In taekwondo, free sparring is called kyorugi by the World Taekwondo (WT) or matseogi by the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF). This is called "free" sparring to distinguish it from Step Sparring in which attacks and blocks are prearranged, or Semi-Free or Point Sparring in which sparring pauses after each point is scored. The ATA for example practices Point Sparring rather than Free Sparring.
In the WT, the majority of the attacks executed during free sparring are kicking techniques, whereas the ITF encourages the use of both hands and feet. WT sparring generally incorporates more protective gear (such as the chest and head protectors) and so will generally involve heavier contact. ITF sparring may also be full-contact for some tournaments, but often is conducted as light-contact sparring, relying just on the padded sparring gloves and shoes to provide protection.
Rules vary by taekwondo style and by tournament.
Beginning in June 2018, WT-style scoring is as follows:
- One point for a strong punch to the opponent's torso.
- Two points for a regular kick (a non-spinning kick) to the opponent's torso. (In 2016, this was just one point.)
- Three points for a regular kick to the opponent's head.
- Four points for a spinning kick (i.e., a technical kick) to the opponent's torso. (In 2017, this was just three points.)
- Five points for a spinning kick to the opponent's head. (In 2017, this was just four points.)
- All penalties are a one-point add to the opponent. In other words, there are no more half-point penalties, as there were in 2016 and before, and penalties now add a point to the opponent, rather than deducting a point from the offender. Penalties include:
- Grabbing, holding, or throwing your opponent
- Pushing is allowed, but pushing may not be used to stop an attack. Pushing an opponent out-of-bounds is a penalty on the pusher, not on the person who steps out of bounds.
- Falling to the floor (so that a body part other than your feet touch the floor).
- Attacking with the knee or leg (rather than the foot)
- Targeting hits below your opponent's waist (although kicks to the buttocks are often less likely to be penalized)
- Turning your back on your opponent to evade
- Kicking your opponent's spine-area, including the back of the head
- Punching your opponent's spine-area, including the back of the head
- Prolonged inaction (not attempting any kicks or strikes for too long a time); in WTF taekwondo, this rule was added to make the sport more exciting for spectators. More recently, for the same reason, some tournaments also declare a penalty if an athlete's foot is held in the air for more than 3 seconds (i.e., to avoid "foot fencing").
Definitions and Clarifications
- A kick must have some force behind it to score a point. A light tap does not yield a point.
- The kick must use the foot below the ankle. A kick with the shin or knee does not count.
- Note that if electronic sensors are being used, most systems have sensors only on the top (instep) of the foot, so kicks with the bottom or side of the foot are less likely to score.
- Kicking along the spine itself is not allowed, but otherwise kicks on the back are allowed.
- Kicking below the waist is not allowed. Kicking to the head is allowed (but generally not for child competitors).
- Intentional kicks below the waist or to the spine will result in a penalty.
- A punch must use only the front knuckles, not the side of the hand or other striking surfaces on the hand or wrist. In order to score, the punch must demonstrate sufficient force and be thrown through a distance (short jabs do not score).
In most tournaments, adult participants fight for three rounds, usually 1.5 or 2 minutes long. Children generally spart for only two rounds, usually in shorter rounds. There's usually a 30 second break between rounds. Whoever has the most points after three rounds wins, in the event of a tie an additional sudden death round will take place - the first to score wins.
The International Taekwon-Do Federation's (ITF) sparring rules are similar to the WT's rules, but differ in several aspects. A typical example of ITF rules are:
- Hand and foot attacks to the head are allowed. In other words, you can punch to the head.
- The scoring system is:
- 1 point for: punch to the body or head. (Note that punches to the head are not allowed in WT-style sparring)
- 2 points for: jumping kick to the body or kick to the head
- 3 points for: jumping kick to the head
Fouls in ITF sparring include: attacking a fallen opponent, leg sweeping, holding/grabbing, or intentional attack to a target other than the opponent.
- Tournament Scoring on Taekwondo Preschool
Weight Classes and Divisions
Weight classes and divisions vary by tournament and style. At the Olympics, for instance, weight classes for sparring are:
|80 (176.1)||67 (147.7)||Welterweight|
|68 (149.9)||57 (125.7)||Featherweight|
|58 (127.9)||49 (108.0)||Flyweight|
Local tournaments include classes not only for sparring, but also for forms and breaking. These classes are likewise divided into male and female, but are also divided by age group and belt color. For Para-Taekwondo, additional classes are established based on Disability Classification.
The sparring area itself can also vary depending on the style of taekwondo involved and the type of tournament. A typical example is shown in the diagram below. Often the sparring area (i.e., the Contest Area) will be 8 meters by 8 meters square, though some tournaments may use larger Contest Areas (for example, 10 meters by 10 meters or more in ITF-style sparring) or even round sparring areas. Smaller regional tournaments may use 7 meter squares with just 1 meter safety zones. The Contest Area is often delineated with a blue line, and then is surrounded by a safety zone. The outside of the safety zone is often delineated with a red line. The diagram below shows 4 corner judges, but you will commony see judges 1 and 4 combined into a single line judge that sits near the recorder (the score-keeper).
The contest area itself is usually covered with an elastic mat like the ones used in dojangs.
As of 2017, WT sparring rings may also be octagonal in shape:
WT-style Commands and Hand Signals
In WTF-style tournaments, the referee's commands and hand signals are used as follows:
- The referee points to where the Blue opponent should stand and says "chung!" (meaning Blue). The blue opponent should move to his starting spot. The Blue opponent's spot is always on the referee's right side.
- The referee then points to where the Red opponent should stand and says "hong!" (meaning Red).
- Often you will see experience referees says these two things very quickly..."chung-hong!" as if they are one word.
- In some cases the referee also points both arms forward, angled down and says "ip jong", further instructing the opponents move to their designated spots.
- The referee inspects the Blue opponent to make sure his or her sparring gear is ready. The referee feels the arms for arm pads, feels the legs for leg pads, checks for mouth guard, and (for males) has the athlete knock his cup to show that it's ready. Typically the referee also takes this opportunity to wish the athlete good luck.
- The referee then likewise inspects the Red opponent.
Starting the contest:
- The referee holds both arms out to the side, elbows bent upward and says "chay-ryeot" ('attention').
- The referee bends both elbows inward (as if the referee's forearms are bowing towards each other) and says "kyuhng-nyeh" ('bow'). Often the referee will also have both opponents shake hands.
- The referee steps forward with his left foot (as if going into a Long Front Stance); at the same time passing his right open hand from beside his ear, chopping downward in between the two opponents and says "joon-bee" ('ready')...he holds that position for a moment to make sure both opponents are ready.
- The referee then slides the left foot back (as if into a Tiger Stance), while bringing both arms out to the side; then says "shee-jahk" ('begin') while rapidly bringing the hands together.
During the contest:
- If the referee needs to separate the two opponents (for example, if one opponent falls, or if one of the opponents clinches the other), the referee says "gahll-yeo" ('break').
- When the contestants can resume, the referee says "gyay-sok" ('continue').
- NOTE: half-point warnings were eliminated in WTF-style sparring as of 2017, so the following no longer applies in many tournaments: If the referee needs to issue a penalty warning (i.e., a half-point deduction) to a contestant, the referee stops the action ("gahll-yeo"), stands to face the offending athlete, takes his right hand to his left ear, then sweeps the right hand outward to point at the offending athlete. If the offense is against the Blue athelete, the referee says "chung kyong-go" ('blue warning'). If the offense is against the Red athlete, the referee says "hong kyong-go" ('red warning'). The referee then resumes the action ("gyah-sok")
- For a more serious offense (for example, an intentional kick to the groin or punch to the head) the referee again stops the action, faces the offending athelete, sweeps his right hand from his left shoulder to point at the offending athlete, and calls "gam-jeum" ('penalty'), holding his pointing hand outward for a moment to make sure the scorekeeper can see the penalty call.
- At the end of each round, the referee stops the fight by saying "geu-man" ('end'), gesturing that the opponents should move away from each other. The next round begins as before with the "joon-bee" and "sheejak" commands and gestures.
Especially for younger competitors in regional tournaments, in addition to formal warnings, you will also see the referee issue informal warnings; the match is usually not paused for these informal warnings, and the warning is given in the native language (such as English). For example, if a younger athlete accidentally kicks his opponent in the thigh once, the referee might remind the competitor to keep his kicks above the waist -- then if it happens a second or third time, the referee will issue a formal warning or penalty.
- When the match-timer has counted down to zero, the referee stops the fight by saying "geu-man" ('end'). He gestures for each opponent to return to their starting positions.
- When it's time for the match to resume, the referee re-starts the competition just as he did at the start of the match: "chung-hong" followed by "joon-bee" and "shee-jahk".
Each coach (blue and red) has a "card" that he can raise when he has an objection to a referee's or judge's ruling. When the coach raises the card to get the referee's attention, the referee halts the match (gahll-yeo) then take the coach's card and asks what the objection is. The referee then relocates to an isolated area on the mat and gestures for all the judges to come to him; the referee consults with the judges to determine if the coach was correct. If the coach was correct, the coach is given his card back and may continue using the card to make objections. If the coach was incorrect (even just once) his card is taken away and he is no longer able to make objections. The referee starts the match as before: "joon-bee" with the right hand held between the opponents, then stepping back and bringing both arms inward to signal "gyay-sok" ('continue').
Ending the match:
- When the match-timer has counted down to zero, the referee stops the fight by saying "geu-man" ('end'). He gestures for each opponent to return to their starting positions.
- Looking at the score-keeping system to verify the final score, the referee announces the winner by pointing upward toward the winner's side of the ring; this is done by starting with the open hand down by the opposite waist, then swinging the arm to point upward toward the winner's side of the ring. At the same time, the referee states the winner's color (chang or hong), and then says "seung" ('victory').
- The athletes are usually then directed to bow and shake hands again, and also directed to shake hands with the opposing coach.
The match may also end when one athelete has accumulated 4 penalty points; this results in a disqualification ("shil-kyuk"). For example, 8 half-point warnings ("kyong-go"), or 4 half-point warnings plus 2 full-point penalties ("gam-jeum").
Also, ending the division:
At the end of several matches among multiple athletes, it's time to declare who is the first, second, and third place winners in that division. Typically this is done by first lining up the athletes facing the audience, calling up the 3rd place athlete first, then the 2nd place, then finally 1st place. The athletes are lined-up so that the 1st place athlete is on the audience's right. The referee then stands behind the 3rd place athlete, holds up 3 fingers above the athlete's head, and announces "third place!" Repeat for 2nd and 1st place. Have the athletes bow to the audience. Note that the athletes often do not bow to the judges and referees for sparring events, because these officials are spread all around the mat, and doing so would be time-consuming and impractical (i.e., slowing down the tournament too much).
|Charyeot (chay-ryeuht')||차렷||Attention||Both arms held vertically in front of the body, palms open, pointing upward|
|Gyeong-nye (kyuhng-nyeh)||경례||禮||Bow||Both arms held horizontally in front of the body, palms down|
|Junbi (joon'-bee)||준비||備||Ready||Downward motion with the right arm|
|Shijak (shee-jahk')||시작||作||Begin (start)||Both arms brought inward|
|Gahllyeo (kahl'-lyuh)||갈려||Break (separate)||Downward motion with the right arm|
|Kyong-go||Warning||Sweep the right arm from the left ear to point at the offending athlete|
|Gam-geum||Penalty||Point at the offending athlete, then straight down, then straight up|
|Geuman (geuh'-mahn)||그만||Finish (end)||Downward motion with the right arm|
|Seung||Victory (winner)||Swing the open hand from the opposite waist up into the air in the direction of the winning athlete|
For WT-style taekwondo sparring, combatants typically wear:
- A padded torso protector called a hogu. The hogu is like a padded vest and is easily reversible: one side is red (hong), the other side is blue (chong). Simply by turning the vest inside-out, you can change your color. When sparring, each combatant will be either red or blue, so that they can be easily distinguished. The primary reason for the hogu is to allow kicks to the torso above the belt and below the chest without undue injury to the person receiving the kick.
- At the National and International sparring levels, electronic hogu faciliate automated scoring via the use of built-in sensors that detect when a fair hit has taken place. In lower-level competitions, that function is performed by the human judges.
- A padded helmet (i.e., head protector) called a homyun.
- Padded shin guards that may include padding over the top of the foot (or the foot padding may be a separate piece of equipment)
- Padded forearm guards that may include padding over the knuckles (or the hand padding may be a separate piece of equipment)
- A hard-shell groin protector
- A mouth guard
As with taekwondo uniforms, sparring gear should be washed frequently to keep it in top shape. The hogu and helmet can simply be wiped-down with a damp cloth. Some shin guards and forearm guards are machine-washable.
In ITF-style sparring, a hogu is normally not worn. Helments may be worn, for children its mandatory. Sparring gloves ( like boxing gloves) are usually worn, and often sparring shoes.
There are many, numerous websites that sell sparring gear. Here's a link to taekwondo sparring gear on Amazon.com for example. Your taekwondo school likely sells sparring gear as well. (Good schools mark-up the price of gear only slightly to cover their carrying costs. Some schools mark up the price quite a lot, in which case shopping online may be preferred.)
Sparring Gear Inspection
At the start of a sparring match the referee will normally check each contestant's uniform and gear to ensure safety. Some things commonly looked for:
- Does the athelete have all the correct protective gear for that type of competition (helmet, feet, gloves, groin, mouth, etc...the specific gear depends on the tournament and the style of taekwondo). For many of these types of equipment you can pat the gear to ensure that it's in good condition; for groin guards you usually have the athelete rap the guard with their knuckles to confirm that it's in place.
- Does the athelete have any protective gear that he or she should not have (for example, some tournaments allow elbow and knee protectors, while others do not)
- Is the protective gear in good condition. For example, is the protective gear cracked or overly worn, is the gear held on with tape, etc. Some tournaments will allow a broken elastic to be mended with tape, others will not.
- Is the protective gear worn correctly: for example in WT-style, is the hogu snug but not too tight, have sleeves been correctly rolled-down over the forearm guards, etc.
- As you pat-down the protective gear, feel for hard objects placed under the gear.
- Is the dobok (the uniform) the correct type of uniform for this tournament and for this level of athlete. (For example for a WT-tournament, is the dobok a V-neck rather than a crossover Y-neck.)
- Is the dobok in good condition. For example, are there any rips, split seems, or mends with tape.
- Is the athlete wearing the correct belt.
- Is the athlete wearing any injury tape, and if so has it been approved. For example at some tournaments the medical team at the tournament must sign all injury tape to confirm that the tape is being used correctly.
- Hair ties - are hair ties soft, rather than metal, plastic, or pins. Note that many tournaments do allow soft head coverings for religious reasons.
- Jewelry & glasses - have jewelry, earings, glasses, piercings, and tournament credentials lanyards all been removed. Note that some tournaments do allow sports goggles (but generally not glasses).
- Nails - have fingernails and toenails been trimmed to an allowable length.
- In tournaments that use electronic sparring gear, check the placement of magnets or magnetic materials in the sparring gear to confirm correct positioning.
General Sparring Strategy / Tips
Of course, different competitors use different strategies and tactics to win at sparring. For beginners though, there are some basic tips that can help you learn to spar, win matches, and develop your own style.
- Most sparring is done using the most basic of kicks, especially the roundhouse kick due to its speed. If you're a beginner, there's nothing wrong with sticking mostly to roundhouse kicks. As you learn, you'll want to add other kicks, such as axe kicks and turning back kicks.
- When you do attack, you should be planning to execute a series of followup kicks. In other words, don't intend to kick just once and then back away. Again, as a beginner, if your series is nothing more than a series of roundhouse kicks, that's okay...just try to always attack with a series.
- When you finish your series of kicks, back away out of your opponent's reach. The typical idea is that you: step 1 - close quickly, step 2 - execute a combination of kicks, then step 3 - back away. This strategy is going to vary depending on your relative size and speed though.
|BASIC BEGINNER STRATEGIES||Your opponent has longer reach than you||Your opponent has shorter reach than you|
|Your opponent is faster than you||Your opponent is both taller and faster than you; your strategy is crucial here. Stay in very close to your opponent, so close that he can't get a proper kick in using his foot. Yes, he might hit you with his shins, but shins don't score points. Use your shorter legs to your advantage. Bent-leg turning back kicks are your friend.||You're up against a small, but fast, opponent. Control the distance, don't let him get in close. Keep your combinations short and then back away fast so that he can't use your attacks as an opportunity to close the distance.|
|Your opponent is slower than you||You're up against a tall, but slow, opponent. Use your speed to your advantage. Stay out of his reach, dart in quick for combinations, and then back out fast.||You are faster and taller than your opponent; this is your match! He's going to try to get in close, so control the distance.|
- When to kick? When you see an opening of course, but also: if your opponent closes in for a kick, you start kicking back. Always answer an opponent's kick with one of your own. If your opponent has gotten close enough to kick you, then he or she is also close enough for you to kick back.
- As you and your opponent jockey for position, don't back up. Circle sideways instead. If your opponent closes in and you're not ready to kick, don't back up. Circle sideways instead. If you back up, you'll let your opponent chase you off the mat.
- Bounce...bounce...bounce...always be moving. Don't stay flat-footed on the mat. Don't bounce all the way into the air though!...just keep lifting up on the balls of your feet and dance around your opponent looking for an opening. Arguably this is the most important tip for taekwondo sparring.
- Switch feet. Don't always lead with the same foot!
Two-on-one sparring or more is often required for black belt tests. Some tips:
- It's difficult to fight more than one person at a time, so try to move around so that one of your opponents is blocking your other opponents from being able to reach you. The disadvantage is that you'll need to keep moving -- and quickly -- but the advantage is that you'll only have to contend with one opponent at a time.
Taekwondo sparring can be a controversial topic in a number of contexts:
- As with other contact sports such as boxing and American football, the topic of chronic effects caused by repeated accute head trauma is increasingly being discussed. See for example http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02699050410001719907
- For Olympic-style sparring, there is a widespread perception that the current WT/Olympic rule set has created a style of sport sparring that is unrealistic and lacks aesthetic appeal. As one example, the Monkey Kick is often cited as an example of an ugly, non-taekwondo kick that results in a valid 2-point score.
- Adoption of electronic hogus in WT sparring led to a style named foot fencing, where the athletes raise their foot and attack the opponent with several kicks without putting their foot back on the ground. These kicks tend to be quite weak but are still registered by the electronic hogus as valid kicks, while a human judge would likely not score these kicks due to their lack of power. This issue is being addressed however by limiting the time one can keep their foot in the air without being penalized, usually to three seconds.
- Sang H. Kim's book on Olympic-style sparring on Amazon.com
- Taekwondo Sparring on Black Belt Wiki
- Taekwondo Sparring on Taekwondo Animals
- Taekwondo Sparring on Taekwondo Preschool
- Official WT rules: http://www.wtf.org/wtf_eng/site/rules/competition.html