Why “Sparring” Is Necessary

If you are a longtime follower of this blog, you will probably read some things I’ve written over and over in various articles. I was asked about a statement I made recently at a tournament while talking to some teachers. Most of the gentlemen I was sitting with were Karate/Kenpo teachers, and my friend is a Shotokan teacher. They all dabble in the FMAs…

Let me jump in a few statements first. Martial arts teachers must learn to respect the arts they pick up along the way. I use the expression “pick up” as an alternative to “learn”, as the two are not the same. When you learn something, you generally have some respect for it because your teacher most likely made you earn the knowledge (as well as earn the rank). But when you pick something up–whether it is off of youtube, in a friend’s living room, or in a seminar–you most likely do not have the same respect for this knowledge. Why? Because:

  1. you do not refer to the guy who taught it to you as your teacher, unless
  2. you embellish your level of knowledge/expertise by representing stuff he showed you in a few hours by calling it “studying” that art, and
  3. the price you paid for this information is very low, compared to what most other practitioners invested to get their information and
  4. you are not a true expert in whatever it is that you “picked up”

That said, when teachers are experts in Kenpo or Karate or Tae Kwon Do, they should not disrespect an art by teaching this style that they are not experts in–but merely learned a few moves. Martial artists are famous for offering classes in Yoga, Tai Chi, Muay Thai, FMAs, now MMAs… and doing those arts a terrible injustice, because the bottom line is that you are unqualified to teach what you know of those arts.

Now you know why I am not naming names for this article. I stated my case to them, and we uncomfortably moved on to the subject of sparring. Hopefully they get the point of what I was saying: I am an expert of the FMAs, you are not. Therefore, the only thing I have to say is learn the art properly and then we can have a grown-up conversation about the Filipino arts. If we have this conversation in person, please don’t be offended. I’ll be glad to prove what I mean.

Back to the article.

Sparring is often downplayed by teachers when they don’t know enough about it to emphasize its importance. Sparring builds timing, pain tolerance (depending on what type of sparring you’re doing), the psychology of fighting, builds the emotional fighter within each of us, and gives us a chance to see what we can do when our opponents are opponents instead of partners. When I hear of martial artists refer to their counterparts in the art as “partners”, I’m thinking of dance or sex…. like the kids say “It’s not a good look.”  Opponents will resist, they will hit back, they are looking for an opportunity to make your opponent fail. Partners, on the other hand, are cooperative and know the next move. They have a script and they know their part, and they have this helpful aura about them–they are supposed to help you learn. Opponents help you learn too, but not in the same way. They “help” you learn by making you have a martial experience, and your learning is not a dress rehearsal but a sort of forging of martial arts knowledge. Very big difference.

Sparring does something else; It makes the martial artist/fighter more accustomed to the adversary. I don’t believe that martial artists spend enough time with a doubter, and when they end up having to face a real opponent they end up nervous. This nervous energy robs the fighter of 100% access to his knowledge and ability… There is a saying that when you are nervous, you can only do half of what you can do, and recall a quarter of what you know. As fighters, we must ensure that we can rely on these resources by being calm and reserved when the “time” comes. When a man spars often, he is not as nervous when he has to fight. When he does not spar much, he most likely must overcome his anxiety and butterflies before being able to perform at 100%.

Sparring is not fighting. Fighting is less predictable than sparring. Fighting often does not have rules. There are also no absolutes in fighting either:  you never know who your opponent is (or if more will present themselves once you begin fighting), if this an armed vs. unarmed fight, if you will have to fight again after the “fight” is over… But sparring does prepare you better for the one-on-one, man to man part of the altercation. Even when you have three opponents, you will face each one, one at a time, even if only for a split second. Your ability to maximize that flash of a moment will determine whether you end up with a 30 second fight versus a 10 minute brawl, or if you are able to eliminate the number of opponents over the course of the next 30 seconds and 10 punches, if you will walk home that night or leave on a stretcher, or if you will walk the rest of your days knowing that you are a former mugging victim versus seasoned warrior. I find that many of the martial artists who discount the value of sparring do so because they are either not very good at it–or simply afraid to indulge. If you practice forms or one steps but avoid a harmless match once in a while, you might want to revisit your philosophy and approach to learning how to fight. Getting to the point, what I’m saying is this:  Do not miss out on an extremely valuable aspect of your martial arts training because you’re just too chicken shit to do it the right way, excuse the frankness.

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