For some, this word brings excitement, anticipation and fun.
For others, it brings fear, trepidation and that familiar feeling of an empty pit in the bottom of your stomach and a dry mouth.
Both are normal, and we all get some days of one and some days of the other, depending on our experience, how we feel on the day, who we are sparring with, etc.
I’d like to invite you to think of the aggregate, or the overall theme of how you feel about sparring. Which one of the above two responses seems more prominent - anticipation or fear?
A couple of thoughts about sparring before I go on; My background was originally in Krav Maga and traditional martial arts, rather than combat sport (no, they are not the same – and here’s why). As such, I didn’t do a lot of sparring in my first couple of years of training. I did lots of self-defense pressure drills and lots of randori for Judo and Jujutsu, but not hard sparring in the combat sports sense of the word. I can say without a doubt that at the time it was my least favorite part of every class and something that inspired genuine dread. Then I found the right help for dealing with the pressure of sparring. Since then it has turned into my favorite part of training.
Secondly, I’d like to say that I think that if you train in a system that is meant to be combative – whether that’s for self-defence or full contact competition – then, in my opinion, you need to spar regularly. That doesn’t mean trying to knock each other out in every session, but train with regular contact and certainly push yourself at times. If you want to know why sparring is important, click here.
Lastly I’d like to revisit a principle from my favorite boxing coach, Master Mannie de Matos; there are two realities to full contact combat sports and self-defence. The first is that you are going to get hit by another human being. The second is that you are going to have to hit another human being.
These are two of the hardest thins to reconcile for most people. We live in a society where hitting people is bad, and that’s a good thing. At the same time, we need to know when to pull the proverbial trigger and, as I often say in class, ‘get our nasty on’.
So, back to the point in question… Do you find that you get nervous and scared when you think about sparring? Do you find that it’s causing your much frustration, especially when you don’t perform well?
Here are a few tips to help you get through the lull and refocus your mind before training:
- Everything in progression – Let’s look at how kids learn to swim. First they practice the movements on land. Then they get into the water with some support and complete very simple tasks over short distances. Once they have a bit more experience they may swim a bit further or deeper, but still under supervision. You don’t just throw your kid into the ocean and say ‘good luck, watch out for any sharks’. Unfortunately sparring is often done in that way. In many schools and systems, the progression is to hit pads and do bag work until your technique is good enough, and then spar. But that often leaves a huge gap in skill when going from one to the other. I know plenty of people (as I’m sure you do as well) who look amazing on pads but can’t spar at all, and vice versa. I was a great example of one of those people, and the reason I found sparring so intimidating and frustrating to start with was because I went through that exact progression. When I started sparring, I had a rude awakening. I realized that there’s a huge difference between being able to throw a shot and being able to land a shot. It was a lot of hard work to go back to the drawing board to reassess and change how I was training. If you are ‘fresh off the pads’ and into sparring and are finding it hard to cope, ask your instructors to help you do some more controlled sparring. This can be one-step sparring drills or drills where you can limit and control the type of attacks and level of contact.
- Nerves vs Excitement – whether you train for self defence or for combat sports, sparring is a great way of teaching your body to deal with adrenaline. Before you spar, especially if it’s against someone better than you, you will get a rush of adrenaline. The butterflies in your stomach, the dry mouth, the sweat and the shaking are all part of that adrenaline rush. So what’s the difference between nerves and excitement? The interesting thing about this is that the physical symptoms of nerves and excitement are exactly the same! You will get the same adrenaline and ensuing reactions from either one. The difference is what goes on in your head. When you think of something that is about to happen with a negative outlook, you will get nervous. If you think about what is about to happen in a positive light, then you will become excited. Remember – you will get the same adrenaline regardless! Here are some examples; if you say to yourself ‘this is going to suck’ or ‘man, I know I’m just gonna get my ass kicked again’, then you will get nervous, and your adrenaline will get the better of you. If you say to yourself ‘this is awesome!’ or ‘I’m gonna be on fire today!’ then you will get excited and your adrenaline will serve you.
My trick? Before every sparring session I always tell myself the following - ‘this is MY show. Everyone is here to make ME look GOOD, and there ain’t nothing they can do to change that’. This gets me in the right mind frame and turns being nervous into being excited. It turns my adrenaline from my enemy to my assistant, and into my opponent’s enemy.
- Define winning – a common way to think about a sparring session is in terms of winning and losing the round or the match, which is fine. But sometimes, we have to be more specific and redefine what winning and losing mean for our immediate sparring context (I'll talk about long-term planning later). This is especially important when you are sparring with an experienced partner. You have to look at the smaller victories. Focusing on just the overall winning and losing will be too frustrated because you are expected to lose. That doesn't mean you need to give up or not put up a fight, but you need to be comfortable with the idea of losing and think of the experience as a learning curve. You need to redefine victory to allow yourself the opportunity to learn. Here are some examples:
- Picking your shots: When I roll with advanced Jiu Jitsu practitioners, I often redefine my idea of winning to getting one sweep. I don't care how many times I tap, but if I can sweep them once, then in my mind I won that fight. Same in boxing – I'll pick one shot and try and just land that, or alternatively just avoid a particular shot. As long as I can do that, I’m winning.
⁃ Move them back: Sometimes I think of winning as moving the other person back, no matter how many shots they land. As long as they are moving back, I win. In grappling, I think of the same thing as continually attacking, even if I’m not necessarily getting everything I go for. As long as I can continue to attack, I’m winning.
⁃ Don't quit: We all have off days where we don't feel like it, our timing is out, or we feel flat. Sometimes my definition of winning is simply getting through the round. Just by doing that you’re already doing more than 90% of people who sitting on their couch doing nothing, or the person who decided not to come to training. Good on you!
These are good ways to get yourself into the right mindframe, stay positive and enjoy what is one of the most rewarding and significant parts of your training. Next time we'll talk a little bit about the 'during' and 'after' of how you can overcome your fear of sparring.
Stay safe, stay tuned.