A dignified approach to sparring beginners

Image Copyright and courtesy of Duncan Grisby

Image Copyright and courtesy of Duncan Grisby

A couple of weeks ago I was having a chat with a friend who started white collar boxing in a local Cambridge club late last year.  He described his first day in that club in a way that many would depict as a horrifying experience. He was asked to enter the ring to spar with 5 established, fit and trained athletes from that gym, just to see “what he’s got”.  Result was, unsurprisingly, that he had a black eye and bruised nose.  In my opinion the above described event could indeed be a good approach to check who really has the guts to step into a ring without necessarily being prepared for that kind of confrontation; it’s also a great way of losing, by the dozens, potentially good students and future promising fighters, by discouraging them to continue training.

As a martial artist and a coach I find this kind of attitude very much old school and outdated; I like to teach, instil and apply what we could define as a dignified approach to sparring beginners, a methodology that encourages a novice student to starts her first steps into sparring without unnecessary risks of getting hurt.

Sparring is about putting in practice what technical lessons are teaching: techniques, combinations, foot work, attacking, defending and blocking; it all gets mixed together at fast pace and without precise order.  At first this is all very confusing and often overwhelming; for some people sparring triggers nearly irrational violent instincts while others simply freeze and get frustrated, feeling incapable of delivering decent performance.

We must assume that any decent martial arts club will have a bunch of senior students and members who are skilled in sparring and fit for fighting.  Some of them are perhaps competing at local, regional or national level.  These people have both the skill and the fitness to potentially hurt, seriously hurt, a beginner if just they wanted to.  However it makes very little sense to do that; I educate all of my students to avoid exploiting the advantage they have on beginners.

A dignified approach to sparring beginners is simply about setting your skills at a level that is slightly better than the beginner you are training with and showing her how you can score on them starting from a fairly soft level of contact.  Pressure of contact can and should be increased as and when applicable.  This methodology ensures that the advanced student is winning the round and maintains its technical superiority while it offers a list of advantages to both people sparring:

  • Better control of the fight
  • Reduced risk of injuries from both sides
  • Fostering an increasing self confidence for the beginners that ultimately helps to improve her technique and sparring skills

In some cases the dignified approach to sparring beginners becomes difficult to maintain because:

  • The beginner is learning and progressing a lot faster than expected and her techniques from one session to the other improves to a much better point
  • The beginner builds up a false illusion that her sparring skills are now sufficient to put in difficulty the advance student
  • The beginner gets enraged and starts hitting without any control

In the above cases we usually approach the problem with a few words of advice; if the beginners still misbehaves out of logical control we suggest increasing the pressure until it is enough to win the round and educate her.

So if you are a beginner you can be assured that your first sparring sessions will not be traumatic and testing what “you have got” but be aware that there are usually many people in the club that can potentially harm you so respect for your opponent is always a must.

Enjoying the British weather so far

2013-07-21 18.50.27When CARISMA started, back in 1999, we were very often training in the beautiful parks of Cambridge, mostly Jesus Green.  That kind of a tradition has been kept over the years and we sometimes use parks when, for random reasons, some of our venues becomes unavailable and the weather is nice.  We also book all Sunday lessons for the summer (usually the whole July and August) to be run outside in one of the parks and, just if the weather is not good, we book at the last minute an available room for the day.

This year we have been lucky: so far all of the (5) Sundays we managed to train outside, enjoying the lovely weather and the sun.  If you have not tried yet please make sure you join us at one of our next Sunday lessons before end of August.  Here are a few pictures of the lessons we run:

Kickboxing for stress and exams

OllieOsunkunleOlaoluwakitan ‘Ollie’ Osunkunle (pictured here with his belt representing the national title he won in May 2013) is a CARISMA member who is leaving us this month after training very hard and regularly for 6 years.  Ollie joined us when he first started studying at the University of Cambridge for his medical degree which he achieved last month.  In 6 years with us he won several fights against various university teams as well in open regional and national competitions and he was awarded a 1st Dan black belt just a couple of weeks before his medical degree.  In his latest fight, weeks before his final exams, he won a national title.

One thing I often pointed out as a remark to his dedication was the consistency of his training regardless of the time of the year; he was one of the few university students that kept training during exam terms so I asked him to write a short article where he describes in his own words the experience of studying hard for a very demanding degree and, at the same time, train hard to be ready to fight at national level.  Here is his article:

            7 am. I fling myself bolt upright in bed. Letting out a great yawn, I do some simple stretches as I try to clear my mind for the day ahead. One day left. This is it. After six years of medical school; dissecting dead bodies; chemistry practicals and endless exams. This is it. My final exam before I hopefully earn the right to call myself doctor.

I sit at my desk and read through my list of tasks for the day ahead, there is only one decision left to make. “6.30pm → Kickboxing – sparring training”, can I make it? Of course, now let me explain why.

I studied medicine in Cambridge University. During my exam periods I kept my exercise routine as near to normal as possible. During the couple of months prior to my exams, I took part in the Oxford vs. Cambridge varsity match, won a national kickboxing competition and achieved my black belt in kickboxing. These achievements are by no means out of the ordinary and I know many other students that have kept up far more extensive sports participation.

I believe that there are a few key reasons why people give up on their exercise routines in the run-up to a major exam. Firstly, the threat of the impending exam causes the body to enter into a state of stress. In this state, people stop working to achieve their goals and instead struggle desperately to relieve themselves of their stress. Spending hours sat in front of study books is one such technique to relieve stress. However, those hours spent are often in excess of what is productive. A change is as good as a rest.

Secondly, with a prepared study plan and objectives to achieve before the exam, one might believe that there is simply not enough time to study and exercise in the same day. The disease of “time excusitis”. However, for most people, this is simply not the case. Working more efficiently: smarter rather than harder allows ample time for exercise in one’s day. Application of key principles such as Pareto’s law, commonly known as the 80/20 rule allows one to reduce the amount of material to learn. After all, 80% of the key information to learn will be covered in 20% of the available materials. Combined with Parkinson’s law, known as the law of forced efficiency, reducing the amount of time you have available to study forces you to focus on only the most relevant and high-yield data. Taking time out to kickbox helps you study smarter.

Thirdly, there is the worry of the biological effects that kickboxing may have on your body. After all, you may worry: “won’t I be too tired to study if I spend all my energy exercising?” Fortunately, the reverse is usually true. Exercise acts as a great stress reliever. Whilst a small amount of stress improves performance, large amounts have been shown to be detrimental to performance (1). In addition, exercise has been shown to improve memory, a great benefit prior to exams! (2)

So the next time you’re contemplating spending an extra hour in front of the books or heading to class, pick up your gloves and remember that there’s really only one correct choice to make. Punch away.

1.    L P. Emotionality and the Yerkes-Dodson Law. J Exp Psychol. 1957;54(5):345–52.

2.    Stroth S, Hille K, Spitzer M, Reinhardt R. Aerobic endurance exercise benefits memory and affect in young adults. Neuropsychol Rehabil. 2009;19(2):223–43.

My fourth Dan grading

Massimo4thDanHaving started practicing kickboxing in 1981 I could say that my approach to grading has been quite relaxed. Last Thursday, 21st Feb 2013, I finally passed my fourth Dan grading, a rank that many people achieve in their late twenties or early thirties and within 15 or so years of experience in one martial art. To some extent I was never too rushed into the next rank: it surely is a good recognition of personal achievements but it doesn’t bring to the bearer any better martial skills. In my opinion a rank is just a title and a way of comparing your experience and achievements with others. At the beginning of my experience I initially managed to skip a couple of ranks and qualified 3 Kyu (3 ranks from first Dan) within two years but it was not until 6 years later when I got my black belt I 1989. In my experience of late while the first and second Dan grading are still very much based around one’s personal performance there is a substantial shift in expectations from the third Dan and above.

The examiner, represented by Neville Wray (pictured on the right) current vice president of Wako GB and one of the top ranked kickboxers in UK, wants to see you running a class, the quality of your teaching and consequently the quality of student’s style, knowledge of technique and individual preparation. To some extent it is quite natural to expect that a person ranked third rank or above would be running a club or at least a class so the quality of their technique, as well as their teaching abilities can be measured by how well their team performs. In my case I was very pleased of having a nice and varied class of 36 people ranging between beginners with just a few weeks experience all the way to 4 black belt and 5 instructors. I did run our usual warm up, then split the class in two groups; I run the advanced group while one of my instructors took care of the lowers grades and beginners. During the first 40 minutes of techniques we displayed some combinations that are typical of the CARISMA curriculum, like fast double kicks with one leg, various applications of the axe kick and various situations of attack and defence. I then switched group and demonstrated how I teach some of the most basic techniques and postures to beginners. The whole class behaved, very much like in most classes but with a bit of extra discipline, like a single organism with people pausing and listening when I was explaining new techniques and then immediately performing the various combinations on my command. Naville first congratulated with me privately mentioning how good the class he saw was. He then announced to the class the successful result pointing out the quality of teaching and techniques he saw, how well everybody behaved and the fact that on a scale of 1 to 10 he would rank the technical skills at 11 🙂

I am very pleased of having finally reached my fourth Dan; it was particularly interesting to see my pictures tagged on Facebook receiving many congratulation comments and a large number of Likes from friends located all over the world. I do not feel I am a much better martial artist then I was on Thurs morning… but it surely feels good 🙂 Now it’s time to start thinking fifth Dan.

Training kickboxing while maintaining low injury rate

    Image courtesy and copyright Duncan Grisby

Image courtesy and copyright Duncan Grisby

Martial arts are mostly designed and conceived as fighting systems. Fighting is about hurting other people so it is about delivering intense blows to another person; anybody training realistically risks hurting or getting hurt during sessions. Some styles like Judo were in fact conceived to reduce the risk of injuries by removing the most dangerous techniques from its ancestor: Ju Jitsu. Other styles limit the teaching and practicing of dangerous techniques to advanced students or simply avoid full contact training or sparring. Realistically speaking training with a certain level of contact and impact is necessary for anyone competing at full but also light contact level.

Training “full on” and maintaining a safe training environment creates a dilemma that troubles many martial arts clubs and some of them take one position in the spectrum of the impact vs. safety curve: some on the safe and sometimes unrealistic, particularly for those who want to use martial arts for self defence while others take it to an extreme and have a very high number of injuries some times serious ones. Kickboxing and many other styles that are practiced wearing pads offer the advantage of covering some of the “weapons” like fists and feet so that they ensure a safer training practice. In my experience of over 3 decades of training Kickboxing I definitely seen many incidents but, considering that we spend several hours per week kicking and punching each other, often at full power, the number of serious damages is negligible. In the over 13 years I have been running CARISMA, I can remember very few (3-4) broken noses, a few broken or cracked ribs (less then 10), a couple of swollen feet and very recently a broken foot. We obviously have the occasional, once per month or less, black eye and regular bruises, mostly on the arms when people receive attacks and block with their guard. All in all I am sure we are safer than most football or rugby club.

Some Kickboxing clubs spend most of their times hitting focusing mitts and Thai pads; that a great way of practicing power while minimising the risk of injuries. Personally I am a strong believer in one-2-one training combining attack and defence techniques and combinations that emulate the sparring environment. I find that pad work is mostly conditioning body and mind to simply face a passive opponent that invites you to hit a target. The pair training also helps improving defence reflexes together with blocking and parrying skills.

In my experience a proven formula to ensure a safe full contact training environment is to teach people to actively block the attacks they are subject to by using active blocks and parries rather than passively accepting blows on their guard. This last strategy is taught as the last resource that people should use when in extreme difficulty. When teaching blocks to beginners we always start from the technique with bare hands to show the exact mechanical movement involved and how to minimize the impact on one’s body while deflecting as much and possible the forces rather than absorbing them onto his/her own body. Then, when gloves are worn, they add extra safety to the whole situation and further minimise the risk of bruises and scratches. Many thousand repetitions later all movements become instinctive and automatic and they can work even at full speed and power. Sparring obviously increases the risk of incidents and injuries but, once more, if students have very clear ideas about precise blocking the whole process becomes as safe as it can be although never 100% incident free.