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John Graden

John Graden

Executive Director

John Graden led the martial arts into the modern era by creating the first professional association, trade journal & instructors certification program.

How to Teach Sparring So Students Don’t Quit

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 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.”

Does Point Karate Help?

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 he said should be a minimum standard for a professional black belt.

My motivation has always been as a teacher, not a fighter or champion.

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 dropout 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 have three to five years to accomplish that. This is also when I ceased teaching all traditional skills. Class was devoted to exercise and learning kickboxing and self-defense. We didn’t want to spend the first half of class telling students to pull their hand to their hip when that is clearly not going to help them spar.

How to Introduce Students to Sparring

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 jab, cross, hook, uppercut, and body kicks — but with little or no 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.

The goal is just to start conditioning the students to get used to punches and kicks coming at them and responding to them.

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 position movement (footwork) and/or head movement as a defense. No blocking in this drill.

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.

There is No Rush

Understand that this represents the first two to six months of their training. Often, instructors have their students sparring within the first three months. Our students barely make contact for six 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 kickboxing.

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

Avoid Overwhelm

Through this structure, we’re by trying to avoid students feeling as though they have to figure out what to do on their own like most schools.

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.  That is a great feeling.

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.” 

Prepare Students to Get Hit

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 if it’s too hard and he or she 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 Certification Manual.

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. 

MATA Certification Course Info

Notice Tyson’s hand is by his face, not his hip.

His chin is down instead of up.

His shoulder is up instead of pulled back.

His body is sideways to his opponent instead of squared off.

His legs are under his body not spread apart like he was riding a horse.

With this kind of form, he would fail his orange belt exam in most schools. 

How does that make any sense?

Sensei Tyson?

If Mike Tyson or a world champion kickboxer came to your school to teach your black belts. What do you think he would work on? Double punches, square blocks, and keeping your chin up?

I’m pretty sure he would emphasize head movement, how to snap your punches and a defense that does NOT include pulling your punch back to your hip.

I’m sure the students would learn advanced applications to adjust for different fighters. Notice I said advanced applications, not advanced strikes.

When you focus on application, you can apply that to almost any technique.

For instance, if the drill is about how to fight a taller fighter, the answer is more about footwork to stay on the outside until you can secure quick access. My brothers are 6′ 3″ and 6′ 4″ so I know something about fighting a taller opponent.

Drills that teach that application do not require complexity. They require simplicity.

The more complex a skill becomes, the less chance it can be used. Have you ever seen a double punch? Only in kata and here:

If you eliminated all kata and traditional skills, you could devote that time to drills and conditioning that would give your students a true advantage in sparring or self-defense.

Imagine teaching fewer skills that are easy to teach and learn than traditional skills and kata.

You could spend more time on the application of those skills rather than stepping up and down the classroom and holding blocks and punches out in the air, which leaves you wide open for a counterattack.

Rather than spending student’s time with the complexity and frustration of spending years perfecting the bad habits of pulling their hand back to their hip, keeping their chin up, aiming and holding a punch in the air, and blocking with power while stepping forward, your retention will improve. Your student quality will improve. Your curriculum consistency will improve.

This is the core of our white to black belt curriculum Empower Kickboxing.

It’s an old saying, but true. “Less is best.”

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