Sparring is a controlled contest between two opponents. Cuong Nhu training includes two types of sparring, prearranged and free. In prearranged sparring, one person is the designated attacker and the other the designated defender. The attacker uses a predetermined attack against which the defender uses a predetermined counter. Prearranged sparring is useful in learning technique, proper distance, timing, and control. In free sparring, neither person knows beforehand what the other person will do. Each is free to attack at will. Free sparring, therefore, simulates actual combat.
As practiced in Cuong Nhu, free sparring can also be called point sparring. In a competitive match, a point is awarded to the participant who penetrates his opponent’s defenses with a controlled attack to one of the designated strike zones. A controlled attack is one which is willfully “pulled” by the attacker but which is delivered with sufficient strength, power, and precision that the defender would have been injured had full extension and follow through occurred. This type of attack differentiates sparring from a simple “tag” game on one extreme and actual combat on the other.
While the simultaneity and unpredictability elements of sparring often result in light (striking surface touches the opponent) or medium (opponent experiences a moderate, non-bruising impact from the strike) contact, the purpose of sparring is to develop skills and not to injure the opponent. With this in mind, the designated strike zones are limited to physiologically important areas that can sustain such contact easily, either due to structure, conditioning, armoring, or all three. Also, certain targets (e.g., joints and spinal column) as well as certain attacks (e.g., knee and elbow strikes) which are common in self-defense tactics are forbidden for safety reasons in free sparring.
For safety, each participant in free sparring must also wear appropriate protective gear. This includes, but is not limited to, a protective mouth piece, hand and foot pads, and, for men, a groin cup. Improperly equipped participants are not allowed to participate in free sparring, either in class or on examinations.
Free sparring is stressful, and purposefully so. The mental and physical challenges posed by sparring place enormous aerobic and endurance loads on the participants. Several training activities are especially beneficial in preparing for sparring.
• Jumping rope. Jumping rope develops foot mobility and endurance.
• Running. Running improves stamina and breathing.
• Cock fighting. In this pair drill, opponents square off while standing in kicking stance then attempt to unbalance one another by hopping in and attacking each other’s stance using only the inside or outside of the raised thigh. This drill develops hip power, balance, and deflecting techniques.
• Striking to heavy bag or makiwara or drilling with padded gloves. These exercises condition the striking surfaces, build strength, and develop speed and power.
• Face striking. To the uninitiated, contact to the face, in sparring or self-defense, can be so unnerving or shocking that all defenses collapse. Experiencing facial contact in a controlled setting can desensitize students to this occurrence. In this awareness drill, one partner (the slapper) gently slaps the jaw of the other (the slappee) with a loose open hand. At the moment of impact, the slappee turns his chin rapidly in the direction the slap is traveling (i.e., if the left jaw is struck, the slappee’s head turns to the right). As familiarity with the strike and response increases, the speed and strength of the slap should be increased gradually with the permission of the slappee.
• Boxing glove training. Close-in prearranged or free sparring in which light body contact is made with the gloves can condition body and develop mobility.
Sparring teaches many lessons that cannot be taught as effectively in any other way. As your sparring experience broadens, your appreciation for its lessons will increase. Throughout your practice, however, your goals are to:
• Develop timing, power, stamina and endurance.
• Train the body for contact with an opponent by toughening all body areas.
• Learn to deal with moving opponents.
• Learn humility.
• Coordinate body and mind.
• Quicken your mind to move instinctively and strike with precision.
• Sharpen your sensitivity to an opponent so that you respond intuitively.
• Develop efficient self-defense skills.
• Build self-control, confidence, courage, determination, concentration, patience and appreciation.
• Learn to deal with fears, temper, impatience, nervous anxieties and insecurities.
• Make friends by showing sportsmanship.
Ten Don’ts for Sparring
Some students may adapt more easily than others to the challenges of sparring. However, no one becomes adept overnight, and everyone has their own hurdles to overcome. To benefit most from sparring training, remember these key points.
• Don’t be angry. Keep your mind clear and calm.
• Don’t be fearful. Keep your heart peaceful.
• Don’t be tense. Always remain relaxed and save your energy.
• Don’t be in a hurry. Take time to analyze the opponent.
• Don’t waste energy. Strike and kick only when an opening is exposed.
• Don’t be overconfident. Don’t underestimate your opponent.
• Don’t be distracted by outside influences or by the opponent’s fakes and noises.
• Don’t have any preconceived ideas or prejudices.
• Don’t be discouraged or lose calmness when behind in points. Discover your opponent’s weaknesses and reverse the situation.
• Don’t be discouraged if defeated. Work harder with both mind and body.
How to Improve Your Sparring
Sparring technique is very individualistic. Everyone develops a unique response to the demands of offense and defense. While you work on your own style, keep these points in mind.
• Adopt a logical guard position.
Find one that allows you to defend yourself or attack an opponent from any angle and suits your body build. For example, a light or small person should use a short stance, ready to guard or dodge and counterattack with the lead leg.
• Build your defense around the Centerline Principle.
Maintain a centerline that exposes the fewest number of targets. Use shoulders, arms and hands to cover vital points. However, do not duplicate covering. For example, if you cover your jaw with your shoulder, do not use your hand in the same spot because you hinder your vision. Your two hands should cover the centerline, right hand covering the right side and left hand covering the left. The knees should cover the lower abdomen and groin.
• Block remembering the Bouncing Principle.
Do not absorb the energy of your opponent’s attack. Instead, let your defensive counters bounce off of your opponent’s attack and counterattack immediately after or simultaneously with your blocking.
• Defend utilizing the Four Runners Principle. Your hands and your opponent’s hands are like four racing runners whose finish line is your body. Whenever your opponent attacks, one of your runners must win the race, thus interposing itself between the strike and its target.
• Maintain proper distance.
Use maximum reach. Throw the kick when your opponent comes within kicking range, followed up by the punch. Use full extension of your hips when kicking. Raise your knee to be ready for kicking and to cover the groin and lower abdomen. Punch or strike with your shoulder extended and raised to cover the jaw. Readjust your distance every time you miss the target by using foot mobility —slide, hop, slide/hop, double kicks, etc.
• Attack without exposing targets.
It is important not only to cover vital areas, but also to attack without exposing targets. Examine ways to attack and counterattack from all angles and all levels.
• Practice techniques, then combinations.
First, train for reaction time, striking quickly and powerfully with a single technique. Second, put these techniques together in logical combinations which can be delivered with fluidity.
• Strike utilizing the Electric Shock Principle. Strike or kick with speed as if your opponent is electrified and you must minimize your contact to avoid electrocution. Immediately cover the areas left exposed by the attacking technique.
• Remember the 1.2 Principle.
Do not launch a combination attack without varying the time between each of the component strikes. If a combination becomes rhythmic, it becomes predictable. In other words, instead of attacking on a count of 1, 2, use a broken rhythm and follow one technique immediately with another, i.e., a count of 1, 1.2.
• Move laterally.
Open your opportunities for attack by using foot movements to reposition yourself throughout your attack. View your opponent as if using a camera’s wide angle lens and move to the openings.
• Keep moving.
When attacking, keep the body and head moving. Remember, a static target is easy to hit.
• Extend your strikes.
Completely extend arms, body and legs when attacking to protect the body and close the distance between you and your opponent.
• Analyze techniques.
Analyze yourself in front of a mirror using all your techniques in slow motion. Analyze the attacker: Kick the puncher, punch the kicker.
Defensive skill increases with experience. The hard style blocking form of the novice gradually evolves toward the soft style approach of the veteran, although each type of defense may have its place situationally. The evolution of defenses in Cuong Nhu typically follows this progression:
• Block, then counterattack with the other hand.
• Block and counterattack simultaneously (block/punch).
• Block and counterattack with the same hand.
• Grasping block and counterattack simultaneously (grasp/punch).
• Punching block/counterattack (simultaneously).
• Avoid attack without blocking and counterattack.
• Avoid attack without blocking/counterattack (simultaneously).
• Trapping hands (anticipate and trap or redirect and trap).
• Sticky hands (immediate contact redirects attack inward and counterattacks).
Two principles are the same regardless of which of these method is used. Defend the smallest volume of space around your centerline that you can. Intercept the attack as it begins to develop rather than at its full extension. These principles conserve energy and can disrupt your opponent’s timing.
Mobility Strategy in Sparring
The recommended sparring strategy in Cuong Nhu can be summed up in one word: Move. Keep your stance small, and your weight forward on the balls of the feet with a slight arrhythmic spring in your step. Shift your stance and change your orientation and range to your opponent frequently but unpredictably. Just keep moving.
Your motion works to your advantage. It relaxes you, thus making you faster to respond to your opponent. It gives you more angles from which to attack. It makes you harder to hit, and if you are hit, it allows you to minimize the impact by moving away from the strike. It can even save energy by allowing you to avoid collisions with your opponent.
Your mobility also can frustrate your opponent’s attempts to set up for an attack. At the start of the match, your mobility can buy time to analyze the opponent’s defenses and weaknesses or to analyze your own mistakes. In a tournament or timed match, if you get ahead in points, you can use your mobility to avoid your opponent and to use up the remaining time in the match. This tactic may create other scoring opportunities if your opponent becomes impatient and makes mistakes.
Mobility, however, does not imply simply a moving stance. It implies a flexibility in the entire body to respond to an attack. While practicing to be a mobile sparrer, create drills to exercise each of these major motions.
• Head: 10 directions - up, down, forward (north), northeast, east, southeast, backward (south), southwest, west, northwest.
• Shoulders: upward and sideways.
• Upper body: backward and sideways.
• Lower body: backward and sideways.
• Hips: Backward and diagonally backward, absorbing strikes.
• Elbows: Upward, downward and sideways.
• Hands and wrists (example: fish tail block, sideways, up and down or diagonally).
• Knees: 10 directions as for head.
• Feet: Sliding in all directions, jumping, sinking down, floating across the floor.
Sparring in Tournaments
Tournament participation allows us to learn from and expose ourselves to other styles. We are a strong style because of the multi-faceted aspects of Cuong Nhu. However, the tournaments give us a testing ground to evaluate our techniques. Tournaments give you the opportunity to make friends and share in the martial arts experience. You cannot grow if you isolate yourself.
More importantly, it trains our mental attitude and self-control. Learning to win over yourself, not others, is the ultimate aim. When you win over yourself, you become the master of yourself and the rewards are permanent. If you win over others it is only temporary.
Whether you out score your opponent or not, the sparring experience gives you five opportunities to win:
• Win over yourself. Attain self-confidence and self-respect.
• Win your opponent’s respect. Show sportsmanship and self-control.
• Win the respect of the spectators, mediators, judges, etc.
• Win over the situation. Handle it with sportsmanship, class and grace.
• Win the hearts of the people. Earn their respect.