A quick survival guide to help you make it through your first sparring sessions in the ring.
This is for beginners boxers, first-timers, and anybody who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Sparring is not about getting beating each other up or fighting for real. It’s about learning how to fight by practice fighting. It’s not a real fight and the goal is not to win. Learn how to survive the rounds so you can have fun and actually learn how to box!
Get Comfortable in the Ring
Stay at your level
This is going to biggest and most important step to learning how to fight (or learning anything, really). STAY WITHIN YOUR LEVEL. 99% of all beginner problems (getting beat up, getting tired, reverting to bad habits, opponent too strong, etc) could have been avoided if only they would just stay within their level.
It’s not possible to learn if you’re never given a comfortable environment to learn. Beginner surfers don’t go down the steepest hill, beginner mountain climbers don’t start on Mount Everest. Beginner boxers should not be going at full power. It’s not only stupid; it’s dangerous.
At best, the only thing hard sparring can do for beginners is make them tough, but it’s not going to give them any skills. It’ll only make them tougher at getting beat up.
So what does it mean to “stay at your level?”
Don’t get in the ring if you don’t feel comfortable. Don’t get in the ring with somebody who’s twice your size, twice your strength, or twice your experience. Don’t get in the ring with somebody who can’t control himself. If your coach or anybody else insists, you better refuse (or at least don’t cry afterwards that you got beat up).
Spar with handicaps on. Go at half speed. Or do jabs only. Or do body shots only. Or get in the ring with a pro who’s skilled enough to stay on defense only. Beginners are not real fighters. They shouldn’t be expected to perform like one. Being comfortable is what allows beginners to work on technique rather than survival. It allows beginners to test out different techniques and to figure out how to move their bodies. They need time to adjust and get comfortable in the ring.
I especially hate seeing beginners quit boxing because nobody gave them a chance to learn. This is one of the biggest reasons for the decline of boxing.
Getting beat up in sparring,
means you’re not sparring at your level.
Keep breathing. Breathe for every movement. Breathe when you punch, when you move, when you defend. Breathe even when nobody tells you to. It’s natural, it’s normal, it’s supposed to happen. If you find yourself unable to breathe, you’re probably not following the most important step—STAY AT YOUR LEVEL.
What the hell does “relax” mean? How can you possibly relax when you’re so busy trying to do things in the ring? I find this concept most difficult to explain to beginners because 1) they come from a mindset of always using tension to create power…and 2) they can’t relax because they’re being pushed out of their limits mentally and physically.
I’ll put it this way: to relax means to…
- Not worry – doesn’t matter if you get hit, doesn’t matter if you lose, doesn’t matter if you look terrible, doesn’t matter if you can’t land anything on your opponent, or if you get tired fast, or if you make a mistake, etc.
- Go slow – there’s no rush to jump around and land a knockout punch. You’ve got a whole 3 minutes to figure things out. Take your time, move around and get comfortable. Punch because you want to, not because you feel like you HAVE to do something. Boxing is not a race.
- Be lazy – remember those lazy days when you sat on the couch watching TV and only got up to get food or go to the bathroom? Try to have the same attitude for boxing. That every time you use energy it’s for a meaningful purpose like punching, or defending. And all other times, you’re looking to save energy and be lazy again. Learn to rest in between your explosive movements. Don’t carry tension all the time.
Find a comfortable boxing stance
Follow every stance rule your boxing gives you; like the elbows down, and chin tucked, and yada yada yada…but find a way to make all that feel comfortable. There is no way you will ever be able to move around, let alone fight, if you don’t feel comfortable in your boxing stance.
This is why you need to shadowbox a lot. Spend time by yourself moving around from your boxing stance and make adjustments to your stance and technique. Too many beginners are skipping shadowboxing so they can spend time on the heavy bag which distracts them by making them focus on power.
Basics of Fight Sparring
Eyes on opponent
If you’re not looking at your opponent, you’re blind. And if you’re blind, you won’t know how to respond to his movements. Not being able to see what you’re opponent is doing, means you won’t be able to defend or counter it. If you’re flinching, you need to slow down the pace.
It’s impossible to aim punches or block punches,
without seeing your opponent.
Focus on learning, not winning
Anytime that you focus on winning, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll never learn anything new. You’ll constantly push the pace too hard and always revert back to your bad habits. You’ll fall back to your same old tried and true techniques instead of practicing new techniques and strategies.
Instead you should adopt a controlled pace and use that opportunity to try new things. Try new punches, new defensive techniques. Throw a few and then move around. Keep moving and keep working. Don’t try to bomb out your opponent the moment you land a few good punches.
Just throw the punches. It doesn’t matter if they’re slow or ineffective or you feel too far away. The worse thing you can do in a fight is nothing. Throw anything out and from there, you can adjust them. Maybe you have to get closer or you have to throw from a different angle, or you have to throw a different combination. But throw something out so that you have something to adjust. You don’t have to be a wild brawler but at least put some shots out there.
Exhale with every punch
The exhalation adds power and speed. Release an exhale with every punch. If you want a sharper punch, use a sharper exhalation. A quick little burst of air is all you need, don’t empty out your stomach on one shot.
Toes pointing at your opponent
Your feet have to be somewhat facing your opponent in order for you to aim your body’s power at him. Keep the front foot pointing at your opponent’s center and your back foot at a 30-45 degree angle. Anytime that your feet off turned away from your opponent, you won’t be able to fire from that position.
Keep your head at chest level or above
Don’t keep your head down so low, it’s hard to punch from that position. Don’t fall into your opponent.
Sparring Tips for Beginners
The jab is your longest fastest weapon
Use the jab if you need to reach in from far away, or to keep your opponent far away. Your opponent cannot reach you with his right hand if your jab is in his face.
When in doubt, trade punches
Can’t see him? Can’t keep him off you? Don’t know what to do? JUST FIGHT! It’s better than eating punches. At least you can hit him back while you eat punches. The closer he gets, the harder you throw. The farther he is, the more measured you can become. If you’re too scared to trade punches, you’re probably not fighting at your level.
The best way to throw blind punches is to aim for his chest. Start your punches there and then start aiming more towards his head once you know where he is.
Block or lean away
The easiest way to defend is to block or lean away. Slipping and footwork is too difficult or too tiring for beginners. I suggest you put your hands up and/or lean your upper body away slightly. You’d be surprised at how many beginner opponents will swing themselves off balance. Throw your counters after he falls.
Circle away from his power hand
If you don’t like his right hand, circle around to his left side. If you’re afraid of his left hook, circle around to his side. It helps to change directions every and now to keep things unpredictable. (If you don’t have any energy to move away, at least keep walking away from his power hand.)
Watch out for one hand
If you can’t see both his hands, try watching for only the left one or the right one. If you want to watch for his right hand: keep your right glove by your face to block jabs and left hooks while you focus all your attention on his right so you can be ready to evade and counter it. Or you can do the opposite, keep your left glove in and wait for him to throw his left hand so you can throw over it. When I was starting out, I would use my guard to block jabs and hooks so I could focus on slipping or ducking the right hands. It was a very simple tactic that worked very well.
Punch at unexpected intervals
Assuming your right hand is the power hand, imagine that your left hand is the small beat and right hand is the big beat. KEep switching up the rhythm to confuse your opponent. For example, you might start with: left-RIGHT-left-RIGHT. Then you switch it to left-left-RIGHT-left-RIGHT (extra left confuses him). Then RIGHT-left-RIGHT. Then left-RIGHT-left-left-left-RIGHT. This way, he has no idea when your power hand will come.
The best way to make this effective is to have a good left hand. Fast sharp jabs and good left hook technique to make him respect your left side. This is what takes his focus away from your strong right hand.
How to Deal with Getting Tired
Beginners suffer from the biggest problems for getting tired: 1) poor conditioning, 2) wasting energy. Now I can’t help you improve your conditioning in one article but you can definitely stop wasting energy with just a few tiny adjustments.
Main causes of how beginners waste energy:
1) Throwing yourself off balance with every punch
This is the number one reason. Most beginners don’t know how to stay balanced when they punch. They throw their entire body weight with every punch and while it’s easy to feel powerful this way, it’s damn near impossible to pull yourself back after the punch (ESPECIALLY when you miss). You’ll find that many beginners use a lot of energy to stay balanced whereas the more advanced guys are always balanced and use all their energy for punching.
You can test your technique right now by shadowboxing. If throwing punches with full power at the air makes you tire quickly, your punching technique needs some serious work. Throwing off-balanced punches at the heavy bag is easy because the bag holds you up and bounces your energy back at you.
2) Using tension to create speed and/or power
Imagine yourself quickly slapping a fly in the air with your hand. Now imagine yourself FLEXING your entire arm first AND THEN slapping away the fly in the air. The problem with beginners is that they punch with unnecessary tension similar to that second example. And because the tension actually hinders their movement, they have to use even more energy to overcome that tension. Use a strong core and relax the rest of your body to create power. If you don’t know how to use your core to punch, just remember that you don’t need tension in the upper body to create power.
3) Throwing when you’re out of breath
A beginner’s breathing will only allow for 3-5 powerful punches at time. Anymore and it’s like you’re trying to sing a long note when you’re already out of air. Trying to generate power when you’re out of breath only exhausts your core. Later as you get better, you’ll become more efficient and learn how to generate the same power while using less air.
4) Moving with panic attitude
Unnecessary tension is very much a psychological problem. You will always have unnecessary tension if you’re always being pressured to move. There’s a difference between moving fast because you want to be fast and moving fast because you’re afraid something’s going to happen. Imagine yourself turning your head over quickly to look at something on TV, vs turning your head over quickly because something startled you. In both cases, you turned your head quickly but in the second instance you had tension because something scared you. Be fast but without panicking.
5) Unpurposeful tension
All energy that you generate should do something. All explosive energy should be used for attacking. Too many fighters waste their explosive energy for defense or movement, even the skilled ones. Defend calmly, defend slickly….but then attack explosively. If you waste your explosive energy on defense or movement, it’ll make your punch less powerful. This is why you need to become slick with your defense. I take a quick step or a quick slip with my head and then I counter with an immediate sledge hammer. What I don’t do is jerk my head with all my back muscle and try to reverse that momentum with a counter-punch.
Getting Tired is Part of the Game
Getting tired is normal, natural. It’s part of boxing. The stronger you get, the more strength you will use. The more energy you have, the more energy you will use. Asking me how to avoid getting tired in the ring is like asking me how to avoid getting tired after a workout. It’s not possible. The better you get, the better your opponents get. Getting tired is part of the fun.
I can’t stop you from getting tired and I’m not even sure I want to. Instead of focusing on energy conservation, try instead to think about effectiveness. Learn how to use your energy in the most effective way possible.
Making Positive Assessments after Sparring
The only thing worse than an opponent beating you up is you beating yourself up. I don’t get why people like to put themselves down. Don’t waste your time on negative thoughts that won’t improve your boxing performance–it’s not necessary. Focus on what you did wrong. Focus on what you did right. Improve what you can. That’s it. Any energy that you spend thinking about ANYTHING ELSE is a waste of energy.
Don’t waste your time wondering if you have what it takes to be champion. Don’t waste your time crying about why you weren’t fast enough or good enough. Don’t waste your time complaining that you didn’t feel as good this week as you did last week. That crap doesn’t matter.
Find out what you did wrong. Find out what you did right. Improve what you can. Try again. Repeat.
What did I miss? Got any more tips for beginners?