Sparring is essential if you’d like to be able to apply your techniques on another human being. Anyone who trains sport based systems knows this. Unfortunately, there are still a great many people practicing traditional martial arts and even “reality based self defense”, who either don’t spar at all, or do so very poorly.
I recently received an email from one of my site subscribers (you can subscribe to get free tips and info here) asking for help with a problem. When he’d try to fight, he couldn’t use any of the techniques he was training and he couldn’t stay calm. I recommended he do more sparring, in order to learn to apply his techniques and get accustomed to dealing with a resisting opponent. He wrote back and told me he was training wing chun, and that at the school he goes to they cannot hit above the chest in training. Of course, if you can’t practice hitting someone in the head, and defending against someone who is trying to hit you in the head, you’re not going to be able to do it in reality either.
Sparring shouldn’t be difficult or scary. The video on my boxing page demonstrates a very easy sparring progression, starting with simple, basic techniques, and adding on as a practitioner feels comfortable. You can begin with a single attack and a single defense, and only add additional techniques and defenses when you feel you’ve got the first one down. As you get more comfortable, increase the intensity. Go a bit faster, and a bit harder. In no time at all, you’ll be sparring at a high level of intensity, using your techniques, and staying mentally calm and relaxed. Without sparring, you won’t have a chance.
Sparring for Sport vs. Self Defense
Most combat sports, from boxing and wrestling to MMA, have rounds with time limits. Usually, the time limits are fairly long compared to the time a real assault takes place in. And, the way these systems train and fight has been influenced by these time limits more than many people might imagine.
When I first started boxing, I asked my boxing coach about using a boxing blast, a continuous, high pressure assault that doesn’t stop until your opponent is on the ground. Such a blast doesn’t work all that well in the sport of boxing, as boxers will simply clinch in response, for example, preventing additional techniques from being thrown. In self defense, the clinch wouldn’t stop the blast. It would continue in the form of knees, elbows, throws, locks, chokes, etc. But one thing my boxing coach said stuck with me. He said that the techniques and sport of boxing is based on 3 minute rounds. If a round lasted 5 seconds, boxing would look very different. Boxing would look more like two people using a blast.
The 5 Second Round
Sport based sparring tends to have a back-and-forth quality to it. For example, one person attacks, the other evades and then counter attacks. The counter attack gets blocked or misses, nothing lands, and they break. People move in and out, and rarely attack with 100% intensity. They need to last 3 minutes, 1 minute, or even just 30 seconds. But in a real assault, the outcome of the assault is often decided in the first second or two. Five seconds is a long time in an assault.
While sparring for longer durations is definitely beneficial, as you have more time to learn in a low to moderate intensity environment, for self defense, you should also train very short rounds that are more likely to mirror a real assault. Next time you spar, after warming up with a regular round, try a few 5 second rounds. What do you need to do differently? Can you apply the lessons you learn to your regular sparring?
Granted, neither you nor your opponent may “win” in five seconds. But sometimes you will. You’ll learn valuable lessons. And your training will be closer to what you’re likely to face in the unfortunate event of a real assault.