Does Sparring REALLY Prepare You For Self-Defense? Let’s Find Out!

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Boxing, Ring, Boxers, Fight, Fighting
1. Conventional sparring isn’t the best preparation for self-defense

Martial artists argue sparring is the best measure of a martial arts effectiveness in real-world self-defense. Allegedly, it provides the best reliable “evidence” we can use to ascertain what techniques work on a resisting opponent. To the extent they work on a resisting opponent we can then infer that it’s likely useful for self-defense. This means martial arts that don’t engage in some form of sparring don’t have a measurable means to know if their techniques work or not. This results in them being looked at with uncertainty with regards to their fighting ability. In some cases they’re “humiliated” and deemed as practitioners of a fake martial art. 

The problem with this line of thinking is combat sports practitioners grossly over-estimate the degree that there type of sparring and competitive matches is a representation of “self-defense emergencies” or “lethal close-quarters combat”. Sparring in the conventional sense is too limiting physically and tactically to be a comprehensive representation of all-out no rules anything goes self-defense. There are numerous precautions, regulations and “agreed upon codes of conduct” that dictate how they must fight that make it a certain representation of combat but by no means exhaustive or highly reliable.

Even to the extent that you throw away all of the rules and have two people fight without safety precautions this still isn’t a complete representation of self-defense and the problems you’ll face. The problem isn’t merely the rules it’s the nature of how sparring and matches are setup. Consider that they way assaults begin is very different than how sparring begins, the way it ends is very different, while defending yourself you have many different things to be aware of than in a sparring match (weapons, accomplices etc.) Perhaps even more importantly all of these things have to be trained for. In this article we’ll discuss how the rules and nature of self-defense change how you must prepare for it adequately and how you can began to set up scenarios to test the relevance of your martial art to self-defense.

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2. Rules dictate engagement

The rules and restrictions imposed on physical fighting dictate what’s a reasonably way for people to fight under those circumstances. Let’s say I create a combat sport where in order to win you must punch your partners left foot three times. How would this change how the “combat” looks? The stances would be different, most likely lower so that you could protect your vulnerable feet with your hands. The strategies would be different as you attempted to avoid close range exchanges and not get caught yourself. But what if I said you had to do this on a small elevator? It would look even more different than the “fight” scenario I just mentioned right?

Consider a real-world example like point karate. Point karate is often criticized for not being “real”. But what do we mean by real? Truthfully they have simply played with the rules to such an extent that they have created their own “type” of fighting that must look a certain way for people to win. The rules have DICTATED how people MUST engage in order to win. Regardless of how skilled people become at the skill set of that specific game it doesn’t mean it will crossover to other forms of combat or be the best preparation for them. 

This is why crossover matches between martial fighters often lead to non-competitive affairs. The skills needed to succeed in one domain are different to succeed in another one. To cite a popular example, remember when Floyd Mayweather fought Conor Mcgregor? Heading into the match many people believed that Conor Mcgregor would dominate Floyd Mayweather with his high level striking skill, power and other atrributes that we witnessed in his MMA matches.

Conor certainly had a solid showing for himself but in the end was defeated by the fighter with far more experience in that specific rule-set of fighting. The rules and restrictions of boxing are far less lenient in the ways that you’re able to win. The lack of options means a boxer has honed the striking skills of that sport to a far larger degree than most MMA fighters could ever hope to achieve. So while they’re both skilled in “striking” Floyd was far more skilled at the boxing variation of striking than Conor. 

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3. Similar phenomena happens in grappling

We see this same phenomena in grappling too. The rules of modern sport Brazilian jiu-jitsu have turned it to something that’s distinct from the original judo it’s derived from. So much so modern bjj practitioners have very limited standing grappling and throwing skills because the rules dictate they usually don’t “need” them. Options like pulling guard allow them to simply fall to their back instead of trying to forcibly take the match there. This is unreasonable in judo given the rules which forces them to have to try to take each other down using throws trips etc. 

Furthermore “submission grappling” is another variation of grappling with different rules which makes it look very different than the other mentioned sports. The lack of a gi, sweat and general lack of control tends to make it faster paced, slippery and more explosive allowing for more athletic practitioners to dominate. The point of all this is to say all of these sports are still “grappling” but due to the rules and restrictions the matches look drastically different. Furthermore, the sports are different enough that in order to be successful one must train diligently in the other form.

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4. The “rules” of self-defense

Violent criminal assaults certainly don’t have any rules or regulations that criminals have to abide by however, due to the way in which criminals achieve their goals they unfold in consistent but chaotic ways. Which is to say that to the extent that criminals attempt to achieve their goals they use deception, subterfuge, ambushes, weapons, accomplices, the environment etc. to win. Now there’s no “rule” that states criminals “have” to use these things to facilitate an attack but they work very well which is why criminals use them the most of the time. This often means that these types of assaults begin and unfold totally different than sparring does. For example check out this list of “rules” of how self-defense typically unfolds:

Self-defense “Rules”

-The situation won’t start at an agreed upon time when both participants are ready to engage

-The situation won’t start with formal etiquette from across a distance of 30 feet but instead with one person “interviewing” the other or demonstrating anti-social threatening behavior from a close distance of 3-5 feet.

-You’ll likely have to fight in a small area without much room greatly inhibiting your movement

-Due to the close proximity you’ll be fighting in; the striking exchanges will be wilder, with little to no pauses between them causing pattern overload making it difficult to respond with a specific “technique”.

-Your attacker will likely be on drugs or on other pain-numbing substances or under the influence of adrenaline making them very strong and resistant to pain

-You’ll be attacked by someone far larger, stronger and athletic than yourself who is completely out of your “weight class”.

-They’ll have weapons on them that they’re capable of using and experienced with using.

-They have multiple accomplices who also are larger, stronger, more athletic than you and are also possibly armed

-You’ll be ambushed when you are LEAST prepared in a very disadvantaged standing or sitting position.

-They’ll attack you when you are with family members and have to protect them at the same time.

-You’ll have to fight in harsh, difficult environments that make fighting very uncomfortable such as elevators, in your car, in a hallway, on concrete, on a staircase, in the rain, in the dark, from your bed, in the snow, uneven hills, littered sidewalks etc.

-You’ll be attacked with a weapon AFTER the initial assault begins.

-You’ll be attacked with a weapon AFTER the initial assault begins by a third-party

-If you attack and don’t finish the person or escape the attacker will grab a weapon or jump you with friends

-You’ll have to keep fighting after being stabbed, burned, potentially shot and will need to continue to fight through incredible pain etc.

-You’ll need to have a vast understanding of deescalation tactics, personal safety tips, strategies for staying safe while traveling, abusive relationships, legal ramifications of self-defense. All of this which is what will make up the majority of your self-defense skills and often be far more important than your “physical strategy”.

5. How much does sparring prepare you for this?

Now all of us including myself who have experience in bjj, boxing and wrestling answer this honestly. How often are these variables that I’ve mentioned in this article trained for? How often do we spend sparring a person in front of us ignoring the evidence that many attacks will come from behind when we’re off-guard. How often do we grapple on the ground ignoring that third-party intervention is a real possibility and a deadly one. How often do we spar from a certain distance despite the fact that self-defense occurs in a close proximity.

How often do we train for the real possibility that our attacker will be on drugs or under the influence of drugs making them incredibly strong and quite literally immune to physical pain? Instead of adequately addressing the problems I mentioned and altering their training methods to prepare for them; many martial artists just pay lip-service to them. Or worse other martial artists prefer to instead “force” their one on one fighting solution on EVERY OTHER SCENARIO and hope it will work out. However, hope isn’t a plan.

Sheep, Bleat, Communication, Communicate
6. Paying Lip-service isn’t enough

Merely mentioning that certain problems exist in self-defense isn’t enough to actually fix them. For example, when a MMA fighter prepares for a match he doesn’t merely say my opponent has a big right hand that knocks out a lot of opponents. He doesn’t merely mention a few times per week that his opponent has an incredible ground game that has led to him submitting opponents unconscious. He trains relentlessly in skills that will enable him to avoid the right hand and deal with it.

So then for self-defense it isn’t merely enough to say your attacker will be larger and stronger. It isn’t enough to say that assaults happen in small enclosed spaces. It isn’t enough to say the goal of self-defense is escape. It isn’t enough to just say criminals attack with people with weapons. YOU HAVE TO TRAIN FOR IT. Finally,It isn’t enough to just say assaults happen differently than sparring/matches you have to train differently in a way that replicates how they actually happen.

Casino, Poker, Playing, Studio, Bet
6. Are you willing to gamble with your life???

Answer this next series of questions honestly please. If you were going to grapple the UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov how prepared would you want to be to win? Would six months of training suffice? Nope it wouldn’t. Now what if I told you that if you lost you would be killed or one of your family members would be killed? (Bear with me here this has a point). How prepared would you want to be? How much training would you seek? Would you just be okay with being a decent wrestler or would you do everything you could to be phenomenal to protect you and your family? You would become phenomenal.

So then I ask you…why when training for self-defense which is very difficult to prevail in based on the reasons I just outlined and can have horrible consequences such as you actually being seriously injured or killed or your loved ones being seriously injured or killed do we half-ass our training? Why do we scoff at the very idea of even slightly changing our training methods to compensate for the innumerable types of violent situations we might need to confront? Why do we ignore practicing tactical skills like awareness, avoidance strategies, running away, skills that facilitate running away, escaping a violent assault, protecting our family, protecting innocent strangers when these skills are clearly important?

6. Beginning to move closer to reality

Moving forward here’s a series of training suggestions that should point any well meaning martial artist in the right direction if they’re concerned with being truly prepared for criminal violence. Their intention isn’t to make you come to specific conclusions other than that alteration is necessary. How you instill those alterations and exactly the strategies you utilize is up to you. I hope these scenarios serve you well.

Warning: Any type of sparring you engage in is potentially dangerous and can cause injury. Therefore, you should always be supervised a qualified person. If you don’t have access to such a person you should wait to put these things into practice.

Ground scenario 1: Start off in closed guard with someone far larger than you and begin grappling. This is to replicate if during the course of an altercation you fell down, or were knocked down from a punch or a take-down. Have a third person prepared to come and hit you gently while you’re down on the ground after. Have them come at different time-intervals like five seconds, 15 seconds and sometimes don’t have them come at all. Just be sure that the person who is the “defender” on bottom doesn’t know when the person is coming.

Ground scenario 2: Start off on top of your partner in some type of pin position. This replicates you taking the fight to the ground or knocking someone down. While the partner on bottom holds you tightly attempting to restrict your movement begin grappling as you typically would. Once again have your third partner begin lightly hitting you while at random times like before. See if by the time you notice a third person if you’re able to get up. See if there’s a delay in response time.

Ground scenario 3: Begin the scenario with your hands up and your partner holding a rubber knife about 3 feet away from you. This is to replicate a violent criminal who has brandished a weapon in close quarters and you’re unable to escape. Have your partner begin stabbing you while you attempt to “wrestle” the knife away from them. Make sure the “knife” is rubber so that your partner can go berserker mode on you. What I mean by this is make sure your partner doesn’t patiently swipe at you and take breaks. That’s not reality, have them really go after it. Wear protection goggles if you must.

Ground scenario 4: Begin grappling on the floor with a partner when a third bystander hits you with a padded weapon like a stick or rubber knife. This can replicate an initial assault that began with one criminal and became violent. After that another criminal has come to aid him using a weapon and now you must try to escape.

Ground scenario 5: put a series of replicated materials around the room to replicate grappling on a sidewalk littered with stuff on floor and harmful objects like fire hydrants etc. While grappling pay attention to how different grappling is when surrounded by objects that can “harm” you. How does that limit your mobility? Your “freedom” to move in certain ways? How does it affect your ability to get up and escape?

Standing scenario: Begin in a clinch with your partner and begin attempting to take your partner down. Then have a third partner run to you and begin lightly striking to simulate third party intervention from the standing position. See if you’re able to break away. See if you’re able to notice when a third party is coming when your attached to someone else.

Standing scenario: Have a partner with a rubber knife begin stabbing you at full speed while taking care to avoid directly hitting your eyes. At the same time you attempt to grab and control his knife hand from stabbing you.

Variation: Do it now but first begin spinning with your eyes closed and have your partner begin stabbing you from a random chaotic angle. No outright assassinations like slitting throats which is impossible to defend against. So start stabbing the back, the torso, his legs, anything you can think of. Pay attention to how disorienting this is. Imagine how frightening this would be if there were real stabs causing real harm. As you run the drill pay attention to if you want to stay close to the weapon or try to keep distance while delivering damage. 

Ground scenario: place your mats in such a way where they’re at a slope and place kicking shields or gloves underneath them to make an uneven surface. Grapple on these surfaces and see what that’s like. 

Variation: Now practice your standing sparring on this surface. Does it feel harder to move? Is it harder to stay upright? Is it more difficult to finish your combinations? Is evading and utilizing mobility harder? Are you able to kick with the same level of dexterity? Take notes for yourself.

Ground scenario: To simulate fighting someone high on drugs exercise or run to the point of exhaustion. When tired go to the mat and begin grappling with your larger and more fresh partner. How different does this feel? What does the strength disparity feel like? What do you think it would be like to do this in the dark?

Variation: Same idea but now spar. Eliminate the distance typically assumed in martial classes. Start off close with one person getting off first to properly replicate a real self-defense scenario where you’re taken off-guard and have a criminal in your face. Lightly strike to avoid harm. Have the “assailant” keep attacking without stepping back? Is it more frenetic?

Variation 2: Same idea from the standing position exhausting yourself beforehand but now begin with your partner interviewing you before the confrontation. You’re partner must be close to you because conversations don’t happen from 30 feet away. Have the “assailant” “role-play” being a criminal interviewing you. Have him casually engage you in conversation and suddenly attack you abruptly. Have him attack you as he escalates the conversation seemingly becoming more violent as the conversation continues. Have him start of aggressive and move in to attack you. How does this feel? Did you find certain tactics worked best? Did you decide it’s best to hit first? Did you prefer to try to set-up and spar? Were you thrown off by the aggressive behavior of your partner?

7. Conclusion

Hopefully these variations on your sparring have given you some interesting experiences that you can use to create more realistic training scenarios for self-defense. Also I hope you realize this isn’t a personal attack on your martial sport. Provided you’re young, well-trained and in shape you have many great attributes that will help you in many situations. Just also recognize the limitations and train to go beyond them! Stay safe!

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