Sparring is an important part of any martial arts regardless of the style or where it originated from. However due to how things have changed in the martial arts world and the world in general, many students choose not to participate in sparring to the point where many schools no longer offer sparring or worse call into question the point of sparring due to their inability to properly utilise the advantages that sparring offers both teacher and student. Sparring is another training tool that may enable you to better defend yourself in the real world.
So why is sparring important?
When most people talk about speed they comment on how many punches or kicks they can do in a minute or demonstrate a complicated series of movements in front of beginners and because they don’t know any better they comment on how fast the movements are. This is not what is meant by speed. Having fast punches and kicks is very important in a fight but only if you can do them under pressure and whilst you and your opponent are moving. This leads to the real meaning of speed and that's the speed at which you can move yourself to the most advantageous position to execute any attack you need to and move on without getting hit by the counter attack. This is where most people fall short. They can get in to a good position but get hit in the process of getting out of the line of fire or worse get hit before they can execute their attack. Just because your punches may look fast doesn't mean you are fast.
This real lack of speed cannot be improved without sparring. Sparring aims to put you in a position, though relatively safe, that puts you under the stress and pressure of someone trying to hit strike. From the moment you get hit the first time everything you think you know disappears and confusion and uncertainty sets in. Speed decreases and your ability to move fast in to the best position to attack becomes much slower if not completely disappears.
Reflexes are often linked with speed and that is correct but its linked in the wrong way. Just because you have speed in your attacks does not mean you can respond to a threat and respond appropriately to defend yourself with the right movements and with power. Reflexes must be trained so that reaction times improve and so that you can react with the right response needed for different possibilities. This is not the speed of the limb but the speed at which you react to and process incoming information. This reflex reaction also is impacted when under stress. You can only see if your training is actually improving your reflexes when you spar and pushed to respond. Especially when you are forced to respond to something you weren't expecting. This is the job of your sparring partner. Remember that a real life fight is unpredictable and can happen when you least expect it. So if you cannot respond whilst sparring when you are focused and alert then the chances are low that you will respond when you are relaxed and complacent in your day to day life.
Focus on a stationary object or when doing one exercise at a time is a good thing and for most requires time to develop. It takes even more time to develop focus that is useful in sparring that can translate to a real fight. Being able to maintain focus on when to hit, how to hit while avoiding or deflecting your opponents incoming attacks is very difficult. It's even hard trying to maintain it through fatigue and after a strike to the head that scrambles your brains or a body blow that knocks the wind out of you. Add on top of that the potential life threatening situation that a real fight presents and focus become very difficult.
This kind of focus can only be achieved through sparring and even then only the kind of sparring that pushes you to your limits. The other thing that mustn't be ignored is that when you lose focus especially during sparring or a real fight then your ability to deliver a power strike is also greatly reduced. Power in your strikes and deflections comes from your ability to focus on delivering you power to the right target to cause the maximum desired result. No focus, no real power.
Deals with Adrenalin
In a real fight adrenalin can be an advantage and disadvantage. Adrenalin increases blood flow, pulse, alertness, strength and reduces the ability to feel pain. All of these can give you an advantage so long as you can control the amount of adrenalin. Too much and a person can lose control and push too hard injuring themselves or go from self-defence to attacker due to the levels of aggression increasing due to the adrenalin.
Though sparring is far from the same level of intensity or threat of a real fight, it gives you the chance to experience what happens to you during a situation that increases your adrenalin levels and learn how to deal with them during a fight and how to come down from a fight. Most people will enjoy the high but not understand what's happening when they start coming down. Commonly your hands will shake usually with a feeling of weakness, a sudden sleepiness can occur with possible fainting and in some cases extreme emotions that most commonly results in crying. Hand shaking and feeling sleepy will be the most common to experience after sparring. With practice of calming down and adrenalin control during sparring practice this can be controlled and the length of time these effects last can be decreased.
Finds your weaknesses
If for a second you think you’re great at defending yourself in a real fight, sparring will very quickly dissolve any notions you have of any great martial skills that you think you possess. Being good at doing techniques, exercises or drills does not automatically mean you can handle yourself in a situation where someone wants to hit you back or worse. When sparring, each person should be looking to have their strengths tested and weakness uncovered. This is the only way to know what you are capable of and find ways to improve. Get rid of your ego and learn the hard lessons now rather than when it's too late.
The closest thing to the stresses of a real fight without the potential of life threatening harm or legal prosecution is sparring. Of course, there are different levels of sparring that have varying degrees of usefulness but even the most rudimentary sparring practice for the untrained can highlight their limited skills and make them understand their limitation unless they are given a false sense of their skills.
Sparring enables a person to see how hard it is to defend themselves against a determined attacker and hopefully, if they are intelligent enough, it can give them pause enough to not get into a fight in the first place and appreciation of their own limitations and well-being. You can only get that from putting yourself into a situation like sparring that is able to push you to a point where you are truly challenged but in an environment that will not lead to anyone being seriously injured.
The worse thing a sparring partner can do is go easy on the person they are up against. The person will learn nothing. Obviously, don’t go all out on a beginner, figure out what they are capable of and push just past that, so they are challenged and forced to adapt and learn to improve. Of course safety is important in training as the training should not make it so you can't defend yourself because you have caused permanent damage, but being pushed in sparring is the best and safest approach for someone who wants the best chance at being able to defend themselves.
There are many other areas in your training that sparring helps with such as fitness, stamina, conditioning and technique refinement but these are the main ones and the ones that are most applicable to a real life situation. Keep these in mind and train them as often as you can as they will be the skills you need when trying to apply your training to the real world.
Keep an eye out for a future blog about way to test your skills in sparring and sparring methods that aren't going to give you the benefits you think they do.