5 Tips for Successful Sparring in Martial Arts

You’ve got to spar if you really want to train muay Thai, but in my experience a lot of people don’t want to do it. Here are some tips for getting started.

I have done muay Thai for more than ten years at this point in my life. During that time I have been exposed to the many different types of people that train in the art. From cooperate business people, soccer moms, college students, military personnel, to professional athletes, muay Thai attracts people from all walks of life. Among all these differences, there is one thing that remains constant: very seldom do people want or like to spar.

Sparring is the art of muay Thai. If you’re not going to spar you are missing out on what the essence of muay Thai truly is: hand-to-hand combat. The countless hours running, jumping rope, drilling, hitting the bag, and hitting pads have all been spent in order to make you better in the application of your art. They are merely tools for forging you into a better practitioner.

I understand how subjecting yourself to getting punched, kicked, elbowed, and kneed may be a turn off to most people, and yes, that may be a part of what you have to do during sparring, but that isn’t all it’s about. Sparring is about learning and creating a relationship with your opponent. It’s a time to see how you choose to express your “style” of muay Thai. The Shaolin monks of China believe that the martial arts are the physical expression of intrinsic wisdom. I believe the same thing: sparring is the artistic expression of your chosen style of martial art.

A lot of people are scared of contact and this is perfectly normal and understandable. Not many people get super excited about getting punched in the face or kicked in the leg. Sparring should be taken gradually and matched to your level of expertise. Below are some tips that will help you gradually acclimate to sparring.

1. Stay Calm and Relaxed

When sparring remain calm throughout the entire session. Even though you may be getting overwhelmed from not knowing how to deal with the situation, stay calm and breathe. Overreacting or moving spastically is a great way to open up your defense to your opponent. It can also be very frustrating for your training partners. My biggest pet peeve is when you are giving someone leash (being nice and letting them practice) and then they wildly hit you with a punch at 100% power. Just remember if you hit someone hard they are going to want to hit you back just as hard. Remaining calm will help you conserve energy and become more fluid in your movements. Stay calm and control your power.

2. Keep It Simple

There is a great quotation I love to tell my students before sparring: “The only separation between the general population and the elite is that the elite are better at the basics than everyone else.” When you spar use the most basic weapons you have. Jab, cross, hook, kick, knee, and push kick. These simple techniques make up the majority of all professional fights. It’s rare you see a fight where spinning back kicks and flying elbows make up the majority of the bout. Sticking to the basics will increase your skill and also keep your head free of confusion. Once you’ve learned the basics then you can start practicing all the crazy fun stuff.

3. Break It Up

Splitting up your sparring is a great way to focus on one particular aspect of muay Thai. It’s good for beginners due to the fact that there are fewer variables to worry about and it’s great for advanced practitioners because it allows for them to hone in on a specific skill set that they may need improvement in. Some different ways of doing this are boxing (hands only), leg sparring (legs only), clinching, and combining clinch and boxing.

4. Round Robin

A great method for more advanced students of muay Thai is the round robin. In this drill a fight is simulated by leaving one person in the middle and feeding him or her a fresh opponent every round or in timed increments throughout the round. Note that this drill can be exhausting and place a lot of stress on the person in the middle. That being said, it is a great way to get used to the fast-paced and high stress environment that you will find in the ring.

5. Have a Goal

When sparring, especially as beginner, it’s always good to have a goal in mind when starting to spar. Having a goal such as checking kicks, using your uppercut, or keeping your hands up is a great way to increase your level of skill. It keeps you focused and helps shut out some of the stress of dealing with an opponent. Talk to your coach and ask what you need to work on while practicing. Then once the sparring session is over, talk to your coach again and see what mistakes you made and how you could correct them next time. As a coach I love it when a student asks me questions after class, It shows that the student really cares abut improving and keeps us coaches motivated to teach you how to be more awesome.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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