To Spar, or Not To Spar, That is the Question – Part 1: Intro to Sparring & Brain Trauma

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To Spar, or Not To Spar, That is the Question – Part 1: Intro to Sparring & Brain Trauma

Destroying Your Meat Vehicle Vs. Developing Your Human Potential

I think I have a not-so-common lens through which to view martial arts training practices. Academically, I have a degree in sport and exercise sciences. Athletically, I started boxing just over 6 years ago, quite late in boxing terms, as a 21 year old. I have been lucky enough to have spent time training in gyms from Holland to San Francisco, Ireland to Boston and so on. This has primarily been practising boxing but more recently it has involved dipping my toes into the MMA world.

And so this is where the internal conflict arises. The exercise scientist part of me sees martial arts as insane. Like, what kind of mad man wants to partake in an endeavour involving the purposeful damaging of humans’ meat vehicles?

But the fighter in me sees martial arts as something much more powerful than simply a sporting endeavour. Those of you who train in combat sports will know what I mean.

Combat sports are a beautiful thing. To paraphrase one of the epicentres of the martial arts world, Joe Rogan; “martial arts are a powerful vehicle for developing your human potential.”

The pressure cooker world of full-contact martial arts is something I have massive gratitude and love for, due to what I have learned about myself, and due to the experiences it has given me. I am especially thankful when I consider the absolutely awesome people I have been fortunate enough to have met and spent time with through the sport (including the great crew of people in the picture below during my time training in El Nino Training Center, San Francisco).

Essentially, I am simultaneously both a scientist who recognizes the insanity of fighting, and a fighter who fucking loves the insanity of being in a good tear up.

It is as a result of this uncommon lens I have that I will attempt to shine some light on the concept of heavy sparring and brain trauma. I will be attempting to use my experiences and knowledge from both my time nerding out on physiology, and taking my lumps in gyms and fights; to look at both the scientific evidence as well as practical issues involved in sparring methodologies. My hope is that with this multi-part series I may be able to provide an educational and practically-useful resource for fighters and coaches to use to aid in maximizing the efficacy of their training practices, while minimizing the damage the training induces. Benefits of this may hopefully lead to improving longevity in the sport as well as long-term health. Just like with any aspect of life, the goal is to find a balance.

Let us begin.

Say Cheese…

If you follow any combat sports athlete on social media you will have seen ‘post-sparring’ pictures. The pictures usually involve a group of fighters whose faces are mean-mugging, smiling, or even breaking stereotype and making goofy expressions or postures. Their postures will usually either be chill and relaxed with arms around each other, or a little less chill looking with fists closed and in a fighting stance with 1 or both hands up.

From my experience there is no real concrete reason to adopt either type of posture. And for me personally it has just come down to whatever I felt like at the time. I see these these photos on the daily from other fighters and have put quite a few of them up on Instagram myself after some of my own sparring sessions. Chances are, if you are reading this piece as a fighter, you too will have quite a few of your own pictures to think back to.

Exhibit A: In the top post-sparring pic I am smiling for no real reason in a picture with a couple gentlemen savages in Sityodtong Boston after a “Monday Night Marathon” session.
Exhibit B: In the bottom post sparring I am mean-mugging like fuck for no real reason after a fantastic team sparring session with 3 amore gentlemen savages during my time at El Nino Training Center in San Francisco.

The reason these kind of pictures make such a common appearance is two-fold:

  1. Firstly, most fighters I know absolutely love sparring and are usually content as fuck with life after getting the rounds in, thus want to capture the moment for themselves and their followers because social media is a powerful thing.
  2. Secondly, competitive fighters spar a ton and so there is ample opportunity to capture these moments because of the frequency of the sessions.

But I want to get us to think about a question that might seem obvious but pondering on it can perhaps be very enlightening: Why is sparring just so common?

S.A.I.D.

One of, if not the most fundamental principles of sports training is that of the SAID principle. SAID is an acronym for “specific adaptation to imposed demands”. SAID basically means your body will try and adapt to whatever you demand of yourself.

If you want a definition, here’s what Wikipedia gives us:

“In physical rehabilitation and sports training, the SAID principle asserts that the human body adapts specifically to imposed demands. In other words, given stressors on the human system, whether biomechanical or neurological, there will be a Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands.”

As such, when you have chosen to partake in fighting people for fun, smart training will abide by the SAID principle and you will need to do some form of simulated fighting as a key part of your training. This simulated fighting done in training is called “sparring” and can take many forms (which I will get to later). For now however I am just going to use the word “sparring” as a catch all term for a simulated fight.

And it makes total sense that the biggest bang for your buck and return on your time investment from training will come from doing things that closely simulate what will be demanded in competition. If you want to get good at soccer, play soccer. If you want to get good at running, run. If you want to get good at fighting, you need to do training that closely replicates fighting: spar.

The biggest difference that specific training for combat sports has with other activities however is quite glaring: physical trauma. The objective of combat sports is to inflict more damage on your opponent that they inflict on you, either resulting in a decision victory or a stoppage.

Fighters will use leg kicks to deaden the legs and decrease their opponents ability to move. Fighters will use hard body shots to wear on a guys gas tank as well as throw shots to the shoulder and chest to deaden the upper body muscles. These attritional tactics are awesome as they gradually break down your opponent physically and maybe also mentally. These full power attritional shots are great for actual competitions, but who the fuck wants to do this in training?

From a selfish athlete perspective, beating up our training partners bodies will decrease our ability to get better as our partners may miss training sessions, thereby affecting our ability to train and grow as a fighter. From a selfless human being perspective, who wants to actually harm another person (especially a team mate) who is just in there in the gym trying to learn like you are?

Even so; while muscles, bones, flesh and joints can usually recover rather well, there is a giant elephant in the room. Considering the primary target of combat sports is the head, this elephant is… brain damage.

TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury)

While your joints/muscles/bones etc. may recover well, the brain does not recover to the same extent. The easiest way to think of damage to your brain is to picture one of those life bars from Tekken 3 (as per image below), in that it gradually wears down bit by bit and does not get better until an appropriate strategy is put in place (there’s a whole host of not so wonderful possibilities later in the series).

The video below is honestly a must watch for fighters and coaches as it explains the mechanisms and potential consequences of TBI quite well. The speaker, Steven Laureys is a Belgian neurologist and is recognized worldwide as a leading clinician and researcher in the field of neurology of consciousness. While I personally do not agree with absolutely everything Dr. Laureys suggests with regards to changing the rules of combat sports etc., this is an extremely powerful and educational video.

To go into a little bit of detail and provide you with some information on TBI, here are some extracts from the Mayo Clinic TBI page:

“Traumatic brain injury occurs when an external mechanical force causes brain dysfunction. Traumatic brain injury usually results from a violent blow or jolt to the head or body………Mild traumatic brain injury may cause temporary dysfunction of brain cells. More serious traumatic brain injury can result in bruising, torn tissues, bleeding, and other physical damage to the brain that can result in long-term complications or death.”

Some of the most common symptoms of mild traumatic brain injury include:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Being dazed, confused or disoriented (even when there is no loss of consciousness)
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sensory issues (e.g. blurred vision, ringing in ears, changes in the ability to smell, sensitivity to light)
  • Cognitive impairment (memory/concentration)
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety or depressive symptoms

Moderate-to severe traumatic brain injuries can include any of the signs and symptoms of mild injury, as well as the following symptoms that may appear within the first hours to days after a head injury:

  • Worsening headache
  • Seizures
  • Dilation of the eyes
  • Weakness or numbness in fingers and toes
  • Agitation, confusion, combativeness or other unusual behavior
  • Slurred speech
  • Coma

The list above addresses the acute effects of “brain injury”. But what are the long-term consequences of brain trauma?

CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy)

Rather than me getting into the nitty-gritty of CTE I will refer you to this linked paper from Mckee et al., 2009 to give you a taste of the unfortunate manifestations of CTE. From that paper, here are some  main points to be aware of:

  • In 1928 the term “punch-drunk” was coined to describe a group of symptoms that seemed to be the result of repeated sub-lethal blows to the head, most commonly in professional boxers.
  • The symptoms of CTE are first manifested by deteriorations in attention, concentration, and memory, as well as disorientation and confusion, and occasionally accompanied by dizziness and headaches.
  • Severe cases are accompanied by a progressive slowing of muscular movements, a staggered walk, impeded speech, tremors, vertigo, and deafness.
  • The severity of the disorder seems to correlate with the length of time engaged in the sport and the number of traumatic injuries. However it is still unknown whether a single TBI can trigger the onset of CTE.
  • Of 51 confirmed cases of CTE, 46 (90%) occurred in athletes. The athletes included 39 boxers (85%), 5 football players (11%), 1 professional wrestler, and 1 soccer player.
  • The first symptoms of CTE were noticed at ages ranging from 25 to 76 years (mean, 42.8 years; SD, 12.7).
  • One third were showing symptoms of CTE at the time of their retirement from the sport, and half were showing symptoms within 4 years of stopping play.
  • In most of the reported cases, the disease slowly progressed for several decades, with increasing abnormalities in behaviour and personality, memory loss and cognitive decline.
  • Movement abnormalities were eventually found in 41.2% subjects, includes onset of Parkinson’s.

One of the real scary things is that, as Critchley wrote in the British Medical Journal in 1957: “once established, it not only does not permit reversibility, but ordinarily advances steadily, even though the boxer has retired from the ring”.

Taken from: Amen et al., J Alzheimers Dis. 2016; 53(1): 237–241

Startling stuff right?

So now that you know what TBI is and the potential long-term consequences of TBI in the form of CTE, we need to look at what influence sparring may have.

While we absolutely have to do some form of sparring to responsibly prepare for competition due to the necessity of employing the SAID principle, the brain’s ability to recover is the aforementioned giant pink elephant in the room. While the juice may very well be worth the squeeze when we actually fight competitively, who the fuck in their right mind, knowing what you do right now, wants to leave their brain in the gym by sparring like a caveman?

In part 2 of this series, I will try to tackle the issue of sparring methodologies and how to include sparring in a smart way.

To read part to go here: Sparring Methodologies: To Spar, or Not To Spar, That is the Question (Part 2)


– 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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