Sparring, known by many different names for many different martial arts, randori for Judo, Kumite for karate and rolling for BJJ, sparring is the act of simulated fighting, you’re fighting, but not for realsies, at least not if you’re hard sparring.
There are many different types of sparring however, so sometimes during class you may hear a term that you don’t understand, especially if you are new, so i will break down some of the terms for sparring that ive heard over the years.
Point sparring is used by many combat sports, taekwondo and karate for instance, heavily rely on points sparring, but almost all combat sports do some sort of point spar.
The purpose of a point spar, is to prepare someone who is new to competition, essentially, it allows the practitioner to learn what hits score a point, which hits disqualify you and which hits score the most points, for instance hits to the body in boxing don’t count as much as hits to the head.
It is one of the lightest forms of sparring as most rounds end when a single point is scored, this can mean that many of these spars end after a single movement.
there are many criticisms of this style of sparring, namely that it focus’s more on the competition aspect and less on the combat aspect, which could lead to the practitioner crumbling under pressure during an actual bout or real life altercation.
Technical sparring is popular in martial arts like Muay Thai and BJJ, the goal of the spar is to practice one technique or multiple techniques and learn to introduce them to your repertoire, its more open than point sparring, the spar doesn’t end as abruptly and you can go a whole spar without successfully completing a technique.
I remember a woeful session during my BJJ training where I completely failed to pull off a scissor sweep, so while people were doing technical rolls all around me, pulling off multiple techniques, I was stuck struggling with one that I just couldn’t pull off.
In Muay Thai technical sparring is the most frequent type you will do, its light enough to reliably not injure yourself, while offering enough resistance and stress for you to reliably use the techniques in real life competitions and self defence situations. Once you become relatively experienced with Muay Thai, you will probably be doing technical sparring each training session.
Flow sparring is so similar to technical sparring with one key difference, you practice flowing from one technique to the next, its very popular in Wing Chun, with the practice being known as push hands.
The only other time ive ever come across flow sparring is during grappling training, instead of sparring to submission, we would just flow from position to position, when you reach one position you quickly transition into the next.
So if your in bottom position you essentially, would try to escape and then get on top position, which would require you transitioning or ‘flowing’ from one position to the next until you find yourself either on top, or out of the dangerous position.
Flow sparring is great for developing confidence in your movements, as you learn how to transition without fear of opening yourself up to submissions, Which is something you constantly think about during open mat rolling.
50 Percent Sparring
Most sparring you do will be or at the very least, should be 50 percent sparring. Easy to describe, 50 percent sparring is open sparring, but at only 50 percent power, a lovely blend of both technical sparring and firmer, tougher sparring, this sort of sparring is key to developing your martial arts abilities.
50 percent sparring adds the right amount of intensity to your sparring, while still giving you room for mistakes, allowing for a winning combination that has formed the foundation of all combat sports, go hard enough to punish your opponent and to learn where your techniques fit in, but not hard enough to draw blood.
Remember though, even though the sparring is only at 50 percent power, you can still hit someone in the right place to knock them out, to wobble them or otherwise discombobulate them. No form of sparring is ever 100 percent safe, you can still get a black eye or broken nose going at 50 percent, so stay vigilant and treat it seriously.
Hard sparring is what quintessential sparring is, its what most people think of when they think of sparring, that balls to the walls, gritty, no guts no glory hitting each other. Hard sparring used to be the ONLY sparring for most martial arts and it was seen as the way to train.
Nowadays we know that with a high volume of hard sparring comes CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, brain damage caused by repeated head trauma. Its most commonly known in Boxing as the cause for Boxers to become ‘punchy’, when their speech slurs and they suffer sudden drastic personality changes. CTE is also a precursor for brain conditions like memory loss, Parkinson’s and early onset dementia. SO BEFORE YOU START HARD SPARRING its important to know that you are probably going to do some damage to your brain, whether its a negligible amount you don’t notice, or developing a traumatic brain injury.
It sounds dramatic and most martial artists wont ever suffer a traumatic amount of damage, but it is important to note that taking hard hits to the head is going to do some damage eventually. With that being said if you want to pursue a career as a professional/amateur fighter or are training to develop self defence capabilities you NEED TO DO HARD SPARRING.
Why is that? its the best way to practice being under the high levels of stress that a professional/amateur fight or bout will bring, in the same vein for self defence, it is the best way to stress test your capabilities against a fully resisting opponent who is hitting you with bad intentions, it makes you tougher, more mentally resilient and more aware of your own physical capabilities, after a while it will even boost your confidence outside of training.
The best way to describe hard sparring is you attempting to assert you physical will on your opponent, you want them to go to sleep? you hit them until you do. You need to corral your flighty opponent into the corner, you assert your dominance on them until you get them in the corner. It sounds mean as shit, but when hard sparring, your main goal should be to learn as much as you can during the spar, but your mindset should be to make your sparring partner regret stepping into the ring with you.
It sounds mean and maybe I’m wrong, but at least with all striking arts ive practiced, that was the winning thought process for me. My most successful spars where when that was my focus, the attempt to impose my will on my opponent, I want you there, so that’s where you go, it is also important to remember, don’t be a fucking psycho.
Don’t start threatening someone when they best you in a spar, even if the spar does get heated, don’t let it turn into a battle of ego’s and don’t hold a grudge, if you start taking hard sparring really personal and get really eggy and annoyed, no one is going to want to spar you at all, so do your best to keep a level head and learn from your spars.
There have been many times when I have been absolutely WHOOPED by people that were wayyy better than me and it was hard not to take it to heart, sometimes I did and it made me a SADBOI for a while, but there is also wisdom in those absolute BEATINGS I took and sometimes still take which for me is the reason why most people should hard spar.
Most professional training camps will have you hard spar at the start of the camp, in order to avoid injury close to the fight, that way you get your intense fight condition sparring done and in the bank, so you can focus on more technical training later down the line. Some professionals no longer do any hard sparring at all, seeing it as a lose lose situation for them, but they have done some at some point in their career and so should you.
So for hard sparring, treat it seriously, treat it with respect and don’t get lost in the sauce, even if you only do hard sparring at the start of your training and then only do it once in a blue moon, you will still be MILES ahead of someone who has done none whatsoever.
Aliveness sparring is hard sparring taken one step higher, not every gym does aliveness sparring because many believe the risks far outweigh the rewards, however Cus D’amato and Floyd Mayweather Sr both subscribed to this style of sparring, simply put, you do your hardest to knock your opponent out, go as hard as you can, fight to survive. While this style has produced many great fighters, it is also responsible for leaving many by the wayside, suffering from unnecessary injuries that have ended an otherwise fruitful career as a martial artist.
That being said, watching these gym wars is absolutely mesmerising, these spars are often equated to actual fights and watching two people go all out trying to put the other out of commission really does get the adrenaline going, is it the best way to go though for a hobbyist or an amateur? No I don’t think so, I personally don’t even think that a pro should do aliveness sparring, even if it is a sight to behold.
All these forms of sparring have been tried and tested, with each one adding something to the training repertoire that is exclusive to just that type of sparring. Its very important that you find the sparring style that you are comfortable with and then occasionally push that boundary, for me personally, I like to do mainly technical and 50 percent sparring with hard sparring thrown in every month or two just to sharpen up my skills. Find what works for you and utilize it to best of your ability. Remember to stay civilized and I’ll see you again soon!