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What is the best way to deal with unteams like sparring partners?

I'm an intermediate Muay Thai in class.

Everytime, beginners and intermediate pair up with a certain 'advanced' fighter in class for light sparring, the guy has somewhat unsportsmanlike conduct, since he is better. He'll put both his hands down, take punches laugh, hardly do anything, do a quick combo, and then step back. Hard to explain, but he smirks, smiles, and does very nonchalant behavior. Its not just me, but others in class that complain.

To be fair, I'm appreciate of most advanced fighters in the class, they respect the sparring partner, work with them, give advice, even they though they can beat their opponent. I try to be respectful with others in return, there was a 60 year old woman who stepped into class, and I helped her in padwork and did light sparring.

My options are

  1. continue working with the bad sparring partner, I feel like allowing a person to disrespect you, breaks the first rule of any martial arts or life,

  2. punch the guy sort of hard, but that's bad since he's more advanced, and it just provokes more behavior

  3. third option, is just walk out and ignore him, or take a drink refresher, during that 3 min sparring round. My coach ask me why I left. I said I took a drink, and he looked at me funny.

  4. Last is tell teacher what's going on , but I don't feel like taddle taling, not my thing, but maybe one day I should

I Prefer third option. Anyways, open to more options, feedback, or suggestions how to deal with this.

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  • If you seriously believe the guy is breaking the rules, what stops you from telling the teacher? Feb 24, 2023 at 21:17

4 Answers 4

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+100

An opponent of this demeanour can be viewed as a curse or a blessing.

As you've probably figured out by now, the development of mental strength represents one of the greatest demands of martial arts, and one of its greatest benefits.

Regardless of whether you like your sparring partner or not, the opportunity to spar with someone who is better than you is often an opportunity to learn. Even if this person is less interested in teaching you than in simply dominating you and being cocky and rude, ask yourself:

How can I benefit from this situation? How can I use this situation to become a better fighter?

If a person can get 'inside your head', it's nothing to be ashamed of. It's a proven technique that many fighters - perhaps most famously Muhammad Ali - have used to overwhelm some of the toughest athletes the fight game has produced.

Think of it as any other technique; as an attack you need to become conditioned to; to become able to defend. Just as you can learn to process pain, and to respond to physical assault, so you can learn to toughen your mind; to become mentally resilient.

Next time you encounter this person, do so less with a sense of dread than with a resolve that you won't let his bravado put you off. Remind yourself that it is merely another form of attack you need to learn to offset.

It's not an easy task. I'm not suggesting this should come naturally to you and that you can transform this situation over the course of one three minute round. Don't try to. You have identified a weakness in your arsenal and this is a great thing, because now you can learn to address it, session by session, in the same way that you would hone your other defences, like parries and checks and catches.

If you have a quick wit, you might try talking back, but if this is not your forte, you will likely just be playing into his hands.

Focus on your breathing, and on keeping your emotions in check. Don't let his barbs draw you in; to dictate the flow of the fight. Try to regain the initiative. Try strategy and tactics. Think about his strengths before your next session and research ways of countering them. Speak to other good fighters. What would they do? If he's way out of your league, so be it.

Try attacking when he's in the middle of talking at you, as it is harder for someone to cognitively balance the act of speech with the act of precise and rapid physical movement.

Set yourself attainable goals. If it's primarily the mental game that's putting you off, then that is where you need to direct your efforts. Aim to complete a session more calmly than you have in the past; focus less on his words and eyes than on his torso (and peripherally his limbs). Until your mind is calm, you will likely be unable to fight at anywhere near your capacity. Concentrate on making it through the round with composure, poise, resilience and above all, determination. Congratulate yourself on any small successes you experience in this regard, because they are vital to your growth as a fighter and because you can draw upon them during your next encounter.

Also, remind yourself that your situation also has real-world relevance. The mouthy sparring partner sometimes has a lot in common with the drunken thug who likes to start fights in public. The mental gains you make in the gym can translate very well to actual conflict.

He may be a better fighter than you. So what? There's probably hundreds of thousands or even millions of fighters better than you. Most of us are in a similar situation. Give yourself time and come to see him as a resource; as a unique training opportunity that no-one else in the gym is providing you.

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I'd look at this a slightly different way, why is this martial artist sparring you (and others) this way?

As an experienced fighter, I often spar lower grades with my hands down - it allows me to move my feet quicker - and they often won't hurt me if I get my movement wrong. Lifting my hands looks "more aggressive" - people will automatically back off if I do this, especially if they believe they are overmatched. While I don't often say it explicitly - I want the beginners to attack me, throw everything they have got - if they hurt me then it's my fault as I am the senior grade and have the experience to protect myself, I could just have lifted my guard and shut the attacks down.

You may find that this person is trying to work on their defence, movement and conditioning. The more of a challenge you present to this person the more they will have to work, their hands will come up and they will get quieter. This does not mean hit harder - someone will get hurt that way - but faster attacks, different combinations, varied targets.

As a note on the laughing or smirking from this fighter - I often set myself a challenge in sparring in class, landing a particular attack, lead with my weaker leg, no punching etc. focusing on these can lead me to get caught with things or walk onto techniques (that in a pure spar I would avoid). My normal reaction is to laugh, I have just done something silly and been punished for it, in this instance its actually that my opponent did something good!

I'd advocate for trying to talk to them, they probably don't realise they are upsetting people (or at least to the level they are), if they are a good sparrer then I wouldn't throw that relationship away if I could avoid it - talented sparrers are a fantastic resource for your own development!

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    I appreciate it, yeah, he would just put both his hands down, and wouldnt give tips, no proper orthodox stance. The other advanced fighters in gym, would least block, leg check, parry, make peers work for combos, and we respect that.
    – mattsmith5
    Feb 22, 2023 at 17:58
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My experience in a different martial art: this is just a fact of life. You will always meet less savoury people on the mat. The idea that martial artist are just special people which are better than outside of the dojo is just wrong, patently so.

Also, my experience is that it is neigh impossible to change them. It simply cannot be done for 99% of the cases. They may have a reason to behave like that (i.e., to confront you with confusion or frustration and make it possible for you to learn applying your art even if your feelings are boiling), or they may just be unsportsmanlike out of their base nature. In neither case will you be argue them out of it; and if you "punch them real hard", they will very likely also react in ways you are not intending.

What you can do though - and albeit not being easy either, at least possible - is change yourself. Let their afronts pass you buy; develop a casual disinterest in their shenanigans. Be larger than them. Stay professional and honorful. If there are onlookers they will see who is the fool and who is not.

This was one of the biggest learnings I took from my martial arts training - to become more relaxed in these situations, to watch and accept my emotions, to still control my outward behaviour and so on and forth. This may sound cheesy, but find some hero from some martial arts movie you like who is always cool and composed; and think of them in this situation. Act like there's a camera pointed at you and you are just shooting a movie. Be heroic.

A wholly different issue for you would be: can you do their drill with them? It is one thing for them to upset your emotional balance, but another thing altogether if they refuse to practice with you. If they still let you perform your part of the drill, then that's great. If they make it too hard for you, calmly ask them to make it easier since you're still a beginner. If they adapt, great.

If they do not cooperate in this way at all, and you feel that you are not actually learning what sensei is trying to teach you, ask your teacher over and ask them what you need to do better to be able to perform your technique, whatever it is you are training this evening. Don't even mention with a single word that they are refusing to cooperate, but ask your teacher what you are supposed to be doing. Ask them to watch you fight a bit, and ask them what you are doing wrong.

Best case scenario, you get the information about how to handle your partner. Maybe they'll tell your partner to do something else. Even if your partner simply plays along when watched by the teacher, you can at least take these few seconds of your drills as learning.

(All of this assumes that you are indeed doing cooperative, light sparring; and that there are not really awful issues going on - i.e. they are not actually threatening you in a real-life fashion, and they are not actually bullying you.)

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It's possible that I am misinterpreting the situation, but nothing you've posted suggests this person is being disrespectful or unprofessional, rather they are being relaxed. You consider this a stressful situation and your opponent, with much more experience, does not.

I've trained in martial arts for over ten years, primarily in variants of Tae Kwon Do that usually included grappling elements, but also a lot of striking. Due to moving around the country for work and school, I've trained in 5 or 6 different schools.

Some places spar a lot, some spar hardly at all. Over the years, I've encountered a lot of different styles.

At the first school (white to 1st dan) I trained at, the sensei was well over 6'3" tall and most of that was legs. He would almost always spar hands down, which seemed to be a blessing because he'd always have the kicking advantage. He wouldn't say anything, but from experience, I knew he was both trying to draw me in because he could land a very fast back kick; in the same regard he was teaching me how to avoid getting drawn in.

The second school (white to brown) I trained at, the sensei kept hands up most all of the time and provided a lot of commentary. Some of it was just to distract me, some of it was to provide critique, some of it was just for fun (because really how was my day).

The third school (white to green) I trained at, we would talk all the time. I'd critique right back at my instructor (granted at this point in time, I probably had an equal amount of experience).

Over the years and various schools, I developed my own sparring stance. I often drop my hands, to preserve my energy. I often will take punches that aren't going to hurt me (i.e. hits to my arms), because I don't need to worry about that. I often will hold back against lower belts because there is no point to me unloading an extended combo on them, it would only unnecessarily intimidate them or possibly hurt them (though, I may do a quick combo without intent to hit hard on a lower belt when they've left themselves overly exposed as a reminder to not get lazy).

Overall, the person you're fighting sounds similar to me. Someone with a lot of experience, who isn't stressed by the situation, and that's developed their own style. They are teaching you something, but they're doing it non-verbally.

My best advice to you is you need to attack and experience how fast a back kick can come out and how to react to that. You need to learn how to move and control space. You need to learn which hits you can take and which you have to parry or block. You need to learn how to conserve your energy. And you need to take a deep breath and really think about the answer to the question of, 'how was your day?'.

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    I really didn't want to get into detail, or comments about what other shenigans this person is doing in the gym, but lets just say its a problem well known among many other teammates when sparring, I'll leave it that, don't want to be too negative, thanks anyway
    – mattsmith5
    Feb 23, 2023 at 5:57

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