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I've been studying Shaolin Kempo for a while now. In the dojo, we train a wide variety of hand-based strikes: various punches, shuto strikes (aka "karate chops"), hammer fist, tiger claw, grabs, palm strikes, etc, as well as an assortment of kicks.

I recently advanced far enough to begin going to sparring as well, which is held as a separate class for (the advanced subset of) the same students at the same dojo. For sparring class, we're issued an assortment of protective gear we're expected to wear... including gloves. They're not as big and bulky as what you see boxers wearing on TV, but they're basically boxing gloves' little brothers: red, padded leather mittens permanently curled into fist shapes.

As near as I can tell, all boxing gloves are good for is punching. This severely restricts what I'm able to do with my hands, rendering the majority of the hand-strike training I've had completely useless in sparring. Everyone in sparring class even stands in a boxing stance (both fists up near the head) which is quite different from the Kempo fighting stance we train during the normal lessons.

We're told that sparring is supposed to help us develop further in our training by giving us an experience of using our skills in conditions approximating a real fight. But the gloves turn the experience into something that feels more like kickboxing, and impose a limitation that definitely would not be present in a real-life self-defense situation.

What could I do to benefit from sparring class under these conditions?

  • What style is this? Is it WSKO Shorinji Kempo? or something else? – Huw Evans Feb 12 at 12:42
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I think I understand what you're trying to communicate. Let me see if I can clarify for you, and hopefully I'm right.

This is actually a more general issue that people have. This isn't limited to Chinese Kempo. Most forms of karate and kung-fu have the same issue.

Just to summarize, you're learning a style of kempo that involves a combination of karate and shaolin kung-fu techniques. And now you've started sparring. But you were surprised and maybe dismayed to discover that the sparring doesn't really look anything like what you learned so far in your kata (forms) and drills classes. What gives?!

I gave a good foundation in one of my other answers. Please read that link before continuing. That discusses the difference between sparring and traditional karate / kung-fu forms.

The forms and self-defense drills you do in class have a completely different purpose in mind than the sparring you do. Different purposes means they can look completely different.

In sparring, you're free to move around. Nobody is holding on to one another. So there's no grappling involved.

In katas (forms) and self-defense drills, the purpose is to deal with self-defense situations. These situations might involve attackers grabbing you or using a weapon against you. It's not the same situation as sparring. And so the techniques will look different.

You may also have drills that are actually for sparring. These sparring drills should directly apply to a sparring situation.

But in your case, you've seen that the drills you do in class look very different than the sparring you do. So that says that the drills you're doing are probably for self-defense, rather than for sparring.

What should sparring look like?

The answer to that question lies in understanding the rules of the sport. The rules determine everything. And your style itself (Shaolin Kempo) might not be for sport. That's fine. But there are always rules. The rules in your case might be there just to prevent injuries. And another thing to keep in mind is that the rules can change to become more permissive as you progress through to more advanced levels, for example allowing punches to the face or allowing foot sweeps only after you get to black belt level in some martial arts.

If the rules say you can't punch to the face, you're going to practice mostly kicks, and it might look like Taekwondo. Your hands will be low and might even be left dangling at your sides. Your stances will be long and side-facing. The side-facing stance means you take your target areas away from the direct line of fire.

If the rules say you can take down your opponent, you're going to use a bent-forward stance that's wider than a shoulder's width apart, like Brazilian Jiujitsu or MMA. You won't use a side-facing stance in this case, because that would just make it easier to take you down.

If the rules say you can only punch, your stance will be upright and should stand about a shoulder's width apart, like western boxing. Your hands will be kept on guard at your head level, too.

The rules determine everything. Stances and techniques evolve to fit the rules.

In your case, you're seeing a western boxing or kick-boxing style for free-sparring. Hands are kept high to guard the face. That's a good thing, in my opinion. That says their rules allow strikes to the head, the body, and maybe the legs. They're using their hands and feet. They may not care about grappling, at least at this stage in your training, because the stance isn't wider and isn't bent-forward slightly.

If you're ever curious about why something is done the way it is, ask your instructors. Chances are, they themselves asked the same question and have a pretty good answer.

If you think they're wrong, the best thing to do is try sparring a different way in your school and see what happens to you. After each time you lose, ask yourself why you lost. Be honest with yourself. Win or lose, bring it up with your instructors and tell them what you did and what happened. See what they think.

Of course you can also ask why your sparring doesn't allow you to perform the self-defense drills you learned, or anything other than punch/kick/block kinds of things. For example, one of your drills might be to throw someone to the ground and stomp on their head. The problem is your sparring class has rules that don't permit you to grab and throw someone.

You might be wondering if something isn't allowed, then how do you get good at it? When you're in a real-life situation where you have to use that technique, will you be able to?

The answer is: You're right. Pressure testing is absolutely a requirement for being able to successfully apply what you've learned in class to self-defense. And the best way to pressure test something is, generally, against a live, non-compliant partner, such as during sparring.

So why doesn't your school permit these techniques in sparring? And are there other ways of making sure the drills you learn are pressure tested enough to give you confidence that you can use them for real? You'll have to ask your instructor that question.

Hope that helps.

  • You're putting far more emphasis on kata and forms than what we're learning in the dojo. Some of the time is spent practicing forms, but the bulk of it is devoted to smaller, more individual techniques. How to defend against punches, kicks, grabs of various kinds, how to turn the tables if you end up on the ground with an opponent on top of you, how to respond to someone swinging at you with a club, etc. The training has a lot of "traditional" elements, but it's also very heavy on the practical aspects: this is what you do if someone is trying to hurt you, this is how to make them stop. – Mason Wheeler Jan 25 at 20:23
  • @MasonWheeler I just edited my answer to fit your emphasis on drills and away from forms. See if it's any better for you. Thanks! – Steve Weigand Jan 25 at 22:13
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While I feel Steve and Tony have some good advice in how the general rules of sparring or fights will determine what techniques you will encounter, I was asked to expand a bit on my comment above.

Even if the techniques are very different, training to spar with the gloves will allow you to practice hitting and being hit. Most schools, at least here in the United States, tend to practice with light contact or even no contact. If you're lucky, they have you at least practicing your strikes against pads and heavy bags, but often it's against air. It's hard to blame them for it, frankly, because insurance is expensive, but it removes an important part of the fight. Basically, as humans, we're hardwired with certain instincts in a fight. When you get hit, which you almost inevitably will be even if only because someone might not inform you you're in a fight until they've sucker-punched you, your reaction is likely to be either to freeze up, or to strike blindly.

You may have already experienced this in class before, a case where someone didn't do a technique the way you expected, did it faster than expected, caught you when you were surprised, or just plain decided they wanted to hit you. The odds are that, unless it was a really glancing blow, you found yourself again, either freezing up (and possibly angrily protesting they're "not doing it right", which they probably weren't), or you react by breaking technique and swinging blindly at them (generally if it made you more angry than startled). Even if you're modifying your technique, learning to take hits in a relatively safe manner (some padding to cushion the blow and prevent cutting the skin) teaches you to react in a more measured manner.

Aside from learning to cope with getting hit, it's also important to train actually hitting the other person. An opponent will be moving, often in very unexpected ways, so the sparring will help teach you to use proper technique to avoid sprained wrists or broken fingers. It will also just plain get you use to reflexively striking with full force in an actual threatening situation. It may sound silly, but if you always train pulling the punch, the odds are pretty decent you'll pull it in a fight when you're operating on reflex (especially if you have already gotten hit one or more times in a fight).

That said, the choice of gloves can definitely influence the fighting. Boxing, and kick-boxing, gloves were not designed to protect the other person. They were designed in part to protect the hands of the fighter (the padding helps spread out the force of striking the hard and sharp surface of the face and head) and in part to prevent grappling and eye-gouging. As a result, they will not necessarily mesh with your particular style. There are gloves built to allow grappling (often informally called "MMA gloves") and just taping your fists will do a lot to prevent you accidentally breaking your hands in the fight. However, this may mean more injuries, something which may be contraindicated by insurance concerns or a need to avoid injuries (for example, my primary job is as a computer programmer with my hobby being theatre. I'm not planning to do full-contact sparring work any time in the near future because I really need my brain in top shape for my job, and I can't afford to sustain too much cosmetic damage when I might need to do a show the following weekend).

So, ultimately, I'd suggest considering this sparring as a supplement to your traditional martial arts training, something useful for if you wind up in a fight, for the conditioning if nothing else, but that it is training something different from your traditional style, and will not quite be the same thing. I wish I had time to look up the exact video, but Ramsey Dewey has some good videos about the pitfalls of trying to use traditional martial arts in a fight and how to cover those holes. He's someone who has trained in a variety of traditional styles (and has great respect for some of the fighters in those styles), and currently works as an MMA coach. It basically boils down to that to be able to fight with your style, you need to train fighting itself, which includes learning how to handle hitting and getting hit, and to constantly test your techniques against resisting opponents, preferably one who don't know what you're doing and will therefore react honestly rather than falling into how they "know" the technique should work.

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    Superb answer. Thank you for taking the time to write it. – Sardathrion Jan 28 at 12:49
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...feels more like kickboxing...

Yeah, that's a common issue with full-contact practice of striking arts. Basically, the protective gear is needed if head strikes are allowed; kyokushin is an example of an art practiced (at higher competition levels) without the protective gear, but then it's wildly unrealistic for self defence because hand/elbow strikes to the head are banned. You can't win either way.

My advice is just make the most of it. Keep your sparring as true to your other training as you can, and if you find yourself having to make compromises like "stand in a boxing stance (both fists up near the head)" you can ask yourself why you're having to do that and whether it's:

  1. indicative of a flaw in your system,

  2. a side effect of the gloves,

  3. a side effect of the number of interactions / probabilities, or

  4. a result of consideration for your training partner in friendly-ish intra-dojo sparring.

For 2. - as well as limiting the techniques you can use, they dilute force applied and don't forget they can be used defensively to obstruct and pad incoming impacts.

For 3. - in a real fight you'd hopefully drop any significantly less skilled opponent with a few techniques and then get a chance to relax a bit physically, while in sparring it can be pretty relentless for tens of minutes at a time, even if you're "dominating" but being considerate enough of your training partner (4.) not to leave them less able to continue to spar. You can find situations where e.g. you pull or slow down a punch that you know could have dropped your training partner but does leave you out of position, then they immediately whack you around the head; it's annoying and unrealistic on their part and you might hit them harder next time, but it's just practical to cover up more in future - you might try to use your style's defensive techniques, or just cover up boxing style because it's easier and sufficient in the circumstances.

Whatever the reasons you have to adapt, recognise them but don't get too worked up. If you think the sparring could be done in a way truer to your style, ask around about it or practice/experiment a bit with a like-minded peer; if you're an instructor one day you can try to incorporate changes in the way your students spar.

For now, just think about what you're seeing in the sparring classes, try to understand the reasons, and get what you can out of it. It's probably much better than not sparring, and the compromises may already be practical. If necessary, try to get some other practice/exercises to develop the skills that you can't practice with the gloves on, e.g. some non-contact sparring, or pulled strikes with resistive grappling.

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Sparring is designed to train you to learn to see oncoming attacks, and to develop reflexes to respond to those attacks. Ideally, those responses include performing the techniques you learned in class. It also helps you overcome your natural fear of physical confrontation, especially if you are a smaller person.

That's why sparring is better training for real-world competition, self-defense, and combat situations than simply training in the techniques with a partner, or against a bag, or even against empty air. Sparring is the closest you get to realistically applying the techniques you learn in class. Any martial art that does not include some form of sparring in its regime cannot claim to prepare you to use its techniques in real-world situations.

That being said, not all sparring fits the techniques you are learning, like you said. I would say that you should try to at least hone your ability to see and sense oncoming attacks, even if you cannot hone your reflexive responses within the limitations of the sparring environment.

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