At least once a week I get an email from a reader asking how they can improve their sparring.
It seems that most of the people reading (Un)Caged Fighter understand the importance of sparring. However, a lot of guys out there are apprehensive about it. The idea of hitting your training partner and
having them hit you back is unfamiliar to most combat sport newbies and "weekend warrior" martial artists. It goes against everything we were taught growing up: "Play nice", "Don't hit!", "Take turns", etc... Changing those habits in the gym or dojo can be difficult for some.
And let's not forget that being hit in the face can be scary as hell for most people!
So, I'm going to give you guys some tips that I've found very useful at really improving my sparring - and, therefore, making me a better fighter.
Quick Tip 1 - Reduce Your Options!
Sometimes having too many options can be a bad thing. Especially if you're new to martial arts/combat sports or just new to sparring.
There are at least 16 basic ways to strike the the hands, 8-10 basic ways to strike with the elbows, 5-6 basic ways to strike with the knees, and at least 12 basic ways to kick with the feet & shins. This does not include variations on these basic striking methods, nor does this include the numerous basic throws, sweeps, take-downs, or submissions from grappling.
All these seemingly endless fighting choices can lead to a serious drop in performance due to Hick's Law (more choices means slower reaction time). And when someone is throwing punches at your face the last thing you want is a slow reaction time!
So, what are you to do?
Well, one of the things I've found very helpful in my own sparring is to limit the attacking and defending options. Here are some examples:
- Jab Sparring - This one is excellent for absolute beginners and is very simple. Both sparring partners are only allowed to jab at each other and block or slip those jabs. This one gets people used to being attacked without having to worry about all the possible strikes that could also be coming their way - the idea of only having to defend against a jab is much easier to swallow for those new to sparring.
- Single-Combo Sparring - Another pretty simple intro-to-sparring drill. One sparring partner takes turns attacking with a specific combo (or a few selected combos) while the other partner defends against that combo. The two go back and forth for the round(s). This one is also great for training yourself to deal with those attacks or combos that always seem to give you trouble.
- Clinch Sparring - This is a somewhat new drill for me, but I've come to really enjoy it. Essentially, in this drill you remove all elements of striking (except light contact knee strikes) and the two sparring partners simply work back and forth against each other trying to secure a "dominate clinch" position. Every time you gain at dominant position, feel free to throw a couple light knees. Very fun drill, but can be very taxing.
- Randori or "Throws Only" Sparring - In this sparring drill you're only concern is to try to takedown, sweep, or throw your sparring partner. No strikes or submissions allowed.
- Submission Sparring or Rolling - Both sparring partners start on the ground (usually in kneeling position) and begin attempting to gain either a dominate position or a full submission. I really enjoy this drill.
Quick Tip 2 - Reduce the Intensity!
What a lot of guys fail to realize about sparring is that it isn't a fight. Let me say that again: Sparring ISN'T fighting. Sparring is a drill. A drill that closely mimics fighting, but a drill that differs from a real fight in some very important ways.
Sparring is meant to help you develop the ability to execute your strikes, throws, and submissions in safe controlled environment. Sparring is where you learn your "fighting reflexes"; where you retrain your normal, "bad" habits. Honing your skills takes time. And, like all other skills, you need to start slowly and focus on technique before you start adding speed and power.
One simply cannot start off on day 1 sparring at full speed and power and expect to get anything out of it. When put under pressure, an untrained or novice fighter can and will revert back to bad habits because they haven't put in the time training properly respond to having strikes thrown at them, throws/sweeps attempted on them, and/or attempts at submissions.
And let's not forget that the harder your spar the more likely it is you are to be injured. So, even if you are highly experienced at both sparring and fight, and you've developed the necessary skill-set/reflexes to deal with more intense levels contact, you still can't go hard all the time or you run the risk of chronic injury - which can mean serious time off of valuable training.
The thing is, most fighters don't spar that hard. They spar frequently, but they realize that if they want to stay in the game long term then they need to take it easy most of the time. Obviously, when preparing for a fight you'll need to up the intensity level to truly get ready. But, if you are to be a martial artist and/or combat athlete for the rest of your life, then you need to reduce your sparring intensity on focus on skill development and throw in hard sparring sparingly.
(Bonus Tip: Don't be afraid to let your partner know if you feel like the intensity level is too high. You won't get anything out of sparring if you allow yourself to be someone's punching bag.)
Quick Tip 3 - Spar More Often!
If you want to get ready for a marathon, how do you train? Do you work on your pull-up and push-up numbers? Do you work on your overhead press? No. Obviously, you get your ass out and start running.
So, if you want to get better at sparring (and, thus, fighting) you need to put in more time actually sparring.
The heavybag doesn't hit back. Shadowboxing is all in your head. The only real way to get your mind and body ready is by finding a partner, putting your gear on, and doing some sparring. It's all about specificity - you you want to get better at something (anything) you have to put in time practicing it.
The more you spar the better your skills with become: you'll become more confident, your reflexes will sharpen, and this will all bleed over into the rest of your training. You'll end up becoming a much more well rounded fighter.
Try to get in at least two sparring sessions a week.
So, go do it!
There you have it: 3 quick tips that should help you improve your sparring. I'm confident that once you apply these tips to your training you'll see a drastic improvement in your skill as well as a significant improvement in your understanding of your martial art.