Contact sparring in any martial art – particularly in martial arts that involve striking – does come with a certain amount of risk . Participating in too much heavy sparring can put you at a greater danger of injury before a tournament or fight, which might force you to have to pull out of competition or fight when you’re feeling less than one hundred percent. Sparring recklessly or too intensely in general can also be detrimental to your long-term health, putting you at greater risk for brain damage and other head injuries if you’re not careful.
That doesn’t mean that all sparring is bad, though. When it’s done safely, under the supervision of your instructors and with the proper sparring gear, technical sparring (sparring which focusses on the proper execution of techniques that you’ve learned in training and is only performed at a fraction of the intensity of actual competition) can be great for you as both a martial artist and a human being. Here are five ways in which responsible sparring can be beneficial to your mental and physical health.
1. Proper martial arts sparring can be safer than most other extreme fitness programs.
While Crossfit and other high intensity programs filled with strongman-style exercises, like tire flipping and hammer swinging, can look and feel cool, the risk for injury can be high. Some experts believe that responsible technical sparring in disciplines like boxing can actually be the better way to push your limits safely, because the movements involved are more natural and instinctual. “Your body moves exactly the way it was intended to move, just at elevated speeds,” former championship boxer and current fitness expert Michael Olajide Jr. told Shape Magazine. “Plus you can train with the same intensity and purpose of a competitive boxer in your home or gym. That’s not necessarily so for other fitness endeavors.”
2. It’s great cardio.
Even when it’s performed at a safe and moderate intensity with the proper sparring equipment, the cardiovascular demands of a sparring session are unparalleled. It takes a certain level of fitness to be able to perform the techniques and forms of a martial art – and it takes even more fitness to be able to perform them with a partner in the heat of the moment. When you add the heart rate-raising mental demands of facing off against an opponent in the heat of “battle,” you’ve got a combination that will challenge your conditioning like no other physical activity. And, if you keep it up on a responsibly regular schedule, you’ll start to see your fitness rise to meet that challenge.
3. It’s just as good for your brain.
Of course, you’re not really battling your opponent when you spar. They’re not your foe, but a part of your training that’s as essential as sparring gear and proper technique. You’re working with your sparring partner to challenge each other and make both of you better martial artists.The person that you’re really fighting with when you spar is yourself. You’re challenging yourself to be a better martial artist, you’re pushing yourself to try new things, and you’re forcing yourself to be humble when things don’t work out perfectly on the first – or hundredth – attempt. Which makes sparring both a team building and character building exercise – both of which are excellent for your brain power and your mental health.
4. It keeps you on your toes.
While the basic rules – like being safe, responsible, and wearing proper sparring gear – should ideally remain the same each time, no two sparring sessions are ever alike. You might be facing a new partner. You might try new things. They might try new things and force you to respond in a new way. Which means that you are always learning and forcing yourself to adapt and grow. Which means that you are never at risk of plateauing in your fitness training or your martial arts journey.
5. It’s an excellent source of stress relief.
Speaking of mental health, sparring can be a great way to deal with nerves and anxiety. As counsellor and sport psychologist Jennifer Carter, PhD told Netdoctor in early 2017, training can have an incredible impact on your mental health. Although she was speaking specifically about boxing, her rationale could easily apply to any martial art: “Boxing helps people experiencing difficulties with mental health in many ways. Firstly, the exercise provides a rush of endorphins – a natural mood booster. Classes can help to relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression by focusing the mind and body in the present moment and taking people away from ruminating thoughts or worries. It provides a source of distraction as individuals engage with a fun activity that they look forward to and make new friends in the sociable and supportive group setting. Boxing instills a sense of achievement, building confidence and self-esteem. Classes provide a controlled and safe environment to release any frustration, stress and anger. Boxing encourages a healthier lifestyle, which benefits physical and mental wellbeing, sleep, eating, and self-care and compassion.”
So if you’re feeling low or frustrated, it just might be time to break out the sparring equipment. As long as you remember to stay safe out there!