If you’re reading this, we’ll assume you’re already in month two of your training. You already know how things work, and you’ve started working on the basics for a while now. You’ve drilled the techniques a few times, and your body is beginning to get familiar with the movements.
Your coaches deemed you ready for your first sparring session. They see you can test your techniques in real time with an opponent.
You, on the other hand, are anxious. Self-doubt crept at the moment you found out. You’re having a bad case of impostor syndrome. And that’s OK.
Yes, you read that right. It’s normal for anyone going through the first sparring session to feel jitters. You’re jumping into unfamiliar waters, and there’s a chance (while very little if you’re in a good gym) for you to get hurt.
Do you feel like you need more time to be ready? Read this article, and hopefully, you’ll find clarity and inspiration. It’s all about the unwritten rules and proper etiquette to get you through your first sparring session.
Leave Your Ego In Your Closet
‘Leave your ego at the door’ is another phrase on gym walls and doors. But everyone should take it a step further. Leave your ego in your bedroom closet. It should never have a place outside those four walls’ confines.
Try watching another beginner sparring session the next time you’re in the gym. Observe how they move. There will be a noticeable lack of finesse and fluidity, but massive egos will be the other glaring thing you’ll notice.
One person gets struck by a clean jab. They rage and begin to throw haymakers like their life depended on it. The other person reacts and does the same thing. They engage in a low-stakes, high-intensity brawl as if a world title was on the line.
At the end of it all, what do you think they took home apart from ringing ears and a possible minor concussion?
Your ego will be your downfall. Don’t let it get the best of you. If you’re caught in an armlock in a jiu-jitsu class, tap out and live to train another day. ‘You win, or you learn’ is a mantra martial artists follow. Please do yourself a favor and embody it, as well.
Practice Being Playful
High-level sparring sessions are playful and methodical. What may appear as a violent exchange of punches and kicks is actually calculated chaos. You’ll likely see these two training partners smiling and laughing, and that’s because they’ve taken on a playful approach.
The ability to be playful indicates precision and control. You’re familiar with your weapons, and you’re wielding them safely. Your goal is to learn from each other, not to inflict unnecessary pain.
That then begs the question: how do you practice being playful? Number one, slow things down. Familiarize yourself with every move and how it works. Connect the puzzle pieces and allow yourself to see the bigger picture.
For boxing and kickboxing gyms, tit-for-tat drills are encouraged. One person performs the combination at 20% speed and power while the other defends accordingly. The action switches to allow the other individual to apply the techniques.
In submission grappling, it’s called flow rolling. Likewise, students move at a much slower, flowing pace to develop proper spatial awareness and movement. It allows you to see everything without the fog of war, so to speak.
Some people think that playful movements for sparring take the fun out of what should be a fast-paced activity. There is some truth to it, but you must learn to crawl before walking. That goes for anything in life.
Take Care of Your Sparring Partner
It’s called a sparring ‘partner’ for a reason. A partner isn’t an enemy, but incompatible married couples would argue against that.
Kidding aside, you and your sparring partner are in the same boat in training. They serve as your personal dummy that moves and reacts accordingly. You can’t get that kind of experience from a punching bag.
Yet, many beginners see their training partners as someone to conquer. It’s a common mistake during the first sparring session and a costly one at that. All you need is one round to create the impression of the person everyone tries to avoid.
No one wants to be the gym pariah. And once you’ve built that reputation, you’re better off looking for another place to train. Take care of your sparring partners. If anything, you should be thankful for them.
Be a Sponge
Was your first sparring session brutal? Well, you better get used to it. You will get beaten up for the first few weeks (or even months, for some people). If you’re practicing submission grappling or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, prepare to tap out at least ten times during each training session. And yes, it will burn through your ego and self-esteem.
But the last thing you want to do is to let these beatings pull you down. Instead, take everything in. Learn from your mistakes. Take notes if you have to. Especially if you’re sparring in boxing, where you are likely to absorb punches to the head, you would want to avoid repeating mistakes. Collecting concussions day in and day out will never be a good idea.
When you walk into a jiu-jitsu gym, you’ll likely see a sign that says, ‘A black belt is a white belt that never quits.’ You’re a white belt, and learning should be your only priority. And if you keep showing up, you will eventually get to the top of that mountain.
This is another post-sparring tip. As mentioned in the intro, your very first sparring session will arguably be decent at best and disastrous at worst. After you’ve taken everything in, as we’ve advised, ask questions.
Know where you went wrong and which areas you need to improve on. Were you leaving your chin too open for uppercuts and hooks? Did you forget to fall to the mat properly after you were taken down in wrestling class? Were you exposing your back too much and leaving yourself open for a rear-naked choke?
If you want to take things further, take a video of your first sparring session. Get a third-person view of your performance. It will be unpleasant and cringe-worthy but it will be for the best.
Most importantly, value EVERYONE’s input. Anyone who’s spent a good enough time in the ring or on the mats will have something valuable to contribute, regardless of their skill level or the amount of experience under their belt. Your fellow white belt can teach you a little something, so don’t hesitate to ask them questions.
Don’t Be Afraid of Your First Sparring Session
Sparring should never be scary. It should instead be an enjoyable way of applying what you’ve learned. If these sessions strike fear in you, you’re likely in the wrong gym.
A good training facility will make you want to jump into those deeper waters. And as time goes by, sparring should be something you’d look forward to.