The next step up from isolation sparring is, of course, full sparring. How exactly you define that is up to you, but essentially, it means that both people have license to use whatever tools they want within the normal structures you play under (Thai rules, MMA rules, whatever…). The popular image of this usually involves two guys doing their best to kick the absolute crap out of each other, and while there’s a time and place for hard sparring, it’s not something you can or need to do all the time.
The following is a collection of variations on sparring or drills that you can use to try to address certain issues, or just help your students develop particular skills or attributes.
Contrary to popular mythology, the Thai don’t actually invest a lot of time in hard sparring. This is mostly because, in a culture where you train twice a day and might fight once every week or two, there’s no real need to do hard sparring. Instead, sparring is kept light and playful, with an emphasis on timing and strategy rather than brute force. The difficult thing about this, for many students, is learning how to go light. The advantage is that, unlike hard sparring, this is something you can do every training session and walk away happy.
Useful drills to build this up include the Night of the Living Dead (see below), Slow-motion Brawling, and isolation drills.
I recommend playing this game with a minimum amount of protective gear. Heavy shin guards and thick headgear tend to encourage students to “take hits”, in a way that a lack of shin guards doesn’t. Force your students to be a bit smarter than they might left to their own devices.
Confined Space Sparring
In this drill, students spar as normal, but are confined to an extremely small space. At Sityodtong, we’ll often use the seams on the mats to designate single spaces. Depending on the kind of flooring you have, you do something similar, or use tape, mark space with pads, or whatever. The idea is to create a space that is EXTREMELY confined. Students shouldn’t have very much room to move or disengage.
The point of this kind of sparring is to force students to work on staying engaged and “in the pocket”. However you create the space, it should make students feel like they need to be active in order to stay in the fight.
Start light with this one—it’s easy for it to escalate, and students won’t have room to make space.
I think of this as corner sparring, because that’s how I first experienced it. It works with a wall too.
One student starts with their back to the ring corner/ropes/cage wall/whatever. The other student faces them. You’ll need some way to mark out space: my boxing coach used a water bottle to make a line in front of the lead foot of the person in the corner. Tape works too. Neither partner is allowed to cross that line.
This is similar to confined space sparring, except that the person on the outside can disengage at will. They can also change angles more freely, forcing the person on the inside to turn inside their space to compensate. The person on the inside is forced to work on counter-fighting and holding their ground. The person on the outside is forced to work on engaging and strategic set ups—just running into the corner gets you blasted.
Most students will develop a particular strategy or style that “works” for them in the few months of sparring. Unfortunately, once they discover this style, it’s difficult to get them to try new things. Isolation sparring can help with this, but sometimes people revert to their original habits under pressure.
One version of this drill is to simply assign students a particular strategy, like “force the clinch” or “just counterpunch”. Sometimes this works, but for students who have particular habits deeply ingrained, the new strategy gets lost in the heat of sparring.
Another way to help students visualize the change is to give them a particular person to focus on as an example. If you tell a student to go spar like Mike Tyson, that creates an image and strategy that they can visualize and imitate. If the next round, you tell them you want them to spar like Muhammad Ali, they’ll understand that you want something very different. (Obviously, use examples that will resonate with your students, though if they don’t know who Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali are, fear for their future).
Not getting hit is a big part of sparring, but it’s a part that can cause a lot of challenges for students.
In this drill, one student is the “attacker”, and the other is the “defender”.
The attacker is given a limited set of attacks (usually no more than four), and the defender’s job is to defend them. The attacker can attack in single beats, or in combination.
This is good way to get students used to the idea of defending attacks without feeling to overwhelmed by the entirety of sparring.
Some students develop a method of “defense” that relies extensively, if not exclusively on footwork. Sometimes this is good strategy. Sometimes it’s really the student running away from the fight. In either case, there are times when moving doesn’t work, or isn’t an option. This drill is designed to force people to work on other options.
One student starts with their back to a wall (the ring ropes or the wall of a cage works fine here too). The other student faces them. If you can, make a line in front of the students lead foot. No one crosses this line.
The person off the wall can attack. The person on the wall can only defend. Usually, we’ll progress this starting with just hands, and then adding other attacks. Since no one is allowed to cross the line, clinch work shouldn’t happen.
This can be evolved into a full blown sparring drill (see wall sparring).
Modified Night of the Living Dead
The Night of the Living Dead is part of Coach Tony Blauer’s Counter-Knife curriculum, but I’ve found that a modified version of it works well for helping people with defense and counter fighting.
There are four iterations for the drill. In all of them, the attacker’s role is the same.
The most important, but most difficult thing about this drill is this: it is a slow motion drill. Both the attacker and defender move at about 1/3rd full speed, but with contact and follow-through. This means that the attacker is trying to put their strikes on targets and move them. I can’t overemphasize how important these two things are: do this drill too fast, and someone will get hurt. If the attacker is missing or puling their shots, the defender won’t get the full benefit of the drill. SLOW WITH CONTACT AND FOLLOW-THROUGH. You will repeat this a lot.
The Attacker’s Role: At every stage, the attacker has the same job. To provide a steady stream of constant attacks. Because of the slow motion nature of the drill, it’s easier to punch than kick, but you can put both options on the table.
Stage One: Footwork only
In the first stage, the defender’s job is just to try and avoid the attacker’s strikes by using their footwork. They should leave their hands down at this stage, both to empathize the important of movement, and also to keep them from relying on their hands to protect them.
Stage Two: Footwork plus head movement
With the hands still held low, the defender can now use their slips and other head evasions in conjunction with their footwork.
Stage Three: Find counters
Now, as the defender moves, they can start to find counters. The goal is still to try and avoid getting hit, but they can pick shots where they seem them. Both sides should be going about 1/3rd speed still.
Stage Four: Add Parries/Blocks
Finally, the defender can bring their hands up, allowing them to block and parry where necessary.
Slow Motion Brawl
I stole this one from Kru Eric Armington, who passed away many years ago. It had no name when Kru Eric invented it, but I’ve found it to be useful over the years, particularly for working with students who have difficulty with contact.
Stage One: You go, I go. Hands Only
Both students begin facing each other in guard positions. In the first version of this drill, the student’s take turns exchanging blows.
The drill begins with one student throwing a punch at the other student. The other student does not get to block, dodge, parry…they are going to get hit.
The student punching needs to go SLOW, WITH CONTACT AND FOLLOW THROUGH.
SLOW: Because if you do this fast, someone will get hurt.
WITH CONTACT: The weapon has to land on the target. If you’re missing on purpose, no one is learning anything of value.
FOLLOW THROUGH: The weapon needs to move the target. If you hit someone hard, their head will turn, or their leg will buckle, or something. That same effect should happen in this drill (though again, without speed, there’s not a lot of impact).
The formula of Slow, With Contact and Follow Through again comes from Coach Blauer (though the drill was Eric’s. I know…it’s weird).
Once the first blow has finished, the other student returns a single blow. And so on.
If you do this right, it looks like the craziest, hardest, most insane fight you’ve ever seen…except that you’re going slow, so no one actually gets hurt.
Stage Two: Add Knees.
You can add knees to the drill without changing too much. I’ve experimented with adding kicks, but the lack of momentum makes it impractical. I’ve never had the courage to allow students to elbow during this drill. You COULD, but elbows cut people very easily.
Stage Three: Add Defense
At this stage, the person being punched can parry, block, slip, or whatever. The trick here is to make sure that no one jumps speed. If the attacker is moving at 1/3rd their normal speed, but the defender is moving full speed, the drill falls apart. This can help people integrate all of this into their game better, but it also helps the attacker see where they are telegraphing or otherwise opening themselves up for counters.
Again, the limits here are the limits of your imagination. These are ideas. Play with them. If they help you, great. If they don't, find ones that do. Experiment. Play.