students plenty of tips on sparring technique and strategy. This will help them connect the dots in their heads so they know what to do when they put on the gear.
Start talking about sparring while your students are still white belts. The more they hear you talk about strategy before they start sparring, the less intimidating it will be when they actually gear up.
Building confidence for taekwon-do sparring isn’t magic, but it does take practice. And both the student and the instructor have important roles to play.