Randori - the function of "soft" sparring in martial arts training

Have you ever noticed how dogs prepare for fighting?  They play fight - working at about 1/2 to 3/4 speed by mutual consent (neither dog moves to full speed at any point, even though they could "cheat").  They "pull their punches" - their bites are not the kind that injure, even if the experience is quite "rough and tumble".  And they flow continuously - they don't dart in and out.

Despite the fact that dogs never practice "hard and fast" I bet you have no doubt that dogs can fight very well indeed thanks to this "practice".  Just because they "mouth" your hand without breaking your skin, you shoudn't doubt that they can do some serious damage faster than you can blink.  If you've ever been attacked by a dog (and I have on 2 occasions) you'll know what I mean.

I believe that it is for this reason that continuously flowing sparring with light contact is not only useful, but essential in martial training.  In our Academy, and in many goju kaiha, this type of sparring is called "randori" - a term taken from judo.

Randori allows you to experiment and put yourself in positions where you can learn.  Depending on your favorite, tried and trusted techniques doesn't give you a chance to grow, no matter what discipline you practice.

Put another way, if you are always fearful or conservative, how can you do anything other than repeat your past successful movements?  If you try something new it could mean a broken tooth, jaw, elbow, finger in they eye, etc.

In our Academy we have always believed in randori as an essential aid to training.  It is not "real fighting" - it isn't intended to be.  It occupies the same role as play dogfights - a chance to learn without injury.  To learn about your strengths and weaknesses and develop new skills in a controlled environment.

Here is a video I compiled today of footage taken in previous years of our "randori" sparring:

The other crucial aspect to randori is that it insists that the sparring take place entirely within what I have called the "melee" range...

Next: The anatomy of randori

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. Wish I had a series of clips like that to compile. Alas, there was only one occasion when someone brought a video camera to the dojo -- and that was during a summer when I was suffering a series of back spasms that limited my intensity. Even so, I was able to excerpt one reasonable kumite performance out of it. This is me with one of my students:


    As you can see, we don't use gloves or padding or gear. We don't get into takedown techniques. We also go at it hard enough that blocking gets a lot of attention -- fail to block, and the consequence can hurt.

    Dave Smeds

  2. Excellent observations and videos. Similar in concept to Brazilian capoeira, in which "play" in the roda (circle) is continuous and flowing movement, often at a reduced speed (though hardly always).

  3. It's nice to see some of the old time vids. Although I still prefer a more formalized structure to randori, rather than giving the students free form to experiment. Rather a more experienced head should figure out what it is they need to work on and create experiments for the students to use. Such as forbidding the use of a fighter's favorite techniques in a spar. Providing handicaps, but different ones, based upon each fighter, and how each fighter compares to their opponent.

    This takes more work, but should streamline and make efficient the training time, over and above simply students doing whatever they feel like doing. If they were able to generate max results with just that, they wouldn't need a dojo or a teacher.

    It'll also allow the development of near max speed or power or follow through components which are hampered by free for all randori. If a person is only allowed to use one technique, they can do it faster without risk of hurting the other guy due to aikido or judo's "ukemi" techniques. Which is to go with or fall away from a technique's vector thrust, because they know it is coming. In a randori free for all, that can't be easily used since one doesn't necessarily know what to expect, and faking reactions isn't a good response.

    Every individual also has their own combos or sets of moves they like to use in sequence. Breaking that up and recombining them with other things, both for defense and/or offense, will allow a much more succinct picture to come out of a spar. The better the observers can grasp the issues at far, the better material the instructors can provide the students.

    A lot of this takes training methodology talents, rather than say martial talents.


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