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Neil Cook
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Intelligent Sparring

Intelligent Sparring By Neil Cook

Let me begin by defining what I think sparring is. I believe sparring is the live practice of learned techniques against an unwilling opponent. Which is vital if you ever want to use them. Whether it be for sport, self-protection or just for fun unless you can perform against an unwilling opponent then you can’t do it. Like every other part of training sparring needs to be structured to get the most out of it. I heard a quote once (can’t remember the author) saying “most people teach sparring like the Romans taught the Christians to deal with lions”, which hits the nail on the head.

Setting a goal is important, decide what you are trying to achieve so that way you can measure success. For example, landing a punch kick combination against a moving non striking opponent tests timing and distancing without worrying about being hit. Then move on to opponent striking back to add the pressure thus making the combo more difficult to land. When grappling the same can be done, escaping from a hold is a basic skill. So start again with minimal resistance increasing as time goes on. Geoff Thompson is well quoted by saying “no growth in comfort”, this is how skill is gained. By making it harder you have to perform better. Although I stated earlier “an unwilling opponent” the resistance can be variable depending on skill level or what you are trying to achieve.

Are you focusing on a specific technique or an attribute? Let’s take a simple jab, cross, rear round kick. Firstly what is your measure of success? All combat sports have rules as to what scores or not, e.g. is contact allowed? If so how much? Contact area, parts of the body used to score, quality of technique, points awarded for area of body hit. If a head kick scores more than a body kick. Then state head kicks only to force participants to practice that skill. Knowing this means you may have to move more, be faster or use the punches to set up kick. Try doing it moving backwards, punching on your opponent’s preparation or with head/body evasion to improve your skills. Success could also be improving fluidity. Performing longer/more rounds can improve fitness and test how you are when tired, does your form drop? Will it affect your ability? When sparring for self-defence there isn’t a “win” in terms of points, but there will still be goals to be achieved. Having correct input from your opponent is essential, train for the types of attacks you can expect from a more realistic encounter, e.g haymakers, head locks, grabs. Also natural responses, unlike trained, to get the flow of how normal people will move. Things like flinching, turning the head/body away from harm, arms moving to cover pain. Another big one is reacting to strikes to vulnerable area, you will not be fighting The Terminator. If you hit a vital place there has to be a reaction. Even that can varied from working 100% (knockout) to less effective to simulate the effect of drugs/alcohol/adrenalin/rage or simply didn’t work as well as planned. This will kill the myth that everything works and allows managing failure.

By varying the speed and contact, “dangerous” techniques like eye gauges can be used. By slowing the move down and applying gentle contact, it is possible to train live giving a student experience in finding and touching the eyes. The downside being fights are not slow. So when you spar fast, you substitute touching the eye with the forehead. It’s ok to alter your sparring for safety. But choosing not to train something because it’s “deadly” is false. Judo, JJJ, BJJ all train arm bars and chokes but the tap system allows practice without injury. Remember that sparring is practice, it’s not a fight. Friendly rivalry is good but it should never be personal. Whatever level of contact is agreed on must be adhered to. If a mistake is made, own up to it. If you get hit harder let your opponent know then let it go. The amount of times I’ve seen things escalated due to ego when it isn’t need. When you spar you are trying to improve yourself and your partner. Don’t be the one going over the top and don’t be a hero and take it. That being said, there is a certain amount of physicality to martial arts that should be expected. It’s a physical activity expect to be hit, pulled and thrown. So long as it’s appropriate for the grade/experience. A black belt would expect to be more used to contact than a new starter. Human beings aren’t made off glass, often it’s a mental block that stops people. Sparring can be scary to a beginner, especially if it doesn’t come naturally. Although some people take to it well. By introducing sparring in small bites that show how a practitioner can perform and improve. You will have a much better martial artist and person. Adding tougher drills gradually can make a timid person realise their potential and raise self-confidence. Which should always be an important part of training.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Lots of good info! Thanks for sharing.

Neil Cook wrote:
I heard a quote once (can’t remember the author) saying “most people teach sparring like the Romans taught the Christians to deal with lions”, which hits the nail on the head.

It was Dan Anderson (former US karate champion, Arnis master and author of the seminal book “American Freestyle Karate”) in a private conversation with me when I was showing him around my home town. I liked the quote so much that I’ve told the story of the conversation many times. You may have got it from me, or someone else who did. Dan has a great way with words :-)

All the best,


Neil Cook
Neil Cook's picture

Hi Iain, That must be where i got it from, although I have had to explain it a couple of times. See you Sunday for Tekki