Sparring for Success

By Kaitlin Young

Sparring is far and away my favorite part of training, and I’m not alone here. We’ve all known someone who attempts to only show up on sparring day. It’s fun! We get to try out things we’re working on. We get our heart rate up without thinking about it. Sparring keeps us 100% in the moment. However, there is MUCH debate about how sparring should be done. In American gyms, it can vary quite a bit. When visiting another gym, it is best to follow the rest of the room. But what about when we’re the one setting the standard, whether with our own training, our own students, or our own fighters?

There are many different takes on the kind of sparring that creates champions and builds effective practitioners. I wouldn’t say anyone has cornered the market there, but we’ll discuss this further. There is a lot of discussion about what is best. The thrones of top striking promotions are dominated by Muay Thai fighters and Dutch kickboxers. The same is also true of the best strikers to take part in mixed martial arts, save the occasional karate expert or western boxer.  Let’s talk about how some of the top programs in the world approach sparring, and how it may differ from what we are likely to find in our backyard. There are going to be some generalizations here, but you’ll get the idea.

Thai Style

We hear a lot of gyms and fighters talk about doing Thai style sparring. What they’re referring to is the more playful, light contact, timing sparring done in many camps in Thailand. It’s important to note that “timing sparring” is not just sparring light, nor is it taking turns. It is finding the timing of what could easily be kill shots without using anywhere near full power. This is an effective way to develop timing and work our B and C game.  If a mistake is made, there is less risk, so we are free to try new things. It also aids in developing clarity during a fight.

Timing sparring is a great option when training with others where there is a major size disparity. If a 145lb person and a heavyweight are doing full power rounds together, that 145er will get smashed OR have to take an extremely defensive approach. They’ll be using their A game only. Because of this, the heavyweight probably isn’t going to get hit with relative force and may potentially develop false confidence if he does not do rounds with those of his same size and skill. The 145er will be lose the opportunity to try new things without facing dire consequences. Timing sparring allows a skilled 145er to be a good partner to a skilled heavyweight and vice versa. It does not require that you have similar abilities in power to show another person their own openings and vulnerabilities.

However, timing sparring also requires that both people acknowledge shots that land. It doesn’t work if one party is walking through low kicks because “they don’t hurt”. It’s also important that both parties have the emotional control necessary for this style. Most injuries happen when one person suddenly changes the speed or power of the exchange without giving their partner a heads up. This usually happens when someone feels ashamed or embarrassed and decides to place winning above the safety of their partner. The thought of ‘So and so shouldn’t be able to beat me!’  has been a precursor to an untold number of injuries. A little ego in sparring is a good thing. If we aren’t trying to best the other person, we aren’t giving our best. That said, winning in the gym should never take precedence over your teammate’s health.

It’s important to note that Thai-style timing sparring finds its place in a greater program for fight readiness. At Bangkok camps with stadium fighters, they’ll do straight western-style boxing-focused sparring somewhat hard a couple of times a week when nearing a fight – but not with kicks, knees, or elbows. They’ll also clinch HARD daily, do neck strengthening exercises, put in 10-15k in road miles every day, work the heavy bag, and take part in brutally hard pad rounds twice a day. Sessions spanning more than 3 hours are the norm. These rounds are not what we typically see in America, where the fighter dictates when they begin a set combination. These are reactionary rounds where you will get hit in the face if your focus shifts, swept or kicked off your feet, and will be expected to find the target without instruction. Doing the light sparring without receiving the intensity and volume elsewhere will not make a complete fighter.

Dutch Style

I have never personally trained in the Netherlands. Trainer, matchmaker, and former fighter Eric Haycraft was kind enough to share his experiences with us for this blog. There are many people in America that claim to be practicing Dutch-style kickboxing, just as there are many who claim to be practicing Thai-style Muay Thai, and they do so with varying degrees of accuracy. I wanted to hear what it’s like from someone who has actually trained and been involved in this particular fight scene. It’s important to note that just like Thailand, there will certainly be some differences from gym to gym. We are generalizing, but this is about what you’d expect to see training in the Netherlands.

According to Eric, the sparring is 100% to the body/legs and 70-100% to the head, at all times. Now, of course, this would be adjusted somewhat for partner size. These fighters wouldn’t be going 100% to the head on someone 50lbs lighter than them, but they may well put them down with a body shot. This fits into a program where there is relatively little padwork, and the training sessions are likely not more than 90 minutes. Most of the work is done with a partner via hard drilling and equally hard sparring. This provides a great benefit of body hardening, along with developing accurate placement. Fight pace and power, then, is no surprise.

It’s important to note that nobody is starting this type of sparring immediately. They will have put in their time doing hard drilling before they’d be invited. This gives the body time to develop enough to take the hard shots, and helps them develop the habit of a strong guard first before putting it to the test. This is a particularly important point because we can see it when a fighter has done hard sparring too early in any program. It’s blatantly obvious. It makes them flinchy, fearful, and full of bad habits. (Go to any local MMA show and you will surely see this in action. Timing goes completely out the window because the fighter is so preoccupied with avoiding strikes that their sense of range is disturbed. While some of this is due to simply being a new fighter, the degree to which a person looks fearful of strikes will tell you a lot about what their sparring experience has been like thus far.)

Eric also brought up that knowing each round will be 100% circumvents some of the bad behavior we all complain about in the gym. One cannot suddenly go harder than agreed upon, or harder than the rest of the round has been, if they are already sparring at 100%. You win at game speed or you don’t win at all. There is no shady behavior where one lulls their partner into relaxation with one speed and then injures them by catching them by surprise with a sudden explosion. They always know it’s coming.

There is some roadwork involved, but not nearly the volume you’d see in a Thai-style regiment. The Dutch may run a 5k a few times a week, but it will be at a blistering pace. It is not the more chill, warm up pace one uses when running twice daily. There is more sprint work as well. Generally speaking, there is considerably less volume, but the intensity is turned up to 11.

Why Are They Different?

Though kickboxing and Muay Thai are often used interchangeably in conversation and advertising in America, they are very different sports. A person can use Muay Thai to win in a kickboxing fight or vice versa, but they are not the same. Kickboxing fights (3 rounds) tend to be two rounds shorter than traditional Muay Thai fights (5 rounds), with all strikes carrying the same value. Conversely, in Muay Thai, landing a jab is nowhere near as noteworthy as landing a heavy kick. Balance, and therefore the lower body endurance to maintain that balance while kicking, kneeing, and clinching, is not a major scoring criteria in kickboxing as it is in Muay Thai. There is also no grappling in kickboxing, where the clinch is a major theme in Muay Thai. The inclusion of elbows makes one hell of a difference in what constitutes an effective guard, and whether higher volume combinations – particularly with punches- are worth the risk. Forward aggression carries far more value in kickboxing.  If we look at some of the differences in scoring, tools, and fight length between traditional Thai boxing and Dutch kickboxing, the differences we see in programming for top fighters in each sport make perfect sense.

How Does This Relate To MMA?

MMA is a relatively new sport practiced heavily in the US. Most of the sparring habits are a version of kickboxing or Muay Thai sparring with the addition of wrestling, sambo, or judo-type takedowns. Many athletes will train one or the other as their primary form of stand up. Unfortunately, many times the stand up style a gym is attempting to mimic is taken out of context. Thai style sparring without the volume, the roadwork, pad smashing, and clinch will make one an ill-prepared striker. Dutch style sparring without the intensity, drilling, and time taken to develop a guard, and fairness with different sized partners, will also make one ill-prepared. Sparring is just one piece of a larger puzzle that develops a great striker, and the style of sparring we are doing should fit into the rest of our program. It is not a separate activity. Just as we want to know the purpose of a strength and conditioning program, so too should we understand the purpose of our chosen style of sparring.

MMA fights will be in little gloves, where placement, timing, and the ability to read momentum will be of the utmost importance. Balance and control are a big deal in MMA. The fights are long, with 15-25 minutes of work being standard. For these reasons, a Thai-style approach may be more effective. However, speed, volume, and forward aggression are highly prized in scoring for MMA striking, and a fighter’s stance needs to be a bit lower to effectively prevent takedowns. For these reasons, there is also value in Dutch-style training. The body-hardening drills and habits from both are incredibly helpful and yet somehow missing in most MMA striking programs. Our durability, the kind we can control, is as much a part of our defense as head movement. Different coaches will have different preferences here, but the important part is that we remember what we are trying to accomplish with the training choices we make.

Intention Matters

Hard rounds are important (especially if we aren’t fighting frequently) so that we are not shocked by game speed and power, but they should be done in such a way that both athletes are benefiting from the exchange. I once had a friend tell me that she felt the need to conceal an injury from some of her teammates because she knew if THEY knew, it would be targeted in live training. :-/ There is a major difference between sparring hard and sparring with malicious intent. For those who have sparred (or rolled, for that matter) before, you know very well that you can absolutely feel another person’s intentions. It can be pretty hard to back down or request a training partner chill out, particularly if we’re a competitive person. These situations can easily turn into what is basically fighting for free in the gym. If it is left to the people taking part in the round, it will most likely continue to escalate when it starts to go that route. We can blab all we want about what people “should” do in a situation like this, and whether or not they should back down, but in the heat of the situation they probably won’t. It’s important that most sparring takes place under the watchful eye of an invested coach, or even another teammate who isn’t afraid to speak up.

We must always remember that sparring is preparing us for an event. It could be a fight night, or it could be an altercation in a dark alley, depending on why we train. If you are in a room where major injuries are happening regularly, or injuring partners is encouraged, do yourself a favor and walk right out. Seriously. Being slightly undertrained is better than spending your Tuesday afternoon getting a CT scan of your head and wondering if you’ll still be able to fight in three weeks. Little dings and tweaks are going to happen, but if you and your teammates are dropping like flies, there is a problem with the program.

Our Ultimate Goal

Sparring should be a part of a greater program that makes one stronger, more skilled, more durable, more confident, and more well-prepared to actually fight. Even as a casual practitioner, I’d argue that a person will miss a great deal of any style by never practicing it live. Punching a face, or having one’s face punched, is very different from just hitting pads or pounding on the bag. Sparring strengthens our understanding and provides us the necessary context required to learn how techniques work – both for us and against us. It makes us better teachers, because rather than imagining the details, we know them intimately.

Sparring in and of itself is not dangerous, but mismanaged sparring certainly can be. If we’re doing Dutch-style hard rounds at the end of our second grueling 3 ½ hour session for the day, our likelihood of injury will be high. If our training consists of Thai style sparring for only a few rounds after a 30-minute training session a few times a week, we’ll be soft and in need of tempering. If hacky individuals are permitted to show up and do whatever the hell they want in the room, there will also be problems. Whether we’re in a 6-minute amateur kickboxing match, a 15-minute Muay Thai fight, or a 25-minute professional MMA title bout, we should understand our purpose in training for that event, and how sparring, along with the rest of our training, prepares us for our ultimate goal.