Your ultimate test of whether you can be a true partner will be in sparring.
The average martial arts school has a very small percentage of their student body who truly enjoys sparring. The reason these students enjoy it so much is because they are skilled at it. They get in there and do what they need to do, with no real concern for the people they are working with. As a result, they feel wonderful. The rest of the student body does not enjoy sparring so much. They are intimidated by it, and feel really uneasy about the entire process. Why? Because the few that are good at sparring always beat them and show the other students how good they are. Some schools try to overcome this by teaching good control. Good control is crucial (especially for safety,) but does it really matter if you got hit with a hard technique that discourages you, or if you get hit with a controlled technique that also discourages you? The end result is that you are going to feel intimidated and uneasy about sparring, regardless of the level of control that your partner displays.
True, good control is important. We don’t want anyone to get hurt, but if a partner never gets the chance to experience success at sparring, then how will s/he understand and enjoy the process? If a student never gets a chance to land a technique and feel as if they are progressing, then s/he will never feel successful and comfortable with the practice of sparring.
Students who do not like sparring dislike it because their partners never helped them to feel comfortable with the process. Therefore, they feel as though they can never really get the concept of sparring, and prefer not to spar at all, to ensure that they don’t get hurt or humiliated.
Some students feel they are good sparring partners because they have good control. To be a good partner, you must have good control, but good control alone does not make you a good partner. A good partner lets the student s/he is working with feel safe while making sure s/he also feels success. If the other person never gets a chance to make his/her techniques work, then s/he is always going to feel inferior when it comes to sparring. This will make it difficult to continue with the practice. The reason for working with partners is to help you overcome your personal limitations and help you grow through the practice. Training should highlight your strengths and help you to strengthen your weak areas. This way, everyone grows together. This is why there is a very specific process to our sparring.
In level one sparring, there is absolutely no contact. This level allows beginner students to get comfortable with throwing techniques and putting together combinations of techniques. Most importantly, it gets the beginner student used to the idea of seeing techniques thrown towards him/her. This is the first level of engagement, and it allows the beginner student to deal with the emotional content of sparring without the fear of getting hit. As for the more advanced students, level one allows them the opportunity to work on continuous flow and to explore different techniques and combinations instead of simple kickboxing. The more advanced students need to remember that just because there is “no contact” in level one does not mean you can throw a barrage of techniques to overwhelm and humiliate the lower ranking student. The intensity should not be at “zero,” but it should also not be at “ten.” You are always working on being a better partner and you need to adjust your intensity, flow, and combinations within the appropriate levels of the partner you are working with. Beginner students should also not go “crazy” because they feel higher level students should be able to “handle” it. Sparring is a true test of working with others as partners. This is where courtesy, respect, and awareness all come together. Both partners must be aware of each other, their environment, and the other people around them. Don’t get lost in your own sparring match where nothing else around you matters.
Level two introduces light contact to the midsection only. This level allows students to experience what it feels like to hit and get hit. This helps to understand the proper distance needed to strike and defend. Contact should remain light, with the focus on defending and countering. If the student feels overwhelmed with the level of contact, s/he can request level one from his/her partner. Partners are required to adhere to requests for a lower level regardless of rank. This allows everyone to progress at their own comfort level as they move through the ranks.
Level three introduces the upper gate (head region.) It is important that the student understands that the levels introduce new skills, not higher intensity. Level two does not mean you can now start punching and kicking each other to death, and level three does not mean that you can start hitting each other even harder AND to the head. Each level introduces a new skill to work on and be aware of. At level three, the student needs to be aware of the middle and upper gate, therefore expanding their defensive awareness to multiple techniques. Again, if a student is uncomfortable at level three, s/he can request level one or two.
Level four introduces techniques to the lower gate: leg checks, sweeps, and take-downs. This level incorporates more of the Kung Fu idea of practice, where multiple techniques to different gates are simultaneously worked. The student must be aware of his/her entire body. Level four is designed for advanced students, since the chance of injury is increased anytime one works techniques to the lower gate. Great control is mandatory, as is the understanding of how to execute the technique correctly without the need of excessive force in order to get the technique to work. The student has to have relaxed power and good flow where s/he can connect the techniques together. This leads to the final level.
This is the highest level of partner practice. This level introduces grappling and locking (chin-na) techniques. This level is very similar to chi sao (sticky hands) and push hands, where speed and power are reduced almost completely and the students must rely strictly on technique for effectiveness. We refer to it as “yin yang shou fa” or “hard soft hand methods.” This level is like a game of chess where the partners are trying to lead each other to a desired outcome, while developing sensitivity, balance, and correct structure.
These five levels are designed to help aid your progress through the process of partner practice in sparring. Sparring is not a competition, it is a team effort to improve each other. So, if it is not a competition, how do you push each other? You push each other through the partner mindset. Your focus has to be not only on your technique or how great you are getting, but on you and your partner’s development and growth as a team. Through the practice, you will get better control over your mind, your body, and your actions.
There is a huge distinction between a partner and an opponent, and if you can practice from a perspective of being a great partner, where you adjust your level according to the partner you are working with regardless of rank, then you will take your practice to the highest level possible.