At some point in the development of your Kali, Arnis, Escrima training, you are going to learn to spar. If you train right, you will be ready.
Sparring is a useful training tool that will allow you to test and develop your skills. It will help you learn where your weaknesses are, and it will provide you with an environment in which you can try out new techniques. In the words of Grand Tuhon Leo Gaje, “It is your laboratory. It is where you experiment."
Sparring will help you learn to perform your skills against someone who is not fully cooperating. This can be a real eye opening experience. The first time you spar, you really learn to appreciate the speed and timing it takes to apply the techniques you are practicing. When your opponent does not feed you like any of the drills you practiced and does not wait for you to finish your turn, it can be a shock. By having guided exposure to sparring and sparing related drills, you eventually cultivate the ability to apply your techniques in this more intense, messy environment.
Though there are many different ways to spar, the main goal is typically to hit your opponent without being hit. Sparring can go from light and technical with a give-and-take approach to hard-hitting to more competitive, where each is trying to dominate the other. Sparring can be continuous, where both partners continue even though they have been hit, or it can stop when one of the partners receives a hit that would have been devastating or fatal were the fighting and weapons real. Each method has it’s uses and a good program will use a variety of approaches. The end result of sparring should be to improve your ability to effectively hit your opponent without dying at the same time.
Regardless of the type of sparring you do, there will be some fundamentals that you can develop to get better at sparring. This starts with coordination. When you are coordinated, you will not be distracted with maintaining proper form while you move. Proper form will be a habit. You need all your movement patterns to be a habit. This is simply a matter of spending the time to get coordinated.
If you let your mechanics trip you up, then you have less awareness to give to fighting your opponent. Even olympic athletes, with years of some of the world’s best training, choke. This is often happens when they second guess or modify their trained mechanics in the middle of competition. Rather than reply on the muscle memory, which they have developed in hundreds of practice sessions, they try to think through the mechanics. Doing this short-circuits all the coordination they already have and takes them out of the higher view of their performance they need to maintain.
I often see this in Kali when a student first learns a double stick pattern. Once he gets it, he can continue as long as he does not think about it. But as soon as he tries to make adjustments to improve his form, he loses it. You don’t want this to happen to you when you are in the middle of sparring. It is too late to diagnose and fix any issues you have with mechanics while someone is trying to hit you in the head.
Consider the following when you are working on your sparring skills:
Develop your ability to move fluidly. Work on your strikes. Coordinate your combinations until they are very smooth and fast. Practice your footwork and combine it with your strikes. Synchronize them. To be successful, you cannot just hit, then move or move, then hit. You need to be able to hit and move at the same time. Make it a habit to strike continuously and learn to seamlessly go from one combination to another. Practice changing directions without losing your rhythm. This will prepare you to fight an opponent that is mobile.
Improve your precision. Make sure you can move precisely, so that when you deliver a strike you can consistently deliver it the same way each time. If your mechanics are consistent, then you will know just how far you can reach with your strikes, where each hit will land, and how you will recover after it is delivered. If you know this, then it will be much easier to adjust your strikes to hit a moving target. By having a standard for your strikes, you can deviate the path of each strike and know just how much you had to change it in order to hit the target. In other words, you have a reference and that reference will allow you to measure your timing, speed and distance because each change can be compared to that reference. Without the ability to be precise, you will struggle with improving your aim.
Refine your aim. Learn to control your strikes so that you can hit any target you choose. Even if you are only striking through the air, you can improve your aim. Pick a visual point across the room and make sure your strike passes through that point. When you hit a striking dummy, tires or your partner’s stick, pick a very specific target on each. You can use chalk or paint to add smaller targets to your tires or dummy. When practicing with a partner, aim for a node or burn mark on your partner’s stick. If you do not try to hit a very specific target, your aim will not improve.
Build your stamina. It is often the person who is in the best shape who wins a sparring match. The demands of moving at or near full speed for any length of time are challenging. You can build your stamina by shadow sparring, hitting tires and working on your overall fitness. No amount of experience can overcome being gassed out and too tired to continue.
Practice your movements in a way that mimics how you will use them in application. Move beyond just practicing your footwork in isolated triangles or patterns. Don’t just limit yourself to striking by the numbers. Start with the patterns first, then practice your footwork and strikes in a way that resembles the continuous movements you will use in application. Though a triangle serves as a great reference for practicing the critical first step in applying a technique, it is only the first step. When sparring, you will need to be able to run in and out of range and coordinate many steps together.
Understand how you will need to use your skills, so you can develop them properly. Sports science classifies skills as either closed skills or open skills. Closed skills are skills that can be applied in a controlled environment wherein responses can be planned. In sports, this is typically something that is self-paced like archery, golf, or gymnastics. Open skills are those that are applied when the environment is variable and unpredictable. Responses are based on what happens and are therefore paced by factors outside of our control. Open skills are found in sports like basketball, hockey or football where there is an opponent. In truth, skills are on a continuum from closed to open with many being mixed. In Kali, we need to focus on our open skills. We have to be sure we recognize this and practice our fighting skills so they can be adapted to the dynamic and changing environment an opponent presents.
If you want to move well and be prepared to start sparring, work on the recommendations above to refine your skills and your approach to developing them. Sparring shouldn’t be a crucible for ego or just a test of your ability to ignore the fear of getting hurt.
Sparring should be a tool for improving your skills. Approach your sparring training like any other training, build up the related skills and evaluate your progress. Not only will you look good on fight night, but you will be hard to beat too.