One of the most challenging things to deal with in sparring is the mental or emotional intensity of a very forward motivated opponent, someone who throws powerful blows, or someone who comes very ferociously.
Commonly people respond in one of two ways:
- Freeze or pull away, failing to make a cover.
- Making a single simple cover or counter-attack into the direct line.
This then tends to result in two common outcomes:
- You get hit.
- A collision where both you and your opponent throw powerful blows into the same line, come to a bind, often very close, then chaos ensues.
Purely technical training is not going to prepare you to respond more intelligently to this situation. Here is the basic framework of a program that will help you to build the mental presence to deal with this type of environment.
Train Against the Specific Action
Freezing often occurs when you encounter an action you do not have a good response for. This freeze can often be increased if you have been hit by that action before (a type of panic based on your prior knowledge of the outcome: “Uh oh, I know what happens next!”)
In training, isolate the specific action and design a good response for it. For example: powerful blows with big wind-ups are often well countered by thrusts that cover the descending line, made when the opponent begins to wind up.
Start by training your counter slowly but with proper timing. Gradually increase the speed of your training until you are working at a maximum combat intensity (be sure to wear appropriate protective gear for your intensity level and weapons).
Tactically Integrate the Action
Create a drill that alternates randomly between the target action and another action. In this way you’re having to recognize the specific cue of the target action and keep your cool while successfully executing your counter. As before, start slow and gradually build in speed and intensity.
Gradually add complexity by adding more options for your partner to test you with. Ensure that you focus on the target action a little more than others.
Use Directed & Scaling Speed Sparring
Bring the technique a step closer to combat by having your partner spar with you while specifically making the target action more often than others. This type of directed sparring can allow you to work closer to the chaos of combat while still making meaningful progress in a specific area. As before, start slow and build up in intensity.
Manage the Intensity
When you’re working in an area that might be psychologically challenging, it is important to work always in a place that is challenging but manageable. If you throw yourself off the deep end you’re likely to increase your fear of a given action. So as you scale up in intensity or complexity, if it’s too much, scale back down in order to marshal your emotions and get the most from your training.
Work One Technique At a Time
Keep an eye out for types of techniques and types of opponents that challenge you through their intensity. Then work with a partner to simulate that opponent and that technique. Target a single action at a time and gradually build your repertoire. Be aware that when you counter one technique there may be another that quickly follows it. You’ll then need to begin training against that… So be patient—it takes time to build your technical portfolio.
Remember to Have Fun
Don’t get overly focused on fighting your demons. It’s great to make progress in this area but give yourself some time to play with the things you’re good at or pursue the skills that give you easy joy. Passion requires both defeating your blocks and feeding the fire to keep growing.
Good training everyone!