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Progress in Sparring

Progress in Sparring

Ah, that old thing. It's an eternal question of the martial arts. How do we know when we're getting better at sparring? I mean we practice our kicks and stretches, we do our katas over and over again to exhaustion, but when we get together to spar each other, we never seem to change very much.

Or, maybe we do try to change some things, and we end up getting kicked in the head! Wait a minute here, we're not supposed to go backwards, we’re supposed to be getting better at this! It is feelings like this that lead to more frustration and contribute to the decline of our sparring health, and eventually our interest in martial arts training overall. A faulty perception of a lack of progress just saps our motivation and we stop coming to class as often or trying as hard.

So how do we stop ourselves from feeling that it just doesn't work?


We all have colleagues in class. No one trains in a vacuum, so odds are that you either began training with friends or made some friends while you were there. People progress at different rates according to their level of commitment and natural talent, so maybe you see someone who is constantly getting better and you just feel stuck, constantly feeling the same. Feel familiar?

Now an important question: What are you using to measure your own progress? Are you comparing yourself with the skills of your colleagues? Are you comparing yourself to your instructors? Are you afraid that if you're anything short of Bruce Lee reincarnated that you're just not good enough?

When training in martial arts, it's important to have reasonable expectations. Shooting for the moon can be counter-productive. Small achievable goals are your actual ladder of success. True progress takes time, often a lot of time, over a period of consistent effort. That's actually what the term kung fu means. Consistently applying a great amount of effort and achieving a remarkable result. Comparing yourself to those who have trained for years ahead of you is not the way to go. Use them instead for inspiration, role models to look to in order to keep you going through the hard times.

Also, even the closest of training partners have a dynamic relationship. It is constantly changing over time as the two of you move through the material and become transformed by it. Let's say you started taking class with a good friend. You have been training together for several months now and you are each very dedicated students. After all this time and technique, why can't you just pound them into dust in the sparring ring? The answer is very simple: they are improving all the time too!

Sparring in Lexington, KY

So you see, measuring your progress by your rate of success in the sparring ring against people who train alongside you will never be satisfactory. They will learn as you will learn and the rate of change between the two of you will never be that great. You will end up having more in common than apart, which will make it difficult to distinguish the better fighter.

To truly see your progression as a martial artist, you must change your perception. You need to view your own rate of change over time. Not against outside forces, not against other opponents, but only stacked up against yourself. How do you spar now when compared with 6 months ago? A year ago? How about 5 years ago? (If you were even training then)

How has your confidence changed since your first days of class? Do you feel stronger and more capable than when you first began? Do you have a wealth of knowledge that you can pull from in times of stress, a deep reservoir of martial material that you can call to mind at the appropriate moment? If you were to go into the sparring ring against a fresh beginner version of yourself, are you not more than equipped to meet this challenge with poise and confidence?

No matter how long you have been training, it is not the destination of goals that determines a student's progress. It is the process of transformation that matters. Are you a different, more confident and more energetic person now? Has your will become fortified by long training sessions, pushing your mind and body past their limits, and learning the depths of your own strength of character?

So, if you want to gauge yourself in the sparring ring and find out how much you've gotten better over time, here's what I suggest. Think back to some of your early classes, or early matches against fellow students and very honestly ask this question: Do you want to smack that guy/girl?

I mean yourself, of course. Were you dancing around, hands all over the place, no stances, no rooting, no strategy or counter-attacks, just flopping about like a fish and taking hits to the face every half second? I bet you were. I sure was when I started. I also bet that you're not now. Remember, it doesn't get easier, you just get better.

Before you know it, you're kicking people in the face.


Progress isn't always easy to see when you’re in the middle of it. Especially in such a changing environment as group education, where every student is in a different phase of their transformation. It's easy to get lost in the whole and lose sight of the individual. Your path may be parallel to those of your training partners, but it is separate and unique as well. Don't let someone else's quick advancement or seemingly natural talent cloud over your own distinct training progression.

Only you are responsible for the outcome of your martial arts training sessions. Not your teacher, not the weather, not your aching back muscles. You get out what you put in. Nowhere could that saying be more accurate than in kung fu. Hard work over time = progress. Sometimes it's in inches, sometimes in yards. But the size of the leap doesn't matter as long as the will to drive yourself along is consistent.

So go to class. Get beat up a little. Give back what you get. Push through the hard parts. Look back after a while and see how far you've come. Even a mile drawn an inch at a time is still a mile.

And try to have a little fun.

Michael Sandham has been training in the Shaolin-Do system for more than 14 years. He is a 4th Degree black belt in Kung Fu and a 3rd Degree black sash in Tai Chi. He began teaching regularly in 2004, and since then has helped many student achieve higher ranks and develop their skills, kids and adults alike. In 2014, he opened his first school, Shaolin Martial Arts in Lakeway, TX to teach Shaolin-Do to new students and continue changing lives.

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