Sparring is an excellent way to learn timing, reaction and defense. Sparring allows you to explore your 52 Blocks performance when under pressure. Some instructors won’t introduce you to sparring until you have achieved one or more belt levels. The reason may be because the instructor was taught this way and is simply passing on the tradition of the art. Or it may be because she is liability-conscious and afraid that students will incur injuries before they have developed proper control. I believe sparring should be introduced early in your training in order to acclimate you to this new environment and help you realize its value. You should not view it as something mystical reserved for the advanced students.

Sparring is great for building confidence and testing your ability to apply your 52 Blocks knowledge in real time. When you enter the ring or step onto the mat, you know in advance that you will get hit. It takes a lot of guts to step into the sparring exercise with this knowledge. Often our fears are not about the event itself, however, but about how we will be viewed by our peers or instructor particularly if we suffer a loss. Understand that you don’t have to win when sparring. Your whole career and future do not depend on this one sparring session. Initially the rounds should be kept short and limited to techniques you have learned. You should experience no extreme physical or mental discomfort. The timid student should be eased into sparring, so that it becomes a natural part of his martial arts studies and not an exercise exclusive to the advanced students.

In order for sparring to be as profitable as possible, your instructor must teach it. Although it is convenient to tell students to put on their sparring gear and do round robins, this is not what good instruction is about.52 Blocks sparring should not be used to escape constructive teaching. Your instructor should explain what you are to work on, and should comment on your performance afterward. She should be clear about the purpose of the sparring session and explain what you are to gain.

In many styles of martial arts, sparring doesn’t resemble the art. When you are told to put your gear on and spar, the self-de- fense techniques you have learned suddenly go out the door. But sparring is about more than getting your gloves and duking it out. Initially you may need to be led through sparring, just like you are led through technique and forms practice. Talk beforehand about what you wish to accomplish during the sparring session. Your instructor can also have you pause in the middle of a round and discuss techniques and concepts. Since free sparring is unrehearsed, your instructor doesn’t always know beforehand what specific problems will develop. It may therefore be a good idea for him to comment throughout the practice session, rather than waiting until it is over.

Your instructor should not push you into sparring with the intent to let you sink or swim. Preferably you should spar with your instructor the first few times, so that he can control the pace and let you experience how it feels to hit another person. In the first few sessions, your instructor should be careful about hitting you. For example, he might have you work only on offense, while he performs defensively. Many schools teach one-step sparring, where one student is the aggressor and the other the defender. Your instructor might teach a predetermined technique (a front kick, for example) which you must defend against with a predetermined defense (a downward block). Or he might teach one-step sparring using random techniques. For example:

1. Student A throws any technique, and student B uses any type of defense.

2. After student B has blocked the attack, he throws a counterattack. Student A now blocks and counters. The exercise starts again.

When you gain some experience, sparring will become free flowing and natural. You will discover there are many ways to defend against a particular technique. Defense can also be learned through evasive movement, such as sidestepping or bobbing and weaving.

Another way for the beginner to learn sparring is to restrict the exercise to one or two techniques, such as a lead hand strike and a lead front kick. This type of sparring is somewhat predictable and enables you to build natural defensive reflexes. Next you may stay with these same strikes while learning broken rhythm. If a fighter can use only one technique (for example, if she is hurt and has limited movement), broken rhythm can help her become less predictable. For example:

1. First throw a lead hand strike.

2. Next throw three lead hand strikes in rapid succession.

3. Next throw one lead hand strike, wait for a two-count, and throw two more lead hand strikes.

4. Next throw lead hand strikes with broken rhythm while simultaneously circling your opponent.

When planning a sparring session, your instructor might want to ask himself the following questions:

1. Should beginning students spar the same way as advanced students? If not, how should the sparring be modified?

2. Should the same targets be legal for beginning and advanced students? What are the legal targets?

3. If you train for touch-sparring competition, will you spar differently than if you train for full contact? Why and how?

4. If you train 52 Blocks for sport grappling, will you spar differently than if you train for self-defense against an armed opponent? Why and how?

Your instructor may also want to add certain restrictions, depending on what he is trying to achieve in a particular session: He may allow throwsbut not grappling, for example. In light contact sparring, be aware that a strike or kick that doesn’t hurt should not be ignored. Acknowledging a strike that lands rather than ignoring it benefits both sparring partners. When you throw a strike, you need to know that your partner respects it. When you receive a strike, you need to know that it was capable of doing damage but that your partner was kind enough to use light contact.

When planning a sparring session with a new student, your instructor might want to consider the following:

1. Introduce offense first, because most people find it easier to act than react. When offense has been practiced and become familiar, introduce defense. Start in slow motion, and speed up gradually until the moves become automatic.

2. Next implement movement, broken rhythm and angled attacks. Students should be able to discern relationships between offense, defense and movement. Free sparring without any pattern or organization is unlikely to teach relationships.

3. Next introduce counters triking and how to work with different speeds for offense and defense. This exercise naturally leads to fakes and set-ups. It is not necessary to learn how to defend against every possible scenario. Students might want to learn two or three techniques and experiment with these over time. 1R SCENARIO 48

Your instructor notices that you make several mistakes in a three-minute round of sparring. What should she do?

1. Call a break each time she observes a mistake and point out what is wrong.

2. Ignore it, because you will most likely discover and correct the mistakes on your own.

3. Spar with you and hit you every time you make a mistake.

4. Ask if you are aware of the mistakes you are making.

5. Ignore it, because you are beyond help anyway.

Students should be allowed to make mistakes. Since we are often punished instantly when making the wrong move in free sparring, we are likely to make our own corrections. If you make the same mistake consistently, your instructor should point it out and talk about what you can do to correct it. You should then practice while the information is still fresh on your mind. If you are clearly outranked by your peers, your instructor can spar with you and give you scenarios that you can handle confidently. She can also show you strategy that has not yet been taught to the other students in order to boost your self-image. Whether today’s sparring session should build on yesterday’s sparring session, or whether it should be an orphan, depends on what you wish to achieve. Either way, your instructor should let you know where she is taking you in advance. You should be looking forward to your next session.

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