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The Importance of Intense Sparring
by Emily Klinefelter
/Icor Boxing
April 13, 2017

(APR 13)  Now that the risk of concussions and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) is well-known in combat sports and other contact sports, there has been a lot of talk about minimizing that risk through low-contact, or controlled sparring.

A little history: I personally suffered a career-ending TBI, so this is not a subject that I take lightly. After a 10 plus year career as a competitive amateur and professional boxer and MMA fighter where I never once had been knocked out or even knocked down in all my 96 fights and thousands of rounds of sparring, in my 10th professional boxing match and 97th career fight, I suffered a career-ending head injury. Quite frankly, I’m lucky to be okay today. I have reflected a lot on my career and injury and there definitely are things I would have changed to decrease the amount of punishment I took if I could go back in time. I certainly agree and sympathize with those who are concerned about TBIs and concussions and advocate for controlled and less-than-full-contact sparring.

That said, a distinction needs to be made between the sparring needs of the beginner and the seasoned competitive fighter. If a newbie with zero fighting or sparring experience thinks that he or she (I will be using “she” from here out for stylistic purposes, however everything applies to both men and women) can just spar lightly in practice and then do well in her first fight, she will likely be in for a rude awakening come fight night. For someone who is just starting out in boxing or another combat sport, the initial goal of sparring should be to get her comfortable with the intensity of getting hit and staying calm under fire so she can effectively execute offense and defense. Well before you ever step in the ring for your first fight you should have already experienced what it feels like to be in a fight for your life where your opponent is literally trying to take your head off. Let’s not kid ourselves, this is what a fight is—your opponent is there to try to maim and destroy you, so you had better be ready for that.

Another challenge faced by first-time fighters is performance regression. Like it or not, the vast majority of first-time fighters can execute only about half of their skill sets and boxing knowledge in their first fight. This almost universal phenomenon can be attributed to nerves, also known as stage fright. In the intensity of the fight, instinct takes over and you can take about 50% of what that fighter can normally do while sparring in the gym and just throw it out the window. Often, the result equates to a regression of several months of the fighter’s training and development. The gap between performance in practice verses competition narrows with competitive experience. This is why having plenty of intense and challenging sparring before your first fight is absolutely essential.

Just to be clear, in no way am I promoting that brand-new students in their first sparring match be thrown in the deep end and told to swim. Before the fighter’s first competition, she should have participated in numerous intense sparring sessions. The closer you can get to the intensity level of an actual fight, the better. That said, it is wise for the introduction of sparring to be gradual. What I have found to work well is start by having the newbie throw punches at a purely defensive, and more experienced, opponent. That gives her the feel of what it’s like to hit a live, moving target rather than a predictable bag. After a few offense-only sparring sessions, you can gradually increase the intensity level in a controlled manner. Good ways to start are body-only sparring, or jab-only sparring. Then eventually you can do right-hand-only sparring, or jab and body sparring, etc. Another effective method is set counter drills: A throws a jab; B parries the jab and counters with the right cross, etc., etc. The length of the combinations and counter combinations can be gradually increased. While these controlled sparring strategies are a good way for beginners to get their feet wet, they do not eliminate the need for competition-simulated sparring sessions.

Once a student is ready for free sparring with no restrictions, the student should be paired with a more experienced fighter who can control her speed, power, and intensity to match the newer athlete’s level. After a few of those sparring sessions, the student should be matched with another student of similar size, ability, and experience level…a “fair fight.” This is where the newbie will really experience a high level of sparring intensity that replicates what she will experience in a competitive bout. After the student is comfortable with this level of sparring, the challenge should be increased by either having a more experienced fighter up the level a bit or by sparring a bigger and/or more skilled teammate of a similar experience level. By challenging yourself as much as possible in the gym, you minimize the chance of being unprepared and/or caught off guard in a fight.

A coach that only exposes a new boxer or fighter to light sparring is doing a serious disservice to the athlete if she intends to compete. If the new boxer enters her first fight with an inflated sense of her abilities and with no clue about just how hard his opponent is going come after her trying to decapitate her, the trainer has let her athlete down. There is a good chance that such an under-prepared fighter will lose badly, possibly getting stopped or knocked out. That outcome will likely leave the fighter feeling humiliated and demoralized and could very well be the end of her fighting career. Sadly, with better preparation and a more realistic understanding of the intensity of a competitive bout, that same fighter probably could have gone on to have a long and successful competitive career.

Once a fighter is no longer a “novice” (under 10 fights according to USA Boxing’s definition), there is a good chance that she is somewhat comfortable with taking heavy blows and understands the intense nature of a competitive bout. At that point, hard sparring becomes less important and sparring sessions should be more focused on developing offensive and defensive skills, strategy, and the ability to adapt her style to different opponents. Nevertheless, an occasional (a few times a month) intense sparring session is more beneficial, I believe, than it is harmful for even a seasoned fighter, given reasonable safety measures are practiced (a 200lb fighter shouldn’t be using 100% power on a 120lb fighter, for example). Challenging yourself is the key to continued progress and development for all athletes, regardless of age, gender, or discipline.

If you want to participate in combat sports but worry about suffering a TBI, that is completely understandable. Depending on your goals, desires, and abilities, you can participate in boxing and other fighting sports at all levels of contact and intensity from just shadow boxing in front of your mirror at home, to taking a no-contact boxing class all the way to fighting in sanctioned competitions and everything in between. Boxing has something to offer to almost everyone and I don’t want discourage anyone from trying boxing just because you don’t want to get hit. That said, if your primary concern while participating in combat sports is your physical safety, a lengthy or successful competitive fighting career probably isn’t in your in future. My advice? Know yourself, be honest with yourself, and if your tolerance for the potential risk of a head injury is low, then stick to participating in combat sports in a no-to-low-contact environment. There is nothing wrong with that.

There is no denying that boxing and other combat and contact sports can be dangerous and even deadly. That inherent risk is one that everyone who participates in such sports should understand and respect. While it is absolutely prudent to take measures to reduce the risk for injuries of all nature, including brain injuries, we must be honest with ourselves about the ultimate goal of boxing and other combat sports, which is to defeat and hopefully knock out your opponent. If your goal isn’t to knock out your opponent, that is fine, but you had better believe that your opponent’s goal is to knock you out. It’s much better to discover that you’re not quite ready for competition in the gym than in your first fight. Although not an infallible test, intense, competition-level sparring is the best method we have for assessing that critical question.

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