Insights and Training Tips from Tactical Arts


Insights from the Tactical Arts Academy

Filipino Kali Stick Sparring - Sparring Drills and Methods


Training for Results

Sparring can serve as bridge from your technical drills to realistic application or to competition. Whether you are training to apply Kali for self defense or for a fighting competition, the right sparring drills will give you the perspective you need to be successful. Rather than taking a leap of faith from the flow drills we practice with partners to a real life application, we can use a series of objective oriented drills to prepare for the unscripted application of our techniques.

Sparring Preparation Drills and Training Objectives

You must have objectives to get best results from your training. This is especially true with sparring. If you know what you want to improve, then you can train appropriately to make those improvements. Sparring without objectives can can be fun and you can get better, but you will learn much faster if you have specific goals in mind and use drills that are tailored to help you reach those goals.

A well planned approach to sparring will include drills that initiate you to sparring, but have a narrow focus. For example: A drill could be designed to help you learn to move to a better position with your footwork, counter specific incoming angles, return an attack after being attacked, or all three of these. The narrow focus will help you identify and improve specific areas that need work. Whereas in an open sparring environment, it is difficult to remediate any skills that are lacking, because sparring can be so dynamic.

Sparring preparation drills will prepare you for more success when sparring. These objective oriented drills should help you learn to implement your techniques while reacting to various attacks. They should also initiate you to the stress of sparring. They may even help you get used to sparring gear and getting hit a little. If you build up your skills this way, you will be prepared to learn much more during your actual sparring sessions. I think this is a much better alternative to learning to spar by just closing your eyes and swinging wildly like many unprepared beginners do.

Sparring Methods

There are several methods of sparring, each with different benefits. Here are a few:

Distance Sparring

Distance sparring is a safe way to express striking combinations, test footwork, analyze an opponent's movements, and develop reaction all without contact. In distance sparring, the opponents remain 10 to 15 feet away from each other, continuously strike and move while responding to each others movements. It is sparring at a distance.

To distance spar, you just need to be comfortable with a few basic strikes and footwork. Two opponents face each other and move around the training area attempting to strike through lines that visually line up with their targets. It’s almost like sparring in only two dimensions. You ignore the depth or distance between targets and focus on the angles that lead to the targets. Because you stay 10 to 15 feet away from your partner, you can strike at the approximate height and direction of your targets without making contact.

To distance spar properly, stay on the offensive and strike into the air when there are openings in your opponent's movements. Don’t focus on defensive techniques or blocking, you want to be on the offense.

As you and your partner improve your control, you can get closer so that the angles are closer to the real contact distance and you can better react to your opponent’s footwork and strikes.

Distance sparring is a great place to start for those who are new to sparring. It is the next step after solo shadow sparring exercises, and it is a bridge to other types of sparring. The nature and scope of distance sparring drills can vary, but it is a great way to move out of closed skill training wherein you simply repeat patterns for the purpose of coordination to something that requires the open skills of adapting to your partner’s unchoreographed movements.

We often use distance sparring in our training to warmup for any other type of sparring. It helps build the ability to string together combinations and observe the opponent. The big advantage is that you can distance spar at full speed without the risk of injuring your partner. This means you can use it frequently in your training. Distance sparring with only 1 or 2 striking combinations is a great way to build both familiarity and stamina with those combinations.

Technical Sparring

Technical sparring is a type of sparring that allows the partners to explore and test techniques in a more live environment while still keeping within a flow sequence or technique structure. In technical sparring, the partners usually keep to a repetitive flow drill, but add inserts that a partner must counter. The objective is to develop a particular set of techniques while the partners both try to help each other develop their counter and recounter skills.

To spar in this manner, two partners start with a particular flow or function drill then insert hits to a limited set of targets. This flow drill could be a simple as making contact with diagonal strikes one and two or something else that has a more advanced string of attacks and counters. The targets could be as simple as the belly and the shoulders, wherein the shoulders are a safe substitute for the head. The two partners lightly tap the targets whenever possible then continue with the original flow. When the flow breaks down, both partners return to the flow before adding any additional attacks.

Technical sparring includes a mix of cooperation and competition.
 It is performed with a give and take approach wherein each allows the other to find the right response after a few successful hits or entries. By doing this, both partners can develop the application of their technique and prepare to recounter when the other counters his attack.

With the right control and a playful approach, both partners can focus on technique with this method. Rather than be distracted by cumbersome gear or the possibility of getting hit hard, each partner can develop timing, learn to find openings, and even setup attacks and recounters.

Using this method, you can strengthen your ability to apply your techniques and troubleshoot any issues you have with them. You will develop a greater understanding of the specific techniques and related elements in the flow. You will learn when you can break the flow, when you are exposed, and how to react within that context.

Except for eye protection, you do not need any special gear for technical sparring.

Contact Sparring

Contact sparring is one of the most common methods of sparring. In it, two partners hit each other while both intend to best the other. Contact sparring is usually performed with some level of protective gear that allows the intensity level to ramp up. This includes an increase in the speed, force and sometimes the emotions together with the biochemical reactions participants have due to the added stress. Contact sparring may range from limited targets to "anything goes.”

Here are a few versions of contact sparring:

limited target contact sparring - Sparring drills may be designed to focus the scope of training by designating a limited number of targets. This is usually done to develop a particular set of tactics, like high and low attacks, or to focus on areas that need improvement, such as defending the hand or countering low attacks. These sparring drills can be used to break habits, explore new combinations, and improve specific attacks and counters.

segmented - Contact sparring can be broken into very short encounters, so that when an objective is met, the sparring stops. For example, an objective may be just to enter and get the first hit or to contact with what would be a fatal blow in a real application. Because the exchanges are often only a few seconds, the participants can repeat for many repetitions. This will help them to develop those specific skills identified by each objective. This type of sparring can hone reaction speed and the ability to read “tells" from an opponent’s movements.

continuous - Sparring may also be uninterrupted wherein the participants continue to compete regardless of the action. This type of sparring helps participants learn to adapt to the dynamics of a quickly changing situation. It also conditions the participants to continue, rather than stop or drop their mental guard just because they hit or got hit.

Each approach to contact sparring has it’s value in a well rounded training program.

Contact sparring is an intense method of testing and experimenting with your technique by competing against a partner who is trying to stop you. With proper preparation, it can be a very useful tool to improve your skills. The feedback of a mistake is instant, and the pressure will help you learn to control your thoughts. By building experience sparring, you will learn to calm your heart rate and fight off panic, so that you can keep your mind clear and ready for action.

Contact sparring can be done with anything from light protective gear to heavy duty helmets, groin, hand and leg protection. The gear needed all depends on the intensity of the sparring and the relative risk involved. Sometimes it is good to spar with little gear so you can really feel when you do something wrong, and other times it is much safer for you to have gear that will prevent you from getting seriously injured when your opponent is hitting hard and fast at your head.

Final Notes

Sparring is a valuable training tool that will help you identify weakness, improve your techniques and learn to operate under pressure. The various methods of sparring all offer different opportunities to make improvements. Sparring can serve as a testing ground, a diagnostic tool, and an outlet to enjoy the skills you have developed. Whether you are preparing for competition or self defense, a good sparring progression will make you a much better fighter.

In our training at the Tactical Arts Academy, we sometimes warmup with distance sparring, continue with technical sparring to sharpen the technique, then get out our gear and spar with contact. Our instructors coach the students each round. After a few rounds, we gather and discuss what is working, what we are struggling with, and what we want to accomplish. Then we go back to it.

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