Martial artists love to fight…and they also like to debate each other. My friend Steve at Geek Wing Chun recently heard the argument that sparring “isn’t fighting.” Well, it is and it isn’t. I could go down some existential rabbit holes with this, but I’ll let Steve offer his light-hearted and eloquent rebuttal to this concept. I especially like his tips near the end of the post for ways to make your sparring practice a more-realistic simulation of a “real world” fight.
More information about Steve and his site are at the bottom of this post.
Keep training, do whatever makes YOU happy with your martial arts practice, stay safe, and keep your sense of humor. We all need it right now.
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In the martial arts world, there are many activities that used to be considered proof of a practitioner’s skill. Does anyone remember the pre-Enter the Dragon days when board breaking used to indicate something, until Bruce Lee pointed out that “boards don’t hit back?” Or how about the days when tying a black belt around your waist said, “This person has achieved a certain skill level, so don’t mess with them?” Well, those days are long gone, thanks to Bruce and the rise of MMA.
Although these two items are no longer universally recognized as proof of skill, there was one thing we had left, but even that has come under fire lately.
I’m talking about sparring.
Yes, the activity where you strap on gear and go toe-to-toe with a classmate in an unpredictable, noncompliant manner. You would think people would leave sparring alone because, after all, the two main criticisms most folks have of self-defense demonstrations are that (1) the defender knows what attack is coming, and (2) their demonstration partner immediately becomes cooperative after their initial attack has been thrown. Since sparring negates both those criticisms, it seems like no one would have a problem with it, right?
I think the fact that I am writing this article means the answer to that question is: “WRONG.”
I think it is human nature to find the flaw in anything. (Otherwise why would people talk about how the beautiful Amanda Seyfried has eyes that are “too big?”) However, I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t speak to why people search for criticisms. All I can do is address the one they aim at martial arts.
I’m speaking of the statement that has surfaced within the last decade or so that states: “Sparring isn’t fighting.”
HA! YOUR SCHOOL HAS NO SPARRING?
I attended a Wing Chun Kung Fu school in Albany, NY for many years. During that time, I saw many people stop by to observe class and see if it was something they wanted to take. Sometimes, after watching people practice forms or do Chi Sao, the visitor would ask Sifu, “Do you do any sparring here?” Sifu told them we didn’t, and that person was never seen again.
Having said that, I’m sure there are people who didn’t come back because they decided Wing Chun wasn’t for them. Their lack of a second appearance doesn’t mean his answer turned them off. However, I do have proof that it was something that was held against the school.
What is my evidence?
Well, the fact that I was heavily mocked whenever I told people we don’t spar!
People voiced this criticism in many ways, but the gist of what they were saying was this: “If you don’t spar, you can’t possibly know you could handle yourself in a fight. You aren’t pressure-testing your skills against a noncompliant opponent.” If I said we did Chi Sao (which could get very intense), they would say, “Chi Sao isn’t fighting either!” (I won’t address that here, but believe me: that could be ANOTHER article!)
OH, ALL YOU DO IS SPAR?
To be fair to those critics, I know why they said Chi Sao isn’t fighting: it’s because you are already up close and in your Wing Chun range. You have no space between you and your partner, which means you don’t learn how to bridge the gap. Also, this means your partner is throwing short-range, Wing Chun-style attacks at you. There is no chance to get used to a boxer/Tae Kwon Do practitioner winding up to throw a punch or kick at you. Plus, you don’t get used to being hit by attacks like that. Sure, you can get hit by those Wing Chun attacks during Chi Sao, but it’s not the same.
With these thoughts in mind, I decided to join a class at a different martial arts school. I knew the head instructor there, and he reached out to me and offered the chance to come in during the classes where they sparred. I could participate even though I would be using my Wing Chun skills, instead of learning what he taught there (which, for the record, was more like a long-range, Northern Chinese style).
I went for a couple of classes and felt pretty good about myself. After a few months of doing this, I mentioned that I went to that school for their sparring class to a friend of mine; this fellow was a martial arts enthusiast, but he had never taken a martial arts class himself.
I was completely taken by surprise when he said, “Yeah, well…unfortunately sparring isn’t fighting.”
Huh? But wait. For years, I was mocked for not sparring. Now I do engage in that activity, and it gets discredited with this dismissive statement? What gives?
WHAT ARE THE CRITICS REALLY SAYING?
Since I am the type of person who always has to play “devil’s advocate,” I decided to take this “sparring isn’t fighting” statement and analyze it deeper. Odds are that the person spouting it (again, who hadn’t even studied a martial art himself) was throwing it out there simply because he was the type who like to find the flaws in anything and everything, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t some truth to the statement. (Yes, I do believe it is possible to be correct about something by accident!)
So let’s assume the critics are correct. Sparring isn’t fighting. Well, martial artists believe it is, so why do these people say it isn’t?
In the most obvious sense, sparring isn’t fighting because it is between two classmates. It’s not between two strangers who come to blows in a bar. This means your partner will be worried about doing anything to you that causes long-lasting damage. If your partner knocks the wind out of you and you drop to your knees gasping for air, they will stop so you can recover. The alpha male bar patron won’t show you the same courtesy.
Sparring isn’t fighting because it has rules. You can’t hit your classmates with any disabling attacks. There will (or should) be no loss of teeth, no broken limbs, no choking until unconscious, no eye gouging, no elbows to the back of the head, and the like. Aside from leaving out these techniques, sparring also has a time limit.
Sparring isn’t fighting because when the round begins, you and your partner are facing each other in a ready stance. You know they are going to attack, and you can see how because they are in your field of vision, not off to the side or coming at you from the rear.
Lastly, sparring isn’t fighting because of the intensity. For example, let’s say someone comes at you with a side kick, followed by a jab-cross punch combination. You successfully block these attacks, but you don’t manage to land one of your own. What happens next? Does your sparring partner keep pouring it on? Not usually. Since you fended off their invasion, they usually back off and use footwork to move around while they rest and reassess the situation. Then they launch another attack. In the street, if you block an assailant’s attack, they will keep throwing MORE of them until one of you is unconscious or incapacitated. There will be no “rest and reassess” phase.
IF NOT SPARRING, THEN WHAT?
If a person attends psychotherapy sessions to improve their quality of life and their relationships with people, they will learn one thing very quickly: you can’t improve your life simply by eliminating bad habits. You have to REPLACE them with good ones.
The same can be said of sparring. Critics are saying it is useless because “sparring isn’t fighting,” but then they suggest nothing with which we could replace it. This is the equivalent of taking guitar lessons and having a teacher tell you, “You’re doing that wrong,” without telling you how to do it RIGHT.
So let’s pose the question: if sparring is useless, then what should we do instead? How else can we practice our skills? In the absence of any actual suggestions from the critics, we are left to guess what they mean. Would they propose that we go out to a bar and purposely start a fight by staring at some guy’s girlfriend for a little too long? Walk down the street and bump into someone even though there was plenty of room to avoid them? When pulling up to a red light, creep close enough to bump the car ahead of us?
Nothing short of getting into an actual fight can give us a 100% simulation of a real street fight/self-defense situation. Having said that, there are some elements you could add to a sparring session that might make it a little closer to reality:
- Instead of starting with the students facing each other, have one attack the other from behind.
- Set up some items on the training floor so they aren’t moving in a smooth, unobstructed area.
- Is your school in a building that has more than one floor? Have them try sparring on the stairs. (Naturally, they need to be careful to not go falling down them!)
- If your school is in a building with long halls and other areas you can access, you could have one student walk the corridors while another lies in wait to jump them.
- Have one student initiate sparring while another is trying to get in their car.
- Instead of backing off for the “rest and reassess” phase, have one student keep the pressure on.
- Try multiple attackers. For example, one student grabs their classmate’s arms while another closes in to hit them.
With some of these options, you’d need to exercise some discretion so you don’t get into any trouble. (You don’t want the cops showing up because a passerby saw one student “attacking” another in the parking lot.) Keep in mind two things: (1) This list is certainly not an exhaustive one, and (2) these are all suggestions to give sparring a little more variety and/or realism.
Let’s face it, folks: sparring is the closest we can legally get to fighting. Either the critics don’t realize that, or they do, but they are still criticizing simply because that is what they like to do. (Personally, nine times out of ten I’d put my money on the latter, but that is because I am naturally suspicious of anyone who says you are doing something “wrong” but offers no suggestions on what would be “right.”) However, with the examples I gave here, there are ways where sparring can take an extra step toward realism.
Granted, that might be only a TINY step, but it beats the alternative of going out and instigating a REAL brawl!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Steve Grogan has been practicing Wing Chun Kung Fu since January 1995. He is the founder of Geek Wing Chun, a website (with an accompanying YouTube channel) that provides free tips on how someone can create a training routine at home, should they be unable to make it to class. He is the author of The Lone Warrior, which collects some of his greatest tips in one neat little book, and the developer ofThe Lone Warrior App, which helps people keep track of their training (available for both iPhones and Androids).
MAIN SITE: http://www.geekwingchuninc.com/
LONE WARRIOR (BOOK): http://www.geekwingchuninc.com/TheLoneWarrior.html
APP on iPHONE: https://apple.co/2MaBNpp
APP on ANDROID: https://bit.ly/3ceiZQv