Trial Lessons

Playing Versus Sparring

Though George Saint Pierre officially retired from competitive fighting in 2019, he continues to be one of the most prominent figures in the world of mixed martial arts. Arguably the best fighter of his generation, Georges combined karate, boxing, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu to create a style that allowed him to dominate in MMA for more than a decade.

Given the success Georges experienced in the UFC, you would think that his advice for people who are just starting out would be to train as much and as hard as they can. This may be true for conditioning. You want to push yourself to literally run that extra mile. It may also be true of your diet, where rigorously keeping it clean can have a major impact on your performance. However, it’s not true when it comes to sparring. As he told Joe Rogan on the Joe Rogan Experience, “The best way to improve is when it’s playful.”

Is Competing Necessary?

Keeping the Stars Aligned

Though Georges had the benefit of natural talent and a tireless work ethic, he acknowledges that luck also played a huge role in his success. The stars have to align just right to give a person the opportunity to make it as a professional fighter. In addition to working hard and inherent skill, he also had coaches and mentors who helped him along the way. Just as importantly, he counts himself as lucky because he never got seriously injured.

Minor injuries are common in combat sports. These include bruises, twists, and sprains. The recovery time for these kinds of injuries is quick. A bruise may be a cause to keep things light for a few days, while a twisted ankle or sprained wrist may sideline you for a week or two. However, they don’t derail your training in the same way as a broken arm or a torn ligament. These are the kinds of injuries that set you back months, sometimes even years. By the time you return to training, whatever stars were aligned may have shifted.

Fighters should not regularly be putting themselves in scenarios where injuries of this magnitude are likely. True, when it comes to getting ready for a major fight or a tournament, you have to increase the level of intensity, but Georges advises against sparring at 100% all the time. Keeping it more playful when you’re rolling with your partner will keep you healthy and ready to pick up the pace when necessary. “You shouldn’t be afraid to tell your training partner to slow down,” he says.

Ego Control and Growth

Thinking of rolling as playing also allows you to step out of your comfort zone. Far too often, fighters will treat sparring sessions like they are a matter of life-or-death, meaning that they’ll not only push the level of intensity up; they will also become personally invested in their performance. This is inevitable when you allow the ego to get involved in your training.

By reframing sparring as nothing more than a training exercise (or as “playing”, as Georges says), you can turn down the intensity and separate your ego from your performance. As Georges notes, this not only makes injury less likely; you will also be more likely to try new approaches to technique and to improve upon moves that you may not use all the time. When you fear losing, you return to what works—the tried-and-true techniques that you’ve developed over years. Eliminating that fear gives you the freedom to explore new approaches. If they don’t work, it doesn’t matter because it’s not a real fight—it’s just playing.

Running the Marathon

The most important thing to remember for anyone who hopes to develop as a professional fighter is that you are not running a sprint—you are running a marathon. Staying healthy is more important than looking tough at class. It can even be more important than winning an actual MMA fight.

As Georges says to Joe, he’s been in several fights where he’s recognized that his opponent is no longer fighting to win. They are fighting to survive and to leave without major injury. They’re not giving up, but they stop taking risks that could leave them open to dangerous counterstrikes. They know that even if they don’t win, they can preserve their health and fight another day. Younger fighters should take this lesson to heart because your career is bigger than any individual fight and losing once is nothing compared to early retirement.



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