I have been fortunate enough to train with some of the best fighters in Muay Thai, Jiu-Jitsu and MMA worldwide. As I travel and train with other gyms, I always take a step back to see what they’re doing that I’m not, both good and bad. Sometimes it’s like a light switch flicks on and I think to myself, “Man this is amazing! Why the heck have I not been doing this?” and then I take it back add my own little twists and implement that to my own training regimen as well as that of the clients and fighters that I have work with. Other times I think “Oh my God! What have I gotten myself into? What are they doing!?” and then I come home and it reminds me how lucky and thankful am to have had the coaches in my life and training that I did. When it comes to sparring it’s usually the second train of thought.
I believe that fighters and coaches far too often believe that training hard means sparring hard, or brutal pad rounds. Don’t get me wrong, both hard sparring and sometimes bruising pad rounds have a place in training if implemented correctly. What I see most of the time in these gyms however is something that is far more likely to be a hindrance to the fighter or even a legitimate risk of injury once sparring begins.
As a coach I believe that hard sparring is far more relevant to the fighter who has yet to be battle tested. Give them a taste of what it’s like when you actually get in there. Is getting punched in the face or kicked in the leg something that you actually want to do or something that you can even weather? A few hard sparring sessions will tell both fighter and coach the answer really quick, honestly and almost immediately.
A fighter who has been through the trenches and had their chin tested however is in less need of a fist fight every time they step in the ring or cage to train. What I believe is far more beneficial is treating sparring like play time. Sparring should be fun, informative and an opportunity for a fighter to take out all these brand new shiny toys that you have placed in their toy box, giving them an opportunity to learn and play with these tools without fear of severe physical consequences.
If you do not give a fighter to the opportunity to play or if every time they head into training they have to worry about defending against heavy blows and damage they will go back to their safe zone thus not allowing the fighter to mature or grow. Each and every time that fighter steps out into the ring or cage in actual competition that fighter will be the same as they were the last time they stepped out in front of a crowd.
All training is evolving, in the last decade fighters take strength and conditioning more seriously, bringing specific coaches that are not necessarily fight specific to help them grow in these areas. Fighters are hiring nutritionists to help plan their diets and weight cuts to help get the job done efficiently and without completely draining their energy and strength. Today fighters are taking recovery more seriously as well as many employ the services of chiropractors, massage therapists, as well as using cryotherapy and other types of physical rehabilitation to make sure their bodies are ready for their next training session and to head into battle. So why then when it comes to sparring are we stuck in the dark ages?
It is time as both fighters and coaches to evolve and realize that sparring hard does not mean the same thing as training hard and sparring hard certainly does not mean training smart. Take a step back and realize that most injuries occur during training camp and not in fights. Yes as fighters we know that we have to push it in the gym, and yes we know that injuries occur. But when are they occurring? On the treadmill? During footwork drills? Or is it when we gear up and get in a fist fight as we prepare for a fist fight?