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Monday, December 31, 2012

Dichotomous Thinking

Someone on the PDR Facebook page posed the question:


"Sparring (Boxing / MMA) ... Yes or No for someone who is only interested in self preservation skills. What do you think?"

Of course, the poll had only two answer choices: yes, or no. Which is problematic, because I don't think this is really a yes/no question. The real answer is "it depends."

Not everyone who trains solely for "self-preservation" (or whatever we're calling it these days) is  the same. The needs of a middle aged mother of two are not the same as the needs of a twenty-something single male.  In order to answer this question, there's a bunch of other questions that need to be answered first:

  • Who are they? 
  • How much time do they have to train? 
  • What is their "timeline in training" (stolen from Tom Campbell, an excellent coach with no web presence that I know of)?
  • What is their background? 
  • What threats are they likely to have to deal with? 
  • How old are they?
  • What kind of physical condition are they in? 
  • Do they have pre-existing injuries that would limit the type of sparring they can do?
There's other questions too. But that's a good start. 

Here's the bigger problem though: sparring is just a drill. It's a portion of a larger training system.  You can remove it from the larger training system, but it's value diminishes greatly.

If you take two people who have never had a day of boxing training in their life, give them gloves, headgear, and mouthpieces, and tell them to go at it...they probably won't learn much. Oh, sure, maybe they'll develop a little mental toughness, but honestly, without any kind of training, they'll probably just reenforce whatever physical and mental traits are already there. The tough guy will get a little tougher. The weak guy will stay weak. Very little progress will happen just from sparring alone.

If you want to get value out of sparring, you need to make sparring an integral part of your training. That means learning the tools, drills, and skills necessary to succeed in sparring.

Pro fighters don't spend all of their time sparring. In fact, the bulk of their training is often made up of drills, bag work, pad work, and other related training. Sparring is an important component of the training, but it's arguably not even the most important part. Years ago, PDR Coach Phil Hughes won a pro MMA fight in which he did NO sparring whatsoever during his fight camp. A lot of very high-intensity drills, but no actual sparring. 

So the question should not be, is sparring useful for someone interested in self-defense, but can sparring be integrated into a self-defense training paradigm successfully? I think the answer is YES, for the record, but this brings me back around to my larger point.

In martial arts, and in physical culture in general, we seem to have this insane drive to try to apply some kind of moral theology to everything. Sparring is good! Kettlebells are bad! The TRX is amazing! No, the TRX is a tool of the devil! It's really useless thinking, for the most part.

Can sparring be useful? Sure it can. Do you absolutely HAVE to do it? Well, no. I do a lot of three-hour intro PDR workshops, many of them with people who have never trained before. I'm not going to throw four-once gloves on them and tell them to go at it. It'd be unproductive. 

Training methods are just tools. Each is useful in it's own time and place. A hammer is a lousy way to put a screw in a wall, but a screwdriver is terrible for nailing a shelf together. It doesn't make either one good or bad...it just means you need to know what tools you've got in the toolbox, and pick the right one at the right time.

Though overused to the point of being trite, Bruce Lee's most famous quote (though not my favorite) is relevant here:


Absorb what is useful, Discard what is not, Add what is uniquely your own.”

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