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Finger Pointing...Developing Success in Sparring (with a little help from Bruce Lee)

Let’s start by busting some common myths…

These types of articles have us believe that there is a big secret out there, one that once we know it will change the whole of our game and level of success.

Guess what?

There’s no secret, there are principles to understand for sure and then there’s work to be done. Hard work, long hours of repeated practice to make these principles come to life and become not just something you can do if you think about it, but rather something so natural and intrinsically yours it is indeed what you do!

“Independent inquiry is needed in your search for truth, not dependence on anyone else’s view or a mere book.”

Bruce Lee

The next little point to discuss is that there is literally no right or wrong way. There’s your way and there’s my way and there’s the way followed by our neighbours. Again, for sure there are common principles for technical efficiency which we can investigate into, but ultimately how these are expressed by one person can be very different to how they are expressed by another. The appropriate way of looking at things here is that we exist in a totality of all things, one individual piece of this can therefore never be considered truly right or wholly wrong; context and efficiency define appropriateness of the ‘thing’ at that moment.

So if you’re ready to accept the hard work. If you’re ready to open your mind to the totality and not its constituent parts read on…

Sparring is a key training modality for pretty much all combat sports and martial arts. Whether it is practice for competition or a test of technical application, free form sparring is often considered one of the key routes to technical mastery and development. Whilst sparring is kept within the safe confines of appropriately selected rules, permissible techniques and predetermined levels of contact, it can often present a level of emotional stress that is a little intimidating to novice participants. Gradual exposure to levels of contact, degrees of complexity and intensity is important, as any good coach or school will agree. Through this approach it’s then possible to gradually build a level of competence and confidence in one's specific ability to successfully participate in the more alive and possibly chaotic training modality. As an individual becomes further exposed to this type of training, naturally there will be development and deeper understanding of their own personal attributes and capabilities. Whilst it is important not to separate and seek to isolate something away from the whole, there are essentially three key areas for focus here:

#1 Technical Efficiency

#2 Rhythm and Flow

#3 Emotional Control

The purpose of this article is to dive a little deeper into each of these three areas, highlighting some of the fundamental principles and points for further individual investigation, training and development. The purpose here is to offer a signpost towards further personal investigation as opposed to a definitive statement of appropriateness.

“Research your own experience; absorb what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is essentially your own.”

Bruce Lee

#1 Technical Efficiency

“The best techniques are the simple ones executed right.”

Bruce Lee

All too often we fall into the trap of believing more is better. In all things, material or academic, we believe that the more things we have, the more techniques we possess, the more concepts we understand the better we will ultimately be. Many approaches to coaching success in sparring solely centres around technical acquisition, as opposed to technical refinement. Efficiency in any area of our lives is not about adding more to the mix, it is about stripping away the superfluous and developing high levels of competency with the more basic and fundamental. It is ultimately concerned with developing an awareness and deeper understanding of the principles surrounding and underpinning the surface technique. It is about understanding how these techniques fit our own experience, for those that truly fit will be the ones that we most effectively deliver and more naturally express.

“It’s not about what happens; it’s about your reaction to what happens that matters.”

Bruce Lee

Technical efficiency can be succinctly defined as the right movement, in the right direction, performed at the right time. Bruce Lee spoke about the highest technique being the absence of conscious technique, a flawless existence in the moment with an unconscious competence which allows for appropriate response, not simplistic reaction.

Response vs Reaction

At simple technique acquisition level we are taught to strike, to block, to move, to parry in isolation. These elements then become added together into combinations and fixed responses; against a specific attack, we defend with this or counter with this. At the basic level we are instructed to specifically react. The attack comes, we block or parry or move, and this is good. It is however uniform, predictable and oftentimes constrained, we have forced ourselves to physically, emotionally and psychologically fit the technique rather than fitting that technique with ourselves. If we force anything we naturally create distress. This internal distress can only lead us towards inefficiency.

Sparring is a discourse, like a conversation. There are periods of high activity, and periods of silence within any conversation. Sometimes there’s a natural flow, other times maybe things become a little more stilted and you possibly feel the discomfort a few ‘pregnant pauses’ where there’s an overwhelming urge to say something. In sparring it can be the case that we trap ourselves not just in predictable patterns of ‘you do this and then I do that’ reactions, we actually imitate our opponents behaviours. They throw a jab and we react by throwing a jab back. It maintains the discourse, it unconsciously shows we’re paying attention but it freezes our behaviour into very predictable patterns. Similarly, because we haven’t ‘spoken’ for a while we feel the need to react and fill the void by attacking, often with no planned outcome and a single isolated strike, just because there’s an uncomfortable silence in the discourse.

Reaction is unplanned, response is planned. Response is allowing for the influence of nature, the flow of events, to take hold and determine the outcome. It is an intentional action or set of actions which seeks to naturally, efficiently and fluidly place your opponent in a position of relative weakness, whilst retaining or creating a position of relative strength. A response may be to seek to distract or divert your opponents attention away from their attack. It may draw them towards a position whereby you have opened windows of opportunity to hit cleanly, more effectively and with greater efficiency. A response is an intended action. Intended, but natural and in flow with the movement of your opponent. This natural flow comes from more deeply understanding the technical principles underlying. It comes from practice and rehearsal of those fundamentals to a level of unconscious competence, which then becomes intrinsically you are, as opposed to something you can do. A response allows for discernment and natural choice, it’s an action following and resultant from another action for sure however it’s unlike the reaction formed by a judgement, a response is created naturally from the myriad of possibilities and choices that could be appropriately performed in that moment. To judge and react is suggestive of a ‘correct’ and an ‘incorrect’ method, it provides for failure, anxiety and distress due to missing or forgetting the ‘correct’ way of dealing with that moment. The thing to keep in mind here though is no two moments are ever the same, they might be similar in certain qualities but are essentially and vastly different in others. To suggest that there is a ‘correct’ reaction to a given attack essentially misinterprets and misunderstands the free,alive and sometimes chaotic nature of the sparring engagement.

“The essence of fighting is the art of moving at the right time.”

Bruce Lee

Technical efficiency is the highest formulation of functional movement. For a movement to be functional, motor recruitment patterns, timing and direction travel need to be aligned. In the split second of the moment, the right muscular activation must occur, at the right time to produce the optimal speed, direction and timing of the movement. This is simple biomechanics, however within the context of sparring there is an additional concept of timing which must be addressed determining whether the technique is delivered before, during or after the movement of your opponent.

Before time or preemptive striking is the strategy of an aggressive fighter. Hitting first, forcing your opponent into a pattern of reactive movement and a position whereby you can efficiently progress your attack and effectively score or cause damage. This is an intended action, based on being in flow and understanding your opponent's reaction.

After and during time suggests a more intuitive, drawing type of strategy. This is a more deeper appreciation of response, seeking to draw and counter an attack whilst your opponent is out of position, distracted or off balance. It is a strategy which relies on deception and diversion, that keeps the initiative of the engagement whilst giving the false perception that this has been removed.

Understanding timing is essential to success in sparring and being able to appropriately respond. Varying training drills to enable the development of a variety of responses is a great start point here. In this variety consideration must be given to creating opportunity which provides diversity to your sparring strategies, simple direct attacking, attacking by feints, attacking by drawing, counter striking, multiple phase drills and indirect progressive attacks are all fundamental training strategies to which need focus and repeated drilling need to be given. Again it is only through repetitive drilling and rehearsal of the fundamentals that we are able to achieve a level of unconscious competence and technical efficiency.

A further point for consideration in the area of technical efficiency is balance between the use of and coordinated movement of hands, body and feet. Development must be focused towards improving totality, not reinforcing partiality. Certainly as we seek to refine and potential gain new capabilities, isolated sparring drills are of benefit. They provide a great platform for repeated rehearsal of the technique, leading to better neurological programming, neuromuscular coordination and specific fitness with that thing. For example, one may separate and isolate some specific slip and counter drills, which in themselves promote great skill acquisition. However for this to transfer fully and therefore become truly efficient, this skill must be integrated into longer isolated drills (such as multiple phase drills) and ultimately be investigated in the melting pot of free form sparring. Put another way here, it’s not adequate to practice isolated elements of your swimming stroke on dry land, at some point you have to get in the water, put it all together and risk getting wet.

“Do not cling to partiality, however fantastic - see things from totality. When totality is taken apart it is no longer total. All the pieces of a car that have been taken apart are there, but it is no longer a car and cannot function to its nature.”

Bruce Lee

#2. Rhythm and Flow

“ Ordinarily, two people (of more or less equal ability) can follow each other's movements.They work in rhythm with each other. If the rhythm has been well established , the tendency is to continue in the sequence of movement. In other words, we are “motorset” to continue a sequence. The person who can break this rhythm can now score an attack with only moderate exertion.”

Bruce Lee

All relationships in life have an innate natural rhythm. A conversation between two friends, often can be observed as having an easy, natural flow back and forth. Words, gestures and mannerisms are often matched, mirrored and reflected to show that the message received has been truly listened to and understood. The relationship in sparring is no different, with the rhythm and pace of attack, defence and counter being set and unconsciously agreed on between both parties. More than this, one's own attacks, defensive strategies and counters are typically defined and stuck within one's own sense of our personal innate comfortable and natural rhythm. This situation can be even more exacerbated by the repeated drilling of specific combinations and routines within which the practitioner can become stuck within a defined pattern of movement, often neurologically adapting to a certain rhythm and sequence of techniques. The issue here is then that anything which is encountered which serves to disrupt this relationship, which results in a ‘break’ to the natural rhythm can lead to isolated distress on behalf of the practitioner(s) affected.

Rhythm in sparring could then be confused as speed of movement, but this is too simple a view. Rhythm is preference, both conscious and unconscious. Preference in movement speed for sure, but also in range, strategy and psychology. Rhythm ultimately pervades, binds and intertwines all aspects of the individual, and their opponent.

Understanding Individual Rhythm

"Freedom lies in understanding yourself from moment to moment."

Bruce Lee

Trading the term 'rhythm' for the term 'preference' makes it wholly easier to identify our own individual makeup. Understanding one's own preferred conditions is key to success in sparring. How many times have you heard that this fighter's signature combination is x, y and z? Or that fighter is known and renowned for their kicking, punching or grappling ability? It stands to reason that if you have heard this, then they know it too. That individual ability and preference may well be the product of hours of diligent, repeated practice although it’s also probable that it is generated from a feeling of appropriateness. This technique, combination or strategy just simply felt best, it fitted them and therefore was easiest to perform, refine and improve.

Each of us are going to be the products of our own physiology and anatomy. Some may be better at kicking, others punching. Some of us may feel more comfortable close range in fighting, others staying more elusive and out at longer range. Understanding what works best for you isn’t just important, it’s essential. As well as this fundamental understanding though we have an equally essential and fundamental realisation to make, that which works best for us is also the biggest potential ‘trap’ we can for ourselves. A preference in routine makes us predictable and therefore easier to read, counter and ultimately defeat. An opponent who is largely one sided, favouring strikes from their right side can easily be drawn out of position by their opponent moving to their weaker left side. An opponent who prefers a longer distance, enabling space to kick and for more free movement can be taken out of their rhythm by rapidly closing the distance and entering close quarter striking or grappling ranges.

This doesn’t mean that we ignore our physiology, we simply cannot afford to do this. We have to recognise what works best for us and build this into our wider strategy. It becomes a constituent part of the strategy with which we approach the situation, not merely the sole strategy. Understanding that we prefer, or may be more adept at, close quarter techniques wouldn’t therefore mean we ignore all other ranges. Rather it means that we need to understand these other ranges deeply enough to provide us with answers as to how we can best work here. In this instance we need to fully understand how we can counter and draw our opponents away from these ranges and into our preferred areas. Nothing exists in isolation though, so understanding range is only one aspect of investigation. To fully appreciate our own rhythm we must employ the same microscope of analysis to our preferences in speed of movement, combination and technical development (particularly highlighting any hidden biases here which may be more challenging than it seems) and dominant psychology (for example aggressive fighter versus defensive or counter fighter). By fundamentally understanding one’s own rhythm we are enabled an opportunity to design a much more holistic strategy in the overall approach to sparring.

“We are always in a process of becoming and nothing is fixed. Have no rigid system in you, and you’ll be flexible to change with the ever changing.”

Bruce Lee

Understanding Your Opponents Rhythm

Rhythm is constant, it might change but it’s always there in one form or another. Everything has rhythm, a natural speed of moving, of acting on our perception of it. It’s worth considering this right from the beginning here, what we are discussing is less the ‘natural and innate’ biomechanical rhythm of our opponent, created by their fitness, proficiency and emotional state (although this is clearly important), more we are discussing our perception of that rhythm - not just the what it is, but also the why and how can we serve to disrupt this. This is the other constant about rhythm, it’s a natural thing, a physiological and often unconscious default. It might even be the case that our opponent is blissfully unaware of their natural rhythm, they just operate at that speed, in that flow because it ‘feels’ most appropriate for them. However if we can position ourselves in a way to understand their rhythm, get inside this and disrupt it in some way then we are 99% likely to turn the engagement to our best advantage.

Through understanding our own innate rhythm and preferences we are positioned to manipulate these to ‘fit’ and strategically oppose those of our opponent. Identifying that rhythm, however, is no small task. It will take patience, probing and asking the correct questions, to interpret the answers in the correct way. Going back a step here, the issue centres around our perception of their rhythm. This may be way off and different from the definition that our opponent would provide of their own rhythm and flow, but is nonetheless useful. It is useful provided it fits the reality of the engagement, it is the best representation of what is actually happening and doesn’t lead us into patterns of movement and response which are disadvantageous.

Understanding rhythm therefore begins by asking the right questions. We need to probe our opponents' preferences, their response to some specific questions.

First, how do they look? Are they tense, relaxed, fluid in movement or stilted and robotic? Second, what is their demeanour, aggressive attacking immediately (which can be a real benefit as it can serve to further demonstrate their lack of composure and essential insecurity, which can itself be exploited), are they passive awaiting your attack - possibly seeking to counter and provide their own investigation into your own rhythm and responses. Third, let's consider their predominant strategy - how do they prefer to engage, do they attack simply and directly? Do they seek to attack by drawing and feinting? Do they use a progressive attack by combination, directly or indirectly? Do they seek to strike at range or close distance for close range striking, clinch and grappling? Do they seek to break your posture through movement using footwork and movement or are they more static?

There’s an awful lot of information to process here and this has to happen in the first few seconds of the engagement.

There’s no right or wrong way of asking these questions, it’s essentially lessons in efficiency - what you do will provide a result and a response, it’s really just a question of whether it was the correct result and the response you needed. As a potential go to approach here though, seek to probe your opponent in the first few seconds of the engagement. Close distance, open distance, move left and right and see how they respond. Use your preferred lead hand and leg techniques to gauge their speed, fluidity and preferences in defence. Immediately, start to draw your opponent into areas where they may be less balanced and adapted. Vary the speed of the probing attacks, incorporate a variety of feints, attack by drawing and use progressive indirect attacks to keep your opponent off balance. Footwork and body movement are essential in being able to disrupt your opponents rhythm. That is our goal here, probe to identify those preferences and then begin to employ the counter strategy that draws our opponent into ineffective and potentially inappropriate use of those strategies. The further we can move them away from that preferred rhythm, the more insecure we make them and the more desperate they will become. This leads to further opportunity to successfully deliver our own attacking strategy and positively influence the outcome of the engagement.


Be water sums this up very well. Water is elemental, it not only is essential to all life - it also has the capacity to destroy.

Unconfined water will move. Confined water will fit into the space provided.

Unconfined, water has the potential to be in constant movement.

“Flow in the living moment - we are always in a process of becoming and nothing is fixed.”

Bruce Lee

Flow describes our capacity to truly be like water and become adaptable to all circumstances and respond appropriately. Flow state has been the subject of much study in both work and physical activity. Researchers have spent a lot of time investigating the mentality and psychological states employed by proponents of adventure and extreme sports in particular. Many of these types of activities are happening so quickly, with such levels of risk, that the conscious, analytic decision making capacity of the participants may well be reduced and yet they are able to make immediate decisions, actions and movements which prevent themselves from serious injury or death. This mentality then has a key place in our discussion here. Our ability to consciously analyse and assess what is happening in the moment isn’t always optimal, what we have is a need for immediate action in the presence of specific feedback. A physical engagement such as sparring isn’t 100% consistent with the conditions found in many extreme adventure sports but the necessity for a ‘flow’ mentality is just as important.

In the context of this discussion the best manner in which to consider flow is in relation to the mentality with which we approach sparring. The idea of there being a set pattern of appropriate action-reaction relationships within free sparring is somewhat flawed. Whilst we can most probably predict a reaction, “If I throw a jab my opponent is most likely to parry...etc.”, there is never a guaranteed, absolutely certain response. To approach the encounter with a fixed mindset, mentally focused on a set of predetermined outcomes is then to become somewhat stuck. Moreover, in the face of these things not being certain and indeed then not actually happening, it is all the more likely that we become somewhat frozen as the actual results of our actions are far away from what we expected and anticipated. Therefore where flow becomes essential is in the manner in which we perceive the encounter. Nothing is isolated or fixed, everything moves and can change. Whilst we may have drilled a specific combination or defensive counter away from the reality and chaos of sparring, that very chaotic reality may serve to disrupt the rhythm and coordination of the drilled response. Our flowing mentality then allows this to be the case, we accept the moment for what it is without predetermination and expectation. We move through the function we are provided in that moment (i.e. the thing worked, did not work or kind of worked) towards the end goal. In this way one movement, one technique, one moment is not isolated from the next. The reality in which we exist continues to unfold as an accepted and evolving consequence of what we do; one movement makes the next; one technique fits with and creates the next. In flow we begin to fit with our opponent, not resisting and forcing but accepting the conditions and moving them towards our own successful outcome. True flow mentality is found within the acceptance of the moment and relaxation within this acceptance. Flow comes from understanding that we exist in that moment, in a relationship and synergy with our opponent; they move and we respond, effortlessly and in harmony with them. There is no need, or indeed time for deep analysis, yet a profound insight is discovered through the intuitive, instinctual response which we permit through this relaxed, creative and flowing mindset.

“There is an awareness without choice, without any demand, an awareness in which there is no anxiety; and in that state of mind there is perception. It is the perception alone that will resolve all your problems.”

Bruce Lee

#3 Emotional Control

“Emotion can be the enemy, if you give into your emotion you lose yourself. You must be at one with your emotions, because the body always follows the mind.”

Bruce Lee

Anxiety in sparring is common and totally normal. Whether the fear comes from an intrinsic fear of failure, of losing the bout or a tangible fear of being injured, the fundamental reality is that anxiety will be the biggest factor that makes you freeze. Forget how many repetitions of that kick you’ve done. Forget how many rounds and hours you have spent hammering away on the pads and bags. The context of being in front of a live opponent, who’s moving with the intention of hitting you, is an anxiety producing stimulus. That feeling will derail any predetermined game plan, any coordinated response and ultimately contribute to a self fulfilling prophecy of defeat.

Understanding yourself is essential in ensuring your success in all things. That is certainly true in this case. Appreciating how you act and react to stressful situations will provide you a foundation for the creation of coping mechanisms. Now sparring isn’t the time for deep introspective analysis, however it will provide you insight into that most fundamental instinct as to whether you freeze, fight or run. We often look at these types of encounters as being ones in which we can investigate our sense of self-control, more often than not assuming the aspect that we are most focused on controlling as being our predilection to anger and losing our tempers. However, anger is a symptom that we are feeling anxious, anger is nothing more than a response and manifestation of the anxiety we feel. Our focus, when seeking to control our emotions, should

be directed to the cause and not the symptom. Simply put, we need to deal with the anxiety, not the anger.

“To understand your fear is the beginning of really seeing.”

Bruce Lee

Looking back into the flow state discussion previously, we can draw on some common points here which may be worth considering in the context of emotional (anxiety) control. Primarily if our focus rests on trying to predict the future, predetermining the outcome before the engagement, any deviation from this anticipated future outcome will naturally make us feel insecure and anxious. Understanding that infinitely all things are possible and in constant motion, flowing naturally and not attempting to resist the moment allows an opportunity to permit creativity and instinct to be our guide. In this we don’t judge appropriateness, we don’t predetermine the result and we don’t try to predict the future…we simply exist and naturally respond, fitting with the circumstances and influencing them towards our own success and positive outcome.

“The great mistake is to anticipate the outcome of the engagement; you ought not to be thinking of whether it ends in victory or defeat.”

Bruce Lee

Through a realisation that there is no fixed outcome, no ideal route to success (although there may be rules within which the bout is fought) we can seek to find a more relaxed psychological approach. Aware, yes. Switched on, definitely. However no tense and anxious but relaxed, fluid and ready to respond naturally to the moment. Strong emotions, be it anger or elation will cloud our ability to respond naturally. Confidence is essential, the confidence in our ability to naturally accept and influence, not control. Confidence in our ability to respond and fit in with our opponent, not arrogantly assume we are physically or technically superior. Confidence in our ability to retain and flowing, flexible mindset which provides our ability for instinctual expression and creative problem solving.

“Man's mind and his behaviour are one, his inner thought and outer expression cannot contradict each other. Therefore a man should set up his right principle, and this right mind (principle) will influence his action.”

Bruce Lee

In conclusion we have to refer back to the beginning. There is no panacea here, there is no one size fits all solution. There are doubtlessly many other aspects that influence success in sparring that haven’t been discussed here. The key point to the article is to get you to consider your own experience. Investigate and research being in that moment and discover who you are, what factors you need to address to create a better state of being and influence a positive outcome. Nothing is ever fixed and these results will change and naturally evolve, however it is only by continual focus on our own learning, growth and development that we are afforded the opportunity to true insight.

“It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

Bruce Lee


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