The Importance of Sparring for Developing Distance, Timing & Reflexes in the Martial Arts

Sparring to learn distance, timing & quick reflexesOver the past couple of weeks, I’ve been doing some fencing teaching for a group of stunt performers. There is a film that is going to be shooting in our area that requires a group of women who can do sport fencing. Having done lots of fencing in my past, I was asked by a stunt friend of mine who is also a fencer to help him out by teaching some stunt women some foundational skills to get them up to speed for this film in addition to being considered for it myself. I was happy to oblige.

All of these women had little to no experience with sport fencing, but most have some sort of martial arts background. Even amongst the martial artists, some were able to pick it up faster than others, the ones who trained in sparring as part of their practice. (more…)

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What to Do When Your Bell Gets Rung

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of doing some sparring with Chris, my second-in-command at my dojo, during open training. It was my first time sparring since my elbow injury just over 6 weeks ago. Needless to say, I was a little rusty, but still keen to give it a go.

As Chris and I sparred and increased the intensity, we each managed to take a couple of solid hits. The solid hit I took to the head in the form of a left hook that really hit home and rang my bell. I actually saw stars briefly. My response, as I’ve trained myself to do, was to let loose my own strikes, and to keep at it until I had regained my composure.

The reason for responding this way is to keep from being overwhelmed. This logic is applicable whether in a self-defense situation or in the competitive arena. If you give in to the hit and go on the defensive, there is a solid chance that your attacker or opponent will press the attack and get the better of you, both physically and mentally. Instead, you’re much better off throwing your own attacks back, even if they don’t end up being effective. It will hopefully be enough though to throw off your attacker’s initiative so that you can regain your composure.

This attitude follows the same logic discussed in my blog post about the power of intention. Have you personally had any similar experiences continuing to fight after taking a solid hit, whether in a belt test, a self-defense situation, or a competition? I invite you to share these in the comments section.

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What You Learn from a Punch to the Face

In many martial arts, it is forbidden to punch the face while sparring. In our school, we allow it because you learn a lot from both punching to the face and being punched to the face.

In real self-defense situations, the head is a primary target. If you only ever deal with punches to the head in theory and not in practice, you won’t be at all prepared for what it’s like if you actually get punched in the head.

When I first introduce sparring to orange belts, it’s under very controlled circumstances. Students wear 16-oz boxing gloves and mouth guards and they spar at 10% intensity. Only punches and kicks to the shins are allowed. This gives them the opportunity to focus on one aspect of sparring at a time. At this stage, the most important thing to develop is the guard. When students are only allowed to punch, there are less different types of attacks to be ready for, giving them more opportunity to focus on using the guard to protect themselves from attacks.

The other thing students learn at this stage is mentally dealing with being hit in the head and face. Because it’s new to them, they start out flinching quite a bit, making it hard to defend. Also, when they take that first punch in the face, even though it’s a light one that doesn’t cause damage, it still fazes them and puts them on the defensive. After a few sparring sessions though, this reaction lessens as their mind begins to cope with the state of duress that comes from being hit in the face.

As the attacker, by actually punching to the face while sparring, you learn to do it for real. When you only ever spar stopping your attacks just short of the face, your muscle memory develops to do this naturally. A former student of mine who was a 2nd degree black belt in Taekwondo discovered this in a situation when he was forced to defend himself. He tried to punch his would-be attacker in the face and his punch stopped just short of the guy’s face. Fortunately, the attacker took this to be a show of skilled restraint and decided it wasn’t worth it to get in a fight.

While many people don’t like the idea of punching to the face or being punched to the face, it is an important aspect of self-defense. The key to alleviating students’ fears when it comes to this is starting out in very controlled circumstances then upping the ante gradually as their skills improve.

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Pressure Point of the Day: Solar Plexus

A strike to the solar plexus, as demonstrated in this video by MMA fighter Megumi Fujii, is an effective way to subdue an attacker without causing injury. The solar plexus is a nerve motor point that, when struck, causes temporary motor dysfunction to the surrounding muscles, those which are used for breathing. It’s not simply a matter of having the wind knocked out of you. For a short period of time, you have trouble breathing both in and out.

One day I was sparring with a student of mine named Alec. He was the youngest in my class at 19 and oozed natural talent. That being said, on this particular day, he was keeping a very high guard to stop incoming blows to his head while ignoring any kicks I aimed at his body. After the first 2-minute round, we took a short break, giving me the chance to address the weakness in his guard.

“So Alec, I noticed that you’re not blocking any of my strikes to your body,” I put forward.

“Yeah, I just figure I’d rather take a shot to the body than a shot to the head,” he replied, with the cocksure attitude that goes hand in hand with youth and talent.

“You do realize I’m not striking with any power, right?” I queried. “And I’m aiming at your solar plexus.”

“I still think I can take a shot to solar plexus, even if you were hitting with full power.”

I looked at him, a tiny smirk playing across the corners of my mouth, betraying my intention. “Okay then. Let’s do the second round.”

In the second round, Alec came at me with a right cross for his first attack. I sidestepped the blow, snapping a quick roundhouse kick to his solar plexus, making solid contact. Alec grunted as he received the blow, pausing a moment before continuing the round.

Again, he came at me, leading with a couple of jabs, following with another right cross. And again, I do the same sidestep-roundhouse kick combo, hitting home on his solar plexus. He stopped, knees buckling as he ineffectively gasped for air. “I have to stop,” he croaked before crumpling to the ground.

I let him regain his composure for a couple of minutes and get back on his feet, after which I approached him. “So… what did we learn?” I asked him with an admittedly cheeky tone.

“I said I could take one shot to the solar plexus, not two!” he retorted sheepishly.

“And that wasn’t even full power. That was about 50% my full power.” I knew I wouldn’t need to use full power to make my point. I wanted to him to learn a lesson, not hate me.

His eyes widened in disbelief. “I think I’d rather take a shot to the head than your full power kick to the solar plexus.”

The second blow would have had even more effect than the first due to the overload principle. When striking nerve pressure or motor points, if you attack the same nerve point twice, you’ll notice a significant increase in effectiveness the second time around. That’s because the first blow weakens the nerves, causing them to be more sensitive when struck again.

After that sparring session, I never again saw Alec disregard incoming body shots.

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