I love sparring. I frequent /kravmaga and other subreddits on reddit.com where the topic occasionally comes up. In a comment last month, for instance, I suggested some tips from my experience in the time I’ve been sparring that got some positive feedback. I’ve brought my tips over to this blog, modified them slightly, and expanded on them.
Now, admittedly, I have a long way to go before I’d consider myself proficient but I think I’ve been learning enough to contribute a couple of tips. Of course, the vast majority of the pointers below come from the instructors. I’ve hung onto them. They’re gold. The other few are my personal observations, usually as the result of doing the opposite and paying the price somehow or another.
My experience so far has been Krav Maga sparring and Sityodtong Muay Thai. Even though some techniques differ, I haven’t distinguished in my tips between one and the other unless the difference is worth calling out.
- Hands up, keep your head moving, and keep your chin down. This one is hard to control. I know it trips me up a lot. But I’ve been told time and again that this is key to avoiding head shots and, in cases where you take a head shot, absorbing much of the impact. It’s not usually the actual blow that staggers you so much as the whiplash of your head being knocked back and forth, side to side. Incidentally, this is usually how your concussions happen and surprisingly it doesn’t take as much impact as you think.
- Master your emotions. This applies to sparring as well as core self-defense. It is very easy to let your emotions take you over and hinder your judgement, reflexes, and control (“Hit me, will you?! I’ll show you!!”). When sparring, particularly when getting whacked in the head, thumped in the side, or smashed in the nose, it is so easy for emotions to flare up — anger, frustration, disappointment, etc. — and these lead to dumb moves and emotional fighting. Not only that, this kind of emotional flare up can cause a friendly sparring match to escalate to a real fight with your opponent if you’re not careful. Stay in tune with these emotions, feel them, acknowledge them, and let them go. Don’t let them drive your reaction into something you’re going to regret. Everyone gets hit, everyone has a good plan go to crap, and everyone has to adapt. Control your emotions so they don’t control you!
I’m scared every time I go into the ring, but it’s how you handle it. What you have to do is plant your feet, bite down on your mouthpiece and say, ‘Let’s go.’ — Mike Tyson
- Speed trumps power in most cases. Don’t go in with powerful attacks all the time. It’s normal to think that every shot has to be the showstopper but this tires you quickly and pisses off your partner. No one wins.
- Each match, expect to get your bell rung at least a few times by some good shots from your opponent. When it does resist the urge to get angry or frustrated. This, out of all tips, is one of the hardest for more junior sparrers to control. We’re hard-wired to lash out when we get hit. Our tempers flare and we get a squirt of adrenaline to feed the fire. We all have to learn to control the urge and learn that it’s part of the drill.
- Don’t trade blows. Use your brains and look for opportunities. Trading blows is just a mindless Fight Club.
- If you nailed with a kick, don’t automatically kick back (same goes for punches). This is a very common reaction people have when first starting out. You kick me? Oh yeah?! Take that! <kick!> On the other hand, if your opponent is falling victim to this urge, use it against them.
- Try to be unpredictable. It’s easy to fall into predictable patterns when you are not thinking. Remain thinking at all costs and avoid going into predicable auto-pilot mode.
- Stray light footed, not rooted in one place, and quick — move around and stay away from those blows. It’s very tempting to just plant yourself and wait for your opponent to come to you. You get so focused on offensive and defensive moves that you forget your feet. More experienced opponents will take advantage of this and dance all around you, tenderizing you with blows from all sides. “No fun,” he said from experience. Remember to stay on your toes and don’t lumber around flat-footed. This makes it tough to be quick and to avoid blows. For bigger folk like me, this is a tall order. Staying on ones toes for any length of time, bopping around in a sparring match, can be hard to focus on and tiring. If you don’t though you won’t have the springiness to move around with the quickness you need.
- Control the distance and you control the fight. It is very hard for everyone but experienced sparring partners to know your short, mid, and long range zones and which weapons of your arsenal are appropriate — in a sparring match. Sure you can intellectualize it and apply it in drills but when it comes down to a dynamic sparring match, especially when you’re getting pummeled, it is easier said than done. Nevertheless, if you can do this, the match is far more likely to be in your favor.
- Buy good equipment. Like they say, “Buy it nice so you don’t buy it twice”. Good equipment gives you — but also your opponent — helpful protection and keeps you both safe. Cheap equipment wears out quickly, fits less well, and won’t offer as much protection when you really need it. Fun fact: most of your equipment is as much for your opponent’s protection as it is yours. So if you have trouble justifying better equipment think of your poor sparring partner!
- Know your distances and zones. Following on the heels of the last tip, don’t kick in a punch zone and vice versa.
- Stay loose, don’t clench up and get all tense. If there is one thing everyone does when they first start sparring it’s to get all tense. This is unfortunate as it will tire you out early and make the hits you take more painful. Learn to loosen up and it will help tremendously. An easy way to apply this is to pay attention to your shoulders as the beginning of the round. More than likely they are hunched up. Drop them and stay relaxed.
- Don’t decide ahead of time what your attack will be. Let your opponents show you what to go after by what he/she is not defending. One cannot defend all targets at once.
- Accept the fact that everyone gets hit. There’s no shame. You are not being judged as harshly by people watching as you might think. Surprisingly, more often than not, getting hit doesn’t hurt as much as you think, especially with sparring gear strapped on.
- When you miss a shot, you get surprised by a hit, or something doesn’t go as you planned DO NOT get frustrated and start obsessing about it. Let it go. There’s time to analyze things after the match. If you get hung up on these things you are distracted and your performance will degrade rapidly.
- After landing blows on your opponent get out of there. Don’t wait for retaliation and don’t expect your hit to shut them down. If you land punches and/or kicks you have to remember that you are now in their striking range too! Throw your attack or attacks and move.
- I was told by an extremely well-known Muay Thai coach once that amateurs move forward and backward, pros move side to side. Very good advice and one of my favorite tips.
- As you continue to spar into the future try not to stay with the same partner. Many people find buddies in class and stick with them for all bouts and training. Big mistake. After a while you learn to cope with each other’s style and you get lazy. New opponents teach you new things and keep you on your toes. Once in a while, try to spar with someone better than you. Provided that they have the right attitude this can help your technique quite a bit. Not to mention keeping your ego in check!
- No one likes a cheap shot or a cry baby. Remain professional even if your opponent is not behaving that way. If you don’t you’ll have a harder and harder time finding sparring partners.
- Let your power be proportional to your opponent (see here). If you are a big person, for example, and get rotated into a match with a much smaller person don’t be a jerk and knock their head off with a kick.
- Alternate your high and low attacks to confuse your opponent. For example, kicking then following up with a high shot like a jab/cross. When people get kicked low their brain focuses on the body below the belt and vice versa for the head. You can capitalize on this tendency by alternating your attacks. Not predictably of course because too many times and your opponent will catch on to your ploy.
- Manage your fight speed to control your opponent’s speed. I was shown recently that you can lull your opponent into a slower pace by dropping yours, appearing tired or sleepy. Their brain automatically drops down a gear too. Same goes for speeding up. So if you come in with a flurry and drop down a few gears your opponent likely will too, allowing you to spring back in high speed and surprise them. Try it.
- Rotate through your sparring styles to keep your opponent guessing. Bangkok, Tiger, and Boxer styles were demonstrated a few weeks ago in class as classic styles of Muay Thai sparring. They are very different in approach and extremely interesting to think about. We were told that rotating between these various styles will certainly keep your sparring partner completely on their toes and keep them guessing. Lots of training goes into being able to be proficient in any of these styles, let alone all three, but the point is valid even for people new to sparring — keep your style fluid and open to the many possibilities out there.
- There is no winner in sparring. This is training and you shouldn’t be “duking it out”, hoping to “win”. This is to get better and work on your technique and fight endurance. Treat it that way.
- Learn the techniques for sparring opponents taller, shorter, and the same height as you. Odds are you will be sparring mostly people who are shorter or taller than you are. Regardless of the height difference there are techniques and modes that come into play for opponents depending on how they stack up against your height. If you are on the taller side of things, for example, you will often need to let your opponent come to you (especially true of Muay Thai). If you are shorter than your opponent you will often need to get inside their defenses for more in-fighting. Knowing how to adapt will bring you more success as one set of techniques will not fit all matches.
- Lastly, try to have fun and get better every time. You’re there to learn and to get better not to get beat up or pummel others to a pulp.
So there they are. I don’t pretend to be an expert, just an enthusiast who’s had great teachers, tries to learn from his mistakes, and pays attention. I hope these tips help in some small way. If you have any nuggets of wisdom, please share!