Light Contact Sparring

Today I’m going to compare the benefits and weaknesses of two different kinds of light contact sparring: point vs continuous. Both have merit but both also train a different form of false confidence. No form of simulated combat is perfect, so it’s important to keep the limitations in mind when you train.

I’ve done a fair amount of light point sparring and light continuous sparring so a lot of this is based on my opinions, so as always your experiences may differ. I’m primarily basing this on my recent experience in two different tournaments: an open karate tournament with point sparring and a Taekwondo organization’s national tournament with continuous sparring.

Before we go into these two different forms of light contact sparring we’ll need to compare full vs light contact.

Full Contact

When I talk about full contact combat sports I’m referring to activities like boxing and MMA. In these sports, the goal is to incapacitate your opponent with your martial art. Obviously, this is the most “realistic” form of combat because the pain is real and the stressors are real. However, this is also impractical for the average martial artist.

For one thing, the majority of martial artists these days are children! The discipline and character development of martial arts means it’s a great activity for children, but that also means it needs to be taught in an age-appropriate way. Additionally, the adults who train aren’t all young and in peak physical condition. Unlike boxing or MMA where competitors retire relatively young, traditional martial arts is a potentially lifelong sport. Additionally, the long-term health risks of full contact fighting mean that the average person wouldn’t think the sport was worth the risk.

I know part of me fantasizes about testing myself with full contact martial arts, but when I think about the permanently damaged joints, broken noses, and risks for long term brain damage I snap out of it very quickly.

So for those of us who don’t want to spend our free time getting knocked out or choked out, we have light contact sparring.

Light Contact

Light contact is the ultimate training compromise. We all want to get in shape and get better at martial arts, but most of us want to be safe as well. After all, we’re learning to protect ourselves. We don’t want to attend classes where we injure ourselves worse than the real world likely will.

Light contact is essentially a game of tag, with the realism based only on a judge’s subjective opinion of what strikes “would probably” hurt the other person if they were thrown “for real.” This is especially subjective when you consider that I’ve been a judge, and have not hit or been hit full force since the grade school playground. I know I’m not alone in that experience either, plenty of judges are not street brawlers!

That being said, I still value light contact sparring. It allows us to work against a resisting opponent with little risk of injury. So let’s look at the two popular variations.

Point

Point sparring is where two people square off, the judge says “go,” and then stops the match after every potential point. The (typically 3) judges will then vote on who they believe scored the first point. The result is very much like an old samurai movie where every strike is treated like a 1-hit kill.

This format is safe, promotes control, and promotes clean and well executed technique. Judges can be picky and vote no if they believe a technique was sloppy, over-extended, or lacking real stopping power. Timing and accuracy are the key attributes this format will train.

The belief behind this format is that every point should represent a strike so powerful that your opponent is debilitated. For example, if I execute a punch to the face my opponent would be theoretically too dazed to effectively hit me back. That is why the match is paused after a definitive strike is landed.

The downside to this format is that it trains people to stop after every attack. If you watch a full contact boxing match, you’ll see that a professional fighter can take several hits before their ability decreases. In a self-defense situation, this lack of follow-through could leave you vulnerable. It’s important to remember that landing that first strike may give you a split-second advantage, but it disappears very quickly if you immediately stop after it hits.

Continuous

Much like it sounds, continuous sparring involves two people sparring continuously, stopping only for warnings and safety reasons. The judges will keep track of every point as the match goes on without stopping, so landing multiple techniques is worth more than a single strike.

This obviously fixes one problem with point sparring: participants are encouraged to follow through as much as possible. There’s no “stop and pose for the judges” moment, it’s strike then strike again!

The unrealistic part of this is that it encourages the “eat one on the way in” mindset. In continuous sparring, if you get kicked in the ribs charging someone and then punch them 3 times, you come out of the exchange with 3 points vs their 1. This scoring system negates the fact that a solid kick the the ribs might leave you winded in self-defense or full contact.

On the surface, continuous sparring looks more like full-contact, but it ignores the fact that a full contact fight naturally discourages you from being reckless and charging in. If you only train in continuous sparring, it’s easy to feel invincible and sacrifice defense in pursuit of landing as many strikes as possible.

Both Train Good Habits and Bad

It’s important to remember that all martial arts training is not “real life.” We try to be as realistic as possible while balancing the need for safety. Always keep this in mind when you train because each drill has a different compromise. Point sparring accounts for importance of striking first but it can also develop the bad habit of striking once and stopping. Continuous sparring teaches combinations and follow-through, but develops the bad habit of feeling invulnerable and “taking one on the way in.”

Safe training drills are like your diet. If you eat the exact same thing for every meal you’ll develop nutritional deficiencies. Eating a variety of healthy foods ensures you’ll always have what you need. Training is the same way, if you mix it up and train with different drills, you can offset some of the bad habits you’d develop from always training the same way.

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