There’s a number of common challenges that students run into during sparring.
I’m using that word choice deliberately, for the record. As I’ve tried to emphasize, sparring isn’t inherently easy, and the fact that a student is having difficulty in sparring does not speak badly of them. If a student perceives something as a “challenge”, they are often more likely to work to overcome it than they are if they just “have a problem” with sparring. It may be a weird semantic trick, but it’s one that seems to work.
Some Generic Troubleshooting Guidelines
Regardless of the issue, there are few paths that are always worth exploring.
1. Talk to the Student
It amazes me how often instructors will observe a student struggling with a drill or technique, make some judgment about that student and prescribe a solution without ever stopping to actually ask the student what the problem is.
If a student appears to be having a hard time, talk to them. They will offer you insights that, absent psychic powers, you will not get otherwise. You will be a more effective coach, and have better students for it.
2. Respect the Challenge
You may discover that your student is facing a challenge that seems utterly baffling to you. That’s okay…it’s their challenge, not yours, and you still have to help them face it. Don’t judge it.
3. Change Takes Time
This is important for both students and coaches.
For you, as a coach: you may identify a challenge, have a great plan to fix it, and then watch the student struggle for six months before finally coming around. That is okay. If you’re in this for the long haul, give people time to deal with heir struggles.
If you are a student: a challenge you are dealing with may not be solved in a single training session. That’s okay. Keep working at it.
These are two often related behaviors.
The first is the student who just comes out of the gate going hard. Like, white knuckle, swinging for the fences hard. It’s a problem because the student often isn’t really learning anything, and they are very likely to either injure someone else, or get injured themselves.
Students can be overly aggressive for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is simply a misunderstanding—they think that they are supposed to go that hard, and if you explain that they are not, they’ll back off.
Some students go hard because they are scared. Not everyone curls up into a fetal position when they are frightened…some people just charge. For these students, slow motion work can help a lot, as they can start to move and experience sparring in a way that doesn’t trigger their sense of danger.
Some students go hard because their ego is involved in the process. They are focused on “winning” to the point where they think every sparring session is a fight. Again, you can try to talk them out of this, but some people hold on to this belief very tightly. Slow motion drills can help with this, as can isolation work where they are really focused on light contact, but it can be a tough battle to fight. These are the students who will most often tend to challenge you on your requests to go light.
A word on “green lighting” and other practices:
“Green lighting” is a term that caught on around the Internet a few years ago. It refers to the process where a more experienced, more skilled fighter is given permission (the eponymous green light) to go hard with a less experienced partner. Basically, it’s an instructor giving license to an experienced student to kick someone’s ass. It is often viewed as some sort of punitive measure that someone will teach the less experienced partner lessons about pain or humility.
In my experience, it doesn’t really work. Certainly, it provides a vague sense of moral satisfaction or superiority, but I’ve very rarely seen students who get their asses kicked and return humble and kind. More often, what they really learn is that it’s totally okay to kick someone’s ass, because that just proves you’re more skilled than them. Occasionally, it has the intended effect, but I honestly don’t think it’s that productive.
Tony Blauer has done an incredible amount of research on the startle-flinch, how it works, how it impacts combative skills, and how it matters for self-defense. If you want to understand this material, check out Coach Blauer’s work.
Here’s an executive summary: any time a stimulus is introduced to quickly, your body tries to protect the vital organs in your head, throat, and chest (the command center), and it tries to push away the danger. Those protective instincts are great if that stimulus is, say, a falling piece of rock or baseball coming at your head, but not so helpful in a sparring context.
Students who are flinching during sparring are flinching because things are happening too quickly. Therefore, the solution is to slow things down.
The modified Night of the Living Dead drill, the slow motion brawl, and other similar drills will help students acclimate to sparring without speed being an issue. In other drills, their partner will simply have to slow down. Gradually increase the speed until the flinching reappears, then bring it down. There’s a threshold where the student is close to flinching, but not quite there. Play with that, and gradually, you’ll be able to bring the speed up.
Important Note: Flinching is not caused by fear. Too many instructors see someone flinching and decry them as a coward or a cur. This is bullshit. Brave people can flinch too. Flinching is about a biological process, not a psychological one.
A bit of the opposite problem from excessive aggression, this is the student who is unwilling to actually hit their partner. This is sometimes out of fear of retaliation, or fear of hurting their partner. Again, in either case, drills that force contact can sometimes help—slow motion brawling, for example, or drills that reduce the person’s ability to move, like corner sparring. The latter can be tricky, however—sometimes forcing people into a corner just makes them more afraid and causes them to shut down. As ever, observation is key.