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5 Ways to Improve Sparring

by Loren W. Christensen
Excerpted from Fighter's Fact Book


This is an interesting concept that karate instructor Daniel Alix teaches. It concerns what I call “a psychological catch” that can happen when you focus on what you just did to your opponent or street assailant. Time, even fractions of seconds, are critical in an explosive fight, so don’t stop in the middle of it to admire your work, or scratch your head and wonder why your last technique didn’t get in. To avoid this, you must develop a mind-set that you must keep on fighting until the street assailant is no longer a threat. For competition, you must train yourself to keep sparring until the judges call for a halt in the action.

One Instructor’s Approach

This is what Daniel Alix teaches. “I can remember the first real street fight that I was ever in. I walloped the guy right in the nose and then paused, wide-eyed, with a look of ‘did I do that?’ on my face. This robbed me of that valuable moment when my opponent was stunned. When you are used to being shocked and worried about striking your opponent in training, you will carry that reflex out onto the street with you. Bad habits in the school become bad habits on the street.

As you train yourself to continue to fight, your opponent learns how to take a punch without stopping to grab his nose, groin or whatever. Nothing irks me more than to see a student get tapped on the nose and then stop fighting so he can check for blood and discuss it with his opponent.”

Alix has a caution for instructors: “Before each sparring session, remind your students not to stop. What happens is that one guy doesn’t remember and stops, while his partner keeps kicking and punching. This often causes tempers to flare and strikes to become real. “One final note: Be sensible about this. If your partner is hurt badly by your attack, you should stop the sparring match.”

I had a student who always reacted to being scored on by stopping, shaking his head in wonder as to how he was sucker punched, and then complimenting his opponent. I told him several times not to do this. “Don’t give the technique credit,” I said. “Keep on sparring when you’ve been hit.” But he just couldn’t do it. So I sparred him.

Every time he did his stop, shake and compliment routine, I whacked him with multiple punches and kicks. At the end of our second training session, he was no longer acknowledging my hits, but fighting back.


Here is another good training concept by Daniel Alix that follows up on #1 Don’t Stop to Discuss What Happened. It’s a good concept because it trains your subconscious mind to continue raining blows even after an opponent has been knocked down. Doesn’t that make more sense then to stand over the guy and raise your fist in victory as some competition fighters do?

Killer Instinct

My kickboxing coach used to call it killer instinct,” Alix says, “or the ability to finish off my opponent when I smelled blood.’ I can’t count the boxing/kickboxing matches I’ve witnessed where one guy could have won if he had possessed a killer instinct.

I like to work drills that instill in my students a mindset to finish off their opponent. How I usually do this is to have one line be the “glass-jawed” line, that is, the training partner who takes the blow. During a sparring match, the glass-jaw students always go down to the canvas and sometimes even curl up into the fetal position as if trying to protect themselves. The task of the attacker is to develop the instinct to immediately “go for the throat,” so to speak. I have found that it’s quite common for the attacking students to pause or momentarily blank out, allowing a perfectly good victory to slip away from them. Most had no idea they were freezing like this, and it took this drill to open their eyes.”

Alix says you must bring out your savage self. “Keep in mind that you may have to do some mean, nasty and icky things to your opponent. I’ve dealt with a lot of students who admit that they would have an awful hard time gouging someone’s eye or tearing their ear. But they have to realize that they cannot hesitate in a real situation or they might miss an opportunity. Therefore, they must mentally prepare themselves prior to being in that situation.

A particularly difficult student to teach this to is a tournament fighter. When their glass-jaw training partner goes down, instead of jumping in for the kill, they often look to an imaginary judge for a point, or they raise their hands in a disgusting victory pose.


A good philosophy to have is to be better at your strong points than your opponent is at his. If you are better at kicking than your opponent, then you should use your feet to score in competition or to defeat a street attacker.

In competition, it’s usually true that a good kicker is hard to score on with kicks and a good puncher seldom loses by being out punched. This is because each fighter has a deep understanding of his specialty and, therefore, knows all the tricks that can be used against him. By virtue of having practiced thousands of reps of, say his backfist, he knows what an opponent looks like when he is setting up to attack with a backfist.

Some fighters specialize in both hand and foot techniques, but it’s rare. When Chuck Norris competed, he was respected as a fighter who could score equally well with his hands and his feet. Usually, though, fighters specialize.

Whatever your specialty, train hard to develop every facet of it.


This is a device that Instructor Daniel Alix uses to ensure that his students are not “tag sparring,” that is, sparring the way tournament competitors do. You’ve seen it: Two fighters square off, move around until one fighter moves in with a quick tag and then retreats.

Should it be Four or Five?

To prevent this, Alix instructs his students to throw no less than five techniques per clash. “This quickly breaks them of tag sparring because they are forced to stay in and keep hitting,” he says.

I’ve had my students do the same thing except they use four techniques. Somewhere, years ago, I came up with the theory that you should not hit more than four times before you disengage. Maybe, I came up with that number because that was the maximum I could throw before I got hit back. Well, no one is going to accuse me of not being flexible: try five hits, then try four. Hey, try six if you want, or how ever many works best for you. Let the situation dictate how many blows you throw before you scoot back out of range.
Working through the Ranges

Besides breaking the tag sparring habit, throwing multiple blows as you move in on your sparring partner gives you the chance to flow with long range techniques, middle range, close range, and then continue hitting as you move back out of range.

This is a good opportunity to use the high/low principle as you move in and out of range. Close the gap with, say, a low kick to the knee, a high hand strike to the head, a punch to the middle, and an elbow to the face - low, high, middle and high again. Hitting at fluctuating levels makes it hard for your opponent to block.

This Works even Better with Pain

If you are actually landing the blows in a real fight, it makes defense extremely difficult for the defender because his mind is so busy moving to where the pain is. When you hit his shin, his brain goes there, and when you follow-up with a face strike, his mind flows to that place. Against most fighters, the third blow to the middle and the fourth to the head usually go unchecked because the brain can’t keep up, especially when pain is being inflicted. If you can get a fifth blow in there as Daniel Alix suggests, you will definitely be having a good day.


This method of sparring, also suggested by Instructor Daniel Alix, begins with one person on the ground, either sitting or lying, and the other person standing. I’ve used this exercise, too, finding it to be a good way to learn how to defend while on the ground and to understand how important it is to get up as soon as possible.

Begin with one fighter down; let’s make it you. Lie on your back as if you were just knocked down or you slipped and fell. There is no rule that says you have to wait to be attacked, so roll, slide, scoot, or tumble or whatever way works for you to keep the attacker off.

Seize any opportunity that presents itself to go on the offensive. Use your legs to kick, sweep or trip him. Use your hands to grab or punch his legs, strike his groin or to grab something by which to pull yourself up.

If he attacks first, position your legs to protect your groin and use your arms to block and counter strike. When you get an opportunity to get up, do so quickly. It’s always amazing to me to see fighters stay on the ground when they don’t have to.

Never stand straight up, but rather get up in such a way that you are moving away from the threat. Before the sparring match, experiment with different ways to get to your feet from a seated position and a lying position. Find a couple of methods which allow you to get up with speed, balance and protection against your opponent’s quick charge. Practice them repetitiously. It’s imperative that you have an understanding of your offensive and defensive techniques on the ground. I’m not talking about grappling, although you should have some knowledge of that, too. I’m talking about your karate techniques, your ability to punch, kick and block while on the ground. If you have only been practicing them in the standing position, expand your knowledge and your awareness as to what you can do if you suddenly find yourself down.

The above article is copyrighted by the author. All rights reserved.

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