Why do we slow the sparring down?

When new people come to class and they participate in sparring for the first time, they’re often surprised at the fact that I won’t let them spar at full speed initially. I almost always have to explain that if they go to full speed before they really develop any technique, all they end up doing is fighting without technique. Slowing things down gives the brain and the body a chance to figure out how to do what they do in the proper way while still giving you the opportunity to struggle against an opponent who is not letting you do what you do.


It gives you the opportunity to develop timing, distance management, position control, control over your opponents tools, balance, and psyche while still figuring out proper use of technique at speeds that your brain can actually engage in consciously.


The first question people ask me is, “people don’t fight at this speed, so why are we training at this speed?” That’s a valid question, because they’re right. People don’t fight at that speed. And if I stalled them at that speed forever, they would never really learn how to fight under pressure. But it doesn’t stop there, it’s a progression. For people who are brand new with no body structure, stepping methods, body of technique, and you are afraid of getting hurt this is where you start… Super slow. But then you progress to a little faster, then a little faster and a little harder, and a little faster and a little harder. The secret is not at the speed, but in the progression of intensity.


I firmly believe that starting people out at full power and full speed without establishing a foundation first is going to lead to a much longer skill development process in the long run. You have to train the technique under pressure, but if the pressure surpasses your ability to perform the technique, then you don’t end up training the technique under pressure, you just end up being under pressure. While there is some benefit to practicing under pressure, it is not in technique development.


At my school we go through five levels of progression in sparring, each with their own goals. Most of those we do without significant padding, because we’re training for self-defense primarily. On the street you’re not going to have headgear and chest protectors and gloves. Also, the techniques that we are training cannot all be done with a pair of gloves on. Since we hit with a lot of palm strikes, gloves don’t really add any protection anyway.


Our first level of sparring is what we call the Slow, because it is super slow. I make people move so slow, that it is almost impossible to actually win because the other person can think through your attack with more than enough time to mount an effective defense. The primary reason for this is that the primary goal of super slow sparring is to teach people how to defend. The first goal of fighting should always be defense. The ability to shut down your opponent’s attacks should be first and foremost in your goals. From a foundation of good defense, comes the ability to launch effective attacks. In addition to this, there is very little fear so people can begin to move in smart ways without the fear that would hinder them. They develop good motor pathways and good habits that they can rely on as things start to get more intense later.


The next level we call the Flow. This is still slow, but fast enough that you can begin flowing into actual techniques and strategies that will allow you to successfully win, i.e. score a hit or whatever you’re attempting. It’s a very natural progression from the super slow as most people have trouble staying at super slow, which is good. Once they can show good technique, timing, footwork, and control at super slow speeds then it’s time for them to progress to a harder pace. Just like at super slow sparring, flow sparring is a set tempo. That means we’re not allowed to change our pace suddenly. Also there’s no power. The goals for flow sparring are a progression from slow sparring. We’re beginning now to get into the offensive side of things, while maintaining our strong defense that we developed in slow sparring and our continuous flow of motion.


At level three, we call it the Low Sparring, we introduce changes of tempo, faster speeds, and light power. This is where we introduce intensity. And things definitely change, things you could do at slow and flow speeds, you cannot do as effectively at low speeds. Once we progress people to the point where they can effectively train at this level, this is where they stay for a while. I won’t let them progress faster than this until they can demonstrate that they’ve met the goals associated with this level. Which is a progression of the continuous flow of motion, the maintenance of the strong defense, and the effective utilization of offensive strategies. When a person is fighting well at this level of intensity and speed, then we finally start putting on pads for the next level.


At level 4, we call it Go level, we up the power, up the speed, and up the intention. We are now working at full speed, medium power, and the intention of actually hitting or controlling our opponent effectively. The only difference between this and full contacts sparring is the intent. I’m not actually trying to hurt them or neutralize them, but at this speed and power if I hit them there will be soreness and bruising. This is why we generally wear body pads such as shin guards, head protection, and sometimes chest protectors. Gloves are optional, as they don’t actually help much.


The secret to growth is multi faceted, it requires the absence of ego, consistent and frequent practice, but also the right set of progressions.


Train smart so you can fight easy!



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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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