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Does sparring help with self defenseSparring is fun and can build several soft skills such as speed, flexibility, and timing but can it really help with self defense?

All too often I see sparring matches as nothing more than an adult version of tag. How do you break down the touch and run mentality and make it more realistic for learning and practicing self defense skills?

My group spars on occasion and while useful, it may be limited in preparing one for a street self defense encounter. I teach an effective defense to several different common attacks as the basis for instruction then encourage them to mix it up and come up with their own effective response. We also take the approach of incorporating takedowns and grabbing. This allows for a little more of a realistic scenario.

If an instructor’s focus for sparring is primarily touch and run this is a diminutive approach. But, an approach that is not without its utility when part of the full scope and dynamics of self defense. Touch and run does serve a purpose keeping in mind it is not the full measure to satisfy self defense needs. Each self defense situation has its own unique set of circumstances and responses.

Taking a myopic approach to self defense is fatal. You can’t expect someone to defend themselves without sparring as a learning tool and platform. You can’t expect someone to defend themselves with a limited approach to training. I’ve seen what everyone has seen, either tag or out of control brawling. As teachers we are trying to turn raw talent, or lack thereof, into something that is effective. It then falls on the knowledge and understanding of the instructor to utilize sparring to its fullest scope and dynamic.

Self Defense and SparringI’ve seen excellent technique delivered that never struck the target. But it could have, and it was obvious that the fighter knew what he was doing and could repeat it. It is not necessary to destroy each other to learn to be effective. But the technique must be proper and accurate. The teacher must force the fighter to stop flailing and deliver that single or multiple blows that could stop the opponent. Single blows being the minority. In training, it also means that the training partners cannot be so full of ego that they will not recognize when they have been dealt a devastating blow.

I am certainly ok with levels of intensity from light to fairly hard contact. But the goal in training is to get better, not defeat the other guy. Working lighter contact allows one to not be so concerned about getting hit that they can try to expand their repertoire, work on their speed and positioning, but also set it up for heavier contact so you can both take and give a hit. You need to know what both feel like. Without it, you’re going to get surprised.

Sparring also has to match your student base and the economics of running a business. This may seem unethical but in the long run good self defense training and placing a beat down on someone during sparring don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Plenty of middle-aged people are not going to be interested in getting pummeled, especially nowadays. But I agree that some sort of controlled sparring/randori should be integral with training, particularly at the more advanced levels.

The Japanese often refer to “randori” instead of “sparring”, which takes a lot of different forms. Obviously, the level of the student has to be taken into account when conducting any type of sparring or aggressive defense/offense scenario. New students need to be broken into it in a structured fashion or they’re going to develop bad habits and potentially become disillusioned with the whole process.

I’m reminded of the people who sometimes approach and ask you “Would you really fight like that?” when they see you practicing forms or kata. No, obviously not. But it’s an exercise that has its place in the overall training routine

There are times when I stress movement or balance or power or any one of several key points. There are other times where it is wide open. We also try and ensure that the students are working with different body types and sizes so that they get used of a quicker or larger or stronger or smaller opponent. One of the favorite drills the students have is only being able to move and block for 3 minutes in the ring. They are unable to “run” and cannot strike back. It is a long 3 minutes.

Sparring is an integral part of martial arts. In my opinion, it should be done as close to actual combat as possible without trying to, for the most part, inflict harm on your partner, however this is a painful reality when engaging. It is most effective in developing timing, distance, conditioning, speed, hand eye and foot coordination, and it gives students somewhat of a feel for actual combat. I say somewhat because those of us who are true to the arts know that sparring is and always will be just a substitute for actual combat. Regardless of how you slice it, sparring is training and is done in a controlled environment with rules.

Without it you may never know what getting hit really feels like. It is part of the conditioning and should regardless your of your preferred system, style or background, mimic as close as you can to actual combat with total respect to your partner.

We teach technique and get our students to learn it and repeat it and be very careful in observing when they attempt to use it while training in general and sparring in particular. When it is not done correctly, then we should at some point prove to the student that the incorrect way they are doing it does not work. This can be both humbling and painful. But it is the nature of the education process. I’m not suggesting we arbitrarily hurt or injure students, there should be nothing arbitrary about educating folks, but I can guarantee that any of us who has been shown that our technique doesn’t work will use the technique in the way it does.

Sparring also helps the self defense practitioner manage the chemicals that will flood their system during a confrontation. How do you know how you will react unless you try and reproduce the stimulus? Sparring is just another tool to help with adrenal training and self management, it’s also a safe place to test your skills in an environment that will support and help the student improve and gain some self confidence.

Overall sparring is a limited tool to help prepare an individual. The primary benefit of sparring, in my opinion, is it allows you to experience getting hit, albeit controlled. It teaches distance and timing as well as body mechanics, balance and awareness of how an opponent’s body moves before striking. What it does not teach is the raw adrenal dump the body experiences from a true life or death situation or the creative or unexpected ways one life or body can be attacked. Is it useless? No. But as with all things more than one answer and application must be trained in order to successfully bridge the divide between sparring and self defense.