A Lesson in Free Sparring

By Alan Bryson as taught by
GrandMaster Kim Soo

At the recent 39th Anniversary Combined Training, GrandMaster Kim Soo treated the class to a free-sparring demonstration between two notable Chayon Ryu students: Master John Stephens (5th Dan black belt) and Mr. Angel Ochoa (2nd Dan black belt). There was a fascinating sparring chemistry between these two dedicated practitioners of our system martial arts – Mr. Ochoa’s style being accented by high kicks and fast, nimble movements rooted in Karate and Tae Kwon Do, and Master Stephens’ background being more heavily influenced by powerful Judo and Hapkido techniques. What made this sparring session particularly fun to watch was the interplay between two unique and contrasting martial-art styles, and the corresponding challenge each participant’s style presented to the other. GrandMaster had several purposes for this demonstration. In addition to simply providing an entertaining exhibition of two skillful sparring partners, the match also illustrated how, through consistent and dedicated training, Chayon Ryu students can learn to identify and develop their own unique traits and adapt these attributes to what they learn in Chayon Ryu.

GrandMaster expanded on this “lesson in free sparring” during a recent evening class. The Chayon Ryu curriculum is comprehensive and diverse. At one end of the training spectrum Chayon Ryu students learn traditional “forms” (also known in some martial-arts schools as “katas”). Traditional forms incorporate a very specific, well-defined sequence of movements historically developed by the great Masters and passed down from generation to generation. While forms can, to a minor degree, be refined and adapted to each student’s distinctive physical traits and level of conditioning, forms were not intended by their creators to be liberally interpreted by subsequent practitioners. To modify a traditional form to any substantial degree would corrupt the wealth of innumerable lessons carefully selected and incorporated within each form. At the other end of the spectrum from traditional forms is “free-sparring.” While Chayon Ryu teaches us that basic principles such as proper breathing, pivoting, and eye contact should still be applied in free sparring, as they are in forms, this part of our training stands in contrast to traditional form practice in that each student is open to liberally interpret and apply his or her cumulative experience and training.

Although a student may admire and learn from another student’s style, GrandMaster Kim Soo says we should avoid trying to copy another student’s style or technique. No two students are the same, and attempting to duplicate another student’s style would be unproductive because of the different characteristics each student possesses. Rather, the challenge for each student in free sparring is to recognize and develop the student’s own, unique style through ongoing training and reflection. An aspect of free-sparring that makes it enjoyable is that, so long as basic principles are adhered to in a safe, friendly, cooperative learning environment, there is virtually no “wrong” way to spar. Free sparring, therefore, gives each of us the opportunity to demonstrate and apply our collective learning in the dojang to our mutual advantage.