Printed in the MA Freeway, June, 1997

SPARRING: What is your goal?
By Thomas Howard

First off, it should probably be said that this is an article more for instructors than it is for students. It's not about how to get better in sparring, how to score more points, how to make sparring more "realistic", and above all, it is NOT about telling you This Is The Way You Should Teach Sparring. This isn't a "this is How It's Done" article. So what is it?

It's a call for precision. Precision in terms of defining why exactly you are sparring, how precisely you are doing so, and what exactly are your goals.

You can spar for fun, of course, but most sparring is done to develop a specific set of skills, and practice a specific set of situations. The question is, does your type of sparring match those goals? And more importantly, do your students know both the goals, AND the methods and rules of your type of sparring used to attain those goals?

Or do you let low and mid-rank belts watch a couple of sessions, then toss them in saying "light contact, keep your hands up, and don't block with your face," then sit back and watch the look of panic on their faces?

Worse yet, what happens when a student comes from a different style of martial art, and is used to sparring differently? A light-contact, no-kicks-below-the-belt, no-trapping person is put up against a person who is used to kicking the legs, closing, grapple-and-throw type of sparring----and hasn't been really told the new rules.


Does this mean the "close-and-throw" person is better? Nope. It means the teacher didn't do his/her job. And people get hurt that way.

Why it is that teachers spend plenty of time explaining the mechanics, philosophy, and effectiveness of various techniques---but won't define precisely what they are trying to have their students learn when sparring?

Have you defined exactly what type of sparring you do? What is the point of your style of sparring? Do you practice with:

Light/medium/full contact?

Pads/no pads?

"Off-limits" areas? ("No kicking below the belt/to the back/punches to the head/etc...")

Punch/kick only? Grappling only? Both? Elbow/knee attacks?

Points/No points?

Enclosed areas/multiple attackers/obstructions/weapons/time limits/knockout/locks/throws/"no blood no foul"?

Do these rules change as your students move up in rank?

And most importantly, if you spar a certain way, WHY? What are students trying to learn from it? (And would THEY be able to answer this question?)

For some styles, this is easy. When you say "WTF sparring" you know exactly what you are trying to do. Points, full contact, pads, a specific set of legal areas, and specific rules of conduct. Your goals are straightforward, and known.

But what about a no-pads, light-contact, punch/kick/grapple, open target session? What situation are you training for?

Let's give some goals, then fit sparring types to them. (Note: there are many different sparring types that would work with each of these. The ones given are merely one of the viable choices.)

1) You have some mid-ranks, in a kicking style. They need to work on their extension, their kicking height, and their timing.

So you set up a sparring situation with light to medium contact, no punches to the head, and no kicks below the belt. However, shots to the back and side are legal (thus training to cut angles and step "off-line") ---and the only scoring points are given to strong, crisp techniques that are controlled.

2) You want to get students used to principles of movement for self-defense (meaning, generally an enclosed space where going to the ground isn't a good option, counters as opposed to block-and-strike, and use of series of techniques) and additionally, want the students to get used to opponents who close or attempt to off-balance them.

So you have a defined, fairly small area, light contact, and allow grappling and throws, though not ground grappling for this case. Additionally, all targets and types of strikes are legal. (Thus, light contact.)

3) You want your students to not get in the habit of pulling their strikes, and also get used to occasionally being on the receiving end of a solid strike----because in self-defense situations, people DO get hit.

So, you use full pads, mouthpieces, and cups, full power strikes, though limiting it to basic kicks and punches, those most useful in common self-defense situations. Also, no point count, though a time limit could be useful. Basic limits on legal areas are useful, though minimal. (No front or side knee strikes, no throat strikes, attempt to not punch directly at the nose.)

4) You have a number of women students, and knowing many women who are attacked end up on the ground before they realize they are in trouble makes you want to practice ground situations.

So, you set a session where there is one attacker, and one defender. Strikes, locks, and holds are all legal. The attacker's goal is to put the defender in a submission hold, while the defender's job is to either escape completely, or cause the attacker enough damage as to be unable to continue (in the instructor's opinion). Strikes are light contact, cups and mouthpieces are a VERY good idea, and both students must acknowledge good strikes by loosening their holds when struck effectively. Students start sitting down, with their backs pushed against each other. (Alternately, students start kneeling facing each other, attacker has hold of both defender's wrists.)


There are of course many other situations and types of training that instructors may use. You could take the above training goals and form a completely different style of sparring---that isn't the point.

The point is----the way you spar now, do you have goals? Do your students know what the point is? Does your sparring style correspond to the goals you have?

As a suggestion, if you are the type of instructor who has a handbook for your students, or gives handouts occasionally, you might want to write a short blurb about what type of sparring you normally do, and why. Most instructors have a "type" of sparring they normally use, throwing in something different occasionally. And every time you throw something new in, you explain it, don't you? But have you explained your normal style of sparring? In many cases, it can really benefit the students, particularly if your normal style is non-competitive---since non-competitive styles don't have a set of defined "official rules".

Below is an example of a page from my hapkido booklet that explains my normal sparring "type". We don't always spar this way----but if I change things, I explain it. And this way, they always know what their goals are. (BTW, the sparring mentioned below is no pads, light-to-medium contact depending on the rank, all areas are targets, and locks, throws, kicks, and punches are all legal.)


There are a lot of different ideas of what sparring is, and what it is for. It seems important to me that it be understood what our reasons for sparring are, and the attitude you should bring to it.

Sparring is a session where two people attempt to complete techniques of their own while evading or blocking the techniques of their partner.

Note: I said, "partner". The other person is NOT an opponent, or an adversary, they are your _partner_. You are working together in order to gain knowledge about technique and how to use them.

The point of sparring is to experiment with new techniques and observe how to use them against a moving, motivated target. You are learning how to set someone up, how to adjust for their movement, how to evade, defend, block, and react to their movements, and overall, how to deal with a moving target that doesn't do what you want it to do.

You do NOT jump in and attempt to pummel the other person, overwhelming them with a barrage of techniques, driving them across the mat. You do NOT ignore their techniques because they are pulling them so you won't get hurt, because "it wouldn't have stopped me" or any other reason.

It is a give and take session. You attack occasionally, you give your partner a chance to attack occasionally, you let them start something and see if your technique can interrupt theirs, if you can set up a series----and you give them a chance to do the same.

Sparring is a learning session----you are learning what happens when your target is trying to get out of your way, and when your target has targeted YOU.

We don't give out points for sparring, there is no declared "winner", and there isn't a trophy. The ending question of sparring is simply this: Did you both learn something about the use of techniques during this session?


I'm not saying the above is the way you should spar in class. (For WTF people interested in competition, this would be monumentally stupid.) Similarly, I'm not saying that your goals or reasons should be the same as above. How you spar and why you spar is up to you.

But before you set up a sparring situation, you should set your rules and your goals---and make sure your students understand them both.

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