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Sparring Without Striking: When Training Safely Gets Too Safe

Sparring Without Striking: When Training Safely Gets Too Safe, a blog post from Black Belt magazine.I was recently talking with a friend who’s a high-level taekwondo guy. He was telling me about a school he’d visited that really impressed him. It had a large, highly motivated group of students. Most were athletic and pushing to achieve as much as they could, regardless of age or size. The forms were crisp. The self-defense drills were sharp.

The school was excellent in every way …

… except one: There was no real contact in sparring, not even among the black belts.

My friend, who’s lived in South Korea and trained in the competitive atmosphere there, just shook his head. No matter how good a training hall is, he said, “you’ve got to have people hitting each other in the face sometimes.”

I’m mostly into mixed martial arts now, so my friend was preaching to the choir. I believe that all empty-hand arts benefit from some kind of sparring practice. Everything from aikido to wing chun gets better when you take practitioners out of their comfort zones.


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On the surface, it seemed like this is what my taekwondo friend was talking about. To him, learning taekwondo without sparring means you’re leaving out something important.

But I’ll go him one further: Learning any empty-hand art in an environment in which no one hits means you’re missing something essential.

In the striking arts, this seems obvious. If people are supposed to be learning how to fight with punches and kicks, they should be punching and kicking each other. Otherwise, you descend into the absurdity that Bruce Lee used to mock with his swimming analogy: Everyone is learning the crawl and the backstroke on dry land, but no one ever gets in the water because it’s too dangerous.

But it’s not just the striking arts that need the rough reality of contact to remain meaningful. The grappling arts need it just as much, if not more.

In some aikido and judo schools, people can train all the way to expert level and never encounter a real punch or kick. Granted, aikido is more about what happens when someone grabs you or attacks you with weapons, but all grappling arts are, to some extent, answers to the problem of someone beating on you. Practicing them in the complete absence of striking is like learning an answer without knowing what the question is.

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This is especially true in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, an art that built its reputation through empty-hand challenge matches. The danger of getting punched or kicked into oblivion shapes virtually every technique in the style. BJJ schools that focus mainly on grappling competition and neglect MMA and self-defense seem weirdly out of touch with this. Without a little contact training, they’re swimming on dry land just as much as any karate or taekwondo school that omits sparring.

Just to be clear, I’m not advocating full-contact brawling in every school for every style. Even professional fight gyms discourage that kind of thing, although it does happen sometimes.

What I am advocating is confronting the truth of striking directly by acknowledging it and dealing with someone who’s actually trying to hit you in training. He or she doesn’t have to blast you in the face full force, but the person does have to really try to tag you and to make your life as frustrating and difficult as it would be in a real fight.

And that is the truth of striking: It’s frustrating and difficult to defend against. Getting hit is both dangerous and usual in any kind of conflict. This is because striking is the entry-level technique of fighting. Even a person who knows nothing can swing wildly and have a good chance of hurting someone.

There really isn’t any equivalent in grappling — there’s no such thing as flailing around wildly and getting a lucky finishing hold.

This leads to another core truth of fighting, one of the things that shape the empty-hand arts: People who know the least hit the most. When they do, it doesn’t have a clear, predictable pattern. So mimicking this in any kind of empty-hand training is essential if your goal is to be able to handle it for real.


About the Author:
Keith Vargo is a writer, martial arts instructor, active fighter and researcher based in Tokyo, whose columns and features regularly appear in Black Belt. He is the only foreigner to earn a first-degree black belt from the world-renowned Takada Dojo, where he has trained with MMA legends like Akira Shoji and Kazushi Sakuraba. Keith Vargo also holds a degree in psychology and a certificate in multicultural self-defense from Radford University in Virginia. He is the author of Philosophy of Fighting: Morals and Motivations of the Modern Warrior, available now in the Black Belt Store.

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10 Responses

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  1. Phillip says

    I received my first black belt in Chung Do Kwan as taught by the late Duk Sung Son. He was a strong advocate of control and no contact sparring. I am so happy now that I was taught under his system. As time goes on the hazards of receiving head trauma are becoming very alarming. If you are studying the martial arts for self defense it makes no sense to expose yourself to head trauma that will come back to haunt you years later. Especially considering the fact that if you exercise self control and awareness of your surroundings the chance of you being attacked on the street are very low. In my opinion martial arts training should promote health not cause damage your body.

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  2. Peter says

    I feel that in training for self defense it is essential to have at least some contact. It is essential to learn in the controlled environment of the dojo what it is like to get hit so that should one find themselves in a self defense situation they will have some idea of what getting hit is like and thus be better prepared to react to it.

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  3. David says

    Some controlled contact is necessary to get used to being hit and overcome the fear of getting hit (a problem for a lot of students) because, if the first time that you really get hit is during a real-world confrontation, you’re liable to freeze. I’ve studied Shotokan Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido, Kuk Sool Won, and I’m currently studying Krav Maga. I’ve done some sparring in the “Traditional Martial Arts” and been hit a few times without suffering any serious head trauma in the process.

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  4. Nyai says

    I feel it depends on what style you are doing. Some styles like Krav maga, which is just for defending yourself in the street, and has no wider inventory, they have full contact sparring with gloves. Styles that are geared toward competition, like Muay Thai or Taekwondo, they have sparring with contact hitting. If some of them choose to not have any contact, they probably have their reasons. If you want to feel what it is like to get hit in the face, find another school. A style like Shaolin Kung Fu though, doesn’t need full contact sparring right off. It comes through much more intensive conditioning, like striking sand bags and iron lung training. So by the time you do full contact, the odds of getting hurt are much lower. I like contact sparring, and what I found, before Shaolin Kung Fu, 4 out of 5 times, you are going to get hurt. Now I can block kicks with my arms. The tools they have are more rounded than any other MA I have seen. It be nice to see an article that wasn’t just taking the typical stance of, what works and what doesn’t in a real fight. At least the last 3 have been about competition, and street fighting priorities.
    Martial arts can have a wider significance. I mean, I’ll write an article if no one else will. But I am not known.

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  5. Richard says

    As far as street fighters are concerned, like the MMA, would lose against a martial artist, because they have NO control of technique or themselves. MMA is more like a sport then anything dealing with true self-defense. Why did I mention sport? Simply because MMA or any competition, which is a sport, has rules they have to train by. A martial artist, who trains in only self-defense, does not concern themselves with “RULES”, but just technique and strategy to defeat the opponent. A true martial artist knows how to fight by using strategy and technique. OR DID YOU FORGET THAT…Keith Vargo? MMA is not even a true discipline, but only a mockery of the traditional styles. MMA seems to have lost the notion of true technique and mainly uses bar room brawling as their approach which involves no strategy or real fighting skill. Oh, I guess that is why Anderson Silva needed training from a seasoned traditionalist like Steven Seagal, rather than training from some other MMA fighter.
    As far as sparring being too safe and not accepting to take necessary risks of injury, well, that boils down to the instructor training the student. If you are saying that a student needs to learn to take a hit, then all I can say is that you are just teaching your student to be A PUNCHING BAG. Try teaching your student to do what is necessary in response to getting hit, instead of saying, “Ok, today students we are going learn how to take punch to the face and a kick to the groin.” You are not doing your students any service by doing this. Try teaching them THE “DO” OF THE MARTIAL ARTS instead of bar room brawling. The “DO” is about the mind set (mushin), strategy(mental and physical), technique, physical conditioning, and a code of conduct that subscribes to the Martial Way.

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  6. Richard says

    I would have to subscribe to the point given in the article “Shotokan, Tae Kwon Do, and Kung Fu Challenge Jujutsu” of Black Belt Magazine of April 1994 concerning the UFC, including the MMA in general. The point I am referring to is that no art can or will be found superior to another. This has been done countless times over hundreds of years by many people in many countries and it has proved nothing. Quote from the article for which I agree with, ‘Kirby claims that competitions like the Ultimate Fighting Championship don’t really prove what combat system is the most effective because such events have rules, and certain styles will always be more limited than others because of that. “Once you have rules on what you can or can’t do, you are limiting one style or another,” Kirby asserts.’
    Point being…MMA has no business or right, and this includes any style to another, to preach that one method is superior to another, when they are only willing to look at it from their viewpoint and not the others that they are critiquing. Martial Arts is not about what is “Right or Wrong”, because what one considers “Wrong”, may not be “Wrong” to the other.

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  7. Eloiza says

    I feel that a little contact is necessary to prepare a student for the possibility of being attacked…It is true that if you are not aware of what it feels like to get hit, you just may freeze up and get taken out…Of course it should be with some control…The point is to prepare, not injure…My master always advocates contact when we sparr or practice techniques…He says you are doing a disservice to your student/classmate if you don’t show them the reality of being attacked or even if it is by accident, like in a tournament…Once you learn to protect yourself from a blow and also to be able to take one and continue the fight, you have a greater chance to survive/win…

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  8. Richard says

    I agree it is essential to show the student and put them on the tail end of the technique through sparring and drills, but never without control. Have them get some contact, but it does NO ONE any good if you don’t provide strategies in response to getting hit. For instance, use the motion and force of the opponent’s strike to counter. On the other hand, don’t just have the student take a strike to only have them know what it feels like. TEACH THEM TO RESPOND TO IT.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Learn the Secret of Faster and Stronger Strikes - Mehanhapkido.com linked to this post on August 13, 2015

    [...] To better understand the pre-movement silent period, it’s useful to examine a punch in a typical sparring session and determine what your muscles are doing. When you face your opponent in a ready stance, [...]

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  2. Learn the Secret of Faster and Stronger Strikes | trainingwarriors linked to this post on August 15, 2015

    [...] better understand the pre-movement silent period, it’s useful to examine a punch in a typical sparring session and determine what your muscles are doing. When you face your opponent in a ready stance, [...]

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