Sparring. Everyone has an opinion on sparring, especially those who have never done it. I can’t count how many times I’ve talked to a parent or a prospective student and sparring has come up. People either think it’s the most intense UFC-style thing ever or just a random game that isn’t really relevant to the real world. The truth, of course, is that’s it’s both and yet neither.
I’m a blackbelt, and I’ve been teaching martial arts most of my life. A big part of that is sparring. Sparring is one of the most enjoyable parts of learning the martial arts. Here it is, your skills on display, in a direct match against another person. There are no ties, and you instantly know, instantly, who is the better fighter. There are no doubts. It’s a fantastic learning tool.
That said, the more I teach and the more I practice, the more I realize that one of the most common sparring styles, point sparring, is almost completely useless.
Before I go on, let me define point sparring for those unfamiliar with it. If you train in most styles of martial arts, you will probably spar at some point, and the most common way to do this is point sparring. The idea is quite simple: you want to hit your opponent in a scoring area before they hit you. Do that and you get a point. Get more points and you win. Simple and easy.
In general, this is a light or no-contact event. That is, you are trying to hit without hurting. This is true whether it’s between kids or adults. You want to hit the headgear, not give your partner a concussion. Do that and you get a point and bragging rights and pride and everything that goes with it. If you’re the faster fighter, you must be the better fighter, right? So the logic goes.
There’s more to fighting than just pure speed, but sparring is nonetheless a fantastic learning tool. You can practice blocks alone in the mirror for hours on end, but until someone is trying to punch you in the head, you have no idea whether it works or not, or whether you’re fast enough to stop a strike. When you spar, you instantly learn what you need to improve. That’s the beauty of it.
In addition, sparring is the best teaching of reaction time and distancing. That is, the sense of knowing how close you can stand to someone without getting hit. You develop a sense, a feel for how long your opponent’s arms and how fast he can move them. Perhaps most importantly, sparring reveals how you react under pressure. If someone rushes at you, do you wilt and turn away, or do you stand your ground and fireback? This is incredibly useful to know, because this is exactly how you’ll react in a self-defence situation, and you can train it in advance. That’s huge.
There are two types of sparring, continuous and point-based. Continuous is pretty obvious: the action is continuous, non-stop, free-flowing. If someone hits you, they can keep hitting you until you get away. This closely resembles a real fight, albeit more controlled. Point sparring is more stop-and-go, with a flurry of activity and then frequent breaks as the judges award various points. It’s often described as the karate equivalent of tag.
Here’s the problem. With tag, things work great if people follow the spirit of the rules. One kid tags another kid, and there’s a small break as that kid catches his breath, maybe dusts himself off and then runs to tag someone else. Here the game works as intended. You always get that one kid, though, that bends the rules. He just stands there, and when you tag him, he immediately tags you back. You tag him, he tags you, and it just goes back and forth, everyone standing around. The game has been ruined.
By analogy, this is the problem with point sparring. If you take it for what it, it’s a great tool. Two people fight, and if you hit first you win. You can bend the rules, though. You can be like the person that just tags you back every time, and suddenly this game, this tool, has lost all meaning.
Point sparring has certain rules for safety: no facial contact, no hits to the back or below the belt, that type of thing. That’s pretty uncontroversial. This means, though, that someone can stand with their back slightly facing their partner. Because you can’t hit the back, it’s just a big no-zone, and you’re safe from counter-attack. Will this work in real life? Of course not, but in the sparring ring it’s fair game.
In practice, just about every competent instructor will correct this behaviour, but something can happen. You can stand perfectly sideways, so your shoulder facing your partner. This is very effective for point sparring, as you limit half of your opponent’s potential attacks. It’s also similar enough to a real fighting stance that everyone allows it … but it’s terrible.
Sure, such a stance lets you move quickly and avoid incoming contact, but you have absolutely no power. You have no ability to turn your hips. It’s also much harder to block leg kicks and take downs. That doesn’t matter in point sparring, though, because those techniques aren’t allowed. Hitting for power also isn’t an issue, because the idea is to hit, not hurt your partner.
This leads in fact to perhaps the biggest problem with point sparring, not hurting your partner. I know, that sounds funny, but hear me out. The whole idea is to hit your partner in a scoring area. This doesn’t need to be a big shot. Just the lightest of touches is still a point. It also doesn’t matter if you get hit second. First points only. This means you can do something outlandish, just graze your partner, be stuck in a terrible situation where you are completely defenceless to his counter-attack … but you win the match.
This is a huge negative. Sparring is supposed to be a tool to learn how to fight, the hone all your instincts and techniques in the safety of the dojo so that, if you need them, they are ready for the street. The more you practice point sparring, though, the more you learn incredibly bad habits. I know, because I’ve lived it.
For four years, I trained virtually non-stop for point sparring tournaments. I did quite well as a kyu-belt, especially once I hit my growth spurt. I loved sparring, I was good at it, I was fast and effective and amazing … but if you got me in a real fight, my first instinct would be to lightly tap you on the head. And then completely freeze, because I’d wait for the judge to call my point. In the meantime, I’d likely get pounded.
Even now, over a decade later, I still have bad habits from all this training. I frequently catch myself sparring sideways, completely vulnerable to leg kicks. If you hit me, I stop instead of blocking the next attack. Worse, I often hit the other person and then stop, expecting the judge to stop the fight and give me my point. It’s the exact same situation as above. I still do it. I can’t help it.
This isn’t to say that point sparring is bad. Point sparring is a tool to get you better at fighting. That’s the ultimate end goal. If you practice point sparring too much, though, if you practice it to the exclusion of all else, then you don’ta so much get good at fighting as you do at point sparring. There’s a big difference between the two.
And yes, this post was inspired by my last sparring session, where I walked right into a punch. Why? Because I stopped, because that’s what I’ve trained myself to do. This hasn’t happened in awhile, but it still happens, and I can thank all my first-place sparring trophies for my current bruised face and ego.