The biggest problem with the way that most people approach sparring is that they don’t scaffold their way into it.
Scaffolding is a term that’s get thrown around in education circles. The concept is pretty straightforward, and if you’ve been through the US educational system (and most others, I would assume), you’ve experienced it. Scaffolding works by introducing concepts or pieces of information in a way that each builds on the next. So you learn what numbers are, then you learn how to count, then to add, then to subtract, and so one. Before you can learn to read, you have to understand what the alphabet is, how it works (each letter represents a sound), and so on.
What most instructors do is the equivalent of teaching students their ABCs (the foundational work I described in the last section), and then hand them a textbook and say “start reading” (sparring).
There are no intermediate steps. It’s just “go spar”.
If we taught people to read that way, the literacy rate in our society would plummet. You’d have people who could read, of course, but it would be the people who were, for whatever reason, seriously motivated to learn, enough that they would suffer and struggle through the process despite repeated failures, until they finally figured it out.
That’s how a lot of people teach sparring, and it’s why most students fail so miserably at learning how to. Sparring is treated less like a learning tool, and more like a selection process. The strong survive, the weak fail out.
It’s unproductive, and it excludes plenty of people who could benefit from sparring, but never get to.
The key to building people up to sparring is isolation work.
I was first introduced to the idea of isolation drills by Tony Blauer. Kru Mark Dellagrotte uses them extensively in his coaching as well. Matt Thornton of the SBGi has written about them as well. This is not a new idea, but it’s one that seems to only have traction in certain corners of the coaching community.
The idea behind isolation work is pretty simple. Rather than telling students to “go spar”, you limit the options that students are allowed to use in each drill. They are still “sparring”, but you are drastically limiting their options.
For beginners, this helps eliminate feelings of being overwhelmed by giving them a much simpler set of things to focus on.
For intermediate or advanced students, this can serve as way to work on weak points, or help them refocus on tools they may have previous ignored.
Isolation work simplifies things. Once they get a handle on one thing, more elements can be added. It is almost always easier to add complexity to a drill than it is to simplify it once you’ve made it complicated.
The following is a list of isolation drills I’ve used over the years. Some are from other sources, some are my own.
It’s important to understand that these are examples of a process—there are lots of isolation drills out there, including some I’ve probably never heard of. The formula for creating them is pretty much always the same
1. Identify the skill you want to work on (attacking and defending with the jab, for example)
2. Include that skill in the drill.
3. Take out everything else that isn’t necessary to make that skill work.
I encourage you to use these drills, but also to take them as inspiration. Make up your own drills. You might discover something useful.
I spent my undergraduate career fencing with a group of guys and girls from the local chapter of the SCA. People can (and will) argue to death about the “reality” of their fencing rules, but I learned a lot there that was applicable to other areas of fighting. In particular, I gained a real appreciation for the importance of footwork and range control that has guided a lot of my training and teaching ever since. Unfortunately, most students (especially in the Muay Thai/MMA crowd) think that footwork is “boring” and doing like practicing it. Putting into a dynamic drill can help, though, like everything else, there needs to be a basic foundation first.
Range Control Drill
Goal: Help students develop an understanding of the importance of footwork for controlling distance and range during sparring.
Phase One (Hand Contact):
• The students face each other in their respective fighting stances.
• One student extends their lead (jab) hand and places it on their partner’s chest. (Note: adjust this hand positioning with respect to height and gender. The forehead or throat can also work as acceptable points of contact). The other student should leave their hands down.
• The goal of the student whose hand is extended is to maintain that contact.
• The goal of the student who has the hand on them is to either break contact by moving away, or collapse the arm by moving in.
• Both students should move only using proper footwork (however your system defines that).
Phase Two (No hand contact)
• This is the same drill, but once the range is established, both students bring their hand into their guard position. This forces the student’s to rely on their eyes, rather than a tactile cue, to gauge their range and direction.
• In phase one, some students will maintain range by stiff-arming their partner, rather than just moving to avoid a rush.
• Students will sometimes lose sight of the goal and start breaking footwork in order to gain an advantage.
• Not an error, but a note: the partners do not need to mirror each other’s footwork. What is important is maintaining or changing range...not matching movement.
Isolated Tool Sparring
In almost all of these drills, there are two variations: symmetrical and asymmetrical.
Symmetrical means both participants are using the same set of tools. Jab vs. Jab, for example.
Asymmetrical means each player has different options. Punches vs. Kicks, for example. When working asymmetrical sparring, it’s usually helpful to have students reverse roles at least once during the round (usually at the halfway mark), so that they get to experience both sides of the drill.
Focusing students to focus on a single tool severely limits their options, but it makes sparring a lot more manageable. This works really well for beginners, as it gives them a chance to really try and use one thing without having to think about much else. The asymmetrical version can work well if you want students to se how a particular tool counters another one (jab v. cross, for example, can get interesting), but can be frustrating for students who haven’t figured out the timing.
Symmetrical Single Tool Variations
- Jab vs. Jab
- Cross vs. Cross
- Leg kick vs. Leg kick
- Teep vs. Teep
Asymmetrical Single Tools Variations
- Jab vs. Cross
- Jab vs. Teep
- Cross vs. Leg Kick
- Teep vs. Kick
- Jab vs. Leg Kick
Multi-Tool Isolation Sparring
This is similar to isolation sparring, but adds more tools to the mix. I’ve found that you can reasonably isolate up to four tools before things start getting too confusing—more than that, and you’re really dealing with categories (see the next session).
Once you start adding tools, the drill works better symmetrically rather than asymmetrically…sort of. If you’re only giving each student two tools (say jab and cross vs. teep and leg kick), that’s manageable for most people. If you’re at a point where one person can jab, cross, leg kick, and teep, and the other person can hook, uppercut, knee, and elbow…it’s probably just too much to keep track of for everyone involved. Move to categories, or go symmetrical.
Symmetrical Multi-Tool Variations
- Jab, Cross, Leg Kick, Teep (the classic “Thai” package)
- Jab, Cross, Hook, Leg Kick
- Hook, Cross, Uppercut, Knee
Isolated Category Sparring
There’s a point where adding individual tools to a sparring session gets too confusing for anyone, even the most advanced student, to keep track of. Imagine starting out a sparring session by saying “ok, you guys can jab, cross, hook, uppercut, knee left, knee right…” and so on. Once you’re going beyond three or four tools, it’s easier to transition to talking about categories, or groups of tools.
For striking, there are three major categories that I like to use
Punching/Hands: Any strike you can do with your hands. This is your boxing toolkit, plus stuff like spinning backfists, if that’s your game.
Kicking/Legs: Any strike you can do with your legs. People sometimes get confused about whether this includes knees. I generally push knees into the clinch category, but you can move them here if you think it’s appropriate.
Clinch: Upright wrestling with strikes. For Muay Thai, this means knees and elbows, if you are playing with elbows (which I do not recommend unless you have elbow pads). If you are training for MMA, you can add takedowns here. Use your discretion.
Symmetrical Category Sparring
In this variation, both players have the same set of tools to work with. This is hands vs. hands, kicks vs. kicks, or clinch work. This kind of sparring is excellent for isolating and developing a particular toolbox. If you have a student who needs to work on their kicks, forcing them to work on just their kicks will help a lot. Most students won’t get good at clinch-work unless you make them clinch.
The potential downside of this kind of sparring is that students can end up gaming the drill or developing strategies that only make sense in isolation. It's fine to do hand sparring, for example, but unless you are training boxers, you don’t want your students to develop tactics that only make sense for boxing. If students are developing habits or tactics that won’t translate into their broader activity (Muay Thai, MMA, whatever), it’s time to change things up.
Asymmetric Category Sparring
In this variation, the two students are using different toolboxes. This is punches vs. kicks, kicks vs. clinch, and so on.
This is an excellent way to expose students to the strengths and weaknesses of different toolboxes, and force them to learn how to deal with different styles of opponents. You can work this in a couple of ways
1. Make a student work on a weakness. If you have someone who has great hands, but lousy kicks, making them spar with just kicks against someone who likes to punch will force them to really think about how to use that particular toolbox.
2. Make a student work against a particular weakness. Maybe your student has great hands, but gets locked up in the clinch constantly and can’t use them. Making him do hands vs. clinch will force him to figure out how to deal with that particular problem.
Honestly, if you take nothing away from this whole thing, take away this. Isolation work will make you and your students better in every aspect of your sparring. Again, there is a formula here. Figure it out, and you can use it for your art, regardless of that arts goals.