Since sparring was one of the main topics at the last XTMA camp we held this past month, I thought I could elaborate on how essential it is to spar, and on how much thinking you should put into your sparring sessions.

Sparring is absolutely crucial in order to hope to be successful in pulling off a technique in real life/time. Techniques show you a possibility, or a route if you will, while sparring teaches you how and when to apply a technique. The game of chess could be used here as an analogy. Techniques teach you how the pieces move on the board. The pawn moves forward, one-step at a time (unless you are opening), the castle moves freely lengthwise and sideway, etc. When you are sparring on the other hand, you are actually playing the game of chess. Thinking about it, wouldn’t it be weird to show you how all the pieces move on the chessboard but then put them away and go, “that’s it, did you get it?”. The actual fun part in the game of chess is to play the game, and the same goes for martial arts of course. When you spar you get to try all the material you learned in class. In a way, we have to learn the very same technique at least two times. First, under ideal conditions or in a control environment, to use Guro Inosanto’s terminology; second, while you are sparring live and try to contest each other. When you learn a ground technique for example, you give your arm to your partner in order for him to practice and learn. When you spar your partner has to go get that arm by himself now. By doing so, you learn distance, timing, and how to set up your moves. Additionally, you learn how to face struggle. You start to understand that you might not succeed right away. Moreover, it’s not because you missed or didn’t score the first time that you are not good or that the technique doesn’t work. Simple as it is, sparring will teach you how to tap into your own resiliency. You’ll attempt a move, most likely fail, pick yourself up, and try again till you get it right.

This being said, it might be noteworthy to mention that there should be some steps, or a method to the madness when we spar with each other. Usually when people hear the word sparring they freak out and either go into survival mode, or worse they get into the “I must win the imaginary ten million dollars gym cup” mode. The truth of the matter is that sparring is a tool that allows us to apply the techniques we previously learned. Sparring should not always be a “free for all” or a crapshoot hoping that something will land. When we spar we can still work on some specific, and incrementally increase speed and power. When we teach sparring at the academy here in LA, we always start by introducing topic sparring. We might ask a student to do simple things such as checking the leg kicks, riposte on a jab, or weave under the hook. We might use the A/B method where ‘A’ is always pressuring forward while ‘B’ has to stand his ground and control the center of the ring. In fact, the beauty of this method is that sparring becomes your laboratory where you get to try out any sorts of material. In this view, sparring sessions are to boxer the equivalent to a flight simulator to a pilot. We get to throw all sorts of problems at you, and your goal is to solve all these problems. The more hours you have in the simulator, the better you’ll do when it comes time to land that plane.

Lastly, on a deeper level, sparring is trying. In life, we learn and shape our understanding through experience. When you spar you put yourself out there, you face your fear and take risks. Interestingly enough, this tango of successes and failures will bring about changes and maturity in one’s character. It will give you the right amount of humble-confidence. You might also find yourself becoming more tolerant since you now welcome mistakes and embrace the process of growth that life is.

– Daniel Lonero