Friday, November 25, 2005


Mars Cheung who trains in California posed the following question to me:

“While we're on the subject of sparring hard, Rodney, do you feel it's necessary to go hard? I wonder if we develop a false sense of security by always sparring light because the pain of contact is deescalated”.

I often get asked this question by coaches as well. I find most of them have not really thought the question through well enough and unintentionally cause more harm than good to their athletes when getting them to spar.

Several yeas ago I was adamant that everyone had to spar hard all the time or otherwise what was the point. My disdain for martial arts schools that did semi-contact sparring or no sparring at all left a bad taste in my mouth. I saw them as sellouts and us as the keepers of the truth. If I reflect back when I was in the ‘knock or be knock-out mentality’ it was the time when I found myself using what I coached nightly outside the doors of nightclubs as a bouncer. It was also my most insecure time and when I was the most afraid.

My opinion on sparring hard all the time has changed much over the years. Today I believe you need to ask yourself honestly why you are there first? There are three main categories of people seeking realistic, performance based martial art training who each require different strategies in respect to sparring. I have outlined them below:

If your career is one of danger and you would need to rely on the material coached in actual unarmed combat then absolutely yes, you have no choice but to go hard in training and especially sparring. You are going to have to a do a fare amount of full contact sparring during this period. These directives are to those in Law Enforcement, Military, VIP Protection and the sort. I would suggest that these groups of people spar relatively hard twice a week, with a further two to three sessions a month that are geared to going full out. It is very important that these personnel are adequately ‘stress inoculated’ against the rigors of unarmed combat. Training these personnel is more about getting them ‘comfortable’ while been attacked, keeping their minds clear under the stress of someone trying to beat them up or possibly kill them, been able to take a punch if needs be while ultimately been focused on getting the job done as quick as possible. For them it is not a matter of going several rounds, but rather quick explosive, full power bouts, with extra cardio required if it should take longer than expected. In fact outside of the stress inoculation during sparring sessions, equally important, if not the most important are the levels of cardio- fitness as well as conditioning of each member. Techniques taught and actually used in sparring should be kept to the minimum, but those taught must be able to be functionally applied.

If you are a competitive athlete say in Muay Thai, MMA, Boxing and the like you may need to approach this differently. How much sparring do you need? This is hard to say depending on the combative sport of your choice. I found it quit interesting in Thailand when I have gone there to learn Muay Thai that most camps do allot of work on pads and bags, boxing sparring relatively full out, actual Muay Thai sparring very light in case they become injured.They really only let loose on the weekend when they compete. The point here of course is that at least once a week they will be competing so there is the time to go full out. Over time this experience builds. My main advice here would be to find a qualified coach who knows how much time you should spend sparring for a particular combat sport.

My general guidelines would be for Boxing and Muay Thai that an active competitor should get six rounds in a day, three to four times a week. With the last sparring session of that week being the time where they go relatively hard. For MMA I would suggest four rounds a day, three times a week. With the same suggestion for the last day as for boxing and Muay Thai. How many times a month should you go full out? That’s hard to say, but I would get my guys to go harder in the last couple of rounds of each six round routine. This is important as it coaches them to push through when they are tired and their mind is playing tricks on them. The first few rounds are about using excellent technique while the last couple of rounds is just about sparring functionally.
I think the best advice would be that if you spar three times per week, to leave the last session of the week to go hard. Use the first four rounds to build up the pace, with the final couple of rounds going full out. Building pace in sparring is really important as it also teaches the athlete when and where to relax and when to really move up a gear or two.

Most classes are made up of the ‘average’ person and this is the third group. By average I mean in respect to the sport. They are typically the type of person wanting to do some sparring or realistic contact drills in case they should ever need it for self-defense. For these people I generally recommend three rounds of sparring on any given night, but no more. These people on average only train twice a week so this means that they will spar 6 rounds in a week. I also recommend having a Friday or Saturday session for those who would like to do more. How many times should they go hard? Twice a month at most. If you have a Fri/Sat session you could increase that by one more, but I feel that this is adequate based on their needs.

I think the most important aspect here and something that is largely overlooked is mental and emotional game. For the most part many of us spar and want to go hard because we want to see how well we would mentally cope with someone who fights back. It’s not uncommon to see someone with perfect technique on pads or the heavy back just crumble and loose all of it when he actually has to spar for real. It was not that he suddenly lost his technique, because he already had that, but rather he lost his mental and emotional game. No amount of continuing to work on this persons ‘technique’ is going to help him spar better and just making him spar thousands of rounds may not be the answer either!

Many coaches believe that if they just get there students to do tons of sparring they will eventually come right and be able to do it at a high level. I feel this is a grave mistake. It somewhat like saying that I am an addict and if I just say no enough times my addiction will cease. As one can imagine it is far more difficult than that (If you ever had to stick to a diet you know what I mean). If I look back this was also my own attitude, if they sparred long enough they would just get it. Now in retrospect, the ones I saw get it, where either athletes who where tough, attribute driven to begin with or already had excellent mental and emotional game. The later where few and far between.

With the help of Dr. Patrick Cohn, I have spent the last year working with my athletes from a whole different perspective. Outside of sparring we spend a considerable amount of time on mental and emotional game. Through a series of assessments we uncover the athletes main mental and emotional weaknesses and then map out a plan to work on it. We then superimpose our new mental and emotional ‘game plan’ onto the person when sparring and constantly spend time reflecting on what worked, what did not and which changes need to be made. The result, we now spend less time sparring but with greater results than ever before.

To conclude my suggestion would be stop worrying about how many times you spar, how much of the time is hard sparring, rather take a good look at yourself and see what is holding your game back, you will be very surprised to find out that it has nothing to do with technique.


Rodney is a Mental Games & Professional Martial Arts Coach. For more information on his services you can contact him at

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