Sparring is a useful training tool. It allows you to work on your reflexes, distance and timing (as outlined in this blog post) , while adding a live element to your martial arts training. That being said, when sparring for training purposes, we never do so at full power and intensity without regard for our partner. There are a number of reasons we try to exercise control.
One reason is safety. If you’re sparring with someone and you get a clear opening, yes, you want to take advantage of it, but you don’t want to knock their block off, potentially knocking them out and causing them injury. Getting hit at all is more than enough feedback for the person to realize their error. Another reason is practicality. If your partner gets injured while sparring then they have to take time off training causing you to lose a training partner (or vice versa if you’re on the receiving end). Also, if the person is fairly new to sparring, they won’t learn as effectively through the “sink or swim” method due to the high levels of stress imposed from being constantly hit. And, of course, sometimes you or your partner are just feeling a bit off physically or mentally and are just not as sharp as you usually are when sparring.
For these reasons, it’s an important to learn how to pull your punches when sparring, as strange as that sounds. It’s actually harder than it sounds too because it can be difficult to maintain your speed when sparring while being vigilant about pulling punches. The most skilled students at sparring in my dojo generally have higher levels of skill and experience, and are able to maintain their speed effectively while rarely hitting anyone harder than they mean to.
Here are a few pointers for pulling your punches when sparring:
- Stay aware. Recognize when your sparring partner gives you an opening that affords you a “money shot.” These opportunities can be intentional on your part, like when you’ve set up an opening by punching low to cause their guard to drop giving you an opening at the head level. Or they can be unintentional, like when your partner anticipates a high shot when in actuality you were punching low, causing them to duck into your punch.
- Relax your shoulder. When punching, if you keep your shoulder strong and engaged as you punch, the energy transfers through from the rest your body down to your legs and hips. If you see than you’re going to get in a “money shot” on your training partner, you want to stop the energy, however. If you relax your shoulder, you basically cut energy off so that it doesn’t follow up into your punching arm.
- Don’t follow through. When trying to generate power, you generally want to aim your punch through your target so as to cause the most impact. So if you make contact but want to take the edge off the hit, you should aim retract your arm slightly so you don’t follow the punch all the way through into your target. If your shoulder is relaxed, this can happen naturally, but if you don’t recognize the money shot you’re getting in time, you may be too late to relax your shoulder, so the best you can do at that point is prevent the follow-through.
By using these practices, you and your partners can keep using sparring to work on your reflexes, distance and timing, while taking some of the risk out of the activity as a part of day-to-day training. This is not to say you want to remove all contact. If there is no contact, you won’t get the negative stimulus you need to learn. And of course, some sparring partners can handle higher levels of contact due to skill, conditioning, or size, and don’t require their partner to pull their punches as much. Context is everything. Use the skill as necessary based on the context in which you’re sparring.You also don’t want to ingrain the skill of pulling your punches as your default way of hitting, which could be bad news in a real self-defense context or in a competitive context. This is why working on pads or bags is important to do regularly.
What is the philosophy in your martial arts school when it comes to contact when sparring? Please share in the comments. 🙂