Training Safely for Lifelong Improvement

Training Safely for Lifelong Improvement

A couple months ago, I posted this quick clip of two of Maryland Jeet Kune Do's instructor team, Abra & Hannah, working on some light sparring for their Street Kickboxing Game.  They were working angles, high and low strikes, and other concepts at about 10-15% contact energy, with the idea of "touch and not be touched".  The video got decent traffic on-line and was shared by our Guiding Teacher, Burton Richardson, and even received a thumbs up from MMA legend & action movie star Randy Couture himself.  When it was shared in a Facebook group supporting the Martial Arts Sparring Club of Maryland (you can check them out here), it received several encouraging and complimentary comments, however, there is always that one person to be the exception.

The gentleman in question's main criticism of the video was that Hannah and Abra weren't hitting each other hard enough, even after it was pointed out to him by other posters that the video had the words "light sparring" in the explanation.  There were several other things he missed regarding context and content but it's not my intent to get into a point by point rebuttal of his commentary.  The important point I'd like to discuss is hard contact in sparring.

There is a time and place for it, whether you are training for competition or self-defense.  The adage that you do not know who you really are until you've been hit in the face is absolutely true.  However, there is a growing consensus across combat sports that hard contact sparring is a training methodology that offers diminishing returns the more it is utilized.

My good friend Josh Peters of College Park Mixed Martial Arts shared an article this morning from Bloody Elbow detailing a study of traumatic brain injury in boxers and mixed martial artists, active and retired.  The most saddening thing about the study?  The damage doesn't stop when the fight is over and the initial injury occurs.

  • Retired fighters showed increased chances of developing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.
  • MMA fighters suffered significant loss in brain volume at twice the ratio of a control group that had no history of traumatic brain injury and never engaged in hard contact sports, sparring, or activities.
  • Boxers suffered nearly three times a loss in brain volume compared to the control group.

That is hardly the only study, and I can link to article after article and interview with coaches and instructors far more notable than myself discussing why they don't or why they quit using hard sparring as the default training methodology.  I could tell you stories about my own traumatic brain injuries due to competition.  I've listened to instructors brag about giving their students concussions where the student lost time, and brag about how tough that made their student.  I've watched an instructor shatter orbital bones in a student's face during a "sparring session".  My wife, a martial artist and a neurotrauma nurse, could give you all the details of what the debilitating life-long side effects of traumatic brain injuries can be.

This is not how training should be and it certainly isn't how it must be.

At Maryland Jeet Kune Do in Millersville, we spar in every class.

Every class.

The majority of this sparring is done light, with contact enough to let you know that you scored a hit or were hit, but with the goal of developing skill.

  • In Savate, this training methodology (and form of competition) is called assaut.
  • Muay Thai kru and Combatives legend Kelly McCann refers to it as "technical sparring", non-cooperative drilling with the intent of improving technique and application.
  • Sifu Burton Richardson encourages JKD Unlimited practitioners to look at their sparring as a series of games to get better at.
  • Ismet Himmet, Chinese Boxer and Internal Martial Artist, utilizes light contact drills to improve his students training.

This training methodology has helped MDJKD develop world champion sword fighters and multiple medalists in full contact Chinese boxing and other events.  We have had members be able to apply their skills in the ambush-like scenarios of Kelly McCann's Sudden Violence Immersions.  Most importantly, we have helped our members become people who are healthy in their body and mind, who are able to be a benefit to their family and community around them.

Is there a time and a place for hard sparring?  Absolutely, but the vast majority of your time should be spent on methods that allow you to develop fighting skill and attributes without causing irreparable self-harm, especially if you are training for self-defense.  Suffering from self-inflicted Alzheimer's or dementia is the exact opposite of self-defense.  Anyone who has watched a loved one go through those illnesses knows this.

At some point in your life, there has been a goal that you have wanted to achieve, in your relationships, in your martial arts training, or at work.  No matter how hard you tried, you just couldn't get to it.  Maybe your hard work resulted in an injury.  Maybe it resulted in burn out.  Maybe it resulted in people around you being hurt by your actions.

Consider the possibility that going harder at the expense your health and safety is not always the best solution.

I don't know how it is for you, but my experience has been that training and working at achieving my goals in a smarter fashion actually resulted in me achieving them faster and brought me greater results that just "trying harder".

Keep training.  Keep moving.  Strengthen your body, strengthen your mind, and be here now and in the future for those who love you and need you.

- JB MuSsang Jaeger



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