Sparring is not always the best training method to become better at sparring

Keith Farrell and Ciaran O'Sullivan
Keith Farrell and Ciaran O’Sullivan fencing with longswords at Edgebana. Photo by Thomas Naylor, 2016.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 11th October 2013. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

I have often come into contact with the idea that the best way to become good at sparring is to practise lots of sparring. This does have some kind of logic behind it: after all, the common saying is: “practice makes perfect.”

However, in my opinion, there are much better ways to become better at fighting than just sparring a lot. Certainly, plenty of sparring is important to the development of a martial artist, but training cleverly is better than training hard – as long as you work hard at training cleverly!

This article will seek to illustrate some of my thoughts about the issue.

Advantages

What are some obvious advantages of practising sparring?

– it is a lot of fun!

– you develop experience with sparring, meaning that you can overcome your fear and learn to manage your nerves, and you also learn how to handle different situations.

– you learn how to put your techniques into practice in a more chaotic environment than a scripted exercise with a partner.

– it allows you to test how well your techniques work, and how your skills measure up to the skills of your peers; a natural benchmarking system.

– if the goal is to become good at sparring, then spending time practising sparring is very important to achieve this goal.

These advantages show that there is definitely merit in using sparring as a training exercise, and I fully believe that sparring is a valuable exercise. I try and do as much sparring as I can with as wide a variety of partners as possible, because it is such an important part of my development as a martial artist.

Potential disadvantages

However, sparring as a training exercise has some significant disadvantages as well:

– it is much more dangerous than drilling, and requires a greater amount of protective gear to match the pace and intensity of the sparring bout. Yes, it is possible to spar with full intensity in just mask, gloves and a t-shirt, but this is a bad idea: why run the risk of needless accident and injury when such injuries could be avoided so easily?

– it can bring out a level of competitiveness in some people that is not healthy and no longer conducive to skilful development of martial arts ability. For example, if people want to win the sparring match beyond anything else, then the level of risk increases while the level of skill displayed often drops. Alternatively, people begin to care only about landing the hits on the other person, and disregard their own defence in order to land the hit first upon the other person; this leads to a twitchy game of tag, with meaningless contact, and entirely the wrong mental approach to the fight.

– people develop patterns and habits (sometimes good, but often bad) that can be exploited. A common habit that people develop when sparring with the longsword is to go up into a left Ochs position as a parry, as a cover, as a winding action, as a stepping action… Really, for any reason! It just happens as one of the most common things that people will do. Anyone who notices this can make a simple feint, watch as the opponent goes up into the left Ochs, and then smack the hands or forearms or elbows. Unless people are made aware of these patterns and habits, quite often people don’t even realise that it is a problem!

– finally, sparring against the same opponents all the time can be like beating your head against a brick wall. You can do lots of sparring, but if you always do the same things against people who always do the same things to you, then you get nowhere. You all stagnate, and the exercise no longer helps to move people forward in terms of skill. Sparring only helps people to improve if there are opportunities for new skills to be learned or for old skills to be improved upon and fine tuned. If you know that against Alan all you need to do is feint high to hit low, and against Bob all you need to do is cut to his right shoulder because he cannot defend very well there, etc., then you will never improve while you remain stuck in this rut.

For a useful training experience, the usual “50/50” random sparring is only helpful when you do new things. If you do the same things over and over, then you are drilling. Turn it into a drill, isolate those skills and actions, and drill them until they work perfectly against everyone of different heights and strengths.

If you are using sparring time as your drilling time then you are wasting time for both yourself and your partner. While you might be training hard, you are most certainly not training cleverly.

How to address these disadvantages with exercises

So, as an instructor or as a practitioner, how can you address these disadvantages inherent in sparring and make sure that you are getting the most out of the practice? Well, quite often the result falls into one of three categories:

1) stop being silly about what you are doing;

This sounds relatively simple, but can be difficult to enact.

If you are a participant and you realise that you are exhibiting problematic behaviour (such as always seeking the hit with no regard for defence, or pushing the intensity to a level that is not safe for the other person) then you must realise that YOU are the problem and that you need to fix yourself.

You don’t need to spar at 100% capacity all the time. You never need to hurt, injure or break your opponents. Look at many of the best instructors: they pitch their own level to just slightly above that of the student with whom they are sparring, and they even let the student land some hits from time to time. They make it progressively more difficult for the student, and thus they facilitate improvement.

What they do not do is treat every new student as a seasoned international competitor; they do not go into every single sparring bout with the force and power required to compete at the highest levels of international tournament. It is an important skill to be able to make your own practice correct for the level of partner. That way you will both learn valuable skills and improve your own abilities.

If you are an instructor and you notice that students in your class are exhibiting silly and unsafe behaviour in sparring, then you need to bring it under control.

2) stop sparring and instead make the practice into an exercise to examine and develop a specific skill, then continue with the sparring once the necessary technical skills are in place;

Sometimes sparring is simply the wrong activity for the wrong people at that point in time. It is crazy to imagine that new students with just an hour of training will actually benefit from a sparring session. Yes, the club will benefit if the student enjoys the sparring and comes back the following week; but the student himself will not actually benefit in terms of skill development.

If people do too much sparring and do not receive enough tuition and guidance then they fall into habits and patterns. If you notice this, then you need to alert the student to what is happening, and provide some tuition so that he can break his pattern. Likewise, explain it to the sparring partner, and make sure that the following exercise is no longer 50/50 free sparring, but that instead it is a more focused exercise where the student is trying to break his habit and the partner tries to exploit the pattern at every opportunity. Thus, they will both learn something useful..

So often, people do the wrong techniques at the wrong range and at the wrong time. Unless they are taught that what they are doing is wrong and WHY is it wrong, there is no reason for them to change, especially if they believe that what they are doing is correct and that it is what their instructor has taught them.

If people are having difficult with the skills of distance, range and timing then sparring may or may not help to improve their performance; for many students without these skills, sparring will only serve to reinforce bad habits and inaccurate understandings. Sparring can sometimes help people develop these skills, but usually only when students are self-aware enough to be able to learn from play; until they reach that level of skill and understanding, they need more focused and structured tuition. In which case, you need to stop the sparring and instead provide exercises and drills so that the participants learn the skills correctly, so that they can then practice sparring properly afterwards. In this situation, drilling and exercising is considerably more important than sparring.

Likewise, if people are simply not performing techniques properly when sparring, then you need to stop the sparring and make sure that the basic building blocks of the system are correct. For example, with swords, if someone is consistently hitting with the flat of the blade, then you need to stop the sparring and provide drills to work on edge alignment. In unarmed martial arts, if someone is punching with a bent wrist rather than with a straight wrist, then for the person’s own safety you need to stop the sparring and provide drills to work on correcting the technique. Then, once the techniques are being performed correctly, it is time to start sparring again, at a slow and deliberate pace, so that the individual in question can have the space and time to ensure that the techniques are performed correctly.

It is often the case that people start sparring at too fast and hard a level before their mastery of the basic technical skills is complete; if people cannot perform the basic attacks and defences of the system correctly, then completely free sparring is too advanced an exercise at this stage of their training.

3) make sure you have a useful mindset for sparring.

This is something that can be addressed in two ways.

You can discuss it and gradually improve the mindset of students, almost like brainwashing. I am happy to admit that I use this technique a lot in my teaching: by using the same phrases constantly, at every opportunity, I teach my students that they need to be thinking about keeping themselves safe, and gradually the message seeps into their subconscious.

Alternatively, you can tailor the rules of sparring to penalise certain behaviours and to reward others. For example, if you want to teach people to do something other than hand sniping, then you can ban hand hits and give points only for hits to the head or torso. Very quickly, people will stop going for the hands, as they realise it is a losing strategy.

A combination of both of these approaches is very powerful and beneficial to students. I use a variety of different sparring games, with different rules and parameters, so that my students improve several different skills while sparring, and so that we avoid doing the same thing over and over. I also talk regularly about elements of mindset that I believe are important; whenever I demonstrate a new technique, I talk about how to get in cleanly without being hit, how to perform the technique properly so that it is functional and not tippy, and how to get out safely afterwards to avoid an afterblow. The two methods reinforce each other very well.

What is the right mindset for sparring? My personal belief is that the following mindset is optimal:

– a focus on keeping yourself safe. It doesn’t matter if you fail to land your hit on the other person, as long as he does not land a hit on you.

– the goal should be improving your own ability. If your goal is simply scoring more touches than your opponent then you are concentrating on the wrong thing.

– everything should be as technically correct and perfect as possible. What’s the value in landing a hit that is incapable of doing anything because it is flat or just generally rubbish?

being assertive is important; being aggressive is wrong.

If you approach sparring with the mindset that it is another exercise that will help to improve your martial arts skills, then it will indeed be beneficial to you.

If you approach sparring with the mindset that it is just a bit of fun (and little more), then you are missing out on a whole range of important concepts. In all likelihood, your sparring is not going to be very productive, and you would be much better drilling or doing more focused exercises.

If you approach sparring with the mindset that it is the best possible thing for you to do that will improve your skill, then you clearly need to think more about the skills involved in sparring and start working on areas where you are deficient. Yes, sparring is ONE of the best tools for you to improve your skill if your base level is high enough, but it is not THE best method of training.

If you approach sparring with the mindset that you want to win, then this is not going to be the healthiest way for you to progress your skills until you have the basic ability to make this mindset work for you.

Conclusion

So, to conclude this article, I do believe that sparring is a very valuable tool. It does help to improve skills, it provides experience and challenge, and it is of course the end result of all the other training that we do; why else do we do the other training if not to prepare ourselves for sparring?

However, it must be kept in mind that sparring is not the ultimate exercise, and that there are other more effective ways to train certain skills. Often, the most effective way to train any single skill is to use a drill and exercise focused on that skill; the chaos and pressure of sparring is the wrong time to learn a new skill or to improve an existing skill with which a student is struggling.

When we spar, we use a wide variety of skills. Sparring lets us test these skills and to see how well we bring them all together. If one or more skills are deficient, then sparring cannot improve those skills as effectively as focused drills and exercises. Therefore, sparring should be used merely as one of our tools, and should not be the be-all-and-end-all of what we do. If there is an issue with someone’s performance in sparring then it is important to address this issue with appropriate other training methods, and then to reintegrate the improved skill back into sparring.

I hope this article helps you to think about what you do when you participate in sparring, and hopefully it will help you to make sparring a more valuable and better understood part of your training. For instructors who read this article, I hope it helps you to consider the role of sparring in your teaching and curriculum, and hopefully the result will be an even better and more integrated methodology for your students to learn about martial arts.

Keith Farrell

Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers.

I have authored Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick and the award-winning AHA German Longsword Study Guide, and maintain a blog at www.keithfarrell.net where I post regularly.