Sparring is sometimes described as a new addition to martial arts, non-traditional and even more of a sport. But sparring and martial arts go back together to the dawn of humankind, to the first time homo erectus came home after a fight and decided to be ready for the next one. Our little furry ancestors no doubt formed a circle, showed what worked, what didn’t, then thought up some new, interesting way to hit someone with a club. Then a couple of them got up and practiced these techniques, learning which ones worked best.
And that’s just the first time we did it. Sparring has been around for as a long as animals have been teaching their young. Kittens and puppies spar. They run around jumping, scratching, and biting softly. They practice rolls and swipes, learning combat and hunting skills without hurting each other.
Not all martial artists spar. Some believe that techniques are too deadly, or that sparring teaches a person to pull their punches. Some claim that sparring does not simulate true conflicts, or that it converts martial arts into a sport. At Yong Studios, we believe in the value of sparring as a way to improve, test, and round out your martial arts skills. We also do it because it is fun. Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s greatest swordsman, went around Japan challenging other swordmasters to individual duels. He killed over 60 men, then wrote a book, the Book of Five Rings. Now the rest of us can just read the book.
Sparring is a great way to test techniques you are learning in the studio. Some things that seem to work well when standing still suddenly don’t when facing a moving opponent. Some things work well on tall people but have little effect on someone who is compact. Sparring is a way to experiment and grow confident in certain techniques.
Critics claim that sparring does not simulate actual conflict. Nothing does, not even actual conflicts. Combat with swords doesn’t simulate a bar-fight. Domestic violence is different than being mugged. Sparring is designed to be safe and fun. Violence isn’t safe, isn’t fun, and training to be ready for violence will always be somewhat limited.
However, sparring will teach you many things that might save your life. It will teach you how to time your defense against an aggressor, how to move, how to attack and follow up when the first attack doesn’t work. Perhaps more importantly, sparring will teach you to keep going after you’ve been jumped, rushed, or even hit. Many trained martial artists will still freeze after being hit in the face. Sparring on a regular basis teaches the body to accept hits, to move in ways that minimizes the impact, and to keep going. You will also learn to relax. Tension slows the body, yet when faced with an aggressive opponent, we all do it, at first. But experience in sparring allows us to stay loose, to breathe, to move. Finally, sparring is fun. Aside from testing our martial techniques, sparring is the kind of sport that challenges us physically and mentally. As good as you become, there is always more to improve upon. There are always new opponents, there are the same opponents coming back after they’ve learned your weaknesses. Every sparring class is a new, different, transforming event. A new chance to learn some little piece, technique, or over-arching principle. We have many reasons we spar, but ultimately, sparring is like dancing or singing. You do it because you love to do it.
-Written by a member of the Yong Studios family, Daniel H. Jeffers