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How do I find the balance between being a jerk (i.e., one who is hitting too hard) and being someone who is doing a disservice to female sparring partners (i.e., one who avoids hitting and mostly just defends and evades)?

What is an acceptable level of intensity when sparring with female partners? How hard should one hit? Which strikes should be reduced in power, and which strikes should be thrown like one would against a male partner?


This should be a no-brainer: Be respectful and courteous. Be gentle, and always pull back your strikes.

However, sometimes the situation can be a little difficult to navigate.

Sparring:

In my gym, when we spar during our class, we change partners every round. So, one almost never fights the same person twice in a row.

When I am sparring with a female partner, I often spend first half of the round (~ 1 min 30 sec) just blocking, parrying, pushing, and evading strikes. Two reasons.

  • First, I need a few seconds to adjust and change my style of fighting. When I am sparring with men, we are often testing our endurance and strength (everything goes - hooks, uppercuts, hard knees to the body, hard leg kicks, etc.). And of course, sometimes when I am sparring with a guy at the same level, the ego thing comes in (which is bad, I know, but it happens) and all strikes get harder and meaner. And so, when I spar with women, I want to take a few seconds to change my style and be more technical in my sparring (keep it playful, no knees, no body shots, no hard strikes to the face/head).

  • Second, I want to give them some time to get into their rhythm and to get their offense going. I also want them to have some fun throwing their combos. I want them to get comfortable and know that I won't do something crazy.

I almost never throw proper punches to their face/head (I just lightly tap on their forehead). Even a punch at 40% power from someone who weighs more than them can be painful. I happily throw leg kicks though, and I clinch and trip them (which is much safer than hitting them with punches). When I throw roundhouse kicks to the head or the body, I absolutely use no power (I just gently touch or push them with my leg/feet). I never use teeps (front kicks) when sparring with a female partner (I remember reading somewhere that repeated hits on the stomach can permanently damage organs/parts necessary for giving birth).

Here is the problem:

On a few occasions, I have been told "You can hit me, it's okay." This made me realize that at times, I have done a disservice to them by not bringing in the right intensity. Half of the round, I have really not given them much to defend or worry about. I haven't done the right thing as a training/sparring partner. I would never want anyone to go easy one me. Ideally, this is what I would want: if I spar at 50%, then my male opponent too should spar at their 50% (even if their 50% is much stronger than mine). I think I am not really helping my female partners by going light on them; I might be giving them a false sense of what to expect. Out there on the streets, the men will not care about going easy on them, they will be vicious.

How do I find the balance between being a jerk and being someone who is doing a disservice to them? I need to make sure I don't treat them like children, and that I do right by them and don't waste their time.


Edit/Clarification:

Allow me to clarify a few things.

  • I hold back fully on certain strikes (mostly power punches [= body shots, uppercuts, right hands], teeps, and knees). I throw the roundhouse to the head and the body very, very gently.

  • I throw other strikes, such as the inside and outside leg kicks, with some good power behind them. If I throw leg kicks with 70% power at a male partner, I will throw them with 60% power at my female partners. There is no chance of any kind of bleeding here!

  • I clinch and throw them down at a decent enough power, which replicates the level they would encounter in the ring. There is a lot of technique involved in clinching, a lot of footwork goes into it. And it is safe to use some power for the dumps because the floor has rubber mats. I have been told that they appreciate the clinch work.

Now, I am aware that my approach is wrong, and that is the reason I asked this question here - to know how to find the right balance.

  • "no knees, no body shots, no strikes to the head...I never use teeps" This leaves so little that I don't think you're accurately describing what you do. In fact you say later that you do throw these strikes, just with less power. – Dave Liepmann Jun 29 at 12:20
  • @DaveLiepmann Not sure where you saw I wrote I throw these strikes. I don't use knees and body shots (= hooks and crosses to the body). And when I say "strikes to the head" I mean proper jabs, crosses, overhand rights, and left hooks. Later I said that I tap (= left hand out extended and just keeping them busy by tapping their guard or forehead) them in the head which really isn't a "jab". – RoundHouse Jun 29 at 12:51
  • @DaveLiepmann "This leaves so little" I know. The only things that are left are these: outside and inside leg kicks (which I throw with decent power), clinch and trip/throw (which I do all the time - so they go down on the mat just like any male would), and roundhouse to the body very, very lightly. – RoundHouse Jun 29 at 12:52
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    Have you developed any practices at all for sparring with others (of any sex) who are weaker/less experienced/less powerful than you? – Lee Mosher Jun 29 at 18:22
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    Is there any particular reason that those practices are not adequate when sparring with with women? (I do see you mention one such reason, regarding hits on the stomach, but that seems a minor part of your question.) – Lee Mosher Jun 29 at 18:26
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As a short answer, I'd say that it comes down to trust and pattern recognition.

Respect the level of experience. During sparring, if the woman recognizes the patterns in your attack and defends with the right moves, then you can increase your intensity. If she's lobbing punches and kicking when there's no chance of connecting, ease up.

If you don't want a woman as a training partner, say so. Don't suffer through a round and ruin the mood.

If I ended up as the odd (wo)man out when choosing partners, I didn't care. I went and kicked the bag.

Eventually, one of my teachers would work a round with me or someone would get tired and choose me for their last sparring round. Yup! That didn't bother me either. I appreciated that someone had knocked some of the starch out of my partner before he got to me. Speaking for myself, as one woman's opinion, of course.

Sparring with Men

I reviewed some old training videos I posted on Youtube back in 2011. I watched myself sparring with a training partner, Kenny Tudo. We started our martial arts journey when our Academy opened. We took all the same classes and learned all the same moves. There's a bond between us that will never break because I learned how to fight with him.

Over time, we developed deep trust with each other. He knew exactly how much power to put into every kick or punch when we sparred together. We were intentional, technical and working to improve. We never once hurt each other. We trained together for more than four years.

Sparring with Someone Who is Better (Heavier) than You.

I haven't sparred with many women. Maybe two or three. One of the women is a professional MMA fighter, Danielle West. My experience sparring with her will help me answer this question.

I met Danielle on Facebook and invited her to visit my Academy. She wanted to train with the guys because she was preparing for an MMA fight.

I sparred with her, a short round. I was nervous. All the guys were leaning on the cage, watching. But she fought at my level (thank goodness) and everything turned out fine.

I was more nervous to spar with her than with any of my classmates. And that's chiefly because we didn't know each other. There was no trust, built up over time. I didn't know how she'd react if I found my rhythm and landed some sweet shots.

During our 2 minute sparring session, I clocked her rhythm and started to loosen up. I landed a good shot and then instantly regretted it. Oh no! Is she going to kill me? I pulled back.

I've never regretted that decision because I didn't have anything to prove and I just wanted to have fun with a professional female MMA fighter. If I got overly confident, she might have hit me too hard and that would have spoiled the afternoon.

Danielle was heavier than me. She went three rounds with Rin Nakai, once to a draw and the second time, a loss by decision. Rin Nakai made it to the UFC, but lost both her fights -- one to Meisha Tate and one to Leslie Smith. Meisha fought Ronda Rousey twice and lost. Leslie fought Cris Cyborg and lost (of course).

The afternoon was fun. And I loved watching the video again. Plus, I know that my guy friends were watching to make sure that the roughness was kept in check.

So, what does that have to do with a woman sparring with a man?

Specifically, if you want to wallop someone around, find some dude who's in the same mood as you and do that. If you want to develop sensitivity as a fighter, train with a woman (or someone smaller than you).

Excellent technique doesn't require power. Well thrown punches and kicks hurt. You must control how much power you're using.

Ask the woman how she wants to train. Is there something specific that she wants to work on? The same goes for you.

Pattern Recognition

Sparring became super-fun once I started recognizing patterns and learning how to respond to them. Because women aren't throwing heavy strikes, you can watch how they set things up. You can see opportunities or create them yourself. That skill practice will come in handy.

Watch the woman spar with someone else.

I had the same training partners for four years. We got better together and our training sessions got more intense. But as a woman (speaking for myself), I'm not fighting like that with some dude coming to the gym for the first time. It gets weird. Too much ego! No thanks.

I agree with the judo answer. Practice your skills. Adjust to your sparring partner's size, experience and ability. Have fun!

And yes, it is entirely possible that a woman might be more skillful than you. Excellent training partners are hard to find. Treat them like gold. You'll earn their trust, loyalty and respect.

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    Thanks for the great answer! And just to be clear, I enjoy sparring with female partners. Some days, I really just want to spar with women. This is because when I spar with them, I can be loose and relaxed. I can focus on my technical fighting, on my defense, and on my combos and new moves. At least in my gym, the women are masters of technical fighting. I can't count the number of times they have kicked me in the head with some wicked move. I remember getting my butt kicked by two girls because they had excellent technique and timing. One of them taught me the "snake kick". – RoundHouse Jun 29 at 20:02
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    Also, when I spar with women, I don't have to be on my mental guard like I do when I fight another man at the same level. Even if we (me and the other guy) start lightly and with an understanding to go slow, things eventually escalate (unless they are a friend). When I am sparring with men, I am always thinking about winning; that is mentally exhaustive. I am always concerned that they don't get to land a big shot and get away with it; that I return most if not every strike. Sometimes, I don't want to be that exhausted. And I just want to focus on my technique and have some fun. – RoundHouse Jun 29 at 20:07
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I will present a judo view of sparring, which will be partially applicable to a kickboxing situation. Judo has two key principles:

  1. mutual welfare and benefit
  2. maximum efficiency

As applied to sparring, the first principle means that you both need to get something out of your time practicing together. If there is a large strength or size disparity (adult v. child, large v. small, strong v. weak, etc.), it does not make sense for the partner with the advantage to simply overpower the other because likely neither partner will benefit. Neither does it make sense to simply allow the disadvantaged partner to work all their moves because that means they get no resistance and the other partner gets no benefit either.

So you work on efficiency and skills you may not otherwise, like say fighting on your opposite side, focusing on counterattacking, timing, or footwork. This skillwork makes you more efficient and carries over to other partners.

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I'm not sure why you feel the need to adapt your sparring to women specifically.

I always try to adapt my sparring to the person I'm sparring with: make it interesting and challenging for them if I can, and let them do the same for me.

Always agree on the level of power (which can be implicit with people you know, but with smaller/less powerful people than you, make sure they're ok with what you throw)

When I spar, I pay attention to the following:

  • The size and weight of my opponent.
    • I'm 135 lb, so I spar with people ranging from much lighter than me to much, much heavier than me.
    • Don't throw hard on lighter opponent. Don't put your weight as much behind, e.g., your teeps
    • Don't put all your weight on them in clinch
  • The technique they have.
    • I'll go faster with more experienced partners, slower with other people.
    • I'll be more technical (fakes, more complex combinations ...) if needed, or more basic (simple strikes, short combos)
    • I'll refrain from using techniques that my partner doesn't know yet
  • What they are working on.
    • If my sparring partner is preparing a fight, I might go faster/harder, but also I'll observe the rules of their fight, and possibly work on some weakness they are trying to fix
    • If it's a beginner, what strikes/defenses they have seen so far, so I can put them in a position to practice that
  • Any feedback
    • If the head jerks back, if my partner suddenly grabs their side, if the knee buckles, they make a painful face and stop, or simply if my partner tells me to take it easy, I immediately stop, apologize and take it down a few notches when/if they are ready to continue.
    • It has happened to me a couple of times, and yes, usually on smaller partners than me. It takes practice to find the right balance.

For example, if I spar with a lighter person who is also less experienced than me, I'll go more slowly, be more obvious, use simpler strikes, possibly avoid clinching if that's not something they want to work on yet.

With a partner preparing a fight, I'll go harder, I'll take instructions from the coach on what they should be working, and I'll try to make it as challenging as I humbly can.

In both cases, that's regardless of the partner's gender, because I don't see how that's relevant. The only difference is that the breast is a forbidden target for women.

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Women are not children. You can use proper technique when sparring them. Lighten up according to their size and how seriously they train. A good rule of thumb is to hit them as hard as they hit you. Use all techniques, just lighter.

Watch sparring between high level people to get a sense for how they tone down intensity while still being technical with an opponent who is not on their level physically or skill-wise. Muay Thai legend Saenchai working with women's MMA champion Zhang Weili is one example.

Specifics

when I spar with women, I want to take a few seconds to change my style and be more technical in my sparring (keep it playful, no knees, no body shots, no hard strikes to the face/head)

What you're describing is not technical. It is not sparring--you're not striking the head...or the body...or using any of your striking tools. Technical sparring is throwing techniques, including body shots and knees, at close to full speed but pulling most of the force just before impact.

I almost never throw proper punches to their face/head (I just lightly tap on their forehead). Even a punch at 40% power from someone who weighs more than them can be painful.

This is neither technical nor helpful. You have to throw real strikes, even if you don't hit with full power. A true jab at 20% power (but as much speed as possible until just before impact) is 100x more helpful to your partner than babying them.

When I throw roundhouse kicks to the head or the body, I absolutely use no power

This sounds fine, but if they tell you to hit harder, then you should use a little power with those.

I never use teeps (front kicks) when sparring with a female partner (I remember reading somewhere that repeated hits on the stomach can permanently damage organs/parts necessary for giving birth).

This is dumb and almost certainly false. Did you go impotent and sterile after getting kicked in the balls? Do your intestines not digest food because you got teeped in sparring? Teep the women you train with. They will thank you for it...if you have the skill to throw the strike with control.

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  • I think I pretty much do what Sanchai is doing in that video. I don't see him throwing jabs, crosses, or hooks to her face that actually connect (but yes, that is because they don't have gloves on). He doesn't throw knees either. He is throwing leg kicks and then clinching and throwing/tripping her down (gently) - which is exactly what I do (but I don't throw/trip them down that gently), and I mentioned this in my question. " ... or using any of your striking tools" - I am throwing leg kicks (and putting some power behind them). – RoundHouse Jun 29 at 18:36
  • "What you're describing is not technical. It is not sparring" - I don't know why you think this isn't sparring or technical. Sure, may be I am being a bad sparring partner for not using all the strikes, but I am throwing leg kicks with some power, and I am clinching and throwing them down like I would with a male partner. My female partners are usually appreciative because they get to learn clinch footwork and throw downs. There is no risk of a major injury when you throw them down on a mat. There is some risk from throwing a cross and breaking their nose accidentally. – RoundHouse Jun 29 at 18:39
  • But I get it, I should make the session effective for both of us. Just in case it is not clear from my question, I hold back fully on certain strikes (mostly punches, teeps, and knees), while I throw other strikes (inside/outside leg kicks) and use other moves (clinch throws) at a decent enough power to replicate the level they would encounter in the ring. "Did you go impotent and sterile after getting kicked in the balls?" I think you missed the part where I wrote "repeated hits". Getting hit on the balls once or twice is fine; but on a regular basis and repeatedly - that's dangerous. – RoundHouse Jun 29 at 18:43
  • I like what you wrote in your first paragraph. Thanks! – RoundHouse Jun 29 at 19:37
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At my school (karate), we're taught to tell our partners if we want less power (or more). And if someone asks, then we change what we're doing immediately. We also don't use techniques our partners don't have the curriculum for, especially if there's a big experience gap.

I regulate my sparring based on size and experience of my opponent, not gender.

I'd say most of our women who spar wear breast protectors so targeting the chest isn't a big deal. But, if you're training somewhere where it's not as common, it's probably a good idea to check in with your partner about what they're comfortable with.

I (a woman) tend to spar harder than some of the men my rank because I'm bigger than them and don't register the hits as much - it just depends on the person you're sparring.

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