Sparring Without Striking: When Training Safely Gets Too Safe

Sparring Without Striking: When Training Safely Gets Too Safe, a blog post from Black Belt magazine.I was recently talking with a friend who’s a high-level taekwondo guy. He was telling me about a school he’d visited that really impressed him. It had a large, highly motivated group of students. Most were athletic and pushing to achieve as much as they could, regardless of age or size. The forms were crisp. The self-defense drills were sharp.

The school was excellent in every way …

… except one: There was no real contact in sparring, not even among the black belts.

My friend, who’s lived in South Korea and trained in the competitive atmosphere there, just shook his head. No matter how good a training hall is, he said, “you’ve got to have people hitting each other in the face sometimes.”

I’m mostly into mixed martial arts now, so my friend was preaching to the choir. I believe that all empty-hand arts benefit from some kind of sparring practice. Everything from aikido to wing chun gets better when you take practitioners out of their comfort zones.

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On the surface, it seemed like this is what my taekwondo friend was talking about. To him, learning taekwondo without sparring means you’re leaving out something important.

But I’ll go him one further: Learning any empty-hand art in an environment in which no one hits means you’re missing something essential.

In the striking arts, this seems obvious. If people are supposed to be learning how to fight with punches and kicks, they should be punching and kicking each other. Otherwise, you descend into the absurdity that Bruce Lee used to mock with his swimming analogy: Everyone is learning the crawl and the backstroke on dry land, but no one ever gets in the water because it’s too dangerous.

But it’s not just the striking arts that need the rough reality of contact to remain meaningful. The grappling arts need it just as much, if not more.

In some aikido and judo schools, people can train all the way to expert level and never encounter a real punch or kick. Granted, aikido is more about what happens when someone grabs you or attacks you with weapons, but all grappling arts are, to some extent, answers to the problem of someone beating on you. Practicing them in the complete absence of striking is like learning an answer without knowing what the question is.

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This is especially true in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, an art that built its reputation through empty-hand challenge matches. The danger of getting punched or kicked into oblivion shapes virtually every technique in the style. BJJ schools that focus mainly on grappling competition and neglect MMA and self-defense seem weirdly out of touch with this. Without a little contact training, they’re swimming on dry land just as much as any karate or taekwondo school that omits sparring.

Just to be clear, I’m not advocating full-contact brawling in every school for every style. Even professional fight gyms discourage that kind of thing, although it does happen sometimes.

What I am advocating is confronting the truth of striking directly by acknowledging it and dealing with someone who’s actually trying to hit you in training. He or she doesn’t have to blast you in the face full force, but the person does have to really try to tag you and to make your life as frustrating and difficult as it would be in a real fight.

And that is the truth of striking: It’s frustrating and difficult to defend against. Getting hit is both dangerous and usual in any kind of conflict. This is because striking is the entry-level technique of fighting. Even a person who knows nothing can swing wildly and have a good chance of hurting someone.

There really isn’t any equivalent in grappling — there’s no such thing as flailing around wildly and getting a lucky finishing hold.

This leads to another core truth of fighting, one of the things that shape the empty-hand arts: People who know the least hit the most. When they do, it doesn’t have a clear, predictable pattern. So mimicking this in any kind of empty-hand training is essential if your goal is to be able to handle it for real.

About the Author:
Keith Vargo is a writer, martial arts instructor, active fighter and researcher based in Tokyo, whose columns and features regularly appear in Black Belt. He is the only foreigner to earn a first-degree black belt from the world-renowned Takada Dojo,…

Dr. Jerry Beasley’s Top 10 Martial Arts for Self-Defense

I selected 10 systems that I’ve practiced and found to be self-defense worthy. It’s hard to say just one art does it all. The best advice is to try them all and get in combat shape.

Ultimately, it’s not the art that’s important; it’s the individual. It’s not the technique that makes the difference; it’s the delivery. A smooth stone that hits its mark is going to be more effective than a .44 Magnum bullet that misses.

Train with purpose; the more you sweat in the gym, the less you bleed on the street.


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Kyokushin Karate

If you complete the 100 fights required for a black belt in kyokushin karate, you possess the attributes required for self-defense. Learn how kyokushin karate master Kenji Yamaki endured the 100-man kumite!


A street-savvy warrior will take a weapon over his empty hands every time. When you become an expert with traditional weapons, you have an advantage in real combat.

Krav Maga

The gun and knife defenses taught in krav maga are perhaps the best in the field. Video: Darren Levine demonstrates how to use krav maga to survive a knife attack!

Muay Thai

Muay Thai’s a realistic combat art with an emphasis on training and conditioning.

Kano Jiu-Jitsu

The forerunner of judo, this early 20th-century art developed by Jigoro Kano was more streetwise than ringwise.

Gracie Jiu-Jitsu

It’s been proved effective in street combat in the toughest cities in the world. Watch six Gracie Jiu-Jitsu videos!

Extreme Self-Protection

It was designed by Mark Hatmaker to cover all ranges of combat. Video: Mark Hatmaker on martial arts training roadblocks and solutions for developing a practcial, diverse and effective technique palette.

Dirty Boxing

While many fights end on the ground, almost all fights start standing up. Dirty boxing, aka “clinch boxing” or “trap boxing,” prepares you for strikes that work in stand-up grappling and moves that are illegal in the boxing ring.

Jeet Kune Do Unlimited

Created by Burt Richardson, it’s perhaps the most combat-efficient interpretation of Bruce Lee’s method of “scientific street fighting.”

About the Author:
Dr. Jerry Beasley was Black Belt’s 2000 Instructor of the Year. A professor at Radford University in Radford, Virginia, he is the author of Dojo Dynamics: Essential Marketing Principles for Martial Arts Schools.…

Richard Machowicz on Kids and the Martial Arts: How to Deal With Bullies

Richard “Mack” Machowicz is an ex-Navy SEAL, co-host of Spike TV’s Deadliest Warrior and author of the book Unleash the Warrior Within. He’s proficient in taekwondo and has studied muay Thai, kali, boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Paul Vunak’s take on jeet kune do. However, this SEAL Team hand-to-hand combat instructor was, as a kid, clueless when it came to how to deal with bullies.

“I had to deal with bullies all the time,” Richard Machowicz explains. “I was a really small kid, a very light kid. There were bullies, but what I had to learn was how to take care of myself.”

In the years since, Richard Machowicz has studied a variety of martial arts and had an extensive military career, so his is a story of survival and self-reinvention — but that’s not always the case, as evidenced by headlines from across the country of kids committing suicide and regularly citing nonstop bullying as one of their primary reasons.

Ex-Navy SEAL and SEAL Team Hand-to-Hand Combat Instructor Comments on How to Deal With Bullies

Richard Machowicz joined the military to develop the physicality and mentality that he did not have himself. “Even though I’d gone through a lot of tough times as a kid and could take pain pretty well — when I was 9, I spent four years in a place where the state sends juvenile delinquents — I had physical limitations,” he explains. “I wanted to develop capabilities that would exceed them. That’s the main reason I went in the military. I had a bunch of experiences on SEAL Team that allowed me to grow. It fostered the development of my thinking.”

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Kids, of course, often don’t have access to expensive military schools for such development. Most wouldn’t want to go, anyway. Therefore, a viable alternative for development of self-esteem, physical prowess and mental acuity would be traditional martial arts training.

So Black Belt posed a question to Richard Machowicz:

Are parents reluctant to enroll their children in martial arts for fear that their kids — rather than learn how to deal with bullies — may, in fact, become aggressors themselves?

“I have no idea where that logic jump is coming from because that’s not really what the martial arts are about,” Richard Machowicz says. “It’s about discipline — self-discipline, which is the most important discipline. It’s about body awareness, responsibility, loyalty, respect. These are all things that show up in a dojo. These are all things that you want your child to be able to use. This is how you succeed in life. Using all those skill sets [is] absolutely critical. As far as bullying’s concerned, you’re not going to run into that because of the martial arts.”

In terms of how to deal with bullies, Richard Machowicz highlights some of the practical benefits of martial arts training for kids: “If your kid is being bullied, [do] the martial arts give you an avenue for the kid to be able to create … distance? [Do they allow the child] to be able to stand up against a real threat?”

For more information about Richard Machowicz, visit his website at…

What Inspired You to Begin Your Martial Arts Training?

I love our Facebook community. On Monday, we asked them why they began their martial arts training, and their answers were so inspiring that I just had to share them with you.

“I was picked on as a child and had a lot of anger issues. I joined karate when I was seven and am now on my 11th year and hold two national titles. I craved discipline and the chance to do something greater than myself and I found it. I want to thank John Covington (my instructor) for pushing me as hard as he did and seeing the potential in me where I never could.”
—Dylan Ott

“I am about to test for my black belt, almost 10 years after first stepping on to the mat. The short of it is that something indescribable drew me to it. I literally cried the first few times I went on the mat. It will be the second most important thing I’ve ever done—only raising my daughter has impacted my life more.”
—Karen Dee Tschorn

“It was my dad playing Bruce Lee movies when I was a kid. I remember being so in awe of what he could do, and I wanted to be just like him. I was obsessed and got my black belt by age 10. It’s been with me my whole life.”
—Marc Golding

“Searching for something … wasn’t sure what it was at the time … but I found it.”
—Jason Sandlin

“I wanted to be just like The Karate Kid, or Sho Kosugi, or Chuck Norris, etc. But I never had the chance to train in my youth. As I went into high school and college, I saw martial arts as a way to get in shape and learn skills that would help me protect myself and my family should something ever happen. I’ve been at it for more than 12 years now. Love every minute of it.”
—Eric Kumor

“I always wanted to train as a kid, but my parents didn’t have the resources. We signed our son up at age 4 for TKD, and we all love it! I am working on my blue-belt requirements now. Kill Bill has to be my feel-good ass-kicking movie currently, along with Wing Chun.”
—Kirsten Spitzner

“Bruce Lee! I forget how old I was, but watching him on Kung Fu Theater changed me. He was unbelievable!”
—Mark Spaulding

“Seeing Game of Death as a 4-year-old and saying for the first time in my young life, ‘I want to do THAT when I grow up!’”
—Lalin Canthump

“I was too little for football or basketball. Baseball bored me to death. Then I saw Enter the Dragon and signed up that week at the nearest kajukenbo school.
—Bob Gomez

“In my younger years, I saw a taekwondo demonstration. As an adult, my daughter came home from a camp and told me one of her activities was karate. She asked if she could join the dojo, and a couple of weeks later, she asked me to get back into the martial arts and train with her.”
—Wayne McKay

“I transferred to a new high school where I was younger and smaller (and smarter) than most of the other kids in my class. I was picked on and bullied a lot. I got tired of it, so when I got a job, I began taking taekwondo classes. I fell in love with all the martial arts and have been training and expanding my knowledge ever since. (Needless to say, after getting into one fight in high school where I actually fought back, I didn’t get picked on again).”
—Scott Rowe

“A number of things led me to that path. I had always been interested, and when I got to college, I needed one more class credit to get financial aid. That started it all. Eight years later, I hold rank in a couple of different styles. Before that, I was bullied relentlessly as a middle-school kid, beat up daily. That always stuck with me. It has been a great confidence builder and great for discipline. I am able to take so much of that into my roll as a church youth director, as well.”
—Greg Segda

“My sons wanted to learn karate. Both were at a very young age and were a bit scared, so I told them I’d go with them for a couple weeks to get them started. I was hooked from the first session, and many many years later, I am still going.”
—Duane Ahlgrain

“It was a mix of seeing my first Bruce Lee movie and a lot of trouble with bullies in middle and high school, especially with group-home students in school. Bruce gave me hope and love for the martial arts at a very …

Knockout and Concussion Statistics for Violent Encounters

Editor’s Note: Because it’s impossible to defend yourself when you’re unconscious, knockouts play a critical role in any fight, whether it takes place in the ring or on the street. In our September issue, we explored the physiological effects of a knockout and why head trauma is such a controversial topic in combat sports. Now it’s time to look at the concussion statistics for violent encounters so you can avoid getting knocked out.

Analyst James LaFond studied 1,675 acts of violence that took place between June 1996 and May 2000. At the request of the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, he then analyzed the incidents in his study that led to a knockout. To make his discoveries easier to digest, we’re presenting his findings in a Q-and-A format.

—Jon Sattler

How often was someone knocked out by an open-hand martial arts blow?

Twice. A palm heel to the chin and a double palm to the chest. One other such blow was attempted (a knifehand to the throat), but it failed. Although 30 percent of KO situations involved a trained fighter (law-enforcement officer, boxer, wrestler, martial artist, kickboxer), the attempted use of open-hand blows was statistically insignificant.

What are the most effective one-strike-knockout methods?

  • 100-percent success with a sucker punch by a competition-level boxer, delivered to the jaw of an individual male who is usually taller and talking.
  • 98-percent success with a surprise come-from-behind strike executed with a heavy blunt weapon to the head of an intoxicated male.
  • 95-percent success with a poor-leverage throw effected by a larger male against a smaller member of an aggressive group or against an individual participant in a match fight.
  • 90-percent success with a punch thrown by an average-size athletic man against an unprepared member of a poorly organized aggressive group.
  • 90-percent success with a kick thrown by a competition-level kickboxer against an unprepared person.
  • 80-percent success with an elbow strike to the head or face executed by a male wrestler, boxer or kickboxer.
  • 75-percent success with an attack effected with a moving vehicle on a pedestrian.
  • Note that 73 percent is the typical rate of success for aggressors, with the vast majority of the incapacitations stemming from multiple strikes.

    What’s the most common method of avoiding a knockout?

    This study defines violence from the point at which it’s physically initiated by the deployment of a weapon, by the closing of the distance by an aggressor, or by a violent or controlling touch. From this perspective, a defender has little opportunity for avoidance (because that time has typically passed), and flight is a viable option in less than half of violent situations.

    In situations in which violence of an incapacitating nature is imminent (when facing a group, an extremely powerful man or an armed person), KOs are avoided by the following methods listed in order of increasing effectiveness:

  • minimal aggression (pushing, slapping, holding)
  • defensive techniques (blocking, ducking, etc.)
  • escape and flight
  • verbal dissuasion
  • serious grappling (throwing, wall slamming, floor fighting)
  • brandishing a weapon
  • toughness and poise (the ability to take it)
  • power striking
  • How do specific fighting arts rate?

  • 19 percent of karate stylists who hadn’t kickboxed knocked out their opponents in violent situations. This is identical to the worldwide kickboxing KO rate of 19 percent.
  • 20 percent of boxers knocked out their antagonists, compared to the 34-percent worldwide boxing KO rate. These fights were often urban street encounters that featured groups, weapons and indecisive resolutions.
  • 90 percent of boxers involved in drunken brawls knocked out their opponents, with 10 percent sustaining hand injuries. Not one of those boxers jabbed.
  • 36 percent of martial artists who had kickboxed knocked out their antagonists. These encounters reflect a wide variety of circumstances and correspond to the worldwide boxing KO rate. The side kick was the dominant KO strike.
  • 47 percent of identified noncombat athletes scored KOs in brawls and self-defense situations. They were primarily large throwers (football players) and small punchers (rugby, softball and soccer players) taking the fight to low-cohesion groups of smaller males.
  • How did the various weapons perform with respect to knockouts?

    The incapacitation rates were as follows:

  • Folding knife: 19%
  • Fixed-blade knife: 38%
  • Pencil: 13%
  • Pointed tool: 44%
  • Prison-made shank: 64%
  • Razor: 5%
  • Sword: 33%
  • Stick/baton: 37% (for law-enforcement officers), 20% (for escrimadors), 28% (for untrained persons), 27% (for groups)
  • Bat: 58%
  • Board/club: 70%
  • Pipe/bar: 36%
  • Sap/blackjack: 47%
  • Stone/brick/trophy: 56%
  • Blunt tool: 42%
  • Machinery/furniture: 42%
  • Everyday item (bottle, etc.): 20% (used by the defender), 7% (used by the aggressor)
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