Continuous Fighting / San Shou

The Art of Fighting: Continuous Fighting & San Shou

In looking for a martial arts school that teaches practical fighting skills, among the criteria that you should consider is whether the school teaches Free Fighting, more commonly referred to as sparring. One of the ways to evaluate this is to inquire about the type of sparring the instructor teaches, what type of contact is allowed, and whether fighters from the school participate in competition. Letís face it: You cannot learn how to swim by looking at the water. You need to get in and get wet!

What is Sparring (Free Fighting)?

Sparring is an aspect of training that is common to most martial arts schools. However, there are different types of sparring that may differ from one system to another as well as from one instructor to another.

Sparring is a means of applying the techniques you have learned against a thinking and moving opponent who is kicking and striking back in an unrehearsed bout, whether in practice or in actual competition.

Sparring requires you to bring together the physical techniques you have learned in class with the mental powers of perception and concentration. Technical skill must be coupled with quick reactions and fighting strategy against a real opponent.

Sparring, depending on the type as well as the rules, can be a steppingstone for developing real fighting skills, or it can amount to little more than a tag game with a partner.

Sparring is known by different names in different Asian countries:

  • In China it is called San Shou and San Da
  • In Japan it is called Randori and Kumite
  • In Korea it is called Kyrogi
  • In Thailand it is called Muay Thai

Light Contact Sparring

Many schools avoid sparring altogether and some will not allow any form of contact. Usually, this reasoning is backed up by "our style is too deadly" or similar statements. I believe that fighting is not only required but necessary in order for students to face and overcome the fear of being hit. Fighting builds self-confidence and develops certain skills and fighting concepts that cannot be acquired through technique and form practice alone.

Among martial arts schools that do engage in sparring, Light Contact Sparring is the most popular form. Here I will give a brief explanation of two of the most popular forms.

Point Sparring is based on accumulating a certain amount of points to win the match within a determined time period (usually a 2-minute match in competition). The aim is to score on your opponent before you get scored on. Once a fighter scores, the match is halted and the point is awarded before the match is restarted. This type of sparring dominated the Sport Karate Circuit for several decades and is still widespread today.

Continuous Sparring originated within Chinese Martial Arts tournaments but is now featured at many Open Martial Arts competitions. While also based on light contact, the match is not stopped with the scoring of each point. Instead, the scores are awarded at the end of each round. A match usually consists of 3 rounds that can vary between 30 seconds and 1 minute each. Because fighters do not stop after scoring a valid hit, the contact is usually heavier than in point sparring and also more akin to the type of exchange that occurs in real fighting. Sweeping and leg kicking are allowed.

Until recently, I featured both Continuous Sparring and San Shou in my International Chinese Martial Arts Championship, which is the largest competition of its kind, held each year in Orlando, Florida. However, now I permit teens and adults to fight only in San Shou matches.

Full Contact Fighting

The schools that emphasize full contact fighting are in the minority even though this trend has been on the rise for the last decade. Risk of injury, fear of losing students and insurance liability are some of the reasons few schools feature full contact fighting.

From a practical perspective, full contact fighting, in that fighters donít hold back their power, is close to actual fighting but it is still not the fighting you would encounter in a real life-threatening confrontation.

MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) is currently very popular but in my view it is quite distant from the more traditional full contact arts such as San Shou, Kickboxing and Muay Thai.

San Shou, literally translated as "Free Hands," is the Chinese style of full contact fighting that is based on the traditional Lei Tai, which translates as "Beat Platform" fighting. In ancient times, victory was secured when one of the fighters was unable to continue or was knocked off the platform. This type of fighting was very dangerous and often resulted in serious injury and sometimes death.

Lei Tai fighting was a common way for wandering masters to challenge local fighters as a way to test and sharpen their skills. Usually the masters who issued such challenges were so skilled that they offered prize money to any challenger who could touch them with a fist or foot.

Modern San Shou is still evolving and although most fights are still held on a platform, fights in a ring are becoming more common. Kicking, striking, throwing and sweeping techniques, and sometimes knee strikes, are part of the legal techniques allowed in San Shou. While sacrifice throws are permitted, ground grappling is not allowed.

San Shou, also know as San Da (Free Striking), is still governed by many rules and restrictions and reflects the types of techniques that are found within Chinese martial arts systems.

Prior to the popularity of kickboxing, Bruce Lee was one of the early proponents of the use of protective gear while practicing sparring and advocated contact during practice bouts to add realism to training in fighting.

Kickboxing was pioneered in the USA in the 1970's, and was first called "Full Contact Karate." Its evolution coincided with the development of protective sparring gear, which was invented by Jhoon Ree, the Father of American Tae Kwon Do. It quickly became popular with fighters who felt restricted by the limitations of Point Sparring.

The popularity of Bruce Lee and his Jeet Kune Do, the development of protective sparring gear by Jhoon Ree, and fighters looking for a type of competitive fighting where contact and knockouts were allowed all played their part in the development of Kickboxing. It was from these early beginnings that the sport of Kickboxing spread first in North America and later throughout the world.

Muay Thai, also known as Thai Boxing, is very popular in Thailand where it is considered a national sport. Thai Boxing, in various forms, is also practiced in adjacent countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia, where it is known by different names.

Muay Thai fighters use their fists, feet (shins), elbows and knees in striking the opponent, giving the art the name of the "Science of Eight Limbs." The conditioning and training regimen of fighters is quite demanding. One of its most famous conditioning exercises is to toughen the shinbone by repeatedly kicking a banana tree. Fighting is conducted in a Western style boxing ring and professional fighters may fight every couple of weeks, leading to a relatively short career.

San Shou, Kickboxing, Muay Thai and similar contact sports all place a great deal of emphasis on conditioning. Heavy bag work, weight training, road work, rope jumping, striking and kicking pads, and, of course, actual fight practice are part of the training regimen. Nowadays, many training methods overlap as trainers and fighters are more open to researching and borrowing from other fighting arts.

Continuous Fighting and San Shou at the Chinese Martial Arts Center

At my school I teach both Continuous Fighting and San Shou. The emphasis is mostly on Continuous Fighting but we also practice San Shou when fighters are getting ready for a competition.

The Sparring Experience

Every student approaches sparring with different emotions. Some students are excited about finally putting into action the techniques they have learned with a moving, thinking partner who is also kicking and striking back. Some students are apprehensive and a few are outright scared. These are all normal reactions that you may experience. My job is to curb excitement and alleviate fears through proper coaching.

With proper training, even the most timid student can reach a stage where just the notion of sparring no longer brings on a panic attack. A diligent student will realize that there is a real lesson to be gained here. By learning to overcome your fears, you advance not only as a martial artist but also as a human being.

Precursor to Free Sparring

The first stage: Before you actually engage in Free Sparring, you will have been practicing for a couple of months and will have learned the fundamental blocking, striking and kicking techniques as well as basic combinations and footwork patterns.

The second stage: You will exchange techniques with various partners while wearing protective equipment to get you used to donning gear. Techniques are first practiced slowly and the pace and force are gradually increased as you gain in confidence and ability.

The third stage: This is when you actually engage in unrehearsed Free Sparring with a partner. Typically I pair up new students to spar with more advanced students; advanced students can control their techniques and encourage new students as they gain confidence and build experience. In little time you will be looking forward to sparring classes and will come to learn that the occasional knock and bruise are part of learning and progressing in the art. Who knows? Down the road you may even develop a taste for San Shou.

Progressing to San Shou

Unless someone comes to my school specifically to train in San Shou, I usually select San Shou fighters from the students who have been doing Continuous Fighting for a while. Typically, I try to encourage most students to give San Shou a try, even if they are not going to get involved with it long term. I feel that the experience of full contact fighting is crucial in martial arts training.

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