I've seen a few cases of younger students learning how to spar, and most of the time I see students paired up with someone of similar skill level, fully covered in foam and hard plastic shells, and told to spar. Some kids are naturally aggressive, and they tend to do better, until they use too much force, where someone will usually tell them to control themselves. Some kids never seem to really get the hang of what they should be doing (I was one of those for a long time), and I imagine many become discouraged and quit because of it.
So I have an idea of a systematic way to train students to free spar, based on a very simple notion of the different styles that someone can use in sparring.
There are a lot of different ways to categorize fighting styles. Boxing has several - the outfighter, the boxer puncher, the swarmer - and you can read a lot of analysis of fighting careers, arguing about which fighters use which styles predominantly (almost no really good fighters are all one thing, but most also tend to fall into one category or another).
Styles are often defined by a few things:
- Preferred range. Does the fighter 'want' to, or try to, or work to, be far away from their opponent, close in, or at a middle distance?
- Initiative. Does the fighter try to initiate exchanges, applying pressure by continuously attacking, or do they prefer to wait for their opponent to make a move, revealing openings that can be exploited?
- Orientation. Does the fighter fight orthodox (left hand forward) or unorthodox (right hand forward)?
- Psychological tendencies. Is the fighter a front runner? A front runner performs very well as long as he/she seems to be winning, but quickly falls apart if the fight starts to go bad. Some fighters are the opposite, and can't seem to really 'get going' until they've been hit, preferably hit hard and hurt.
- Risk aversion. How willing is the fighter to take a chance in order to create an opportunity?
I"m sure there are other dimensions that I've missed, but I hope I've given a rough idea of how we can determine someone's style. It's a fun exercise to identify the styles of your favorite fighters, identify the styles you like most (if you follow fight sports), identify your own style, and establish the weaknesses and strengths of each style and each matchup (some styles are stronger than others in certain matchups, like rock paper scissors).
Here I want to focus solely on Initiative.
Every sparring exchange starts from a pretty much identical place. Two people are facing each other, in some kind of ready stance, at some distance where they aren't touching. Sometimes they're bouncing in place, or circling slowly, or standing relatively still, but they're at some distance and not exchanging.
Then someone moves. Sometimes this takes a while, other times it's quick. One person attacks/ moves in/ initiates an exchange, and the other person responds.
Stylistically, some people are more likely to move/attack first, and some are more likely to wait for their opponent. I'm sure there are some people who are exactly as likely to do either. For the sake of this post I'm going to make some quick definitions.
The pressure fighter is the person who wants to move first, to initiate an attack.
The counter fighter is the person who wants to wait, to let the other 'guy' move first, and act in response to that attack (i.e. to counter).
There are some gray areas here. Does a feint count as initiating an attack? I don't want to get too bogged down, so let's agree that these distinctions are not absolute, but more like guidelines to help us make order out of the chaos of free sparring.
Sometimes two pressure fighters meet each other. This tends to look like a brawl, as you have two fighters both trying to move forward and attack at the same time. Sometimes you have two counter fighters meet, and this can be tedious and slow, as each patiently waits for the other one to lead and make a crucial mistake.
Ideally, a pressure fighter fights a counter fighter. In that situation pressure fighter has to learn to attack responsibly, knowing that the counter fighter is ready to exploit any openings in his defense, while the counter fighter has lots of attacks on which they can practice their skills - the timing and techniques of countering an attack.
So what is my system of teaching?
First, I believe nobody should free fight until they have a decent handle on the basic techniques of their style. You don't want to still be concentrating on how to throw a punch while you're trying to throw it at a live opponent who is also trying to hit you back. How long should that take? I don't have an exact number, but I'd say between six months and two years, and I'm willing to make allowances for gifted or slow students. I'm not a fan of throwing white belts into free sparring.
While the students are learning the basic techniques (how to stand, how to kick, how to punch, how to move, how to block), they should be taught a basic understanding of these styles. They should have an idea of how the pressure fighter has to move so they aren't just charging in like wild boars, flailing their arms at the opponent.
When they start to spar, beginners should NEVER fight beginners. Instead, beginners should ALWAYS fight intermediate students. BUT the beginners should be taught to ONLY fight as pressure fighters. They should always lead, always move first, and try really hard to attack without getting hit hard in return. They will learn to recognize attacks, judge distance, and move within striking distance, all the skills that they'll need as a counter fighter.
The INTERMEDIATE students that are fighting the beginners should ALWAYS fight in a counter fighter style. Counter fighting is harder - you have to recognize the attacks coming and respond, which by nature takes extra cognitive processing over just attacking with what you want to attack with. But the intermediate students already have a better sense of timing, distance, and fight awareness, because they're not new anymore - they've been learning that stuff as a pressure fighter this whole time.
So an intermediate student has a block of time to learn basics without using them, along with learning the theory of combat as a theory. Then they have a block of time to learn to be a pressure fighter responsibly - to lead and attack without getting clobbered. Then they have a block of time to learn to be a counter fighter, to react to an opponent's mistakes. Once three blocks of time have gone by the student is advanced. And just to give some perspective, I'm imagining that these blocks are somewhere between six months and a year and a half - I'm not saying anyone should be stuck in one category for a decade. And if you think the blocks should be unequal in length I have no problem with that.
An ADVANCED student should be pretty competent at everything. The ADVANCED student can fill in as a pressure fighter if some intermediate student needs a partner or as a counter fighter if a beginner needs a partner. And the ADVANCED student is ready to face other advanced students, and in those situations they can use whatever style they're comfortable with.
I also think it would be useful if two advanced students spar, and both are definitive counter fighters, they should probably agree to take turns going against type. Two really disciplined counter fighters just watching each other is a waste of training time.
A few additional points:
- Being a pressure fighter is not an excuse to brawl or fight without control. Even if you're attacking first you should use the appropriate amount of contact and defend yourself (keep your head moving, move laterally to avoid strikes, keep your hands in responsible positions for defense, etc.)
- I am NOT saying that either style is inherently superior. I am saying that everyone should be reasonably good at both styles, even given that everyone will probably have a preference for one over the other.
- In every free' sparring sessions where one partner is less than advanced both partners should recognize that they have a role to play. The beginner student should never spend an entire round backing up. The intermediate student should rarely jump in on the attack (exceptions can be made). In short, everyone should have a clear notion of what, generally speaking, they're supposed to be doing.
Whether you use the notion of styles to teach sparring or not, it is a useful system for analyzing your own sparring ability and planning strategies for use in your own free sparring practice.