The Importance of Penalties for Leaving the Ring

We have a bit of a hybrid entry for today. First, we’re going to discuss how important it is to train within a sparring ring. Then, we’ll go over a drill on how to reinforce that importance. A martial arts tournament-style sparring ring can range in size, but roughly 20’x20′ is a good standard size. In tournaments, typically if one competitor gets too close to the edge or steps outside, the referee will move the competitors back to the middle for safety reasons. No one wants to see a sweaty black belt fall on top of a spectator. Some tournaments have a rule where a competitor with one foot in the ring and one foot out can be scored on but not score. In class, however, courtesy and sportsmanship (and safety in a crowded class) teach us that we should back off if we see an opponent approaching the edge of the ring.

We need to stop that, and here’s why.

As with everything in sparring, it is important to remember that it’s a sport, but a sport that symbolizes self-defense. So what does the edge of the ring symbolize? It could be the wall of a bar, the side of an alley, or even a ledge. The important thing to remember is that the edge of the ring represents a bad place to be. If an attacker can force you against the wall, you have nowhere to run. If you’re forced off a cliff… well running isn’t really a concern anymore. Too often courtesy keeps us from showing the ring edge the respect it deserves.

Now I’m not talking about a beginner sparring for the first time here. If someone is nervous and new, throw a move or two and if they retreat to the edge let them come back. There’s nothing to be gained by charging at them like a bull until they stumble and fall out of bounds.

But if two black belts are sparring seriously, I personally believe forcing one out of bounds should be worth a point. Remember, it symbolizes the attacker forcing the defender to be somewhere they don’t want to be!

Some Personal Anecdotes

When I started sparring, I was fairly nervous and timid like a lot of people but by the time I was a higher belt rank I had gotten over it. I realized how fun sparring was, and was beginning to see a lot of the value and symbolism in it. Eventually, I realized one thing that frustrated me the most in sparring (yes even more than losing):

Black belts who always retreat.

On several occasions, I would spar other black belts (including those more experienced than me) who would leap backwards as far as they could the second I would move at all. Now there is merit in retreating – the best block is to not be there, but they would find themselves in other students’ rings, running into equipment, or sometimes running into the wall of the dojo. It was frustrating to spar against them, and my mindset was always “even if you didn’t get scored on, you’re off-balance, out of control, and vulnerable to something much worse than if you’d stood your ground.”

So on that note:

Ring Out Sparring


For this drill, everyone spars as normal, with normal scoring and safety rules. There is one twist though: If either person steps even one foot out of the ring, their opponent scores a point.

This drill will help train participants who tend to retreat from every attack to stay and fight. It’s especially good at teaching environment awareness but also teaches the value of aggression and a strong offense. If you can overwhelm an opponent with combinations, they might retreat too far and give you a point even if none of your attacks land!

This also helps you maintain that self-defense mindset when you spar. If you always have a referee resetting the match, you don’t have to worry about where you are. With the added concern of position, you’re now training more realistically for defending yourself in an enclosed environment.

Most Sparring Rules are There for a Reason

Some are largely safety-oriented (don’t kick each other in the groin), but others have a practical self-defense purpose as well. It’s important to remember the symbolism of these rules when you spar. Ring size is not just to allow a certain number of people to spar simultaneously, it represents dangers and concerns in the real world!

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