Specific ideas on sparring drills as well as general principles you can use to design your own.
Sparring Drills – Episode 125
Well, here we are. Episode 125 of whistlekick Martial Arts Radio is set to go, and today it’s all about sparring drills. We’re going to talk about some of my favorites, and even give you ideas on how to develop your own, new, drills.
But first, let me introduce myself. I’m whistlekick’s founder but I’m better known as your host for the show, Jeremy Lesniak. whistlekick, I am proud to say, makes the absolute best sparring gear, apparel, and accessories for practitioners and fans of traditional martial arts. I’d like to welcome all the new listeners and thank everyone that’s come back.
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Types of Sparring Drills
Sparring is about as integral to martial arts as you get, but a lot of schools I visit have been training their sparring in the same way, with the same drills (or, gasp, even no drills) for a long time. I’ve learned a lot of fun, effective sparring drills over the years, and they’ve made me a better fighter. While we don’t have time for them all here, let’s talk about sparring drills, what they can offer, and how you can implement them.
Since some of you don’t have a lot of say in what goes on in your class training, I’ll even give you some drills you can practice on your own.
Sparring drills, at the 800-foot view, fall into one of two categories – drills you practice by yourself and drills you practice with other people.
While the drills you do with other people will always be more realistic – since you have the element of another person or people, they’re not always the easiest way to get better at a particular element of your sparring. You don’t start learning to kick through sparring, nor should all of your skills be developed in that space.
Sparring can be intense. Even if it’s controlled and in the safety of your school with people you trust, there’s a bit of anxiety that shows up for most people. That anxiety comes from dealing with the unknown- your partner could throw nearly anything, and that fact is frightening to many people.
Partner Sparring Drills
All partner sparring drills can be broken into four key areas – timing, accuracy, diversity & flow.
Timing drills include a lot of old favorites that you’ve likely done. Practicing striking or blocking from a relaxed state, as an example. This category includes any drill where you need to coordinate your movements with a partner while there’s a certain window of time to execute the technique properly. These drills are often performed slow at the beginning and add speed based on the skill and comfort of the participants.
Accuracy drills focus (ha, get it) on performing the right movement, or a movement at the right location. Ever practice your kicks on a live person that was standing still for your benefit? That’s an accuracy drill. You’re working towards not hitting them, or perhaps making light contact. Other drills could involve tying a particular block to a strike, such that every time an attacker throws a low front kick, you must throw a downward block.
Link to Master Simon Scher’s “Simon” Game video – here.
Diversity drills are my favorite category because they’re the ones that seem to be most ignored. Have you ever noticed that most people fall into patterns with their sparring? They throw the same few movements in the same ways with the same stances and timing. A good fighter picks up on those cues. Even a moderately paced sparring match is a difficult stage to practice new movements, which is where diversity drills come in.
Practicing just offense, just defense or only using the left side of your body – these are examples of diversity drills. Once you take away the goal of “winning” the match, it allows the participants to work on diversifying their arsenal. My absolute favorite sparring drill is actually my favorite drill of all time. It’s called slow sparring.
Jeremy’s Favorite Sparring Drill
Some schools have variations of slow sparring, but I see few of them implement in the way I meant it. With slow sparring the way I like it, there’s almost never a successful attack – because the participants are moving that slowly. In fact, when I teach this drill, I tell people that if they’re able to hit their partner, they’re going too fast.
This drill is absolute magic when it comes to giving people space and comfort to try new things. It isn’t physically taxing nor is there much risk of injury, so you can take off your sparring gear. I know, I know, the founder of the sparring gear company is telling you to take off your gear. It may be strange, but trust me. It’s worth it.
Flow drills are all about motion – not stopping your movement to think or react. One of the most popular flow drills is called sticky hands, and I bet a lot of you have done it. When I looked on YouTube to find a video of sticky hands I was blown away at the number and the differences between them. We’ve added one of those videos to the show notes, but I’d encourage you to check out the different ways of implementing sticky hands. I bet you’ll find a few different ideas to dry.
That’s the four different kinds of partner drills. Of course, there are ways to combine them, ways to focus on certain elements, and that’s really how all drills come about – an effort to work on a particular element. When it comes to sparring drills, we’re trying to find ways to improve some part of our sparring.
Individual Sparring Drills
Individual drills fall into the same four categories – timing, accuracy, diversity and flow. Of course, there are pros and cons to addressing these in both the partnered and solo situation.
Working on timing by yourself might seem counter-intuitive, but you can do it. There are random timers out there you can use on your phone that generate a noise, and you can take whatever action at that time. Maybe not the best way to handle timing, but it’s an option.
Accuracy is one that’s easy to work on. Put a piece of tape on a wall and perform techniques on it. If you have a heavy bag or wave bag, you can put colored tape on it. If you want to get really fancy, you can record yourself saying color sequences, saving them individually, then playing a whole playlist of them back randomly. Sort of like playing twister, but by yourself, and with martial arts.
Diversity is a great thing to work on by yourself. Shadow boxing can be done with any number of restrictions or focus points – try only kicking, only striking, or forcing yourself to throw a certain number of techniques with each set. I like to encourage people to throw at least three things at a time, as that seems to help their sparring tremendously.
Flow can also be handled with shadow boxing. Try working on footwork while punching and kicking. Put yourself in a small square on the floor and do it, or stand facing a corner. Go into a dense forest and move around the trees, striking for 30 seconds at a time. Lots of options.
Develop Your Own Sparring Drills
In my time teaching I’ve come up with a lot of sparring drills, and some of them worked great. Some of them were complete flops. In every case, I’ve worked backwards from the goal. Sure, putting together a drill is fun, especially if it’s something new that people enjoy, but you should always know the end goal. There may be exceptions, but the participants in the drill should know the end goal, too.
Let’s come up with one right now. If someone is already doing this, my apologies, I’m not trying to steal any ideas or say this is unique. It’s just something I haven’t seen done. Let’s come up with a drill to stop people from backing away from their opponent.
We’ve all seen that, right? And most of us do it. An attack comes in and the instinct is to go to the safest place possible – the farthest from that technique. But we know that doesn’t help us, so we want to improve that reaction and shift to something else.
An Impromptu Sparring Drill
This drill will require at least four people – and at the start it should be only four. Two pairs, each designated with an attacker and defender. The two defenders stand back to back, making contact.
The attackers start attacking slowly and the defenders have to defend, not counter, but also maintain contact with the other defender. This will force them to move side to side to handle the attacks. As an added bonus, it will force them to read the body language of the person behind them. If you choose, you can allow the defenders to communicate with each other, which adds another benefit.
Is that a good drill? I have no idea, I just made it up. It could be great, it could be a flop, but hopefully you see my thought process. I started by finding something I wanted to change, thought of a way to stop that behavior or encourage other behavior – in this case stop – and built a framework around that making it engaging and enjoyable.
I bet every person listen has a few drills they love that we could all talk about. One of my earliest martial arts projects was in 2002 when I tried to design a random martial arts class generator – and from there I was building a library of drills. I never was able to make the class generator work in a way that I liked, but I’ve seen online lists of drills. If you’d be so kind, head on over to the show notes – whistlekickmartialartsradio.com – this is episode 125 – and add your favorite drill to the comments. Bonus points for you if you link to a video.
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That’s all for today, so, until next time, Train hard, smile, and have a great day.