A while ago, I asked people on my Facebook Page if there was anything they were struggling with in their training so I could do a blog post about it. Here’s what Jonathan said:
I find it challenging to develop an attacking mentality – I tend to be quite passive in sparring. Any advice on how to develop that?
A great question and this “How to be more aggressive in sparring” article is my answer to it. Let’s start with some basics first.
Why are you passive during sparring?
There are a bunch of reasons why you might not feel like attacking your partner when you spar. It’s hard to say with certainty which one is the case with you as each person is different, but here are some of the most common reasons:
- You’re scared. Getting punched in the face hurts and it can be scary if this is new to you. When it happens during a sparring session, many people tend to become passive and defensive to avoid receiving more of those punches. This is perfectly natural human behavior but it doesn’t help you get better. You need to work through the fear and conquer it.
- He hits too hard. This is similar to the previous. Not only are you scared of getting hit because it hurts, you’re scared of getting injured because he hits really, really hard. Fear of injury is also a natural reaction, but you need to accept it at a gut level as martial arts and combat sports are contact sports. Injury is always a possibility, no matter how hard or soft you spar.
- He counters everything you do. Even if he doesn’t hit you hard, if he hits you every time you make a move, it can be so frustrating you just stop attacking. Frankly, if this is the case then you’re mismatched. If your partner is so good that he lands every technique at will and avoids all of yours, there’s no upside to sparring him. In this case, I would suggest going slower or getting another partner.
- Your defense sucks and you keep on getting tagged. This is a biggie. Look at a muay Thai or MMA match: in most cases, a fighter gets hit through the holes in his defense as opposed to inherent openings in a technique. E.g.: every time you throw a right punch, the right side of your body is open, nothing you can do about that. But you can keep your chin low, your other hand high and raise your shoulder to protect your chin. It’s usually these technical details that people make mistakes against and the opponent sees it. And then he uses those against you.
- You don’t know what to do. Sparring can be overwhelming and make your brain freeze up to the point of almost paralyzing you. Especially if you are afraid, it can be extremely difficult to figure out something as basic as picking the right technique to throw next. Getting used to adrenal stress and having a strong grasp of the basics goes a long way to solve this.
These are some of the most common reasons that get in the way of being more aggressive when you spar. Fortunately, there are solutions for these and I’ll give you a couple of them here below. Let’s take a look at those now.
Getting over fear
Fighting is scary. It’s OK to be afraid. But it’s not OK to let that fear control you. If you want to spar, you need to learn how to manage it. A while ago, I wrote a long and detailed article about how to conquer your fear of fighting. I strongly suggest you read it first and practice the techniques I explained there.
Another point is this: one of the most common problems I see is fighters who lack the critical attributes for the intensity of the sparring they are going through. Most often, the problem is at a technical level but speed and power can also be an issue. So first and foremost, make sure you have great technique and never stop improving it. Then, get in great shape so you’re fast, strong and have good endurance. It’ll go a long way in helping you control your fear.
Don’t make the mistake of taking leaps forward instead of steps. Build up the intensity of your sparring slowly, only making it harder when you can handle it at the previous level. If for instance you can’t keep up anymore once you spar at 70%, then keep working at 60% for a long time until you’re totally at ease there. Increase the level in small increments from then on, slowly working your way toward 70%. And so on until you can go all out. This kind of desensitization to stimuli takes time and effort, but it can most surely be done. I used to turn my back all the time when I started sparring all out (a long, long time ago). It took plenty of work to get rid of that bad habit but now, I haven’t done it in decades.
Fear of injury
Sooner or later, you’ll get injured when you spar. There’s no two ways about it. Fighting means making contact. Making contact means uncontrolled and unexpected contact sometimes happens. That’s just how it is. You need to accept that or pick up another sport.
That said, you can do a lot to minimize the odds of getting injured. Fortunately, you will be doing that already if you’re working on managing your fear: get in great shape and have great technique. This means you’ll be better at defending yourself but also have a stronger, more resilient body that absorbs blows better.
If you’re still so afraid of injuries you are not aggressive when you spar, then perhaps you should go back to basics or pick up another sport. Because every fighter gets injured eventually, it’s just the nature of the game.
Your defense sucks.
There are two parts to defense: active and passive.
Passive defense is doing things like tucking your chin in when you punch or keeping your guard up. They help minimize the openings through which your opponent can hit you. If you are sloppy on this front, you get hit all over. This is the first thing an experienced fighter looks at: where are you leaving yourself open? He’ll spot the openings and attack there because it’s easier than trying to break down the good parts of your defense. So work on minimizing the danger by plugging those holes. Not just once but every single time you punch or kick. There is no other way.
Active defense is using defensive techniques like parries, blocks, evasion, etc. The biggest issue I see there with fighters who want to be more aggressive in sparring is that they don’t have faith in their defense. They do a half-assed block: they lift their arm to block but at the same time, they lean their head away because their subconscious mind isn’t sure the block will work. As a result, the block isn’t done correctly so it doesn’t work well enough to get the job done. They get hit and ingrain this doubt in their mind even more, which creates a negative feedback loop. After a while, their defense sucks and they get hit all the time, leaving them unwilling to be an aggressive fighter.
Work your blocks, parries, checks and evasions until you know they work against a full power attack. I don’t mean that you’ll be able to block everything that comes at you, that’s impossible. But you need to know deep down in your gut that when a power punch or kick comes at you and you see it coming, your defensive techniques are good enough to handle it. The only way to get to this point is to drill defense over and over until you can pull it off consistently against those full-bore attacks. Build up to it slowly, but make it progressively more difficult until your partner is not holding back anymore.
Once your defense is up to par, learn to counter. If you can’t get off the first technique for some reason, practice getting in your counters. Learn how to take over from an aggressive opponent by finding the timing necessary to hit him right after he attacks you. This is the easiest form of countering and it’s a very effective strategy. It’s more difficult to master than just charging your opponent, but it works exceptionally well once you know how to do it.
You don’t know what to do
Don’t know which technique to do? Here’s a quick and dirty tactic to fix that:
Picture a line between you and your opponent. As you both move, the line moves with you. That line is at the exact distance where if he takes one step beyond it, he can hit you. Developing an instinctive understanding of where exactly that line is takes time and practice, but it’s more than worth it.
Once you figured out that distance, practice techniques that can stop him cold as he steps over that line. Not before and not after he crosses it, but as he does so. Your technique needs to meet him as he comes in. Use simple techniques you can throw fast and hard.
Another option is a basic strategy I teach all beginning fighters:
When you are in range of your opponent, you’re either attacking him or moving out of range. You never stay inside his range and do nothing.
There are exceptions to this strategy, but they are both rare and typically involve more advanced techniques. By following this one, you’ll have an easier time deciding what to do:
- You’re not in range? Either get in range to attack or stay out of range if you don’t want to attack.
- You’re in range? Hit him or get the hell out of there.
This strategy takes the guesswork out of it; you only have to monitor the distance between you and your opponent. That distance determines what you do, all the rest comes automatically.
There are other strategies but this is a good one to fall back on when you want to be more aggressive in sparring: get in his range and every time you’re there you hit him until he steps out of ranger or you do.
The corollary to this is that you need to have a good working knowledge of range. Meaning, know the right range for each technique. E.g.: Don’t throw a push kick from striking range. Don’t throw a hook punch from kicking range. You’ll either mess up the technique and get countered or you’ll telegraph it and also get countered.
The previous concepts are critical if you want to be more aggressive when you are sparring. However, I’m assuming you have certain concepts under control already or at least know about them. Here they are:
- Forward pressure. You need to be able to deliver forward pressure onto your opponent and handle it when he does it to you. There are both mental and physical aspects to this, but in essence it means this: he has to respect your techniques. He has to know that if he doesn’t defend against them, it’ll hurt. You have to throw each technique in such a way that he cannot simply ignore it and walk through it. And the same goes for you: when he attacks, you need to know how to handle that.
- Aggression is not anger. It means being on the offense, going after your opponent instead of letting him attack you. You don’t have to be angry to be an aggressive fighter. Anger can actually be more harmful than help you out because it typically means losing control and making poor tactical choices.
- Ingrain technique first. Practice until you no longer have to think about the technique. Ingrain it to the point where you can do it right at full speed and power, every single time, even when somebody hits you back. As long as you have to think about it, your technique will lack the authority to do damage or at the very least, stop your opponent from hitting you. Make sure you do everything right and only then speed things up. Once you can do a technique correctly and fast too, start adding power. It’s not either-or. You want technique, power and speed together in everything you do. Don’t ignore one over the other.
- Use your favorite or best technique, but… Practice setting it up and using it in a wide variety of ways. It’s OK if you only excel at a handful of techniques, that’s fine. But make it your goal to be unpredictable with them by always changing how you use them and having tons of variations for each one. It’ll make it so much easier to be an aggressive fighter when you are sparring.
- Distance, angle, timing. These are, in many ways, all the same thing. Truly understanding them is critical to becoming an aggressive fighter. I don’t know any way of getting around them. This subject is way too complex to go into here but I wrote a book about timing a while ago. Not to toot my own horn but at this point, I don’t know of any other book that goes into so much detail on this topic specifically for the martial arts.
If you want to be more aggressive in sparring, you’ll have to work hard to get your skills up. There are no easy solutions. However, there are solutions, but only for those who want them bad and earn them. In this article, I tried to share with you some of the tools I use to train my students and help them be more aggressive when they fight. So I know these work, I’ve used them for decades.
If you still aren’t quite sure where to start or feel overwhelmed by the amount of information, I would suggest you read these two articles.
The first one will teach you the drill and in the article, I explain at length everything that is involved. Many of those factors are things I mentioned here.
The second article teaches how to use that drill to be more aggressive when you spar. It’s a structured approach to being an aggressive fighter, as opposed to simply rushing in with a whirlwind of techniques and hoping something lands.
Both articles together give you everything I teach students from the very first class they attend. It’s the next best thing to me teaching it to you directly.
Have fun with it and good luck in your training!