Things to Avoid When Sparring

In Tensoku Ryu we teach that self-preservation is paramount. Self-defense and offensive actions are secondary. A similar model is useful when you are sparring. If you are not protecting yourself adequately or avoiding actions that place you at increased risk then you will likely not fare well. Presented below are a number of things you may wish to avoid doing.

Don’t Hop when Sparring/Fighting

Some martial artists hop up and down constantly when they spar. They do this sometimes as an expression of nervous energy and sometimes as a deliberate tactic. Those who do it as a tactic believe they are more responsive and quicker if they are constantly on the move.

Unfortunately, hopping makes you predictable. As the old saying goes, “What goes up, must come down.” How long it takes you to go up and come down is reasonably known to anyone who has used a jump rope, played hopscotch, practiced basketball layups, or run for any length of time. If a person is repeatedly jumping up and down it is not hard to hit them. Immediately before they have landed from the previous jump you spring forward to strike. The hopping motion will probably be a reflex action and they will hop again before they notice you have begun to move. They will likely be in mid-air and unable to move out of the way when your strike lands.

Another real downside to jumping is that it takes a tremendous amount of energy. If you are jumping and your opponent is not, you will expend significantly more energy than the other person. Even if you are more physically conditioned, you are making yourself much more tired than necessary, and perhaps much more tired than your opponent.

If you have adopted the habit of hopping then stop it. Stop it now. No. Really. Stop it.

Don’t Turn Your Back on Your Opponent

When you spar it is very easy to get turned around. You strike, your opponent blocks, and the next thing you know your opponent is behind you. In other cases you might deliberately turn away simply to avoid being struck. But of course, you can be hit from behind, and perhaps more easily than you can be hit from the front.

When you first start sparring you may find that you turn your back to your opponent with some regularity. Nearly everyone does this initially and it is a part of the natural progression in sparring. If turning your back to your opponent is not part of a deliberate tactic on your part (e.g. a Spinning Rear Kick), then this behavior is a tremendous problem you will want to resolve. If you do this in sparring you are much more likely to do it in a street conflict. Train yourself to recognize every single time that you have turned your back, and then train yourself to avoid the sequences or behaviors that led to that outcome.


You have probably heard this a thousand times before, but do not drop your guard for a second. That’s all it will take for you to be struck. When you spar the gloves become very heavy after as little as thirty seconds or so. When you first begin sparring you will have your hands up high initially, but they will slowly drop over the next thirty seconds until you are no longer guarding at all (but you may believe that you are). Everyone does this initially. Your sparring partner will teach you why this is a bad idea.

Keeping your guard up is harder than you would think. Your arms get tired and your guard drifts downward. As you spar you start to think of strategies for attacking your opponent and forget about essential defenses. Your opponent may feint with a lower strike that causes you to drop your guard and, naturally, he or she will hit you above your lowered guard. You may exhibit a habit of lowering your guarding hand as you strike with the other hand. You may return a strike in a manner that pulls the hand downward or outward, leaving your face unguarded immediately after a strike.

All of these are bad habits you can easily overcome with practice. Part of learning to spar is to root out these bad habits and to then eliminate them. As you spar be conscious of any moment when you do not have an effective guard. Try to recall how that happened and then strive to avoid that same sequence in the future. You will do much better at sparring the moment you no longer drop your guard.


Stay out of corners. Whether you are sparring in a ring or in a room in your Dojo, you will want to stay out of the corners. The corner boxes you in and limits your movements. It can become impossible to sidestep your opponent to escape. Your only option may be to press directly through your opponent. This takes a great deal of energy and it is going to make you tired. If you get boxed in a corner repeatedly you will be battered and exhausted for your lack of foresight.

If you detect that you are being pressed into a corner then at the earliest opportunity sidestep your opponent and make them face you in a different direction (hopefully not toward another nearby corner). Being aware of the space in which you are working is very important, whether it is in a ring, your Dojo, a public place, or your home.


Sparring is not grappling. They are two different forms of contact training. You will eventually learn to grapple. Right now you are learning to spar. Therefore you should not grab your training partner around the hips and lift him or her off their feet in an attempt to commit Nage. You should not employ Kansetsu Waza, put your opponent in a headlock, attempt to pin him or her to the floor, or otherwise do something that is not a normal part of sparring activities. People can get hurt when someone does something that is completely beyond the range of normal training activities for a skill.

There are legitimate sweeps and take downs that are a part of sparring, particularly Kumite. You will learn these as you go along. Most involve taking advantage of a weightless condition or forcing an opponent to become rooted in a way that causes him or her to fall. These are not grappling because you are not attempting to restrain or contain your opponent’s movement. They are instead instantaneous actions that cause an opponent to fall.

As you train you will notice people who get frustrated and then charge their training partner wrapping their arms around the partner’s torso, legs or waist. That’s grappling. That’s not acceptable. When you and your training partner are participating in grappling skills development, then that behavior would be acceptable and encouraged. But when sparring, grappling should be strictly avoided.

Avoid Retaliation

When you are sparring you will at times feel that your training partner has done something that violates your assumptions of fair play. Perhaps he or she struck you harder than you thought reasonable or maybe they somehow made you feel foolish. Your immediate reaction might be to retaliate as quickly as possible to punish your training partner for his or her transgression. That would be a mistake.

A blind and unfocused retaliation may be exactly the response your training partner is seeking. This provides him or her with an opportunity to strike you when you are not thinking clearly.

This doesn’t mean you should let transgressions slide by without consequence. But the first thing you need to do is assess whether or not a transgression has really occurred. Everyone accidentally hits harder than they plan at times. You will do it too. So if what appeared to be a transgression was really an accident then you should not seek to dish out punishment.

But if the transgression was clear and intentional then you will want to plan how best to let your training partner know you will not allow such actions go without some form of retribution. You just need to do it in a planned and methodical manner. You want to employ strategy rather than emotion.

Think of how you will respond if the opponent attempts the same movement again (he or she will attempt it again if they think it was effective the first time). Perhaps look for an opportunity to employ the same methodology, but do not strike harder than is necessary to make your point.

This type of tit-for-tat is common when sparring with training partners. Everyone does something they did not intend and it is common to assume you will, in a few moments, receive some form of consequence for your actions. It becomes an expected part of sparring.

But a significant issue may arise if you respond automatically in retaliation. You may overreact to a minor transgression or you may have completely misunderstood your partner’s intent. A sudden outburst from you might be seen by your training partner as an unexpected transgression of its own. Now you and your training partner may end up in an escalating series of transgressions that involve little learning. This is when your sparring instructor will yell “Yame!” or “Break!” That should serve to let you know you have gone too far down the retribution path.

Avoid Getting Angry

An escalating series of transgressions can lead one or both sparring partners to become angry. When that happens one or both participants begin to throw strikes with focused intent. This is when someone can get seriously injured. You cannot let yourself get angry like that. If you are angry you will not be a controlled fighter. If your training partner sees that you plan to cause him or her injury, but they are not yet angry, they may spot an opportunity to take advantage of your angry behavior so that you no longer represent a threat to them.

Nobody wins when someone gets angry while sparring. It happens to most people eventually, but you must recognize when it is occurring and stop your training for a few moments so everyone can calm down. This is essential to ensure that lasting hard feelings do not develop and so that nobody is injured.

You need to realize that most people will not intentionally try to harm you when sparring. Accidental contact happens and you learn to accept it as part of the training process. Both you and your training partner may make accidental unwarranted contact.

A student who deliberately strikes to injure another student, especially if this becomes a repetitive pattern, will find they are no longer asked to spar with anyone else. In extreme cases the student may be asked to leave and not return to the Dojo. If a student cannot learn to manage anger then he or she will not be a successful martial artist.

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