5 Ways to Improve Your Defense and Win More Fights
Contributor - Martial Arts, Sports Psychology
"The best fighters hit the most and get hit the least." - Rocky Marciano
There’s an adage in boxing that the best defense is to not get hit. Being a proficient defender is the key part of not getting hit, or at least getting hit less. So, it’s amazing to me that many self-defense and martial arts schools teach primarily one thing - offense.
Hard punches and fancy kicks won’t make you a better defender if your footwork is lousy and your head is always in the same place. Make no mistake – whether you’re in a sporting match or a self-defense situation, in a fight you will get hit.
Conditioning yourself to get hit, learning how to take a hit, and learning to evade hits will help you come out a victor on the other end. Here are five ways to better your defense as a boxer or martial artist.
1. Spar More
Nothing prepares you for a real fight like a practice one. The challenge comes in knowing when and how to spar. Here’s some advice:
- Don’t spar until you’re ready.
- Make sure you spar at the right gym with the right people.
Start by doing your due diligence in finding the right coach, instructor, and school. Any martial arts school, dojo, or boxing gym should have an aura of respect permeating every corner of the room. If you don’t get the respect vibe, turn and walk away.
"Sparring is about practice. You and your partner are each trying to get better, not prove who can hit harder."
Once you and your instructor determine you are ready to spar, the most important aspect is control. One of my coaches used the term “volume control” in relation to intensity of sparring. That is, you discuss and agree with your partner the intensity (or volume level) at which you are going to work - before the bell rings.
If your partner is going too hard (or too easy), adjust your volume by telling him or her to turn it up or down. Sparring is about practice. You and your partner are each trying to get better, not prove who can hit harder.
Also, spar with people of different shapes, sizes, and abilities. Each opponent provides a specific and unique challenge. It’s a lot different to spar with a lanky fighter versus a lumbering one. Vary your partners and you will learn to apply different techniques in different situations.
2. Fast Feet Equals Getting Hit Less
It’s probably not news to you that running or skipping rope can make your feet faster. The challenge with jumping rope (or running) is that many do it the same way every time. But fights move at different speeds and tempos throughout. You slow your rhythm when you need to conserve energy, but switch to all-out speed in another instant.
Here are ways to train different speeds and tempos to prepare for the erratic rhythms of fighting:
- Do sprint and hill intervals, not just jogging and road work at a steady pace.
- Jump rope for three-minute rounds at intervals of :30 sprint and :30 slow. Also, jump rope one foot at a time. For example, ten times in a row on one foot, then the other foot - for three minutes!
- Work “fast feet” on a high step or box. Manny Pacquiao likes this drill and it helps in developing both speed and power. Find a high step or box and work your feet for sprint intervals of :30, :45, and one minute.
- Move backward. Muhammad Ali is considered by many to be the greatest boxer of all time. Ali, very unconventionally, moved backward a lot. To train like him, set up four cones and jog backward around them in a back-pedaling style, then pivot and change direction.
3. Move Your Head
Other than moving your feet, the best way to not get hit is to move your head. Unfortunately, the practice of head movement is a lost art in boxing and the mixed martial arts. In boxing, the first thing you learn is to keep your hands up. Blocking and covering with your hands can save your hide, but even when you cover your head, you can still get your bell rung.
Better than shielding your head or blocking a strike, is to miss it entirely. My coach used to have us practice tracing the alphabet. We would get in front of the mirror and trace each letter with our heads. Some letters make more sense than others:
- “T” is a side-to-side slip and a duck.
- “V” is a good down and in slip.
- “C” is a good bob and weave letter.
- “B” is kind of hard to do in a fight!
Next time you shadowbox or spar, pick a few good letters to remind yourself to keep that head moving. Of course, in a combat sport other than boxing, be mindful of ducking too low because there may be a knee waiting for you down there.
"Blocking and covering with your hands can save your hide, but even when you cover your head, you can still get your bell rung."
4. Get Good at Holding Pads
As someone who has spent more time over the years holding pads and mitts than hitting them, I can tell you that doing so keeps you sharp. Holding pads or mitts well allows you to work on a few important things:
- You can study your opponent and determine where he or she is open without getting hit. Each time your opponent throws a punch or kick, he or she is open somewhere. When you are sparring often you are too busy defending to see these openings.
- Holding pads allows you to practice your blocks and shields. Getting “hit” while holding a shield, mitt, or pad allows you to experience the sensation of impact and relax in preparation for the real thing.
- When you are holding pads, you’re the coach. You’re in control of the timing and tempo, which gives you a chance to work on your footwork. When you’re doing partner drills, don’t think of it as “your turn” only when you’re on offense. Holding pads is a live round and your chance to get better in the same way it is when it’s your turn to strike.
RELATED: How to Hold Pads for Boxing (Video)
5. Condition Yourself to Get Hit
Nothing zaps your energy like getting hit. So, the first rule is to protect your most valuable asset - your head. When you get tired in a fight, your hands are likely to drop. One tip is to use three- or five-pound weights for your arms (and legs) when you train. When you take the weight off after a few rounds, you’ll not only feel faster, but you’ll be better conditioned to keep holding your hands high. Working the speed bag also works wonders for shoulder conditioning and keeping your hands up for extended periods.
"When you get tired in a fight, your hands are likely to drop. One tip is to use three- or five-pound weights for your arms (and legs) when you train."
Then, there’s conditioning for the body shot. To condition your midsection, you’re going to have to do more than crunches and leg lifts. Straight out of the old-school boxing playbook is getting hit with the medicine ball right in the abdomen. With a partner, have him or her stand right above you while you do crunches or ab pikes. Between each rep have your partner drop, press, or throw the medicine ball into your abdomen. The drill also works well with a Thai pad. But please make sure to use volume control with this exercise!
Ultimately it’s a lot more fun to hit something than get hit. But learning how to take a hit or miss one will not only help you win fights, but make you stronger in every arena of life.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.