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5 Mistakes that are Killing your Sparring Program

By Christopher Rappold


When I walk into a school and see two or three high-level students training at the prime time (4:00 pm to 8:00 pm), with no other members in site, my eyebrows raise. When I see a class full of students who are not performing the technical skills correctly, I get restless. Each of these extremes are different, but, in both cases, the school owners or instructors are probably making one of the 5 Mistakes that can sabotage a sparring program. So what are the 5 Mistakes? Well let’s take a look at each one so you can make certain you aren’t making them.


Mistake Number 1 – Teaching offense first.


Sparring is learning how to move with another partner. To do it well, a student needs to be able to relax. They can only relax if they feel safe. Instructors have to remember to perceive safety though the eyes and feelings of a beginner. Help everyone feel safe by teaching defense first.


Mistake Number 2 – Developing speed and power while sparring.


The purpose of sparring is to help learn timing, distance and the familiarization of both you and your partner’s movement. To do this in a safe manner, train with touch pressure and speed that doesn’t exceed half speed. Save speed and power for Wavemasters, kicking shields, focus pads, etc. Remember, both NFL and UFC athletes practice their skills with touch pressure when they are training with each other. If they didn’t, they would be hurt before they ever showed up for the game on Sunday or the pay-per-view event on Saturday night.


Mistake Number 3 - Spending most of the time free sparring.


Free sparring in proper proportion is very valuable. What I often find is that due to the lack of a well-laid-out curriculum, instructors default to letting the students free spar all the time. Switch your ratio to spending 80% or more of the time letting the students practice isolation drills so they can properly understand how to execute the techniques correctly. This will improve their understanding, confidence and control. Then, when they weave what you have taught them into free sparring, their chances for successful execution of a technique are dramatically improved.


Mistake Number 4 -Teaching everyone in class the same.


Instead of making each student try to keep up with the best student, or dropping the whole class to the level of the new student, use drills that allow everyone to work on the same skill, at his or her own pace. At Level 1, teach the drill stationary with no resistance. When a student can do the drill 8 out of 10 times correctly bring them to Level 2. At Level 2 the students can start to cooperatively and predictably move around. When the students can do this correctly, they are allowed to practice at Level 3. Level 3 is when an appropriate level of off-setting and resistance is allowed. This will start to give the student the feel for what it would really be like against a resisting opponent. Everyone’s practicing the same technique, but how they are practicing it is very different and it is controlled by the instructor.


Mistake Number 5 - Focusing on winning over progress.


The measure of whether a student leaves feeling like he or she had a great class comes down to if they walk away feeling like they are better at their skills than when they walked in. Everyone’s responsibility is to help everyone else get better. When sparring becomes purely competitive, and a student’s feeling of accomplishment is tied into winning, there is a very limited number of people who will leave feeling good. Most of the students will leave feeling defeated. Keep everyone focused on the feeling of progress as their win and watch how many more students enjoy the experience.



Functional martial arts sparring can and should be enjoyed by all. If that is not true at your school, consider making some adjustments. Your student body will love it and you will deal with a lot less discouragement, injury and complaints as your enrollment naturally grows.


Chris Rappold can be reached for questions or comments at [email protected]


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