Sparring Tips for Beginners: 10 Things to Know

Written by Lee Cleveland at Sep 25, 2011 - 05:09AM ET in Tidbits
Courtesy of Chris Farina, Top Rank Courtesy of Chris Farina, Top Rank
Sparring is "practice fighting" with the aim of improving the skills and fitness level of one or both participants while minimizing the risk of serious injury.   

The level of contact is based on the situation. Lighter contact leads to fewer injuries while harder contact better prepares individuals for competition or self-defense.

Are you a beginner who wants to enhance his/her skills and get in better shape? Learn how to spar correctly and effectively by following these tips.

1. Sparring is not Fighting
Don't try to brutalize your opponent. In a real boxing match, combatants don't hold back because their primary goal is to win. But when sparring, the main objective is to sharpen the skills of one or both participants. It is a learning process for all who wish to participate. When someone with superior skills knocks out his opponent in the first round of a sparring match, nobody wins.

Even an inferior opponent can sometimes make you a better fighter because he/she may possess fighting traits that compliment your weaknesses.


2. Protect Yourself at All Times
The FIRST and MOST IMPORTANT thing my trainer told me before I sparred the very first time was, "Protect yourself at all times." This piece of advice is not only synonymous with pro and amateur boxing, its an absolute must even when sparring. Do not take your eyes off your opponent and keep your hands up. Not following these instructions will only make you more susceptible to getting knocked out. Even though sparring is not real competition, your opponent may not realize you're not in a defensive posture and inadvertently unleash power shots as a result.

Also, if Beginner A tends to drop his guard or look at someone other than his opponent during a live session, a trainer may advise Beginner B to punch Beginner A whenever he's practicing those very bad habits. Since you can't get away with it in the pro and amateur ranks, very few trainers (if any) will allow you to develop such a false sense of security in the ring.

If you step back and look somewhere else while you're sparring me, I'm probably going to hit you... Hard!  Rest-assured, we'll rid you of that bad habit very fast.This boxing not backgammon. If you take your eyes off your opponent during live action, expect to get clocked.


3. Supervision
Sparring without the supervision of an adult instructor or trainer is very risky. It's ill-advised and should not be done.


4. Safety Equipment 

Gloves:
Use 14, 16 or 18 ounce gloves. Gloves with added padding weigh more than professional fight gloves. The added padding cushions the blows to protect the puncher's hand and the recipient's head while the added weight strengthens fighters' hands and arms.  

Unless one fighter is a lot better than his opponent, both fighters should use the same size gloves. If you're using 16 ounce gloves and your opponent is wearing the 14 ounce variety, you're giving him a sweet advantage.

Headgear: Always use headgear. Gear is used to protect boxers from soft tissue damage, (bruises, cuts, etc.), during sparring - It's also used in competition in amateur boxing. It's important that boxers know that headgear will not keep you from getting knocked cold. As a result, do not enter the ring thinking you cannot be knocked out because you're wearing headgear.

Groin Guard: A Foul-protector protects the groin against low punches and offers more protection than a simple 'cup' guard (used by football players). Fellas, spar without a groin guard at your own risk!

Mouthpiece: Contrary to popular belief mouth-guards are not used to prevent teeth from getting knocked out.  They are used to protect the inside of the mouth and lips from getting cut by the teeth when a hard punch to the face is received. In addition, by helping to lock the top and bottom jaws together, the mouth-guard can prevent painful damage to the jaw when a boxer is struck. Mouth-guards are mandatory for sparring as well as amateur and pro competition.

So remember, if you spar without a mouthpiece, you're at increased risk for a broken jaw. Also, headgear offers very little protection from the effects of hard punches and won't protect you from getting viciously knocked out.


5. Relax
Don't try to do anything dramatic. The first time I sparred I thought I was in great shape because I was running four miles daily, had lost 15 pounds and had no problem hitting the heavybag for five 3-minute rounds. But when I sparred for the first time, I was 'sucking wind' after the first two minutes.  You may "think" you're in fighting shape but when you're in the ring against a moving, thinking target who's fighting back, everything changes.  (Punching bags are great but they have limited movement and don't punch back). 

Loading-up and Combination-Punching: If you're a beginner and you try to load-up like Mike Tyson and/or throw flashy eight-punch combinations like Roy Jones, Jr., you'll only be wasting energy and there's a decent chance you'll collapse from exhaustion after the first round... if you make it that far.

Dancing: Until you've reached a much higher pedigree, don't try to look pretty like Sugar Ray Leonard.  Dancing will tire you out faster. Also, not having your feet planted will not only reduce the impact of your punches, you'll be more susceptible to knock downs when or if your opponent correctly times your movements. If you're a beginner, it wont be difficult for another beginner to get you off balance if you dance.

Conserve your energy, be patient, analyze your opponent's movement and let every punch count.


6. Practice Breathing Techniques
Marathon runners implement breathing techniques and, if you box, you should too.  Don't ever forget to breathe. Practice breathing while shadow-boxing and hitting the heavybag. Beginners don't only tire too soon because they don't know how to conserve energy in the ring, they often tire too fast because they hold their breath when they punch and defend against punches.

Learn effective breathing techniques and practice them in the ring.


7. Pump the Jab 
If you're a beginner, this punch may very well be your best friend because you probably can't put your punches together or throw crisp combinations yet - and you're defensive skills are probably raw at best.

A jab can be used to score points, setup bigger punches, keep your opponent at a safe distance, deflect incoming punches, get your opponent off balance and frustrate him/her. When you become exhausted in the ring and your opponent is still aggressive and energetic, rest with your jab. Obviously the jab shouldn't be your only weapon or form of defense but, at this stage, it may very well be your best offensive and defensive tool.

Practice throwing a quick, straight snapping jab. If utilized properly, a good jab can buy you time in the ring and help you avoid bad situations. 


8. Punch While Being Hit
Beginners often make the mistake of waiting for their opponent to finish punching before punching back. If your opponent starts hurling punches, keep your eyes wide open, your hands up and watch everything he/she is doing. Look for openings and fire back efficiently and effectively. Even if your opponent is better than you, he/she will probably back-off when they taste return fire. 

Counterpunch the jab: After you jab, you must bring your jab back high, to your chin. Even pros are sometimes guilty of not practicing this so it should come as no surprise beginners often get lazy and fail to bring their jabbing hand back to their chin after striking. Watch how your opponent jabs and when (or if) you notice a vulnerability, launch a quick counter-strike.

If you don't punch back while being hit, you'll allow your opponent to control the action whenever he/she chooses. When under siege, keep your guard up and fire back. You'll break his/her focus, gain your opponent's respect and convince them there's a risk for unloading on you. You'll also find more openings because, at all levels, a fighter is more vulnerable to being hit when they are actively punching.


9. Work the Body
Most beginners focus on showy head punches and forget to work the body. While stepping in, simultaneously blind your opponent with a jab and launch a power shot to the body behind it. Aim for right below the heart. If you fight right-handed, also try (left) hooking to your opponent's liver.  If you connect on a few hard body shots, you'll empty your opponent's gas tank real quick.

Also, if your opponent is boxing rings around you, effective body-punching is a great way to slow him/her down. Watch Mike McCallum and Lucian Bute in action. You will see literal clinics on body-punching during many, if not most, of their bouts. "If you kill the body, the head will die."

Body punches are very effective and when they are delivered appropriately and land in the right place, they hurt like @*&# and will slow your opponent down.


10. Getting Schooled
So you got schooled in your first few sparring sessions?  Don't worry, getting whopped is part of learning. Everyone, even the greats, gets 'taken to school' at some point in their career. Learn from your mistakes and focus on correcting them. Also train longer and harder than the guys/girls who boxed rings around you. If you're training twice per week, start training three or four times weekly. 

If you want to substantially improve bad enough, you will if you follow your trainer's instructions, take the sport seriously and dedicate yourself. Focus on the basics and focus on W.I.N. (What's Important Now).  

Boxing is a lot like life - Everyone gets knocked down. What separates high achievers from everyone else has more to do with how they deal with adversity than how many times they get knocked down.

Like Rocky Balboa said, "It ain't about how hard you hit... It's about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward."
 

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