Is Hard Sparring the best fight Prep ?

If you want to fight – compete !

I’m really hoping to get feedback from other Full contact Martial Arts instructors on this – so let me know what you think.

Going to go out on a short limb and say we have all had a student (or students) that just won’t make the plunge to jump into the full contact ring for some reason. The reasons are varied, and some are valid and some are not. For example, if you have a student that perhaps has discovered Kyokushin Karate at the ripe age of 60 then perhaps the full contact competition mat is a bit out of the question. That one I understand. I’m not saying they don’t partake in sparring….that will be par for the course of grading etc…but getting in the ring or a knockdown comp is not only unnecessary but unsafe. I’m also fairly certain that the reason to train has less to do with fighting than it does with other aspects of health , fitness, motivation and connection with a social group.

For a young student though…..I fail to see a valid reason why not to fight. I mean….if you chose Kyokushin, Kickboxing, Kudo….or whatever style it is, if full contact sparring and competition is part of the syllabus then it must be undertaken otherwise why do that particular style ? As an instructor and also a student and someone who has been a competitor I can appreciate the nerves and the apprehension. Again however, this is just another obstacle that must be overcome in order to become proficient in your chosen style. Everyone get’s nervous and worried but good training and preparation can help counter or minimise this. At the same time there comes a point where first you must fight to know how you need to prepare !

And this is where my blog post really lies. The preparation point.
For over 2 decades I’ve been involved in martial arts and trained in various styles and at numerous gyms etc over this time. Too many to mention. There are many methods that gyms or dojo’s undertake in order to get a fighter ready for a competition. Of course this will vary depending on the style…but let’s assume in essence they are all similar, as really they are. Some gyms love to have their fighters sparring hard and often. I’ve had my fair share of hard sparring training and do I think it made me better?, yes of course. Any hard training will improve you. Do I think it was the best training…no. I don’t.

let’s be clear here though. There is solid training where you are getting hit hard…but with good technique and in a calm and controlled manner. Then there is the ‘hard sparring’ which I call dumb sparring which is what you often get where students just rush into it…throw ill timed and not thought out techniques as fast as they can and hope they land when and where they want them to. This type of sparring doesn’t allow for any self analysis on either participant’s side, and is usually just survival or destroy mode (depending on who is the better fighter) and is what I think of most often when people say ‘hard sparring’. There are many successful and not so successful gyms and dojo’s etc that predominately get their students doing this as fight prep, and is often the reason why you have a class full of injured students….slow improving students, or you have a high drop off rate. From what I can observe, clubs that take on this method usually have low numbers in terms of members or high numbers of students that will never fight and don’t want to come to the sparring sessions….but a small and hardy group of tough fighters who may or not be the best technicians…but have good abilities and good results in comps etc.

Then there are the gyms that focus largely on drills and pad work to prep their fighters. 80 -90 percent of their training will be prearranged drills to build muscle memory and good reaction time, and hard techniques and fitness will be built on the pads and bags. They push themselves hard in fitness training and running …..some weights etc and they do sparr yes, ..but it’s usually padded and it’s slower than dumb sparring…and sometimes looks almost soft. This type of sparring is all about trying to perfect timing…..see openings and make corrections as they go. I said it “almost looks soft” and this is the difference where great fighters don’t need to go into a frenzy and leave themselves open. It’s cautious and controlled but when the opportunity is there and safe…they deliver the shots with controlled power. It’s not aggressive and it’s humble. This enables the better fighters to fight the less apt ones and both sides still can benefit. There is always going to be that one person in the gym that is better than everyone else. If you can’t prep like this…then how does this fighter prepare ?

I’ve seen this second type of prep in Thailand and Japan numerous times and to me it makes the most sense. It means the fighters can minimise risk of injury….adapt and improve faster. For example….let’s look at a Thai fighter at a stable there. I mean… up and coming fighter for the gym might have a comp every second week if not more often. It’s not uncommon for a Thai fighter to have over 100 fights under their belt before moving from the novice to pro comps. For some of them….fighting is their income. They cannot afford to get injured and miss out on a fight then. So, they smash pads (omg do they train hard) and the sparring that I saw was almost playful. Impeccable….but so controlled and they would tease each other when someone would land a good shot. No ego’s, just good smart sparring.

To me……if you want to get good at fighting, then compete. Get your experience in the ring or on the mat against tough competitors and the dojo is your place to sharpen the tools and fix the weaknesses you discover when you fight.

Let us apply the analogy to golf and how they train by perfecting their swings. They must practise teeing off thousands of times…..But the game is the competition and the competition is the test. The competition is the pressure and where you learn the most. We could look at cycling and I mean nobody that I know goes out and rides the Tour De France course in preparation for the Tour De France ! Okay so bad example…but I hope I made myself clear because it’s this point that becomes the excuse that I hear. That we haven’t been doing enough hard sparring in class so therefore they aren’t ready.

And here’s the conversation I’m having in my own head after hearing that….”Oh….so have you told me you want to fight or put a form in for an upcoming comp ?” No – ok.
“Are you attending class more than 2-3 times a week ? “ No
“Do you not believe as an instructor that I know if you are ready to compete or not ? “
There is is this and more but I also feel it’s a bit of an insult to all your training to say you aren’t ready because you aren’t doing enough sparring.
Does that mean all your training is BS and that if you were attacked on the way home tonight you wouldn’t be able to do anything to defend yourself ?
Because really that’s what fighting is. Albeit…it’s safer. I know that a competition is a sport and it’s rules vary with the style and the game. I understand that because it is a sport….fitness needs to become more important as the fights last longer due to rules and limitations etc. This though is my point that it’s all the drills that make you better. You should already have your techniques, your reading abilities and your skill set under your belt and you should have developed your fitness accordingly. The test of all this is the fight- the competition and as I said before…If you want to fight then get your fight experience actually competing.


7 thoughts on “Is Hard Sparring the best fight Prep ?”

  1. Fantastic article Kiley and something not talked about much in Kyokushin or full-contact forms. I believe part of the reason for this is ego and the many who have the old Kyokushin mentality of go hard all the time. But it is changing. As you said… look to gyms in Japan, etc. It’s just a part of evolution. Kyokushin is not that old.

    If you listen/read interviews with most modern professional martial artist who compete at high level, whether stand-up competition like Glory Kickboxing, or UFC, Bellator, etc., most will say they spend most days of the week working on either conditioning (cardio), drills and padwork, and skills. The “day” they do spar, is as you mentioned above, controlled, lighter and working reaction time and technique. They can’t afford to have injuries and most will say they don’t feel it improves their abilities. Joe Valtellini, GSP, top Muay Thai fighters, the list goes on.

    Stephen “Wonder Boy” Thompson is a big supporter of light sparring, “Once you lose that chin, you can’t get it back.”

    The main drawback of heavy sparring is that it can shorten the duration and quality of a fighter’s career. A beaten up body can mean worse performances and an eventual inability to compete. Obviously the ability to take a shot is the primary consequence of heavy sparring.

    The use of padding, guards etc., will allow you to go harder with less risk of injury, and thus still be preparing you for heavy fighting. But while heavy sparring is important early on in an athlete’s career, there is a point of diminishing returns at which the only thing to be gained is injury and brain trauma.

    If you just want to be tough, stand there and take it like a punching bag and show your machismo, than sure. Full-contact spar every week. But if you want to build your technique and skills to compete at higher level, it isn’t as likely.

    Ultimately it is up to the individual. I would just say don’t let your ego be the factor.

    1. Thanks Scott for taking the time to read and also to comment and share your thoughts.
      Loving the reference about ego….i think that is most of the problems in the dojo summed up….apart from as sosai would say….tense shoulders !
      I also really like the quote from Stephen Thompson…..about losing the chin and not being able to get it back. Perfect.

      Now that I think about….didn’t Buddah have a thing or two to say about ego too ?

      Thanks again for the feedback.

  2. Last night we had a sparing session and our Shihan was talking to us exactly about this, the importance of improving our technique, looking for openings, blocking, contra-attacking, keeping the right distance and most importantly avoiding injuries that could compromise our training.
    I never had the honour to meet and train with Sosai. Like many Kyokushin practitioners, I only know him from his books and the few YouTube videos. Here is one where he is clearly doing a light spar:

    1. Hi Adam, Thanks for taking the time to read and for your comments. I’m loving hearing that lots of people are on the same wavelength. I was starting to wonder if maybe I had ‘gone soft’ or something ! But I really do believe in what i say….so it’s nice to hear that others do too . I don’t think I’ve seen that clip of Sosai…..I’m off to watch it now. Osu.

  3. This is a really well thought and wonderfully written article. Thanks for sharing. I discovered Kyokushin at the ripe old age of 40 (first time doing any martial arts) and love it. We are slowly adapting this approach in our dojo which is encouraging more and more people to come to sparring class and resulting in fewer injuries and a lot less stress for the less experienced fighters. As a result more people are training for competitions and getting hard contact experience there. All in all, a win-win!

  4. Great article.

    You mentioned the 60 year old who discovers Kyokshin, but I would add the 40 year old mom of 4, or the 16 year old kid who just wants to grow in mental, physical, and spiritual toughness to the field of students who wouldn’t be as interested in a full contact competition.

    I competed in knockdown events for a decade. I loved it and learned and grew a lot through those competitions. In a real way, I needed that. Most of my students, on the other hand, do not. When we spar in my dojo, we’ve got three levels: light, medium, and hard contact. I would say that we spend 60-70% of our time in light contact with another 25% medium. While the numbers can be played with, the theme is that hard contact is used only a small minority of the time. Even then, we pad up.

    Our dojo has an exceptionally high retention rate, and I think one factor in that is we have very, VERY few injuries due to sparring. I’ve seen this build confidence in my students and get them excited to come back and train more.

    I will sometimes share old school videos of Kyokushin matches from the early days. In a very real way, they were ugly pissing matches to determine which fighter could stand there and take the beating longer. The evolution has created a more beautiful style of fighting, in my opinion.

    Will I ever help create a knockdown champion out of my dojo? I don’t know. It would be nice, but I’m more concerned with presented my students with opportunities to push past their preconceived limits.

    Sorry to ramble. GREAT article.

    Thanks for encouraging us to really think about this topic!

  5. Osu Kiley,

    I overall agree with your statements about tournament preparation, I wrote about this in my own blog if you want to take a look, I can send you the link.

    However, I don’t agree with your opening statements. Kyokushin is not only about kumite or full-contact fighting. Kyokushin is not a fighting system, it’s karate and that involves everything from kihon, kata (and bunkai), self-defense, kobudo and kumite.

    Assuming that all able students should compete is, to me, a bit dangerous. You cannot compete just to compete without preparing for it and I’d be heartfelt to see a student chastised because he/she prioritizes his family, school or even work (in some cases) over karate.

    The level of competition nowadays has increased, we are no longer talking about amateur fighters but full-fledged fighting athletes and if a student cannot be ready for a particular tournament, I don’t think this to be an issue.

    I’ve had experiences where students felt obliged to compete. Whether they were ready or not was not the issue, but their mental state at the moment of competition. This lead to serious injury and the loss of student who simply didn’t want to participate.

    To conclude, I believe that the decision to compete is up to the student and his instructor, not just the instructor. It’s a good discussion to have I think where the student can share his wants and concerns and his instructor share his own thoughts about the ability of the student.

    Thank you for your attention.


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