The Essentials of Sparring

Please note that this article is only for those Evolve MMA students who both qualify for sparring AND also have a desire to do so.  Sparring is not for everyone and is not mandatory at Evolve MMA.  If you do not want to spar, it is fine.  If you do, it is also fine.  If you have any questions, please consult your favorite Evolve Instructor on the topic of sparring.  Either way, your safety is the #1 priority at Evolve MMA.  For your safety, Evolve Mixed Martial Arts has hired the most experienced Instructor Team in Asia with over 450 years of world-class experience.  As World Champions and elite Instructors, they have seen and done practically everything in the world of martial arts.  The Evolve Instructor Team is 100% focused on creating a safe, fun, and supportive environment for everyone.  Of course, accidents can happen, just like in tennis, soccer, basketball, or any other sport.  However, injuries are very rare at Evolve MMA due to our world-class Instructor Team and state-of-the-art facilities. 

Whether it is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, or Mixed Martial Arts, the essence of sparring is the same.  Sparring simply helps you to improve the REAL LIFE application of your knowledge.  If you think about it, application of knowledge is important.  For example, after 2 years of doing BJJ, a student should know all the details of an arm bar.  In slow practice, most high level White Belts with 1-2 years of experience can execute an arm bar with good fundamentals and detail.  However, at full speed sparring, it is a different story.  Most White Belts have a tough time consistently executing an arm bar.  Meanwhile, a BJJ Black Belt can execute an arm bar flawlessly during slow practice or during full speed sparring.  For Muay Thai, it is the same thing.  A typical Muay Thai student with 1-2 years experience should be able to execute a straight knee on the pads with good fundamentals.  However, at even half speed sparring, it is a different story.  Most students with 1-2 years experience cannot land a clean straight knee with proper technique during half speed or full speed sparring.  Sparring is simply a tool to help you to be able to execute a technique in REAL LIFE.  Sparring also happens to be one of the most fun aspects of martial arts!   

Here are the essentials of successful sparring:

1) Treat your sparring partner as your best friend.  Your sparring partner is your best friend if you want to learn and improve.  He/she is not someone for you to let out your aggression.  And he/she is certainly not someone that you should ever try to hurt.  Do unto others as you would have done unto you is the golden rule of sparring.  If you are respectful to your partner, chances are he/she will be respectful back.  If you go hard and play rough, chances are your sparring partner will go hard and play rough.  Both of you will end up learning nothing.  (And if it gets too rough, the Evolve Instructors will ask you to cool it or even ask you to leave the class.  If it happens on 3 separate occasions, you will no longer be allowed to take classes at Evolve MMA and will be asked to leave the academy for good.)  Again, sparring is your time to learn how to apply your knowledge in real life.  Treat it as an opportunity to improve and learn.  If you help your partner to learn and improve, he/she will return the favor.  This cooperative spirit is the most conducive to learning.  If you want to improve, then help your sparring partner to improve too.  In this way, sparring can be a win-win situation.    
2) Think of sparring as your opportunity to improve.  The object of sparring is not to win or to hurt your partner.  If that is what you think sparring is about, then you will not get very far in martial arts.  This type of thinking will stunt your learning and your rate of improvement.  It will often end up becoming a roadblock to taking your game to the next level.  In the worst case scenario, it will get you kicked out of an academy.  The object of sparring is to test the REAL LIFE application of your knowledge.  Be intelligent about how you spar.  If you go full power, you will not really learn anything.  For example, professional Muay Thai fighters in Thailand never spar at full power - ever.  They typically spar lightly 1-2 times per week in addition to their daily training.  They often do clinch sparring every day though.  Likewise for BJJ, a Black Belt training for the Mundials World Championship will never put a submission hold full speed and power on his training partner - ever.  In fact, a submission hold at full power is reserved only for tournaments - and even then, it is not often that you see it done. 

3) Try to apply recently learned techniques and/or combinations.  Sparring is your chance to test what you have learned.  If you just learned how to do the anaconda choke from the top position in half-guard, then try to see if you can apply it on a live, resisting opponent.  If you learned some cool setups for the triangle choke, see if you can apply it against your partner.  Or if you just learned how to throw a low leg roundhouse kick, see if you can land it consistently without getting blocked in light sparring.  The key is to treat sparring as your experiment lab.  Do a technique or a combination over and over in sparring sessions until you can do it fluidly without thinking.  At that point, the technique and/or combination will truly be yours.

4) Timing is everything.  To be successful at sparring or competing, you need to learn how to break your partner's rhythm and impose your game on him/her.  For Muay Thai, it means constantly throwing different techniques and combinations (as opposed to the same combination over and over) at varying speeds and targets (high, middle, low, left, right, etc) with both attacks and counter-attacks.  If you do that, your partner can never really settle down and find his/her rhythm because he/she will be confused.  In Muay Thai, there are literally dozens of little tricks to break your partner's rhythm so that you can unleash your attack.  As for combinations, there are hundreds.  Likewise, for BJJ, it means using fake setups before trying to gain a favorable position or before applying a sequence of finishing moves.  A BJJ Black Belt typically has many combinations of 5-6 moves to set up a final submission.  They can flow from one move to the next automatically because they have spent thousands of hours sparring.  In sparring, you will be able to understand the key of TIMING.  Being able to apply a submission hold at the exact right time is a nuance that can only be learned after many, many hours of sparring.  Even the simple nuance of how much body weight to apply to control a position is learned from sparring.  For Muay Thai, being able to deliver a flying knee effectively in real life requires hours and hours of live sparring practice.  With live sparring, you learn timing.  It is impossible to learn TIMING without actually live sparring.   

5) Open your mind.  With sparring, you will see that you will naturally gravitate towards some techniques and shy away from others.  Some moves are completely useless in real life to some people.  Yet, the exact same moves will be the favorite moves of other people.  Of course, you should always aim to find your special moves and perfect them.  However, at the same time, you should always be looking to grow your arsenal of moves and/or combinations.  If you take the attitude that you must always win in sparring, you will always end up doing your favorite moves.  In other words, you will not grow as a martial artist.  On the other hand, if you open your mind and try to grow your repertoire of moves during sparring, then you will grow.  You may not end up "winning" the sparring match with this experimental approach, but you will end up winning in the long run.  Your reward will be that you will be a better martial artist.  When you spar, keep an open mind and try to "discover" new moves that work for you.   

Sparring is a great tool to help you take your game to the next level.  Equally important, sparring allows you to understand what it feels like to have a technique done to you.  If you never spar, you will never fully understand what a roundhouse kick to the leg feels like.  Once you have it done to you, you will appreciate your own knowledge even more.  Sparring is also a good way for you to learn how to control your emotions and thoughts.  Martial arts is about continuous self-improvement physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  Sparring is one way to overcome your fears and to inherit confidence in your techniques.  It is very empowering to know that you can take care of yourself in the event of a potential life-threatening, self-defense situation.  If done correctly and for many years, sparring can give you that confidence.

Evolve Mixed Martial Arts®.  Achieve Greatness Within™.