No matter what martial art you study, there is no substitute for partner training. Nothing teaches the student how to apply their techniques and skills faster than squaring off with an opponent or working with a partner.
While there is still value to supplemental training, such as working on a heavy bag or a “Bob,” as well as practicing katas and solo drills, cooperative partner practice and resistant partner training, such as sparring, randori, or reactive training are where the practitioner can really assess their skill level and determine what needs to be improved.
Do you want to get the most out of your partner training? Here are some ways to do it.
Don’t Live in Your Own Private Idaho What does it mean to live in your own private Idaho? Apart from being a great song by The B-52’s, it means: don’t live in your own head. When you are sparring, rolling, or doing randori, pay attention to what your partner is doing. For myself, I know I can become so fixated on trying to apply a specific technique, that I can end up with “tunnel vision,” and miss other better opportunities. So how can you avoid this trap?
You should always have a plan, but not to the exclusion of other options. Observe your opponent. If you initiate something, how do they react? You may find a way to set up your technique or they may reveal an opening for something better.
For grapplers, try closing your eyes. You will learn a whole new way to literally “feel” what is happening in the exchange.
After your workout, get feedback. Ask your partner what they noticed. “What did you see? Was I telegraphing my intentions?” Honest feedback will teach you a lot. It is not always fun to hear, but it is always educational. Be open to it. Incorporate the necessary changes and see yourself improve.
Speed and Resistance Sometimes, when we learn something new, the temptation is to do it a few times and then try to apply it fast and hard. However, that is not the best way to learn how to incorporate something just learned. You walk before you run, and you also jog a bit before you go to a full sprint. That middle place between the initial learning of something and the fast application in a non-compliant exchange is critical. The two important factors to consider are speed and resistance. Try working at a “medium speed” with about half the resistance. Both speed and resistance can be difficult to gauge, but the mere attempt and willingness to try will go a long way toward making the practice productive. Here are some tips.
When practicing at a slower speed, neither person should stop, pause, or hesitate in their movement. The idea is to go slower, but take out all the delays from the previous step of learning and strive for fluidity in your technique. It should look like moving in slow motion.
Especially when grappling, dialing back the resistance when learning to apply a specific technique or skill will help both parties understand what is happening and how it feels. Increase resistance as skills improve. For strikers, slowing down and striving for better targeting will ensure that more strikes land and that they are more effective when power and speed are added.
Mindset When working with a partner, the goal is not to “win,” it is to learn. It’s a subtle distinction in the student’s mindset that can make a big difference in how one approaches the interaction with training partners, and what one takes from it. You are not going to win a medal or a trophy, you are going to gain knowledge. However, that knowledge may very well help you to win a medal or a trophy at your next competition. My first teacher used to say that you should leave all your problems at the door. When you step onto the mat, you should have a good attitude without dragging your job’s office politics, your family problems, or lingering anger from that jerk that cut you off in traffic, onto the mat. That also means leaving your ego at the door as well. A student with a calm and humble demeanor will get more out of their partner practice than someone that gets angry when they lose. Don’t get me wrong though, the goal is to strive for a successful outcome. However, if you were bested by a training partner because they exploited a weakness that you have, and you learned from that experience, that is a win in my book. When defeat arrives, it must be accepted or a valuable lesson will be lost. This is the way a student learns, matures, and improves.
Gratitude Always thank your training partners. If you got your clock cleaned, and you learned from that experience, then count yourself lucky. It was a valuable lesson. In general, any time you work with someone, thank them and acknowledge that you appreciate their effort. We are all on our own martial art journey, but we can’t get to our destination alone. We need the help of others along the way.