[IMPORTANT NOTE: As the title implies, this is Part 2 of a series. This piece can be read in isolation but a much better overall picture could be gotten by first reading Part 1 which can be found here. ]
The Dark Side of Hard Sparring
I wasn’t fucking around when I chose the title of this series; “to spar or not to spar, that is the question”.
I did so for a very specific reason. The original line that I was playing off is of course perhaps the most famous line of all of the Shakespearean literature:
“To be, or not to be, that is the question.” – Hamlet in Act III Scene I of “Hamlet”
If you have only heard this line in passing over the years and do not know the context in which Hamlet was speaking it, you may not realize how dark a line it is. Hamlet was talking about suicide.
Now at first, this may seem alarmist or dramatic to draw parallels between suicide and hard sparring. However, after learning just how easy the brain is to damage irreparably (read part one to refresh your memory), ask yourself; am I really being overly dramatic?
Quick Revision: Sparring & Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
As I detailed in Part 1, here are some main points that will be relevant to the discussion in this article:
- The main reason for the combat sport athlete to spar relates to the importance of the SAID Principle. S.A.I.D. is the acronym for “specific adaptation to imposed demands”, which basically means that our body will attempt to adapt to the demands that we place on it.
- Sparring in training represents the most closely related modality with regards to what will happen on fight night. During sparring, our brain chunks incoming information together and formulates responses to the stimuli it faces (e.g. incoming strikes, feints, movement, etc.). By ingraining those responses, we are better able to react appropriately to similar stimuli when actually in the ring on fight night.
- Whilst training specificity is good, the problem with simulated fighting in the form of sparring is, of course, injury to the brain.
- The trauma upon impact to the head does not just stop with superficial damage like cuts to the skin, fractured jaw/skull/nose, busted teeth etc.; but of course internal damage to the brain itself.
- Every time you get hit in the head some level of damage is being done to the brain. The analogy I used in Part 1 was that brain damage is like the life bar on the top of the screen of a video game. For the most part, every time you get hit, even lightly, the life bar is drained a little bit more. It is just a matter of at what level of wear and tear will it start to present itself as a significant problem for you in particular based on your own specific genetics and lifestyle buffers (general stress management, nutrition etc.).
While we typically associate brain damage from fighting with slurred speech or poor motor control, damage to the brain does not just involve cognitive impairments.There is a lot of emerging work looking at the role of TBI in creating hormonal dysregulation, specifically due to damage to the pituitary gland. For instance, there are soldiers presenting with testosterone and human growth hormone issues after returning from combat (or even from military training), as a result of pituitary gland damage. Many received this damage not from direct blows to the head, but rather due to shockwaves and vibrations from explosions and large caliber guns (Wilkinson et al., 2012). So if fucking vibrations and shockwaves from bombs or guns can cause lasting damage, imagine what regularly receiving powerful direct impacts from other trained savages can do to our domes!
I Fucking Love Sparring (hat tip to iflscience.com for the inspiration). Sparring is by far the most fun aspect of my own training. Any kind of sparring is enjoyable to me. It is essentially physical problem-solving against a live, thinking opponent.
While I enjoy any kind of sparring, I especially like hard, intensive sparring with no real limit on effort other than the expectation that you will not “finish” your opponent when you hurt him and he will reciprocate. This type of sparring is especially fun to fighters as it replicates as closely as possible what a fight is actually like and also properly illustrates which of the tools you have been developing in training, actually work.
I also do not think I am alone in finding that this type of gut-checking intensity, where you and your training partner are basically in deep water trying to drown each other, strangely seems to foster a powerful sense of camaraderie. This is possibly due to the shared character-revealing experience fighters will go through. What makes this kind of sparring an problem however, is that there are extreme consequences involved in taking hard shots to the head, as will inevitably happen.
So there is no doubt that this type of hard sparring can be very beneficial from both a skill development and enjoyment perspective. However, I personally choose not to do it frequently as I see no point in leaving my brain in the gym. And even from a a motor learning and skill acquisition perspective, it simply is not necessary to do all the time.
To reiterate this important point yet again; every brain impact, no matter how “light” you feel the shot was, can result in damage. Each individual has their own “damage accumulation threshold” that once surpassed, will lead to the aforementioned symptoms showing up.
While I choose not to do this kind of hard sparring regularly, when injury-free I try to spend as much time as possible with an opponent in front of me and us swinging shots at each other. This may sound like a dichotomy, but that is because sparring exists on a spectrum.
The Sparring Intensity Spectrum
The spectrum that sparring exists on goes from shadow-sparring with zero contact on one end, to at the other extreme, lacing up some 16 oz gloves, strapping on the shin pads and robust head-gear, lashing a layer of Vaseline on your face and then fucking going for it!
Some fighters, manage to succeed in spite of this frequent hard sparring. A lucky few may even have illustrious careers retiring without having issues with their chin (a fighting term that describes a fighter’s ability to take shots without seeming to be fazed or finished) or their health. There is no real way of putting a numerical value on the amount of fighters like this that exist but I would hazard a bet that there are not too many of them.
A lot of fighters and coaches are unfortunately totally unaware of the benefits of training all along the spectrum of sparring intensity. As a result, a lot of fighters will either do non-sparring training (bags, pads, shadow boxing, conditioning) or full sparring (big gloves and head-gear). This is missing a huge learning opportunity as the human brain can learn and chunk information without having to move at full speed all the time. Our brain can learn simply by spending time in front of an opponent that is moving with the same movements that will be seen in a fight, even if the movements are slower and less powerful. The lack of damage that accompanies this lighter technical sparring also means we can spend way more rounds in front of opponents, thereby allowing us to develop our timing, distance, and rhythm for our defensive as well as offensive movements. This is especially important at the beginning stages of not just beginner athletes learning to fight from scratch, but even for advanced fighters who are learning a new skill such as a new combination.
As such, simply spending time doing a larger volume of less intense sparring is a way of “upgrading the software without damaging the hardware” as MMA coach John Kavanagh has said in the past.
Another factor to consider (especially for coaches), is that outside of brain trauma, adopting the “all-or-nothing” approach to sparring may hinder the learning curve for some fighters. For example, let’s say a guy is not in full training due to family or work commitments outside of his control and so is not in his best shape physically, as well as being “out of his groove” skill-wise. If all the sparring in his gym was “all-or-nothing” style, then he may not show up to spar as he will be aware that because he is not in good cardio shape and may be rusty, there is a good chance he will get the fuck beaten out of him. If the regular sparring in his gym existed on a spectrum however, and so could be of a lighter and more technical nature when need be; he may still be able to show up and get same rounds in even when not 100% fit and sharp thereby allowing his learning curve to be more favourable in the long term as he will be getting more rounds in over time without accumulating the damage that comes with hard sparring.
As an example of the difference in training methodologies, let’s contrast one of the greatest boxers of all-time with possibly the greatest Thai boxer of all-time.
Ali vs. Saenchai
We live in a world of constant novelty and as such we may be guilty of ignoring old stuff, so, just to refresh your memory about just how great Ali was, I thought I’d include this highlight video for your viewing pleasure…
Those of you in the Thai boxing world for sure know who Saenchai is. But for those who are unfamiliar, I want you to watch this master at work. His record currently stands at 303 wins, 52 losses and 3 draws. So 303 wins out of 358 fights and still fighting at 36. Not bad, eh?Saenchai is my all-time favourite striker to watch in action. And in my (humble, subjective, and very biased) opinion; could very well be as good at the sport of Muay Thai as Ali was at the sport of boxing. Watching Saenchai at his best is just utter wizardry. From the highlight video you will see how good his timing was for everything and he had absolutely no problem pulling the trigger on his shots to hurt his opponent when need be.
A huge difference between these two legends, however, lies in how they trained. As you will see from the next video, Ali sparred with a high intensity. While this video was not seemingly all out in intensity, it included quite a lot of pretty spicy shots to the head of both men.
So while the effect of full force knee, elbow and shin strikes pretty much forces Muay Thai fighters to dial down the power of shots in sparring, the same incentive isn’t present in boxing sparring. Thus, once boxing sparring is done with big gloves and head gear, fighters are essentially able to fight at 100% effort (as I have personally experienced firsthand on countless occasions and seen other fighters do on countless more occasions). Obviously, if a guy gets rocked or knocked out the damage will be pretty apparent. Most of the time, however, guys will just leave the gym with a bit of a headache and the effects of frequent gym wars over years of training will not be discovered until down the line later in life.
Now please do not get me wrong, I am not at all suggesting that Ali ended up with the severity of health issues later in life that he did due to sparring. The man fought some of the biggest punching heavyweights of all-time in absolute wars and so took a lot of damage in actual fights and not just in training. All that I am getting at is that Saenchai, and the thousands of Thai boxers who train just like him, offers proof that fighters can reach supremely high levels of skill without taking unnecessary damage in training.
Now I am sure some of you may elude to the fact that Saenchai fights very often and so does not need to spar hard due to gaps between fights being so small. And that is a very valid point and I will 100% concede that may be correct. However, while Thai boxing is a sport which is known for fighters fighting every few weeks, a fact that backs up the potential utility of spectrum-based-sparring for other combat sports outside of Thai boxing: is that is has been employed in these other sports at a truly elite level.
Spectrum-Based Sparring (SBS): Examples in Other Combat Sports
SBS in Boxing
This type of intelligent approach to SBS has been employed by at least one elite level boxing gym that I know of and this gym has produced many great boxers. The most notable star currently fighting from this gym is Kell Brook. Kell Brook is from the famous Ingle Gym in Sheffield, England and is a 147 pound boxer who recently hit the weights to bulk up and fought the feared Kazakhstani monsterGennady Golovkin at 160 pounds. While the smaller natural welterweight was eventually stopped by the power punching, full-sized natural middleweight, much to the surprise of everyone watching he gave Golovkin absolute plenty of trouble and put on a truly fantastic performance. What is noteworthy about Brook is that he comes from the same Ingle gym that the legendary “Prince” Naseem Hamed also came from along with other legends of British boxing like Johnny Nelson, Ryan Rhodes, and one of my personal all-time favourite fighters to watch in Errol “Bomber” Graham. Something fascinating I came across about the Ingle gym years ago that really separates them from most other boxing gyms I have seen is that they rarely ever spar hard with hard shots to the head. They mostly body spar and only do light technical sparring to the head. They reportedly only spar hard to the head in the last few weeks coming up to a fight so that they get switched on timing wise.
For example, here is an extract from a Boxing News Online article about Ingle Gym from July 2016 (Note from Ciaran: what he means by “open sparring” below is likely what I mean by “hard sparring”):
“We only did open sparring three-four weeks before a fight and that’s why we had a long career as well, there were no wars in the gym. Guys would come in from other gyms but the majority of our sparring was in-house. 75 per cent was body-sparring and it was mainly technical sparring to the face.” – Ryan Rhodes
SBS in Mixed Martial Arts
Let’s consider the case of Demetrius “Might Mouse” Johnson. Johnson is the 125-pound champ of the UFC and is in the eyes of a lot of experts the pound-for-pound best MMA fighter on the planet. In case you have not seen this magician in action check this shit out:In a December 2015 appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast he gave some fantastic insights into how he prepares for fights from a sparring perspective including the following two quotes:
- At around the 1.50.30 mark Johnson talks about sparring intensity at another gym
“I heard they spar pretty hard there……so I’d be like: ‘Hey guys, can I just train? I don’t want to spar hard. I do not need to spar hard. I am pretty sure once I get in the octagon I am going to pull the fucking trigger, you do not need to worry about that.”
- Then at around the 2.49.20 mark he says
“We don’t get into like hard sparring. I spar maybe twice a week and maybe once a week super-hard. But I don’t wear head gear when we spar because we are not big believers in hitting people in the head hard.”
Sparring practices do not need to always be live freestyle problem-solving situations. Simply spending time in front of other humans throwing shots at each other in turn can also help us to not just properly find our distancing and timing for our shots but develop our defensive acumen. This is because our brain will get opportunities to chunk incoming sensory information together from our opponents movements and body language that will stand to us big time during fight night with regards to us being able to predict what the opponent is going to do. As an example of the efficacy of assimilating information based on body language let us look at the sport of baseball.
Pitching machines are those things we have all seen in movies or TV shows in which baseball are shot at you while you try to hit it. In this article David Epstein, author of the fantastic book “The Sports Gene”, argues that these machines are useless for developing batting skill because batters are not able to hit the ball by actually looking at the ball. Batting works by the batter’s brain reading the body language of the player throwing the ball and then swinging to where they predict the ball is going to be. The batter is able to do this because their brain has seen thousands of similar situations before and so has chunked the body language of the pitcher together to develop predictive models of where the ball will likely end up.
“We’ve only just realized that pitching machines are totally worthless for baseball practice, because they don’t teach you to read body movements the way that you need to.” – David Epstein
Reading the movements of strikers is no different to a baseball batter reading a pitcher’s movements. When we slip or roll a punch from another fighter successfully, we have not done so because we consciously are looking at that fighter’s hand. We have done so because our brain had successfully recognized what kind of punch was most likely going to come at us due to consciously and subconsciously picking up on the body language and movements of the other fighter and then processing this information through the filter we have developed from having seen previous movements like it that have been chunked together.
Now, this is not to say that we should only do partner drills as other training methods such as bag work, pad work, double end bag, and shadow boxing are all tools in the toolbox for the fighter and for sure have their utility for a variety of reasons such as developing conditioning or refining mechanics. What I am getting at, however, is that we should probably be prioritizing spending time in front of other fighters either employing SBS or sparring drills as this is what will allow our brain to build its predictive models that will allow us to perform on fight night.
Case Study: “Bazooka” Joe Valtellini
As an example of what a smart partner based sparring drill for striking may look like I want to introduce you to Bazooka Joe Valtellini. Joe is an especially interesting case to look at as a smart striking coach for 3 reasons:
- He was up to recently an elite level competitor at the highest level of kickboxing so understands what training methods actually work.
- Educationally he comes from a physical education background so is likely well versed in coaching pedagogy and learning.
- He has had to retire due to concussion and so is more aware than most as to the fragility of the human brain.
Here is an example of the kind of partner based drill Joe does with his fighters. I personally love to utilize this kind of drill as it allows us to spend huge amounts of time in front of another person practicing everything from shot placement to distancing to defensive awareness, while at the same time allowing our brain to spend a load of time chunking incoming body language information from our training partner while they throw strikes, and, all these benefits occur without any physical damage at all.
Now I really must make it clear that I am not trying to tell coaches how to train their fighters.
There are countless coaches out there with more experience and knowledge than I have about their respective combat sports. All I am really trying to get across with my perspective as both a fighter who loves the game, and an exercise scientist who appreciates the science of TBI as well as motor learning; are 2 things:
- While hard sparring is not just enjoyable but hugely beneficial for skill development due to it so closely replicating what happens in a fight: the brain is a very fragile organ and is super easy to let the fizz out of.
- That there is a high potential for the utility of training using SBS going all along the spectrum from super light or zero contact shadow sparring, all the way to big gloves+vaseline and letting it all hang out kind of sparring.
As I said before, I am sure there are fighters that have been through hard sparring for their entire careers and have not had apparent deterioration of their chins or health issues later in life. As the modern science of performance and brain trauma shows however, these guys were most likely able to rise to the top of their respective peer groups as they by pure chance had the best genetics and lifestyle buffers to make it through all the damage and come out the other side with enough brain health to fight successfully.
I once heard a powerful phrase from a very wise friend of mine with regards to elite fighters rising to the top of their training group that really stuck with me:
“It takes 100 warriors to make 1 Samurai.”
I cannot help but think that this would be especially true if we train in a way that leaves our brains in the gym.
– Article written by Ciaran “The Quarrelsome” O’Regan
About The Author
Ciaran O’ Regan has an extensive background in combat sport; many years of boxing has been followed in more recent times by ventures in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and MMA. Ciaran has a BSc. degree in Sport & Exercise Science from the University of Limerick. He was based in the United States, training out of Mark Dellagrotte’s Sityodtong gym in Boston when on the east coast or more recently in El Nino Training Centre (home of Gilbert Melendez and Jake Shields) when on the west coast. He currenly resides in Cork, Ireland.
For more ramblings of this nature see Ciaran’s site Quarrelsome Life. You can follow him on social media too:
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