How To Spar: A Guide
Punching people in the face; what could be more fun or educational? Sparring is a beautiful thing, but to reach it's full potential it's important to consider that it's not as simple as gearing up and going at it. In this guide I will address the finer points of sparring, how to get the most out of beating the hell out of each other and having fun doing it.
First, lets address the most important thing to consider when approaching any sparring session. Why are you sparring? Depending on your level of participation in martial arts/combat sports this will vary drastically any time you gear up. Fight preparation, trying to improve your skills, casually messing around with your training buddies, or just getting your feet wet and trying something new are just a few reasons for people to spar. You need to be aware of not only your own reasons for sparring but what your sparring partner is looking to get out of sparring. Depending on the answer for both you AND your partner, you are going to have to go about things differently. Always make sure you and the other person are clear on what you plan to get out of the sparring session, whether it be casual sparring or competitive, it's important that neither of you are taken by surprise.
So, the next thing we come to (and really this is every bit as important) is sparring etiquette. Obviously sparring involves two people having to interact with each other, so for this to work smoothly a certain etiquette has to be observed. One thing you see on bullshido is constant threads titled "How do you deal with hyper aggressive douchebag/incessant nose bleeding cry baby" or some other type of thread with people complaining about the way people spar. Etiquette is a fairly involved topic so I'm going to break things down into a few different elements.
Setting a pace Yes, it seems like a fairly simple thing, but it also seems to be the biggest thing people have problems with. My number one rule for this that I really think EVERYONE needs to follow is this: Every time you spar with a fresh partner (one you haven't sparred with during that particular session) START SLOW.
I know it may be difficult for some people who've already been sparring a few rounds with someone else and been bangin' away, but SLOW YOUR ASS DOWN. Start at the slowest pace and gradually pick up the pace as you get used to the new person. It's important that, even if you've sparred with someone before, you give yourself a chance to get used to them and give them a chance to get used to you. If your partner is comfortable upping the pace, then continue to do so at whatever pace they seem comfortable matching. One of the easiest ways to make your sparring partner not want to be your friend is to jump right in with a fast pace when they were still easing their way into sparring.
At the same token, if you know someone wants to get a little work in, put some pep in your step and be active. If you agree to spar with someone who you know is looking to get in there and really work, either get your ass in gear or know when to step aside. We all have a limited amount of time we get to spend in the ring so it's no fun having your time wasted by someone that wants to do slow motion play fighting when you're looking to really push yourself.
Sparring Gimmicks and Tricks Do yourself and everyone that spars with you a huge favor and save these for people you know. One of the quickest ways to piss off a new sparring partner who would happily have been your friend up to this point is to do some silly ass move you came up with from sparring your buddies. Sometimes people have cool tricks that they do that can be used to throw off opponents in fights and it's nice to get yourself acclimated to the weird **** people do... but more often than not it's some stupid ass "sparring trick" you've come up with which has little more than a "gotcha!" effect on your opponent. It's good silly fun to do this with your friends when just goofing off, but when sparring with someone you just met... just stick to the damn basics.
CLARIFICATION ON THE ABOVE: This is not to say you should never under any circumstances use gimmicks in your sparring. The above is referring to when sparring with people you don't know in order to solidify good relations with new partners. If sparring with people you train with all the time, feel free to be as gimmicky as you like since these people have probably already decided if you're a jerk or not. When sparring with people in preparation for a fight, however, do whatever techniques you think you will use regardless of whether or not you know them.
Establishing The Pecking Order Every time you spar with new people, probably the biggest thing going on in both of your minds is going to be "how do I rate?" Even if your intention in sparring isn't really to show what level of bad ass you are, demonstrating to a new person where your skills are at and judging their skills are going to be there.
My rule on this is that when you spar with someone you've never sparred with before it's time to do your best. You want to establish with each new person exactly how good you are, demonstrating your best technical ability and composure. That very first round or maybe first two or three rounds you should be totally focused on doing your absolute best. What this does NOT mean, however, is that you should go ballistic and pummel unsuspecting sparring partners who are looking for a nice casual round of sparring.
What I mean by this first and foremost is to demonstrate every ounce of your technical ability and focus. Don't "let" them hit you because you've decided they don't hit that hard or because you need to be generous and allow them some "free hits". Don't be lazy and only throw the occasional counter attack. Don't assume that your awesome skills are so obvious and apparent that you think you'll come off as much cooler if you barely try to fight back. If you demonstrate your ability by doing your technically best then you do yourself a favor by letting the other person know how good you are and you do them a favor by showing them the proper respect in giving them a good solid sparring match. The same rules apply for both ends.
Sparring With Women Something I've said to guys many many times is that as soon as I put on that headgear I'm no longer considered a woman and this applies to any woman that has agreed to spar. You need to take the same approach to sparring with a woman as you should with man who's slight of build. Don't avoid head shots in favor of body shots (often this results in punching the poor girl in the breasts) and don't just stick to defense because you're not sure if she can take being hit.
If a woman is sparring she's signed up for the full package of hitting and being hit. It is very typical for women who are new to sparring to be afraid of hitting their opponent, ESPECIALLY if they aren't being hit first. There's a mental block from years of physical passiveness that keeps a lot of women from being comfortable with striking someone, and some times the best way to get them to overcome this is by hitting them first. After being hit she'll realize that being hit in the context of sparring isn't so terrible and the floodgates of violence should begin to open from there.
When encountering an obviously experienced woman, refer back to the idea that she is not a woman. When I spar with men, I try to make it clear as quickly as I can that I am there for a solid, competitive sparring session. I do not want or expect people to be nice or forgiving or "pull shots". If I light someone up with a combination I fully expect them to do the same to me and vise verse.
The only thing to take into account is how much your strikes are effecting the other person, which goes for sparring with anyone, regardless of gender. If you stagger your partner or knock them down, lighten things up. DO NOT apologize any time you feel like you landed a solid blow unless it was blatantly due to losing control. It can be very frustrating to be apologized to simply because you got hit. You are SUPPOSED to hit each other, DAMN IT! Really that's all there is to it. Some women simply aren't cut out for sparring, but those that really want to learn how fight will take a beating and keep coming back for more.
Grooming Despite the savage nature of beating on each other, you are still (presumably) human and as such need to maintain some level of present-ability. The obvious ones here are basics of hygiene we should all adhere to on a daily basis such as showering regularly, clean gear, fresh training clothes every day, trim nails. Seriously, getting sliced open by someone's nasty foot claws is not too pleasant and clinching with someone that smells like vinegar is less than ideal.
Beyond all that there are things which seem to be less obvious but every bit as unpleasant. The first one is long, un-managed hair. As someone who had long hair I've certainly been guilty of getting my sweaty nasty hair on my poor sparring partners (though now I've gone the short hair route and saved myself lots of pain). The best thing you can do is learn to braid. Pony tails and even buns don't hold up for very long, but a nice tight braid will do wonders. Corn row and french braids are the best but obviously not everyone has the time or inclination to do a complex braid every time they train. The next best thing is to wear a bandanna or some kind of hair net/do rag in combination with headgear. The primary reason I wear headgear to spar in these days is the simple reason it keeps my hair out of my face. Either way, find SOME way to keep your hair from going all over the place that won't repeatedly come off when you spar.
The other thing that comes to mind here is baggy clothing, particularly t-shirts. Baggy cotton t-shirts are obnoxious, hold on to moisture, and just plain look stupid. They make sparring a pain because you can't tell if you're hitting torso or shirt, your feet get tangled up in them, and they're disgusting to touch. I make it a rule for all my students to either wear form fitting dry fit shirts or go shirtless. If your body is hairy and gross then please choose the former.
Now that we've gotten this far you have some idea how to maintain a good relationship with your sparring partners so now it's time we talked about some specifics of having good people to spar with. Unfortunately for many of us, there's a big supply and demand disparity for this hot commodity so choices can be pretty limited. However, for those that do have some choice and control, finding good sparring partners can make a world of difference in the fun and effectiveness of sparring.
Spar Size Appropriately I know for a lot of people, martial arts are about overcoming great adversity and seeing how well your techniques will work to compensate for size and strength disadvantages, but the David and Goliath match ups are typically worth avoiding all together. The larger person isn't really getting anything out of it because it doesn't require any technique to pick apart someone much smaller and unless the smaller person is just vastly more skilled, they aren't really getting anything but frustration out of trying to overcome the disparity. I am 5'6" 125lbs, so my personal ideal sparring partner is no bigger than 5'10 165lbs... anyone over 6' or around 200lbs or more I try to steer clear of.
Big Fish in a Little Pond Many of us have been in the scenario where you wind up being at least one of the top skilled people in your gym and while it's great for the ego to be top dog, it doesn't make for quick improvement when you can wipe the floor with all your sparring partners. This is when it's time to seek out some new gyms and start networking with coaches to find other people looking for fresh sparring partners.
Something you will inevitably face, if you truly put forth the proper effort in this, is that you will have to compromise on the rule set to spar with people from different disciplines. Particularly for those of us who kickbox, hooking up with local boxing gyms (and I mean the real gritty true boxing gyms that give you dirty looks like you're a piece of meat walking in the door) is guaranteed to be your best bet for finding seriously challenging sparring partners, no matter how high your skill level. While it may seem unfortunate that you have to forgo your chosen rule set, the work you will get out of a professional or high level amateur boxer will be of such a high caliber that it will be worth a hundred times over. Remember that boxing gyms are always looking for fresh meat to feed to their fighters, so any true boxing gym should be more than happy to accommodate your desire to spar.
Other than boxers, simply finding people with different backgrounds to spar with will always be enormously beneficial since there will be many times where something from a style you're not used to throws you off. People used to sparring all muaythai people may find trouble dealing with side kicks and the fast footwork of full contact kickboxers, as an example. Either way, you only do yourself a huge favor by always looking to expand your pool of sparring partners in whatever ways you can.
So now lets take a step back to why we spar. Of course the biggest reason for basically all of us should be because it's fun, but beyond that we use it as a tool for strengthening our skills. To get a little more specific, sparring is used to really learn the live application of technique, to hone actual fighting skills, and for many of us as a means to prepare us for competition. As such, there are different levels or types of sparring since the focus will vary tremendously. I'll cover what I consider the three different focuses of sparring: Technique, Fighting Skill, Competition Prep.
Technique This is 100% of the sparring beginners should be participating in, but in my opinion should also make up the majority of anyone's sparring (unless you just always have fights right around the corner). The goal here is of course to learn and perfect the applications of techniques, and as such a "learning" mindset needs to be held on to.
In order to maintain this mindset, the pace should stay fairly slow with a minimal level of competitiveness. You need to remain composed and relaxed with the purpose and goal of the sparring session in mind (ie, my goal is to utilize slipping to get inside the pocket and set up combinations). You can have multiple goals for any given sparring session, but it is important that you focus on those goals rather than simply "winning".
Remember that the goal of this type of sparring is perfecting your application of specific aspects of fighting. This is important because it will have a significant effect on your technical ability. Technical application is the most difficult thing to perfect, which is why I stress the importance of making the majority of sparring have this focus. When doing this type of sparring, do your best to keep every bit of your technique in check (balance, posture, hand position, footwork etc..) at all times.
Fighting Skill This right here is all about developing athleticism, keen reflexes, timing, distancing and most importantly determination to win. In a lot of ways this could be considered the most important kind of sparring because fighting skill is simply more crucial to winning fights than technique, however, it is my opinion that it should be less of a focus of typical sparring.
My reasoning is that the approach to developing fighting ability requires a totally different mindset than learning technique and the more time you spend developing this mindset, the harder it will be to develop your technical mind. Natural fighters will have a harder time developing technique because they rely on superior athleticism and skill rather than having to do technique properly in order to do well.
This type of sparring is fast and competitive. You must be determined to defend and attack more effectively than your sparring partner, out work them and outpace them. Your goal is to be the one to set the pace of the match, start and end all exchanges, and control the movement around the ring/cage/mat. Control, control, control. You (and presumably your coach) should have a strategy in mind for how to achieve this, whether it be dominating center ring and stalking them down, playing the ropes and setting traps or whatever it is you've worked on. Aside from purely athletic benefits, this type of sparring is largely to help you perfect the application of strategy.
This is not a fight, however, you need to do your best to effectively set up potentially damaging attacks and combinations. Every movement should have purpose and always be intended to somehow set up the next attack. Never move purely defensively if you can help it. Consider every single movement that you do and how it going to help land that next combination.
Competition Prep This is where things flip. Typically it is important to keep the primary focus of sparring technically minded so you can continue to learn and improve and develop into a cerebral fighter, however, when fight time is right on the horizon (about a 1.5 months or less), sparring serves a totally different purpose. Before, sparring was all about learning technique and developing skills, but now it's all about flipping a switch to put you in battle mode.
As with all of your other training, the sparring now needs to be at it's highest level of intensity. DO NOT spar with anyone looking for a fun, casual spar and steer clear of newbies. Every bit of sparring you do at this point has the purpose of gearing you up for the full on pace and intensity of the fight, and as such you should be doing your best to totally dominate anyone that steps in the ring with you. The farthest thing from your mind should be taking it easy or being nice regardless of how the match is going. You need to be totally focused on doing absolutely everything in your power to utterly defeat your opponent, and the only thing deterring you from continuing your onslaught should be the voice of your coach telling you when to stop.
On that note, make sure your coach is always in your corner when you spar. You should be training yourself to be keyed in on your coaches voice as they are basically your eye in the sky and command center. When you fight, your brain is reduced to a pretty minimal set of functions, so you will have to totally rely on your coach for tactics and strategy so it is very important that you've honed the ability to listen and do what they say.
Another important reason to always have your coach supervising your sparring is that you should be so focused on defeating the person in front of you that you need to rely on an outside force to watch out for you and your sparring partner. If you have the ability to back off or stop attacking on your own, then you are not utilizing the proper "fight focus" in your sparring.
When preparing for a fight, or even just when doing fighting skill focused sparring, you should do everything you can to try and find sparring partners from other gyms. This will get you far more used to the feel of pitting yourself against strangers and the type of sparring you do with people you don't know will typically be more competitively minded than what you do with your regular training partners.
And with that I conclude my guide on sparring. To really make the best of it, you should try and keep all these things in mind. You or your coaches may have vastly differing opinions on the finer points of sparring, but all of this is what I've applied to myself and my students and worked out well. Just consider the importance of having a thoughtful approach to this activity and it'll do you a world of good.
Many of these points also apply to sparring in grappling. Good stuff all.
Guide updated... more to come :)
Guide complete! Feel free to add your own thoughts or let me know if there is something I didn't go over that you'd like to hear my opinions on. Disagreements are encouraged! :)
Hey can I cut and paste this? I'd love for the guys to hear this from a different source.
Originally Posted by Omega the Merciless
Go right ahead, spread the love :inlove:
pertinent advice, m'lady.
nubz especially should read this.