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!