Sparring for Muay Thai & Kickboxing (k-1)Anthony Manning – Head Coach at Phoenix
Sparring is the hardest aspect of training to coach and the at the same time the easiest. It is an essential part of training. You cannot do a combat sport unless you are sparring. If you don’t spar, you are only doing the sport for fitness, and you don’t know fitness unless you spar. Avoiding sparring or saying you do Muay Thai when you don’t spar is ridiculous. Sparring is the only way to improve, to learn, to test your skills, to apply, to progress. To compete, you have spar. Sparring is the game before the fight, the training for all mental and physical requirements for combat.
Sparring is easy to coach with a group of coachable people who have a history of training as a team. You just set the buzzer, understand the rules, pace, flow, power, and outcomes desired and you get on with it. Coaching sparring can also be the hardest class to coach. There is always more emotion, more control required, more competitiveness and more specialised coaching required.
It is critical that everyone sparring understands the goals and desired outcomes of the sparring session or round and that the session is disciplined, whether it is supervised or not.
You don’t really know yourself until you learn to take a punch in the face
Sparring is essential for practicing to compete. Sparring is also great fun for experienced people and a way to play at the sport without competition. You cannot play at competition in Combat Sports, but you can spar as a game, week in, week out. Sparring can be just for fun, practicing your skills, testing your character, developing the fitness required and most importantly, developing the requirements of competition in both realistic and simulated scenarios. Sparring under supervision is essential for coaching development as coaching feedback needs to be on point, on time and applicable immediately, just like competition.
Sparring is rarely noncompetitive as everyone that spars usually wants to perform well (especially competitors), however it is critical to understand that sparring IS NOT competition. It is development for competition. Good athletes understand that training is not competition. Sparring should never be uncontrolled, especially if people are on the same team. It is poor training to only spar one way and have that way, at your best, competition style, always pushing yourself like competition. It is equally bad to only spar light and far worse to not spar at all!
Sparring is a skill, and all skills require practice at an achievable pace to learn confidence and improve before being tested at real speed. Sparring should never be a fight and even if it is full power-full speed, it needs a purpose for competition victory, development of the body and should never be just a brawl. People that spar like this never improve and never last long. Always respect who you are sparring and their objectives. Work as a team.
Some important points:
- Your ability to spar and what level you can spar at is determined more by your defensive skills than your attacking skills.
- Most people quit before they become good at sparring. Everyone needs to be to some extent ‘forged in fire’.
- Sparring well always takes longer than people expect.
- Practice strengths and weaknesses and being in trouble as much as getting out of trouble.
- Sparring is much safer than most people think with the fear of being hurt unrealistic if they are coached correctly, are patient, never quit and don’t bite of more than they can chew.
- The biggest fears of sparring are often ego, getting tired, embarrassment and being found wanting under pressure. All real fears that can be overcome with diligence.
- Video yourself often and watch it with your coach to analyze and improve. Everyone has a phone!
- Learning to Spar: ‘tippy tap’ > For beginners to intermediate students learning the game. Beginners can be dangerous, panicky, unsure, and not have balance in their movement and power. This needs to be developed patiently and with controlled power and speed so both people can stay calm and learn to escalate and deescalate.
- Controlled Sparring: ‘Rhythm’ > Practicing your offensive and defensive skills and developing your conditioning, timing and rhythm. This can be done at varied paces depending on the level of both students. Escalate and escalate as well as test skills, conditioning, and composure. Get in and out of trouble and practice composure and concentration with effective technique, rhythm and a balanced mind and body.
- Competition Sparring. ‘hard’ > Practicing at a competition pace, speed and power. This should only be done under control, with same weight divisions, in protective equipment that exceeds competition requirements and for a set number of rounds.
- Light: – ‘tip tap’ – ‘get it right’ sparring. Light contact but also with control of speed and power. Should always be contact and controlled pace. A flow between both parties. High speed with no contact is counterproductive (complete bullshit actually). A pace you can develop people, practice your skills, learn to take a hit and keep going, safely develop your ability, reactions and practice your tactics, emotions, and composure.
- Rhythm: (semi -contact) Both parties flow with give and take, some offensive and some defence with firm contact but nothing that attempts a Ko or 8 count. You need to defend well to develop, and this type of sparring should have reasons for defenses, problems to solve, nerves, consequences but also respect, adaptability and ability to lift the pace up and down in phases. This sparring can escalate but it essential to also de-escalate.
- Hard: (competition). Spar with both combatants knowing they are practicing speed and power before they start. People must have proven defensive skills. There is risk and consequence, but it is still not competition and requires experience. Hard sparring between mis-matched people and/or inexperienced people, will only result in people not learning and not progressing to higher levels of ability and long-term ability to remain in the sport.
Weight and experiences differences. It is very difficult to only spar people of the same weight and experience like in competition. All clubs must be flexible, and everyone must adapt to get the most out of sparring all types. Everyone can learn from everyone, and you always have something to practice. Regardless of level and weight difference. Control, respect, and humility are the key.
- Learning to spar should always be light and controlled.
- If you are bigger – control your power and speed.
- If you are smaller – don’t bite off more than you can chew.
- If you are more experienced – practice defenses, composure, flow and reactions. Be smart and practice timing. Be clean and although you need to always do well, no need to finish partner or escalate just practice controlling the pace and getting your self out of trouble as well. Exposing your partners weaknesses is ok but don’t go as far as ruining their confidence or injuring them.
- If you are less experienced – don’t bite off more than you can chew but also don’t be trying to prove yourself or be scarred. Have a go and practice your nerves, your composure, your balance and confidence within the limits of the sparring.
- Equal experience/ability. Spar to improve and practice your skills. Vary your own style and set objectives each round to ensure you are practicing and improving varied styles.
- Dooshbag sparring is when you are more experienced but like a cocky tool and put your hands down and dance around belittling your partner and showing off. If your style is flashy, do it with advanced people only and help beginners. Other dooshbag things include:
- Going hard, gassing and asking your partner to go easy.
- Winging and asking people to go light and then hitting hard and being a sneaky prick.
- Feigning injury and then asking people to be nice and not being nice yourself.
- Only partnering people smaller or less experienced than you.
- Forgetting your sparring gloves, not showering before and setting up for a reason to quit by saying you have an injury before you even start.
- Going hard for one round then sitting out and joining back in when others are tired.
- Someone who catches slower kicks in light sparring and does fast take downs.
- Commenting on others sparring when you are not.
Recommended Break up of who to spar.
- 25% with people more experienced.
- 25% with people less experienced.
- 50% with people close to your experience and size.
How often should you spar?
When you are experienced, sparring is the best part of training. How often depends on how hard, how long and where you are in your training cycle. I recommend a minimum of one sparring class a week that is focused on sparring, stamina (10-15 rounds) and development of tactics and skills. On top of this ‘game day’ session I like athletes to also do sparring mid-week at the end of at least one class to practice and develop the contents of the session. This session should be a max of 5 rounds. Ending two intermediate classes a week with sparring to practice the class is also good development.
It is ok to do more if you are experienced and have good partners. Extra sparring should just be more a game, controlled and a good hit out without hard contact. Sparring to often, to hard will increase risk of injuries and be detrimental. Sparring against more experienced or bigger people to often can also reduce confidence and desire to spar.
Sparring is only one part of training and must be factored into skill development, technique, pad work, bag work, conditioning, mental training, diet and routine. If you only spar, you will not improve as you need time to practice scenarios, drills and aspects that make your entire game better. If you don’t spar at, you are not really doing a combat sport.
Competition. Sparring on the week of a fight is dangerous and not smart. Even sparring 2 weeks out needs to be with good partners and focused only on tactics and your rhythm. It is better to drill what you need and not random spar with someone you are not going to fight as they will not be like who you fight. Do Thai pads, bag work and shadow sparring close to a bout. 3-5 weeks from a fight, spar up to 3 times a week but vary intensity, styles, and opponents. At 6 weeks plus or no match, spar a min of once a week and increase your skill and fitness development.
AN OUTLINE TO SPARRING CLASSES AND COACHING ADVICE.
Sparring is something that is exciting, potentially dangerous and creates nerves. It is always challenging and requires toughness to stick with. Sparring classes need coaching, supervision and must incorporate advice, tactics, and structure. Everyone must improve and demonstrate defensive skills to match the level of sparring involved.
It takes years to be proficient. Sparring needs to be fun, respectful but also tough and mentally challenging. We do not want injuries; especially knockouts and it is essential to balance hard work with safety. Fair matching, controlled pace and respect are essential. People MUST learn to work together before they can work hard. Students, who want to go hard, get matched with people better than them and learn balance and respect. New people get assisted and taught about not bitting off more than they can chew. Composure is critical. We are doing sparring not fighting, it escalates, it is a test, and it is dangerous, but people are always in control and matching levels and pressure so the margin for error is controlled.
It is important that during the year the sparring class is varied to include a variety of options. Sparring is also about character development, developing attributes required for fighting and effective martial arts training. Sparring is one of the hardest things to coach as you need to get people doing as much as they can, to go as hard as they can but also limit injuries and have people looking after each other. It is a difficult balance, but without regular attendance people do not improve and beginners will not develop if they get beaten up every class. It is critical that there is great group dynamics, teamwork, and a strong work ethic so the group works hard but bonds and trains together well. Safety, control, and partner selection are essential aspects of the class.
Regarding pace and power – as long as people are following instructions of the coach, if it is light (which is the hardest to coach) then it is light. The reverse is true, soft when it is semi contact is also not tolerated. If someone goes hard with an easy person, put them with hard people. If someone goes hard and gases, they get no sympathy finishing the rounds with a harder person.
Remember – sparring is about confidence and self-belief. People bond and make the best friends with people they trade punches with. It is how you get respect. The confidence takes time, so it is important not to have people lose confidence early on at sparring, but to be walked through it based on their self-esteem at the start. Arrogance will get you hurt. Enthusiasm, respect and coachability will turn a student into a champion. We also don’t want hero’s, show-offs and mean-spirited people.
Class formats – sparring sessions. Some options:
- Pre fatigue training: Hard warm up and then sparring rounds.
- Stamina class: Everything is long, warm up, rounds and clinching. 90 min min.
- Burst or specific class. Short warm up and all rounds in burst of 3 or 5 with round breaks.
- Fresh class. Light warm up and get into it.
- Tactics class: Moderate warm up then drills on rounds and scenario specific sparring.
- Spike class: Rounds with something every 3 or 4 rounds that is a fitness spike.
- Clinching – every class for MT. Mostly at the end but can be done in the middle or as spikes or on coach’s instruction in sparring to ensure people end up in the clinch.
- Competition Class. Spar hard and have people watching with a referee. Best done as a part of class only and short rounds to keep the team positive.
- Include sparring at the end or start of class and don’t make a bid deal about it. Finish with bag work or clinching so everyone can go home a winner!
- Vary round length. 1 min rounds to practice the start of a round, 5 minutes to practice concentration and rhythm. Or competition times of 2 and 3 min.
Style options for sparring training.
- Vary intensity – light (tip tap) – semi contact (firm – but controlled), rhythm (flow and work with each other but be honest), hard (firm and with intent, but still controlled emotion), fight!
- Cards to give people a role to play, and emphasis to work on as a game.
- Changing every round or keeping same person to keep working and learning about urself.
- In 3’s. 2 in, 1 out for a minute and keep changing through.
- Rounds with added free body exercises to fatigue people or shadow spa to relax.
- Rounds where you yell clinch or other emphasis to focus on.
- Shark bait. In lines with 1 guy in for a period. In a corner or line.
- Break up rounds to vary. For example, shadow, box only, plus kicks, plus knees, clinch only, fitness.
- Do pyramid rounds of time; 1 min then 2 min then 3 min then 5 min.
- Do long rounds of 10-30 min with changing partners often with no breaks.
- Warm up with set drills like 1-1 and 2-2 kicking, 2-2 punching, milling, box cover, flow drill, clinching etc. on command for rounds. Single drill or vary.
- Practice against left handers and other styles like boxers, kickers’ clinches, tall, short fast, slower etc. A stylistic tactics class.
- Spa with little gloves only for balance, relaxation, and play. Emotional development for contact and small glove danger. Light contact for confidence.
- Put less experienced in 10oz and more exp in 16oz for sparring. Give people handicaps for sparring.
- Take away rounds. This is when you take something away from your opponent, like jab or leg or head kick or clinch and they have to adapt. Good for injury adaption, working weaknesses.
- Situational sparring – work from different positions like the centre, or on the ropes
- Be creative – role play – scenario play – know your group and what is needed.
Summary: I have sparred at Muay Thai gym, Boxing gyms, MMA gyms and all around the world for over 30 years. Sparring is my favourite part of combat sports and is something that you can never stop working at and can continue doing well after you stop competing. It is rewarding to build other people and amazing to see people change and grow from the GRIT required to spar. Everyone starts out tentative and unsure or full of them self and quickly humbled. Sparring is awesome and everyone should do it and continue to do it. Many quit before they are good enough to enjoy it, like all challenges, persistence is key. You will get injured, but no injury is an excuse to stop. I have had a multitude of injuries (most not from sparring!) You can still find a way, adapt, enjoy, and work with people and they will work with you. Life is about choice – choose to spar and you will have an outlet for all of life’s troubles.