Into the Fray: 3 Stages for Returning to Sparring

If you train in a fighting art, you need to be sparring.  Plain and simple.  For many of us, we had to step away from the ring for a variety of reasons, so how do we jump back in?  Whether you took a break of sparring because of the pandemic, an injury, schedule conflict, or any other act of god, let's discuss some ways to get you back into the fray.


Stage 1: Sparring Prep - Kinesthetics

Before we can take on the psychological and unpredictable realm of sparring, we need to ensure we've re-acclimated to our own bodies.  If you're making avoidable mistakes without an opponent, then you need to put some time into individual training before worrying about sparring.  Below are a few specific elements of skill to focus on:

1. Foundation - Stance, base and balance
2. Flexibility - Strain-Free movement 
3. Targeting - Accurate attacks and maneuvers
4. Posture - Relaxed muscles and guard habits

Set a foundation and make sure you're using proper stances.  Work on your flexibility, so jerky unpredictable movements don't end up leading to a hurt back or twisted ankle.  Practice targeting on a bag or dummy to make sure your moves are going where you want them to.  Work on your posture, ensuring a relaxed but alert position.  Work on your guard reset after blocks and strikes.  We've all seen someone take a preventable punch because of a poor guard.


Stage 2:  Predictive Sparring

One of the biggest mistakes we see is students that step right into sparring without any controlled methods.  To ensure maximum results, take some time to test your abilities in a more predictable environment.

1. Flow - Go at a 20-30% pace with your partner, focus on breathe and posture.  Make sure strikes and maneuvers are landing where they should, but not at a speed or power that will cause damage.  The biggest mistake at this pace is unrealistic moves - don't do anything that wouldn't work at 100% speed, like you're in the matrix.  Do what works, just slower.

2. Invert - If you make a mistake, or realize you could've done something a different way, ask your partner to throw the same attack again a few times to ingrain better habits. 

3. Take Turns - To practice good response to your opponents movements, take turns throwing 1-2 attacks.  In the first stage, defend and reset.  Then switch.  In the second stage, defend, but initiate your turn right from where you both ended up.  In the third stage, try to immediately counter off of each other's movements.  In our experience, fighting is 80% defense.  If you can't get the defense down, your attacks won't go anywhere.

4. Find a Partner you can trust - Ego is the enemy in sparring.  Find someone who challenges you, but not someone who prioritizes winning over your safety.  If you're sparring someone who doesn't make you a little nervous, you're doing it wrong.  But your partner should know the parameters of predictive sparring and be humble enough to stick to it.

Stage 3 - Variable Sparring

When you've reestablished some of the good habits above, variable sparring will be a safe but effective way to engage the less predictable nature of the fight.

1. Timing & Pacing - With your partner, work on throwing maneuvers 'off the beat'.  This will help to break our subconscious tendency to take turns and attack right on the rhythm of the match.  For pacing, work to be conscious of when you can slow down and when you can sprint.  Utilizing both timing of attack and pacing of movement will ensure you're a far less predictable opponent.

2. Gauging Distance - Work intentionally in small and large spaces to practice your distancing with defensive and offensive movements.  In a small space, moving back might not be an option.  You'll be forced to move laterally to counter or avoid an attack, or work efficiently to move less when it's unnecessary.  Distancing also factors in throwing attacks and maneuvers that actually work at the range you're using.

3.  Defense Only - Considering defense is a majority of the fight, practice only defense against a trusted partner.  Try and identify common errors - moving back constantly, attempting to block every strike, failing to defend certain areas, too 'flinchy' to certain attacks, and so on.


Lastly, and most importantly, have a good coach.  Although some mistakes are obvious, our instructors will see things that we won't, while working to keep us safe.  Be safe, train hard and go spar!

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