It is a strange thing in martial arts that most students don’t want to spar.

Last week I went to my son’s athletic competition. In the last twenty years the coaching and preparation has become a lot more scientific. I was watching people performing dynamic warm up exercises of the type I learned in China. Twist steps, lunges, crouches, jumping etc. They now understood, as my teacher did, to engage different muscles, fire up the nervous system, prepare the body for their event. BUT THEN THEY DID THEIR EVENT. Perhaps it was running, jumping, or, in my son’s case, throwing a hammer. The point is that the exercises were used because they found them helpful in improving their performance. In ‘Traditional’ martial arts, I see a different scenario.

Imagine if last week’s athletic event was full of Kung Fu people: They would endlessly talk about whose exercises were most effective: “Oh, we have our hand HERE when we lunge” etc. but then, when they finish their preparations, they go home without actually doing their event. Perhaps the medals were given according to whose warm ups were prettiest, or who knew the most warm up sequences. Bizarre, isn’t it?

Not everybody is going to fight competitively in a cage. For most people, training to learn some skills for self defence, being able to ‘handle themselves’ gives a lot of confidence and benefit. In the same way- not everybody who practises running is going to be an Olympian. They are doing it for fun, so they do not need to put themselves through all of the gruelling preparations that a professional athlete does. They do, however, need to actually run!  In the same way: people who are learning martial arts for fun or self defence, do not need to be punished hard, hit full force in the head etc. They do, however, need to spar.

We are very lucky today. In my school I have mats on the floor and walls. We have sparring EVERY DAY. Students can put on shin pads, gloves, helmets, groin guars and have a great time! We can wrestle,kick, punch and ground fight. Save your power for the pad rounds and work on timing, distance and strategy. Like tiger cubs: Leave your claws in, roll around and have fun.

Watch the video below: Alex is an undefeated MMA fighter with 7 fights. Rory is an (amateur) British title holder. Where is all the blood?? Cage fighters are brutal, aren’t they?? That actually looks like fun- that can’t be right!


When you spar, you are working on improving skills. If your opponent is much better- you’re going to be working on defence! If you are better, you are perhaps going to be working attacks. When both people are fairly even, you are looking for opportunities, set ups, strategy. There is no intent to hurt, but you can realistically mix it up without it turning into a game of tag.

My theory is that as long as people don’t spar, they can fool themselves that they are more skilful than they really are. Once you spar, you lose that illusion. My Kung Fu class has a lot of people that love to practise forms, ask for the applications of a move, but never learn to really apply it in free sparring because they don’t like the fact that it won’t work straight away. You’ve got to fail a lot of times before you ‘get it’ – like Edison and his light bulb!

I am not just talking about Kung Fu people either- I have a very busy MMA fitness class. It’s an excellent workout and people practise combinations on heavy bags and ground and pound bags. They are effective, battle tested moves. But the sparring class afterwards has far fewer participants than the fitness class. Perhaps it is fear of getting hurt? I don’t think so- injuries are rare, football is probably more dangerous!

It’s the fact that you’ve learned a cool combo- you look good on the bag. The first time you try it in sparring the other guy doesn’t let you do it! He moves or counters- spoilsport! What’s worse- he even kicks you in the leg or takes you down. The indignity!!

Here’s an important lesson- If you expect to go into a sparring class and look like you do on the bag or doing a form, you are in for a disappointment. You can embrace the honest truth and start the most satisfying journey, or stay in fantasy land. But there’s no real benefit there. In your heart you know its not going to work- if it was you’d be sparring every night, wouldn’t you?

It’s ego that stops us. Ego is why we cant ‘lose face’. The truth, however, is that the way to succeed is to fail a bunch of times. In sparring in a good class, the only thing that gets hurt is your ego. In self defence, however, the consequences are far worse. This means that people practise martial arts for YEARS without proper sparring are still insecure and actually now are MORE scared of confrontation because they have more invested in being ‘unbeatable’.

Get out of your comfort zone- it’s where all the cool stuff happens.



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