One of the biggest debates between professional martial artists these days is whether or not schools should teach sparring and how much sparring should be emphasized.

In one corner are the martial artists who look at sparring as a detriment to their growth and school success and, therefore, have eliminated it or are thinking of doing so. In the other corner are the martial artists who can't imagine taking away from their school the functionality that sparring provides. We can bring them together using methodologies referred to as Retention-Based Sparring.


The first idea to understand is perhaps the most important: It's not that students don't like to spar; it's that they don't like the way it's being taught. If you address that real challenge, you can effectively create a solution to the discouragement and dropouts that sparring can cause.

I have found that schools that want to eliminate sparring lack two things: a fundamental context (the way it's presented) and content (a strategically designed set of drills and skills that will allow students to make progress).

In an effort to improve their program, many school owners watch videos and have sparring champions come in to teach techniques. The challenge is that to be "world class," one has to focus on his or her own skills and abilities as an instructor, not the abilities of the student. You end up with techniques that a very limited population can use appropriately and no context for improvement. This strategy falls short when it comes to retaining students and growing your active student count. That means money out with no profit coming back

in!Instead, invest the time it takes to create a cohesive program to correct the situation — one that makes sense and logically flows from one drill to the next, one week to the next week and one month to the next month. After this is instituted, it makes sense to bring in outside talent. Bringing in a high-level martial arts practitioner or fighting champion to refine specific skills in the new curriculum is then a worthy strategic investment.

There are martial arts programs that fully embrace sparring practiced in some schools around the country. But even though they produce a few skilled fighters, those schools have an overall low active student count. So they need a different prescription. The instructors in this camp need to explore the culture of their school and focus on context improvement.

If your focus is largely on your top student athletes, you may want to step back and evaluate how a beginner would feel starting your program. Questions to consider include: Does the way you teach allow the student to feel safe? Are the skills and drills chunked down enough so they can be easily understood and applied by the beginner? Do the drills and skills you teach allow for varied skills and abilities within the same class? Is it part of the culture that advanced students mentor, encourage and protect the learning environment of the beginners and intermediate students?

A well-designed sparring program can create a bond between students that's very special. It provides a level of variety and a platform that offers a higher level of challenge to your students. Feedback regarding effectiveness becomes virtually self-correcting.

Taught correctly, sparring should be as mentally stimulating as the focus required of a chess player who loses himself in the strategic moves of a chess match. Formatted correctly, sparring doesn't induce the stress that some students feel from having to memorize hundreds of moves.

Most important, sparring provides an opportunity for a student to face his or her fears, doubts and worries in a way that's safe and productive and that builds confidence that's useful off the mat. So go to work on improving your content and context, then enjoy the pride and rewards that come with having more students enjoy your classes — and then refer new members.

To contact Christopher Rappold, send an email to founder@personalbestkarate.com.

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