Despite its popularity and acceptance in the world of martial arts, sparring will have different meanings to different people, schools, and styles.
In this article, I will cover the following:
This article is not based on point sparring but on sparring as a free form of controlled techniques used to develop specific combat attributes. Sparring should be seen as a training methodology. It's not an end; it's a means to an end, and that end is real-life efficiency.
I believe that, independently of which martial art you practice, whether it's Karate, Muay Thai or MMA, these tips will be of great help.
Mindfulness finds its origin in Buddhism and is a vital component of sparring practice. The first thing you need to do when sparring is bringing your mind in the present moment. Forget about what you did before, forget about what you'll do after, simply be present in the now. When you spar, you spar. Don't overthink and analyze too much. Let go of your expectations regarding the sparring you're about to do or that you are doing. Mindfulness is hugely beneficial for sparring as it will give you greater mental clarity and focus. By being more present, you'll react better to your opponent.
During sparring, some people lose control of their emotions (aggressivity, anger, fear) to the point where their technique goes out the window. The goal of sparring is actually to practice your technique. Therefore it's essential to stay calm and composed. Even if you're getting overwhelmed by your opponent, stay calm, focus, and breathe. Panicking or getting aggressive won't help - it will do the exact opposite of that. Allowing your emotions to take over a great way to open up your defense to your opponent. Remaining calm during sparring will help you save energy and become more flowing in your movements. Remember, controlling your emotions is controlling the fight.
During sparring, try to keep a calm and steady breathing rhythm. If your emotions take over, your breathing will be hastier, so try to manage your emotions. Also, every time you attack, defend, or move, try to exhale. When you are exhaling during a strike, you are assisting your body in its natural ability to release energy or power, allowing you to hit harder. Many people hold their breath entirely during sparring, avoid doing that. Remember, exhale every time you make an effort.
Sparring is not a contest, it's not a fight, it's not about who scores the most - it's about helping each other get better. Right off the bat, you should accept you'll hit and that you'll get hit. Be ready for it and get over your ego. If you think that you're too good to get kicked or punched, then you're not in touch with reality. Don't take it personally when it happens, don't try to avenge yourself if you get scored a few times or if your opponent is better that you. It's not your opponent's fault if he scores on you or if he's better than you. The only way to get better is to spar and work hard. Having an ego will only get in the way of becoming a better fighter. PS: You don't want to be "that guy" that everyone is talking about and that no one wants to train with do you?
When you spar, avoid having your hips sideways, always keep them directed towards your opponent. Positioning your hips this way will allow you to move forward, backward and sideways more quickly and with more stability. Having your hips toward your opponent will also help your blocking, allowing both of your hands to be used more naturally. You will even notice that your punches and kicks will explode faster because you won't lose time (and telegraph) positioning your hips as they are already in position.
Avoid fixing one point of your opponent's body, particularly the head. If you set your gaze on your opponent's head, you will probably miss his or her footwork or leg attacks. Needless to say, but if you don't see your opponent's attack, you won't be able to defend or counter it. Keep your eyes moving on your opponent's body, but try to maintain your gaze centered around his or her solar plexus. Keeping your eyes around the mid-body section will definitely allow you to see more clearly punches and kicks coming at you.
Take it easy cowboy, you're not Jackie Chan or Tony Jaa. And even if you were, you should keep it simple during sparring. When you spar use the most basic weapons you have - direct punches, reverse punches, front kicks, round kicks, a few sidekicks or knee kicks once in a while, etc. Sticking to the basics will increase your skills and keep your head free of confusion. When I spar, I only use techniques that could be used in a self-defense situation. Advanced sparring is nothing more than mastery of the basics.
During sparring, it's imperative to avoid hitting for nothing; always hit with a purpose. Don't kick for the sake of kicking! Of course, you can feint once in a while to test if you can find any weaknesses, but try to attack only when you see an opening in your opponent's defense. Look for an opening in your opponent's guard and try to exploit it. The more you'll spar, the easier it'll be to identify your opponent's opening and weaknesses.
The best way of not getting hit is to not being there. Of course, sometimes you have to block but try as much as you can to dodge your opponent's attack. This way, not only you'll be out of danger, but if you do it well, you'll be able to position yourself in a way that will give your opponent a hard time to counter your next attack.
Each martial art has its rhythm, whether it's Karate, Muay Thai or kickboxing. Too often, without even realizing it, we fall into this pattern, and we use the same tempo and power. One great way to improve your sparring skills is to change the pace and power of your attacks constantly. Breaking the rhythm of your movements can be used to confuse your opponent and allow you to create openings, or to gain distance. Using broken rhythm also will enable you to save energy while you are putting pressure on your opponent, keeping him or her on edge, insecure, and uncertain. When sparring with a more experienced fighter, breaking the rhythm can give you the perfect opportunity to strike successfully.
When sparring, be wise and try to save energy as much as you can so that you can continue practicing for an extended period of time. If you burn all your energy in a few minutes, you'll have nothing in the gas tank, and have a hard time to continue sparring. But how do you save energy during sparring? Being relaxed is probably the number one way to save energy. Also, avoid hitting "for nothing", avoid unleashing flurries of blows, choose when to strike. Finally, controlling your breath is a great way to save energy and keep on sparring.
If you let your opponent take control of the fight, you'll be in for a tough ride. Of course, if your training partner is more experienced than you are, he or she will probably control the fight. On the other hand, if your sparring with a partner with similar talent and experience, it's different. You're the one who should lead the dance and dictate the pace of the fight. Force your opponent to move where you want him or her to go. When the opponent's preparing for an attack, control the distance by closing in or go out of range.
During sparring, every attack that you launch should be executed willingly, with the intention to eliminate your opponent. I'm not saying every strike has to be performed in such a way, I'm referring more to your inner disposition, of your intention. So even if you go smooth and relax, be resolute and determined, have an unshakable spirit during each strike.
In sparring, sometimes you need to be rooted, immovable, and sometimes you need to be light and mobile. You need both; they go together like night and day. In general, during sparring, you should be light on your feet and mobile, but when you decide to strike with your heavy weapons, you should be deeply rooted to the floor to use the power of the ground behind your attack. Keep your feints light, but when you unleash powerful shots, do it while being firmly rooted.
An excellent way to confuse or at least make it difficult for your opponent to defend properly is to react with the opposite of what he does. For example, if your opponent punches you, counter-attack with a kick, and if he kicks, counter with punches. Why? Because unconsciously, when you punch, you somehow expect to receive a punch. When you hit with your hands, your attention tends to be at the level of your hands. The same thing goes with the kicks: when you receive a kick, counter with your hands. Try it, you'll see for yourself, you might be surprised.
To deliver powerful and rapid blows, every part of your body must work together, in harmony and cooperation, not separately. When you punch, don't hit with your arm only, your strike will be weak - punch with your whole body. Proper striking mechanics is the interaction of your muscles, bones, joints, and breath working together to produce the ideal and most efficient movement. You have to understand that every technique you perform is either enhanced or diminished by the way you move and stand. Bad biomechanics will result in reduced speed, power, and stability.
Once you get used to sparring, you should start to use some combinations. Combination during sparring is useful because it can confuse your opponent and make your strikes harder for him or her to defend against. You can try hands combinations, leg combinations, and a mix of both. But remember, keep practicality in mind. For example, instead of throwing a direct punch, why not try to throw a direct punch, followed by a reverse punch and a round kick? Or instead of a lone front kick, why not try throwing the front followed by a round kick and knee kick? Generally speaking, throwing combinations is potentially more effective than throwing a single attack. Use as many combinations as you want, but try to keep it practical. Don't plan too much ahead of sparring, try to improvise on the moment.
This is a tough one for beginners to accept; you will get hurt during sparring. As weird as it sounds, it's part of the process. Of course, we all want to avoid pain, and quickly get anxious about anything that is going to cause us discomfort, but you need to learn to relax under pressure, and under pain. Once you've taken a few shots, you'll realize that it doesn't hurt as much as you were expecting. When the pain will show up, accept it, and continue sparring - don't stop at the slightest discomfort.
The mistakes too many people are making is that they are planning what they will do in sparring. Don't do that; it's not a chess match. Because of their different nature, Grappling or Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, allows you to develop a strategy, a game plan, but during sparring, time is "too short" do so. It's best to feel what is going on, rather than trying to plan. Keep your mind present, and react to what is going on, don't overthink.
Being tense will have a negative effect on both your mind and your body. If you are nervous or tense, your mind will act and react more slowly and less effectively. Also, if your body is stiff and rigid, not only it will burn you up quickly, but your movements will lose speed and power. Whenever your muscle are stiff, it will take a longer time for the electrical stimuli to go from the nervous system to the nerves and muscles fibers. When you stay relaxed while striking, you'll find that you'll be much quicker.
That sums up my advice on how to improve your sparring. I don't care what martial art you practice, these tips can be used and applied by Karate and Muay Thai practitioners, as well as Kickboxers and even Boxers.
Please try to spar as often as you can, it's the only way to improve your sparring. With time, everything will get better, your perception, reflexes, and stamina. That being said, if you do too much sparring and too little technique, drills, and conditioning, you won't progress as you normally should. Keep your training varied.
Hi, my name is Martin Jutras. I've been studying and practicing Karate, practical self-defense and Zen Buddhism for more than 35 years.
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