The following section is graciously provided by Mr. John Graden. John is a former elite level competitor and master instructor. His approach to teaching sparring is perhaps the most insightful application of the principles of specificity and progressive overload available to martial artists. Johns approach might seem unusual, but the retention rates (and competitive records) of his students are a testament to its effectiveness. What follows is his personal account.
"Few areas of training can define martial arts spirit more clearly than sparring. From 1984 until about 1989 I was training three times a week in a dark, nasty boxing gym with American karate legend Joe Lewis. The only reason we would miss the workouts was the scheduling challenges his seminars sometimes presented. The fighting was hard, brutal and as intense as you can imagine climbing into a 12 foot by 12 foot ring with the man named as the greatest fighter in the history of karate could be. He taught me that the fighting should be as real as possible. He also confirmed my opinion that point karate had little value in instilling the tenacity or attitudinal conditioning necessary to go three rounds with anybody, which we agreed should be a minimum standard for a professional black belt.
My motivation has always been as a teacher, not a fighter or champion. Even though at the same time I was traveling to Europe regularly to compete with the United States Karate Team, I've never had a compelling drive to be a world champion or trophy collector. I've always competed for the education and experience. Whenever I'm in a learning environment, such as working with a great teacher or taking a personal development seminar, I am always asking myself, "How can I teach this to my students?"
In the case of fighting with Joe Lewis the question changed to, "How do I teach this to my students without driving them out the door or to the hospital?" In most schools, sparring is one of the leading causes of drop out among students. Even when the school sticks to the relative stop and go safety of point karate students still drop out. How then could I motivate these students to engage in sparring without hurting them or scaring them off?
I learned that the key is in the perspective you keep in working with your students. If your goal is to get your students to black belt, then you must realize that you have three to five years to accomplish that. Its important then that you structure your curriculum to gradually introduce the student to sparring. There's no rush. Some may argue that the sooner a student starts to spar the sooner they can learn how to defend themselves. My feeling is that if a student drops out because of sparring too early in their career then they will never learn to defend themselves anyway. Not to mention missing out on all the life enhancing qualities inherent in the martial arts. A student that drops out of karate because of sparring is a student we have failed.
In our school, our white and gold belts are required to learn simple block and counters with hand and kick pads on. These are executed against the jab and reverse punch but without any contact. In addition we will have them work slipping drills, target drills, defensive footwork drills and set point movement drills to get them moving and firing. Understand that this represents the first six to eight months of their training. Often schools have their students sparring within the first three months. Ours don't even make contact for eight months.
When the students graduate into the orange and green belt class they begin to actually spar following the rules of light contact continuous karate. However, there is still no head contact but body contact is permitted. Of course, they have headgear, hand and foot pads, shin pads, mouthpiece, rib guards and a cup for the guys.
At this point we begin to devote more and more of each class to limited sparring drills. A limited sparring drill is a sparring match with a strategy other than winning as the goal. For instance, one student might be limited to only a jab to the forehead. For these drills we always target the forehead for safety instead of the face. His partner could then be limited to using only position movement (footwork) and head movement as a defense. So the jabber is working on stepping in and snapping his jab to the forehead while the defensive fighter is learning to slip and move against an attack. The following round we may have the defensive fighter add hand traps to his defensive choices. Round three e may slow things down a bit and put the defensive fighter against a wall to prevent them from running. The final round could allow a counter technique to be thrown. So we're preventing the fighters from being overwhelmed by trying to figure out what to do. At the same time they are actively, enjoyably and safely engaged in a sparring like exercise. The end result is the defensive fighter gains confidence in avoiding contact. You can see in this scenario there is no winner or loser. Instead the students are taught to judge the match by how well they stuck to the strategies of the drill.
WTiile the majority of the class time devoted to sparring is spent on limited sparring drills, we will allow them to go a round or two of free sparring under black belt supervision. The matches always begin with the students introducing themselves and shaking hands with their partner and a review of the sparring attitude towards each other which is "I'll make sure you don't get hurt." Also, explain to the students that while control is required and demanded, they are going to get accidentally whacked on occasion just as they are going to whack someone else. Teach them exactly how to inform their partner the contact is too hard. You can even talk to them about the tone in which they make the request to lighten up. An angry demand may elicit a different response than a respectful but firm request. Respect and courtesy are the key attitudes and make sure that the person being requested to lighten up is taught that "Yes ma'am" or "Yes sir" is the only acceptable response. Only the person getting hit can determine the contact level and they cannot be questioned.
After an additional eight months in that class the students graduate into the blue and red belt level. At this point, they are allowed to make light head contact in addition to moderate body contact to the rib guard. Students are taught to strike the head gear and not the face. You may think that 12 to 16 months is long time to wait to spar with head contact. I think many of your students might disagree with you. I would also argue that your students have a lifetime to spar from that point on. Students must be mentally conditioned and their confidence and tenacity built to prepare them for actual sparring which is part of the Phase One training explained earlier in the book. At that point mentally they are ready to face the challenges sparring will present. But now, after a year of training they're ready to meet it head on with excitement and anticipation instead of anxiety and trepidation. Eight months later they graduate into the brown and black belt class where the intensity and contact level is somewhat more "realistic." But after close to two years of training and preparation these students are ready for the challenge mentally and physically.
Take good care of your students and nurture them along to ensure they are going to be part of your school and part of our martial arts family for a very long time. When they enroll, they are investing a lot of trust in your leadership and guidance. Few areas of the martial arts can be as confusing or intimidating as sparring. Keep a long term black belt oriented perspective on training your students and you will have a much better chance of having them stick around to successfully achieve that goal and more."
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