By: Dale Norfolk
Sparring1, the word the strikes fear into many a heart, a word that sends people fleeing for the door, but I am here to sell to you the benefits, so hear me out. As you will recall in a previous blog (Kata), I discussed the benefits and the mechanisms of kata and where they fit in with the journey as a martial artist.
Then it is sparring that I see as another building block, the same as something like kata does. A kata is a way of repeating the movements of the art over and over, so they are perfected. The kata allows a un interrupted flow of movement and technique. However, sparring is the use of the that practiced technique against a living breathing opponent with the sole intention of doing the same from their side.
Unlike kata there is the immediate feedback on delivered offensive techniques and blocks, as well as the need to show move and out think your opponent. This feedback can be called a punch in the mush, but that isn’t as eloquent, is it now.
But more than that sparring is a shared learning, it is a physical and mental game of tag. You should look to best your foe, without beating them to a bloody pulp. It is true that in sparring the occasional whoopsie can happen and a little claret can be spilled, or the occasional tender area kicked. However, these indeed should be infrequent, and you should learn from what happened to cause the injury or the offense.
That does not mean then that sparring should not be aggressive and rough at time, these are the tools which sharpen steel on steel. However, there should be the agreement between the two parties on how the bout is to go, so you both receive the most benefit possible. And with this there should be an observance of your actions, if a blow lands harder than expected or your partner looks stunned, a check of touching gloves gives you the opportunity before continuing, to ensure they’re ok.
Moreover, there should always be a mutual bow of respect at the beginning and a touch of gloves to indicate that you are ready to start. Once gloves have touched, then you are in sparring and if your opponent instantly plants one on you, this is not a surprise.
One of the most useful rules around sparring I have read is that ‘Expect to get hit2’, as there are some who go into sparring thinking that if they are fast enough they will not even be glanced. Sparring is not this and it is the opportunity to test your defence as well as attack. If you keep getting hit in the same place, then that place need protecting or at least toughening.
As I have said before, there is as much psychology in sparring as there is physiology. If you walk into a bout thinking you are going to lose then guess what happens. As Henry Ford3 once said, “Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right”. Personal experience for me says that most people are daunted by someone who is taller and stronger than they are, and in that moment, they have lost the fight, because they have convinced themselves they cannot win. More so with how you control the fight or how you let the other person have control. Each have their benefits and pit falls; what matters is priming yourself psychologically and saying, ‘I will win this’. This is shown by the prep that a lot of people do before sparring, do they pace, do they stretch, they do what works for them.
You should always look to take on different types of opponent all the time, fight big, small, young, old, strong, technical and welcome all. Indeed, if you have a friend that practices a different style, spar with them. It can only prove to enrichen your experience and give you a chance to see a new facet.
As much as you should try all of these things against different styles of fighter, you should also try everything sparring has to offer, and I am not talking about all the different ways you can get hit, no. I mean distance and movement, offensive and defensive, it is fine to fight to your strengths, but what when your strengths are out of reach, literally. Maybe you are fighting a strong kicker, you cannot best them with speed or power of your own kicks, what do you do. What you do is you build a new plan for yourself to counter those strengths. You watch for patterns4, you watch for slips, the slightest twinge that gives you the edge, for example, do they lead with a front kick and follow with punches, can that front kick be disrupted and throw off their whole offense.
If you are lucky as we are, your club will have matting and it will have a dedicated ring. These are two different terrains to face off in. The floor opens itself to individual fighter movement, long combinations and blitz’s. However, the ring is about closing that gap, its about working with little space and using footwork. It’s also about acute strategies, push people into corners, drawing people in and using the ropes. In that example we have two elements that allow you to hone different areas of your sparring skill. If you can learn from them all, you will become a balanced martial artist and be able to pass these lessons on.
If you feel that there is something you are not getting, ask your opponent, ask them what they found easy to land, ask them what they thought was good. This discussion can only enhance your knowledge. As I opened by saying, sparring is a shared learning, and an opportunity for you to learn from someone who may love the sport as much as you do. Give it a go, what’s the worst that could happen, maybe you’ll get the sparring bug.