Sparring: not always the best training method to become better at sparring

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Keith and Ben facing off with sabres on the banks of Loch Lomond.

I have often come into contact with the idea that the best way to become good at sparring is to practice lots of sparring. This does have some kind of logic behind it: after all, the saying is: “practice makes perfect.” However, in my opinion, there are much better ways to become better at fighting than just sparring a lot. Certainly, plenty of sparring is important to the development of a martial artist, but training cleverly is better than training hard – as long as you work hard at training cleverly!

This article will seek to illustrate some of my thoughts about the issue.

Advantages

What are some obvious advantages of practicing sparring?

– you develop plenty of experience with sparring, meaning that you can overcome your fear, learn to manage your nerves and adrenaline, and you learn how to handle different situations.

– you learn how to put your techniques into practice in a more chaotic environment than a scripted exercise with a partner.

– it is a lot of fun!

– it allows you to test how well your techniques work, and how your skills measure up to the skills of your peers; a natural benchmarking system.

– if the goal is to become good at sparring, then spending time practicing sparring is very important to achieve this goal.

These advantages show that there is definitely merit in using sparring as a training exercise, and I fully believe that sparring is a valuable exercise. I try and do as much sparring as I can with as wide a variety of partners as possible, because it is such an important part of my development as a martial artist.

Potential disadvantages

However, sparring as a training exercise has some significant disadvantages as well:

– it is much more dangerous than drilling, and requires a greater amount of protective gear to match the pace and intensity of the sparring bout. Yes, it is possible to spar with full intensity in just mask, gloves and a t-shirt, but this is a very bad idea – why run the risk of needless accident and injury when by donning some protective gear such injuries could be avoided, or at least transmuted into something less problematic such as a bruise instead of a broken bone?

– too much sparring with the wrong training weapon or simulator can have very negative effects on what you are actually training. For example, the Rawlings synthetic longswords are a very good option for outfitting a class quickly and cheaply, but they cannot be used in a skilful fashion to make parries, binds and winding actions – there is no feeling in the material, they bounce rather than bind, and so it is very difficult to make the fighting style resemble a historical style. Very swiftly, a point is reached where further sparring with such synthetic swords is no longer helping practitioners to improve their skills, but is in fact teaching them to perform all the wrong actions, and teaching that correct actions (that would work perfectly with steel swords) simply don’t work.

– it brings out a level of competitiveness in some people that is not healthy and no longer conducive to skilful development of martial arts ability. For example, if people want to win the sparring match beyond anything else, then the danger levels increase while the level of skill displayed often drops. Alternatively, people begin to care only about landing the hits on the other person, and disregard their own defence in order to land the hit first upon the other person; this leads to a twitchy game of tag, with meaningless contact, and entirely the wrong mental approach to the fight.

– people develop patterns and habits (sometimes good, but often bad) that can be exploited. A very common habit that people develop when practicing German longsword is to go up into a left Ochs position as a parry, as a cover, as a winding action, as a stepping action … really, for any reason, it just happens as one of the most common things that people will do. Anyone who notices this can make a simple feint, watch as the opponent goes up into the left Ochs, and then smack the hands or forearms or elbows in a painful fashion. Unless people are made aware of these patterns and habits, quite often people don’t even realise that it is a problem!

– finally, sparring against the same opponents all the time can be like beating your head against a brick wall. You can do lots of sparring, but if you always do the same things against people who always do the same things to you, then you get nowhere… You all stagnate, and the exercise no longer helps to move people forward in terms of skill. Sparring only helps people to improve if there are opportunities for new skills to be learned or for old skills to be improved upon and fine tuned. If you know that against Alan all you need to do is feint high and hit low, and against Bob all you need to do is cut to his right shoulder because he can’t defend very well there, and against Charlie all you need to do is hit hard with a powerful Oberhaw to blow through his defence, then you will never improve while you remain stuck in this rut.

“50/50”, random sparring is only helpful when you do new things. If you do the same things over and over – then you are drilling. Turn it into a drill, isolate those skills and actions, and drill them until they work perfectly against everyone of different heights and strengths. If you are using sparring time as your drilling time (always feinting high and cutting low at Alan, to continue the above example) then you are wasting time for both of you, and while you might be training hard, you are most certainly not training cleverly.

How to address these disadvantages with exercises

So, as an instructor or as a practitioner, how can you address these disadvantages inherent in sparring and make sure that you are getting the most out of the practice? Well, quite often the result falls into one of three categories:

1) stop being silly about what you are doing;

2) stop sparring and instead make the practice into an exercise to examine and develop a specific skill, then continue with the sparring once the necessary technical skills are in place;

3) make sure you have the right mindset for sparring.

To address the first point, this sounds relatively simple, but is very difficult to enact.

If you are a participant and you realise that you are exhibiting problematic behaviour (such as always seeking the hit with no regard for defence, or pushing the intensity to a level that is not safe for the other person) then you must realise that YOU are the problem and that you need to fix yourself.

You don’t need to spar at 100% capacity all the time. You never need to hurt, injure or break your opponents. Look at many of the best instructors and coaches of martial arts: they pitch their own level to just slightly above that of the student with whom they are sparring, and they even let the student land some hits from time to time. They make it progressively more difficult for the student as the student improves over time, and thus they facilitate the improvement of the student. What they do not do is to go out and treat every new student as a seasoned international competitor; they do not go into every sparring bout with the force and power required to compete at the highest levels of international tournament. It is an important skill to be able to make your own practice correct for the level of partner. That way you will both learn valuable skills and improve your own abilities.

If you are an instructor and you notice that students in your class are exhibiting silly and unsafe behaviour in sparring, then you need to bring it under control. In my classes, sparring is not a right, it is a privilege that is earned by displaying technical skill and improvement. People who do not exhibit improvement are not allowed to spar again until they buckle down and improve themselves and their attitudes.

To address the second point, sometimes sparring is simply the wrong activity for the wrong people at that point in time. It is crazy to imagine that new students with just an hour of training under their belts will actually benefit from a sparring session. Yes, the club will benefit if the student enjoys the sparring and comes back the following week; but the student himself will not actually benefit in terms of skill development.

If people are given too much sparring and not enough tuition and guidance then they fall into habits and patterns. If you notice this is happening then you need to alert the student to what is happening and provide some tuition so that he can break his own pattern. Likewise, explain it to the sparring partner, and make sure that the following exercise is no longer 50/50 free sparring but instead is a much more focused exercise where the first participant is trying to break his habit and the second participant tries to exploit the pattern at every opportunity. Then something useful will have been learned.

A common problem that I see is that people do the wrong techniques at the wrong range and at the wrong time. Unless they are taught that what they are doing is wrong and WHY is it wrong, there is no reason for them to change, especially if they believe that what they are doing is correct and is what their instructor has taught them. If people are having difficult with  the skills of distance, range and timing then no amount of sparring will help to improve their performance; indeed, every sparring match will only serve to reinforce bad habits and inaccurate understandings. You need to stop the sparring and instead provide exercises and drills so that the participants learn the skills correctly, so that they can then practice sparring properly afterwards. In this situation, drilling and exercising is considerably more important than sparring.

Likewise, if people are simply not performing techniques properly when sparring, then you need to stop the sparring and make sure that the basic building blocks of the system are correct. For example, with swords, if someone is consistently hitting with the flat of the blade, then you need to stop the sparring and provide drills to work on edge alignment. In unarmed martial arts, if someone is punching with a cocked wrist rather than with a straight wrist, then for the person’s own safety you need to stop the sparring and provide drills to work on correcting the technique. Then, once the techniques are being performed correctly, it is time to start sparring again – at a slow and deliberate pace, so that the individual in question can have the space and time to ensure that the techniques are performed correctly. It is often the case that people start sparring at too fast and hard a level before their mastery of the basic technical skills is complete; if people cannot perform the basic attacks and defences of the system correctly, then sparring is much too advanced an exercise at this stage of their training.

Finally, to address the third point about right mindset for sparring, this is something that can be addressed in two ways. You can discuss it and gradually improve the mindset of students, almost like brainwashing. I am happy to admit that I use this technique a lot in my teaching: by using the same phrases constantly, at every opportunity, I teach my students that they need to be thinking about keeping themselves safe, and gradually the message seeps into their subconscious. Alternatively, you can tailor the rules of sparring to penalise certain behaviours and to reward others. For example, if you want to reduce the number of double hits in sparring, penalise that behaviour by making both combatants do 10 press ups every time a double hit occurs. Very quickly, people stop doing double hits as much as they did before the rule was introduced. A combination of both of these approaches is very powerful and very beneficial to students.

What is the right mindset for sparring? My personal belief is that the following mindset is optimal:

– a focus on one’s own defence. It doesn’t matter if you do not land a hit on the other person, as long as he does not land a hit on you.

– the goal should be improving your own ability. If your goal is simply scoring more touches than your opponent then you are concentrating on the wrong thing.

– everything should be as technically correct and perfect as possible. Sure, it might mean that sometimes you don’t quite manage to land the hit, but at least you know that you are doing everything correctly and that everything you do is actually meaningful and effective. Often when I spar, 90%+ of the hits I deliver are (I believe) fight-ending in their effectiveness; most often, only about 30% of the hits I receive are actually worth anything. Against better opponents, of course, this number is much higher – but against most of the people with whom I spar, the strikes I receive are generally not worth anything, because the opponent will be thinking about landing the touch and not about actually cutting at me.

– assertiveness is key; aggressiveness is wrong. See my previous blog article for more discussion on this topic: http://encasedinsteel.co.uk/2013/02/11/aggressive-vs-assertive-for-martial-arts/

If you approach sparring with the mindset that it is another exercise that will help to improve your martial arts skills, then it will indeed be beneficial to you.

If you approach sparring with the mindset that it is just a bit of fun (and little more), then you are missing out on a whole range of important concepts. In all likelihood, your sparring is not going to be very productive, and you would be much better drilling or doing focused exercises.

If you approach sparring with the mindset that it is the best possible thing for you to do that will improve your skill, then you clearly need to think more about the skills involved in sparring and start working on areas where you are deficient. Yes, sparring is ONE of the best tools for you to improve your skill if your base level is high enough, but it is not THE best method of training.

If you approach sparring with the mindset that you want to win, then this is not going to be the healthiest way for you to progress your skills until you have the basic ability to make this mindset work for you.

Conclusion

So, to conclude this article, I do believe that sparring is a very valuable tool. It does help to improve skills, it provides experience and challenge, and it is of course the end result of all the other training that we do; why else do we do the other training if not to prepare ourselves for sparring?

However, it must be borne in mind that sparring is not the ultimate exercise, and that there are other more effective ways to train certain skills. Often the most effective way to train any single skill is to develop a drill and exercise focused on that skill; the chaos and pressure of sparring is the wrong time to learn a new skill or to improve an existing skill.

In sparring, we use a collection of skills. Sparring is a way for us to test these skills and to see how well we bring them all together. If one or more skills are deficient, then sparring cannot improve those skills as well as focused drills and exercises. Therefore, sparring should be used sparingly, and should not be the be-all-and-end-all of what we do. If there is an issue with someone’s performance in sparring then it is important to address this issue with appropriate other training methods, and then to reintegrate the improved skill back into sparring.

The document by Anders Linnard of the GHFS entitled “How We Train” explains this concept very well (pages 22-25):

http://ghfs.se/images/manualer/langsvaerd/how-we-train-final.pdf

I hope this article helps you to think about what you do when you participate in sparring, and hopefully it will help you to make sparring a more valuable and better understood part of your training. For instructors who read this article, I hope it helps you to consider the role of sparring in your teaching and curriculum, and hopefully the result will be an even better and more integrated methodology for your students to learn about martial arts.

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