Some martial arts styles or gyms will actually NOT include any sparring in their training. They may claim that their strategies are “too dangerous” to practice in a realistic way, or that sparring will somehow corrupt their art. There is also an age-old debate on whether or not too much emphasis on “sport” sparring will detract from the essence or effectiveness of the art. Some instructors may site philosophical reasons to avoid sparring, or that it just isn’t necessary.
But, sparring IS an essential part of training for several reasons. First, sparring activities themselves have amazing fitness benefits...improving cardio, strength, agility, coordination, and endurance. Sparring and sparring drills are also great for developing qualities like distancing (judging how far away to be), timing (executing at the right moment), and just a sense of how to move. Over time, sparring also minimizes any fear of confrontation, which is possibly the most important quality that we can posses in dealing with real world challenges. It is also essential in developing the ability to adjust what we’re doing in an ever-changing, and sometimes chaotic situation. Even for students who struggle with sparring it, at least, help them understand many
Sparring, or “rolling” for grapplers, should be always done in a way that minimizes injuries. The participants must realize the difference between actual self-defense or fighting, and training. In the gym or dojo, sparring is not a life and death situation that actual real-world self-defense can be. Instead, it’s an exercise that must balance realism with safety. The participants must agree on a set of rules where they can learn how to be effective with their art, and everyone can walk away healthy and continue on with their lives afterwards.
Sparring can, and should be “scaled” for the purpose of our training. Students who are preparing to compete will dial things up more than those who are simply studying the art and training for the purpose of learning. Newer students are usually supervised, or paired with instructors or senior students. More senior students going together will generally have a higher pace and intensity. Even on extreme levels, cage fighters must walk a fine line between intensity and avoiding injuries. If a fighter is reckless and becomes injured in preparation for a match, they will likely never actually make it to their fight. Every student should practice staying calm, and being effective and efficient during this training. This is a very important quality to bring to real world self-defense situations, or just common day-to-day challenges.
Sparring is actually very common in the natural world. Young animals often “play fight” in the wild with their parents or siblings. This is natures way of preparing them for hunting and defending themselves when they go out into the world. Even domestic animals like cats and dogs do this sometimes. Although it can seem fairly intense at times, animals rarely hurt each other in their wrestling. They instinctively practice in a safe way, and usually let out a “yelp” when things get out of hand for a kind of verbal “tap-out.” To do damage in their practice fighting would be counterproductive, just as it is in the human world. Their sparring needs to be done in a way that teaches skills, but minimizes injuries, too!
As with any activity, there is some risks involved in this type of training for us. Even when a dojo has good structure and rules in place, and has created an environment of mutual support and respect...and the participants are trying to be careful, accidents still can happen. When the participants understand this and put a priority on safety, the risks can be minimized and injuries will be rare. Having a clean, high quality space with the right boundaries, padding, flooring, lighting, etc. for these activities is also essential for function and safety. Protective gear such as padding for the hands, feet, and head also help to keep injuries to a minimum.
For Uechi-Ryu Karate students at ZenQuest, sparring follows an Ikken Hissatsu or “One-Punch Finish” strategy. This means that the participants practice carefully staying out of range, then moving in quickly to deliver a situation ending strike. The emphasis is on speed, timing, extension, and technique...but with light to medium contact. If a student can do all of the technical aspects correctly, there is no need for hard contact. It is then only a small adjustment to causing serious damage in real life should the need arise. For children, this becomes a game of “tag” that’s all about technique, strategy, and light contact. Newer students are limited to body contact while those more advanced are allowed very limited contact to the headgear.
Similar guidelines are used for Muay Thai sparring at ZenQuest. The major difference is that the emphasis is on methodically “stalking down” an opponent and delivering a series of combinations of strikes, rather than the One-Punch Finish approach. Often times Muay Thai students are encouraged to practice “Technical Sparring” where they essentially take turns on offense in a relatively casual pace. This allows the students to experiment with techniques and strategies, as well as concentrate on effective defense. As always, more experienced practitioners may up the intensity more, within the boundaries of safety.
In Jiu-jitsu or submission-grappling students practice “rolling” or a form of wrestling. This involves throws and takedowns, gaining dominant position, restraints, escapes, and submissions. An emphasis is placed on efficiency and economy of movement, and finesse instead of simply using brute strength. All submissions are executed with great care, and the most dangerous moves are reserved for the advanced. Students are taught to “tap out” when a move becomes uncomfortable, or they become stuck in a submission and unable to defend.
Ultimately, sparring in any martial art should be an enjoyable learning experience...not a stressful chore that the participants dread and results in injuries on a regular basis. With the right facility, structure, collective attitude, and gear every student will be able to progress in their chosen art with minimal risks. SO, gear up, focus, stay calm...and SPAR!