Sparring: what is and what is its purpose
Kung Fu sparring: a realistic view
Sparring is the most realistic simulation of a real struggle but it happens in a safe, respectful and controlled way (read Dojo (guan): rules, respect and etiquette).
Note – This article has been asked by one of our Core Course practitioners on Patreon (see how to attend our home study classes here Learn Kung Fu online: a beginner-to-expert course).
In 6 Dragons Kung Fu we have 2 choices:
- If we (legitimately) want to practice for health, fitness, wellness, cultural reasons (etc.), the practice of fight can be avoided
- If we want to truly learn how to fight, we must consistently focus on the practice of combat
The choice is ours but we must rationally understand that, without facing a free and uncooperative partner, it is impossible to:
- To learn how to manage a real self-defense situation (read Why martial arts do not work: 5 reasons)
- To deeply understand the techniques we study (read A scheme to quickly learn any kind of technique)
- To be able to compete in sportive contexts (read The 6 types of martial clash)
Kung Fu sparring: the premises
In our school, we have several types of sparring methods and each of them is related to different purposes but before analyzing them, we want to rapidly list the fundamental conditions to start:
- Respect – Respect and consideration for the safety of our partners must replace the desire to prevail; to cause harm to those who train with us is a serious defeat of our martial dignity (it is a lack of physical and mental control, read also Revenge and resentment, knives taken from the blade side)
- Sharing – In sparring, we are all on the same team, there are neither winners nor losers; there are only precious errors, lessons and experiences to which we must give meaning (to evolve and understand ourselves, read Measure ourselves with errors)
- Friendship – Before and after the fight we exchange a gesture of respect and friendship (we will see how this happens in 6 Dragons Kung Fu); this should not be seen as a meaningless ritual but as a voluntary mental conditioning (read also Fighting and mind control: the anchors) that reminds that between us and those we are facing there is (and should not be) no other cause or end different from the study
A note by Master Kongling – Over my career, I have seen and participated in many sparring sessions but in most cases, I have seen poor analysis and silly competition. Done in this way, sparring loses 50% of its effectiveness. On the one hand, the beginner must have the humility to ask for advice, on the other hand, the expert must not bask in his superiority but must put himself in a position to be defeated (through handicaps, revealing his methods, giving advice, etc.). If we do not think in this way: to the beginner, being beaten will only bring a lot of frustration, to the expert, the easy victories will only damage his preparation.
How to safely perform sparring
- Basic technical preparation – In our school, sparring is not allowed in the first phase of learning (read The fundamental concepts of the fallings), to keep the guard up (read ), to execute basic striking techniques (etc. read ) cannot participate ); in addition to this, those who are not able to practice controlled fallings (breakfalls, read
- Basic physical shape – Who has a large balance deficit (read How to improve balance: tricks and exercises), a too bad physical shape (read Physical conditioning: how it works), recent / chronic injuries or a too delicate structure cannot do sparring; it is not a matter of sex, age (read also The right age to start practice) or constitution, we simply need to reach a basic acceptable condition
- Mental requirements – Who is not able to maintain a basic level of concentration, to resist to low-level pain (read Acceptance and prevention of pain), to control anger, competitivity or who has something against his partners cannot practice sparring; until our mind has become clean, quiet, humble and disposed to learn we cannot participate
- When to stop – At the first sign of discomfort, pain, extreme fatigue or excessive tension, sparring must be immediately interrupted; the goal is always to preserve safety (both in a real battle, both among teammates) and quality; sparring is meant to be performed to grow our martial level but if we badly hurt ourselves we will not be able to continue training regularly; it also must be said that if we fight without energies we risk wasting our time (it is always a bad idea to get used to express low-level performances during combat, it is a negative self-conditioning, read Training in negative; there are a lot of other exercises to work on psychophysical resistance)
- How often practice sparring – If sparring is done in a very light way by conditioned practitioners, there are potentially no limits (even daily in extremis); if the type of contact is heavier (or the contenders are beginners) we can do it 1-2 times a week, every 2 weeks or even once a month; for example, we could make a monthly intense session and more frequently the less intense ones (it all depends on what our goal is, a competition, self-defense, etc.)
- How to prepare the body for sparring – In order to avoid unnecessary risks, sparring can be done only after a good warm-up (read How to correctly perform warm-up) and a correct stretching (read How to correctly perform stretching), preferably at the end of a complete training session (with few forces at disposal and under the stress of fatigue, as it did in Shaolin temples)
- The level of technical application – The techniques that we can perform must stop where their complete application would mean to end the sparring with damages; the idea is to (try to) avoid everything that will not disappear (in terms of physical limitations) within a few hours after the end of a light session (eg. some bruises are not a big problem, an overextended arm, yes) and within 1-2 days for the most intense ones
- 3 people – Do not do sparring without a third person who can help properly or stop the ongoing confrontation (there are a lot of unexpected things that can happen, damages, quarrels, etc.); the third person (normally the instructor) is the chief and decides when the fight starts and when it stops, without any possible discussion (our ears must always listen and immediately obey his orders)
- In which cases sparring can be interrupted – While we do sparring, we only are us, our opponents, the supervisor and the scenario, nothing more, nothing less (we do not stop and we have not to be distracted); the fight freezes when one of these 3 entities asks for a break (tapping on the floor, on our body or by voice)
- Protections – In general, we do not use too much protections but their eventual presence must not alter in any way the attention to our body and to the opponent’s one (defense is the same whether we are protected whether we are not); depending on the level of contact and on the type of sparring we evaluate the right protections
- Who cannot do sparring – Never do sparring with people who we do not know (it does not matter what they say); they could be physically unprepared, very violent, with pathologies that we do not know (etc.); more generally, can participate in martial training, only those who have demonstrated that they have the right requirements (read )
A note by Master Kongling – A small story. About the protections, I remember that during a Kudo lesson, the instructor told me something that soon made me leave the course: “do not defend your head, you have the protective helmet and the regulation forbids to rage with the ground and pound”. Of course, from a sporting point of view, the tactical reasoning was valid but I was looking for pure combat (read The 6 types of martial clash). I was very sorry to leave because the level was good and the practice very intense but that was not what I was looking for.
How to obtain the best results from a sparring session
To obtain the highest results from this practice it is important to:
- Give sense to the struggle – In each sparring session, we must ensure that our companion always has a chance to learn something, no matter who is better and who is not (it is not being passive, egoists or superficial that we can grow); the constant research of improvement is the key to learn something (beating a newbie without giving him opportunities only increases our ego, in other words, our stupidity)
- Change as much as possible the partners – We should not train always with the same partner (if it is possible, read 5 effective ways to find a training partner); we have to try with those who are stronger than us, those who are like us and those who are less prepared (in all three cases there are ample opportunities for learning)
- Imagine the combat as real – Being sure not to risk our lives should not put ourselves in a fictitious state of tranquility; we have to defend at the most all the vulnerable parts of our own bodies as if we were struggling for life
- Work both on quality and quantity – Less power more speed, more softness less rigidity, more mobility less economy of energy, more tactics / strategy less instinct, more precision less randomness, more testing less linearity; this is not a real combat, it’s a training to it (we have to work on stamina, experiment with technique, etc.)
- Let the adversary feel the techniques – The blows have to come to their target, they should not be caresses but at the same time, they must not be too harmful; we must learn to retain the strength and not the attack onrush; the same things happen for levers (read Chin Na), we gradually and slowly increase the tension, without dangerous explosive movements
A few conclusive thoughts and ideas:
- At the end of sparring (with respect, patience and a constructive mindset), it is a good practice to discuss what, in terms of effectiveness, happened of positive and negative (let’s be humble, friendly and let’s try to stress our limits / faults and not the ones of the others)
- If our opponents are not able to apply any technique / blow, let’s stop, let’s (humbly) give them some useful advice and let’s start again (but without lowering our level of struggle, this would damage us and them)
- Sparring is a group-study, it is neither a sports competition nor a real fight (the sooner we understand this, the sooner we will become real martial arts practitioners); in Kung Fu, as everyone should know, the real enemy is within us and not outside (our pride, fear, etc.)
In the next article of this series, we will start to see the first type of sparring (read Sparring type 1: slow motion fighting).
In-depth video courses
- Basic 6 Dragons Kung Fu Exercises – The exercises that will allow you to acquire real martial skills (sparring included)
- Advanced speed and reflexes training – A video course about how to train to become fast (specifically in combat terms)
- The fighter and the warrior – What is the difference between a fighter and a warrior?
- When a belt becomes a blindfold – Why is so wrong to connect the martial preparation to the achieved degree
Reply in the comments and share your experience:
- Based on what you read, do you feel like practicing sparring?
Author: Master KonglingFounder of 6 Dragons Kung Fu.
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