Do you feel nervous, anxious, or stressed when you’re sparring, or do you find yourself struggling to contain your anger when something doesn’t go according to plan in a sparring session? Well, you’re not alone – this is a very common set of feelings among fighters and the good news is that it is something that you can tackle.
How do you stay calm during sparring? To stay calm during sparring, approach sparring as an opportunity to learn rather than a performance. It helps to stay calm if you train properly, rest well, meditate, and talk to your sparring partner before a sparring session.
In this guide we will go through 12 simple but practical tips on staying calm during sparring. Let’s go through them one by one.
Why Is Sparring Nerve Wracking?
We’re all human and it’s normal for us to feel stress and anxiety in certain situations. Sparring taps into three very common fears in people: the fear of failing, the fear of pain and the more general “performance anxiety”.
The Fear of Pain
Most people who fight aren’t chronically afraid of pain. There is a fear “algophobia” which relates to people who are and they will do pretty much anything to avoid pain. The only real treatment for algophobia is to seek a counsellor and work through the underlying issues that it brings.
However, while sparring is not intended to absolutely replicate a fight – because if it was, most fighters would be too exhausted and broken to every compete – there is always a risk of pain when sparring and this can raise our anxiety.
Related article: Does Sparring Get Easier? [Tips That Actually Work]
When our anxiety levels begin to raise, our heart starts beating faster, adrenalin courses through our system and it becomes more and more difficult to focus on our intentions as we spar. This makes it much harder to learn from sparring and reduces the effectiveness of sparring as a learning technique.
The most common form of performance anxiety is a fear of public speaking. It is a deep-rooted issue which makes us worry about how good we will be during the carry out of a task like sparring. There is a sort of underlying worry that we might humiliate ourselves as we go toe-to-toe with someone.
This in turn can cause your heart to race, your blood pressure to rise, you to sweat harder, to shake, and possibly even to feel a little sick.
The Fear Of Failure
This is kind of like performance anxiety on steroids. Fighters are, by their very nature, competitive people and that means when they spar, they want to “win”. When they don’t, they see themselves as failures.
This can, for some people, be a completely soul-destroying experience. When you define your self-wroth by winning, losing is not a great outcome.
It’s worth noting, of course, that most sparring sessions aren’t about “winners and losers” but it doesn’t stop some fighters from feeling this way. There’s something about simulated combat that makes them feel like the rules of an actual fight ought to be present including a victory lap for one fighter and the shame of defeat for the other.
Again, this fear results in similar feelings to performance anxiety and the fear of pain.
Losing Control In Sparring
There is one other thing that can make it harder to spar and it’s not driven by fear. In fact, it’s driven by over enthusiasm. In an effort to “prove” themselves, the fighter throws themselves in too deeply and ramps things up from “sparring” to fighting. Fortunately, this is a rarer problem and it can be dealt with in the same way that we manage our fears.
The Good News: Keeping Calm When Sparring Means Managing Fear
OK, now we’ve seen why people find it hard to stay calm when sparring, here is some really good news for you – sparring doesn’t have to leave you nervous, angry, anxious, etc. in fact, it can be really productive and you will find that there are plenty of useful ways to tackle your fears and make this practice work for you.
Conduct Blocking Drills
Defence, of course, varies between different martial arts. A Kung Fu fighter will block his or her opponent in a very different way from a boxer but that doesn’t mean that they don’t both learn to soak up some of the potential pain and move it away from them.
This is a very useful thing to do, if you find that you are afraid of being hit or of sparring becoming painful. The more confident that you feel in preventing yourself from being hit, the less you will be afraid of being hit.
It’s not that the fear of being hit will disappear entirely but the more confident you are in your blocking techniques, the less it will become.
This kind of drilling also allows you to get used to the idea of people trying to hit you. It might sound a little silly because obviously people hit each other in martial arts, but there’s often an initial disconnect in the way that we feel about being hit and the reality of our sport.
That’s perfectly fine. Again, we’re all human. The skill is to learn to overcome your fears, not to have no fears to begin with.
Talk To Your Sparring Partner
A problem shared is a problem halved, they say and this is absolutely true. There is nothing “unmanly” about explaining what’s bothering you to your sparring partner and seeing if you can develop your sparring sessions to address your worries.
Don’t forget that sparring should be lighter than actual fighting sessions and that talking this through beforehand, can make you both think more about the way that you spar and be more conscious when you pull your blows.
If you find that a sparring partner is being too heavy-handed in their approach, speak to them about it – you’re not a punching bag and they ought to respect your input. If you find that they then become difficult to spar with, find another sparring partner, you’re not obliged to pair up with anyone who can’t behave properly towards you.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that there should never be any competitive element to your sparring – that’s a natural outcome of two fighters squaring up to each other, even when the objective is to go easy on each other but it does mean that that competitiveness should exist within limits and that you are free to determine those limits between each other.
Go On The Defensive
Another simple way to build up confidence in your defensive game is just to defend. Instead of trying to attack and defend in a sparring session – put all your efforts into defending. Don’t throw a single attack. Move around, change your approach angles, vary the distance between you and the other fighter but stay in the defensive.
This is extremely valuable practice and it’s fair to say that some of the greatest fighters of all time have built their careers out of being first and foremost immaculate at defending. Once you are positive that you can block everything that comes your way then you can branch out into adding the occasional attack to your routine.
Can you imagine how easy it would be to spar with anybody if you felt sure that you couldn’t be hit?
Try Working With Someone Much, Much Better Than You
Don’t try this by picking the first pro you meet and trying to force them into the ring with you but if you can find someone way above your ability level to spar with occasionally, they will run rings around you but because of their skills, they’re also not going to turn sparring into anything more intense than sparring.
Once you get a feel for this, you should find that it becomes much easier to handle sparring with someone with a similar ability level to you. If you could handle (and live through) sparring with one of the old hands of your sport – you can certainly handle someone more on your own level, right?
CAUTION: Picking the right sparring partner for this technique is essential. While a sympathetic fighter will really help you up your game and won’t try to humiliate you, every gym has the old school hard case who just wants to demonstrate they’ve “still got it”.
You don’t want to spar with that guy. So, if you’re thinking about using this technique, talk it over with your coach who should be able to identify someone who can help you without harming you.
Have A Pre-Sparring Ritual
This also works for competitive fighting, believe it or not. A ritual is something that you do which just, generally speaking, makes you feel calm and more solid in yourself. It can be anything at all – it just needs to work for you.
So, for one fighter, the ritual might be offering up a prayer before the fight and, perhaps, a little word with the Almighty about keeping an eye on them while sparring. For another, it might be to plug in their MP3 player and listen to their favorite tunes. Yet another, might choose to read something motivational and eat a quick protein snack.
There’s no right way or wrong way to build yourself a pre-sparring ritual. One really useful thing about this technique is that you can then apply it in other areas of your life, you’ll find your ritual will also serve you before exams or other high-pressure scenarios.
Have A Sleep
There’s no more relaxed state on earth than being asleep and many of us carry the relaxation we get when we’re asleep into the next few hours after waking. If you can’t sleep, just try being still and relaxing your muscles as much as possible.
Letting go of the tension in your body, can help your mind release the tension that it is feeling too. There’s no reason that you can’t tackle this in the locker room or even while grabbing some water.
Visualize Successful Sparring Outcomes
Sometimes, the easiest way to crack down on our fears is to expose them in a different way. If you know that you are worried about being hit or suspect that you might be suffering from a little performance anxiety – you can visualize your sparring session and not get hit or see yourself having great success.
This is, in business, known as “faking it until you make it”. It’s a very successful strategy because if you can make the mental picture you have strong enough, your mind will believe it is real and it will respond accordingly.
Have A Word With Yourself
“It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen,” said Muhammad Ali. And he knew a thing or two about managing his anxiety in both sparring and competition.
An affirmation is the act of telling yourself that everything will be fine, that you are great and that you are capable of dealing with anything that arises during your sparring session. The more you repeat an affirmation, which should be said with strength and confidence, the easier it is for your brain to see you as the fighter you are rather than the one you are worried that you might be.
Have A Goal
It feels like we’re heading into corporate territory, almost, but in fact, one of the best ways to persuade yourself to enjoy sparring is to decide what it is you want from your sparring sessions. Think about it. If you were taken to the airport and told you were going “somewhere” and then you have to deal with the journey – everything’s going to be less than fun. You have nothing to motivate you on your journey.
Compare that to being taken to an airport and being told you’re going to fly to Phuket, Thailand to spend 2 weeks enjoying the best Muay Thai in the world. Then, everything’s different. The airport’s not an awful slog that seems pointless and unpleasant – it’s a means to an end.
By choosing what you want to get out of your sparring, your sparring then has a purpose and there’s no doubt that people with a purpose feel less fear and achieve more than those without.
Give Yourself Permission To Learn
If every sparring session goes according to plan and your opponent never touches you and you always land the punches. You are either a minor deity or you’re not learning anything at all.
Sometimes, the best opportunities we have to become better fighters are linked to the surprise of something unexpected happening. A minor defeat can make us much, much stronger in the long run – if we just allow it to.
If you give yourself permission to learn from sparring, you can keep the fear of failure at bay – you can’t fail at learning.
Make Sure You Prepare For Your Sparring Sessions
Just as important as having an aim for your sparring practice, is having prepared for them. You ought to know which techniques you intend to work on and how you intend to incorporate them into the sparring session.
By defining what you are expecting to do, you will have less room for your mind to wander and to explore your fears because it will be concentrated on what’s needed, instead. Don’t be afraid to write down your objectives either and bring them with you – reviewing the list before you begin can do wonders for your confidence.
There’s no doubt that meditating can help you clear your mind and focus on the things that really matter when you’re sparring.
Related article: Why Martial Artists Meditate (And You Should Too)
The best time to meditate is just before your session but meditating at any time of day, is better than not meditating at all. You’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to keep your fear at bay when you learn how to rid your mind of stray thoughts.
It’s important to remember that fear is a natural part of being human and that everyone struggles with sparring at times. However, there is no reason that you can’t overcome the obstacles in your way and develop a sparring strategy that works for you. These 12 practical steps ought to get you moving in the right direction. You can indeed stay reasonably calm during sparring!