How to Teach Sparring

How to Teach Sparring

This is a sample lesson from our MATA Certification Program.
By John Graden

From 1984 until about 1989, I was training three times a week in a dark, dirty boxing gym with retired world heavyweight kickboxing champion Joe Lewis.

The only reason we would miss the workouts was the scheduling challenges his seminars sometimes presented. The fighting was hard contact and as intense as you can imagine it could be climbing into a 12-foot-square ring with the man cited as “the greatest fighter in the history of karate.”

Joe taught me that fighting should be as real as possible. He also confirmed my opinion that point karate had little value in instilling the tenacity or attitudinal conditioning necessary to go three rounds with anybody, which we agreed should be a minimum standard for a professional black belt.

My motivation has always been as a teacher, not a fighter or champion. Even though at the same time I was traveling to Europe regularly to compete with the United States Karate Team, I’ve never had a compelling drive to be a world champion or trophy collector. I’ve always competed for education and experience. 

Whenever I’m in a learning environment, such as working with a great teacher or taking a personal development seminar, I am always asking myself, “How can I teach this to my students?” In the case of fighting with Joe Lewis, the question changed to, “How do I teach this to my students without driving them out the door or to the hospital?” 

In most schools, sparring is one of the leading causes of drop out among students. Even when the school sticks to the relative stop-and-go safety of point karate, students still drop out. How, then, could I motivate these students to engage in sparring without hurting them or scaring them off?

I learned that the key is in the perspective you keep in working with your students. If your goal is to get your students to black belt, then you that you have three to five years to accomplish that.

It’s important, then, that you structure your curriculum to gradually introduce the student to sparring. There’s no rush. 

A student that drops out of the martial arts because of sparring is a student we have failed. 

White – Orange Belts

In the sparring program I developed, white and gold belts are required to learn simple block and counters while wearing pads on their hands and feet. These techniques are executed against the jab and reverse punch — but without any contact. 

In addition, we will have them work slipping drills, target drills, defensive footwork drills, and set-point movement drills to get them moving and firing techniques.

Understand that this represents the first six to eight months of their training. Often, instructors have their students sparring within the first three months. Our students don’t even make contact for eight months. 

Green – Blue Belts

When the students graduate into the green and blue belt class, they begin to actually spar following the rules of light-contact continuous karate. That is like point fighting without stopping to decide who scored a point.

However, there is still no head contact, but body contact is permitted. Of course, the students wear headgear, hand-and-foot protective pads, shin pads, a mouthpiece, rib guards, and a groin cup for the guys.

Limited Sparring Drills 

Limited sparring drills are a great way to help students get comfortable and build skills while sparring. A limited sparring drill is a sparring match with a strategy other than winning as the goal.

For instance, one student might be limited to executing only a jab to the forehead. For these drills, we always target the forehead instead of the face, as a safety measure. The student’s partner could then be limited to using only positional movement (footwork) and head movement as a defense. 

So, in this example, the jabber is working on stepping in and snapping his jab to the forehead, while the defensive fighter is learning to slip and move against an attack.

In the following round, we may have the defensive fighter add hand traps to his defensive choices. For round three, we may slow things down slightly and place the defensive fighter with his back against a wall to prevent him from running from his opponent.

The final round could allow a counter technique to be thrown. 

So, through this structure, we’re preventing the fighters from being overwhelmed by trying to figure out on their own what to do. At the same time, they are actively, enjoyably and safely engaged in a sparring-like exercise.

The end result is, the defensive fighter gains confidence in avoiding contact. 

You can see within this scenario that there is no winner or loser. Instead, the students are taught to judge the match by how well they stuck to the strategies of the drill. 

While the majority of the class time devoted to sparring is spent on limited sparring drills, we will allow the students to go a round or two of free-sparring under strict black belt supervision.

The matches always begin with the students introducing themselves and shaking hands with their partner and a verbal review of the sparring attitude towards each other, which is, “I’ll make sure you don’t get hurt.” 

Also, explain to the students that while control is required and demanded, they are going to get accidentally whacked on occasion just as they are going to whack someone else. Teach them exactly how to inform their partner if the contact is too hard.

You can even talk to them about the tone in which they make the request to lighten up. An angry demand may elicit a different response than a respectful but firm request. 

Respect and courtesy are key attitudes. Make sure that the person being requested to lighten up is taught that “Yes ma’am or “Yes sir” is the only acceptable response. Only the person getting hit can determine the contact level and he cannot be questioned. 

Graduating to Head Contact 

After an additional eight months in that class, the students graduate into the blue and red belt level. At this point, they are allowed to make light head contact in addition to moderate body contact to the rib-guard area. Students are taught to strike the headgear and not the face. 

You may think that twelve to sixteen months is a long time to wait to spar with head contact. I think many of your students might disagree with you. I would also argue that your students have a lifetime to spar from that point on. 

Students must be mentally conditioned and have their confidence and tenacity built to prepare them for actual sparring, which is part of the Phase One Training explained in Chapter 2 in the Pedagogy section of the book.

At that point, mentally they are ready to face the challenges sparring will present. But now, after a year of training, they’re ready to meet it head-on with excitement and anticipation instead of anxiety and trepidation. 

Eight months later, they graduate into the brown and black belt class, where the intensity and contact level is somewhat more “realistic.” But after close to two years of training and preparation, these students are ready for the challenge mentally and physically. 

Take good care of your students and nurture them along to ensure they are going to be part of your school and part of our martial arts family for a very long time. When they enroll, they are investing a lot of trust in your leadership and guidance.

Few areas of the martial arts can be as confusing or intimidating as sparring. Keep a long-term black belt-oriented perspective on training your students and you will have a much better chance of having them stick around to successfully achieve that goal — and more. 

How a Serial Killer Changed My Life

How a Serial Killer Changed My Life

One of my mentors, John Corcoran passed away on May 16, 2019. Seven days later, serial killer Bobby Joe Long was executed. 35 years ago, he killed at least 10 women in the Tampa Bay area during an eight-month span in 1984.

How are the two related? John Corcoran’s girlfriend was the first victim of Bobby Joe Long. It happened on May 13, 1984.

After working for virtually every martial arts magazine, John was living in Los Angeles in 1984, when he got a job offer as a writer for a new movie production company founded by his instructor, Glenn Premru.

A movie buff who never missed seeing a James Bond movie on opening day, John was excited about this opportunity. John and his girlfriend, Ngeun Thi Long, whom he called Lana, made the three-day drive to Tampa, Fl.

Unfortunately, the production company failed and the job vaporized.

John and Lana ended up living in a hotel in Tampa. John often told me what a great girl she was. He said, “Sometimes we’d have popcorn for dinner because that was all we could afford. She never complained. She would just say, “It’s okay baby. We’ll get through this.”

Lana got a job as a dancer in the Sly Fox Gentleman’s Club. However, when she quit the job, John hit the roof. He lost his temper to the point that she left the hotel to go for a walk.

Click image to see a one minute story on the murder of Lana Long.

When she didn’t return that night, John was concerned. The next day he called the police to file a missing person’s report. As if this was not enough stress, John’s car was stolen a few days after.

I first learned about all of this when Mike Anderson called to tell me he would like me to meet him, John, and Joe Lewis that night at Clancy’s, which was a popular Walt Bone pub before he died two years earlier. Joe was living in Mike’s big house on Madeira Beach and John was moving in as well.

I was excited to meet John. I am an avid reader and John Corcoran was the premier journalist in the martial arts world. I was amazed that the world I read about in the karate magazines was coming to me. Mike Anderson, founder of the PKA, Joe Lewis, a true legend, and now John Corcoran.

During dinner at Clancy’s, John told me that he had to be at the Tampa Police station the next day to file a report regarding his stolen car. I offered to drive him there and he gratefully accepted. 

When we arrived, we were told to go to the fifth floor. We stepped into the elevator with a big guy in a suit. This guy glared at John with psychic daggers piercing from his eyes. His disdain for John was so palatable that I mentioned it to John. He told me that the guy was the lead detective on the murder case of his girlfriend. The detective thought John was the number one suspect. Of course, John’s story was solid and he was not a suspect for long.

There were nine more killings before they arrested Bobby Joe Long leaving a cinema showing a Chuck Norris movie.

I made a number of similar trips to help John over the next few months. Because of the emotional level of this experience, John and I became really close fast. John called me his brother and, as a sign of gratitude, he said he would help me become the local martial arts celebrity, which he did. That was the first of many projects we collaborated on.

John was a producer on my USA Karate cable TV show.

He and I co-authored a book, The Ultimate Martial Arts Q n A Book.

He was the editor for my ACMA Instructor Certification Manual.

He was also the editor of my magazine, Martial Arts Professional (MAPro) for the first few years.

When kickboxing promotor, Howard Petschler purchased Fighter International magazine from Mike Anderson in 1987, he hired John to be the editor. John then recruited me to be an assistant editor and included me in many of the interior photos.

I distinctly recall an editorial meeting with them where I pitched them on a revolutionary idea. “There is a computer called Macintosh. You can layout the entire magazine in the computer with this software called, Adobe Pagemaker.” They were blown away. Up until that transition, we had to lay the pages out on cardboard and paste them in order.  I learned a ton about the magazine business and really enjoyed working with John.

A few years later, I bought John his first computer, a Mac Powerbook 100.

John loved to share his knowledge and he gave to me in abundance.

After living in my Clearwater Beach condo and also with my brother Jim, John moved back to Los Angeles in about 2000, but his help for me only increased. A few times, I flew out to shoot magazine covers that he arranged.

John Corcoran was helpful in getting me my first couple of cover stories.

John also cast me in two films he was involved in. The first was with my brother Jim in the Don Wilson movie Black Belt and the second was Sworn to Justice. There was nothing cooler for me, at the time, that when the person next to me on a flight asked, "What takes you to L.A.?" Me, "Oh, I'm shooting a magazine cover." or, "Oh, I'm going to be in a movie."

I was in L.A. so much that John suggested I buy an apartment that he could live in so I would always have a place to stay. While I considered that, I never did. John ended up in an apartment building where Don Wilson also lived.

I love the creative process and Hollywood is the epicenter of creating wealth from creativity.

My death scene in Sworn to Justice. That's John Corcoran behind me.

It was in the Hamburger Hamlet on Sepulveda Blvd that I mapped out this idea to John that I had for a professional association dedicated to helping school owners run their schools. He thought it was brilliant. The following year, I launched Martial Arts Professional magazine and hired John to be the editor.

NAPMA grew to over 2,000 schools and an annual convention until Century sued us into bankruptcy in 2003.

This is the first NAPMA ad in 1994.

Much of this would have never happened had John stayed in Tampa after the murder of Lana. I'm sure Joe Lewis or Mike Anderson would have introduced us, but I'm also quite sure that many of the projects I've described would not have happened had we not been thrust into a surreal set of circumstances. There may have been no NAPMA, MATA, Martial Arts Professional magazine or USA Karate TV show. There certainly would not have been a MAIA, MASuccess, or MA Supershow since Century testified they were forced to create them to provide another voice than mine.

I find it amazing how my timeline would be different if it was not for the lessons my mentor John Corcoran taught me and the chain of events that were set into motion after a tragic loss of life.

Thank you, John, and may you rest in peace.

 

One the set of my first USA Karate TV show.
Click to see John's segment on the state of the martial arts film industry.

John Corcoran on Martial Arts Instructor Certification

John Corcoran on Martial Arts Instructor Certification

The late John Corcoran was a significant mentor of mine. I hired him to be the editor of the ACMA Instructor Certification program in 1998, which was a job he had great enthusiasm for. The ACMA has reworked and updated into the MATA Certification Program.
martial arts instructor certification

Click to enlarge

  Here is his Foreword for the ACMA Manual.

Let’s Learn From The Past Lest We Repeat It!

BY JOHN CORCORAN Don’t tell me about training, buster! I’m from the “old school” of martial arts—and I’ve got the injuries to prove it! For years, in fact, you could hear the physical symphony of snap, crackle, pop whenever I moved. It especially terrified my dance partners. It all started innocently enough. One time, when I was young and, in retrospect, astutely foolish, I enrolled in a karate class after seeing the flamboyant use of martial arts in a James Bond film. Most assuredly, I could have used James’ help during my lessons—as a personal bodyguard. For, as it turned out, I signed up for lessons in 1967—at the tail end of that notorious period known as the “Blood-n-Guts Era” of American karate. I was something of a 19-year old skinny runt, standing only about 5’6” and weighing in at 120 pounds. The type of skinflint bullies traveled from out of state to line up for. When I put on my first gi, with its “high-water” pants flagging around my lower knees, I looked like a scarecrow on a popsicle stick. The grueling training regimen of that era, as ACMA and NAPMA founder, John Graden articulates it so well, “Was not so much designed to build strong character, but to eliminate the weak ones.” Most instructors were gungho ex-military types who ran their classes with brutal boot-camp regimentation. But I was gungho myself. I rode a bus five miles each way to get to class, and sometimes also had to walk about a half-mile, even in all kinds of inclement weather, to and from the bus stop to my father’s home where I lived periodically. It’s not like I had much choice of changing schools for a more convenient location. In 1967, there were only about four or five karate schools in my entire hometown of Pittsburgh, PA. Ah, the good old days! So scientific were the training methods of that time that, amazingly, I can still feel some of their peculiar lasting “benefits,” 30 years later. How well I remember doing those character-building bare-knuckle push-ups on concrete floors; punching, bare-fisted, straw-wrapped makiwara boards till my fists ached. All while working up a good gi-drenching sweat during mid-winter in cold buildings with minimal heat. We were breaking boards-sometimes with bare-knuckled punches that sometimes didn’t break, resulting in two swollen “egg knuckles” that never returned to normal size. My favorite was performing tens of thousands of repetitions using good old “bounce stretching” which is now called ballistic stretching. Sure, you’re thinking, everyone got hurt back then. And the truth is, only the strong did survive that prehistoric training, and it did forge us into stronger individuals, both physically and mentally. But as we know very well today, there’s a radical difference between self-improvement and self-destruction—a distinction truly lost on old-school beginners and intermediate practitioners. Like gungho automatons, we just did what we were told. Example: Sensei: “White belt, go run head first into that brick wall.” Beginner: "Yes, Sensei!" Bonk! Later, in our intermediate phase, we got smarter. We started to ask why. Example: Sensei: “Green belt, go run head first into that brick wall.” Green Belt: “But Sensei, why?” Sensei: Because it will strengthen your head butt.” Green Belt: “Yes, Sensei!” Bonk! Like so many of my peers today, I have some of those antiquated training methods I’ve cited above to thank for the torn ligaments in my knees, which is practically an industry standard among veteran black belts. As well, most of us suffer from a host of other unnecessary injuries from those early classes. How many veteran black belts do you know that have had hip replacement surgery? My nose, for example, is still cracked from one of my first sparring sessions: Me, a white belt with about three weeks of training, pitted against a bigger, stronger, more skilled green belt, who kicked me squarely in the face so hard I saw stars and my nose cracked and bled profusely. Some kind soul, probably not the instructor, threw some type of rag at me and directed me to wipe the blood off the floor so no one else slipped on it. My nose has been crooked ever since! My second instructor was hardly better, which brings me to perhaps the lowlight of my entire martial arts training. I won’t tell you his name in order to protect the guilty. He had this self~defense thing he did that he called, “Let’s work out together. _ But his vision and execution of this “shared" concept confused me for a long time; most of the time, it just hurt. Our Equal Opportunity Workout consisted of this. I would stand facing him, step forward and throw a simple reverse punch at his face with my right fist. He would block it and then beat the living daylights out of me with any number and all manner of hard contact punches, kicks, and chops tall over my body. Duh! This is definitely where I became intimate with the phrase, "marriage to gravity." The most memorable "Let's work out together" workout led to me, "Ben Gay night of terror!" I came home that night with my then–fiancé, a green belt in the same class, and collapsed on the bed. My instructor had beaten me almost senseless. I was black and blue everywhere from head to feet. I had a brilliant revelation on the way home from the school that night–"Honey, let's buy some of that Ben Gay stuff. The commercials say it's good for sore muscles. I had never before used a muscle ointment. Ignorant of its peculiar effect, I stripped and had my fiancé rub Ben Gay all over my body from neck to toes, both the back and front of me. Double Duh! I quickly learned the science of cause and effect. Cause: Never-rub Ben Gay over your entire body. Effect: When you do, it causes you to alternate between Hot Flashes and Cold Chills. So bad Were the Cold Chills my teeth were actually chattering” audibly and I had to wrap a heavy blanket around me in a futile attempt to stop my body from convulsively. About every 30 seconds, I was introduced to the “extreme” alternative. During the hot flashes, I broke into a feverish sweat and had to whip off the blanket and fight to breathe. I soaked the blanket and three towels with sweat before the dual effects began subsiding. The “Ben Gay Night of Terror ended about a half-hour later. This anecdote sure sounds funny in retrospect, but I can tell you now folks; that I didn't know if I was coming into this world or leaving it. And boy, was I mad at that instructor! Had he and I and a gun been in the same room right then, I know only two of us would have left and it wouldn't have been him! Here's the point behind all of my painful anecdotes. Let's learn from the past, lest we repeat it. There are still, unfortunately, far too many instructors using frightfully outdated teaching methods. Maybe nothing as severe or brutal as in my era, but certainly antiquated compared to other modern fitness industries. The future–the time for change–is now. In my 30+ years in the martial arts field, I've watched our industry rise from a storefront novelty practiced by a few in rooms akin to dungeons, to a popular activity mass-marketed in fine schools to millions of people in all walks of life. I've applauded our victories and mourned our failures over the years. I'm proud of our spectacular strides in so many areas but equally disappointed by areas suffering unnecessarily from stubborn stagnation. One such area, standardized teaching practices, should now be brought up to speed. Many of you, through associations like John Graden's NAPMA, are now becoming black belts at business. So, isn't right now a great time to become a black belt in teaching too? I knew you'd agree. So please read this book and apply its modern principles. Your students will thank you instead of suing you. Now there is a concept! Had I sustained my stupid injuries around the late 1980s or after, I probably could file a multi-million-dollar lawsuit for damages caused by instructor negligence. Heck, the trial for such a case might even air on Court TV. I could become a courtroom star as I sing the blues about my black and blues. Good thing I'm a nice guy. It's also a good thing that I've spent some 25 years around Hollywood and the entertainment business. There I learned how to use "props" not only to look 10 years younger than I am but also hide the otherwise disastrous effects of those numerous martial arts injuries I sustained during the "good old days." Now, at middle age, I'm finally going to have to get my nose straightened too the result of that green belt trying to remodel my face with his foot 30 years ago– since it mildly impairs my breathing capacity. No doubt a good L.A. plastic surgeon will charge me a few grand to help me smell the roses again. Paying for my youthful annoyance has been an expensive education, folks. But–ha, ha–I no longer clank when I walk. And for darn sure I know how and when to use Ben Gay sparingly! Now, if I could just perfect this last technique...BONK!  
2018 Martial Arts Teacher of the Year

2018 Martial Arts Teacher of the Year

Former Concrete Company Manager Grateful for COBRA and MATA

It’s a classic American success story. Sidney Burns of Bedford, VA, has grown from a karate crazed 8-year old to a master instructor with a well-established school and a year-old COBRA-Defense location that has rocketed out of the starting box.

Like many martial arts professionals, Master Burns started out teaching in a YMCA until 2012 when he opened Blue Ridge Martial Arts in Bedford, VA.

Sidney says that the best thing about his business is that he feels as though he hasn’t worked a day at it.

When he compares his current position to his days as General Manager of a concrete company, he can’t help but smile. But, he knows he didn’t get to where he’s at alone. Standing right beside him in full support is his wife of 29-years, Lisa and chief instructor, Lorna Coyle.

martial arts instructor certification

Sidney Burns and Lorna Coyle

Master Burns joined MATA in 2016 and quickly completed the MATA Certification course along with his staff. He says, “MATA is a quality, professional organization. I wanted my instructors and myself to be certified by the best. It’s just easier to follow the MATA program than to jump around chasing fads.”

He also discovered COBRA through MATA and quickly saw an opportunity to lock in the territory. According to Burns, “As with most martial arts schools, we struggled to enroll adult students. COBRA is an awesome program that fills that gap.”

His focused efforts with his COBRA school are already paying high dividends with group and high-end private classes.

Many MATA member schools teach COBRA as part of their school’s programs, but Sidney chose to open a separate location for COBRA. He said, “COBRA is so attractive to adults, that we wanted to expand to a larger town to reach more people. COBRA was surprisingly easy to implement. It gives you all the tools and support from headquarters for us to make that transition.”

As he looks back to his humble beginnings at the Y, he has learned some important lessons. He says to, “Be careful who you listen to and surround yourself with high achievers. Helping others see their potential is a tremendous honor. There is no better profession than teaching martial arts and self-defense.”

Sidney and Lisa Burns have made it a point to be a positive source of support for the community as well. From working with a suicide prevention group to sitting on the board of Bedford Christian Services, they are committed to leveraging their unique skills and talents to help make Bedford, VA a better place for all. It seems to be paying off.

Congratulations to Master Sidney Burns and the entire Blue Ridge Martial Arts team.

Visit BlueRidgeMA.com

MATA’s Solution for Orphaned Black Belts

MATA’s Solution for Orphaned Black Belts

Joe Lewis Promotes John Graden to 7th

Joe Lewis Promotes John Graden to 7th Degree Black Belt


The Black Belt is the most well-known symbol of the martial arts. We all know that people perceive that the higher your Black Belt rank is the more accomplished you are.
However, many dedicated black belts like me were orphaned at some point in their career and left without an instructor to advance them in rank.

As I describe in my book, I was devastated when my instructor Walt Bone died in a plane crash in 1982. In 1983, Mike Anderson (Founder of the PKA, WAKO, Professional Karate magazine, and this thing called semi-contact karate) stepped in and promoted me.

Then Joe Lewis moved in with Mike in 1984. We became close friends and training partners. Over the course of the next 14 years, Joe Lewis promoted me through the ranks all the way to 8th in 2007.

Rank in martial arts is important. While there are no real standards, there is confidence in rank.

  1. Your students have more confidence in you because they see that you are still in the game.
  2. You have more confidence because you are advancing in the ranks of your profession.
  3. Regardless of the profession, advancement is always better than stagnation.

This is why I’ve created the MATA Rank Advancement Program. As the MATA Certification program has grown, graduates have been asking me if they could advance in rank under the MATA organization.

To be clear, MATA Certification is the first step to rank advancement. We’re not considering anyone who has not completed the MATA Certification course.

The requirements for the MATA Rank Advancement are not style oriented but are weighted on important technical skills and teaching ability.

 

MATA’s Solution for Orphaned Black Belts

The Black Belt is the most well-known symbol of the martial arts. We all know that people perceive that the higher your Black Belt rank is the more accomplished you are. However, many dedicated black belts like me were orphaned at some point in their career and left without an instructor to advance them in rank.

As I describe in my book, I was devastated when my instructor Walt Bone died in a plane crash in 1982.

In 1983, Mike Anderson (Founder of the PKA, WAKO, Professional Karate magazine, and this thing called semi-contact karate) stepped in and promoted me.

Then Joe Lewis moved in with Mike in 1984. We became close friends and training partners. Over the course of the next 14 years, Joe Lewis promoted me through the ranks all the way to 8th in 2007. 

Rank in martial arts is important. While there are no real standards, there is confidence in rank.

  1. Your students have more confidence in you because they see that you are still in the game.
  2. You have more confidence because you are advancing in the ranks of your profession.
  3. Regardless of the profession, advancement is always better than stagnation.

This is why I’ve created the MATA Rank Advancement Program. As the MATA Certification program has grown, graduates have been asking me if they could advance in rank under the MATA organization.

To be clear, MATA Certification is the first step to rank advancement. We’re not considering anyone who has not completed the MATA Certification course. In fact, we credit the certification fee for the rank advancement.

The requirements for the MATA Rank Advancement are not style oriented but are weighted on important technical skills and teaching ability.

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