The use of sparring in Self-Defense

The use of sparring in Self-Defense

Most people training in any form of combat sports or Self-Defense systems end up taking part in sparring sessions. It’s an important part of training but very often it’s not really made clear as to why you are actually doing it in the first place. So let’s have a look at it and see what it does for you and how important it is to have it as part of any modern self-defense training system.

What actually is sparring?

Sparring is the process of ( generally ) two opponents attacking each other to test out their combat skills under various levels of constraints and safety procedures. 

In boxing, sparring is usually done with larger gloves, head guards and groin protection. It normally has time limits and someone checking what is happening.

In martial arts, like the Kung Fu I trained in, we would wear gum shields, often shin pads and gloves. 

What is common in both types of training, is that the levels of power and aggression are often checked back to avoid serious injuries. In martial arts training more so, normally, than boxing, but this can depend on the skill level and whether it is professional or amateur.

So what are you trying to do in sparring?

Essentially you are trying to put into practice what you have been working on in your particular class. By testing it against an opponent of similar skill you are seeking to..

  • Test whether your techniques actually work
  • See if you can land any technique on a moving opponent
  • Test your fitness levels in a combat situation
  • Work on defence and attack
  • See how you function under pressure
  • Get as near to a real defence situation as possible
  • Test the power of your strikes

It has a wide range of benefits that are all positive. The only negative issue is that, because it is regulated, it falls short in some aspects when compared to a real fight situation. These are generally things like,

  • It has a time limit, whereas a street fight doesn’t
  • Certain techniques are off-limits, such as biting, gouging, groin strikes etc. which are not off-limits in a street fight
  • The training area is specifically designed to be a safe environment. The street, on the other hand, is full of dangerous surfaces and objects.
  • Techniques are often held back from full power which can become a bad habit
  • You mainly train in comfortable training clothes which often bear no relation to what you may actually wear in the outside environment. This could affect your ability to use a technique in real life.
  • The surprise element of a real attack and the adrenalin rush issues involved can be missing as sparring becomes habitual
  • You can sometimes develop the habit of “over” waiting to strike. Often a street fight is simply you dealing with a hugely aggressive attack and waiting for the correct moment could be far too late.
  • Two matching styles can often give a false picture as to your ability to deal with a chaotic street attack. This is because you can often develop a specific and limited set of responses that may not work against someone unpredictable.

Sparring session

Here is a video which is a  good example of a Kung Fu sparring session. They aren’t wearing much protective equipment which can have its upside and its downside. A few times you can hear someone mentioning the use of too much power, but overall you can see how it can help develop certain usable skills. You can also see how, maybe, in an all-out fight, the habit of turning your back or having a weak guard could cost you if your opponent was vicious and aggressive enough. They wouldn’t be waiting for your next back kick, but might simply pile through and smash you against the nearest available wall.

And here, by contrast, is a brawl in a restaurant. As you can see, the reality is obviously very different from a sparring session. It’s unpredictable, has no rules and people will use anything to hit you with. There is also no waiting around to time a strike and it is certainly not one on one. 

So why spar if it isn’t that realistic?

The reason you would spar, even though it has flaws when training for an actual street fight, is that it is real enough to be of use. If you stay aware of the things it doesn’t do and address it accordingly, sparring has enough positives to far outweigh the negatives. The positives as I see them are,

  • You are constantly working on improving your speed and reflexes
  • Sparring helps build up levels of stamina that are vital in a real fight
  • Development of correct breathing which helps save energy and deal with the adrenalin rush that comes with a hostile situation
  • The process of sparring helps you become conditioned to taking punishment and not being shocked when hit 
  • Your strike weapons are conditioned
  •  You learn to work through pain and not worry about it too much
  • Certain go-to techniques can be honed and tested
  • If you adapt the sparring session, you can mimic what happens in a street fight and test your skill accordingly ( see pressure testing )

If you concentrate on what you can learn in sparring but accept it’s flaws you can develop realistic skills that are directly applicable to a street fight.

How it worked for me

In my experience sparring helped me realise that some things I imagined would work did not and also helped me work on my fitness levels. It upped my skill levels generally and built up my resistance to physical punishment. It also made me work harder on my very porous defence.

Because of the nature of sparring, in general, it really helped improve my reflexes. Part of this is also the process of being able to improve on reading my opponents intentions which I can directly relate to street incidents that have happened to me. 

In one incident, the whole build-up to the actual physical violence was more or less read by me and it became a question of timing a pre-emptive strike based on reading the body language of my opponent and timing the response. This I could directly relate to things I learnt in sparring. When you spar, reading your opponent is part of the process. A flinch or a slight dropping of the hands might signal a leg strike or a right cross. This can be helpful in identifying certain types of body language and ( attempted ) disguised movements.

But how would that apply in the chaotic brawl in the second video?

If you adapt sparring and test it in many different ways as part of an overall modern self-defense training program, you could well have enough skill to deal with something like that video. For example,

  • You might well be already aware of the hostile attentions of the attacker(s) as you are trained to stay alert
  • Once the situation became critical you would know to focus on one specific target and to take that out as brutally and quickly as possible
  • Through sparring, you would know to drive straight through your attacker until he is no threat and then shield yourself ready for his “friends”
  • In sparring, you would have developed techniques that work in tight spaces, learnt to time strikes and know which targets on the human body to strike for maximum efficiency
  • Sparring would have helped you stay focussed under pressure

To conclude:

Sparring in training is an essential part of any modern Self-Defense system. If you use it and adapt it or modify it to mirror a real assault situation it is an excellent way to develop your combat skills. It tests your skill, stamina and your ability to function under pressure. Go for it!

Author: Andrew Johnson

I trained many years in Kung Fu, fought in full contact competitions and am a qualified instructor at The Combat Academy in the UK. The aim of this blog is to look at what modern self-defense training actually is and what it most probably should be.

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