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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 understood. Even then there is no guarantee that the freshly acquired knowledge will be assimilated in such a fashion as to garner a new capability for the next round. The potential for accumulating damage would then appear to begin to outweigh any associated positive benefit in this instance.

‘Old School’ Theory #3

‘It helps develop your fitness for a REAL fight!

The underlying basis for this theory is that unless you're sparring hard you will find yourself being physically exhausted after just a few minutes of a competitive bout. This theory is acceptant of the fact that there is an intrinsic difference between the experience of practice and competition. The emotional load and associated stress responses (for example heart rate and respiration) between these two experiences are markedly different. Advocates of this approach then suggest that by adopting a heavier level of contact in practice, protagonists are made to push themselves physically harder, becoming more adapted to this higher level and self aware in respect of pacing their physical exertion. Associated with this are the benefits implied by the ‘creating toughness’ theory, in that you will become more familiar with the exertions associated with receiving strikes as much as those associated with throwing your own. In this respect supporters of this approach will suggest that hard sparring allows for a better understanding of the level of perceived physical exertion required within the competition itself and as such creates the ideal training environment for such specific physiological adaptation to occur.

The elephant in the room here is however again the potential of this approach to create acute injury and therefore derail the training process. Hard contact sparring does doubtless provide a similar type of physical level of exertion to that experience in a competitive bout. It is physiological truth therefore that the same physical intensity and volume found in a competitive bout can be replicated through this practice. The subsequent specific adaptations required can then be facilitated through exposure to this type of training. However, hard contact as we’ve already recognised comes with a few knocks and these can either serve to acutely derail regular training or more concerningly accumulate to form chronic issues which then prohibit and severely limit further training. Take for example a training session where a proponent may have been working leg kicks and caught just a few ‘good ones’ without checking them adequately (if at all). The subsequent damage received and need to recover may well prevent the proponent from engaging in his strength and conditioning activity for a few days. Given the nature of reversibility in physical training (i.e. unless there is a frequent stimulus of similar type, intensity and volume it is likely specific training adaptations will be lost) this may well be a significant issue to their continued development. As a case in point many competitive fighters will not engage in heavy contact during the final phases of their fight preparations due to the increased potential of personal injury.

‘Old School’ Theory #4

‘Hard sparring is the only way to develop realistic speed and faster timing…’

The principle here is that techniques thrown in a hard sparring context are thrown faster, with intention than those used in any other training modality. Advocates here suggest that unless you’ve encountered that technique at full speed, loaded with full power in practice you may well have a ‘delayed’ reaction when it comes to trying to stop or avoid the thing for real. Heavy contact sparring allows you to develop the timing and speed necessary to both land and defend the full power techniques. The full power nature of the techniques being received again inoculates the recipient against them as they become more adapted to receiving the strikes and therefore recognise how best to accept the energy being received and retain their balance and composure.

It is undoubtedly easier to read your opponent and see the techniques coming in a comparatively slower mode of training. Associated to this the timing you have in regards to the performance of a lower intensity of training will naturally be different to that required at a higher intensity. This theory however again fails to address the increased risk associated with the potential of damage being received whilst protagonists work out this timing and how best they receive the incoming strike. Moreover it would seem to suggest that an individual cannot generate well timed, full power techniques unless they are hitting anything other than another person.

‘Old School’ Theory #5

‘Hard sparring is the only way to prepare you for the ring!’

This point again accepts that the stress of fighting competitively is different to that of practice. It suggests that unless your sparring embraces higher levels of contact you simply aren't creating anywhere near enough stress. The adrenaline secretion associated with hard sparring is the same as that felt in a ‘real’ fight. This in turn is going to have associated physiological responses (increased heart rate, narrowed visual field, auditory exclusion etc.) which are similar to those you’ll feel in the competition. Simply put, hard sparring is as close as you will come to experiencing what it feels like to be in the ring and therefore if you can learn to relax in this context during practice, you’ll be able to translate this to the ring.

The main issue here is that hard sparring simply isn’t the competition. It doesn’t come with the same emotional load, whether this be pre-fight anxieties or the actual feel of the environment (crowd, sounds, lights etc.) The actual stressors that the participants are open to and those that may well serve to ‘trigger’ an increased stress response are possibly never going to be present during any type of practice sparring event. In this respect, hard sparring cannot serve to provide the same type of stimulus as a competitive bout, apart from the similarities within the actual physical activity itself.

Understanding the risks of hard sparring

It is without question that hard contact sparring conveys more risk to participants than any other training modality. We cannot avoid the simple fact that getting hit is painful and creates (at best) localised tissue damage. Heavy contact sparring can increase the opportunity that you will receive repeated hard blows to the head, increasing risk of concussions, as well as more chronic traumatic brain injuries. ‘Old schoolers’ will suggest that we can mitigate these risks by ensuring that the appropriate protective equipment is used (16oz-18oz gloves,head guards etc.). Whilst these may well offer protection versus some of the potential damage, they do little to fully protect from the risks associated with this type of training.

To best understand the risks associated with heavy contact sparring we are best starting with clearly defining the forces being generated (and received) during this activity. As far as striking is concerned we are playing around with two fundamental forces, kinetic energy and momentum.

Momentum vs Kinetic Energy

Without departing in an in depth analysis of Newtonian laws and associated physics, quite simply momentum is good for knocking people over. Momentum is the product of mass and velocity, with the velocity bit giving the momentum it’s direction. When you hit someone, the direction of the momentum you transfer into the intended target is in the same direction which your striking tool was travelling in prior to the collision. Increasing the momentum of a strike typically involves putting more weight (mass) behind it. The bigger the object, the more momentum it can potentially generate.

High momentum strikes are very difficult to stop, indeed without an external force acting upon it, an object's momentum (as a ‘conserved quantity’) cannot be mitigated or destroyed. The issue of increasing glove size or placing an additional foam layer between the glove and head does very little to affect momentum transfer.

Kinetic energy conversely is good for doing damage.Cuts, bumps and bruises occur as a consequence of energy transferred to your opponent at the moment of collision (or impact). Kinetic energy whilst similar to momentum in it’s formula for calculation places a degree more emphasis in speed (literally twice that again when considering momentum). The velocity of the strike then becomes the key determiner in the energy generation when considering a kinetic energy generation. What this means to us in practice is that there is a degree of difference in both the generation of high-momentum and high-energy strikes. Equally there is a difference in the effect between high-momentum and high-energy strikes. Momentum is transferred into the object being struck. It is a constant.The best way to reduce the momentum transferred to you is to put as much mass as possible between you and the point of impact. The more mass you have the more incoming momentum it will take to get you moving at a given velocity. The high-energy strike will ultimately change and convert its energy into other forms. There may be a snap or thud as it converts to acoustic energy. There may more than likely be local changes to structures at the point of impact, such as tissue compression or tearing (and therefore generation of cuts and bruises.) The key difference here is that the energy is expended locally to the impact, it is the momentum of that strike that transfers deeper and may present the deeper issues.

Hard sparring therefore is a game of these two forces, indeed they are to a degree inseparable. A faster strike (with a constant mass) by default will gain more momentum and kinetic energy.Through use of both load/unload principles and good biomechanics relatively more mass can be employed to a strike and therefore again both kinetic energy and momentum can be increased.

Increased Protection vs Increased Risk

The approach to reduce risk of injury from these forces is then to adopt use of thicker (and therefore heavier) protective equipment. The risk of local tissue damage when striking with bare fists and feet is significant. Therefore to mitigate this we encase our striking tools in thick padding with a belief that this will protect our opponent from significant injury. To a degree this is absolutely true. The provision of a thick glove (or layer of padding) between the hand and the target being struck will result in a ‘kinetic energy’ deformation of this padding and therefore reducing the amount of energy that may then affect deformation of the local tissue in the area of impact. However, the momentum remains unaffected. It transfers anyway and is unaffected by the layer of padding. As previously discussed, more mass means more momentum. Therefore a heavier glove, travelling at a constant velocity, will provide greater momentum transfer than a lighter glove travelling at the same velocity. It’s likely therefore that the heavier glove that saves from local tissue damage and better protects the hand of the individual striking, actually may allow the individual the confidence to strike harder and therefore with greater momentum through applied biomechanics and the simple fact that the striking tool now weighs more.

Momentum Moves

From the previous discussion we can identify that momentum transfer is the key force involved in moving a given object. For our purposes here it is important to recognise the structures receiving that transfer, specifically the skull and brain. The brain and spinal cord comprise the Central Nervous System(CNS) within the human body. All thought, memory, motor skills, vision, emotions and in fact all regulatory functions of the body are controlled by the CNS. The brain sits within the skull, encased in a given space and surrounded by cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). The function of the skull and the fluid is in part to provide protection for this most essential organ, with the cerebrospinal fluid acting as a shock absorber, cushioning the brain against the skull.

In normal function and everyday life this relationship is ideal. We move our head and the CSF does the job of protecting the brain from hitting the inner walls of the skull. However if the rate at which we move our head increases due to a raid deceleration (such as that occurring in a fall) or through the applied force of an incoming object (such as a strike), the CSF may not be able to mitigate the shock and displace the incoming momentum adequately. The momentum then serves to move the brain within it’s space, providing collision with the inner walls of the skull. If the head is moved back and forth at a rapid velocity the potential for traumatic brain injury (TBI) is increased. Concussion is one of the most common forms for traumatic brain injury, with symptoms ranging from subtle headaches or nausea and vomiting to potentially more serious slurred speech, confusion and amnesia. Symptoms of concussion may not be evident immediately and can last for days, weeks or longer.

Whilst there is no definitive cure, it is strongly recommended that a period of time is given before an athlete is permitted to re-engage in activities that are associated with a higher risk of another concussion. Indeed experts recommend that these activities are completely avoided if the athlete still exhibits symptoms of concussion. Repeated concussions can lead to much more significant and potentially life changing and potentially fatal brain injuries.

High momentum strikes are much more likely to result in movement of the brain and therefore it’s collision with the inner walls of the skull. Hard sparring is therefore much more likely to result in the generation of a concussion and acquired traumatic brain injury. However there is a much more concerning potential here also, which may be due to ‘sub-concussive impact’. Sub-concussive impacts are essential those head impacts in which the trauma to the brain was insufficient to cause symptoms associated with a full concussion. The brain is shaken but there is no immediate loss of consciousness, memory loss or other associated concussive symptoms. In the past few years the understanding and our awareness of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) has increased considerably. ‘Old schoolers’ would traditionally refer to this condition as being ‘punch-drunk’ or ‘punchy’ but whatever it’s called it has long been associated with combat sports. CTE is a degenerative brain disease which is essentially caused through repeated sub-concussive impacts.The condition is marked by a buildup of tau proteins in the brain, these leading to disruption of neural pathways and symptoms such as slurred speech, memory loss, motor coordination issues and potential significant changes in impulse control, mood and/or depression. CTE is progressive and degenerative, symptoms do not simply disappear or get better with time. In fact they get progressively worse, with typical symptoms appearing years after the trauma occurred. To compound this, currently CTE can only be diagnosed through post-mortem analysis of brain tissue, (in 2021) there is no progress for diagnosis in living subjects or any known cure. It is however a life changing and debilitating condition. Whilst across recent years it has been successfully diagnosed in several high profile cases, there is a mass of historical evidence to suggest that it has affected many boxers who have become crippled with neurological degenerations and dementia-like symptoms following their retirement from the ring.

Combat Sports and more specifically competition and sparring directly open participants to the risk of sub-concussive brain injury. Indeed for most of not all of the legendary boxers who may have developed CTE the majority of this damage did not occur in the ring during competition, rather it occurred in practice during the hours of sparring undertaken in preparation for their competitive bouts. It becomes completely feasible to suggest that there is a direct relationship between hard contact sparring, momentum transfer to the skull, repeated sub-concussive impact and acquired traumatic brain injury and deterioration such as CTE. Sparring is essential for preparation for competition, of this can be no debate. Whether we choose to emphasise the specific development of fitness, application and rehearsal of a given set of techniques, tactics or fight strategy or simply getting familiar with the environment of the ring, sparring is key to the fighters continued development. However, sparring is not a form of ‘conditioning’, there are still many trainers and gyms who advocate hard sparring. Strikes are not pulled. Participate safety is considered secondary and any question to the contrary is seen as a weakness and lack of heart.

The potential for damage, lasting and not immediately evident degenerative brain damage is real. The endless grind that many fighters pursue, the effect of countless rounds of sparring that they go through in a camp,preparing for the fight can add up. The only really sensible approach to ensuring and reinforcing the fighters long term health and well being then is to ensure that sparring is as it should be intended, an opportunity for investigation and technical development. Making this adjustment may be extremely difficult for some trainers who are entrenched in the ‘old-school’ approaches. Time honoured gyms such as chute box and Miletich fighting systems are legendary for their ‘gym wars’ but offer little nowadays in regards to the long term protection of their fighters safety and wellbeing. Combat Sports are dangerous and high risk endeavours in their own right. There is little strength in any argument which suggests that the training methods employed need to increase the overall risk to the participants. Reducing the potential damage a fighter does or receives within the gym is really the only way of ensuring their longevity in the sport and safeguarding their health and wellbeing for the days when they retire from competition. Moreover, for the recreational participant, whose goal is centred more on personal health, fitness and development rather than competitive success there is no benefit or reason to engage in any ‘old-school’ training which increases the risk of any acquired trauma.

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