Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The dangers of point sparring

While valuable, point sparring has some limitations, and if overdone, can have serious consequences when it comes to real self defense.

Point based sparring can be a great workout.  You can improve your timing and experiment with angles and distance.  It can also improve your ability to identify your opponent’s ‘tells’.  That’s all great.

Overuse, however, can ingrain dangerous habits.  For one, point sparring has a set of rules for what you can and can’t do.  In the real world, excluding certain targets is dangerous.  You’ve got to use whatever is available at the time.  Even more serious is the very nature of point sparring.  You train yourself to stop when you land a point.  You fight as you train.  The last thing you want in a real violence situation is to strike and then stop, waiting for a ref to restart the match.

Point based sparring doesn’t allow more than the strikes or kicks.  Grabbing your opponent is not allowed.  For Jiu Jitsu and other similar styles, this is counter intuitive as they are typically hands on, in-close fighting styles.  While there are strikes and kicks, they are often used in order to close the gap and then apply the more intrinsic elements, such as balance breaking, throws, joint locks, chokes etc.

Most real fights do not stay in the fighting range of point based sparring.  The back and forth just doesn’t happen very much.  Most combatants ending up in close range, whether it goes to the ground or not.

You’ll also find most people who point spar hold their hands in a position that may not be optimal for street defense.  Most people I’ve seen keep their hands fairly low, as they are trying to cover the most ‘real estate’ that they can that is considered a ‘legal’ target in point sparring.

I am of the opinion that in a real violent encounter, holding your hands higher is a better idea.  While I know body shots can be debilitating, I’m more concerned about being knocked unconscious on the street, and the knock out button resides on our chins/jaws.  In a real violent encounter, you’d be better to take a body shot when you are moving in than to take a head shot. 

And since you aren’t bobbing back and forth, you are unlikely to receive multiple blows to the body.

Point sparring has a bunch of positive elements, but should be used judiciously.  Sadly, in some martial arts schools, this is the closest thing that students get to dynamic training.  An expert in point sparring may be unpleasantly surprised in a real attack. 

The message to take away is to know the strengths and weaknesses of any form of training.  Point based sparring needs to be balanced against more realistic forms of training, including continuous type sparring which starts at a range, but continues to a conclusion, such as moving in, a throw or take down, and a finish.  Dynamic randori with multiple opponents is also a valuable training tool.  There are other methods as well, stress induced training, the ‘red-man’ suit and such.  Each method has its good and its bad points.  Just make sure that you’re not fooled into thinking that, on its own, point based sparring is an effective method of learning true self defense. 

Food for thought.

Train well. 


  1. Well put, Journeyman. One of the best pieces of advice was protect the head. With all of the conditioning we do as martial artists, taking a strike to the torso will hurt, but it shouldn't end the encounter. The head, however, can't really be conditioned.

  2. We are obviously of the same view, as expressed in my series of blogs concerning the potential 'insidious' effects of training methods. We need to understand the strengths and weaknesses, the limitations, of training methods - an understanding which is singularly abscent in the martial arts.

  3. I absolutely agree with everything you say about point sparring, it really is just a sport and requires a completely different skill set to that needed for real self-defence.

    I think that once you accept that point sparring is a separate thing to self-defence you can learn to compartmentalise the different skill sets so that they don't get confused. After all we don't confuse the skill sets we need to drive a car or play football with the ones we need do self-defence.

    You may want to argue that point sparring and karate as self defence are too similar to separate out the skill sets but I would beg to differ. We need to learn the skill of anticipation for such diverse activities as driving, playing a team sport, point sparring and self-defence yet we don't mix up our responses to that anticipated event by punching the windscreen or trying to slam on the break pedal during a football game. It's as if our brains know which skill set to use during a particular activity.

    I agree that point sparring is no good for self-defence but at the same time, as long as one realises that they have to compartmentalise the skill sets, I think it is perfectly possible to be good at point sparring and be effective in self-defence.

  4. Yamabushi,

    You're right, you can't condition the head (trust me, I've taken enough hits to attest...) I've tried to weigh the pros and cons of hand position objectively, and even though in some activities (such as point sparring), I get criticized, I just can't bring myself to reprogram myself to drop them. If I do, I have to shut off that part of my brain that thinks about real fighting.


    It's really about gaining enough experience to be able to look at situations for varying perspectives and to make your conclusions from there. This can be a tough road for those that may not have been exposed to much, if any, real violence.


    I agree that we can compartmentalize some different skill sets. I also believe that point sparring can benefit you in real self defense. How can timing, angles, breathing and balance hinder you?

    My concern is more of the overuse, or the lack of understanding about the limitations of point sparring. Do too much, and you may not be able to keep it separate from your 'real' training. I give the following as an example. A group of police officers were training in gun disarms. The disarm was fairly simple. The drill was to do disarm over and over again. Then the partners would switch roles. They they would use a different partner until everyone had done it hundreds of times to ingrain the skill.

    One of the officers (bless him for his honesty), had a gun pointed at him on the street. His training kicked in and he did the disarm. Then he started to hand the gun back to the bad guy. Luckily he caught himself in time and retained the weapon. (Turns out it was a replica, but he didn't know that at the time). He had drilled returning the weapon into his brain.

    This is why I say that you'll fight as you train. This is my concern over doing too much point sparring.

    Your point about not slamming on a break pedal in a football game or punching the windscreen are sound, and I agree, but my caution is that the activities are very different, where as real fighting and point sparring have a lot of similarities, after all, it's fighting or play fighting, only the stakes are radically different.

    I concede that some people can be good at point sparring and be effective in self defense, but too often, I find the lines are blurred.

    Good discussion. Thanks.

  5. I agree we will train as we fight - the story about the guy handing back the gun to his attacker is a lesson in the need to train in zanshin (continued awareness) with all techniques. The other thing we shouldn't do is help our partner up after we've thrown them - we might just help them up after an attack!

  6. Sue,

    You're right on the money. You inspired my next post.