The Skill of Light Sparring

I would like to introduce you a concept that you might find interesting. It is teaching combat through the skill of light-contact sparring.

This is not to be confused with the “Flow” drills I am so critical of; sparring lightly is very different from drills as there is no format to it and the pieces of two combatants sparring lightly do not fit together the way drill participants do. The purpose of sparring lightly is to help the fighters get a feel for the techniques they have learned and have a “hands-on” understanding of how these techniques apply. Learning the technique through sparring is quite different from practice. In practice, there is no element of resistance and evasion from the technique as you execute your technique. We still must practice the movements to develop dexterity with the complexities of the technique; and the simplest way to do so is through low-resistance practice. However, once this level of basic skill has been achieved, the fighter must then learn to force his technique through his opponents’ defenses. And this knowledge is developed by using them against an unwilling opponent.

The skill of light sparring is also a world apart from heavy contact sparring. There is no hierarchy in these two styles of fighting–both lend to success in true combat, and neither is superior or inferior to the other. In full contact sparring–at the learning level–there is less emphasis on grace and refined movement. If the fighter has only developed his skills with full contact fighting, he will only have developed power, raw speed and the timing of a fully-exerting opponent. Through light sparring, they learn to use their strategy as a chess match, because of the benefit of low stress levels. And due to the absence of stress, fighting becomes a match of using the appropriate or best response to the opponent–rather than the most natural response. In full contact sparring, students are not likely to fight with skills he is less proficient with. He will more likely resort to the skills he has naturally at his disposal. Therefore, he never develops skill with those techniques that require more attention. Coaches and teachers will always give lip service about full contact sparring being a laboratory; I beg to differ with them. The light contact match is where they should experiment with the use of the new skills. It is the full contact match where he tests his developed skills under pressure.

In the full contact match, we are learning to use skills we already have in our tool box against a fully resisting, agressive, and attacking opponent. It is there, that we learn to use our skills while fatigued, in pain and under heavy attack. The full contact match is where the skills of the warrior are proven. The light contact match is where those skills are developed.

I would like to offer a short list of tips for beneficial light contact sparring:

  • Light contact sparring need not be slow. You must use a combination of 50% speed, 75% speed and full speed in conjunction with varied levels of power
  • A good idea is to count points. This will help you track your connect percentage. Failed attacks are to be corrected and improved.
  • Find strangers to fight with. I cannot emphasize this enough. My biggest criticism of drills is that there is too much familiarity:  familiar techniques, predictable attacks/defenses, both participants fitting movements together. When you spar with people you are comfortable with, you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to learn to deal with the unfamiliar. Fighters who have grown accustomed to fighting unfamiliar opponents are far superior to those who dare not venture outside their circle.
  • Confine yourselves to a small area to fight in. This is one of the drawbacks of tournament point fighting. The rings are too big, and fighters spend too much time traveling around the ring. In my own personal experience, I have beaten fighters who were superior to me simply because I knew how to use the ring better. In a streetfight, I would have had my ass handed to me, but in the game of fighting–I got the win. The streets rarely give you that luxury. While you can benefit from learning to use it to your advantage, it is important to learn to fight a man toe to toe with little reliance on running.
  • Pad up, and then go padless. There are advantages of each, and you would do your skills a favor by becoming accustomed to both.
  • Try short, 5, 10, and 20 second matches. In these matches, you are to try and land one technique, specific techniques, or techniques to specific targets. I will have a better description of this type of sparring drill in my book. By limiting the amount of time you have to apply a technique, you won’t waste time and you will learn to impose your will on an uncooperative opponent.

Light sparring in itself is a separate skill from full contact fighting, and both are separate skills from real combat. Thank you for visiting my blog.

Filipino “Flow”, part II (For Andrew Villarico)

I received the following comment on my article, entitled “My Thoughts on FMA “Flow”. I thought it was a good point, so I would like to post my response to his comment. But first, the comment:

I agree with some points, but overall disagree to the uselessness of flow drills.

I believe they are useful for learning despite your skill level. For beginners, great for basic movements, for novice, great for building speed and coordination, for advanced, great for breaking the flow drill apart and understanding that it is all just components, for the master (or supreme burrito) great for teaching.

The problem with flow drills are that people are so caught up within them. You’re right, a flow drill is not a fight, but what happens when you take a flow drill, speed it up, randomize the attacks and defenses, mix in other parts of different flow drills at random, strike like you mean it and vary your attack speed? You got a fight. And it all started from the flow drill.

It seems to me that you’re complaining about the wrong thing and it is misleading to the uninformed and thus irresponsible. ‘Old School’ masters like Cacoy Canete and the school of Doce Pares employ the use of flow drills, are you saying that this school, founded by twelve WW2 tested masters are wrong for doing so?

What you’re lamenting about is the misuse of flow drills and how mastery of set patterns is projected as complete mastery of the martial art. I agree with you here.

Remember: There are no such things as bad tools, just bad carpenters.

Misuse flow drills at your own peril, but properly employed, you have yourself a great way to train.

Feel free to e-mail me to further discuss, I am genuinely interested in what you have to say.


First, I do agree that there is some place for “flow” the way most FMA people do them, and it should be limited to new novices in the art. I compare the way flow is practiced to a child learning to write in cursive when learning to read and write. While this skill is useful in teaching a part of the art of reading and writing, it is not reading and writing, and continuing to practice the rudiments of cursive will not make you neither a better reader, nor will it make you a better writer. What will continued practice of writing cursive do for you? It will make you write cursive better. Now if you aspire to be a calligraphy artist, that works. But if you want to be a scholar or an author, this skill does little for those arts. Therefore, if you want to be a better author, you must be good at writing, organizing thoughts, structuring a plot/thesis (not that I know, I’m just a martial arts teacher… I’m guessing). If you want to be a great scholar, you must spend your time training and studying oratory skills, related material to your area of expertise, things like that. But the mastery of cursive only makes your handwriting look better when they read your work up close, and that’s it.

In the art of fighting, we must develop those things that related directly to the skill of fighting. Flow, for that matter, is a demonstration of a controlled drill or patterns of movement. A strong, powerful strike–or a series of strong powerful strikes will blow any drill master out of the water if he is not accustomed to dealing with this kind of attack. Flow masters become very good at giving demonstrations of their flow and all its variations. They are not seen in all-out, full-contact fights, and for a good reason. They are essentially, the calligraphists of the martial arts; while the fighter is the Albert Einstein or Cornell West with the poor handwriting. Yes, to the novice they don’t look very impressive. But to the many experts in the fields of science or urban politics, these men are geniuses.

I would also caution any martial artist against being so convinced that a master’s art is “complete” or flawless to the point that there is no room for development or improvement. Many of the things that we take for granted in the art as necessary for fighting skill or even vital to fighting skill may not lend anything significant to superior performance. A good example of this is the sinawali. Most of the best stick fighters in the Philippines do not practice this drill, let alone any double stick at all. Yet many masters will swear that sinawali develops ambidexterity and is necessary for learning to use the non-stick hand. The question is if the omission of this skill will actually hurt fighting skill. There are many things that may enhance your performance, but are not necessary in order to have it. If you can possess superior skill with or without an attribute then that attribute is not necessary. On the other hand, if neglecting a skill or attribute will cause weaknesses in one’s performance–or even become the cause of inferior skill–then I would consider that skill to be one of the vital factors in developing a superior martial arts fighter. Such a skill would be the use of lateral movement. Many fighters specialize in forward and backward movement and use those skills with a lot of success. But the fighters who have poor mobility side to side will almost always fall prey to the more agile, angling fighters. Even if that fighter is highly skilled at linear movement, the ability to circle an opponent will have to be in one’s arsenal to have dominant success in fighting.

And here, we arrive at my point. The FMA fighter too often does not feel the need to test himself to determine or develop dominant fighting superiority. He is content to practice what he practices, spar with friends if he spars at all, and continue the drills that he had been taught without scrutinizing his knowledge and skill. He accepts theories and strategies without question and rarely raises himself to a challenge. Therefore, we end up with Eskrima looking the same way in 2010 that it looked in 1970. The weaknesses we found in Eskrimadors from the 70s are the same weaknesses we find today. For some reason, our FMA leaders have chosen to develop the fighting equivalent of calligraphy rather than develop the weak parts of the FMAs into a superior art. Our stickfighting is the best in the world without question. Our knife fighting is the best in the world without question. Our empty hands are not. The fighters of my grandparents’ generation had a good fighting art for the barehands, but today’s Eskrimador rejects them in favor of more exotic looking hands and feet. And so, our empty handed component has regressed into nothing more than cursive writing on youtube clips. The Flow drills are an expression of that philosophy with a stick. I gave you a great way to test the Flow drill in my last article–which was to have one person “Flow”, while you or your opponent throw powerful strikes with intent. I can almost guarantee no man reading this blog has done so. I have even offered to give you this test myself. And the only person to take me up on the offer was a Kenpo practitioner with almost no Eskrima experience at all.

To answer Andrew’s question of whether I believe Grandmasters like Cacoy Canete have made a mistake with their Flow drills, I must admit that yes, I do believe it is a mistake. While they are good fighting schools, and the masters are good themselves, the use of those drills, forms and things are not needed for fighting skill. I have met Doce Pares fighters who do not practice these things, and they are the superior fighters in their schools. When they practice, in fact, their practice looks a lot like mine–powerful strikes in combination, study of strategy, and plenty of sparring. If I were wrong, these men would not be superior fighters in their schools, but the inferior ones.

You cannot be afraid to challenge the knowledge of the Masters if you are to evolve your art to the next level.

Thank you for visiting my blog.