I get quite a few people who come into my Muay Thai gym who are enthusiastic about getting started with sparring. And to tell the truth I cannot blame them. Sparring is exciting. It is where you get to test all of those things you have been training on the pads and bags. And it is also worth mentioning that it is one of the few times on the mat where you don’t have to do EXACTLY what your coach tells you to do. You actually get to be yourself.
So, when is the best time to start? Here is my humble response as a coach:
When I don’t have to keep reminding you about proper form. There you go. That’s it.
If you would like to watch the quality of your Muay Thai deteriorate rapidly than by all means start sparring. But my position is that unless your stance, footwork, and technique are completely automatic, it is too soon for you. Let me explain why.
1. When a punch is coming at your face the initial response is typically subconscious. There is usually not enough time to think and calculate the proper reaction, so millions of years of evolutionary survival mechanisms kick in. Your body wants to flinch, turn away, close your eyes, duck, or run. As it turns out none of these are a proper Muay Thai response. The proper responses have to be BURNED into your mind and body in such a way that it completely counteracts the natural intuitive reactions without having to think about them. That is a lot of repetitions my friend. Even with controlled technical sparring (which by the way is 99.9% of the sparring work we do here at PHAS3) the inherent turbulent nature of sparring literally distracts you on a second by second basis. If you are thinking about not getting hurt, you are getting sloppy. If you are thinking about not being sloppy you are getting hurt. So there is simply no room for “thinking about good form” while you are sparring.
2. Not only will that particular sparring session be inadequate but it will send you backward in overall progress. You are creating bad habits that are extremely difficult to reverse. There are two types of long term memory. There is “declarative” memory, which is the kind of memory that requires mental recall. An example of declarative recall would be if I asked you what your social security number is. You have to mentally access that information. On the other hand you have “procedural” memory. These are the reactions that require no mental recall, they just happen without your thinking about it. Like suddenly hitting the brake to avoid a traffic accident. You didn’t think about doing it, it just happened. Here is the problem with sparring too early. In the quick paced “survival like” nature of sparring those undesirable reactions get put straight into procedural memory. They become the natural reaction to that same stimulus you will face every time you spar. And it takes exponentially more time and effort to reverse that than to have taken the time to develop the proper responses in the first place.
So, when it comes to sparring it really does pay to be patient. Train your butt off. Watch quality fighters spar as much as you can. And remember: your coaches, and fight team really do want you out there trading punches with them as soon as possible. So, stop asking. One of us will let you know when you’re ready. I promise.
Ben Brown is the founder and Head Coach at PHAS3 Martial Arts, a Muay Thai focused martial arts school in Santa Rosa, California. PHAS3 offers a family atmosphere that welcomes students of all skill levels from beginners to the most competitive fighters. PHAS3 is a Woodenman Certified Muay Thai training school.