Beginning Sparring Part One: Problems Encountered

Pick on someone smaller, won't ya?

I am going to provide some sparring skills training to a black belt practitioner; partly to assess his skills and partly to work on a progressive training system for his students. I thought to take the opportunity to discuss some basic challenges students have when starting sparring training. The following is a basic list of sparring skills I came up with off the top of my head.

1. Objectives: I've seen most schools throw their students in the deep end. Sparring skills should be built up in a progressive manner, similar to other skills acquisition they are doing. Pressure testing should come much later. First off is to define what the students are doing and what they should be looking out for. I tell my students they should be focusing on a) recognising strikes and techniques used by their opponents, b) gauge distances, and c) test simple techniques - reaching out to opponents lightly.

2. Distancing and Reach: Many people have difficulty understanding distances when time-pressure is against them. Also tunnel vision and reduction of peripheral vision make distancing more difficult. Students need to re-learn how to guage distances for sparring and improving their spatial awareness for martial art techniques.

3. Targetting: Students have no clue how to perform a technique let alone where to hit the opponent. I tend to point out major possible areas before sparring. This should be in line with complementary drills like one-steps during practice sessions. Beginners should not overly think about specific strike points, but look for big targets to aim techniques at.

4. Weapons to Use: Many students start off sparring knowing 4-6 strikes (hand and foot), 3 blocks, and 3 stances. But when faced with such a pressure test - how many things can a student think of at once? One or two only! In fact this continues even up to when the student becomes an intermediate or advanced belt, but it's just processed at a faster rate, so it seems that they've learned a lot more.

5. Combinations: The student can think of one or two things. Block. Strike. Strike Block. They can't think of combinations. These can be 'handed' to them so that they can engage a sequence without having to be so aware of everything.

6. Protection and Coverage: Here's a downblock, mid block, and up block - all great for blocking things that your grandmother throws at you. Now block something from the Chuck Norris brown belter who's training with you. Doesn't work at all! Students need to be taught more coverage skills. They've got to be taught how to move away so that the opponent needs to always track them. They should know how not to walk into a technique!

7. Stamina and Endurance: Never smoked a day in my life ... yet I feel like I have emphysema as I try to dance around the room. You can't breathe because you've not been taught how to breathe during sparring. In fact whatever new breathing technique you've learned in a hard style system is most often WRONG. It's not the student's fault he's holding his breath! This is natural when you start getting stressed and tensed.

8. Fear and Discomfort: It's confronting, and is one of the exercises that really tear down the walls of confidence in a person in order to build it up again - stronger than ever. But to have a person face such fears, you need to be cognizant of it and cater to this period of training. Once they cross that hump, then you can let it coast, but before that happens, the student cannot think of much else let alone technique or distancing, relaxation or proper movement.


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