Sparring, Part Two–Sparring Is a Test of Training

Nothing realistic about this, nope, nothing at all.

Nothing realistic about this–nope, nothing at all.

Last week I wrote an essay about sparring being “double-edged,” meaning that it has disadvantages as well as advantages as a training tool. Particularly, I pointed out some of the frequently overlooked ways in which sparring is not a realistic simulation of fighting.

I apparently generated a small amount of controversy with that piece for daring to suggest that sparring isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be and that I don’t use it myself much now (and that it’s not really part of the Yin Style Bagua methodology). This reaction is strange since I discussed the obvious benefits of sparring as a training tool, encouraged sparring for all martial artists, and referred to sparring as “double-edged,” which implies a good edge as well as a bad one. Nuance, perhaps, is sometimes lost upon people who beat each other in the head for sport, though.

Today, I want to elaborate upon the topic further, having cut much that is worth saying over concerns about length (it already exceeded 2000 words, which I consider to be an almost strict upper limit for a blog post–and this one is longer). Here, I want to discuss a couple of matters that seemed to rise up in the dust around the essay: how Yin Style makes sure it’s real without doing much/any sparring, and that I think of sparring as a test of training. I’ll discuss YSB second.

Before starting, I’ll also mention that I sparred regularly and competitively–considering it my favorite part of martial arts training–for at least a dozen years before starting to phase it out of my approach to developing in the martial arts, so I’m not exactly ignorant of what goes into a cost-benefits analysis of sparring as an element of training.

Tests of training

From very early on in my introduction to Yin Style, I ran into a concept that is pretty central to the way we do the art. Applications is a test of training. The idea behind that is that if your training is good, you don’t really need to do any applications practice to continue to improve, but if you want to know if your training is getting you somewhere, you had better check it with something like applications. For that reason, when training with others, I typically spend rather a lot of time doing applications with partners. As I said before, you have to test your stuff against reality to make sure you’re not off in la-la land, and applications give you direct access to some aspects of the reality of fighting not initially available in solo practice.

Over the years, I’ve mulled over the concept of tests of training rather significantly. Applications (or “self-defense” or “bunkai” as it’s often termed in pseudo-traditional karate dojos) is one test of training. For those taiji guys that read this, and the likes, push-hands is another kind of test of training, although it doubles as a sensitivity drill. Sparring is yet another test of training. Whether they double as something else or not, tests of training are training activities that possess the capacity to allow you to assess how in line with reality your training happens to be. (And, let me tell you, there are major functional problems with your art if your sparring practice is nearly entirely distinct from and unrelated to the other things you practice, like kata.)

One thing that I’ve concluded is that, just as you wouldn’t take a test every week in a university course, and just as it is a bad idea to let tests define your educational process, using a test of training as a primary training methodology has some problems associated with it. Namely, tests of training are, as I mentioned previously, almost always nerfed from reality for the safety of the participants, and the degree to which this is a problem is largely determined not wholly by how much nerfing is occurring but more by the degree to which the nerfing is ignored or forgotten. Sparring, in particular–and for all its benefits–seems to be highly prone to letting people forget that it is significantly removed from reality. Sparring is not fighting. It’s just another kind of simulation.

When to test

So how often should we test our training? Well, as often as needed, obviously, but not so often that it starts to substitute for the hard work of studying and training the material, which is probably best accomplished by doing repetitive drills with an active mind, with or without a partner (especially in an internal art and in any art strongly concerned with achieving development).

For example, when learning a new technique or combination, it would be extremely useful, especially for those with less experience, to engage in applications training to make sure that the knowledge-use gap gets closed. This will make for better technique and facilitate the active-mind kind of solo training that I argue makes the best kind. Once you’ve got some grasp on the application, however, it’s time to put it away for a while and just go train the techniques on your own. I think we’ve all experienced that horrible, inevitable moment in applications training where frustration mounts and you just can’t get it. That’s your sign that the test is over, pass or fail, and it’s time to get back to study before you come back to it.

Given both its nature and its potential costs, sparring is probably best done infrequently, then, comprising probably less than ten percent of one’s overall training time. Sparring, especially, has the problem that it’s very alluring to believe that it is fighting and thus the best use of one’s martial-arts training time. It isn’t, even if it’s pretty good.

That said, for those who feel that sparring would be of great benefit to them, I’d urge it to be something they do maybe no more than a few times a month and probably a lot less, like a handful of times per year, unless conditioning (for a protracted fight, like in the ring, or for exercise) is the goal.

Further, when it’s engaged in, it should be done very much so with the attitude of it being a test of your training between sparring sessions. The thought process might go like this: I feel like I really improved at techniques or strategies X, Y, or Z, and I want to see if I have done so enough to apply them to a resisting, non-cooperative opponent in a dynamic situation. That’s a test of training. In fact, I’d urge that keeping this mentality is more important than the frequency with which one spars. It will prevent deluding yourself into believing that you’re practicing (refined) fighting by sparring.

There’s another problem with sparring that I neglected to mention in the previous essay: it deeply ingrains bad habits. Training under the kind of perceived realism and intense pressure that sparring creates really drives home whatever it is that you’re learning when you do it. This is a great thing, in ways, as it will really hone your reactions, assessments of distance and opportunities, and so on, but it is a bad thing in other ways.

As I keep mentioning, sparring is not real, and it rarely has the goal of making real attempts to end the encounter by force (see caveat for jiu jitsu and wrestling in my previous piece, though these kinds of arts have other issues that divert them from reality, as indicated). In a fight, supposing violence is already occurring, pretty much the only goal is to end the encounter by force–and forgetting this fact because of a fetish for the perceived realism of sparring absolutely will ingrain bad habits where fighting is concerned. It is a bad habit to bounce around and poke at your opponent until he starts to get winded, or to throw lots of the kinds of techniques that are prevalent in many kinds of sport sparring.

By way of contrast, applications practice, though nerfed from reality in other ways that likewise shouldn’t be forgotten or ignored, offers a mentality of ending a fight, now, as an avenue.

What about Yin Style Bagua?

For the most part, we don’t really spar in Yin Style Bagua, and what we do that is anything like sparring (e.g. standing wrestling) is ultimately an accessory to our YSB training, not a real part of it. We do applications practice instead,* and we do it in a particular way that I think seems to confer many of the benefits of sparring, although, like all tools and tests of training, not all of them (which is why doing some light sparring a few times a year may not be totally ill-advised, even for YSB folks, if they’re interested).

*This topic gets a little complicated because our applications practice, as I will discuss below, takes on more and more of a quality of what the Chinese call sanshou (free hands, sometimes translated as “sparring”) or sanda (free striking, also sometimes translated as “sparring”) as the practitioners involved progress.

Our applications practice is done in a variety of tones and at different tempos, but at the center of it–and this was a huge learning experience for me when I switched from other martial arts to YSB, so I know other martial arts don’t all contain this attitude toward applications practice–is that in YSB, we don’t give applications away. Even when being very cooperative, it is the responsibility of the person executing the application to make it work. At the beginning, cooperation in the applications effort entails that this is done in a fairly compliant manner, but as time goes on and experience builds, the compliance isn’t a guarantee. Still, compliance doesn’t entail giving the application away.

There’s a lively onus on the (compliant) opponent in YSB applications practice as well. It can be summarized by saying that the opponent carries a responsibility, at the least, not to get hit. A YSB applications “opponent” is expected to do make a reasonable, realistic effort to block or dodge incoming attacks (without being overly onerous about it) and, eventually, to expose opportunities for counters. This gives some aliveness to defending, especially as applications practice develops, because at that point, it becomes less certain which application a person might be practicing at any given time. Because the opponent is blocking and defending realistically to the threat presented, though, he develops some skill at this side of training while his partner develops a sense of how realistic defenses will manifest and how to change with them to other possibilities.

Over time, as hinted at so far, applications practice in YSB takes a form where safety is still considered paramount and yet in which the opponent won’t necessarily know which attacks are coming at him–and it doesn’t matter really because his job in any case is to defend naturally, not according to some pre-arranged script. One can think of the practice at this stage, where it has become more natural and less rote, as being almost a kind of sparring that is done slowly and cautiously instead of using nerfed technique. In this environment, it becomes necessary for the practitioner to apply attacks in a way that is effective and for the opponent to apply defenses that are natural, and both are learning.

The obvious weakness in this method of practice, for those who have seen it, is that there isn’t a lot of counterattacking going on, whereas in a real encounter, we can definitely expect that there would be. My thoughts on this are twofold.

First, there is countering present. We, as the opponent, definitely make it obvious, after an initial learning phase, if we could hit, grab, throw, or otherwise overcome the person applying his technique. We just do it in a contained manner and with the goal of helping the practitioner learn how to enter, attack, and change in a way that minimizes the capacity to counter at all. As the person applying the technique, we are also expected to engage in contact assuming that such opportunities need to be accounted for, ideally before they become surprises.

Second, the question is contextual, as counterattacking and dealing with counters is a significantly higher-level skill than is learning to apply applications and defend against them. In that sense, it’s a bit like learning to walk before you can run, but notice also what I just said: after initial learning phases, exactly this kind of mentality, the kind that searches for ways to escape or break the techniques being applied, is a legitimate and significant part of our applications practice.

To take this one step further, and at the risk of getting called a moron by people who don’t understand mental training, if you truly understand the application, you can do it in your imagination while you train on nothing but air, and you can, in a sense, drill your way through realistic fighting applications without the need for a partner at all. This particular goal, which is difficult to achieve, is central to the YSB method of training, and it’s why applications practice (like sparring) is for us ultimately a test of training, or to be a little more generous and realistic, part test and part adjunct activity that makes sure training connects to reality in some way to avoid the lure of fantasy martial arts (which can easily be one’s road even with ample amounts of sparring, as almost any critic of point-sparring will readily attest).

The nerfing problem

As kind of a summary of both this essay about sparring and my previous one, what I’m really getting at with them comes down to two points and a side-car.

One, sparring, applications, or what-have-you are inherently nerfed practices, and it is really important for serious martial artists to have this concern firmly in mind when they train. It is my feeling, having tons of experience with it myself, that sparring offers a significant invitation to forget that fact and to believe instead that it is truly practicing fighting. It isn’t.

Two, sparring, applications, and what-have-you are all various attempts to get around the nerfing problem that resides at the center of most martial arts practice. They are methods of attempting to bridge the necessary gap between training and the reality of fighting. Each has pros and cons, and all are weak to the degree that the cons are glossed over.

The side-car here is that, really, if you have a well-developed method of training your mind as well as your body, and you do enough applications, sparring, and so on, to have a realistic sense of how realistic, resisting opponents will react and fight, then you can understand the point of this entire essay: sparring, like applications, is a test of training. Sure, it’s a training tool, and sure, you can learn from it, but one of its most important functions in that capacity is simply to connect your training back to reality well enough so that you can be sure that you’re training well in the first place. And, if you’re training well in the first place, you’re very likely to improve at realistic fighting skills whether you’re sparring or not.

Yet again, and as always, your thoughts, rebuttals, arguments, inquiries, and experiences are welcomed and encouraged in the comments below!

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Sparring, a Double-Edged Training Tool

I couldn't escape if I tried.

I couldn’t escape if I tried.

Fantasy martial arts are emphatically not something that someone wants to be doing without being keenly aware of the fact. Indeed, it’s so obvious that no one wants to be doing fantasy martial arts that there would be no need for me to defend this statement had I not added the without clause at the end, and that I’ve added merely to be fair to the individual spirit. People can train what they want and do what they enjoy, but no one wants to engage in any self-deception about what they are doing. In other words, if what you’re doing as a “martial art” is unlikely to be useful for fighting, you should want to know that fact.

What gives, then? Why is there so much unrealistic martial arts out there? Because there’s a gap between training and reality, and people often don’t realize that their bridges across it aren’t perfect.

The objective test

There is a solitary objective test available to us that lets us figure out if we are doing fantasy martial arts, and that test is reality. As I’ve discussed briefly before, though, getting at reality while training the martial arts can be a tad difficult. In fact, I think it’s more or less impossible as it would require actually fighting, and doing a lot of it.

What’s to be done, then, if we can’t get to reality? Obviously, we simulate it. We don’t send our pilots through hundreds of hours of simulator time before touching a real airplane for no reason, and when we train martial arts, the best we can hope for is some simulation of realistic fighting circumstances if we’re interested in testing our skills to make sure we’re not lost in fantasy camp.

There are a number of ways to bridge the training-reality gap that offer varying degrees of accuracy in simulating reality. One of the most popular and hardest to knock is sparring, which is essentially defined as simulated fighting.

I think sparring is a great training tool, but I don’t use it much, if at all, now that I’ve been training Yin Style Bagua for a while. After years of contemplating the practice, I’ve reached the conclusions that for all it is touted to be, it is inherently unrealistic enough so that it is a double-edged training tool, both immensely helpful and significantly harmful to martial development.

What’s so great about sparring?

The obvious value of sparring is that your opponent is “alive;” that is, he is actively resisting your attempts to attack and actively applying his own attacks and counterattacks. Because this circumstance is identical in the relevant respects to a fight, sparring deserves a lot of credit where it comes to realistically simulating fighting.

Many fantasy martial arts, in fact, make two major errors that sparring readily corrects. The first is that in a fight the opponent certainly will not really stand still and let you do techniques on him. The second is that–unless you’re very, very good–opponents will not reliably react to you in the way that you (or your kata) anticipates.

Practitioners of Yin Style know that YSB doesn’t really apply sparring as a tool, so how does it deal with these needs? The first is harder, requiring a long period of practice in which the realism in applications practice is ramped up, including involving natural reactions for self-preservation and not always knowing which application is coming. The second is partially addressed by those same approaches but also by two features of YSB that are difficult to obtain and difficult to overrate: (1) entering with techniques that leave the opponent with relatively few good options, and (2) being a martial art specifically designed to cultivate the capacity to change effectively when things aren’t going according to play (I might argue that even having anything more specific than a very, very loose plan is a wrong-headed way to think about dealing with a fight.)

In addition to readily convincing people of how hard it can be to pull of techniques on a mobile, resisting, retaliating opponent, sparring also provides people who do it with a sense of timing and distance, the feeling of reacting to live threats, and the feeling of being hit, sometimes unexpectedly and rather hard. These are very hard things to replace and teach resoundingly good lessons about fighting, and they are why I heartily recommend that people interested in the martial aspect of YSB take some time to do something, maybe kickboxing or something, early on to gain a sense of what fighting-like scenarios actually feel like.

What’s wrong with sparring?

There are four major flaws with sparring as a training method, all of which are interrelated and largely inescapable. To list them, sparring generates injuries, requires watered-down and nerfed* techniques to reduce and prevent them, and leads to practicing protracted fighting as a result. Further, it is often learned experientially, largely divorced from more refined technique. This last problem leads to contextualized fighters–karate guys fight like karate guys, kickboxers fight like kickboxers, etc.–and, often, glorified hillbilly brawling posing as martial arts.

*to nerf is a slang term popular with video gamers that refers to the Nerf company and its safe, mostly foam-rubber line of toys, and it means, effectively, to take the danger out of.

Generating injuries

Martial arts practice in general will produce accidents and thus injuries, and with free sparring, that risk is strongly proportional to how hard the technique is being applied. In other words, the more “realistic” a sparring session is, the more likely you are to get injured playing the game, and injuries steal training time (besides the fact that they hurt and sometimes cannot be fully recovered from–I’m reminded of the surprisingly common lament of jiu jitsu players who state that their training time slowly morphs into so much recovery time that they’re not really ever training anymore). The point is that these are inimical to the usual goals of training, however much toughness they confer.

Watered-down and nerfed technique

The surest way to avoid injuries in sparring, not that it always works, is to do exactly as suggested in the previous paragraph: make it less realistic. The lighter the contact, the less quickly joint locks are applied, the gentler the throws, the more protective gear, and so on, the safer the sparring session becomes. Removing various aspects of martial use completely, say by prohibiting kicks, strikes, throws, or joint locking, also increases safety. The cost is realism. This is a heavy cost, though, in the fighting arts. It’s a huge departure from realism, and thus the necessary reality-check mechanism, whatever sparring proponents want to argue.

Training protracted fighting

I do not consider myself an expert on violence, but I’m not an idiot (and have a decent grasp of probability and statistics). The best way to lower your chance of injury in a fight is to end it quickly. Every additional moment that passes in an ongoing altercation is one in which you could be hit, kicked, bitten, stabbed, thrown, broken, or whatever other gruesome thing, either by accident or the designs of your opponent. Ending a fight quickly is of high importance.

Sparring is nerfed to reduce the likelihood of injury and to protract the training time, and so it ingrains in the mind of its practitioners an attitude that fights are often protracted affairs, just like in the UFC ring (usually). Training your mind to think of a fight as a protracted affair is not really advisable, though, for the reason I just stated.

Experiential learning

There is nothing wrong with learning experientially. In fact, I highly encourage it, but what is relevant here is that learning to fight by sparring potentially (and not uncommonly) leaves a gap between the training of refined and developed techniques and learning to use them effectively. Under pressure, the dictum of practicality rules, and the more subtle and nuanced a technique, the less often it presents itself for live practice. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a wide gap, even if it often is, but so long as you’re dealing with martially effective techniques, claimed by all martial arts, and a nerfed situation, as nearly all training necessarily is, there is some gap.

The width of that gap forms one leg that can support fantasy in your martial arts training, even hardcore fighting-oriented arts like mixed martial arts, MMA (in which the world can be mistaken for a ring and fighters can be mistaken for people who react like grappling-trained kickboxers in closed one-on-one matches). Another leg is adherence to the belief that sparring is a be-all-that-ends-(almost)-all training tool. If you believe that’s the case, you’re probably missing out on a lot of what your chosen martial arts have to offer. A third, truly devastating leg supporting an unrealized fantasy martial art is a nearly complete functional separation between sparring and the rest of what the art offers, be that basic techniques, kata, drills, or what-have-you.

A special case: wrestling and jiu jitsu

In one regard, wrestling-type arts, including judo and jiu-jitsu, can make a fairly good claim that their sparring is an essential expression of their art in the most realistic, yet safe, form possible. When you wrestle or grapple, you really take each other down, you really trap and lock joints, and you really choke people to the point of giving up. You do this against a living, resisting, alive opponent who does not want you to do it, and it’s all pretty damn close to the real thing.

So, are they the exception here? No. The fantasy hiding in those arts is usually in failing to appreciate that it’s not all wrestling. Sure, many such martial artists train to deal with strikes, even weapons, including on the ground, but their sparring still assumes a lot of things, and those will become ingrained through stressed training–often like that the ground is fighter friendly, that they’re fighting one-on-one, and that the person they’re fighting is sticking to a particular set of rules that may not apply. Further, while there’s less divorce between advanced or nuanced technique and sparring application in arts like jiu jitsu, the general rule that opportunities to use such techniques present themselves less frequently, and so the learn-by-doing mentality that sparring encourages hampers some of the potential development that could be available (this could be amended by lots of functional drilling, to be sure, and good jiu jitsu programs use a lot of that–I’m just spelling out the difficulties with sparring here, not putting down any particular martial art).

Being aware of this fact, and even training it in a self-defense part of the course that is separate from sparring (for safety) leaves some of that gap I just talked about. This isn’t to impugn these arts, of course, but its practitioners should want to be much more aware of it than I’ve typically seen from them. For example, when we’ve wrestled around in study group meetings in which BJJ (Brazilian jiu jitsu) guys are present, even ones who have done MMA sparring, it has proved to be immensely surprising how drastically adding in close-quarters strikes can change the wrestling dynamic while standing.

Should we spar?

In general, I think anyone who trains a martial art at all should spar some and draw from it what it has to offer, but for Yin Style Bagua, I don’t think sparring is the best training methodology–not that you shouldn’t (carefully!) play around with it some.

The techniques in Yin Style Baguazhang are tightly knit and dangerous, and not in this silly “my art is too deadly” kind of way. In the past, when I’ve sparred, lightly and casually, it was decidedly dangerous to joints if I went with some opportunities I took (since we often lock them with a strike combined into a throw) and was severely modifying my art when I ignored those opportunities. When I’ve sparred, be that striking, grappling, or a combination of both, I’ve simply felt like for the sake of being responsible that I have to give too much of YSB away for it to really remain YSB. For those reasons and a preference for and belief in Yin Style’s methods–and not particularly liking being injured–I tend to leave sparring out of my own training.

Note that I say so with the most sincere attitude that any effective martial artist must reality-check his or her skills. That test is crucial to avoid as much fantasy as possible in martial arts training.

What do you think? As always, your comments are warmly invited and much appreciated!