Sparring and Self-Defense Training

I recently received a question from an aspiring MBC student regarding the lack of traditional sparring in the MBC training methodology. I thought that question would make good fodder for a blog post, so I’ve taken my personal response to him and expanded it a bit to address the topic in greater detail.

First of all, I feel that sparring does have value and I come from a martial arts background that included a lot of it. For many years, I did the traditional “touch-gloves-then-beat-the-snot-out-of-each-other” approach. Depending upon the mood, my level of trust in my sparring partner, and our training goals, contact would range from medium to hard. Like most such training, we sparred in open areas with plenty of room to move. If we were on mats (and sometimes even when not), clinches, throws, and follow-up grappling we fair game.

Although it was fun and helped a lot with timing and footwork, as my training focus shifted from “martial arts” to self-defense, I found sparring less and less relevant. On the positive side, there is no substitute for the experience of hitting a moving opponent and getting hit and fighting through it. However, the negatives I saw were significant:

1) It encouraged the idea of “mutual combat” that was far removed from the reality of self-defense.
2) It encouraged the use of techniques that work well in a sparring environment, but are impractical on the street—like kicking above the waist.
3) It promoted the habit of backing off and using footwork and mobility to avoid clashes—something that is often not possible in the context and real-world environments of self-defense situations.
4) Unless you were throwing very hard, it really fostered the “game of tag” approach.
5) Even with an open-minded approach, there were still too many rules to make it realistic. As such, you rarely practiced your most practical, effective techniques because you can’t actually do them on a partner.
6) Again, unless you’re throwing full power and going for a knockout, you never practice finishing a fight.

The real turning point for me was attending a class taught by my friend Bill Kipp (FAST Defense) that included “Bullet Man” training. The students in the class included a variety of skill levels, from novice all the way up to long-time martial artists. Bill is exceptionally good at “woofing” and screwing with you verbally and mentally to get your adrenaline going before the physical stuff happens. The Bullet Man suit also removes the facial recognition, so even though you “know” him, it’s still a very realistic experience. Basically, he gets inside your head until your adrenaline is up, then he attacks. Your job is to defend yourself and land a few fight-stopping hits. Bill’s job is not to stop until he feels hits that would be likely to stop a real attacker.

The novices in the class did great. They only knew a few basic techniques and went balls-out to make the most of them. Interestingly, most of the seasoned martial artists reverted to a sparring mentality—at least initially. Rather than engaging and staying there until the fight was done, they fell back on what they knew best: hit-and-run sparring. After a few scenarios, most of them broke the habit and finished the fight (with the help of the rest of us penning them in and making it impossible for them to back away). However, a few of them could not break the sparring habit. When faced with a committed attack, they’d hit a couple times and immediately back off into sparring mode. They never landed any telling blows or got past the game of tag.

Although I’ve sparred since then, I do it with a very different mindset. Whenever possible, my students and I focus on clear roles of attacker and defender, rather than mutual competition. That way it stays relevant to actual self-defense and you focus on doing what’s appropriate in that situation. We also regard every “clash” as a fight and try not to dance too much to avoid clashing.

Our favorite form of “sparring” is what ASP (American Self Protection–the first system I ever studied) called “technical sparring.” It’s basically “monkey-in-the-middle” technique sparring that gets more and more fluid as people get more experienced. It reinforces the idea of “finishing” every clash and is a great primer for multiple-attacker situations.

The biggest problem with sparring, in my opinion, is that most people–and instructors–don’t approach it with a clear purpose. Activity is not progress and getting on the mat to blindly throw leather as a rite of passage is at best a means of developing cardio and pain tolerance. It doesn’t necessarily teach any skill.

Boxers and MMA fighters will spar to develop and refine specific skills. For example, a good boxer may only jab for an entire round to hone that skill–regardless of what the other guy throws. This is very different from the folks who use unstructured sparring as an ego trip and an excuse for having no real functional technique or tactics.

Does this aversion to traditional sparring mean that MBC (and our related skill sets) doesn’t have offensive technique? Absolutely not. We also have and practice offensive and preemptive skills. However, we still put them into a personal-protection context, not arbitrary mutual combat.

Stay safe,

Mike