Five tips for being a top sparring partner
Sparring is an important part of any serious martial arts training schedule. In Wing Chun we have lots of other types of training, including practicing the forms, fitness work, chi sau and practicing individual techniques, but sparring needs to be done to bring all of these elements together. What is often overlooked in getting the most out of sparring is the important part the sparring partner plays. Here, I offer some tips on being a good sparring partner. These ideas are crucial for students to understand so that they can help each other learn. Instructors should also keep these ideas in mind when teaching lessons.
1. Don’t just do Wing Chun vs Wing Chun sparring
In training you will often have to take one for the team and agree not to use Wing Chun techniques in sparring with your training partner. This is because on the street, you and your training partner are unlikely to be attacked by someone using Wing Chun, so there is little use sparring in this way. If you have a history in another fighting style, you can use this style in sparring. For example, I have a done a small amount of boxing in the past, so when acting as a sparring partner, I go into a boxing style. If you have a background in wrestling, or Muay Thai, use that. It will help the trainee* get used to dealing with different styles. If you have no history in other styles, you should just use random attacks that come naturally, which is what many people on the street will do.
Another thing I do as a sparring partner is try to “act” like an MMA fighter. That is, I try to use punches, kicks and takedowns even though I have no MMA background. Of course this is not ideal, and I am no doubt performing the techniques inaccurately. However, I am at least ensuring the trainee is thinking about defending him or herself against different kinds of attacks.
2. Vary the “rules”
Following on from above, when acting as a sparring partner, I will often vary the “rules”. For example, against beginners I will often only use punches. When they become more comfortable against punches I will also use kicks. Or I will perhaps agree to use only kicks. Later I will use punches, kicks and takedown attempts, all together. The point is to gradually increase the variety of attacks your training partners can cope with.
3. Don’t pull punches too much when sparring
I have often noticed at training that sparring partners often do not actually try to hit the trainee. I have witnessed situations where the sparring partner has pulled punches by over a foot or punched a foot wide of the mark. Whilst this ensures the trainee does not get hurt, it also makes it impossible for them to practice their defence properly, which defeats the object of the exercise. Instead of pulling punches, a good alternative is to for both training partners put on headgear, and body padding and aim to land proper hits. Another alternative, which I use as a sparring partner, is to keep open palms and aim to land taps on the upper chest or side of the neck of the trainee. This forces the trainee to block, but if they mess up, they will not get a fist to the face.
4. Vary the pace and power
When attacking, you should use a variety of paces against the trainee. Going flat out all the time is not ideal, especially against beginners. I have been to some martial arts classes where more senior students have simply battered their training partner for 10 minutes, even leaving them injured (e.g. broken nose). This is no way to improve your training partner’s skills. They won’t be able to train very well or defend themselves on the street if they are nursing broken ribs and a dead leg.
In general, if I am sparring with a beginner trainee, I attack at half pace or even slower to get them used to practicing their techniques. Only as they get more proficient do I speed up until they can handle my flat out attacks.
Having said this, I sometimes put this rule to the side. For example, with a lot of beginners I will spend just a minute or so attacking full speed (but only three quarter power) just so that they get a realistic idea of the type of speed they will have to learn to cope with. I then go back to attacking slowly to help them practice. Conversely, with more advanced students I will sometimes find that there are certain attacks they can’t quite deal with, such as the uppercut. In this case I will attack at pull pace but slow down when using the uppercut in order to allow them to practice.
With regards to power, the primary aim should be to ensure that you do not injure the trainee. As noted above, he or she won’t be able to train or defend themselves on the street if they are nursing injuries. For this reason I vary the power I use from as low as 20 percent with beginners to 75 or 100 percent for advanced students. However, when using power I ensure I only aim for well protected areas (such as the head if he is wearing headgear). I never aim at the throat, for example. I also never use strikes which I know will injure the trainee such as stamp kicks to the side of the knee, for example. Instead I may lightly place my foot where I would be kicking, just to let the trainee know they were in a vulnerable position.
5. Talk with your training partner
If the trainee demolishes you no matter what you try against him or her, they perhaps don’t need too much feedback. However, this is not very often the case. There is usually room for improvement. In this case, take a break every couple of minutes and give some feedback to the trainee. You might say things like “I was able to hit you with a left hook a couple of times, so make sure you’re ready to block that hit.” Similarly, if the trainee did something particularly well, it is good to let them know, so that they realise they should keep doing it. Finally, you should ask if there was anything the trainee found particularly difficult or if there is anything they feel they need to work on. The trainee may, for example, say: “I’d like you to add in some more sweeping kicks to the legs because I find them difficult to deal with. Maybe do them a bit slow to begin with and then speed them up.” Then when you get back to sparring you should try to add in these kicks.
Hopefully these tips will help gradually improve your sparring and fighting ability. Good luck with your training.
*In this article the term “sparring partner” refers to the person using non-Wing Chun techniques. The term “trainee” refers to the person practicing his or her Wing Chun.