In business, specifically project management there has been an axiom that has been quoted for many years. Sometimes it’s referred to as the rule of two and at other times the less catchy Project Management Triangle. The idea is that you always want the outcome to be something good, fast and cheap but that in reality you can only ever pick two of the three. Increasing quality takes time or money. Decreasing cost lengthens the project or lowers the quality. Decreasing the time to completion raises the cost or lowers the quality. It’s hard to have your cake and eat it! I actually first heard about the rule of two from a rowing coach at the University of Limerick. He used to say of high performance rowers that they could have a job (or school), a relationship and rowing… but only two at a time. 

Today I want to look at how our ITF sparring and the rules that define it struggle to come to terms with a very similar multi directional pull, where satisfying each of the dimensions simultaneously may be impossible. ITF sparring has for a long time been defined as light or semi contact, and just as the words used to describe the level of allowable contact are vague and subjective, so too has the application of those rules. ITF rules try to define a clean match with prescribed penalties for each offence, most of which are absolute but some require intent on the part of the athlete or at least a subjective interpretation from the referee. We also want a match that is exciting to watch, where the winner is the person who scored the most points because this has the most appeal to spectators and athletes alike. 

So, in the absence of a statement about what ITF Sparring should look like in its ideal state let’s see what the rules tell us and what the game dictated by the rules looks like. Then we’ll look at what changing some of those metrics might impact. I’ll use three similar styles of combat sport as reference points for how our rules influence the game and how changing them might shape our game. 

The Rules

Point 1:

We spar in an 8x8m ring of tatami, with a safety area of 1m on all sides. The rules for ring exits mean that both feet have to leave the ring before it is classed as an exit so in reality we spar in an open tatami of close to 10m x 10m. The choice of open tatami rather than a ring with ropes suggests that our game should have more variation in range and the possibility, even with penalty, of voluntarily interrupting the match by exiting the ring. This is identical to WKF Karate but significantly smaller than WAKO Kickboxing (point fighting and light contact) where the ring size is 7x7m and one foot leaving the ring constitutes an exit. There is a significant difference though in the level of the penalty for an exit and the criteria for leaving the ring to count as an exit within Kickboxing. Within ITF we know there have been proposals to reduce the ring size to 7x7m and potentially increase the penalty for exiting the ring with the intent of making the action more continuous. 

Point 2:

Fundamentally we have three scoring criteria, all of which are common to the reference sports I’ve named above. The exact terms used in ITF are:

a. executed correctly.

b. dynamic, that is to say it is delivered with strength, purpose, speed and precision.

c. controlled on the target.

The words used vary across the sports but the intent is to have a purposeful and vigorously delivered technique we would recognise as a valid skill and that the technique be controlled so as not to injure our opponent. Karate, notably allow scoring without reaching the target if the technique is not blocked or avoided but ITF and Kickboxing require contact. We have some challenges here in all of the sports, and all three treat accidental injury of the opponent differently. A commonality between ITF and Kickboxing is that the intent (as judged by the referee or ring council) of the uninjured party and the responsibility for the injury impact the outcome. If the actions of the injured party exacerbated the effect of the technique they can be at fault and the other competitor can win by default. On the other hand if the technique had intent or was illegal the uninjured competitor can be disqualified. Karate penalise contact with escalating severity (similar to ITF 3 minus point system) but see feigning or exaggerating injury as a more likely and serious outcome to their rules and penalise accordingly. 

Point 3:

The flow of the match is determined by two aspects of the rules, scoring and penalties. In Karate and Kickboxing Point Fighting the match is reset after each potential score and for each infraction of the rules. The system has always been regarded as point – stop fighting and the clear focus is on the setup and execution of a single scoring technique with a focus on clarity and lack of opposition to the score. Karate even have recovery as a scoring criteria. ITF and Kickboxing Light Contact have scoring by the umpires independently of the referee with the intent that the match continue without stop unless there is an infraction. A key difference between the two is that there is no verbal warning in ITF and every infraction results in a stoppage. On the other hand, ITF stoppages resume from the same ring position, while Kickboxing (both Point and Light Contact) and Karate resume from the centre of the ring.

Potential Changes

These three points interact with each other to shape the experience of ITF sparring. Now let’s look at how our game might change by adjusting any of the three of them. If ring size was reduced we could expect an increase in the number of interactions between the competitors. Without any further changes we would expect an increase in the number of infractions resulting in fouls and warnings. This is because in the absence of physical space to move into distance to the opponent has to be controlled by attacking, increasing contact, exiting the ring or holding. All of these result in a potential increase in the number of stoppages and increase the likelihood of a match being determined through disqualification. 


We could go in either direction with contact and the requirements of a score. If we eliminated the requirement to make contact and penalised anything beyond touch contact we could make sparring safer but likely very unappealing as without a stop after each score a rather farcical display of show fighting would likely ensue. Allowing a higher degree of contact would potentially allow the match to flow more naturally but might lower the incentive to use kicks, particularly spinning or jumping techniques as the balance of risk vs reward would shift leading to a more punching dominated style (perhaps why kickboxing have to have kicking quotas).


We could have more severe penalties for exits and other infractions that interrupt the flow of the match. Penalising exits increases the likelihood of both fighters being unwilling to yield the centre, leading to more engagements (might be exciting) more contact (may be more disqualifications) or holding (more disqualifications), particularly if the ring size is also reduced. 


Let’s paint a picture

The rules we use shape the game we play and watch. My feeling is that the rules we have right now are the result of continual iteration on an original rule set and that the picture for what sparring should look and feel like is not commonly shared. If we are to make any serious changes to the rules of ITF sparring they should be with the stated intent of moving towards a style of competitive sparring that is exciting to watch and to participate in and where the rules support the vision of the sport. We can’t have good, cheap and fast… Or in ITF terms, we can’t have lots of high tempo engagement, light contact and very few stoppages. Which two do we want most?

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