Following are 7 strategies that I use all the time in sparring. All of these strategies where inspired by my reading of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. When people learn a striking game, they think it’s simply just about landing a punch. but it’s so more than that — and nowhere is this more evident than in sparring. Sparring is both a physical chaotic dance, as much as it is a psychological one. Technique alone cannot win a fight, you need a strategic understanding on how to use your mind and your body to overcome an opponent. Thankfully, great teachers of these tactics, like Sun Tzu did the work for us. All that is then required is to extrapolate the meaning hidden within their teachings, and then find the best way to apply them to your game.

Here is one of my favorite passages from the Art of War. Followed by how I actually use these ideas Sun Tzu describes in live sparring.

Warfare is one thing.It is a philosophy of deception.
When you are ready, you try to appear incapacitated.
When active, you pretend inactivity.
When you are close to the enemy, you appear distant.
When far away, you pretend you are near.
You can have an advantage and still entice an opponent.
You can be disorganized and still be decisive.
You can be ready and still be preparing.

Warfare is one thing. It is a philosophy of deception.

Sun Tzu writes about how warfare is built upon a philosophy of deception. Sparring can be understood in the same light. Deception is the name of the game. I would add that it is also a game of misdirection. The goal is never to truly allow your opponent to know your strengths, or your weaknesses. It is one of the reasons why remaining stoic is so popular in the fight game. Knowingly, or unknowingly people who apply this strategy are hiding their true intentions, and how they really feel about what’s going on.
If I don’t show you that I am not doing that well as I would like, then you never know I am weak. It’s unnerving when an opponent doesn’t show any weaknesses, even when you know for sure you are catching him. This idea of ‘deception’ follows through into the next part of the passage above from Sun Tzu….…

When you are ready, you try to appear incapacitated.

Coming in strong in sparring, showing your hand, how hard you can hit, or how good your technique is, how fast you are etc, can lead to your downfall. This strategy only works when you are winning. But if you over use it, and you do not achieve the desired outcome you were hopping for, the consequences may be dire.
If you show your hand, your best game, and when that best game doesn’t work, you begin to doubt yourself, you become insecure in your movements, and you second guess your strategy.
If there is one thing I have learned over many years of sparring, is that your opponent will always rise to your game (or at the very least attempt too). He has to in order to survive, because he really has no choice, the alternative is his loss.
By taking the advice of Sun Tzu, and faced with a formidable opponent, I make myself look incapacitated. It’s a game that makes me look less skilled than I really am. I know by doing this my opponents confidence will rise, that his sense of achievement will swell — but I also know that with over confidence comes arrogance, unnecessary risk taking, and often my opponent will then go beyond his current resource capacity. Knowing this, reading it when it happens, and when the time is right I launch my best game on him. Naturally it catches my opponent completely off guard.
Often, and almost immediately afterwards, I go back to playing incapacitated. I know that this strategy will make my opponent think it was just a fluke, a lucky shot. But in the back of my mind, I know better.

When active, you pretend inactivity.

Anyone who has ever been coached by me will recognise the following statement, “Never move at your fastest, because if you have to suddenly go faster, there is no ‘faster’ that you can go”.
Watch most guys spar and they go a hundred miles an hour. They come flying out of the corner as fast as they can. If this strategy fails however, and your opponent is not impressed or is unnerved by your lightning attack — he will as all opponents do, rise to your level of speed — and if he is faster surpass you completely.
When that happens, because you were going as fast as you possibly can, you have no where else to go. There is no faster than your fastest. What started off as a seemingly great strategy begins to turn back on you, you hesitate, you question your ability, and your opponent finds opportunities in your indecisiveness.
Instead you want to only move as fast as you have too to accomplish your intended goal. For example move only as fast as you have to in order to get out of the way of his attack. Change the speed of your own attack. Seem slower than you really are until the opportune moment. This is what Sun Tzu meant by remaining active, while pretending to be inactive.

When you are close to the enemy, you appear distant.

This is one of my most favourite strategies in sparring. I use my jab to give the opponent the perception that I am far away.
The trick here is to shorten the jab, by keeping the elbow slightly bent.
Most opponents expect that when you jab, that you will do it with full extension. But when you bend the elbow in the jab slightly, you know that when you do extend it, the reach will be much further.
Combine this with what I call ‘zig-zag’ footwork, moving left slightly, then right slightly, then back to left, while all the time moving forward and working the ‘bent’ jab — will bring you closer to the opponent without him ever realising that you have. This is what Sun Tzu meant by when you are close, appear distant to him.

When far away, you pretend you are near.

This is the exact reverse of the strategy Sun Tzu talked about earlier “when close to the enemy, appear distant”.
Here the challenge is knowing that you are to far to effectively attack, but yet at the same time not allowing the opponent to know this. In order to achieve this, you must rely heavily on the full extension of your jab, while at the same time using what boxers refer to as ‘cutting off the ring’.
You may be out of distance, but if you begin to move in on the opponent, while firing the jab, coupled with circling on him, cutting him off in the direction he is trying to move into, you will seem closer than you really are.
The opponent now realises that he has no where to escape to or has lost control of the center of the mat/ring — he then will panic, push forward, in an attempt to break free — and this is exactly the time for your counterattack. This is what Sun Tzu meant by when far away, you pretend you are near.


You can have an advantage and still entice an opponent.

Lets say you are controlling the match. You know you are in control. But typically the opponent knowing this too, begins to use a more defensive game. In Crazy Monkey, our defence is the cornerstone of our program. And it’s really effective against aggressive, dominant opponents. It is hard to strike a decisive blow, when the opponent stops fighting back and goes to a defensive position.
This is when you need to entice him to attack back. Even though you know you are controlling the match, right now you need him to fight back so he will create openings on himself, ands in doing so he will make mistakes. In other words, you need him to hit you, so you can counter-hit him back.
Here you can pull back a bit on your attack, or purposively create openings that ‘entices’ him to attack into. All the while, you are ready to capitalise on the openings the opponent makes as he attacks you. This is often evident when the opponent who previously playing a defensive game then attacks you — often that attack is out of desperation (his trying to stay in the game). Desperation is often absent of skilled technique, and typically an opponent then over stretches, looses composure, or swings wild — in either case, by using enticement, you can now capitalise on the emerging openings.

You can be disorganized and still be decisive.

No matter how good you are in your sparring game, we all have those moments on the mat when we feel completely disorganized. I had one of these experiences just the other day. But through experience I know that I can turn that around, and still as Sun Tzu suggests, be decisive.
In Crazy Monkey I coach what I call the 4-Drivers. These are the four gears that drive a successful, unbreakable stand up game. When I find myself disorganized in my sparring, I always default to those 4-Drivers first.
I go through them just like the checklist my wife gives me when she sends me out shopping (and you know what will happen if I come back with an item missing). In the same vein, the 4-Drivers have to be engaged, to bring some order back to the game of sparring.
So next time you are ‘disorganized’ in sparring, check your first Driver: balance. Make sure you are not out of balance and fumbling over your feet.
Secondly check Driver 2: defence. If you feeling disorganized, and you make sure your defence is working, this will be a huge help in getting you reorganised. Nothing ‘disorganises’ your game more than getting punched in the face.
Next check Driver 3: tight economical structure. Keep your punches tight, no matter how disorganized you feel. This is the same for your fighting stance. This is why we adopt a semi-crouched, high guard fighting stance in Crazy Monkey called the hunchback. The way you stand and the way you move, directly affects your mental game. Keeping tight, brings on what I call psychological armour. When you feel safe in your body, you feel safe in your head.
Finally once you have done all of the above (which should take you only a few seconds with training), check the fourth and final Driver: conditioning. Here focusing on how you are breathing is huge. Outside of losing your defence, losing your breath is the second biggest sparring game ‘disorganiser’ that can happen to you. Slow and steady breathing wins the race or in this case the sparring round.

You can be ready and still be preparing.

This is all about adaptability. There is nothing worse than an overconfident fighter. You can feel ready for the sparring match, but always be preparing, in other words, be adaptable, and be willing to change your strategy if it is not working.
I can’t tell you how many countless times I have seen guys go into sparring with a game plan that just isn’t working, but they insist on trying the same strategy over and over. As the saying goes, the “definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over but expecting a different result”.
Being ready while preparing, starts with playing this out of your training sparring. I try as many different approaches in training sparring as I can come up with. This means, I try and spar completely different in every round. One round I focus on pressing forward (a pressurer), the next round I angle (an angler), the next round I run more (a runner), or focus on a round just countering (A counter fighter). Not only does this keep training fresh, it prepares me for the real sparring rounds where I realise that my strategy isn’t working. Because I play adaptability in training sparring, I have a large array of possible sparring strategies to draw from. Sadly I see so many people however get stuck in one strategy, and that is all they do. They are as they say a “one trick pony”.