Trial Lessons

The Old Way of Sparring Is Dead

For years, the conventional wisdom in martial arts has been that anyone who wants to develop as a fighter needs to earn their skills through blood, sweat, and tears. “Bleed for blue,” was a common phrase you’d hear in the jiu-jitsu gym as intermediate white belts struggled with conditioning or learning the subtleties of new moves. The culture was even more intense in MMA gyms, where people would spar as though their lives depended on it.

Within the last few years, something has changed. Some of the top fighters in the world aren’t sparring like they used to, and many gyms are encouraging their students to take a less intense approach to training.

As Jesse Enkamp explains in the above video, sparring is still important. You need to use your skills against an opponent, and there’s no better way to prepare for the chaos of a fight dynamic than going toe to toe with another person in a realistic scenario. However, these scenarios need to be the right level of “realistic” to be truly effective. As adopters of this new style of training argue, turning down the intensity of traditional sparring and engaging in what’s known as creative or serious play may be the best way to become a better fighter.

Play and the Brain

Though we tend to think of play as synonymous with leisure or as time away from work, it actually serves a very important purpose in learning and skill development. This is true throughout the animal kingdom. Young animals do not play-fight with one another simply to assert dominance, let alone to potentially injure a member of the group. Rather, they are honing skills that will allow them to be better at hunting prey, escaping from predators, or protecting their territory once they have become an adult.

We are no different. In fact, our brains are wired to encourage play. Play leads to the release of dopamine, which is the pleasure hormone. Evolutionarily speaking, dopamine gets released whenever we do something that keeps us alive (eating, drinking, resting) or perpetuates the species (use your imagination). A shot of dopamine is evolutionary biology’s way of telling you that you’ve done something that deserves repeating.

Stress and the Brain

As anyone who has enjoyed a strenuous workout or training session knows, play can be challenging, exhausting, and competitive. However, there is a pint where the play becomes too real and gets too close to an actual life-or-death scenario. At this point, it stops being enjoyable or even a learning experience. When a sparring session gets too real, for example, you may not fully remember the entire experience.

Again, this goes back to our biology. When you are extremely stressed out, this triggers what is known as the fight-or-flight response. Your body puts all its resources into self-preservation, and you begin to act on instinct rather than innovatively or at times even strategically. This is not the optimal state for your body or brain to be in while you are attempting to develop as a martial artist. As Jesse explains, “Fear and stress are terrible motivators because they kill our ability to learn and think.”

Boredom, Play, and Panic

When you are struggling for your life, you are not really thinking about perfecting a move or developing a technique. Your mission is one of expediency: You are going to use whatever works to get you out of the situation. Meanwhile, if you are not challenged, there is a chance that you might become less mentally engaged. While you may still go through the motions, you won’t acquire new skills or even sharpen existing ones.

Serious play sits between these two extremes. Within the context of jiu-jitsu, serious play is when you feel challenged enough to be fully engaged and yet not so stressed out that you’re afraid to try anything new. Ideally, you should be in a comfortable space where you can develop, innovate, and improve.

Some of the best fighters in the world approach sparring as serious play. As just one example, Muay Thai fighters are known for sparring a lot less violently than fighters from other martial arts. It may almost look like dancing. What they’re doing, however, is perfecting their timing and calibrating their movements while testing their skills against active resistance. They’re also in an environment where they feel free to fail because they know their partner is also playing and won’t knock them out when they make a mistake.

Obstacles to Play

One of the biggest obstacles to successful play is a lack of ego control. Your ego wants you to always be dominant and to always win, even when you’re merely practicing. Unfortunately, when you hit harder, your partner tends to hit back even harder, which can have a snowball effect. Practicing ego control and approaching sparring in the spirit of creative play will allow you to try out new things and take risks with new combos and techniques, which will ultimately make you a better and more well-rounded fighter.

As Jesse says, “The day you stop learning, is the day you stop living.”



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