Thoughts on Combat Training: Smarter Sparring Part I

Disclaimer: This is the first part of a new installment on sparring. In this first post I’ll outline the general idea and make an introduction. More specialized and practical posts will follow.

Everything comes at a cost. This can be an increased risk of injury, unfavorable anatomical adaptation, or simply a missed opportunity of doing something more sensible.

As a martial arts trainer, it is my job to make each of my  rip to the Dojo my fighter’s trips to the Dojo worthwhile. Biggest bang for buck, so to say. I’m a teacher, after all, not an entertainer. Therfore, before jumping ship on anything I do in my classes, I ask myself the following :
„What is the purpose of [insert activity]? What is the cost of that? Is it worth it? Is there a way of achieving the same result at a lower cost“
In general, that last question boils down to finding something that is more time efficient or comes at a reduced risk of injury.
What is the purpose of sparring? Well I guess that’d be a manifold answer, now wouldn’t it? It’s easy to find a dozen reasons why sparring is all kinds of awesome and should play a major part in every well-designed combat curriculum. Still, as much as we all love sparring, some things can be done better in other ways – while some just can’t. Let’s explore the good, the bad and the ugly about sparring, along with some thoughts on how to achieve goals in alternative manners or at least implement sparring in a way that best suits your goals. Here we go. 
In my humble opinion, the biggest benefit in sparring is that – if implemented correctly – it creates huge learning opportunities. However, for learning opportunities to arise, intensity – and subsequently, stress levels, need to be chosen appropriately. In panic mode, learning just is not happening at a feasible rate [1][2]. A study [3] tested motor performance and learning rate in college students by having them perform either a simple or more difficult motor task. To spice things up, half of the participants (the test group) were given electrical shocks during their performance (isn’t science fun).
Surprinsingly enough, torturing participants with electrical shocks did nothing for their performance – quite on the contrary, performance on complex motor tasks was decreased. Odd, huh? All joking aside, the authors of that study cite that „rate of learning is independent of the state of tension for either difficult or easy skills“. That’s exactly the problem. Perform poorly and you’ll ingrain poor patterns – that’s where the whole corrective industry comes from, right? Think about movements such as [Somatics] or even the (great) stuff the guys at the [Postural Retoration Institue] are doing. Basically, it all boils down to changing certain patterns in order to achieve long-term improvements. Think [SAID]. Whatever you do, you’ll get good at. Even if that’s sitting for extended period or fighting in a crappy way. In the former case, you’ll become a good long-term sitter (at the expense of something else, mind you), while in the latter case, you’ll become great at crappy fighting. Congratulations.
Hence, especially in the beginning, a controlled level of contact and a moderate pace pay off, big time. No point in developing panic-induced patterns such as turning away from a punch, swinging wildly, or becoming over-aggressive. Of course, at higher levels, speed and contact need to increase – after all, in the ring, cage or the proverbial street (where most self defense does not happen, by the way…), the other guy probably isn’t deliberately slowing down so you can perform at your best.
Still, this is the essential part – always strive to perform at your best in sparring. This does not mean you try to win anything. There’s no glory to be gained by bullying your gym buddies or by sacrificing beginners to the gods of war. On the contrary. Performing at your best in sparring means paying attention to the details, being a harsh judge with regards to yourself and overly liberal when it comes to awarding points to your partner [Samurai-Geist].
Basically, there’s three types of sparring partners you’ll encounter. It is imperative to be perfectly clear on that one – you need each of those types in order to progress. Don’t break them, or you won’t have anyone to spar. Let’s break down the three types of sparring partners and how you can get the most out of your bout.
Novice / Inferior Partner
Don’t take the title in any derogatory way. There’s just people who haven’t been in the game for as long as you have and hence cannot compete with you. Maybe they’re slower than you, physically weaker, less flexible, lighter, whatever. Whether we’re looking at physical or technical/tactical issues here, let’s assume for the moment that you have an advantage over your sparring partner. Basically there’s three roads you can travel on that scenario. 
The first one boils down to satisfying your ego. After the two of you shake hands, you teach the guy a lesson for daring to step on the mat with you. You go all-out, potentially hurting your partner badly. Needles to say, that road is a dead end. Neither of you will have learned anything from the encounter and the gym may have lost a member. This is bad for you, because a gym needs members to operate. No beginners, no budget, no training. Simple as that. Furthermore, you’ll have lost a valuable asset in that sparring partner and effectively ruined a chance. More on that in a moment. 
A smarter way is to handicap yourself. The more severe your handicap, the more you equalise the bout and the more of a challenge you put up for yourself. Try fighting a round with only the jab, for example. Top easy?  How about forfeiting all blocks and relying solely on evasion instead? You could as well fight from a corner or keep your back against the ropes, if you practice in a ring. You have a weakness, so much is certain – everybody does. Try to give your partner all means of exploiting that weakness. Work on improving a lacking part of your game. Do the stuff you wouldn’t do with an equal partner, let alone with someone better than you. Here’s Your learning opportunity. As a matter of fact, we sometimes do check-lists in my Dojo. Say, for example, a session is scheduled for nine rounds of sparring, with a change of partners after three rounds. That gives three partners, each of whom comes with a unique way of moving, a unique rhythm and a distinct game plan. A checklist would basically state certain requirements – e.g., „score with a spinning kick“, „counter a long jab with a teep / push kick“ or „slip 1, 2,3, roll 3, 8, 2“. Whatever. It’s the athlete’s job to decide which maneuver to pull off against which partner and how to set it up. The boxing combination in the above example is probably best attempted with an inferior partner, as it’s fairly complex. The spinning kick, on the other hand, should rather be done to an equal partner who won’t get hurt so easily.

Handicapping yourself is a great way to increase the challenge and even out the score (at least to some point) – in the long run, you’ll have had more challenge than guys who used to be your equals and hence, probably outperform them when it counts the most. Another route you can take from here is to treat the sparring as a coaching round for your partner. That basically means that you precisely fine-tune your pressure to a point that allows him/her to spar in a controlled and concious way and pick up new skills along the way. It probably also means you’ll have to accept being hit, congratulate your partner on the good work and give them a pointer or two on how to hit you even better. Not exactly a pleasing thought at first, I know. Still, in the long run, you’ll have a better sparring partner, one who challenges you (again, you can always scale the challenge by introducing a handicap) and thus helps you improve. In most (of my) classes, there’s more than one sparring – at our summer camps, we regularly go through five to six sparrings of two rounds each. That’s up to twelve rounds – spending two, four or even six to help someone else and increase the skill standards at the gym by doing so won’t hurt your progress – on the contrary, if all the advanced students did it, they’d have more energy left for sparring amongst each other.

Advanced / Superior Partner

Chances are, you’ll spar someone who’s more advanced than you from time to time. If you’re the most advanced guy in your gym, maybe it’s time to look out for a new place… In any case, when sparring with an advanced (more than you, that is) partner, pay him some respect and try to follow his advice, if he offers any. These guys have been where you are at the moment, so maybe they know something that might help you out. Also, make sure to follow the gym’s etiquette precisely – for example, teeping a fighter from Thailand to the face probably ain’t a good idea. It’s just not something that’s accepted in their culture, so you’ll most likely get punished for doing it. Advanced fighters also tend to pay more attention to their safety (after all, that’s how they became advanced – by not getting hurt too much), so if you know that more than half of your kicks hit the knee or groin instead of the trunk, you might reconsider kicking. This also depends on the person you’re sparring – some will accept your lack of control, while others might try to prevent you from further kicks by putting you under pressure. Assuming you only pull the stuff you know how to do, though, you should be fine going all – out with an advanced partner, though. In a proper gym / dojo, they’ll allow you to do so while generating just the amount of stress you need to improve. See the above scenario. If an advanced partner keeps hurting you (you know, stuff happens from time to time… we’re looking at trends here, not a single incident), don’t spar him / her. Advanced students worth their salt should have their ego in check and refuse to harm a novice partner.

Again, there’s an alternative route to take here. You could try to pull off all the stuff that you usually get caught with and see how your partner reacts. In the end, you might pick up a trick or two that does the job for you and that you didn’t learn from your instructor. Try to learn what you can from advanced students and implement the same stuff with an even or inferior partner.

Partner of equal skill

Finallly there’s the scenario where you’ll face a more or less equal sparring partner. This should probably be your go-to scenario. As a matter of fact, I’d say that around 90% of your sparring can be done with the very same partner – variety does have it’s place, of course, but you can create that with designated sparring drills. Of course, there’s no two „equal“ sparring partners in this world, there’ll always be a subtle difference in skill and performance. That can be due to small fluctuations stemming from sleep, nutrition or even issues someone’s having in his private live, so one partner might have the upper hand on one day and then be at a disadvantage the next. That’s life, though, so don’t worry. It’s ok.

Basically, when facing a partner of similar skill, there’s a plethora of specialized drills you can do. First on the list would probably be competition-style sparring, where you’re trying to imitate competition as closely as possible. I’m not saying this is what you should be doing most often, it’s just that you absolutely need a partner of comparable skill for this. As for other drills, you can emphasize conditioning, certain aspects of the game, enforce certain gameplans (i.e., when preparing for a fight against a known opponent), etc. We’ll dive into some of those specialized drills in the next part of this installment, as this post is quite lengthy already. For now, just try to implement any approach from the inferior / superior partner category and let me know how you did!

So long,

take care

Recommended Reading
While writing this article, I’ve stumbled upon some great sparring-related articles on other Blogs. Being the sharing-is-caring type of guy that I am, I’m pleased to give you a reference list for further reading. Most of these share the same view on sparring that I do, and coincidentally, most of those stem from a Muay-Thai background. Apparentaly, the toughest guys tend to agree that sparring doesn’t need to be extraordinarily hard…

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