Successful Sparring Strategies

This post is going to be somewhat random, so I apologize in advance for jumping all over the place.  I was browsing a discussion online when I ran across a question about sparring strategies from a new student asking for tips from the veteran practitioners.  I thought “that is familiar”, as I often was looking for those golden nuggets when I was a new student myself.  As I have grown as a practitioner, I have come to understand that there is no single linchpin concept that will unlock successful sparring for a new student other than “stay with it”.  Every student is unique, and so are their struggles, so this post isn’t meant to be an answer to that student so much is it is just me blabbing about what I have learned about sparring in my 16+ years.

My teacher used to always tell me that I had two stumbling blocks when it came to sparring, and both of them were psychological.  My first one was that I unconsciously assumed skill levels in others and sparred accordingly.  I would put my fellow classmates through the paces with sparring and suddenly drop down when I faced off against my teacher, because he was supposed to be “so much better than me”.  Unconsciously I would not press him as much because I felt like I had to maintain the “gap”.  Then I would spar one of my classmates and I would ramp it up significantly because I had to be at that level to keep up or stay above them.  I still struggle with these thoughts, but now I can spot them and deal with them appropriately.  You have to approach every sparring match as an opportunity to show that other person your very best, regardless of how good you think you should be or how you think you should compare to them.  As a teacher, I still get hit by my students, and I still fight the urge to degrade myself mentally for allowing it to happen.  The truth is that no one person is going to be able to block everything, or always function at a certain level.  Real life doesn’t work that way, and it’s ok to just let things go and give it your best, regardless of how things line up afterwards.

The second trap my teacher clued me into was not trusting myself to just respond.  I had all these expectations of how I should respond to my partners/opponents in matches/fights and I was constantly trying to micromanage my reactions.  My teacher was always telling me to just relax and let my training take over on a subconscious level – to trust myself.  I feel like I do much better at this now, but I have logged thousands of hours retraining my reactions and my expectations of my responses to come to that point.  Real technique and skill isn’t in the prediction of technique or the regurgitating of it, but in the appropriate responses to real life stimuli.  I used to think I had to block X technique with Y technique and if I didn’t I wasn’t using my art.  If this is what you are being taught, then you need to find a new teacher.  Any true art is expressed through much simpler principles than rehearsed movements and lists of techniques that you learn for tests.  The techniques are there for you to learn the principles, the essence of the art.  That is what needs to be expressed.  It used to be that I would try a whole match to use a specific technique and I would view it as a failure if I didn’t.  That mindset was setting me up for failure because I couldn’t control my opponent, and a true expression of the technique has to be relevant and spontaneous; it has to be creative.  Allow yourself to be judged by whether what you did worked, not by whether you performed X technique in all the right places.

Some other things that I discovered that hindered me along the way were crazy hollywood expectations of fights.  I always thought that if I was really good I would be able to have that perfect fight like you see in the movie, and it took me years to un-program that expectation of perfection from myself.  I had to teach myself what real skill actually looked like, and it is rarely perfect.  Setting realistic expectations of my performance helped me tremendously as a fighter.  Realizing that there were so many more variables than just me that determined if I landed that strike or blocked that strike or pulled off that technique or not.  The important thing was not that I tried and succeeded, but that I tried and learned.

One of the things that helped me a lot also was sparring with really talented people.  The first few times I sparred outside my own school I thought to myself, “these people aren’t that good.”  It wasn’t until later that I realized that I was judging them by my classmates, who were really talented.  I always thought of myself as barely keeping up in class, and suddenly I was wasting people who were supposed to be on my level from other schools, feeling like I was always holding back on them.  I had classmates from a variety of different backgrounds, and each of them challenged me in a different area.  I credit a lot of my skill to training with them and having to learn to deal with them.  If I had not, I would have gotten locked into one way of doing things and ranked myself as pretty good when in fact, the moment I stepped outside of that comfort zone I would have been destroyed.  So don’t get locked in, force yourself to face off against people with different approaches and skills, and learn to handle those.

Spar with intent and differing levels of intensity.  Often I would see a couple of people sparring and they would do very well, then when faced off with me, would fall apart because I would press them harder than they ever allowed themselves to be pressed before.  I am not saying you have to spar at full contact levels, but don’t always practice at the comfortable “circle each other, tag, break, circle…” level either.  You need to know what it feels like to be pressed by an attacker that just keeps coming and nothing you do seems to be able to stop them.  You need to be able to function at the full speed continuous motion level if you have any aspirations of becoming good, let alone great.  So switch it up occasionally.  Train just legs, or just hands, or all attack, or all defense, or only right side or left side.  Train one hit sparring, train continuous flow sparring, train light touch, train medium touch, and occasionally with proper protection and with people you trust… train full contact.  Train short rounds, train long rounds, train with emphasis on certain types of techniques or certain ranges.  Train against different people.

Have no expectation about results of any technique or strategy.  What works beautifully on Joe, may fail miserably on Mary.  Realize that technique efficacy isn’t always a quantifiable variable that you can say with confidence that this strategy will or won’t work.  There are too many variables to determine that in advance.  Lighting, temperature, terrain, background noise, context, height ratios, weight ratios, reach, unique backgrounds and experiences, level of weaponry, builds and body types, muscle bulk and tone, previous injury, CURRENT injury, mood, emotional position, fatigue, etc…

Understand that not all technique is equally applicable.  Simple techniques like punches, backfists, most kicks, and elbows/knees are easily performed and don’t require thousands of hours to do effectively.  Compound techniques are simply linking several simple techniques together in a short series.  They take your fighting level up several notches and bring you to a whole new level.  They are harder to implement and harder to handle defensively.  As a student, you should start off with simple attacks and simple defenses.  Don’t expect yourself to do more until you start to feel slightly less overwhelmed by the process of implementing the simple techniques.  Then you can begin stringing them together in combinations.  Get that down and then you start getting to complex techniques.  Complex technique is more abstract, and requires more refined timing and anticipatory skills.  Placing the expectation of that technique early on in your training is foolish and will lead to ineffective implementation of your art and the belief that the techniques “don’t work” in real life.  The truth is that it wasn’t the technique that failed, it was the practitioner who tried to operate above his/her level.  Even among high level fighters, you will observe a significant percentage of technique utilized is still simple/compound technique.  It will always be your foundation.

Don’t make it about winning or losing.  Make it about learning and improving.  It would be better for you to train with someone who always beats you than to train with someone you know you can dominate.  If you are winning all the time, make sure you are making it helpful for the person you are training with too.  If you are losing all the time, make sure your partner will help you to figure out why.  Realize that true gains are often times in your head first.  They come from overcoming presuppositions,  fears, insecurities, and false assumptions and allowing yourself to just be in the moment and respond to what’s happening right in front of you.


That’s it for now.  Happy training!!!!

About Shifu Read

Primary instructor of the school. Training in martial arts since he was 5. He started in kickboxing, then moved to XingYi at 18. At 32 he began training in BaGua. At 36 he began training in TaiJi. At 40, he began in BJJ. He loves to share his knowledge with his students and help them along in their own martial journey.
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