5 Benefits of Free-Sparring That Kids Can’t Get Anywhere Else

Many parents come to SMAA because they want disciplined, focused, respectful and confident children with a strong sense of self-control…they usually don’t just want fighting skills, per se, mainly because parents don’t want their children to become more violent with martial arts training.

I agree 100%.

If children are taught only the physical martial arts skills without the inner character skills that should underlie them, kids can become more violent, what I call “muscle without morals.”

In some schools, teachers default to the martial-arts-skills-only type of training because it’s easier to teach physical skills than psychological skills, or because they are enamored of the cool, superficial martial arts moves at the expense of the valuable core skills that martial arts teaches better than anything else.

Which brings us to what is, potentially, the most violent aspect of martial arts training, Free-Sparring. Briefly, free-sparring is when students wear protective gear and face-off, trading offense and defense, as they learn to spontaneously apply their self-defense skills against a resisting opponent.

At first some parents may see the sparring element of training as un-necessary and overly-violent.  In my early days of teaching, one mother was so aghast at see free-sparring for the first time, she almost pulled her (eager-to-spar) son out of the school.

This view is understandable on the surface, but if you look further the kind of sparring our young students do, it is both necessary and leads to less violence.

Let’s look at some elements of free-sparring.

First, we do not let our children engage in Full-Contact Sparring; They are not trying to knock each other out when they spar.  You may have seen news broadcasts of children training for and fighting in cages, bloodying each other as happy parents look on and cheer them on.

This is not ancient Sparta (a truly dysfunctional society), and this is both un-necessary and overly violent.  That type of training is a decision reserved for adults.

There are better ways to teach children the main skills and benefits conferred by sparring without irresponsibly putting them in danger.

As I explained to the concerned mother above, free-sparring for our children is essentially a game of tag, with the protective gear worn in case of excessive contact, not so kids can hit each other even harder.  As I took her through the purpose of sparring and its benefits, she became a real fan of it.

 Here are the benefits of free-sparring for kids that I related to her: 

The People we call the Plains Indians of North America participated in a ritual called counting coup where they highest goal was to sneak up and touch, but not hurt, an enemy and escape unharmed.

No easy task.

This idea of counting coup is the core of the type of free-sparring our young students engage in.

5 Benefits of Free-Sparring That Kids Can’t Get Anywhere Else

 #1. Sparring Helps Children Deal With Impact Control. 

In sparring, children learn what it feels like to be hit, even if it’s just light contact.  Often for beginners it is the fear of being not only hurt, but also being touched, that must be mastered.  Students learn how to bounce back from being hit.

Our instructors are there to coach them and help them deal with being hit and how to overcome their fears.  Very quickly, the children grow accustomed to the contact which, practically, helps them deal with someone attacking them.

Children become more psychologically more resilient as a result because learning how to deal with physical hits carries over into learning how to deal with verbal and emotional hits like being picked on or called names. They will learn how to literally and figuratively roll with the punches to succeed.

#2. Sparring Increases Their Timing And Teaches Children How To Spontaneously Use Their Skills Against An Un-cooperative Opponent.

The dynamic, unpredictable nature of free-sparring allows children to spontaneously access and use their martial arts skills and to create their own responses to an attack. Students need to prove to themselves that they can use their training if they ever have to. Children need to know that they can rise to the occasion an stop aggressors and bullies.

Free-sparring builds tremendous SELF-CONFIDENCE, the kind that cannot be faked or gained by platitudes.

#3. Sparring Teaches Children Good Sportsmanship.

Children learn to spar as well as they can, to give it their all when in the ring.  Once the match is over, we teach them to congratulate each other and thank each other for helping them excel and rise to a new level of skill safely.

We teach children that they are not fighting against each other, but rather using each other’s skill to strengthen their own skill.

Iron sharpens iron.

The entire culture in our school teaches children to approach competition with honor and humility.

#4. Sparring Teaches Children How To Deal With Being Overwhelmed.

Under stress of any kind, children will collapse under the pressure if they are unprepared and inexperienced.

Free-sparring teaches children to remain calm and composed under overwhelming pressure. They learn to keep breathing and moving so they can carry on and prevail.

In multiple-opponent scenarios children learn to relax under the pressure of several forces at once, much like in social situations where several children gang up on them.

#5. Sparring Teaches Children Self-Control AND Sparring Teaches Children How to Stop Themselves If They Temporarily Lose Control When They Get Angry.

Before sparring children learn how to control their strikes so that they can either barely touch their partners or not touch them at all when they practice their self-defense moves.  Sparring takes this level of self-control to another level because now their partner is not only moving, but also trying to hit them back.  In sparring the children learn how

Aggression is natural, but if it is fostered and unchecked it can be destructive.  In sparring practice children learn to be aggressive when they need to be, only while the contest is on.

The key skill children learn in free- sparring is to discipline their aggression.  Children follow the rules and learn to “Stop!” when the teachers tell them to.

They are learning how to be aggressive and assertive, and then to turn it off; they are learning to rein themselves in, especially while their emotions are running high and their adrenaline is pumping.

Free-Sparring for kids is necessary and invaluable because children must be emotionally charged, then learn to regain control of themselves while they are excited.

When children are not emotionally charged, then they don’t need self-control, but when a child is amped up and wanting to keep punching and kicking his partner and then told to “break!”, he learns to back off and breathe.

Our students care about each other and when they spar, they know that it is a game — they do not want to hurt each other.  If you watch sparring you will see that when a child accidentally hits another student he/she is the first one there to make sure the other child is ok.  They know (and we reinforce) that it’s not ok to hurt another student in training, as opposed to other activities, like video games, that reward them for striking out.

Imagine a scenario where your child is at school, in the midst of a highly-charged argument with another student who is about to get physical.

As a school teacher intervenes and yells at the kids to break it up, your child instantly backs off and calms down due to his sparring training, while the other, belligerent child get sent to the principal’s office.

This level of self-awareness and self-regulation can’t be learned anywhere else.

SPAR WARS, our annual sparring tournament, is held every day, in class, until the end of our school year.  Winners will be announced on Friday December 19th at our Christmas Party, immediately following Belt Graduation.