Why Sparring Is Essential To Your Workout

Welcome to Fighting Words; thoughts and theories on martial arts in the modern world. In today’s post I’ll be considering why sparring is such a divisive subject in classes. Is it a replication of a real life self defence event, a training tool, or something else?

Ask any ten people what their impression is of a martial arts class and they’ll probably mention a few of the same things. Bowing (lots of bowing), a certain kind of uniform, walking up and down a hall shouting and striking, and practicing the techniques on each other in some way. This last point though, is a controversial one and can elicit all kinds of different responses depending on which class you go to, which instructor you speak with, or which student you train with. In general, I’ve come across three different points of view on whether or not sparring should be done in a class.

The first is the most contentious one, and that the moves being taught are too dangerous to use on fellow students, even in safe, controlled circumstances. In one Karate session I went to, I was told that we couldn’t risk hurting each other as “what we do is far too dangerous to practice”. This even applied to locks and holds that led to takedowns, even though these are often the simplest and safest ways of getting comfortable with moving in close to another person and manoeuvring them into a position that gives you the advantage. If you’re stepping in to deliver a round kick to someone’s stomach, you’re either going in heavy which is going to seriously hurt them, or you’re holding back in some way. Holding back the full force of your strike can then slow you down, so the end result is more like a demonstration as opposed to an attack. However, working through each step of a grab, lock and takedown can be done slowly and precisely, with the speed and ferocity stepped up over time once the student gains confidence; it’s the perfect way of getting them familiar with actions that are completely alien to many people.

So here’s the problem with this approach: we’ve got a room full of people being told that they are learning deadly fighting arts, ones that are so deadly that should they ever have to use them they will undoubtedly be lethal. There’s a lot of positive reinforcement at play here, since the students will be working with co-operative partners and have their instructors showing them the theory of the moves. But what happens if they ever have to actually use these moves in a self defence situation? As anyone who’s trained with a non-compliant partner will attest, things start to get messy pretty quick – that perfect parry and armbar that you’ve been working on will instead become a fumbled block and wrestle for their arm, an arm which most likely won’t be wearing a heavy cotton Gi that’s easy to hold. Is it worth going full pelt and launching your colleagues across the room every time you’re practicing a throw? Probably not to be honest, but it’s definitely worth making your training partner work for it instead of complying with them and giving them a false sense of confidence.

The other unintentional side effect of this mindset is that practitioners will start to believe that what they do is so overwhelmingly violent, that maybe its best not to use these moves at all. If someone is pushing you in public and threatening to hit you, do you risk unleashing what could possibly be a killing blow? This is very different from having the attitude of using whatever training you have to defend yourself or those around you.

The second point of view on sparring is that it’s an essential part of training, to the point where it’s the closest most of us will get to real confrontation and trading blows with another body. Now, this attitude is often more common in students as opposed to instructors, as this is starting to equate simulated fighting with actual fighting which can lead to the same sort of problems that I’ve just mentioned above. Strangely enough, those who view sparring as the be all and end all come to a similar conclusion as those who don’t practice it at all; that they are able to take what they’ve learned in class and apply it to an external situation with no issues whatsoever. Only this time, there’s the assumption that the extra rough and tumble of sparring, with it’s mistimed hits and occasional losses of balance, is sufficient to imitate a street fight. Also, let’s not forget that the use of boxing gloves, shin pads and gum shields among other things helps to soften the impact on those who are throwing the kicks and punches – if you’ve ever sprained your wrist from a badly executed hook or uppercut, you’ll know what that feels like but there’s still a lot of protection from wrist wraps and heavy gloves.

Which brings us on to the last point of view which is my personal favourite. This is the belief that sparring, and all other forms of training that work with a non-co-operative partner, are essential to our development in any martial art, but with the proviso that they are not an imitation of real self defence scenarios, which will always be much more difficult and potentially far more dangerous. Most beginners joining a lesson will probably be familiar with the idea of sparring so will not be scared away by it, and why discard a valuable training tool that helps develop timing, spatial awareness and improvisation in a way that not much else can? Instructors ultimately need to have the courage to risk their students getting hurt, intimidated or disheartened from a bad sparring match, but that is part of the challenge that we face as martial artists – we may fall down a lot, but we pick ourselves up more.

While many of us have access to so many different training resources now thanks for the internet, we’re ultimately at our best when face to face with someone who can help us perfect our techniques. Sparring isn’t something to ignore, but it’s not something to raise to an unrealistic ideal either. The answer lies, as so often, somewhere in the middle.

That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Fighting Words and will join me for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world again. So until then, be like water, and stay safe.

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