Sparring vs. Self-Defense

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By: Matthew Lee

Written October 29th, 2014

“‘Taolu is just like a five-word poem and it has its requirements, just like poems.  Is that useful?  Maybe, but it will never be useful to a combat situation on the street when others are trying to take advantage of you.’” —Grandmaster Cai Longyun, Kung Fu Magazine, “The Big Dragon with the Magic Fists”

When it comes to the idea of “fight” training in martial arts, the precise method or focus can be left up in the air.  For this, many stylists, combat sport athletes and martial artists alike, turn to one specific method of training—sparring.  However, there exists a group of critics, namely traditional martial artists and street fighting “experts”, who do not advocate the use of sparring, or at least sparring as it is interpreted today, in the practice of and preparation in fight training, on the grounds that it is not equivalent to “real fighting.”  By “real fighting”, I am referring to the occurrence of a “street” fight, situation or conflict, where there are no rules or restrictions in the environment, and personal safety is actually threatened.  This is where the debate of “sparring vs. self-defense” arises.

To many, this is not even a debate; sparring is sparring and real fighting is fighting, there is no connection whatsoever.  While many of the critical observations of sparring exercises are true, it still exists as it does today for a reason.  This write-up will be written to analyze the general practice of sparring compared to other fight-oriented exercises in martial arts practice, and why sparring still exists as it should today.  While this discussion involves various methods of combat training and martial arts styles in general, I will also include in my examples modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport, as this is the style I am most familiar with.

Ideally, regardless of what style is in discussion, there should at least be some kind of focus on “aliveness” when preparing for fighting.  In other words, spontaneity, non-choreography and dynamism are the things most valued when approaching fight training.  This is the exact opposite of the popular forms practice that is most prominent in traditional East Asian martial arts styles.  In fact, when it comes directly to fighting, the specific and exclusive practice of forms is not even considered, because a predetermined way of moving to real fighting situations, which are not limited by a specific kind of technique or way of moving, and can always change at any given moment.  Preset forms and routines, especially those that are designed and trained exclusively for performance exhibition, like that of modern Wushu Taolu (套路; tàolù), won’t help here, although they do have other uses (but this is another debate).  In the words of Wushu Grandmaster Cai Longyun from the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Big Dragon with the Magic Fists”, “‘Taolu is just like a five-word poem and it has its requirements, just like poems.  Is that useful?  Maybe, but it will never be useful to a combat situation on the street when others are trying to take advantage of you.’”  Rather, “alive” training, which involves reaction in unpredicted or unarranged actions and situations.  This “aliveness” is something that Bruce Lee observed to be lacking in traditional martial arts styles, and something that he strived for in his own system of Jeet Kune Do (截拳道; jiéquándào, the Way of the Intercepting Fist).  As stated before, many methods and styles alike (and unalike) all rely on some kind of sparring.

While there are many different methods and interpretations of sparring that vary from style to style, the idea has always been uniformly the same; Put simply, sparring is a training exercise found in the majority of combat training methods with any kind of a legitimate focus on fight training.  It is the closest known method of “freestyle fighting” that one can find without actually delving into actual fighting itself.  This is seen in many combat sports, including martial arts style variants, all of which are trained on the basis of sparring.  Thus, it is clear how much the martial arts community today has become a sparring culture, when it comes to the discussion of fighting.


First, to avoid any misconception of my statement, I will have to concede one observation that these critics of sparring have; They are right—sparring is NOT real fighting.  Sparring, no matter how it is interpreted or trained, still has limitations that separates it from what is perceived to be real fighting, the results of which can range from possibilities of permanent and crippling conditions to even loss of life.  A formal definition of sparring can be “fighting controlled”, because there are restrictions to prevent the likelihood of serious harm to the health of participants, such as rules or regulations.  As established before, sparring is also the basis of many competitive forms in combat sports and martial arts competitions.  It is here that many critics of sparring and competitive fighting draw the line between sparring and “real fighting.”  The various restrictions that sparring in general has are what these critics claim to be the central shortcomings of why martial artists and “fighters” today are not fully and adequately prepared for a “real fight.”

The first of these shortcomings is the inclusion of restricted, or prohibited areas of attack during sparring.  For safety, specific areas of the body are disallowed to be targeted.  While different methods of sparring and stylistic rules vary on what these prohibited areas are, general areas include the groin (mainly for males), certain areas of the head, and joints.  Exceptions to this are grappling styles, such as that of jujutsu and BJJ (Brazilian jujutsu) that involve submissions that can possibly break joints and choke out an opponent if the receiving party does not “tap out.”  To minimize and prevent injury to such areas, protective equipment is often worn, such as cups and specifically designed headgear in various styles.  In a real fight, the majority of these areas are not protected, and therefore at great risk of being injured, and are also not protected.  An attack towards any one of these areas at full force can incapacitate and permanently disable an opponent, which is often a common tactic in traditional martial arts and self-defense methods outside of formal sparring.  Although many professional and competitive fighters view the use of these techniques as “dirty fighting”, the maxim of street fighting still stands: “There are no rules on the street.”

There is also the restriction of certain techniques during sparring, which also varies from style to style.  Taekwondo and Kyokushin Karate sparring does not allow punches to the head.  Modern Wushu Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), the practice of freestyle full-contact sparring, also known as Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting), does not allow elbows or knees, although professional Sanshou does allow knees.  Conversely, jujutsu, judo, and BJJ do not allow strikes or slamming of an opponent onto the mat in competition.  Perhaps one of the most unrestricted forms of sparring in competitive fighting includes MMA (mixed martial arts), which has gained widespread recognition and popularity across the mainstream public, as well as across various martial arts communities; MMA crosses stand-up striking with wrestling and grappling, or “ground game”, and is not subject to the limitations of styles that are focused exclusively on only one of these skillsets; it allows for virtually every known technique condoned in stylized sparring and competitive matches; however, like all other combat sports, it is still ultimately restricted by the prohibition of attacks to the groin, eye gouges, head-butts, biting, and fish-hooking.  On this basis, it can clearly be seen that competitive fighting and real fighting, where “anything [conceivable] can happen”, regardless of factors such as individual skill level, are clearly not equivalent.  In the documentary I Am Bruce Lee, UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) President Dana White has called MMA “the purest form of combat that you can possibly have in civilization.”  Donnie Yen, actor and mixed martial artist, has also called MMA the most authentic form of fighting today.  However, on the basis of the least limitations in sanctioned fighting, perhaps one of, if not the most, unrestricted form of sanctioned fighting would have to be Vale Tudo, which not only precedes MMA, but can also be said to not be as restricted as MMA, which allows groin strikes and head-butts.

The third of these shortcomings is the division of sparring exercises and competitive fighting into “rounds” or separate sessions.  This structure is also prominent in competitive bouts in combat sports and martial arts competitions.  The number and duration of rounds usually varies between specific methods and styles, but each round generally lasts for multiple minutes.  But in a real fight, there is no time limit, and very rarely can they be minutes long, if at all.  In fact, conflicts on the street are observed to be quite short in comparison, usually lasting only a couple seconds, as there are many things that can happen to permanently disable or incapacitate someone in a fight, as previously mentioned.  Another distinct difference is that competitive matches in many styles of competition are often stopped and restarted from a fixed position.  A real fight would most likely be nonstop and continuous, until the opposing party is completely incapacitated and unable to fight anymore.  Also, one last note to make is that most sparring and competitive matches start with two opponents squaring off, or sparring from a certain distance.  Most trained fighters and martial artists can be seen training, sparring, and can even be imagined really fighting this way.  However, it is important to note that in a real altercation, a fight between two or more people can and does usually start at a much closer distance, and action can start instantaneously without warning, spontaneously, and be nonstop with constant pressure.

In response to these criticisms, many critics of sparring turn to other answers of the question, “What would you do in a real/street fight/situation?”  Non-sparring methods of fight training are usually aimed for “self-defense” situations.  These usually include drills or preset, theoretical situations that participants are placed in (“If the opponent/attacker does this, then I do this, and if the opponent does this instead, then I do that…”).  These theoretical situations also include weapons, such as knife defense and gun defense.  Previously, the context of sparring discussed here has strictly been focused on hand-to-hand combat.  What makes the idea of “self-defense” such a debatable topic is the addition of this rarely explored area of defense against a weapon.  All of these methods are collectively put under a similar light as traditional martial arts styles; the theory is always clearly and elaborately explained, but the actual proof and results of the method are not.  The validity of these methods have in turn been called into question by other critics, namely other professional martial artists, given that there is a lack of proof, and thus credibility, that such specific tactics work in real life.  I am also of the opinion that set demonstrations and choreographed drills, ultimately are not directly practical in fighting situations, and ultimately do not help.

Unfortunately, my personal experience in self-defense, namely in actual street situations, is virtually nonexistent, so as far as judging the effectiveness of self-defense training techniques for myself, I would have defer to experts I have found in my research, albeit limited it may be.  Personally, I feel that when it comes to learning or employing knife or gun defense, it is best to consult the expertise of those who are actually trained to deal with such situations, such as military or police personnel, NOT the opinion of other martial artists or “fighters” that offer “theoretical” methods, but with no real experience or proof to back up the validity of the method (this is where personal research to determine the best kind of knowledge comes in, but this is ultimately up to the individual).  It is interesting to note that many experts in this area believe “self-defense” to be a misnomer.  Rather, many such experts convert the term to “self-offense”; the reason for this is that the perception of “self-defense” evokes the wrong mentality in a real fighting situation.  In a real conflict, where your personal health and safety may be threatened, defense is not successfully guaranteed unless the source of the threat, the attacker (or attackers) is completely eliminated; in other words, this means ATTACKING or FIGHTING BACK in kind.  As such, this also means using movements and techniques, including most, if not all “illegal” techniques in competitive fighting mentioned previously, that will quickly disable and incapacitate the opponent in one or two movements and end the fight quickly, rather than the complicated, preset reaction or routine (three or more concentrated steps) that traditional martial arts styles have, as far as specific techniques go.  Just as with sparring, even the head coach of my former Wushu school, who was my first modern Wushu Taolu coach, as well as my first Sanshou and Chen Style Taiji coach, quoted the “KISS principle” (“Keep It Simple, Stupid”) of the US Navy.  On this basis, it can be said that the most “efficient” or “effective” method of combat training would be that of military combatives, because regardless of the specific technique or method being employed, the mentality and value of the training is clear; there is no wasted time, only the complete incapacitation of the threat as quickly as possible.

On a short aside, but still nonetheless important note, to consider in this debate; there are also the ethical and legal implications to consider for the consequences of actively engaging in a real conflict or altercation.  Intentionally harming, permanently injuring, disabling, or even killing an opponent, even in “self-defense”, which can easily be misconstrued in the courtroom, not only violates many ethical values in traditional martial arts, but can also have serious legal consequences (in the United States, someone who is involved in a real altercation can be guaranteed to have to serve some kind of legal sentence, even if it was “self-defense”, unless of course you’re in Texas haha).  At this point, there are two general options to consider when faced with a real, life-threatening situation: Either 1. Neutralize the threat/opponent(s) to the point where you have an opportunity to RUN AWAY AND GET OUT OF THERE (this is what I consider to be the smarter option, which is why I put it first.  It might appear “cowardly”, but I personally see it as “survival” and regard for one’s safety and life, which in my opinion outweighs personal ego or pride in a “fight”) OR 2. Go all the way, permanently disable or even kill your opponent(s), and bear the consequences of your actions (this might seem more “manly”, but not as smart in the long run).

So with all these distinctions, it would appear that the existence of sparring is rendered moot and completely useless, when properly preparing for a fight.  However, sparring still exists, and is condoned, by many professionally credited and trained professionals.  In fact, sparring is still employed by many martial arts styles and combat training methods.  Why?  Again, going back to our established definition of sparring, it is important to understand that sparring is just an exercise, and not actual fighting.  It was never meant to be real fighting.  However, it is still actively used in fight training.  Again, why?

Firstly, sparring is a training exercise that can bridge the gap between techniques and the process of their use in application.  Ideally, sparring is a tool that can progressively develop a participant’s skills, such as technique and the elimination of “freezing up.”  The “freeze” refers to the physical “panic” a person can experience when dealing with physical pressure of an oncoming attack or assault.  Trained properly, sparring can gradually build confidence and comfortability in acting and reacting to a freestyle situation with an opponent, eliminate the “freeze”, and build a “fighting instinct”, from lighter contact to eventually more forceful pressure at a higher level.  It is here that people, especially amateurs, often misinterpret the use of sparring.  Many inexperienced participants of sparring interpret the exercise to be the equivalent of “real fighting.”  Again, it’s important to make the distinction; it’s not.  Unless one is actually training for a fight, sport or otherwise, there is no need to treat sparring like a full-on fight.  But even the majority of top MMA fighters today do not spar hard.  Many of today’s professional MMA athletes are training a lot “smarter” now, taking into account long-term health and safety, while at the same time still having aliveness to train and keep their skills sharp and applicable.  The military and police frequently use their own sparring methods for training, even at the most basic level of combat training.  Even Bruce Lee heavily advocated the use of sparring, namely full-contact sparring, despite the fact that he was purely interested in “real fighting”, and not sport.

Bruce Lee Sparring 6

Furthermore, while those that exclusively spar in training, including competitive martial artists and fighters, cannot be said to be “real fighters” by critics, this is not to say that the skills practiced in sparring cannot be applied in an actual fighting situation.  There are countless instances that demonstrate that the fighting ideas and techniques practiced in sparring and competitive fighting clearly can, and have been applied in real altercations.  Imagine, for the sake of argument, a fighter executing a double leg takedown, lift, and slam of his opponent onto a matted floor, which is made to soften impacts and protect participants, and thus safely train on.  Now imagine the same exact technique being done on a hard, concrete sidewalk on the street; what are the chances that the opponent will be getting up and walking away uninjured the same way as if he were on a mat?  A recently retired Sanshou champion, who is also an MMA fighter and coach in his own right, has told about students of his who have actually been in real fights on the street outside of the ring, one having actually killed someone (out of respect, this fighter and coach’s name has been excluded).

As for the focus of “real fighting”, I believe that we should be realistic in the likelihood of martial arts actually being used for fighting purposes today.  The role of martial arts, whether hand-to-hand or weapon-based, in practical fight training has died down since the invention of guns.  However, hand-to-hand combat training still exists today even in the military and police, whenever the need may arise.  When it comes to the slim possibility of having to use the skills learned in martial arts, this is a stretch, but not impossible.  But sparring is still considered relevant.

Again, sparring is NOT real fighting, but that does not mean that it is useless when preparing for a real fighting.  Sparring has been central to most, if not all, martial arts styles and fighting programs, and is ideally what bridges the gap between basic training and application in fighting.  As pointed out, proper training of sparring yields many benefits that are central to the skills of an adequate fighter.  And as someone who actively spars, I stand behind it as a legitimate exercise for fight training.  I would implore all martial arts stylists, traditional or modern, whether training for competition or for the street, to employ the use of sparring actively for fight training.


Matt began practicing Wushu at the age of 7 under US Wushu Academy, and is a coach of the UMBC Wushu Club. He has held positions in national, international, and local modern Wushu competitions, and is currently training in Sanshou/Sanda, traditional Chen Style Taijiquan and zhanzhuang. He is a former four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member, former Pan American Champion and multiple times Pan American Championships medalist, and is continually trying to improve himself both as a competitive athlete and as a real martial artist. If you have any questions you would like to ask Matt, please email him at