By Neil Perkins
A boxing gym can be a pretty intimidating place to enter, especially if you are worried about your physical condition. I am sure we have all seen the scene in Rocky 3, when Rocky goes back to train with Apollo Creed at his gym? The whole gym stops and stares menacingly at him and there is silence as they give Rocky ‘the eye of the tiger’ For many of you, I know that is how you feel when you approach a sparring session for the first time or that’s what you think will happen if you progress your journey to start sparring.
Despite us welcoming everyone into our training environment, we are amazed that when someone has trained with us a while they often reveal how intimidated they felt before entering the gym. Now this is the apprehension people get before starting a non-contact boxing squad, when knowing they are starting sparring, this apprehension is doubled.
Let me share something with you, that is the fear and apprehension that all levels of boxers get on approaching a new environment and it is perfectly normal. I recall entering David Hayes gym as a paid sparring partner and watching him warm up shadow boxing. For all my talk and comments on social media, now I had to try and expose the ‘weaknesses’ I had seen on TV. Now my swagger of chest high and strutting around was masking the little boy inside whose bottom lip was quivering and wishing he had a sick note from home. Now a responsible and professional coach (professional in approach, not title) will realise that all boxing is appropriate to levels and that fresh faces in sparring need to be taken and nurtured in basics and progressively built up, as I have evolved my systems for training recreational boxers and then progressed onto training elite level amateurs and pro’s, I see how the best boxing coaches in the country work. There isn’t a lot different how I progress a white collar recreational boxer to how you would slowly progressively develop a top professional. Progression through the levels is the key to athlete/ boxer development.
Now coaches in all sports and in all aspects of fitness can be guilty of overtraining their athletes/ clients. Not overtraining in terms of pushing them too hard (that can be the case also) but overdeveloping them. There are basic cornerstones in any sport. A rugby player needs to be able to handle a ball, pass effectively and tackle. A footballer needs to be able to control the ball, dribble and pass. A boxer needs to be able to jab, cross and block/parry a jab (with his glove not his face). We all know that these three sports have many further layers, some footballers can pass a ball through your legs and run round you or hit a volley goal from 30 yards. Advanced rugby teams can sucker your defence in for 10 phases of play keeping narrow, before spreading the ball wide to look for the try. A clever boxer can feint a shot to set another shot up and then touch you upstairs before whipping a hook to your body. Now coaches yearn for the athlete that can test them and that they can show every ounce of their knowledge to and sometimes they are guilty of trying to progress their athlete too quickly and in essence what they are doing is showing off – you have to develop and teach good basics before you can teach advanced things.
- What use is a footballer who can put a ball through some-ones legs and run round them, but is incapable of square pass?
- What use is a rugby team that knows how to sucker a defence in for 10 phases before spreading wide, if they can’t tackle?
- What use is a boxer who knows how to feint to draw shots if he can’t block a jab?
You only need walk the gym floor in a commercial gym to see personal trainers showing off. A client doing a single leg squat on a TRX – the same client that has inadequate range of motion to bodyweight squat, plyometric circuits in the studio with box jumps and death jumps on a deconditioned client and incline bench press to hit ‘the upper pectorals’ of someone who has no muscle mass. Very often all done very loudly to promote ‘what they know’ so others will overhear and be drawn to their business. When I worked as a PT at Fitness First, I had the same training workshop teaching us how to use ‘visually engaging workouts’ and how to position ourselves so that we were visible at all times ‘In the shop window’ and how to use ‘buzz words’ to generate interest– Bull shit baffles brains! Oh I forgot that training was about the coach not the athlete.
Back onto boxing – to spar or not to spar? We have assembled a team of boxing coaches (not personal trainers) who are vastly experienced in coaching all levels of boxer. If you are looking to start sparring you need to ensure you have an appropriate trainer and appropriate levels of sparring partner. We have cohorts on various levels which ensures that you have appropriate sparring partners to progress with. Our system of running beginners intro sparring periodically in blocks, ensures that boxers can evolve as a group over a progressive 4 week programme.
Why would you want to start sparring?
I ask myself the same question? It is an illogical and irrational process, voluntarily getting into a ring with another human being and attempting to punch each other in the face and body, it is very often down to personal progression. Many people have used boxing as a vehicle to get fit and lose weight and consequently they have learnt the art and intricate nature of adjusting your feet, throwing shots and keeping balance. Very often, they will want to put their new found skills to the test – sparring is the natural progression and when it comes to gauging your boxing ability/ skills, nothing beats sparring.
What to expect from sparring
Some ‘coaches’ believe certain things…..
- ‘Throw them in the deep end and they will learn to swim’
- ‘You have to learn not to let punches bother you’
- ‘You have to take one to land one’
Let me clarify
- ‘Throwing people in the deep end doesn’t teach them to swim, it teaches them to drown’
- ‘Always be bothered about being punched, when you don’t mind being punched – retire’
- ‘Return fire once hit, but never take one to land one, if someone hits you once, hit them three times’
By following the simple progressive principals of teaching basics well, our beginners intro sparring (or any intro sparring) will/ should teach you how to block a shot effectively (hand defence), how to step back from a shot effectively (foot defence) and how to slip a shot effectively (slip defence) whilst progressing you along whilst increasing punch speed and volume. You should never be ‘not bothered about being hit’ rather, you should learn through progressive increase in levels in sparring to be comfortable under pressure when someone is trying to hit you and learn how to relax and utilise hand, foot and slip defence under pressure whilst looking for opening and learn when and where it is appropriate to fire back with shots. You should expect to learn from every spar, but need to learn to treat it as that – a learning curve and development. Work on aspects of your boxing and follow a coach’s advice. From my experience boxers who win spars don’t often win fights.
When a boxer starts sparring, it will take their boxing to a new level. I can watch someone on a punch bag and shadow boxing and I can see who spars and who doesn’t. Their movements are more thoughtful, their weight is over their back foot, their hand re-cycling is better and punches are crisper and cleaner. They will also feint before punching, throw in phases and never take their eyes off the bag. The difference between the fitness boxer and the sparring boxer is immense and an experienced coach can spot it a mile off. Consequently it is like the boxer’s world is in colour, not black and white and their workouts become more intense and more focused.
I would advise anyone, even the fitness boxer, does some level of sparring – even if it is only technical level. It will focus your workouts and give your bag, pad and shadow work more engagement. Accept the levels of boxer, boxing on a show isn’t for everyone nor is being a world champion. As much as we say you should detest being hit, in order to progress for a fight, in the final few weeks prior to boxing you will need hard, open sparring that is likely to result in bruising, nose bleeds and injury. This is why appropriate levels of sparring are needed for appropriate levels of boxer for appropriate phases in their training/ development. If you want to progress to the next level of boxing, you will need to progress and learn from the next level of sparring process. This learning can take you back to basics and result in getting hit and learning how to acclimatise and develop before you conquer. As you step up in levels, this can be a painful process.
If you are a member at our gym and would like to take your pugilist journey to the next level and start sparring then speak to one of the coaches and jump in on the next round of beginners intro sparring. This session will allow you to progressively step up in levels and learn – without getting thrown in the deep end. If you train elsewhere check that you have a suitable coach, suitable level of sparring partner and good luck.
Remember nothing beats sparring.