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By Jim Graden


I believe that sparring is the most important element for learning how to fight. Does not matter if you are rolling around on the ground, doing standup boxing or kickboxing, or a combination of all three, you can't learn to fight without sparring, period!

This is the same for a competitive martial artist or someone just wanting to learn some self-defense. Now, I will be the first one to say, “sparing is not fighting, but you can't learn how to fight without it.”

Sparring is when you are executing and defending against strikes that have not been prearranged. The tough part is introducing it to someone for the first time and making it safe. So, to help everyone enjoy sparring, I still do at age 59, I will give you my tips for teaching how to spar safely and effectively.

Focus on teaching defense first.

The biggest challenge for anyone new to sparring is “fear.” Just like in a real physical altercation, people get scared and scared people do unpredictable things, things that can get people hurt.

Focusing first on teaching “how Not to get hit” helps alleviate some of the fear of sparring. Defensive sparring drills is by far the best way to do this. Example: Starting just with jab, you stand one step away from your opponent, you step in and jab toward their forehead, so if they get hit, its not in the nose or someplace painful. You should try to make contact, so they have to defend, but not trying to blast them. You partner reacts by moving back and catching the jab. You both get reset and your partner then returns the action, by firing a jab at you and you defend. Sparring drills should be done with a full set of sparring gear on.

When teaching this drill, the focus should be on the defense of the jab, catching and moving back in balance, more than the execution of the jab itself.

You could then add to the drill. Adding one technique at a time, first just the jab, then a jab-cross, then a jab-cross-hook. Separate the kick by working only the defense against a round kick or leg kick. Then putt it all together. Jab-cross-hook round kick. Beginner defense would be step back, catch the jab, shield the cross, shield the hook and block or check the kick.

Not saying you can't give any feedback about the execution of the combination. But the primary focus should be on the defense against the combination, as it is much harder to learn how not to get hit than it is to hit. One of my favorite sayings in class is “I can teach a 3-year-old how to punch and kick. Learning how not to get punched and kicked is the hard part.”

Match students up more by age, athleticism and mindset, then by belt rank.

The number one injury prevention in sparring is choosing who spars who. This is where knowing your students really makes a difference.

You need to understand that the mindset of your students and that their age plays a big role in determining what they are looking to get out of your school. The last thing most 45+ year old students, regardless of rank, wants to do is get into a heavy exchange sparring match with someone half their age.

Let's say you a have a in shape 55-year-old black belt that has modest to good skills. Most likely his mind set is to avoid head trauma and has learned martial arts for health benefits and self-defense. You put him up against a strong 22-year male with 7 months of training and has a goal of becoming a mixed martial arts champion. You just might have a disaster on your hands and It wouldn't be ether of their fault, only yours for matching them up.

You have to understand what people want out of their martial arts training and where they are in life.

This again is where sparring drills make a big difference. You can be much more liberal about who partners up with who in sparring drills, than you can in actual sparring. The chance of injury is greatly reduced when the students know what is coming.

But the best part of sparring drills, from an instructors point of view, is it gives you a chance to get to know your students mental state, physical abilities and willingness to engage. This goes a long way in keeping your students safe and being able to determine who they should and should not spar.

Another example: I have a 17-year-old, 6'5” brainiac that just made black belt. I put him up against a 50 year, physically strong green belt (around 6-months of training)). They spar great together, the 17-year-old is tall and has learned to use his jab, straight right hand and side kick, he's good at keeping opponents outside and at a his range. He also has great control with his head shots (see below). The green belt loves to engage, pressure fighter, works his head movement and trying to get inside the long and lanky kid. They both get a lot out of the sparing and love it! No one is trying to impress or feed the ego, they are just sparring and making each other better.

Teach your students that they are only as good as their sparing partners. So appreciation, trust and respect for each other is a big part of getting them to feel comfortable sparring together.

Don't start sparing too soon.

We start students sparring around 4 to 5 months into our programming. Before that it's all sparring drills and defensive drills that simulate sparring. We encourage students to get their gear and and start sparring drills as early as 6-weeks. But no sparring until they achieve a certain belt level at about 4 to 5 months. This gives them plenty of time to develop trust in your school that you're not going to injure them. It also gives you and your instructors plenty of time to get to know who they are and who they should spar with.

Start with limited sparring

When they do start sparring, we start them with limited sparring. Limited sparring is were you spar, but can only throw one or two techniques. like just a jab or only lead off techniques like jabs and lead off kicks. This is a great way to introduce someone to sparring. By limiting the techniques, the student will not feel so overwhelmed by a bunch of techniques coming at them. They will also have a better chance of working movement, proper reaction and seeing what is happening.

Consistent sparring equipment.

The equipment your students wear is a big part of keeping them safe. Make sure it is consistent. Make a list of the gear that you allow in your school, or, like we do, make it mandatory that all sparing equipment is purchased through you. No exceptions. You do not want a student working leg kick drills with paper thin shin guards and the other student has fully padded guards. This is a quick way to lose students. Plus, sparring equipment should be a big part of your merchandise sales.

My gear requirements: headgear that protects the cheek bones, rib guard, shin and instep protection, mouthpiece and groin protection for males. We recommend but not required a full groin, bladder and kidney protector for students over 40. Males must wear 16oz or higher boxing glove 's and women must wear 14oz or higher.

No head trauma.

We do allow head contact in all of our sparring, even our juniors. Seriously, how else are you going to learn to defend yourself if you don't ever have to defend and react to someone trying to punch you in the face. It's the first thing the bully is going to do to your junior student that came to you to learn how to defend against a bully.

I’m proud to say my school has not had a head trauma injury (knock down or knock outs in over 15-years.) This is again where sparring drills and limited sparring drills make a huge difference.

These drills allow students to get to know and trust each other. You want your students to know and feel like they are all in it together.

We tell the students that you can strike the head, but the head cannot move because of your strike. If the student cannot do that, then they can only go to the body until they can. We also want speed! This takes time but it really matters. You can't spar in slow motion and expect to be able to defend yourself. So, we want speed, they just have to learn how to kill impact on contact when it comes to hitting the head. This is where the understanding of tempo training comes into play. But I have already gone on long enough and will have to save tempo training for another blog. Good Luck and be safe!

Alex and Chris sparring.

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