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Learning Strategies and Martial Arts, Part 2: Games and Sparring

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

Game-playing is a universal activity in human cultures. While historical sources will tell us about early evidence of human game-playing 7000 years ago, the practice is certainly far more ancient.

Game noun - a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck. — Oxford Languages

In Learning Strategies Part 1, I talked about the importance of repetition in martial arts training.

Here in Part 2, I'll discuss the role of games in education generally, and more specifically as applied to martial arts. Games provide us with incredibly powerful tools for education and self-improvement.

We know that games have been around for a long time. But how did we get started in all this game-playing?

One clue: we know that other animals play games: birds and mammals, and probably fish, reptiles, and insects as well.

“Happiness is never better exhibited than by young animals, such as puppies, kittens, lambs, and company, when playing together, like our own children,” — Charles Darwin

Our game-playing serves countless purposes, much of which relates to skills and brain development. Games can help us develop motor skills and practical movement. They teach us strategic thinking and risk evaluation, along with specific technical skills. Games also serve as vehicles for passing on social knowledge, norms, and important life concepts related to fairness, reciprocity, and cooperation.

In other words, games are fundamental to our physical, mental, and emotional development — to who we are, and how we learn.

We use games to make learning fun, and to increase learner engagement. The dynamics of competition and cooperation also serve to motivate students, while providing opportunities for social learning.

In martial arts, games can help a student progress in numerous ways:

  • Through physical conditioning activities, leading to increased endurance, strength, flexibility, and agility

  • Through practice of body control and coordinated body movement (e.g., eye-hand)

  • Through practice of specific technical movements used in martial arts

  • By simulating situations and techniques in a real-time competitive environment

While we have tons of great games for martial arts training — King of the Hill, obstacle course races, various forms of tag, Tug-of-War, Bear Crawl Rugby, to name a few — we can gamify most techniques and drills through sparring activities.

Sparring is essentially a developed form of play-fighting, a game enjoyed by people, all primates, and a wide variety of mammals and birds. Typically, across the variety of species, play-fighting is competitive play requiring restraint, reciprocity, and turn-taking.

In humans, play-fighting has been refined over the ages to a multitude of forms, with and without weapons. Basically, the idea is to effectively simulate real-life combat while minimizing risk of injury. As such, sparring is a form of experiential learning, or "learning by doing."

To truly become a proficient martial artist, sparring is a necessary part of training.

Sparring tests the quality of our learning, highlighting strengths and weaknesses in technique. As compared to simply drilling, sparring gives us far more realistic feedback on our timing, footwork, positioning, and technical proficiency. Sparring builds strength and stamina.

Sparring also helps us prepare mentally for real-life action by enhancing focus, perception, and intuition while helping us regulate our natural fight-or-flight responses.

In class at Fight Flow, we spar in a variety of disciplines: Muay Thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and grappling, MMA, and Boxing. Sparring can be freestyle within the rules of the discipline, or we can practice positional and situational sparring, focusing on a specific set of movements or scenarios.

Positional sparring is extremely effective when used to reinforce technique drilling. For instance, in grappling training, on a particular day we may drill a variety of techniques from the guard position: sweeps, submissions, guard passes, etc.

We can continue from there into the sparring/rolling portion of the class working from the guard position, with rules for resetting the action. Students reset to the starting position if one person gains the next best position (e.g., sweep or guard pass) or finishes a submission.

This constant resetting adds the benefits of repetition to sparring, allowing us to focus attention on a specific part of our game.

At Fight Flow, every day we finish our technical martial arts classes — Muay Thai, MMA Sparring, and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu — with freestyle sparring (or, in grappling terms, "rolling").

Here are some tips to get the most benefit from your sparring sessions:

  • Pay attention to your breathing. Proper breathing nourishes the body while helping manage emotional responses.

  • Be relaxed, but not too relaxed. Excess tension drains energy and inhibits movement. Being too relaxed can lead to slow reaction times and other vulnerabilities. Work to develop your balance point.

  • Work on sensing the flow of energy between yourself and your opponent. Practice anticipating your opponent's intention with your intuition.

  • Use combinations and vary your techniques. Don't be predictable. Use your sparring to try out new techniques and ideas.

  • Find good sparring partners and set up times to train outside of class.

  • Don't get discouraged! Learning is a process that takes time and practice. If you put in the time, you will improve.

  • Spend time after class mentally reviewing your sparring performance. What worked and what didn't? What could you have done differently to bring more success? This type of reflection is super valuable for creating improvement.

  • Have fun!

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