Breaking into sparring can be intimidating. If you’re joining a martial art school for the first time and you’ve never so much as thrown a punch at a live target, there can be a lot of doubts running through your head. If you do have fighting experience, the prospect of fighting at a new school can be equally as nerve wracking. Here are some simple, easy-to-follow tips that will get you rolling.
Keep Your Hands Up
I know it sounds obvious, but it’s really easy to forget. Keep those hands up! Trainers have been yelling it at students for years, and they will be yelling it for years to come. This is a particularly volatile trap for students of the martial arts because there are a myriad of kicking techniques that cause the human body to naturally drop the arms. But it’s important for everyone. Here are two decent fighters that remembered to keep em up -
To your left, Muhammad Ali. To your right, Bruce Lee. Notice that Ali is in a traditional western style boxing guard position. You may train in an exotic martial art, but don’t forget the effectiveness of simplicity. The head is a valuable thing and you should guard it the way boxers do.
Bruce Lee utilizes an upper/lower quadrant style stance. In general, his left hand guards against high attacks while the right hand guards against mid-level attacks. By adopting more of a side stance, Bruce has allowed himself to cover up in this fashion.
Throw in 2-3 Combinations
A classic symptom of novice sparring is the game of TAG. Two fighters line up and dance around each other a bit. They then take turns trying out a single technique, hoping it lands. This is not a good habit to get into. Even if you do land something, you’re not following it up with anything significant. The goal of all martial training is to instill good habits that we don’t have to consciously think about. Therefore, adopt the practice of throwing two or three techniques right in a row. Jab, cross. Jab, cross, front kick. Jab, cross, high round house kick. You get it.
Don’t Tolerate Abuse
This one is just my personal opinion. There may be some out there who disagree. I don’t think that student’s being beaten to the point of nausea or unconsciousness is conducive to training. Some would argue that it weeds out the weak students and prepares people for the rigors of real fighting, where there are no rules. Here’s why I disagree -
By weeding out the weak students, you are weeding out those individuals who need help the most. If Kimbo Slice walks into your dojo…yea, I bet he would be tough enough to pass your curriculum. But he doesn’t need your curriculum, the smaller “average” people do. Funakoshi Gichin, known as the father of Japanese Karate, was a very frail and sickly child. If his teachers weeded him out we would all have missed out on one of the most brilliant martial minds in recorded history.
Secondly, physical contact helps desensitize us to the shock of being struck, but being knocked out repeatedly may actually lead in the opposite direction – concussion. It is commonly believed that concussions build upon themselves and have cumulative effects. Symptoms of concussion include dizziness, lack of motor coordination, difficulty balancing, and possible loss of brain function. Of course, not every knockout results in a concussion, but high impact to the head is certainly where concussions come from.
Don’t be duped into thinking that you have to get floored every week just to learn. It’s not true.
Keep Apologies to a Minimum
A lot of beginners have the habit of apologizing when they strike an opponent. It’s not a big deal, it just signifies a little mental block you have to overcome. Did you wail your opponent? If you did, go ahead and say sorry (control is important in sparring). But if it was a nicely paced, controlled technique, don’t worry about it! That’s what the padding is for. If you’re an apologizer, do your best to let that habit go.
Accept Black Belt Aid
One of the toughest hurdles to get over during sparring is ego. When we daydream about fighting off muggers or other baddies we all have one thing in common – we win 100% of the time. On top of that, we do so flawlessly. Unfortunately, sparring (or real life) tends to not work out that smoothly. That’s why if it seems like a black belt is trying to help you in your sparring, do your best to accept the advice. If it seems like they are going “easy” on you, don’t take it as an insult; they are probably just trying to guide you into combinations or concepts. On the other hand, if they turn it up a notch and dominate you, don’t feel bad – you’ll actually learn the most fighting those who are the best.
Try to Keep Anger, Adrenaline, and Tension Down
Adrenaline is our human-take on the incredible hulk. We feel stronger, more in-tune, and more capable during an adrenaline rush. That’s all good stuff…but an overdose of adrenaline also makes us sloppy, narrow-visioned, and mentally cluttered.
A lot of people will keep their entire body tense during sparring sessions, leaving them feeling wiped out by the end of class. Conversely, a skilled sensei could look as if he just took a leisurely jog, and no more. This is because the instructor has learned that he needn’t keep his entire body tense during sparring. Instead, he keeps it relaxed but on the ready – using tension and adrenaline as a springboard toward lightning fast technique. Sparring is intense, for sure, but try to relax as best you can. Eventually it will just become natural.
Muhammad Ali Image – http://www.bbc.co.uk/1xtra/blackhistory/gallery/70s/8.jpg
Bruce Lee Image – http://imagecache2.allposters.com/images/pic/CLASS/130-112~Bruce-Lee-Posters.jpg
Hulk Image – http://www.pisymbol.com/images/incredible_hulk.jpg
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Kata training is crucial to success in many traditional martial arts. It teaches muscle memory for technique, proper balance, theory of movement, and integration of body, mind, and spirit. Unfortunately, just going through the motions won’t allow you to reap all of the benefits.
At its most basic level, kata is a great workout that can teach some technique. Physical movement in kata is very dynamic and tends to exercise the entire body. I’ve encountered few training tools that can help a person get in better overall condition. But conditioning does not translate into life protection ability. To gain real self-defense and combat knowledge from kata, you have to dive deep into theory and purpose. Therein lies one of the greatest difficulties I have personally experienced and seen others experience – making the leap from kata practice to kata immersion.
Kata practice is what we all generally do while attending a martial arts class; it focuses on proper technique and sequence. During kata practice we check our stances, snap punches to the solar plexus, and concentrate on proper breathing. Kata practice is very important in its own right because without it, there is no way to approach kata immersion (that’s like trying to build a skyscraper without any sort of foundation. Not advisable).
Kata immersion, on the other hand, is when we say ‘hold on, let’s take a look at what’s going on here.’ We do technique, but through bunkai analysis we see what the technique is actually doing. We define where we are hitting and with what part of the body (or weapon). We also integrate intent by determining what kind of opponent we might be facing and what level of severity our techniques should possess. During kata immersion we also work to establish our mindset, taking kata out of a vacuum and building fighting spirit. The toughest part of getting good at kata immersion is getting started. There is a lot of self doubt involved. There are many excuses you can give yourself to avoid spending that exhaustive effort to analyze yourself and your kata. One of the biggest roadblocks I have seen is when people want to wait for kata satori.
Satori is a Buddhist term that essentially means “spontaneous enlightenment.” During Zen Buddhist meditation, monks will sit very still and very quiet for long periods of time. After awhile, their conscious mind gives up its endless chatter and clears a path for deeper wisdom. Suddenly – SATORI! – the monk achieves a level of enlightenment.
Zen Buddhist in Zazen Meditation – http://media.www.thejohnsonian.com
A lot of people hope this will happen to their kata. “If I just keep practicing the pattern long enough, a deeper level of understanding will come to me.” In my experience, this mode of thought does not translate into results. To understand what is occurring in kata, one must make the painful effort to examine every angle and question every nuance. “Why is my stance like this? What does this have to do with the last technique? Why do I need to punch twice here? What if my opponent were 6′ 5”? Do I need to kill this individual?”
There also seems to be a desire to have an instructor deliver kata satori on a platter. “One day, Sensei will teach me the inner secrets.” Again, it has been my experience that higher level karate is learned as you make the effort to improve; it is not delivered as a gift for spending X number of years or X number of dollars. More often than not, advanced technique involves subtle changes to base level technique. But you can’t learn those subtle nuances if you never examined the nature of your basics. The biggest speed bump in a person’s martial development is them self. I know I’ve made excuses for myself, and maybe you have too. Things like –
“I’ve had a long day today. I’m just going to practice pattern. I’ll think about it more in-depth later.”
“I’m not happy with my technique yet. Once I get it perfect, then i’ll worry about application.”
“I’ve got a good idea for what this kata is about. I’m ready to move on to another one.”
One thing that helps me push myself and refocus is spending time alone at the dojo every now and again. Not that you have to be the only person in the building (although that helps), just find some time to have relative quiet and a chance to focus. When you’re alone, you don’t need to feel foolish about dumb ideas and you can materialize questions in your mind. Remember, the best way to acquire the info you need from an instructor is to ask the right questions. Often times they will provide you with extra insights you wouldn’t have known to ask about, but only as augmentations to your burgeoning development.
After that ‘alone time’ to ponder, either in the dojo or elsewhere, actively engage your fellow students in conversation. Don’t be afraid to have your ideas fail. Every concept that doesn’t work is a concept you can avoid, and one that will help lead you to more effective technique. Ultimately, show a higher level instructor or student your concepts and allow them to pontificate about it. If they see holes in your theory, ask them to explain and listen carefully as they mold your thoughts into even more cohesive techniques. If they show an entirely different interpretation during class, do not vocally disagree with them or try to correct them with your theory. Simply absorb what you have seen and add it to your collection of understanding.
Ultimately, I think you’ll find kata immersion a far more satisfying accomplishment than just learning another kata. So go and explore!
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