By Matthew Schafer
Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved
I have received a few emails about a previous article of mine entitled "Are Martial Art Techniques Too Dangerous For Sparring?" and while it seems the article was well received by most maybe I did a poor job of expressing my main point. In that article I stated that neither myself, my school, or the style that I study spars and we don't believe that sparring is really a beneficial method of practice.
The two main arguments I put forth were (1) that since sparring eliminates so much of the martial arts for safety sake what you're left with is not your martial art, its kickboxing, and (2) in real violent encounters people don't put their hands up and square off in fighting stances and they simply don't resemble kickboxing matches, so why kickbox in the first place? However, while both of those are valid arguments, based on a couple responses I got I think the issue is context so that is what I will try to go over here.
First I should say I'm not trying to stop anyone from sparring as part of their martial arts training and I could not care less if people spar. All I'm doing is stating why my style doesn't do it and address the ridiculous comeback proponents of sparring use by asking if a style is too dangerous to spar with.
My first taste of sparring was studying boxing at 9 years old and then a couple years later when my Kenpo instructor had me join the American Taekwondo Association and enroll in the local Taekwondo school. Having already studied martial arts for about 5 years I found most of it easy and often confusing, but what really tripped me up is after I got my yellow belt and started sparring, which happened after about 6 months.
I remember the first time I put on pads and sparred, it came after a great class we had on the importance of forms. In Kenpo we learned mainly by exercises and drills, we only had two forms and used them primarily as warm ups so all the form work was new and I really got into it. Afterwards we put on pads and paired off for sparring. Not even thinking about it I assumed a back stance and when my partner punched I hit his arm with a near perfect inside forearm block followed by a front snap kick and left reverse punch to the body. I didn't hit my partner hard but I did have near perfect form. My partner started swearing and complained that I was trying to hurt him and said his arm was "killing" him as a result of my block.
After agreeing to go softer he threw a front snap kick and I stepped into a horse stance and hit it with a low block causing him to fall to the ground holding his leg. My instructor came over and explained to me that I was "doing things wrong." I explained that I was doing the Taekwondo we had just been working on and he told me I should be dancing around on my toes and not doing the same blocks we learned in the forms. "But, that’s not Taekwondo that's kickboxing... I'm here to learn Taekwondo... it works... ," I said pointing to my unhappy partner who was rubbing a bruised calf. I was told that Taekwondo is a form of kickboxing and I replied, "No its not!"
We spent maybe 5% of our time sparring and the other 95% of the time being drilled on proper form; so 95% of our training was contradicting the other 5%... and I was the only person in the school bothered by this. I ended up staying until I got my black belt and when I started teaching I made it clear that we had a "martial arts portion" of the class and a "kickboxing portion" of the class. One day I was talking to a very skilled brown belt who got his clock cleaned by a black belt who wouldn't last 10 seconds if they fought for real and I quietly said, "Don't worry about it, it is just kickboxing, it doesn't prove anything and unless you plan on doing that for a living who cares?" The chief instructor was standing behind me and my time at that school was pretty much over after that.
I believe martial arts are all about self-defense and because of this belief I approach the martial arts from a different context then a lot of people. Most people I know think that martial arts are about competing, either with someone in a classroom, someone at a tournament, or someone trying to take your life. I don't want to compete and don't care who is bigger, faster, stronger, or more skilled. I want to protect myself and my family from violent individuals.
Most people dismissively say that the reason I don't put on gloves and spar is because my skills are too deadly to spar with. I respond by saying, "You're right, and so are yours which is why you don't spar with them either, you kickbox."
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 and the fancy stuff is just the icing on the cake. The icing on the cake is not the meal, learning how to drive a palm strike through someone's chin is the meal. 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.