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.


Fighting Yourself


One night recently during class sparring time, I had a sudden realisation. No doubt this thought  was not a new one, and I am sure it’s been had by many before…but for me it was a first. I noticed that I had stopped being intently aware of my opponent. I wasn’t really focussed in on them and their reactions, and what they were doing. Now….this was only dojo sparring and so I suppose I could forgive myself for being more relaxed in this case, however I started to wonder if this was good training. I have told my students many times that you cannot expect to react in a way in which you do not train….so I already know my answer. No…this is not good training ! or is it ?

I’m finding it difficult to explain what I mean here but I will try my best. IT’s not like I wasn’t watching my partner because I was. Of course I was reacting to them or else I would have been hurt, but I found myself thinking about me. I discovered that I was noticing things about my body such as my stiff lower back, or my injured ankle…..and really this is a distraction. Then I heard my thoughts in my head , you know the kind…Oh gee I’m a bit tired tonight……I should be kicking faster…..why am I missing that shot…..blah blah blah. And to steal a line from one of my favourite movies…..” Too Many Mind”. Once I noticed this I pulled myself back into line and reminded myself not to analyse this now… get my focus back….but I made a mental note to come back and re-visit this later. So here I am. 

Although not the point of my post here, but I guess there is a kind of state that we like to think we can be in when we fight. A kind of ‘not thinking’ but responding automatically in a sense. That’s why we are told and also tell our students alike that we need to repeat basics so many times. So that we can do them without thinking.  I guess for the most part that is true, and our training should definitely take over, but we still need to be tuned into what’s happening. We should have our eyes and ears open, and watch our opponent like a Hawk for surely It would be hard, if not impossible, to respond to something you didn’t know was coming. Until we perfect our instant clairvoyance, I guess the only real way we can know is through sight and hearing. Hence, I think we can agree that we do need to be ‘present’ in all meanings of the word when fighting.

 And herein lies my discovery. If we must be present and thinking during this Kumite, then those thoughts should not be centred on ourselves I mean….who are we actually fighting here ?  And that’s when It dawned on  me. We are indeed our own opponents. All the time. Every step of the way it’s like there is this preceding shadow of ourselves – as if we are backlit and stand before ourselves in battle between us and them. For us to defeat our enemy, first we must overcome our self.

This is not a matter of throwing caution to the wind and simply accepting any outcome, but learning how to control our mind. To stop the negative talk and turn it into affirmations and then at times to stop the chatter altogether and allow silence so that our training can take over without interference from our ego. We need to be able to separate our emotions from reality & trust in ourselves and our trainers we can hear from the sidelines. We need to be able to shut out the crowd if it’s distracting, or allow that noise in if it drives us positively. We need to know the difference between what hurts us and what stops us. They are not the same. Perhaps, we just need to let ourselves go.

Of course, all this sounds good in theory but how do you do just that. If I knew…….I’m sure I’d be a better instructor….perhaps a much richer one !  Sosai Oyama said, that all questions could be answered in the dojo through hard training and this I believe with my heart. If you push hard enough……questions arise of yourself and your ego all the time during class. They come up in tough fitness sessions, whilst you are pounding the pavement, swimming laps in a pool, during a grading and any time where you place yourself under physical and emotional pressure. Here is the best place to begin to conquer Yourself. Ask yourself the tough questions and be ready for the truth. After all, does the truth not set us free ?

And then…now that you have this truth….this is where the victory lies. The loser allows what is to be and accepts their lot. The champion wins because they accept the truth weather they like it or not, but desire more and stop at nothing until they get it. They do that one more pushup even after their mind said they couldn’t do another. They got up off the mat when their ego said no your’e gonna lose stay down.  They dragged their tired body to training when their mates said…..come on man…come out with us. They entered themselves into the tournament despite the fact they were afraid and then they forced themselves into the ring after throwing up in the toilet earlier from the nerves. They never allowed themselves to think they knew everything and always kept an open mind. They accepted their defeats with grace just as much as their small victories along the way remembering all the while that they were accountable for all outcomes both good and bad. They accepted pain knowing that what doesn’t conquer builds. They forged ahead when others quit and ignored their own self doubt. And with each small step , with each small victorious battle , they won the war against themselves.

“Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.”  Sun Tzu