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. 

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!  

A Typical Martial Arts Summer Camp Day

A Typical Martial Arts Summer Camp Day
Structure two classes per day each day with one class at 10:00 a.m. and the other to coincide with your after-school program from 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm. On field trip days, you may only want to do one class for a total of 8 classes instead of 10.

Kids start to arrive at 7:30 – 8 am.

9:00
They can spend that time in quiet activities until the program officially starts at 9:00 with a morning snack. They will have to bring a snack or purchase a snack. It’s against code in most areas to provide snacks. Kids help to clean up.

10 – 11 am
Board games and a short movie or TV show will fill the time until the first martial arts class of the day. This is a martial arts class just like your evening classes.

11 – noon
Martial arts class.

12 – 12:30
Lunch

12:30 – 1: 30
Downtime as kids watch a G-rated movie or play board games.

1:30-ish
Maybe a field trip or a guest comes in to teach and speak with the children. Local police and firefighters are great options. Amateur magicians looking for stage time can work as well. Get creative.

4 – 5 pm
Second martial arts class of the day.

5-6pm
Clean up and prepare to go home. Pick-up is between 5:00 and 6:00 with a late fee for anyone after 6:15 of $3.00 for every 15-minute block of time. During the summer, you will have late drop-offs and early pick-ups, because of the nature of summer camp.

Escape the Jail Cell of Style

Escape the Jail Cell of Style

Escape the Jail Cell of Style

 

I recently posted this “Fighting Form” from our Empower Kickboxing program on Facebook. I designed the forms in the late 1990s to replace the traditional TKD forms I practiced and taught since 1974.

While the video didn’t quite go “viral,” it did stimulate over 100 comments and a number of “debates.”

I loved kata. I won more trophies in kata than fighting. I was the first center judge for the WAKO World Kata Championships in Berlin in 1986-ish. I was the US Open Korean Forms Champion in 1982. Just like my instructor Walt Bone, I was a kata guy.

However, after opening and running my school for a few years, I had a few revelations that I’d like to share with you.

Traditional kata creates confusion and contradiction.

1. It makes zero sense to teach my students to pull their hand to their hip during basics and kata in the first half of the class only to yell at them to put their hands up during mitt work and sparring. 

2. It makes zero sense to make students memorize and perform a clunky series of skills in stances that are way too deep and static only to yell at them to keep their legs under them and move during mitt work and sparring.

3. Each form and skill has an Asian name that students had to remember. For instance, one brown belt form was named Kwan Gae after the 15th Empower of some Korean dynasty. What do I care?

Why was I teaching Korean history in class? If I was going to teach history it would be American history. Remember, we won the war.

I wanted forms that taught the skills of sparring and self-defense.

Today, we can see what really works in self-defense because YouTube has hundreds of thousands of security and iPhone videos of real self-defense. 

Do you know what I’ve never seen in a real self-defense video? I’ve never seen an attacker in a deep stance holding his arm out with his other hand on his hip.

Why on earth would I spend time teaching what is clearly decades old impractical theory? 

Some will argue that the deadly skills of self-defense are hidden in the kata. Maybe they are, but people do not pay tuition to learn tedious forms in the hopes that one day they might figure out how it really works or, even worse, doesn’t work.

Think about it. Of all the skills that can be taught in a martial arts class, why would you pigeon hole yourself into the limiting jail cell of a style? 

How often have you had a prospect contact you can say, “I want to learn traditional kata.” Never.

When I replaced my TKD forms with these fighting forms, the students loved it and retention skyrocketed. I replaced basic TKD blocks and lunge punches with dynamic boxing and martial arts based combinations that they could apply that night in sparring.

The reason that most of us are so emotionally attached to a style is only because that’s what the school nearest taught. If the school taught a different style, you’d be just as attached. 

Attachment to any style is limiting. It’s limiting in what you learn and what you teach. Style attachment is like a brainwashing experiment reminiscent of The Manchurian Candidate. 

In my first white belt class, my 14-year old brain was ripe for influence when my instructor Walt Bone said, “We teach Tae Kwon Do. It’s the best style because it emphasizes kicking. Your leg is a much longer and stronger weapon than your arm. An attacker has to get past our kicks and then our punches in order to get to us.”

Three years later, a dad of one of the students didn’t think karate worked so he challenged Mr. Bone. Bone put sparring gear on the guy and bowed him in. After an initial clash, the guy tackled Bone. It was not pretty. 

So much for the power of the style. Walt Bone is facing the camera in the dark grey gi. 

Grab a copy of The Dark Side of the Martial Arts at WaltBone.com

Your Student Loss Ratio

Your Student Loss Ratio

Your Martial Arts Student Loss Ratio

 

Now that the first quarter is in the books, let’s find out what percentage of your student body that you lost from January 1st to March 31st.

1.  Start with the total number of active students as of January 1.

2.  Add to that the total number of new students who have enrolled year-to-date. 

3. Count the number of active students you currently have. An active student has attended class in the past two weeks.

Divide #3 above by the sum of #1 & #2. That is your retention rate as a percentage. For example, if you were to do this in April:

1. January 1 starts with 150 students

2.  New students January 1 to March 30 = 40

3.  150 + 40 = 190 students (this is 100-percent retention and zero loss)

4. Current active count = 165 students

5. 165 ÷ 190 = .86 or 86-percent retention or a 14% loss rate.

The shorter the period of time, the higher the percentage. Don’t be fooled into thinking you have an 86-percent retention rate year round. Most schools end up with around 50 percent for the year. You, of course, want to push it as high as you can but it has to be more than 50 percent to grow.

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