How to Effectively Learn Sparring

There are several times during the course of a student’s training in martial arts that people quit.  The two most common times are during the first 3 months and when a person gets black belt, they think they know it all now. After these two events, there are several less common times that students will quit.  One of those times is when a student begins to spar.  This is likely due to fear.  Fear of getting hurt, fear of embarrassment, and fear of getting dominated or losing. This can all be alleviated when we properly learn sparring from the start.

Students need to learn sparring from the start, even as kids
Students need to learn sparring from the start, even as kids

The method by which sparring is taught is, in my opinion, the reason.  With a clear, strategic method of teaching sparring, these fears can be mitigated. As a result, students can actually learn to enjoy sparring.

When I started training 30+ years ago, at some point students where just thrown into sparring.  It was sink or swim.  Often times students would get beat up for months or years until they got it.  Most senior students would use control and be helpful when sparring with a newer student but that would only alleviate the fears slightly.  Although things have gotten better, this overall method is still used in many schools I have seen.

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The process of learning sparring in karate is a slow, methodical process.  Most people that train in karate take 2-3 classes per week for a total of 3-6 hours total.  With this limited amount of time being spent on sparring, a strong foundation of skills, concepts, and techniques is critical.  Many outsiders see karate training as ineffective when compared to combat sports such as MMA.  This is not the case at all.  It is just misunderstood.  If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, read this article.

In my opinion, sparring can be taught to students immediately when they start training.  It is not like a light switch that suddenly at a certain rank, students just start sparring.  In addition to forms, basic techniques, one step sparring, self-defense, students can start to learn sparring concepts right from the beginning.

Sparring is safe and effective if taught correctly
Sparring is safe and effective if taught correctly

When I see beginners spar, I notice that they get discouraged because they get hit a lot.  The reason they get hit is because they don’t know how to move, they don’t know how to defend, and they don’t know how to control distance.  Think about it.  If you feel safe, that you can limit getting hit, wouldn’t you feel more confident sparring?

Therefore, when a student starts training, I start them doing sparring footwork drills, partner distance drills, and how to use your stance and guard to defend.  There are several drills and techniques to instill these skills.  If interested, you can check them out here.  Sparring gear/pads are not required but I still like students to wear it so they are in the right mindset for sparring and get comfortable.

After a student has the footwork, distance, and defense down, I start them with a few simple offensive hand and kick techniques.  We drill those techniques individually then I allow them to free spar but limit them to only do those techniques.  The reason for this is because when I cut students loose to free spar, they almost always just start doing wild, crazy techniques because they don’t know what to do.  If interested in offensive techniques for sparring, check this out.

I also start giving them some counter techniques.  As with the offensive techniques, students will drill them individually then free spar using only these techniques.  This ensures students work on only the prescribed techniques to fine tune them with different partners with different timing.  If interested in counter techniques for sparring, check this out.

Kids gain more confidence when learning to spar correctly
Kids gain more confidence when learning to spar correctly

I continue to teach offensive techniques and counter techniques with this method, building up a student’s repertoire until they have enough technique and confidence to free spar.  Eventually, we start to get deeper into theory and strategy.  Learning how to setup your opponent, read your opponent, understand your opponent, and varying strategies to use against different types of fighters.  If interested in learning more on strategies in sparring, check this out.

We also take it to the next level and incorporate grabs, takedowns, light grappling, and submissions in order to simulate a more “real” way of sparring like you would use in a fight.  We don’t do this until many, many years of training to ensure students understand how to use techniques with proper control.

Getting hit gives you information on what you're doing wrong
Getting hit gives you information on what you’re doing wrong

When learning to spar, remember this slow, methodical progression.  This is one of the aspects of training that you can continue to improve and learn.  With a clear cut plan to learning, students can enjoy the chess match of sparring rather than live in fear every time the instructor tells the class it is time to spar.

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