Philosophies in Training - The School of Hard Knocks
Sorry for the delay on this new entry, but this is actually the 4th or 5th iteration of it that I’ve been trying to put together. However, I found myself being a bit too wordy and anecdotal when it would probably serve us better to get right to the point. So let me offer you this entry to my Philosophies in Training.
The School of Hard Knocks
More specifically, i want to address how you can train successfully without having to go through The School of Hard Knocks. Now we all know the stories of how the founders of our respective martial art styles trained long, hard hours in unfriendly conditions where life and limb were constantly on line, while they consoled their battered and bruised bodies on the wooden (or dirt) floors of their dojos or training halls. In fact, it seems that the ones who were really fortunate were the ones with dedicated places of training, and that the only equipment that was utilized was all that was on-hand (which many times was nothing at all). They had lived and trained through an era that had defined The School of Hard Knocks.
Welcome to the 21st century everyone. We are no longer in that time.
The reason why I state this is that we live and train in an era where modern training methods have made such visitations back to that epoch in time an unnecessary occurrence. I find it mind-boggling that many people will eschew the use of headgear, cup, mouth guard and other staple training items and choose to spar and roll “balls to the wall” because anything less isn’t “hardcore” enough for them. What I find even more ridiculous is listening to the same folks moan and complain about being injured, being bruised, cut-up, and incapacitated otherwise in states where they can not train. If you find yourself in that previously stated category, I have to ask you honestly “What the hell did you expect?”
Many of these injuries occur during sparring (in a striking situation) or randori (while grappling). While sparring is a critical component to the mastering new skills or techniques to a point where they are useable in a real fight, its utilization still needs to be filtered through the tenets of Specificity, Synergy, Efficiency, Effectiveness, and your ability for Reality Maintenance in order to help guarantee its usefulness in training. By its nature sparring is a fully Somatrophic exercise, so it fulfills that tenet in training perfectly. However, if you are often finding yourself unable to train within your normal schedule due to being burnt out, hurt or injured because of an errant sparring session then you would have probably been better served not to spar at all.
So here are some things to consider whenever you wish to spar or roll. This will help avoid the cuts, bruises and scars that come with The School of Hard Knocks mentality of training. While cuts, bruises and scars may be a easy way to start a conversation they tend to be much more costly in a logistic and fiscal sense.
1) Be prepared mentally. Avoiding a visit to The School of Hard Knocks begins even before you step in front of your sparring partner. Being in the right mind set to spar can go a long way to mitigating any anxiety or jitters that comes along with it. Getting hit sucks, and nothing is more shocking than running into the one you didn’t see. The same with getting tapped or stretched out. As an active participant in a martial art, you have to accept that it will inevitably happen—you will get hit/tapped out! Pain is a wonderfully effective way to find out what not to do. Further, pain also tends to be the one thing that will make a person lose their cool faster than anything else. Many times this sparks a full-bore fight between the sparring partners, which is completely counter-productive.
While sparring may be the closest you are able to get to “a real fight” within the confines of training you have to realize sparring is not fighting. It does neither yourself nor your training partner any good at all to go full out in a sparring session. Further, it actually increases the chance of injuries occurring because restraint and control has been thrown out the window. I will list a few things to help avoid the pitfall of “fighting while sparring” in the following points, but if you cannot put aside your ego long enough to realize you are not there to hurt your sparring partner and that you are both trying to develop your skills then you should not be sparring.
2) Be prepared with the right equipment. Simply put, if you need specific safety equipment in order to spar get a hold of it. How do you find out what you need? Well, you can find a grand list of things to get you started in this thread here: The Must Have List for MMA Gear. You do not want to be the guy who wished he was wearing a cup during a sparring session neither do you want to be the guy who has to sit out because you have the wrong set of gloves or no mouth guard. “But that stuff’s expensive!” you say? Hospital bills are way more expensive in comparison.
3) Have a specific goal in mind when you spar. Do you want to work on combinations? Do you want to work on transitioning from stand-up to ground work? Do you want to work on checking leg kicks? Do you want to work on passing the guard? Do you want to polish that new technique that you learned? Ask yourself, “Why am I sparring?” If you are sparring “just to spar” then chances are things can (or will) devolve into a senseless fight very quickly. If the situation is that you and your sparring partner have specific coinciding goals in mind before you even throw on your gear, you are probably going to end up having a much more effective sparring session.
4) Set the rules for the sparring session beforehand. If you have a nagging injury that you are trying to work around, let your sparring partner know before hand. If your session is going to be purely boxing, let them know. If heel hooks and kneebars are prohibited, that has to be made clear. Nothing is more frustrating than dealing with unspoken rules by finding out that you have just broken them. This goes alongside having a specific goal in mind when training, and if you have a dedicated person who can referee (to keep things “on the level”) you’ll find actually sticking to rules is a lot easier.
5) Establish the intensity level of your sparring session before you begin sparring. This has to be a set, objective intensity level between the 2 practitioners. There is a definite difference in rolling “easy” between a new guy who just started training and the senior guy who has spent the better of 4 years on the mat. If you take the time out to define an acceptable scale of intensity before hand, then you’ll go a far way in avoiding hurting your training partner (or being hurt by them). An easy way to do that is to set a “Contact” scale and assign your intensity level a number or percentage in ascending order. You can state that a “1” is friendly contact (like a light shove), and that “10” is full blown, balls to the wall aggression and effort. Based off of that you can fill in the values in-between accordingly.
I will caution you that it is not entirely beneficial to run a sparring session at 100% intensity. At that level of contact, you can incur serious injury with even the best safety equipment in place. Even professional fighters rarely spar at any levels over 70% intensity because the risk of injury jumps dramatically. An injury can set back even the best made plans and training regimes. Sure it may make you feel real good to be submitting and KO’ing sparring partners en route to a match, but if you get hurt you will end up looking like a real douche if you start using “I was injured going into this match” as a way to validate your poor performance when it comes time to compete.
6) Respect your training partner. When you spar, there is an underlying, unspoken level of respect between the sparring partners that can be understood as, “I am working competitively with you so that you can get better… I am not hoping to injure you.” This is why the tap protocol was introduced. It is not necessary to damage limbs or render your sparring partner unconscious to prove your skill level during sparring. The lovely thing about the tap is that it still provides the practitioner with a definitive indication that they were able to successfully execute their technique.
The same consideration must be taken into account in stand-up also. If you catch your sparring partner clean and they yell “Time out!” it is best served (for your sparring partner’s interests) to give them a moment to collect themselves. All respect between you and your sparring partner must be mutual, as you have to trust them to return the favor if you tap or need a break. Not holding that level of respect is a quick way to run out of sparring partners. If you spar with someone who does not display that type of respect, you shouldn’t be obligated to spar with them any further.
7) Keep in mind your limits and the effects of sparring on the rest of your training. Part of the reason why we can avoid making frequent visits to The School of Hard Knocks is because the forerunning practitioners before us have already showed us all the potential pitfalls of sparring at 100% intensity. While sparring intensely can be fun, if the after effects of a given sparring session prevents you from training on your regular schedule then it may prove to be a detriment to your progress as a growing martial artist.
While in the olden days it may have proven very effective to blast a student with a full force strike if their guard was kept in a proper fashion, the down time created by any ensuing injury prevented the training from continuing in an efficient manner (in the realm of weapons training you could even end up with a student who was maimed, crippled or dead). It had a negative synergistic effect on training. After putting proper safety measures in place, many of the old school teachers started to see a rapid increase in the rate of improvement within their students. As a result, it also became very easy to find out who “had it” when it came to competition and actual fights. By following a tempered approach to training, it became easier to sort through the actual skill levels of the students. You can never know how good someone really is if they are constantly injured or recovering from injuries.
8) Never spar angry and never spar with an angry partner. This is the single most prevalent reason why all the best intentions in sparring fall to the wayside and full-on fights erupt. When you come to train, check your ego at the door. If you make it your point to take out your frustrations on your sparring partners, you aren’t being a sparring partner. At best you are just being a dick. At worst you are being a bully.
That’s not to say that you will not run into the reality of managing your life outside of training. Yes, things go wrong. Yes you will get pissed off. No, it is not realistic to expect you to be a “shiny, happy person” each and every waking moment of your life. If that is where you are at when you walk into training, for your sake (and the sake of your sparring partners) refrain from sparring. Hit the pads, heavy bag or whatever else and bring things down to where you are level, but do not spar until you are honestly at that point. If someone wants to spar with you and you know that they are hot, decline. Let them calm down. If they can’t figure it out, well it is there loss.
9) Above all else have fun. A lot of anxiety and stress that accompanies sparring can be alleviated if you truly enjoy what you are doing. If you are able to keep things in perspective and working toward a specific goal, your sparring sessions will not only prove to be effective and efficient but they will also be enjoyable as a result. That will probably be the sole factor in deciding whether you want to continue training or quit. Sparring sessions are the time to experiment with the new techniques you have just learned, or that you’ve had brewing in your cranium. You wouldn’t want to try landing a 450-degree spinning tornado kick in competition on a whim, but in sparring trying that type of thing is alright (if it is within the “rules” of your session).
As I had stated in my previous posts, not all of us train far past the recreational level. At which case, really the effects of an intense sparring session can have bad consequences when trying to maintain the reality of our daily lives. Ever try going to a job interview with a black eye or stitches in your forehead? It's not fun. In that sense training in a tempered mind set will help you enjoy your training and avoid the bills that accompany expensive hospital visits.
But for those who are competing, injuries can be even more disastrous. When approaching a competition, it is ideal to be in the best health possible. If you are competing with someone who is close to your skill level, even a minor injury can be a big factor between winning something substantial or just getting a consolation prize.
Until next time, train smart and train safe!
Nice post, repped. I especially like #3, and I feel like I need to work on that more.
I remember being a kid and going all out sparring with my friend(a good 50-70 pounds heavier than me at times) with only boxing gloves and a mouthpiece each, absolutely beating the shit out of each other.
Amazing neither of us got hurt.
If I were to go all out with one any of the guys I train with, one of us would end up in the hospital (if not both of us). As fun as I think that experience would be, I don't like hospital bills.
A lot of good points brought together in a concise and well rounded post.
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