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!


2 thoughts on “Sparring, a Double-Edged Training Tool

  1. Sparring is a double edged sword- very true with the injuries, but it does really need to be trained for the following reasons: training under pressure not just compliantly, training to remain calm under adversity, training to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations, training stamina/cardio and getting used to getting tired and exhausted, training to recognize openings in your opponent, training to find what worked and what did not in your sparring. I think most important is the stamina/cardio/endurance factor, having done sparring at MMA and CMA schools and done full contact sport events, with adrenaline/nerves you will get tired fast unless you can relax and have trained good cardio.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t disagree with what you’ve said here. I will point out, however, that stamina/cardio/endurance implies a protracted fight, which is exactly what I was pointing at in part of my essay.

      Now, if you’re fighting in the ring, that might be a real issue, but that’s a decidedly different kind of fighting from fighting.

      Liked by 1 person

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