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. 

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