Unlike Fight Club, most martial arts schools do not require you to fight on your first night. I favor having students practice basics and drills for a few months before being allowed to “just go for it” in free sparring. Keeping that in mind, today we’ll look at a pair of sparring drills that are really good for transitioning beginners into free sparring.
One participant gets in a fighting stance while another uses a foam blocker to reach out and tap different legal targets. The defender must attempt to block the foam blocker and then return to a fighting stance. If the defender is succeeding, increase the speed of the drill and/or add movement (forward, backward, and circling). This teaches reaction speed, blocking accuracy, and eventually movement.
Remind the defender to keep their eyes on the attacker, not on the foam blocker itself! Once they feel confident blocking the pad, allow them to counter with a single move (start with a reverse punch) after each successful block.
The foam blocker is non-threatening and makes it feel more like a game than a fight. For many students this will be a fun way to work on unscripted defense.
Block and Counter
This is a great drill to run the first time a student has their gear and is ready to spar. Have them partner with an instructor or advanced student with really good control. The advanced student is the attacker, and the beginner is the defender. Just like in Blocker Sparring above, the attacker will throw a single attack to a legal target. The defender must block, and then eventually counter (again, I recommend start with a reverse punch).
Just like before you can add movement and increase the speed. Make sure the attacker repeats the same attack if the defender fails to block it. For example, if I’m working with someone on their first day sparring, I’ll throw a backfist to their head. If I score, I do it again, and again, and again – until they block it. Then I say “now punch me back with your other hand.” I throw the same backfist again, they block, and hopefully they punch. Throw a variety of attacks using this pattern but never change the attack until the defender has learned how to respond.
Remember What a Big Deal This Is
For many students, sparring is a make or break moment. It’s the first time a student will have freedom to throw whatever they want, but it’s also their first time not dealing with a scripted scenario. Drills like these are not only good practice, but they ease that transition. Most importantly, take the time to let them figure out what they need to do. If you attack them and they don’t block successfully, don’t say “let’s try something else.” Do it again, let them figure it out.