Before I go into any sparring tips please be aware that these are just some of the thoughts and strategies that I use when sparring and are not meant to be taken as absolute truths or the only way to spar. Not everyone has my build, physical attributes, mentality or experience. You may be larger or smaller, faster or slower or have more or less experience. Everybody is different. What I discuss here is some of the things I think about and what works for me when I spar. Perhaps from this you may take away something that will help your sparring in the future or just make you think more about your own particular abilities and strategies.
Changing your mindset:
One of the things I do at the start of each sparring session is change my mindset and try to simulate an adrenaline dump of my system, This takes some practice but basically I try to make myself a bit nervous, I become very focused, intense and tunnel my vision. I prepare my reactions to become a lot faster and the person in front of me simply becomes an opponent with 2 arms, 2 legs and set of skills that I need to negate. I am still aware of who I am sparring and allow for different skill levels and size differences i.e. juniors etc, but I am still very much on the ball and focused.
Learn to adapt:
A basic rule of sparring is to always respect your opponent whether you know them or not. However it should not matter if they are black belt or no belt, tall or short, thin or overweight, you should adapt to your opponent, use their weaknesses against them and keep them off their strengths, for example, larger people may be slower but more powerful, perhaps less flexible, so use your speed to spar, maybe your fitness, you flexibility and your dynamics. Don’t stand still and slug it out with them.
Conversely, the opposite might apply for thinner or smaller people than you. Shorter people have less reach so keep out of range, start combinations with long range attacks only moving inside when their guard has been opened, they’ll want you to come inside and get close because that’s how they fight. Again, this is opposite for taller opponents.
Don’t think of each individual round as a whole. What I mean by this is, if you are sparring for example 3 min rounds and you are up against someone much larger and more experienced obviously this round you will be working on your defense. Don’t be disappointed that you couldn’t work your attacks instead be happy that you didn’t let them hit you as much as last time. Remember sparring is a chance to practice all of your techniques not just how much you can dish out.
Another mindset I have is that I take my grappling mindset into my standup /striking sparring game. I find that when many people are told to spar for a round they might simply exchange techniques for two or three minutes, matching each other’s intensity levels with no real outcome. When grappling or fighting the goal is not to be there longer than is necessary to win the match! When grappling sparring my goal, unless I am sparring someone far below my experience level, is to get the submissions as quick as I can thus ending the bout. This can occur several times in a round where the bout is restarted each time. Obviously when fighting we want to take out our opponent as quickly as possible as every second they are still in the fight there is the chance you can be defeated. I take this concept into my sparring, I am constantly trying in my mind to end the fight, If while sparring my opponent cowers a little or turns their back, in my mind I have won that particular exchange even though we continue to spar, this may happen a couple of times each round.
The main object is to control the fight, get a rhythm in your head to spar to, and always make your opponent react to you, try to dictate where they are in the ring or on the mat, and know how they are going to come at you, and what you are going to do when they attack. Attempt to control how they attack, where they attack, for how long they attack, how they defend, and how to open their guard for landing your own strikes.
Never be predictable. This will come with experience. Change your distancing, move left, move right, and be unpredictable. Don’t always lead off with the same attack Think what moves have caught you out in the past, and more importantly, why. Try combinations of hands and feet, left and right, high and low, circular and straight, and all of the above. Generally, single attacks do not succeed, e.g., one kick, one punch, these can be used to control your opponent, but are often not effective as a complete attack.
Know your strengths and weaknesses:
Know your opponent as soon and as well as possible. To do this, you need to know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, and how to use these against your opponent. You need to test your opponent without thinking about your technique, but rather about how they react to you. When you drive a car, you don’t think about how much to turn the wheel, the clutch action, and changing gears, instead, you look around, in front, behind, always aware of what’s around you at all times, where other people are, and what they are doing.
It is the same in sparring, you should not be thinking about the mechanisms of a turning kick or how to block their attack, leave that for pad or bag work, and it should come without thinking. This leaves the mind free to analyse your opponent. You must watch how they react to your different moves, see how they react to your positioning, find their strengths and weaknesses, and then keep them from using their strengths and exploit their weaknesses.
Distance and balance:
Distancing is the best form of defense, if they can’t reach you, they cannot strike you, and whereas a block can be faked out, or kicked through, they cannot strike beyond their reach. Similarly, if you cannot reach them, it is useless to kick your legs around to show off. When you are attacking, you are also most vulnerable to a counter, so make sure you are always forcing their defense when you attack. Showboating will also tire you out more quickly than letting your opponent work around you.
In defense, never retreat in a straight line, if you go back in a straight line, they can see where you are going and plan their attack, most of your opponents will also have trained combinations on straight line retreats, instead, sidestep to open their guard and counter them during their attack, a step to the side will allow a counter attack, and even if the hit doesn’t land, it will you’re your opponent off such combinations.
It is imperative to always have a good base and balance. If you just threw out a kick and are off balance, do not attempt another strike. Your strike will open you to an attack, and being off balance may open your guard, if the attack comes and you are off balance, you may be knocked down, better to regain your base and attack again. Better to put your leg down each time, regain your base, and attack again. if you are quick, taking your leg down after each move makes it more difficult for your opponent to attack , as once in your base, all attacks are again open to you, and if you are quick, can be launched in almost the same time as the multiple kick from the same leg. However, that’s not to say never do the same move several times consecutively – as long as you know that it’s going to open your opponent up for another attack.
Don’t get angry : get focused!
Never get angry or frustrated, there are several reasons you may want to be angry, maybe it is to psyche yourself up into smacking your opponent to the floor, maybe you have an elusive opponent and you cannot seem to land a hit, or maybe they’ve just cracked you in the groin. Whatever the reason, never let your emotions rule during sparring, as your opponent will pick up on it, and have an advantage over you. Better to always be relaxed yet focused, be able to sit back in defense or come forwards in an attack of what can seem aggression, but always under control.
You must be able to turn it on and off in an instant and always be control of your aggression. The moment you start lashing out, and actually trying to hurt your opponent, it turns into a fight, which is what neither person wants. Your opponent will pick up on your anger and turn it against you, maybe realising the only way you’ll be stopped is by really hurting you. If you are really angry at them it is even easier for them to hurt you, and besides, sparring is meant to a learning experience, not about seriously hurting each other. We all want to train and fight again with no injuries.
Don’t be sorry
If you are worried about hurting your opponent, you’ll never do any techniques at all. That’s not to say go flat out and try to break their face, but spar sensibly, and go for your moves. It is their fault if they get caught, and even if you hurt them, they will tend to feel it was a good hit, and something for them to improve on. This may seem like you don’t care if you hurt someone, but it’s not like that at all. If I get caught cleanly with a shot in sparring, full respect to my opponent, they have outclassed me, and gave me something to think about. I never think ‘I wish they never hit me’, and so there is no reason for the opponent to be sorry. In fact , sometimes I will say “thank you” to an opponent when sparring if they catch me flush with a painful blow because they have just taught me something…
If I kick someone in the head or punch them clean in the face of course I will pause to check they are ok ( because we are only sparring and I am trying to be measured and in control) but I don’t say sorry if they are fine to continue because if I can I will do it again. However, if I crack someone in the groin, I will be sorry as I did not wish to injure my opponent, and especially not in this most painful of ways. Sparring, whether hard or light is for the refinement and improvement of fighting skills. You can be sorry for any accidental injuries after the round.
Always respect your training partners:
Always thank your opponent, check they are ok, offer tips on their weaknesses, explain their strengths, tell them what you learned from them and they will do the same to you. Always try to help your opponent afterwards. You will gain nothing by not helping them. Remember, sparring is not to beat everyone, it is to improve yourself.
Train hard………Think harder