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Sparring is a Conversation, Not a Monologue

I have had some awesome sparring partners over the years. There was the Energizer Bunny black belt who used to push me to the point where I was nothing but a fiery ball of adrenaline. I always threw my best techniques with him. He almost knocked me out once, but hey, it happens. (I was younger then. Also, not a mom. Nowadays I am much less accepting of my brain being rattled around.) There was also the black belt whose eyes would glaze over in the middle of the round and you would have to start telling him jokes in order to make sure he didn't kill you. He was less fun. But the worst sparring partners are the ones who just don't pay attention. Hey buddy, use your eyes! (Those are those two round things in the front of your face.) If we are sparring together and I am bouncing around throwing light punch combinations and very controlled kicks why would you blast me in the leg? What part of my body language told you that I wanted to go hard?

If your vision is not quite up to snuff at least be a good listener. I recently observed this delightful interaction:
Guy #1: Hey wanna roll?
Guy #2: Yeah ok but lets go light. My shoulder is a little sore.
Guy #1: Sure
Guy #1 then proceeds to go all aggro on his buddy, executing a series of super rough moves that ended in, you guessed it, a shoulder lock!
Really? Were you not just a part of that conversation ? Cause I wasn't but I still got the gist of it. Dont mess with the dude's shoulder!

If you are doing yoga moves by yourself on a mountaintop than you do not have to give a damn what other practitioners are doing. But if the art that you have chosen to practice involves a partner, please pay attention. And stop kicking me so hard, I am not your heavy bag.

Recently I posted something about the pros and cons of talking while training. This is not about that.  But those of you who believe in silent sparring matches need to be especially good at reading body language. Really, no words are necessary. Just look at your partner's face. Are they cringing in fear? Do they look like someone is slowly pulling their toenails off one at a time? If the answer is yes, than you are going too hard. Sure there are benefits to super aggressive training. But right now your partner does not care. He just wants you off of his damn shoulder!

This kind of awareness is important outside of sparring too, and it is especially important to teach children. Like that boy who wanted to play “bad guy” with Maya at the playground but could not see the miserable look on her face. And then could not hear her telling him to stop. Eventually she pushed him away. He got that. But he should have realized from the get-go that she was not having any fun.

Come to think of it, four year old boy playing too rough, grown man playing too rough...not all that different. 

Being tuned in to how your opponent is feeling takes time and experience. You won't get it your first time on the floor; you will be so focused on trying to do your thing and not die. That is ok. If you are too overwhelmed (or full of adrenaline) to look at her eyes, than listen. Listen to her breathing. Listen to what she says to the other students in the changing room after class. Read her blog.

The most important thing is to not be selfish. (At least not all the time, occasional "me! me! me!" moments are ok.) . If you go into every round thinking it is all about you, not only are you being a terrible partner, but you are limiting your own improvement. There is a lot to be gained from letting someone else work on their stuff while you work on defending it.

Finally, if he spells it out for you right before the round begins, please put the letters together. That word is important, more important than how many guys you kick today or how many times you get tapped. Barring a  legitimate hearing problem (and there are devices for that), there is no excuse for this kind of carelessness.

Your fellow students (especially those of us who are very very small) will greatly appreciate it.


  1. I secretly read this blog and I have never posted a comment until today because I can definitely relate to this. Traditional martial arts schools have a motto of the harder you train, the better you become. In addition to that, the male ego sometimes won't allow him to say "hey buddy, lighten it up, let's just work on some basics." Especially when he is in front of a senior, he will leave it up to him and hope that his body language dictate his mood for the evening. Most recently, that wasn't the case for me. Martial artist are also people, and people are going train in ways that feel comfortable to them. Showing empathy in a "sparring" match is a unique trait that some lack, but thanks to this blog, I will make a conscious effort have. Thank you Jennifer, this blog was a personal one to me.

    1. Sugar, The only thing I love more than my secret readers are the ones who come out of hiding to comment! Thank you for this. It is true that empathy and sparring seem like they do not go together, but I feel it makes for a better training environment when they can. Women (or at least this one!) are often more comfortable with telling someone to go lighter than men, understandably. But we are all a work in progress. Thanks for reading and good luck with your training!

  2. I'm so totally NOT a secret reader.... *chuckle*

    One of the things I really enjoy about sparring in our dojo (which, for those of you listening at home, is in the same discipline as this blog's author, and indeed her dojo and mine have done several joint sparring sessions) is that it's always the lesser of the two fighters who set the tone of the fight.

    It's not something you know immediately, of course, and it's something we all have to work on to some degree or other. Sometimes it's a simple lack of self-awareness. One of my fellow black belts took me aside one night and said that I was punching WAY too hard when I was sparring with women, and I had trouble processing this at first. Prior to starting karate at age 35, I was as unimpressive a physical specimen as you'd expect from an overweight 35-year-old sedentary writer dude, so the notion that I actually CAN punch anyone too hard never even occurred to me. (I still have this problem to an extent. Other people will tell me how strong I am, and I instinctively don't believe it, as I spent 35 years of life as the prototypical 98-pound weakling getting sand kicked in his face.)

    I have much better self-control now. And with everyone, it's a learning process.

    We try to impart that to the kids, too. Sometimes I teach our Friday-night kids' sparring class, and we really drill that into them, that sparring is a learning process and that it's more fun if one person isn't (in essence) bullying someone else. To our kids' credit, they've taken that lesson to heart. I remember one class I taught with four kids -- one green belt who's one of our better fighters, and three kids who were all way smaller than him. To the green belt's credit, he went into full-on teaching mode the whole class, showing his opponents how to keep their hands in and how to do combinations and how to move and when to jab and so on. It was really heartening to see.


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