Old School Sparring...A Case for Reflection

The Urban Dictionary defines ‘old school’ as:

“Anything that is from an earlier era and looked upon with high regard or respect....”

There are many people in the martial arts and combat sport fraternity who would and do consider training methods to be worthwhile only if they are indeed ‘old school’. Better yet are the ‘old school’ protagonists who share this ideology, often evidenced in grainy videos and pictures of training sessions from yester-year. Here they desperately make the case that the sun shone brighter during these times, the grass was greener, people knew how things worked back then and worked in a way that made them ‘real martial artists’. Whether it was stretching, hitting boards and bricks, sparring or technique application, the ‘old-school’ knew best. Now if we're honest, it’s absolutely true that many traditional training methods are still as relevant today as they were ‘back in the day’. However it’s equally true that in many cases these ‘old school’ methods have been proven to be out-dated, contrary to progressions in scientific understanding and in certain guises down-right injurious.

One of the most contentious points is found in regards to the approach that many still adopt towards sparring and preparations for full contact combat sports. Its the unfortunate truth that for many trainers the ‘old school’ remains the default position. The focus for this article then is on sparring, which (for the purposes of this piece) we can define as the practice of training with an opponent using the parameters, or some of the parameters which will be found within the competition itself. Moreover the specific case in point is how much contact is the ‘right’ amount or indeed is there a ‘right’ amount of contact? Should we be focused on hard sparring or lighter, technically focused l sparring? Are the benefits of the ‘old school’ approach still retained in other modalities or does it simply provide greater opportunity than any more modernistic theories and approaches?

‘Old School’ Theory #1

‘It’s all about conditioning...If the guy’s never been hit before then he’s likely to freeze when it happens for real...that’s why we train the way we do!’

Have you ever encountered this type of justification before? It’s a bit of a play on the classic, stereotyped argument that in order to have the courage to walk into the fire you need to have walked through the fire before. Similar in part to the ideals expressed in exposure therapy, (where individuals are coached towards better managing their anxieties and phobias, often through a graduated exposure to the things which they fear) the justification is based on the theory that previous experience provides you essential knowledge of that experience. Through previous exposure to the stimulus, you then become more familiar with it and inoculated against the previously anxiety generating elements of it. It is the case that where that experience creates anxiety and fear, progressive graduated exposure to the full event then can provide the individual opportunity to ‘safely’ develop cognitive strategies in order to cope with a more spontaneous full exposure. Applied in combat sports then the theory becomes that you need to be hit hard in order to better understand how you react to being hit hard. Simply put, it is necessary in order for you to develop the necessary toughness.

Certainly a deeper understanding of our individual stress responses is always a good idea, much personal growth and development can be realised from that intrinsic knowledge. The ancient sage Lao Tzu once wrote, “Knowing others is intelligence;knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength;mastering yourself is true power...” but did he really have the psychological reaction to hard contact sparring in mind when developing this aphorism?

Experience is not always the mother of wisdom.Whilst we may be able to offer a best guess as to our reactions in the moment based on previous experiences and knowledge,the difference between an event in practice and competition is vast. Each is accompanied by such a differing range of environmental, physiological and emotional factors that it becomes relatively improbable that an individual will react the same way even if the activity is broadly similar. History is littered with the souls of protagonists who were great in the gym but couldn’t quite make it happen the same way in the ring. So if this is the case what other potential benefits are there to heavy contact?

‘Old School’ Theory #2

‘Hard contact sparring is the only way to learn REAL defence...”

KEEP YOUR HANDS UP! is the mantra of many combat sport and martial arts instructors. We’re all taught this in theory at the outset of our sparring activities. The ‘old school’ approach here however is to suggest that theory isn’t always conveyed to practice. Moreover it’s only through practice that we more deeply understand the importance of the theory. Put in slightly different terms, ‘old school’ advocates suggest that pain really is the best teacher. If you drop your hands in hard sparring and you get tagged, the subsequent pain stimulus might then trigger a behavioural response which serves to elevate your hands. Like a Pavlovian dog then overtime you become conditioned to associating dropping your guard with pain and therefore you are less likely to drop your guard.

As before there’s some common sense merit in this theory. If you fail to stop the strike, you receive the strike. The belief is that light contact, technical sparring doesn’t provide the same opportunity for a pain conditioned response and given this absence of severe negative consequence the protagonists are more likely to continue to make the same errors. The direct nature of the feedback you receive during hard sparring will effectively ‘ring the Pavolian bell’ and teach you what you did wrong and therefore what not what to do next time. The difficulty with this is being able to disassociate yourself in the moment to retain an absolutely objective presence of mind. Understanding that I got hit because I dropped my hands relies first on the fundamental recognition that you have dropped your hands. Being hit hard doesn’t always allow for this type of spontaneous epiphany and understanding as the function of critical analysis has been somewhat interrupted by a more basal overload of pain signals and emotional distress. The association between a given action and it’s subsequent reaction on behalf of your opponent is often desperately challenging to identify in the ‘moment’ due to the sometimes chaotic and emotionally charged nature of that specific moment. The type of objective analysis suggested here can really only be achieved after the fact, where a more considered breakdown of events can be realised and und