Sparring is, in my opinion, a vital part of martial arts training. Kata gives you a foundation in your art and develops muscle memory and conditioning, but there are some things that you really need to work against a live partner that is fighting back. A recent online discussion with a Kyokushin practitioner started me thinking about sparring people with different martial arts backgrounds, specifically. Different martial arts spar differently, of course, and I believe that there is a lot of value in being able to spar people from other arts because it forces you to adapt. Every style uses the same basic concepts in sparring but they use them differently and you may find that if you ever spar someone from another art that what normally works for you will have to be altered to fight that person.
Shorin-Ryu is a very evasive style. The stances are natural, blocks are preceded by tai sabaki (b0dy evasion), and the strikes are thrown from unusual angles and distances. Not all styles of martial arts–not even all styles of karate–are going to fight like this. In Shuri-Ryu, for example, evasion is not much of a concern because our sparring was centered on counter attacking. Conversely, Kyokushin (from what I have seen and experienced) evasion is not much of a concern because it is a very direct “knockdown karate” style where they attack directly and fiercely, trading blow for blow with their opponent. These methodologies, and others, are all effective but they can also limit your fighting ability if you are not able to adapt.
As a Shorin-Ryu practitioner you are likely going to utilize that evasiveness in your sparring to its fullest, but what happens when you are suddenly sparring someone like a Kyokushin practitioner who is going to chase you and attack you relentlessly? Are you going to be able to adapt your fighting style to defend those flurries of kicks and punches when you are caught? What about when you spar someone like a Shuri-Ryu practitioner who is going to be focused completely on your angle of attack so they can block and counter? Are you going to be able to become unpredictable enough to combat that?
These situations make it evident that moving around is not enough. Without proper maai (distancing) and timing you cannot block, strike, or even evade effectively. If you are going to strike, you will need to do so from a distance that allows you to make good contact–if you try to punch at kicking distance you aren’t going to land it, and if you try to kick at punching distance it is going to be very difficult to make your kicks effective due to loss of leverage. Something that I have seen over and over is people trying to overextend their punches to tap someone who is too far away, and people who throw kicks when they are so close that they end up hitting their opponent with their thigh. The best way to develop maai, in my opinion, is to work it in reverse–by learning how to stop your strikes short rather than push them to full extension. By forcing myself to stop my strikes short I was able to build muscle memory based on instant visual queues of distance so that I knew if they were too far away to hit. Why? Well, it’s simple–if they are too far away for me to have to stop my strike short then they are too far away to hit.
The trouble is, even if you are striking at the proper distances you will not be able to successfully land those strikes or block your opponent’s strikes if you have bad timing. It has already been proven that martial artists have faster reflexes than the average person, but those reflexes have to be developed through sparring and partner drills. When you spar someone your brain has to process a lot of information–where you are, where they are, how far away you are, what they are doing, what you are doing, etc. In order to develop your timing you have to develop your mental reflexes so that you can identify incoming threats in enough time to counter or you will be hit and you have to be able to identify when your opponent has left an opening in their guard or when their focus has shifted so that you can attack them.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, these basic principles can be found in any martial art but they will be applied differently and you will need to be able to adapt to them. Do not be afraid to test yourself by sparring people from other styles, but understand that what normally works for you against other practitioners of your style may not work against others. You may find that you have to stay very close to someone who likes to kick a lot, which could be different from the distancing you are accustomed to, so you need to train to strike from all distances. You may find that you have to stand and trade blows with someone who can keep up with your evasive maneuvering, so you need to train your physical conditioning, blocking and ability to slip punches. You may find that you have to lure in a counter-striker who is always beating you to the punch, so train your defensive techniques and your own counter-striking. You may need to defend against sweeps, throws and take-downs when fighting someone with Judo, Brazilian Jujitsu or Sambo experience, so work on your grappling and your groundwork.
Even if your art uses a very specific skill set when sparring, you must keep an open mind and work to develop every facet of combat so that you will be prepared, both physically and mentally, if you ever have to apply those techniques in self-defense. Sparring people from other styles is the most certain way to develop these other facets of combat and I believe it should be done as often as possible in safe, controlled conditions–we always want to keep safety foremost in our minds when sparring or we will eventually run out of training partners, and that doesn’t do anyone any good.