How can I learn to handle the pressure in sparring?
The most common question I get asked when coaching around the world is,
“how can I learn to handle the pressure in sparring?”
If you are focused on developing a performance game, a game that will stand up to the fire of reality in martial performance, then this is one of the most important questions to ask. The answer however may be counter intuitive.
My Foray Into Boxing
When I first went to learn how to box in my teens, it really was a case of ‘sink or swim’. In the gym that I trained, under the watchful eye of Willie Toweel (bronze medalist in the flyweight division at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki) my fellow pugilists were all competitors. There was no one in that gym boxing for fun (the dreaded emergence of boxercise hadn’t surfaced yet). Surrounded by both amateur and professional competitors, training was tough. In fact the first person I ever sparred with was Thulani ‘Sugar Boy’ Malinga, who twice held the WBC super middleweight title. And although Willy told him to go easy on me, and I know he did, his easy felt like a freight train slamming into my skull. I would go on to spar Sugar Boy many times after that first experience (even after he broke my nose).
When I look back on my formative years in boxing, the reason I stuck around was because going to the boxing gym, was a far better proposition than hanging around in my neighbourhood. As I have written about elsewhere, by neighbourhood was invested by those cockroaches called gangs, and getting my but handed to me in boxing, was a viable way to prevent not having my butt handed to me on the streets. With that said though, most people who didn’t have that kind of Rocky desire to push through the tough training, the headaches, and physical punishment — would likely quit within a week. As I was surrounded by professionals, quitting for me at least wasn’t an option. As I began to coach full-time however, I quickly realised that most other people weren’t that tough, and the fastest way to run your MMA business into the ground was to have people spar.
With that said though, it has become increasingly clear that it’s not so much that people don’t lack toughness (something you can develop over time) but rather, that the training method to get them, and keep them in sparring is often wrong. In the down right and dirty floors of boxing gyms, many, if not all the students there come from impoverished neighbourhoods. They have, to say it bluntly, known toughness from the very first time they set their foot in the world. If this wasn’t the case for me, I would have quit boxing the first time Sugar Boy punched me in the face. That kind of ‘sink of swim’ kind of immersion into the world of performance boxing is great if you want to separate those that will become champions in the sport, and those who wont. But for the average bloke, just wanting to develop some self defence skills, and experience the exhilaration of gloves colliding with other pugilists — it’s a recipe doomed to fail, simply, most people will just quit.
I have learned a lot over the years from these experiences. Most notably how to answer that question this piece began with: “how can I learn to handle the pressure in sparring?” And the best way to do this isn’t a ‘sink or swim’ approach.
Sparring For Performance & Handling The Pressure: The Right Way!
My answer to this question is counter intuitive, and an answer or at least an approach I wish was available to me when I first climbed in the ring. The truth is if you really want to get good at sparring, the environment has to be set up in such a way that will allow it to flourish in EVERYONE. Here several things stand out,
Core Foundation of Skills: Before you worry about someone punching you, you need to know how to punch yourself. Sadly, many performance based striking systems rely heavily on an attribute driven approach to learning from day one. This means, many of the techniques learned, require a good amount of speed, timing, power, and precision to pull it off. This is great if: a) you already have those attributes b) or if you don’t, but you willing to be dropped a thousand times till you get them (my experience in boxing). But for everyone else, especially people who have never really spent a life in violence, getting punched, and punching someone else is a foreign concept.
This is where I feel Crazy Monkey Defence truly stands out. I have painstakingly developed a system that will allow anyone, regardless of their level of ‘attributes’ to learn a solid foundation, that can be quickly deployed into a performance system. The four main focus areas of this system are,
Balance: your ability to strike, and defend strikes is predicated on how well you are able to remain in balance. A lot of this then revolves around footwork that doesn’t compromise that balance, a fighting stance that maintains balance, and an overarching approach that builds both physical and psychological balance.
Defence: Little or no amount of time is spent on defence in most fight gyms. Everyone wants to know how to hit, but what they don’t realise is that, if you can’t successfully defend and survive a hit, you will never hit back. It is for that reason that Crazy Monkey is obsessed with developing a persons defensive capabilities first.
Tight Economical Structure: Under pressure, techniques break down. If you are not a fighter, and you find yourself in a highly charged sparring match, there is a strong likelihood that you will lose your structure. Swinging your punches, or opening yourself up, just gives a trained pugilist more opportunity to time those openings and hit you. Keeping tight, and staying tight, both in stance, but equally in executing technique is crucial to success in sparring.
Conditioning: Gas is everything in a fight. Get tired, and it doesn’t matter what you think you know. The great thing about getting fit for sparring, is that if you spar, that will take care of itself.
It always amazes me, that even people who have trained with me, never got what I meant when I explained something. I never once said attributes are not important to fight performance, or that if you have them that you shouldn’t use them. What I said was this: I spend most of my time coaching the average Joe (like 99% of all other martial art instructors..duh). These are the guys and girls who spend a lot of their time behind a desk. Most if not all, have hardly ever been in any kind of violence, outside a scuffle on a school playground a decade or more earlier. In other words, these students are not going to rock up on my floor or in my ring with their inner fight ape rearing to go. Simply put, they won’t have the speed, power, timing, precision etc, at that moment to make a lot of what is typically taught in standard fight schools work. This is why, I start from the premise of taking as much of the need for attributes out, build it on a system that works from that premise, and then over time, they will build the necessary attribute capacity. This will then, if given an intelligent approach to learning a combat sport rise to the surface in their sparring performance (or if this is not your cup of tea, you can try the ‘sink and swim strategy’ and watch everyone give up early).
2. Progressive Stress Inoculation: Once the core foundational skills are in the works, one can now turn attention to progressive stress inoculation. In simple terms this means, giving a person enough challenge so they feel the pressure, and need to work against it, but the pressure is not so much that they fold (this is also a central premise behind the Flow State).
For example, after teaching core foundational skills, can the person asked to perform that in live sparring still execute those foundational skills, or are they turning their back, going into a survival fetal position, closing their eyes, or seem to be fighting out of a panic state? If they are, the pressure is way to high, and it needs to be dialled back. It serves no purpose for someone learning to spar to be doing so while freaking out, and making huge massive mistakes. All that will happen is that this person will develop bad habits, that will in the end, be very difficult to break (the opposite to a Flow state is depression).
In order to successfully achieve progressive stress inoculation in sparring you need a really good coach. It’s interesting that there are places (especially in the jiu-jitsu community) who have taken out live rolling (the jits version of boxing sparring) for the first year, relying instead of various drills. I suspect the reason for this is, because when they just let people roll, they lost a ton of students. This isn’t because people are wimps, but rather, if you just let people live roll, the tough will rise to the surface, and everyone else left behind will quit. Some will argue this is a good thing, but then those are not the people who run a successful, financially viable martial arts school. If you only want to train fighters then fine (even then I would argue this is a stupid approach to peak fight performance), but you also exclude 99% of the people who could greatly benefit from the truth in combat.
The truth is, if you can’t have people sparring at some level within 1-month its because you are a bad coach, not because your students are wimps. If you taught a solid foundation, made everything you did progressive stress inoculated, and follow it up with isolation game sparring (to follow) everyone can learn how to live spar pretty quickly and crucially safely!
3. Isolation game sparring: Outside of building a solid foundation, followed by sparring that is tempered to a level of intensity a person can handle, isolating parts of the game in sparring is a fantastic strategy to build a formidable sparring game. Again here is where Crazy Monkey stands out. When we coach sparring to our students, we break the game up into the outside, the mid-line and close quarters (clinch boxing). We start EVERYONE out at the outside game first. This is sparring at a distance — options are limited — but because of that, it is a fantastic place to get used to hitting and being hit.
We also have a ton of live drills we have developed, and depending on the students we are working with, we can tailor both the complexity of what is asked of them, along with progressive stress inoculation levels. For example, I may ask two new students to play the outside game only (which means they can’t move into the mid or clinch games), and stick only to good movement, a focus on solid defence, while both only using their jab hand. Once I see they are getting that down, and crucially working well within each others ability to handle the pressure, I can add a cross in , etc. What is important here, is that while these are still drills, they are drills applied in live training (albeit set upon an approach that limits what they are able to perform).
4. Environment Informs Behaviour: Two guys throwing leather at each other to the brink of someone getting hurt isn’t their fault. A bunch of people tearing into each other in a live roll, snapping on arm-bars before anyone has a chance to tap, isn’t their fault. The fault starts and ends with the coach. The coach more than anyone else, decides the environment. Stopping people from sparring or live rolling in my opinion doesn’t solve a problem of live training making people leave. If you as the coach do not stamp out people’s ‘inner jerkness’, a year later, it’s still going to be there. Having conversations then about what kind of environment you want to create, and how you want students to ‘act’ in that environment is crucial to sparring success.
In Crazy Monkey we don’t just talk about leaving your ego at the door, we enforce it. If you going to be a ‘Meathead’ on the mat, you will be sent to the naughty corner. If that doesn’t shake you out of it, we ask you to leave. Everyone is on the mat to help each other grow, not to chop down trees. Just because we want a healthy, ego free sparring experience doesn’t mean people don’t develop a performance fight game. In fact, the opposite is true, because the experience is about learning, and based on personal challenge (doing better than you did yesterday based on your own game not others). Approaching sparring this way, allows anyone who thought they could never put gloves on and spar to realise that they can. And they do it very well.
5. Slow is Fast: This is probably the most counter intuitive suggestion of all. Getting really good at sparring doesn’t always require you to go fast. In fact, going slow, not only slows you down physically but mentally. The consequences? You notice more where you going wrong, where the holes are, and are more in a position to fix it in the moment of sparring were it matters most. I have a drill where I purposively ask people to spar slow. The winner is the person who can slow down the most, but still achieve their goals. As a coach, this is also a really good opportunity to see where someone is messing up. You think slow sparring won’t make you tired, or test you? Think again, you will be very surprised. Plus, this is a great way to get across the idea of environment informs behaviour. Beyond that, just like before, I can also isolate different game areas too. What a person can do with this idea (and the rest above) is only limited by their imagination.
If you want to get really good at sparring, if you want to be able to handle the pressure associated with sparring — then you need to spar. There is no shortcuts I am afraid. But it is how you spar, that makes the difference. I have highlighted a few points on how to achieve this. If you not training in Crazy Monkey you likely won’t find this approach in most places. Sadly, most fight gyms still work on the premise of ‘sink and swim’. The good news of course is that there are many top UFC fighters coming out and advocating what I have presented here, albeit it that we have been doing it that way for a decade.
Beyond what I have already pointed out, sparring in the way I have outlined is also healthy, both physically and mentally. To be honest, we are truly lucky we have such resilient body’s, because the way many places allow people to spar, there should be a lot more sever injuries. I suspect there is, but for those people who have gone home battered and bruised they simply won’t go back — with the trainer left to think they just quit. The health consequences of sparring, when letting people just smash each other, are not always evident immediately, its when you get to my age, that they become evident. Trust me, you don’t want to be suffering from the incessant headaches I have weekly, severe neck pain, and back aches that I contend with now — all due to that sink and swim time in my early teens and twenties. If you go to a gym, and they don’t offer sparring the way I have described, then walk out. As much as you want to get really good at the performance of sparring, your health is always more important in the end.