Tips to Improve Your Sparring Technique

I’ve been sparring (kickboxing style) for the last six months. It’s been exhilarating and eye-opening. And it’s been doing a great job of keeping my ego in check.

When I first started, I felt myself pinwheeling my arms in front of my face, chin jutted out, feet heavy. Luckily, my partners knew I was a beginner. We went slow and light.

These last few weeks, I’ve been improving in a noticable way.

Here’s what I’ve changed, practiced, or paid attention to in the last month:

  • I study fighters and fights. I’ve been watching more mixed martial artists, especially kick boxers and boxers. I’ve been watching their footwork and combinations. Specifically, I’ve had my eye on Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Holly Holm, and Valérie Létourneau. These fighters came at the recommendation of Jeff, a more advanced martial artist and someone I highly respect.
  • I focus on one technique per sparring hour. When I became aware of my poor foot work, I focused on keeping myself light, fast, and balanced on my feet. I found myself dodging more strikes just by moving out of the way.
  • I listen to my instructors and other students. When someone makes a note of something I could improve I try out the change. This hasn’t failed me yet. I work with really smart people.
  • I record sparring sessions to see my mistakes. Having someone tell you that you pin wheel your arms is one thing. Seeing yourself do it is much more effective (and embarrassing!).
  • The fundamentals always come first. I keep my chin tucked, hands up (this is a constant struggle), breathe throughout the whole session, and try not to fight angry. No fancy techniques until I’ve got these reset.
  • I spar as many fighters as I can. It’s helpful to practice against different styles, sizes, and experience level of partners. I learn something about myself or the way they fight every single time.
  • I pay attention to my bruises and scrapes. My nose was sore after a few classes and it helped me realize I’m letting people hit me right up the middle. Ouch! In the heat of the moment, it can be difficult to see where you leave yourself open to attack. The bruises and sore muscles will teach you what to watch for next time.
  • I try to throw more than two strikes in a given exchange. It finally clicked in Amy’s sparring glass that I’ve been treating sparring like I do drills. Two strikes and reset. Two strikes and reset. Instead, I’ve been focusing on throwing three, four, fix strikes in an exchange. It means I’ve been landing more hits. I’m more successful.
  • I move my head even as I’m throwing strikes. This one is really hard. It requires coordination that feels similar to playing the drums. Feet move forward, hands strike out, keep chin tucked, move head left to right. This is a huge work in progress.
  • I’ve been watching YouTube videos for tips. A few of my favorites: FightTips, Sensei Ando, and Mitt Master Matt.

It doesn’t hurt that I’ve been working on my sparring every week. It’s hard not to when it’s so darn fun.

What else can I do to improve sparring? What’s helped you? Have you never sparred before? Why?

Learning weaknesses by the bruises you keep

Last night, I had one of the most incredible classes of my entire Krav Maga practice. My partners and I sparred and it was intense.

Today, my ears are sore, which is such a weird feeling. Bruised ears. Who knew?

When I’m sparring, there’s so much to remember. I’m still fairly new to it and I have a hard time not jutting my chin out, keeping my feet glued to the ground, and pinwheeling my arms Bugs Bunny style. I’ve been trying to focus on one thing at a time as I’m sparring.

It goes something like this:

  • Hands up. Check.
  • Chin tucked. Check.
  • Move feet to advance. Check.
  • Tuck that chin!
  • Try something besides an inside punch!
  • Tuck your chin.

This is what’s happening in my head when I’m sparring.

I didn’t realize I’m not doing a good job of blocking or getting out of the way of punches to my head. It shows how much adrenaline can carry you through an experience. Good information to have though. I guess it’s another thing to add to the list as I work on sparring.

What training with a male Krav Maga partner can be like for a woman

Every once in awhile I have a night that transcends a typical class and I leave feeling buzzed.

I arrive at the 6pm class just as it’s starting. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder to bow in and I look down the line at the other trainees… all men.

Let me just take a little detour here to say I’ve noticed a lot more women doing Krav Maga in this gym compared to seven years ago. I would be the only lady in a lot of classes back then. Nearly every present-day class has at least two girls. It’s not that uncommon for half the class or more to be women. It’s an exciting transition and I appreciate the effort my gym makes to introduce more women to these self-defense techniques.

Anyway, it’s rare to be in a class with 100% dudes.

After we bow in, I look to the guy on my left. He’s roughly my height, but significantly more muscled. I point to him and he nods silently acknowledging our new partner status. One of the other instructors, Drew, asks if he can partner with us too.

I put on my 16 ounce boxing gloves and insert my mouth guard. Matt, our instructor, tells us to start shadow boxing and then light sparring for our warm up. The sparring is fierce. Usually, it starts off light. Guys will go a little easy on me to start. These two don’t give me a second to breathe.

We transition into a defense with sparring. As two of us spar, the third partner tries to put the sparring partner of his choice in a head lock. Your job as the defender is to recognize a headlock as it’s coming on and slip out of it. Since the person who tried to put you in a head lock has just attacked you, you start sparring them.

I can feel my arms start to windmill. I have to pull my chin back down and focus on the balance between shooting in and letting my feet do some of the work, and using my long arms to my advantage. Some days it feels like I’m fighting myself as much as my sparring partner.

Some days it feels like I’m fighting myself as much as my sparring partner.

My chin juts up as I swing wildly at N’s head. He blocks and—seeing the opening—clocks me in the jaw. It doesn’t really hurt since we’re using 16oz boxing gloves, but it doesn’t matter either way. No time to apologize or stop or think. I swing my arm up in a fast hook and catch him in the chin. We break apart briefly and then Drew is on me with a head lock.

We’re a swirling mass of arms, trying not to get pummeled in the face, trying to get out of head locks. It’s exhausting.

After the first two minutes of this, my high pony tail has transformed into a rats nest at the base of my neck. My face is beet red, a sure sign I didn’t drink enough water today. 30 second rest period is over. Back to it.

When I have to exert more aggression than usual, when I’m pushed to my upper limit and I have to dig deep to channel my inner warrior princess, I have so much more fun. I discover what I’m made of and I see my (current) limitations. It’s a different kind of training. Less technical. It’s a training in permission. I give myself permission to fight hard.

We work on defending head locks from the ground and the guys continue to push me. They put their full weight in each attack. They pretzel me and twist me up. They force me to try hard. I challenge them too. I lock my wiry arms around their necks, sink my weight, and pretend my lady arms are more powerful than reality. While I’m waiting for my turn to attack or defend, I think of ways to make it more difficult. I watch how they defend and I look for weaknesses.

The positions we defend from still feel scary sometimes. I trust these guys, but when I get flipped onto my stomach and their weight is baring down on my back, my lizard brain pumps extra adrenaline into my system. Get out of this! Get out! 

In those moments, I stop thinking about the defense and I just defend. It doesn’t even have to be what we’re practicing. Sometimes, what you’re doing doesn’t work anyways and you have to try something else. You might get a couple tries or you’ll get approximately one second and one shot before the moment has passed and you have to adjust your strategy.

This is one of the beautiful things about level two classes compared to level one. In level one, you’re learning the basics of throwing strikes and defending attacks. When you get to level two, you have the human component. You’re working against someone else. Someone who has a smart brain and wants the same thing you want—only for themselves.

I took some licks tonight, but I gave some too. There’s power in training with guys willing to push you. You can more easily see where you need work.

This is why I go to Krav Maga. To learn something useful and to have my ass handed to me, but to leave feeling a safer.

My first level 2 Krav Maga class

The anxiety of your first Krav Maga class. The excitement and fear and anticipation. You think there’s no way to get that feeling back after you’ve been to Krav Maga for awhile.

And then you go to your first level 2 Krav Maga class.

Chris and I spend a few weeks between our level 1 test and first level 2 class to rest, get geared up, and mentally prepare.

We pair up for our first class. This is pretty rare, because Chris’s straight punches are harder than I can hold the pad for these days. I’ll do it, but it sucks. He hits hard.

I’m so excited to learn new techniques, but I’m also feeling fear of the unknown. I have no expectations, because higher level classes have always been a mysterious, semi-clandestine event. No one talks about what happens in those classes. You can watch them from the lobby, but I’ve never spent much time watching.

The Warm Up

Matt asks us to pair up and practice the jab, cross, hook, uppercut combination. I put on my new 16 oz boxing gloves and Chris puts on focus mitts.

We circle each other. Chris calls out a number between one and four and I do the corresponding combination.

“Thoo!” Chris calls through his mouth guard.

Jab, cross.

“Four!”

Jab, cross, hook, uppercut. 

We laugh. It’s hard to remember how Chris should hold the focus mitts and we fumble it a bit.

“Thee!”

Jab, cross, hook. 

“One!”

Jab.

This goes on for two minutes or so. I start to limber up.

We switch and I hold the mitts for Chris. It’s so weird. The warm up is like if you were to take a level 1 class, but drop someone into it half way through. This feels like something we would have done after taking it step-by-step. This is a drill. After many exhausting minutes of working through the steps.

I call the numbers out and here my numbers come out as lisps.

Next, Matt instructs us to both put on our gloves. Now we’re going to spar. Spar! Try to actually hit your partner. Don’t try to take their head off. Fast, but light.

I’ve sparred once before. It made me feel clunky, heavy, stupid. Like a big stumbling oaf.

Chris and I start circling each other. My adrenaline is pumping. I throw my hands out to strike. Chris throws his harms up. His concentration is epic. He easily blocks me and counters with a hook. I get my arms up in just enough time to block. We keep circling.

Strike, block. Strike, strike.

The first time I get hit, I feel a wave of conflicting emotions that last approximately half a second: a surge of pride that he’s able to get a good one in. It’s a solid hit, but it doesn’t really hurt. 16 ounce gloves offer lots of cushion-y padding. Simultaneously, I feel mild, benign panic. It’s a weird soft kind of panic. I’m not in any real danger, but I don’t really want to get hit again no matter how fluffy they are.

Matt calls for us to switch partners and I feel this dark dread in my gut. Oh god. I have to spar people I don’t know now?

Welcome to the new shoulder tap game.

I’m immediately surprised. The people I’m sparring are kind, tough, forgiving, encouraging. I’m terrible at it, but I’m using my brain in an exceptionally fun way now. There are real, live, smart people on the other side of my strikes. People who don’t want to get hit and who hit back.

As we throw strikes and defenses, I watch the more advanced trainees. Their eyes are unfocused at the center of my body. Their bodies are almost limp. They don’t look engaged. And then they throw the fastest strikes that get me good on the jaw.

I can feel the basics slip and I struggle to keep it together. I’m like a lanky cartoon character imitating a boxer. My arms feel far from my core. I’m stumbling forward and back. Trying to land something, anything. My eyes close against my will at impact. I’m basically pinwheeling. I have so much to learn.

When Matt calls time, I’m on cloud nine. I couldn’t be more happy in this moment. This is fun. And I can do this any ol’ time I want.

The warm up happens in the first 15-20 minutes of class. It sounds light and easy, but I’m exhausted. My face is red. I’m smiling like an idiot.

The Defense

Matt starts to explain the defense—an inside defense combined with a simultaneous advancing strike.

Everything slows down. Chris and I practice the defenses and strikes while talking through it. It’s technical and complicated and requires synchronous movement. It’s similar to stuff we’ve already done in level 1, but it’s more difficult to do three things at once, plus all the meticulous things you always have to do to protect yourself. Chin down, arms up to protect your face, proper fighting stance.

Let me say just this one thing about learning a slightly more advanced defense. I go from knowing everything being taught, anticipating the strikes, anticipating the drills, moving at speeds that max me out, pushing aggression… to knowing nothing.

What’s the old saying? The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. I’m officially there.

There are times in the defense when I feel unbearably stupid. My body will not cooperate with my brain.

We move slowly, deliberately.

This is just the first class, but the differences are notable.

  • There are smart, fast human beings on the other side of your strikes and defenses. You better move.
  • It’s significantly more technical. There is time to slow everything down and think through it. Talk through it. Figure it out.
  • Communication with your partner is imperative in a way that it wasn’t in level one. In level 1, you’re striking through a pad. There’s a person on the other side of it, but they’re still (usually) stationary or not striking back. In level 2, you’re both striking. You’re both defending. You have to determine the speed, power, and collective competence.

I’m so happy to be in level 2 classes and I cannot wait to go to the next class!