I often get asked whether or not we spar in class. Usually this question comes from sincere, energetic, young men who have little or no experience and are looking to somehow prove their manly worth in the pecking order of Darwinian life. This question is asked with an intensity that reflects their belief that one's ability to spar well is directly related to the ability to protect, defend and most importantly to pro-create! They seem to have this idea that if they train hard enough and spar well enough they will turn into some bullet proof superhero that will get lucky with all of the ladies like those guys on the AXE body spray commercials (or if you're from my generation the dudes from the old Bugle Boy Jean commercials...excuse me are those Bugle Boy Jeans you're wearing?!) :-)
Now don't get me wrong, we DO SPAR in class. We spar in all ranges: Kickboxing, Grappling, MMA, Clinch, with and without weapons... we spar no contact, light contact and sometimes when the mood strikes us we spar balls to the wall FULL CONTACT... we spar in every conceivable way you can think of, we try to cover it all, BUT, here's the BIG difference. We treat sparring as a drill, not as the be all and end all of our ability to defend ourselves in the field or street.
Sparring is a great way to work on many combative skills that can save your rear end when the chips are down. Learning to work against someone who is directly resisting you is very challenging not to mention many good skills can be acquired by sparring, but this is not the only determining factor to training one's survival skills, especially as age starts to set in.
If you are learning to become a duelist and want to compete in competitions that are as such, then by all means spar away and learn how to kick some major booty in the ring, but what happens when you get older and can't keep up with the young bucks any more, what then? Or how about when your one on one combat sport gives way to the reality of surviving an incident when you may not be able to go toe to toe with someone on an even playing field? I've said this before but I think it would be good to revisit. It's about controlling the playing field not just being a good fighter.
The stress of getting hit by an unpredictable opponent is priceless. The ability to take a hit and keep dishing it out is also important. When you are in the middle of a clash with someone who is able to school you and you know it, but you face your fears, your abilities, your conditioning and quite frankly your humility these are all good things! The lesson of finding that inner drive to keep going when you just want to give up is priceless, especially if you can do it in a safer environment when your life doesn't depend on it. These are some things that can help you if you ever find yourself in a situation that losing may mean more than not bringing home a trophy.
When you are sparring try to concentrate on things that you want to improve on. It may be getting out of a submission you just learned the reversal to; it may be trying to hold a dominant position or escape from a position that you have trouble getting out of; it might be getting into a range with someone that you are not as comfortable with. The idea is that you are working on things that take you out of your comfort zone, that keep challenging you in ways that might help when you or someone else really needs it. Oh, yea, and it has to be sustainable as you get older, it has to be done in a way that reduces potential injury and doesn't damage you permanently.
On the flip side don't let sparring give you a false sense of security. I have personally witnessed pro-fighters get their asses handed to them in the street and end up in the hospital because they responded like they trained. Not to mention they let their egos dictate their survival strategy. What started out a duel turned into a survival situation when the other guy pulled a knife.
Also remember that there are no weight classes in the field and things get nasty quick. People won't pull punches or play fair in the street. The best situation is to use your other skills regarding risk identification, assessment and resolution using other than just your physical tactics for resolving the conflict.
A KMWW Force Training Division instructor once said, “Students I've trained who have gone on to defend themselves in real life (mostly law enforcement and/or military) usually had no sparring experience when they defended themselves successfully.” Although I am not doubting his words, I still think that sparring is important, but keep in mind it is not the be all end all. It is a great drill that teaches many lessons. Keep it in perspective, keep it safe, keep it sustainable and keep learning!
The bottom line is… be real, but keep sparring in its proper perspective.