Sparring for self defense training – Lex Biljsma

There is a lot of debate about sparring for self defense purposes.
I’ve noticed people bashing people who don’t spar because sparring is supposed to be the only way to train for real fights because it’s the closest thing. Other people claim they can’t spar because their system is too deadly, and sparring is not a real fight anyway.

I would like to give you my definition of sparring , why and how I use it in my classes.

What is it ?
Of course you already know this, but just to understand what I am talking about in this article I’ll explain a bit. I am talking about any life drill with one or more opponents where you train with people putting up active resistance. It can be boxing, it can be wrestling, but it can be very specific on certain techniques or training objectives. Training objectives can be technical/physical, tactical and mental. It can be with or without weapons etc.

It can get pretty close to reality, but it can also be totally different. The idea of walking up to each other, touching gloves , taking a step back, and starting to trade punches is not my perspective of a real fight. I still like it a lot because of the many helpful skills we do train.
How do I use it?
I love it as a tool for evaluation. I can see how my students perform under pressure.

Do they still have proper footwork?
Do they protect them self by having their guard up?,
Do they move correctly?
Are their aware of their surroundings?
How do they react to an opponent that puts forward pressure on them?

You can add your own, the list is not exhausted.

It gives me a lot of things to work the next x number of weeks.
In these cases I usually give my students a lot of freedom. It starts with touching gloves and is usually 1 on 1 for a number of minutes each round. The fight may or may not end up on the ground. Your opponent may or may not have a weapon hidden in his or her waistband.

It gives me things to work on but is great for students to learn about timing, moving, accuracy, strategy, trying the combinations we did in class etc.
I like to train on specific techniques/ strategies or other objectives

It gets more into the direction of self defense training when we add specific assignments or attacks. One example can be take-downs and defending them. If you want your students not to end up on the ground in a street fight you should give them the tools and opportunity to train those tools.

If you do need to take a fight to the ground it should be on your terms, and you should end up in a dominant position. This is especially for people in security and law enforcement who cannot all the time just hurt their opponent and run away. In my classes the main focus is being able to defend them though. A good reason to teach and train actual good take downs is to provide good training partners.

Some people seem to be very eager to take people down without good reason. This is where concealing training knifes come in handy. If you take the wrong person down you will be facing a knife while wrestling and usually you’ll end up full of holes like a Leerdammer (Dutch cheese).

Another thing I like to do in this situation is adding multiple opponents. Just give the assignment in class that you see a fight on the ground next to you you will “attack” the guy on top. I do not always do this because I also want them to be able to save themselves on the ground rather than stalling the fight until their classmates save them.

Mental objectives
A drill I like very much is where 1 person has to do a take-down but is not allowed to punch or kick. He is allowed to defend him self though. The other guy can move around, punch and kick to keep the guy away from him. Besides a little tactical training for the striker it’s most of all a determination drill for the take-down guy. He will have to get in close despite the attacks. There is no option to jab and step out of range again. He’ll have to get in close again and again.

Sometimes I tie each end of a judo belt up to one of the opponents so they could not step away from each other and had to continue to fight at close range. It’s not supposed to be with a hard impact but to overcome the anxiety of getting close.

With more beginner students we may want to simplify sparring more to work on some other problems that you will see.

People who flinch and panic a lot, people freezing, turning away from the opponent, people bending over too much looking at the ground etc. Obviously hard and realistic sparring is still a bridge too far. In these cases their opponent should have a more coaching job and slow the pace down. Also limiting the amount of techniques will help a lot. If you give them only straight punches to work with and specific defenses from your system , they will improve their thinking process and reaction speed. It will also build confidence better than to just keep hitting them.

I think even beginners should start training what they know under more pressure, but never more than they can handle. Sparring should always be physical and emotionally safe. Even with more advanced students you will see the reluctance to really get inside the distance to make combinations. So sometimes I create exercises where only the rear hand can be used so they have to turn their body in. In this way you can make countless varieties such as specific kicks, combinations, only hooks and uppercuts etc.

Specific attacks
There are specific attacks that happen (a lot) in street fights but not so much in an competition like setting. Think about grabbing a throat with one or two hands to choke, certain bear hugs, knife attacks, stick attacks etc.

One drill I like to use is setting the timer on 15 or 30 second rounds. Each round one guy starts with closing the eyes. The attacker does an attack and the defender defends. The attacker however does not let him defend ,and either tries harder or switches to other methods of attack, resulting in a short intensive sparring round. With knives you can of course let them keep the eyes open, or the attacker will attack the body and the defender will have to feel and then see what is going on and defend the second stab properly, this is pretty intense. It is also a way for me to create more realism and need for specific self defense techniques in the sparring rather then making it look like a boxing or MMA type of match.

Adding multiple opponents is a great tool for tactical training. You can vary the level by varying the intensity and variety of the attacks and number of opponents. This could vary from two opponents doing only straight punches to fully equipped and full contact sparring including weapons and take-downs.


The most important thing is that you set certain realistic training objectives depending of the level of the student. The drills are not supposed to break people down. They should build certain skills that will help them survive in the real world. A side effect is that a lot of people find them challenging and fun. You can vary a lot in drills to keep the classes interesting as well. The point of this article is to express my love for these type of drills and give you ideas.