By Matthew Schafer
Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved
I often get asked by other people who study martial arts if my school, style, etc. spars full contact. When I tell them "no" they often get concerned telling me that full contact sparring is the only way to make sure our techniques "work". They then ask me what kind of sparing we do engage in and I tell them we don't spar at all... and suddenly in their eyes I have become the biggest fraud on the planet, a disgusting creature so low I should be so ashamed of myself that if I had any integrity at all I should give my black belts back, return every dime I've ever made from teaching martial arts, advise my students to burn any belts and certificates I've given them, issue a public apology, and walk away from the martial arts world in disgrace. It's a good thing I didn't tell them that I'm also not a Bruce Lee fan or they'd probably shoot me on the spot.
First of all I find it funny that some people think you need to get all padded up and spar in order to see if techniques "work". If you want to know what "works" then study sports medicine, that will tell you more about what "works" (damages the human body) then sparing ever will.
The next question people usually ask me is if we don't spar because I'm one of "those" people who think that my style is too deadly to spar with? My answer is that all martial arts are too dangerous to spar with and that is why people don't do it (they kickbox instead). The thing is my instructors and I look at the martial arts in a little different context then most people. We look at martial arts as being primarily forms of self-defense and don't care for competitions. If you study "modern martial arts" that are comprised mainly of punching and kicking techniques then sparring and competing is fine, but if you study "old school martial arts" that are made up primarily of strikes to the temples, eyes, ears, throat, sides and back of the neck, heart, liver, spleen, kidneys, groin, knees, and ankles then sparring becomes much more difficult.
The thing with sparing is that safety is the utmost concern, and rightly so, so a lot of techniques are not allowed. The problem is that all the things they take out in order to spar are the actual "meat" of the martial arts. Strikes like eye gouges, ear slaps, forearm strikes to the throat, palms to the chin, elbows to the back of the neck, shins to the groin, kicks to the knees, stomps to the kidneys and ankles, and such things are the real "meat and potatoes" of the martial arts. These are the things that cause injuries, put people down, and save your life when someone else is trying to take it. That is also why I don't spar.
The problem with sparring is that it is a competitive activity. How would you like to compete in an eye gouging competition? Or, how about an ear slapping competition? How would you like to grab another guy and see who can punch each other in the throat the best, or shin kick each other in the groin better? The only way that you can practice these dangerous techniques in a meaningful way without seriously injuring someone is to go slow and work with a cooperative partner.
If we were going to practice a backfist to the head then we could probably spar with that and no one would get hurt. However, how about if we practice backfists to the kidneys, would you want to spar with those? There is no way that I'm going to spar with someone that is trying to backfist me in the kidney. I've been nearly put on the floor by someone hitting me in the kidney while going slow under controlled conditions.
Sparing can teach you some valuable things, but you can learn the very same things from doing controlled drills. We do a lot of drills that get people used to being attacked with random movements and drills to get used to be attacked suddenly and aggressively. With the right drills you can get the benefits of sparing and practice striking vital points while keeping your students from getting injured and drowning in lawsuits.
When you decide to spar you take so much away from the martial arts that you end up not doing the martial arts, and you end up kickboxing. Martial arts and kickboxing are two different things and there really isn't any reason to do kickboxing if you study the martial arts. You most likely will learn bad habits and get an unreal view of what criminal violence actually looks like. If you are assaulted by a violent criminal it won't resemble a kickboxing match; they won't tell you that they are going to assault you beforehand and let you get into a fighting stance while they do the same. You're not going to dance around on your toes with the violent criminal trading jabs. That is nonsense but that is what most martial arts schools and wrestleboxers (people who do "ultimate fighting") would have you believe.
Today some people scoff at styles that don't spar and think those styles are ridiculous in their belief that their techniques are "too dangerous to spar with". However, if you were to tell them that you suddenly changed your mind and now you agree with them, and then climb into the ring with them and announce that you'd be happy to spar with your techniques so in addition to throwing punches and kicks you will be doing eye gouges, throat strikes, groin strikes, ear slaps, clawing, striking the neck and the front of the knee, joint breaking, neck breaking, and you just might throw in a bite or two... suddenly they act like you're crazy... after all if you did that someone could get hurt!