Cross training and sparring methodology

Free sparring is used to test, not train, fighting skills in Shaolin Wahnam. Image taken from

Free sparring is used to test, not train, fighting skills in Shaolin Wahnam. Image taken from

Back in mid-May of 2013, I posed a question to the G+ Martial Artist community regarding cross-training and sparring methodologies used in their schools. After a few responses, someone asked my opinion on their situations. Here’s what I replied with:

+mark de México  , it’s great that you’re getting your cousin thinking about martial arts. It’s also good that he has a preference of some sort; establishing preferences can be a great source of identity and confidence in any endeavor in the future.

+Katy Garden  , it’s great that you guys are beginning to turn a negative (being displaced) into a positive (a coming together of different paths for mutual understanding). Given that the vast majority of martial artists are lucky enough to not have to take up challenge matches or get into life-or-limb fighting situations, a supportive and wide-spread environment of philosophies, techniques, and skills can be very good for everyone involved. Even if one doesn’t want to pick up another art, one can at least find vindication in the training of one’s own art.

+shawn howard  , the boxing gloves certainly have their own place. Like you said, they can be quite useful when you want to ensure that you don’t hurt your sparring partners in sessions where you’re not worrying about grips and grabs. If you ever plan on attending mixed-style martial arts tournaments, it is great to have experience with boxing gloves, since many tournaments require them (just like many “MMA” tournaments will require “MMA gloves”).

One thing I was trying to impress on my brother (and something my own master and grandmaster have been trying to impress on me for a while, I just wasn’t really “getting” the lesson until it just suddenly “clicked” recently) was the fact that, like you say with kenpo, one technique in kung fu ought to be enough. The Japanese have that famous saying, “One strike, one kill.” Kung fu, especially with its huge repertoire of force training, also embodies the notion that just one good strike can stop someone from fighting (either from being dead or too injured to continue; most kung fu people prefer the latter since Buddhist and Daoist philosophy influenced many kung fu styles from the very beginning). This is why traditional kung fu people do not exchange blows generously with one another; they want to get to the level of avoiding an opponent’s fatal strikes as well as develop the ability to end a match in just one well-timed movement backed up with good force.

Sparring in every school but one that I’ve been to follows this methodology: 1) students learn the basic skills (stances, footwork, etc.); 2) students learn to apply techniques in individual situations until they feel very comfortable doing such; 3) the master then throws the student into a free sparring situation where they inevitably fall apart; 4) the student works for months/years getting so good and fast at “individual techniques” that the “dead time” between techniques is reduced to a very fine and small margin that is difficult to take advantage of unless you have good reflexes. This is the orthodox sparring methodology that I have seen in a variety of martial arts (as opposed to martial sports) and, in my experience, takes anywhere from one or more years for the student to become comfortable in a free sparring environment (including not sustaining a lot of hits from their sparring partners). Took me about two years to get comfortable in my old aiki jujutsu school and we did a lot of “multiple person versus 1 guy” sparring. There are many schools that don’t do sparring at all or only do sparring a few times per month, so it takes even longer for those guys to get comfortable with a sparring situation. A lot of people will just “freeze” in a free sparring situation (I’ll admit, I “froze” a lot in my first few months of free sparring!

The kung fu school where I practice has a more granular process of getting to free sparring. We follow the same first few steps outlined above: basic skills and then techniques practiced in isolation. The major difference is that we then practice combat sequences: short exchanges of three to ten pre-arranged movements. The purpose of the combat sequences is not to “free spar” (it’s not “free” since the movements are already agreed upon) but rather to develop the skills behind free sparring: timing, spacing, and (very importantly) the ability to use your martial art in a changing and flowing situation.

After becoming very comfortable with the sequence, we very gradually begin to loosen the restrictions on the sequence (we might begin by adding 1 extra “surprise” move at the end of the sequence, we might do the sequence two or three times in a row without stopping, or maybe we skip a move in the middle of the sequence if the situation presents itself, or, if we have two or more sequences, we’ll begin the second sequence right in the middle of the first sequence, etc.) The variations lead to more and more loosening of the restrictions until finally the practitioners are essentially “free” sparring. Some people will disparage combat sequences being used in sparring or fighting by saying they are not “truly” spontaneous, but their huge advantage is that not only do sequences train you to deal even with “spontaneous” situations (good combat sequences already incorporate the most common and most advantageous ways to react to a given situation in a fight, and yes, there are combat sequences and kung fu sets that even specialize on fighting out of an ambush; Choi-Li-Fatt is pretty famous for that last one), solid training in variations will enable you to use sequences in those really spontaneous situations (e.g. a situation with many different fighting or sparring opponents).

I’ll use an anecdote from my experience last night with my brother. I have two Baguazhang sets: Eight Mother Palms (which teaches the fundamental movements and techniques) and Swimming Dragon 64 Palms (a longer set that is a collection of 8 combat sequences using the Eight Mother Palms movements). My brother was throwing Xingyiquan techniques at me in rapid succession, so I began with combat sequence 1 techniques (probably my most solid sequence), then when the situation presented itself, I switched to techniques from the third combat sequence (just sort of happened), and finally I wound up using techniques from the seventh sequence. This was all in a twenty second or so exchange that consisted of only about five or six attacks. The sequence pretty much went like this (I’ll try to avoid using kung fu names so more people can follow along). I used the moves on the left, he used the moves on the right:

Both of us begin in fighting poise
Palm strike to heart –> step off-line to uppercut at my carotid artery with his index finger’s second knuckle.
Move to the side, smash my forearm on his forearm –> retreating step
Soft and circular blocking technique <– Vertical fist to my abdomen
Immediately transition from previous movement into a finger-thrust to his throat –> grip my incoming wrist and pull me into a punch to my abdomen
Follow the momentum, step forward and past him, turn to kick his groin while simultaneously thrusting at his face with the fingers of the hand that he gripped –> retreat a half-step and chop his palm at my ankle
Both of us retreat to fighting poise to assess situation

For those interested in the kung fu names (I love kung fu names), here they are:

Green Dragon Stretches Claws — Three Body Stance
Open Window Observe Moon –> Diagonal Crossing Fist
Big Bird Flapping Wings –> Move Body Change Step
Immortal Waves Sleeves <– Crushing Fist
Yellow Dragon Emerges From Cave –> Old Eagle Catches Snake, Metal Axe Splits Wood
Knight Plays With Lion –> Sharp Knife Trims Bamboo
Green Dragon Stretches Claws — Three Body Stance

This short sequence (which we both composed with my guidance of him using his favorite technique from the Five Elements Linking Fist set of Xingyiquan and me using techniques from the Swimming Dragon set) incorporate some basic principles of both of our arts.

Basics: both of us are using characteristic kung fu patterns and the sequence uses three of the four types of attacks: striking with the arms (including hands, fingers), kicking, and gripping. This sequence does not include felling, but there are moments in the sequence where it would be advantageous for one of us to attempt a felling maneuver.

Xingyiquan: using the five elemental fists to handle all sorts of situations, using crisp, hard, and driving movements to plunge into the opponent.

Baguazhang: using soft against hard, following the momentum, attacking from an unexpected angle.

As an aside, the Big Bird Flaps Wings technique that I used actually came from his Five Elements Linking Fist set, not my Swimming Dragon set (though a similar pattern is there), but I wanted to show my brother a possible application for that technique since his master hadn’t taught him an application for it yet (in this case, smashing the forearm down on an opponent’s incoming arm). If I were to do this over again, I would replace Big Bird Flaps Wings with Bail Moon From Sea Bottom from Baguazhang’s Single Palm Change (an upward palm chop to the groin).

In kung fu philosophy, there are several levels of fighting. The lowest is untrained and instinctual fighting. The next level up is the level of individual techniques (most martial arts schools I’ve been to remain at this level, like I described above). The next level is using sequences on your opponents. The highest level in kung fu fighting is using appropriate tactics and strategies for the opponent and situation (for example, using a sequence that is geared to fight someone who specializes in kicks when you realize that your sparring partner/opponent is a master of Tae Kwon Do or Northern Shaolin kung fu). Some will say that the highest level of fighting is not fighting, but I’m no where near that level!

You’re right, you and I have both trained the techniques of our respective arts (you with Kenpo, me with Baguazhang). I’m willing to bet that the difference in our training is our training at the individual technique versus the sequence level. I’ve only been practicing Baguazhang since June 2012, but because I have this sparring methodology, I’m able to spar with folks who have five or more years under their belts and (perhaps more importantly), I can pass on what I know of this methodology to my brother to enhance the level of his martial arts (his school does little to no sparring or even partner work).

The higher you go in your fighting, the more and more important the basics become. To be able to use strategies and tactics, you must have good sequences. To use sequences well, you must be very good at their component parts (individual techniques). To be good at the individual techniques, you must have spent a good amount of time on your basics, like stances, footwork, flexibility, etc. My kung fu “elder brother” recently opened a branch school and he tells me that his students don’t learn their first combat sequence until between four and six months after they start. Those four to six months are the “foundation laying stage” to prepare them for sequence (and eventually strategy) based sparring and fighting.

Man, talk about rambling! I’ll finish with a pair of links. The first is my sifu explaining the systematic sparring methodology used in Shaolin Wahnam. The latter goes to my sigung’s website which explains the techniques and philosophies of the sixteen basic combat sequences used in his school. I would recommend that anyone who feels their sparring level is not where they want it to be to read these posts, and especially to kung fu and kenpo people, to practice these sequences.

All the best, folks!


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