In preparing to write this article, I found a wonderful definition of 'sparring' in relation to boxing training. This definition is from the Oxford English Dictionary:
verb (spars, sparring, sparred)
"Make the motions of boxing without landing heavy blows, as a form of training."
verb (spars, sparring, sparred)
The thing that I really like about this definition is the bit that states "…without landing heavy blows". You see, as a coach I am a big believer in constructive sparring rather than destructive sparring. For me, allowing spars to descend into brutal slugfests is counter-productive and dangerous. But more on that in a moment.
The boxers that I work with spar in some form pretty much every night they are in the gym. Sparring is the ultimate way of preparing for a contest, enabling the development of skills, speed, stamina and tactical awareness. It's a fantastic way of taking the theory and applying it in the real world. Soldiers go on training missions boxers undertake sparring.
In this article I want to do two things. Firstly I want to describe the different types of sparring and I also want to describe some of the methods that I apply when managing sparring activities.
The 3 Types of Sparring
In my view, there are 3 types of sparring that we can undertake:
- Technical sparring
- Conditioned sparring
- Open Sparring
These are in a specific order, and I hope that you'll see why as you watch the video and then read on.
Technical sparring (or Tec Sparring) does not need to be carried out in a ring. It is effectively a non-contact activity and therefore does not require that the boxers wear a head guard or a low blow protector. The boxers must though wear 16oz sparring gloves and a mouthguard just to be on the safe side.
Tec sparring is quite a prescriptive activity. The boxers do not have free foot movement, in other words they are not free to dance all around the place. Every action is measured and specific. In fact, Tec Sparring is simply boxing drills with the assistance of a partner, acting only as a skills development and reaction conditioning activity. It's not about building stamina.
In setting up Tec Sparring, I follow these steps:
- The boxers are gloved-up, have their mouthguard and have found a partner to work with. I tell them to form a semi-circle on one side of me so that all can see the same thing at the same time.
- I introduce them to a particular technique or sequence of skills. I describe what it is, why it’s useful and when it will be used. It’s important that I convey why it is worth their while practising the sequence. Example techniques that I would want the boxers to work on might be fairly simple:
- Boxer A throws a jab, boxer B blocks the jab
- Boxer A throws a jab, boxer B pushes away and then back in.
- Working with either a fellow coach or one of the boxers I demonstrate the technique at a realistic (competition) speed, 3 times each in the open position (from my right side) and closed position (from my left side). I then break the skills down making any key points, for example pointing out common faults.
- I demonstrate one final time at competition speed in the open and closed positions and then request that the boxers try it themselves. The boxers take turns in performing the technique and responding (boxer A to boxer B). The boxers perform 5 sequences then change roles. Alternatively I can control the flow by shouting "change" periodically.
- I make individual coaching points to pairs where needed and then if I feel it appropriate I repeat the demonstration and emphasise the aspects that may be causing difficulties.
- I can change the pairs according to skill/experience level and develop the techniques by adding in more movement, punches or defences.
- I keep the sessions short to ensure that interest is maintained rather than the boxers “switching off.”
I run Tec Sparring more than I run any other type of sparring for a simple reason, it works!
As the name suggests, Conditioned Sparring is sparring with conditions or restrictions. Conditioned Sparring requires the boxers to be in the ring. It also requires the boxers to be kitted-up with a head guard, mouthguard and 16oz gloves and is carried out under a 'rounds' structure (unlike tec sparring which need not be constrained to rounds).
The conditions that I apply in this type of sparring are tailored to a specific scenario in order to enhance the development of specific skills and tactical awareness. Often conditions are quite subtle, so much so that to the uninitiated observer they simply see two boxers sparring.
So what type of conditions do I apply to a spar? Here's a few simple examples:
Either one or both boxers may only use the jab. This forces the boxers to really, really appreciate the benefits of a good jab. It's especially useful for boxers who have the constant urge to use hooks, letting them practice the skill of using their jab to open up the opponent and close the range to the target safely and successfully.
One of the boxers cannot throw punches for a period of a round. This is especially useful in getting the non-punching boxer to develop the ability to combine defensive skills, using blocks and parries with slips and rolls and slick pivots and side-steps. It allows the punching boxer to practice their stalking skills; cutting off the ring. There is a nice discipline element here too. If the punching boxer has the urge to become a little "over-enthusiastic", then they carry the knowledge that at any point they can become the non-punching boxer. They can literally be put in the other guy's shoes!
Both boxers may only use body punches. This allows focus on effective punch placement (accuracy with body punching is vital) and use of defensive inside blocks. This is quite a tough activity and care needs to be taken to ensure that the boxers are not ignoring defence of their head.
The number and type of conditions that can be applied to sparring are limited only by the imagination of the coach. It's a highly versatile type of sparring and can also add a little fun to proceedings. It basically becomes a little bit of a chess match and forces the boxers to concentrate under fire and maintain their discipline, both vital requirements of successful boxing.
Open sparring is what many are used to seeing in the boxing gym. Both boxers are freed up to use all of the skills at their disposal. Protective measures are in place, head guards, sparring gloves etc, and I as the coach have the responsibility of controlling the spar.
Boxers are by their nature competitive. This competitive edge is absolutely vital to their success, and in sparring they do not want to come off second best. This means that open sparring can become quite intense and in simple terms that intensity is absolutely required.
But sparring for me must not turn into an actual contest. You see, in a contest, a boxer throws punches with 'venom'. They throw 'heavy blows' in an attempt to overwhelm the opponent. Shock and Awe if you will. In the vast majority of instances, they do not dislike their opponent. They just want to win, and if that win comes by way of a knock out or stoppage then even better.
Why should I be particularly concerned about allowing a spar where one or both of the boxers punching with venom and intent? It's simple really, it comes down to the cumulative effects of receiving head blows. In an average season, an amateur boxer may compete in a 3 or 4 round contest on average once a month, sometimes more and often less.
On the other hand, that same boxer may spar 5 or 6 rounds, 3 times a week (or more). That's a potential of 18 rounds of sparring in a single week. If I as a coach allow sparring where the boxers are unleashing shots as they would in a contest, then I am allowing those boxers to be exposed to a much greater risk of head injury due to the effect of cumulative blows. That's reality. To my mind, the greatest responsibility that I bear is in ensuring the well-being of the boxer, both on fight night and in the gym.
I also mentioned that as well as being dangerous, I see heavy sparring as counter-productive. If a boxer climbs the steps of the ring for a spar in which they know heavy shots will be thrown, they will be more reluctant to try to apply some of the skills they have developed in the technical and conditioned sparring (and the pads for that matter). Psychologically they will see it as a fight for survival, aiming to land the heaviest blow first. It's just not a good place to be in the gym environment.
Open spars can be tough, competitive and arduous without the need for heavy blows. Maybe you see it differently, and that's fine. But if something goes wrong in a spar due to my allowing heavy, venomous blows to be thrown with real intent, then I am at fault. No ifs, no buts. I want my spars to be constructive, not destructive.
I hope this article has helped, whether you are in the spar or controlling the spar. Any questions and comments are very gratefully received below.