Key Points in Sparring
There is no real order to what I have noted in the next few paragraphs. This is just a synopsis of what I continue to work on when I spar and things I find work for me when I spar.
If you can pin point a weakness in your opponents' defense then you should continue to attack it again and again.
Even if you have a lead (in a tournament match) do not back off... it could backfire on you. Don't worry about making your opponent look bad. If you can beat him 3 straight points then do it! If you want to really help your opponent you can tell him later (after you beat him) what he was doing that made it possible for you to score your technique. If the person has any incentive to learn from defeat, next time you may have a different match.
Don't be so sure you are going to score on any single technique. Always be prepared to follow up with a flurry of distinct combinations of techniques thrown to various areas of the whole body, not just a mishmash of short choppy techniques to occupy your hands and feet. A good counter fighter will see the difference and destroy you when you get close enough.
When you have completed your full attack make sure you have a disengaging technique that will help create a gap between you and your opponent. I generally like to clear with a sharp front hand suki/uchi or hop back with a pushing type front kick. Which one I use depends on how much time I have to react. The hand is fast and defends better against a fighter who continues to attack. If placed properly, the foot will give you a longer retreat distance but can only be utilized if you are defending against an opponent who is not gaining ground or not too close in their attack.
A lot of real quick reflex fighters don't gain a lot of ground when sparring because they normally don't have to. Most people end up walking into them because they don't recognize this attribute or are too impatient to get them off their game before they initiate an attack.
Evaluate but don't underestimate any opponent. You have to be able to see their strengths and weaknesses so that you can put the proper plan into motion, but don't let the possum fool you. Most people will lose because someone has intimidated them or because they don't believe in someone else's abilities. If someone comes out real strong you have to back them off. Don't let them overpower or intimidate you. If someone lays back then you have to get them out of their shell to expose them.
I don't look directly into the eyes but I am aware of what they are doing. If someone is trying to lead you into a trap the opponents' eyes can help get you into this trap. If your opponent is trying to figure you out then the eyes can tell you where their thoughts are... this is when you explode from a different angle or fake the attack that they are looking for and again score from a different angle.
Never take your eyes off of your opponent. Even if a punch is coming directly at you try to slip it and try to keep focus on your opponent. Most often it is not the initial attack that scores, but the follow up or combination attack. If you are so engrossed with the first technique you'll never see the second. This is why I like to follow a punch to the head with a kick to the lower extreme of the stomach and vise versa.
Sometimes I like to just react and become totally engrossed in what my opponent is doing. I want to stay just on the outside of their technique by utilizing my footwork when I am working counter attack skills. Other times I will attack the opening they create when firing something at me. For example, when you punch with your right hand you leave your mid-section open under your arm. It's a fact. If you see the punch is coming put your technique under or over it. Under is usually easier, but sometimes I like the challenge of going over.
When faced with an opponent who over-reacts to any and all of your movements you have to calm that person down... almost as though you are trying to gain their trust. Once you have it, they are not so jumpy. This is what I like to refer to as putting your partner to sleep. That's when you attack. That's when your opponent is going to react the slowest.
Take time to learn how to lead (to be the aggressor) and to follow (to be the counter-attacker). It is to your greatest advantage to be able to quickly switch from one mode to another. If you come across someone who is stronger or more aggressive then you will have to counter fight. If you come across someone who is more passive then you will want to dominate, however you may also have to switch in mid stream. Even a strong aggressive fighter should back off if scored on a couple times quickly by a counter fighter. This is what you have to recognize and become the aggressor. The same holds true with a counter attacker.
When sparring in class make sure you have a particular technique in mind that you are going to concentrate on. Develop that technique until you become proficient with it. You may have many techniques that you want to set up your opponent with, but you will tend to really rely on only a few to score your points with.
Don't be afraid to try something new. If you stick with the same techniques you will be easily figured out. The more artillery you have, the more options you allow yourself. Generally I like to save my most confident techniques for times in need, when I am behind or when it comes time to close the match. If you unveil your best techniques first and they don't happen to work, this can lead to a loss of your own confidence. On the other hand, if you try what your comfortable with and it doesn't work, you'd better start pulling those tricks out of your sleeve!
Don't fall into the trap of trying to fight like your opponent. You don't have to always move in the same direction as your opponent either. See what type of reaction you get if you back up when your opponent backs up. Often this will lead that person into coming back to you.
In the same vein, if you are a good puncher and come across a good kicker, don't try and compare kicking skills. You will lose. You wouldn't believe how many times I watched fighter go round after round and through 1 or 2 kicks, yet when they get to me they want to kick all of a sudden. Suits me fine, I like to kick!
Footwork is of the utmost importance. You must be able to get out of the way of an attack and blocking is not always the best optionž it should be your last option. As a drill to practice in class try to defend yourself solely by moving out of the way of your attacker using only your foot work. Remember that a sitting duck is a much easier target to hit that one that moves.
Most importantly, relax. If you are tense you are slow. If you try to figure out what the other person is going to do then you are the one who is going to be behind. Change your rhythm constantly so that the other person is wondering what you're doing. If they are thinking about what you are doing, then they can't be thinking about what they should be doing.
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By Sensei Neil Prime