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Initiative is all about taking charge. An initiative is the first in a series of actions. Initiative can also mean a personal quality that shows a willingness to get things done and take responsibility. An initiative is the start of something, with the hope that it will continue.

If all of that sounds like a dictionary definition … it basically is, but it’s also the theme of today’s article, the concept of initiative in ITF Sparring. I want to take a short look at how we go about taking the initiative in the ring, keeping it, recognising when we’ve lost it and doing something about it. As usual, it all begins with training. 

The match begins with a bow, taking your stance and guard at a pre-defined distance from your opponent and a signal from the referee … Si Jak! From there the match can take on an immediate character or tone with one person pushing aggressively for the centre and the other retreating, perhaps both go for the centre and clash, perhaps one concedes that space and seeks to pull their opponent after them, maybe it’s a stand off and both hold ground or bounce and wait. No matter what direction the beginning of the match takes there is a decision in each fighter’s head about what to do first. The fighter who’s decision changes the game state in their favour has taken the initiative. Let’s look at a simple example and the kind of follow on decisions that can occur to illustrate the idea. 

Timothy begins the match by pushing forward behind their front leg, perhaps side kick to turning kick or just a chamber and push. Julio reacts by making space and moving directly backwards. Timothy has taken the initiative by forcing a reaction. If Julio does nothing, he will be hit. In this case Julio reacts by making space and in so doing concedes the centre of the ring and also giving the initiative to Timothy. What happens next determines the direction of the initiative. Here are some examples of things Julio could do to regain balance or take the initiative:

  • Push directly back as Timothy is recovering his leg
  • Change the angle of the fight, pulling Timothy in a new direction
  • Edge further back inviting Timothy to attack again, setting up a counter

As long as Julio makes a decision that has a positive intent and makes Timothy reset or make a new plan he’s doing the right thing to deny Timothy the initiative or even steal it back. Julio chooses option 2 and changes the angle of the fight pulling Timothy in a new direction. 

From here Julio works right to left at a longer range, asking Timothy to commit to an attack which ideally won’t be directly through his centre. Timothy tests, and Julio again concedes ground. Perhaps recognising that he is conceding ground, Julio feints forward and gets Timothy to retreat. This brings up a decision for Timothy. Is he happy to let the game state return to neutral? No scores, match in the centre of the ring, 25 seconds gone. He says no and pushes directly back to regain the centre, twice just to be sure.  

Some feints follow from both sides, with Julio conceding the centre but refusing to stay on the line of Timothys kicks, dragging the match left and right. As Timothy looks to track the movement, Julio looks for an opportunity to attack off line from Timothy’s front leg defence. This is something he needs because Timothy is taller and longer of leg. We can see at 1:06 where Julio is met in the middle that he cannot have a clashing game with Timothy. 

We get a definitive shift in initiative immediately after. Following the clash Julio rubs his leg, moves back and waits at longer range. He’s effectively invited Timothy in. Perhaps he’s recognised that Timothy is likely to double up his front leg, or maybe he’s just waiting to see if Timothy will commit to something he can work with but it ends up being the double push and Julio attacks the dropping leg, scoring a very clean back kick. 

Even though he’s at the edge of the ring he now clearly has the initiative and works on maintaining it by pulling Timothy around the ring, which is very typical of Julio and a comfortable place for him to be. Timothy is now forced to regain the initiative and he mixes between feints and lead leg pushes to try to pin Julio on a straight line where his longer reach and blitz can be effective. A pattern emerges as Julio gives up space, refusing to interact with Timothy’s front leg and instead pulls the fight to new angles and then pushes forward himself to regain space to move. At 1:47 Timothy recognises the pattern and is ready to directly counter Julio’s push, stepping to the blind side and scoring a back hand. 

At this moment, with not a lot of time left on the clock for the round, many competitors would wait for the break and come out with a new plan. Timothy and Julio trade pushes with the front leg until Julio gets Timothy to back up in a straight line to the corner. He takes the opportunity and throws downward kick with a long slide, catching Timothy just slightly off beat. Timothy had chosen an appropriate counter, but the timing was off. At this point Julio makes some great decisions (or reactions) continuing his movement inside the counter and pressing his advantage by going to hands. This resets the match with 4 judges to Blue and Timothy in the corner with a warning. 

From 2:07 Timothy must compartmentalise, leave the last actions in the past and make a positive decision about his next action. From here he has to move to take the initiative and restore the game state. He first breaks his pattern of double kicking and carries forward to take additional space, perhaps hoping Julio will attempt to attack his dropping leg after the second shift. Julio does go directly back rather than breaking off and it finishes in a messy exchange. Under pressure Timothy goes back to his default with a double push kick, this time looking to finish with hands. Julio has too much space available however and can maintain the game state by giving ground and changing the angle of the match returning to take the centre of the ring. 

2:20 Timothy pushes to centre then pulls back. Julio follows, mirroring Timothy’s movement and as he comes forward Timothy launches a blitz, finally trapping Julio on a straight line and moving in the wrong direction. Scoring the turning kick at the end is gravy, a bonus and very much a part of a repeated pattern. Here at the end of the round, the game state is restored and both fighters decide to keep it that way.

I’ve attempted to describe the ebb and flow of the match in terms of initiative. Highlighting decision points, where the right decision gains the fighter some momentum or brings the game state back to neutral but the wrong decision would concede the initiative to the opponent and perhaps begin the snowball effect that can result in a sound defeat. An important thing to consider is that you can have the initiative, even when moving backwards or avoiding, while giving up space or refusing to attack. It all depends on the game state. The initiative is with the person who, if nothing happened for the rest of the match would win. That part is obvious. It can be less obvious when the scores are level, but initiative still trades sides and leads to a change in the game state. 

When it comes to training, it’s for us as coaches and competitors to recognise the game state and the onus of initiative at all times and to make positive decisions to impact the direction of the initiative. When you maintain it, deny it to your opponent and establish control you place yourself in a great position to benefit from momentum. Very often, we can lose a match by not correctly identifying who has the initiative and who needs to act, particularly when the scoreboard doesn’t tell us. Try designing your training and the constraints for your sparring exercises so that the question of “Who has the initiative?” is constantly being asked. The more times we ask the question, the more likely we find the right answers. 

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