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 –

Muhammad Ali boxing stance

Bruce Lee fighting stance

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.

Incredible Hulk

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 –
Bruce Lee Image –
Hulk Image –