The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray. – Robert Burns.

In the last post, I discussed three great reasons for one-step sparring. As noted in that post, this topic has been a topic of debate. While there are benefits to one-step sparring, some have argued that this training method has its downsides. I will explore the problems associated with “one-step sparring” in this post.

(1) Prearranged movement is not the same as chaos: Regardless of style, many one-step attacks consist of prearranged attacks and counter attack. The punch is often aimed at a prearranged target (for example, a high punch aimed at the head) Meanwhile, the defender executes prearranged, prescribed defensive techniques.

While there is a place for this learning tool, ultimately it does not come close to matching the chaos of a self-defence situation.

(2) The timing and rhythm are different from a self-defence situation: Going back to the above video, the one-step method is very metronomic. The timing and the rhythm are usually pretty predictable. Punch, block, execute the technique and then reset. In a free sparring or a real life situation, the timing and rhythm vary greatly. Sucker punches and multiple combinations are common in street altercations. The one-step method clearly does not replicate what may happen in a self-defence situation.

(3) Predictable attacks: the attacks are predictable in the sense that every single attack originates in front of the defender. Granted, some instructors may have varied this to include one-step attacks from the side or from a 45-degree angle. However, I don’t recall seeing anyone teaching this. In a real life situation, attacks may come from any direction and angle. Someone may be behind you, at your side, or at a 45-degree angle relative to you.

(4) Artificial: the attacks are artificial in the sense that they are not realistic. Few will attack you like the attacker in the above video. One-step sparring contains one HUGE assumption. It assumes that you, as the defender, will see an attack every single time. 

Um, no.

Take a look at the punk in the below video engaging in the “knockout game” fad.

You have to ask yourself: does the one-step method realistically prepare anyone for a possible street attack? Most attacks are not going to be as obvious as the dojo one-step sparring.

And finally,

(5) One-step: The fact that there is only one attack is the biggest issue that I have with this method. Once the attacker completes the attack, that’s it. Go to the first video in this post. After the attacker performs his technique, what happens? His punch hangs in the air and his left-hand stays by his hip. Everything changes if the attacker counters the defender’s technique. 

Note the position of the left hand.

Note the position of the left hand.

(in annoying Joe Pesci voice) “Okay, okay, okay but you said in the last post that the one-step method is appropriate for beginners and advanced players alike. Don’t they have to start somewhere?”

Well, yes. However, I have seen schools that still use this as a primary tool for advanced training. Pull up videos on YouTube where you can see 4th, 5th, and 6th dans performing one-step techniques as part of their grading. Shockingly, the attacker invariably leaves their punching hand in the air and the non-punching stuck at their left hip.

Really? Come on, now.

Are these students prepared for that dreaded moment? Not likely.

As I said in the last post, there is a place for the one-step method for beginners and advanced students alike.

It is a particularly useful introduction for the beginners to the fundamentals of the art they are studying. I would argue that it’s important to incorporate other training methods as well.

For example, after teaching the basic block, check, counter drill, I often teach the slap off/pull off drill as an introduction to the concept of “counter for counter” so common in Filipino Martial Arts as illustrated in the below video.

In summary, while the one-step method has its place and I do use this method quite often with my students, I also recognize that there are shortcomings associated with this training method.

For that reason,  I often use flow drills and variations of flow drills. I will often teach counters and re-counters within a flow drill. I will then tell the students to act unpredictably within the context of the flow drills and force their partner to utilize the counters that I taught. Fun stuff. 🙂 If a student does not have the requisite basics to do the flow drills, they will practice the basics with the one-step method until they are ready.

Over to you, I would like to hear your thoughts on this topic! Let’s hear from you in the comment section!

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9 thoughts on “5 Problems with One-Step Sparring

  • March 23, 2016 at 8:32 am

    Great article Brian, I would agree.

    • March 23, 2016 at 8:35 am

      Hey Pauline, thanks for reading and commenting. I hope that all is well in your life! 🙂

  • March 23, 2016 at 2:08 pm

    Great article, I have to agree that there are many down sides, but as a training tool I think it is very helpful to get people used to the action.
    In our school it is a bit different. Firstly, no one touches anyone for literally a years worth of training. But when they finally have control, three step sparring is the first thing they experience and it is not fixed in a position, they have to do what we call “walking the circle” in other words both fighters have to react while in motion. movements and directions are encouraged so they can feel what it’s like to be out of place or caught in awkward positions.

    • March 23, 2016 at 2:28 pm

      Hi Henry, thanks for reading the post and commenting! Sounds like your school has it right with the three step sparring drill you described. Are there videos of the kind of stuff that your school does?

  • March 23, 2016 at 8:21 pm

    I’m old school karate. These are all valid points. However, it’s not what you know it’s how you know it. Nice article!

    • March 23, 2016 at 8:49 pm

      Thanks for reading the article and commenting on it and for the compliments. 🙂

  • March 24, 2016 at 7:49 pm

    Hello Sir,
    What a great article and I think in my own opinion article such is this should open the mind of both instructors and students to understand the art form of teaching and combat form or style of teaching.
    Your article and video also point out a very important subject that I believed in my opinion is vital to all of us is awareness one should be aware of what in front and around you.!

  • March 27, 2016 at 11:58 am

    Thanks for both articles – they do a good job of highlighting the pros and cons of most people’s approach to one step training. More than a decade ago the founder of our system challenged us to improve the one step training of our students. In particular our Black Belts and how they approach one-step training. Something clicked and I began an adventure to develop 100 different ways to practice one steps. Note – not create 100 new one steps, instead to take our existing curriculum and try to squeeze as much out of it as we can.

    Basic one step training is designed to teach concepts of self defense. The problem is most people don’t take it any further that the most basic level. I wanted to solve this problem and get beyond just the basics. Too that end I, with the help of my students, have developed over 100 drills based on basic Tang Soo Do one steps. I have started to video some of those drills – for those who are interested in the drills here is a link. The concept behind each drill will work with just about any system of one steps, feel free to adapt them to meet your needs. More videos will be forth coming.

    • March 27, 2016 at 12:25 pm

      Thanks for stopping by Scott and providing your perspective on this issue. I will check out the videos and thanks for sharing them! 🙂


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