Sparring – Randori

Sparring, or Randori (乱取り) is the first time in the Methodical Pyramid that we have free, mutual improvised techniques. Sparring and combat are not the same.

How does sparring differ from the combat level?

The sparring or Randori level is the free practice of all the techniques and achievements of the former levels – Kihon and Kata, against opponent, uke, whose moves are unforeseen. All activity at this level is partner-synchronized.

Much work has been done in our school, AKBAN, to expose hidden assumptions and articulate the differences between real combat situations and sparring that prepares for such eventualities – sparring and combat are not the same. There are many types of sparring, but all are distinct from real fight situations, however, in that all sparring has underlying sets of rules, shared by all participants. Some of the rule sets that underlie sparring and shiai are public while sometimes there are common rules that are not articulated. In the sparring level, some actions are prohibited – whereas in real fights there are no such restraints. Real fights contain a personal application of what Carl von Clausewitz – calls ‘total war’.

Sparring, always tuned to inner rules

The complexity of inner rules might be illustrated with an example from music: musicians who have already mastered the rules and are familiar enough with the rhythmic and tonal components to share them spontaneously. They are then able to improvise new musical material. Their improvisation will abide by the rules and still respond immediately to changes they introduce. If such music is well performed, their ‘free sparring jam session’ is harmonious and well-timed. A player who is out of tune or ‘out of sync’ will sound neither harmonious nor pleasing. Sparring – free practice with an opponent – resembles musical improvisation which adheres to commonly accepted rules and constraints.

In my field – the martial-arts – even the toughest competition fights adhere to inner sets of rules. If such a skeleton is broken by one of the opponents, the fight is immediately suspended. There are known instances of this: boxer Mike Tyson bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear at a world championship fight, forfeiting that fight on the spot. Even in the most extreme mixed martial arts competitions (MMA) there are certain rules: no use of ‘cold steel’, no use of firearms, no multiple assailants, etc.

Can a competition-fight be regarded as a real-fight?

At the top of the Budo Ninjutsu progress model, the real-fight differs from sparring in that the former has no inherent rules. This would seem to constitute a problem: fierce competitive fights – such that challenge the fighting spirit and jeopardize the warrior’s safety – are included in the special case of Budo Ninjutsu at the sparring level only. This methodical choice, in our case, is explainable. It does not constitute a lighthearted approach of competition fight, on the contrary,

Competitive fighting is risky, in that it demands courage and technical expertise. However, it indicates the presence of set rules for competition.

The instructor of a martial-art in which most of the effort is dedicated to competitive achievement and fighting, can and should place competitive rather than real-fighting at the head of the progress model. In martial-arts that emphasize preparation for life-or-death fights as well, a clear line must be drawn between real-fight and sparring, as fierce as the latter may be. This distinction prevents surprises in real-fighting. This is the reason that in our private analysis, according to the Budo Ninjutsu founding rational, we put at the top of the pyramid confrontation with no rules.

Health and injuries – Another reason for the distinction between real-fighting and sparring

The section on preparation for real-fighting would seem to be the last place for standards of movement and rules, given that real-fighting characteristically lacks accepted rules. Apparently, then, the sparring level is the last real phase where we may control such rules.

The purpose of the progress model is to offer tools of control for all progress phases, and improve performance. Achievements in Budo Ninjutsu are not meant to be temporary. They promise many years of outstanding performance. The risk, however, is that without separating the various levels, and narrowly focusing only on aggressive effectiveness, temporary achievements tend to mix with faulty technique. Such performance often causes physical problems (which could have been corrected at the basic levels).

Even in precise technique, injury may be sustained at the sparring level if the two opponents are not matched, and one or both are not familiar with the inherent rules of the specific sparring. Lack of distinction between sparring and real-fighting might thus often results in disaster.

Possible physical change at the sparring level

Possible change and learning is another reason to distinguish – as the progress model does – between sparring and real-fighting. Fierce, competitive ‘sparring’ and real-fighting may appear very similar. They do differ, however, in their potential for change. At the next level, that of ‘real-fighting’, control over responses and processes is limited, and is exercised only by fighters at their highest personal and professional development levels. With others, changes or new habits can be acquired only at the sparring level, or earlier.

Change at the ‘real-fighting’ level, and at times in intense sparring fights, happens in retrospect: not during the fight but afterwards, when the warrior can draw his conclusions. (This concerns the type of violent confrontation that lasts mere minutes or seconds, rather than wars or confrontations that last days or weeks. In the latter case, slightly different rules are applicable).

What is important in groups?

In training, emphasis should be placed on avoiding injury. In real-fighting the warrior cannot avoid taking calculated risks. Injuries incurred while sparring are a superfluous risk that should be prevented by good physical preparation, precise performance of the fundamental moves (kihon), and internalizing the inner rules of the sparring level.
The inability to clearly distinguish sparring from real-fighting almost always leads to injury.

Technical characteristics of two types of sparring – advantages and disadvantages


Easy sparring – advantages:

  1. the possibility to develop sequences, techniques and new modes of performance;
  2. practicable for many years;
  3. easier to perform physically;
  4. low risk of injury;
  5. opportunity to practice timing, balance, and throwing and falling skills;
  6. no protective gear: simulation of everyday apparel and gear;
  7. developing strike and defense timing
  8. with protective gear: simulating strikes and kicks with real-fight power and speed; reducing hand- or foot strike-related injuries; getting used to protective gear creates wrong habits. Strikes that do not seem dangerous with protective gear are more dangerous without it.
  9. free sparring: strikes and kicks, throws and locks – technical simulation of real fighting;
  10. teaches maximal caution
  11. raises sensitivity to opponent;

Disadvantages of easy sparring

  1. slows down some of the student’s reactions;
  2. does not confront the student with stress situations;

Disadvantages of competitive sparring (Shiai)

  1. potentially dangerous if physical preparation and foundation are deficient;
  2. requires practice and familiarity with the rules by both partners;
  3. possible serious injuries as a result of clumsy falling;
  4. no possibility for full-intensity striking at certain weak points;
  5. requires training and preparation of all the practiced techniques and counters. higher risk of injury;
  6. poses difficulties in developing new performance techniques;

Advantages of competitive sparring

  1. prepares the student for real-fighting stress;
  2. opportunity for intensive practice of high speed and timing;