Sparring is an essential part of training in martial arts, however there are many ways to approach it. Let’s start off by defining what sparring is intended to be. First, sparring is not a “real” fight. There’s two ways to interpret “real” fight. It can be either a competitive match or a self-defense scenario. Street fights and self defense situations tend to be surprise attacks which can potentially involve more than one assailant or an assailant with a weapon. In such a case, your goal should be to avoid harm and escape and not to defeat all the assailants. Competitive matches are two people testing their skills and trying to defeat one another. Sparring on the other hand is intended to train skills and strategies against a live opponent who provides resistance and possibly a certain method of attack/defense. Sparring is used to prepare for a fight but is not a fight itself.
So now that we’ve defined what sparring is and what it isn’t let’s talk about how to use sparring in training and the benefits of it. Sparring develops a number of skills that are difficult to develop using other means. One of the most important of these is is distance management. Being able to judge and move between ranges with a live opponent is critical in a match. Sparring is the best way to practice closing, maintaining or creating distance between your opponent. You need a person attack and moving in order to learn the proper methods of moving while maintaing proper defense or creating openings for offense. Timing is another aspect that can only really be worked in a sparring context. Timing not only is simply judging when to what rate to execute a attack or defense but also when and what to use. It takes timing to a land a front kick on a moving a opponent, but there’s also the aspect of knowing when to use a front kick. This skill can only be developed in sparring. Another key aspect is working fighting strategy, there is no other way to execute fighting principles other than in a changing environment against a resisting opponent who is has their own strategy. Knowing how to adapt to opponents of different sizes and abilities using various strategies and principles is a skill that is necessary to become a good martial artist. Getting this type of practice brings a greater understanding of the techniques due to having to apply it in various situations. Sparring is a excellent way to reinforce fundamentals as you have to use them instinctually and while under pressure.
The next important element of sparring that is somewhat disputed is the level of contact that should occur. Some people think only hard, full power sparring is worth doing. Others only do very light “touch” sparring. Let’s go through each and mention possible benefits or downsides. Light sparring is a useful tool for learning as it allows people to experiment with a low risk of injury. When trying new techniques or strategies it is helpful to work out the idea at first without having to worry about being clocked. Light contact is great for training frequently, as there is a low risk of injury. You can spar everyday and work on all aspects of your art without concern about recovery.
Next is what I would consider moderate contact. I would define this as just enough to sting or hurt a little. This is a good compromise between heavy and light contact. It’s enough contact that you really want to avoid it. Also, it provides good feedback to both people. The person who lands successfully know that they could have hit harder and the defender clearly knows it as well. Sometimes, light sparring can become tag and a false sense of what a real strike is can develop. Adding a little bit of “pop” helps avoid this and ensures that the fighters know they can defend against and execute an attack with real intent to make contact. This is good once both people are comfortable with their skills and can demonstrate good control.
I’ll define heavy contact as full power with potential (or intent) to drop someone. This type of sparring should be used sparingly and I honestly think it should be reserved for professionals only. For everyday people who aren’t into competition it’s really not worth it. There is a high risk of injury and it takes time to recover from full contact. One benefit, however, is that heavy contact offers a very close simulation of real fighting in and outside of competition. Good padding can reduce the risk of injury but heavy contact to the head is damaging regardless. Contrary to popular belief, taking heavy blows to the head doesn’t make you tougher. In fact, it makes you more likely to get knocked out. Take a look at many fighter’s career’s and you’ll see that once they’ve been KO’d once they tend to get KO’d more often. Most of what makes a fighter tough is psychological. Often a tough fighter is referred to as having a lot of heart. This shows an understanding that It’s the fighting spirit and not necessarily a hard head that makes a tough fighter. Also, there are other less destructive ways to test your will (think long runs, long stance training, intense workouts, etc..). If you still want to do heavy contact I would keep it to the body. In reality, it takes a lot more toughness to shrug off a hard body shot. Body shots are the type of strike that make fighters curl up into a ball and quit.
Since we practice outside with limited equipment, our group uses mostly light sparring to train various techniques and fighting strategies. We occasionally do sparring with more force using heavy duty chest pads and restricting to only body attacks. Our focus aligns with the idea that sparring should be treated like an experiment and is a tool for trying out what you’ve drilled in a freeform, unpredictable environment with an opponent who is actively resisting. Some form of sparring needs to be a part of training to aid in grasping the ideas and strategies in martial arts. When used properly as a training tool sparring will not only help your fighting skills but will better your overall form and technique as well. Just remember it’s not a real fight, you don’t have to try and knockout each other and you’ll find sparring useful and more enjoyable.