Those who say sparring has no place in self-defence straining usually highlight the following reasons:
1. Sparring is different to self-defence situations. There are rules, time limits, targets you cannot hit, one opponent at a time, etc., all of which are major considerations and are very different in self-defence situations. The argument here is that if you get too used to sparring you get used to ignoring these elements, which can severely limit your combative effectiveness in a real situation.
2. Scenario training is more realistic and should be used instead. Many instructors argue that instead of sparring they are better off running scenario training to simulate real situations. The aggression and level of contact can be modified to suit the level of the students. This also gives you a more complete picture, as it involves situational awareness, verbal diffusion and de-escalation and other elements that are imperative to self-defence.
3. Too much hard sparring creates long-term damage and can’t be sustained for a long time. True, but sparring does not always have to be hard. And too much hard training in the form of pressure drills has the same effect.
4. The one I am most weary of – “Our techniques are too dangerous to use in sparring”. Yes, kicking people in the balls and poking them in the eyes is indeed dangerous and you run out of training partners very quickly. That being said, every time I’ve heard someone use it as an excuse to eliminate contact and resistance altogether from training, it was said by someone who has limited understanding and experience or who could not perform the techniques when they weren’t ‘given’ by their training partners.
So as we can see there are some good reasons for cutting sparring out of your self-defence training... But what about the other side of the coin?
1. I’ll start with what is the most important point in my opinion:
Self-defence and combat sports come with two inevitable, unavoidable and inescapable truths;
The first is that another human being will hit you. The second is that you will have to hit another human being.
I’ll say it again - There is no getting around this when you are looking at real self-defence.
Simply put, sparring is the best way to get that out of your system. When you spar you get used to giving and receiving contact, which scenario training does not always provide, or provide as well. I have seen many self-defence practitioners who claimed their stuff always worked crumble when they finally received hard contact from a none-cooperating training partner. In one extreme case, I saw a Krav Maga instructor, who claimed to be a 5th-dan instructor, fall to the floor, curl up in the foetal position, cover his head with his hands and just shout ‘get off of me’ over and over again when put under a little bit of pressure and hard contact.
2. Two of the most important attributes in combat, whether competition or self defence, are timing and distancing. These dictate a myriad things that are crucial to success, including the techniques you should use and how and when to execute them, and are crucial to winning any engagement. Sparring is one of the best exercises to develop these attributes.
3. When you spar, especially, when you spar someone who is better than you, you will experience adrenaline dump. Sparring is therefore a really good way of learning how to manage your adrenaline and keep calm when you are under pressure and getting hit.
4. Scenario training does give you a more complete picture, but sparring can be modified to mimic self-defence situations by adding variables and changing the format of the engagement. Being creative is the key here.
So we’ve looked at a couple of points from both sides of the argument. So what do I think?
That in order to effectively train yourself to have proficient self-defence skills, you need to get used to the two inevitable truths of combat: To hit and to get hit. If you can’t be comfortable or accept that, or have never experienced hard contact, you will never be able to deal with it when the pressure is on. And yes, I believe sparring is one of the best ways to do that. I also believe that if your ultimate goal is self-defence, you should be weary of schools that shun hard contact completely, or that use ‘fake’ attacks (read my article on ‘the dojo syndrome’).
That doesn’t mean you should come home broken after every training session, and contact doesn’t always have to be hard and heavy, nor should sparring be the sole focus of your training if your ultimate goal is self-defence.
However by including regular sparring sessions as part of your training you will find that your self-defence skills become sharper, cleaner and more effective.
Stay tuned, stay safe