Thoughts on Coaching Tools: Flow Sparring

In today’s outdoor session, I explained the concept of what we Shinergy-guys call „flow sparring“. Before I get into the concept, let me tell you a short story.

In 2005, we had just a handful of veteran fighters (particularly Tom and Harry) on the team, the rest of us was pretty green. Still, we decided to compete in the Open TaekwonDo World Championships in Cardiff, UK. Now don’t get me wrong, when I say green, I’m not referring to athleticism or technical skill. We were doing fine in those areas. However, Shinergy looked and felt quite different back then. We were doing lots of Wing Tsun Chain strikes and none of us had an idea about proper boxing footwork. In fact, those open tournaments had a great effect on our style and curriculum. That’s one of the things I love about Shinergy: it’s an open-minded style, we adapt when things don’t work out. However, I digress.

Coming back to the topic, our problem was not an issue of athletics or technical skill, but simply a lack of experience in the open TKD style. So, we decided that the most important aspect of our training would be to get as much sparring time as possible. The problem in that was that sparring used to be pretty hard back in the days, we usually fought full-contact with very few rules (protected, however, by a masked head-gear). Obviously, this kind of training didn’t allow for lots of sparring, it just took too long to recover from a session. Hence, we had to alter our training so as to allow for significantly more sparring.

Enter the Flow

Now we’ve finally arrived at the topic I want to adress: flow sparring. Basically, every style has this form of sparring (albeit obviously in every style it looks a bit different), but truly you could just call it „light sparring“. This labeling, however, would hide some of the more subtle ideas behind it.

Wikipedia states that „Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.“ This definition clearly calls for the absence of fear.

I strongly feel that fear and pain, although constant companions for any martial artists, can greatly hinder the effectiveness of sparring sessions. You see, fear (and pain, for that matter), makes an athlete stiff, slow and inefficient. In a full-contact sparring situation, fear is natural. Of course, the same holds true for competition. Hence, it does make sense to train the proper handling of fear from time to time. That’s what full-contact sessions are good for.

When it comes to refining tactical and technical skills, however, going all out is probably not that smart. Sparring should give athletes the opportunity to try new stuff, apply learned techniques and tactics, improve their rythm and timing, etc. You can’t concentrate on applying that counter you learned the other day if your mind and body are set to survival mode and you need to focus all your energy on not being crucified by the other guy.

Therefore, it’s extremely important to keep some (if not most) of your sparring sessions pain- and fear-free. Let’s call these sessions „flow-sparring sessions“. This consideration, however, is only the most obvious of all.

Ever noticed how some boxing commentator mentioned a fighter „having a good eye“? Well, most fighters have two of them, right? Of course, that’s not what it’s about. Having a good eye pretty much means actually noticing the opponents movements and drawing the right conclusions from that optical information. For example, a good fighter might see a slight change in the opponents center of gravity when he’s about to throw a punch, while a not-so-good fighter might completely miss the movement. Needless to say, the good fighter can counter, evade or block while the not-so-good one probably gets knocked out.

Just like everything else, however, the eye needs to be trained. This is another great thing in decelerated sparring (i.e. flow-sparring) – if movement speed is kept to a level where both athletes fully perceive and understand what is going on, the brain adapts and gets more efficient at reacting to similar situations. Once two athletes can flow-spar at a given speed, they move on and increase their movement speed by ever so little. This step-by-step approach trains the brain in a progressive way until full speed is reached and the athlete perceives everything that’s going on in a full-contact session. Of course, that’s a long way, but then there’s no shortcuts in the martial arts, right? Keep in mind however, that developing a good eye actually demands open eyes. What I want tot say is that while many students use flow sparring to enchance their technique, I say this is wrong. That’s what shadow-sparring and padwork are for. I feel that in flow-sparring, an athletes complete focus should lie on the outside, i.e. on his sparring-partner. You can only muster so much concentration – the more areas you divide that concentration between, the less there is for every area. Your energy should be with your sparring partners moves, his actions and reactions. Technique should more or less „happen“, as a result of what you can make from what you see.

There’s even more to the concept of flow-sparring. Gishin Funakoshi, the founder of modern Karate, used to say that „When two tigers fight, one is certain to be maimed, and one to die“. While things might not be just as dramatic in a sparring session, every fighter gets hit. That’s a fact. Learning how to deal with those hits is crucial. To quote another fighter, „But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!“ (in case you really didn’t know, that’s Rocky Balboa speaking). Now, while some hardening exercises might have their place when preparing for a full-contact fight, that’s now what I’m trying to get at here. I certainly won’t encourage my students to „harden“ their head – that probably won’t do them any good in their day jobs. Instead, it’s about teaching them that being hit doesn’t have to hurt their ego. A hit that doesn’t knock you or injure you is no big deal. Get over it and carry on. It’s not about retribution, or some proof that you can do better. This is what happens when you fight. It’s a part of the game. Just suck it up, keep a cool head and continue to fight as good as you can. In competition, you’re pretty pumped up with adrenaline anyways, to those hits won’t hurt you so much (although you’ll certainly feel them in the next couple of days).

Let me summarize that. Flowsparring

  1. allows the athlete to try new things in a pain- and fear-free way
  2. develops „a good eye“
  3. teaches the athlete how to take a hit

Therefore, the slogan „practice as you play“ does not always hold true. Just as practice doesn’t make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.


Now obviously, there’s some mistakes people do when trying to flow-spar.

  • Speed: There’s no point in going full-speed with a beginner. He just won’t be able to perceive what’s going on, so he won’t be able to learn. That’s a wasted session. Conversely, going too slow with an advanced athlete might offer enough of a training stimulus to actually have any effect. Also, it is of great importance that both athletes agree on a given speed and stick to it. Countering a slow-motion attack with a lighting-speed response will give you a false idea of that counter. Most fighters that meet in a tournament are very similar in terms of speed – even if one’s a bit faster, it’s not all that much. If a move relies on speed only, it’s probably time to think of something new.
  • Contact: There’s nothing wrong with some contact as long as it’s relatively pain-free for both athletes. Hard knocks are fine in full-contact sessions, but do not have a place in flow-sparring sessions. Again, it’s not advisable to spar non-contact, because it robs the athletes of the possibility to deal with the situation of being hit. In other words, hits should be felt but not feared.
  • Style: Now this is a no-brainer. Just because a slower tempo allows me to do stuff I can’t do when going all-out, it doesn’t mean I should actually do those things. Doing a spinning hook-kick in a flow-sparring sessions is fine. The same spinning hook-kick in slow motion, followed by some sloppy kicks with the same leg without ever touching the ground is rather pointless.

Now there’s a reason I put the video of today’s flow-sparring session in the chapter „mistakes“. Pretty much all of the mistakes mentioned above you can find on that video. However, mistakes are just an opportunity to learn and grow. On the other hand, there were some great, precise actions. Every failure and every success are just steps along our way as martial artists. One cannot exist without the other. However, I digress.

Before this whole thing degenerates into a philosophical argument, I’ll just end it here. Enjoy the videos!

So long,

take care

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