first time sparring

When You Have a Bad First Sparring Experience

Sparring is NOT boxing for fitness. When you get in that ring, everything changes. It’s not like drills, it’s not like working the heavy bag, it’s not like padwork.

Sparring is radically different. Someone is trying to punch you in the face, and when you’re new to it, this can be not only terrifyingly alien, it can be downright demoralizing.

Here’s an email I received recently about exactly that:

I love The Glowing Edge, and it has been an invaluable resource to me as I begin to take the sport more seriously. I wanted to write to get your take on beginning to spar.

I have been going to a boxing gym for two years. The structure of the gym is mostly boxing-for-fitness classes. There’s only one other woman at the gym who spars and I finally had my first experience sparring with her.

I only went three rounds and I was rattled. It’s much more intimidating than I thought. I don’t know this fighter well. I didn’t feel comfortable asking her to ease up, I was worried that it would embarrass my coach and even though I’ve been going at it so hard in classes and training, all of a sudden I felt like there had been a gap in my education.

  1. What can I do to move forward from a first night of sparring that felt sort of demoralizing?
  2. Am I just being a whiny dumbass?

I don’t want to be one of those types who only shows up to sparring once or twice and then fades out. But I don’t know how to approach my coach about this. I also don’t want to go back to just doing classes for fun.

Hey, sparring sister. I know EXACTLY the stage you are in and NO you are not a whiny dumbass. This is 100% normal, and many of us have this same experience. More in a sec. First let me say this…

Sparring takes some getting used to

It really does. It’s a whole different game than pad work, drills, everything. That you went 3 rounds as a newbie is damned impressive. It’s some scary shit, right?

You had your first sparring experience with someone you didn’t really know, and I get that you wanted to not disappoint your coach. Sounds like she kinda overwhelmed you.

Here’s what the BEST sparring partners do for you

The best sparring partners hold themselves TO or JUST ABOVE your level so that you can get some good work without getting hurt or demoralized.

Sure, you may be bruised and headachy, but not so much that you’re like, “I don’t know if I want to do this again.”

The best coaches make sure this happens. But not everybody gets this kind of attention. Just a fact of gym life.

This is why you might not get much help when you’re new to sparring…

Boxing gyms do not survive because pro fighters train there. They don’t make money because someone wants to learn to compete in the amateurs, either. The trainers and coaches are not always even boxers themselves.

Boxing gyms survive financially because people want to get fit, not hit.

That’s just how it is. That’s where the money is, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

However, that means you have to take some initiative if you want to get your higher-level training and sparring work. SO. Here are a few tips for that.

The process of finding and getting to know sparring partners takes time and balls (ovaries?). If your gym doesn’t always give newbies excellent sparring partners who know how to do this, you gotta start building your own sparring program…

How to build YOUR OWN sparring program at ANY gym

1. Get to know some sparring partners.

Good sparring partners are SOLID GOLD to have. So make sparring friends. Travel to multiple gyms if you have to. Trade phone numbers. Friend them on Facebook.

The more you actually know other boxers as friends, the more comfortable you will be talking to them in the ring, letting them know what you need, helping them adjust to you.

Guys are fine for this. Just because you’re female doesn’t mean you have to only spar women. (That is such a bullshit attitude and I see it now and then from coaches.)

In fact, befriend some big guys. Charm them. Ask them for their opinion, for tips on certain moves. They are men, they love this shit. I’m telling you, this works every time. Hello men? Am I wrong? No I am not. 🙂

Let them feel like they are “mentoring” you — because guess what? They actually are.

Then when they’re getting in the ring, ask for their “warm up” rounds. In other words, you’re making it clear that their “warm up” is your “training.” They stop feeling pansy-ass working with a “girl” and start feeling all helpful to a woman.

I know, cheesy manipulation tactics.

But it really does work. Women have to be sneaky-asses sometimes in pursuit of bigger goals.

There will come a day when your rounds are nobody else’s warm ups, and when you’ll shine in the ring. You will be the one all the new people ask for help.

2. Don’t wait until “sparring night.”

Hijack the process and make your own timeline.

I told you this would take balls. Stop being so damn polite!

The more you can pass off your sparring as “just working on some tactics with so-and-so” the more pressure you take off everyone involved, including any coach who might be nearby.

FAKE it till you make it. Pretend it’s all very casual — force it to be. Believe me, that helps SO much.

3. Be consistent.

Keep at it. The longer you go without sparring, the scarier it gets.

I’m still boxing while I stare 50 in the face, and loving every day of it. I love when sparring is magic, and I even love the days when I get my ass kicked (the good kind of ass kicking, not the demoralizing kind).

There’s so much joy and empowerment in this sport; I really hope you’ll stick with it!

Let yourself be a newbie for a few years

You are brand-freaking-new at this. I know it doesn’t seem that way, but boxing takes FOR EVER to get good at.

You’re going to get better at dealing with the punches. You’re going to get better at moving your head and feet. You’ll learn to control the ring.

And you’re going to get to know more and more people in the boxing world the longer you stick with this. This may be the biggest, most life-encompassing challenge you’ve ever faced on a daily basis.

It’s totally worth it.

Photo Credit: kate.gardiner via Compfight cc

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18 Responses to When You Have a Bad First Sparring Experience

  1. Lynette Kelly April 7, 2015 at 6:37 pm #

    Such great advice Lisa! I would say my first twenty rounds of sparring were pretty rough. I’d get so nervous, that I’d actually feel sick. Then afterward, I was so filled with adrenaline that I couldn’t get to sleep at night. Physically and mentally it was a real roller coaster.

    I ended up changing gyms and it has made a huge difference for me. There isn’t any scheduled sparring, but there is always someone willing to train which helps to keep it casual. Usually, one of the guys will say, “Lynette, come in here and move around with me.” They’ll really push me and we work hard, but I never have to deal with the nerves and thoughts of, “I spar Tuesday at 6:00 with Juan; and oh shit I’m gonna get hit in the face.”

    One thing that helped me when it was so difficult in the beginning was to actually write down what I learned in each sparring session. When there is so much to learn and so many things that you always need to be doing, it can just get overwhelming and discouraging. It helps me when I really define exactly what I want to work on during sparring, rather than just hopping in the ring and telling myself to box.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe April 7, 2015 at 7:58 pm #

      Right on, Lynette; and my adjustment period was well over the first 20 rounds. I always got queasy on Friday morning before “sparring night.” It works SO much better to make it informal, doesn’t it?

      And I *love* the idea of writing down what you’re learning. You can’t focus on ALL the ways you suck at the beginning! Just a few is enough. 🙂

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  2. June April 7, 2015 at 9:48 pm #

    Yesss Lisa! I feel like you’re reading my mind sometimes with your blog posts. Thank you for pointing out that it’s ok to be a newbie for a long time. If it feels like it takes forever to get any good at boxing it’s because it does take forever!
    I get so very nervous when I know I’m going to spar, it’s not even funny. I get queasy, gassy, all of it. That in itself drains a lot of the energy I need for the ring. Trying to set a more relaxed, less formal tone is a great idea. I’m going to try it.
    You are so, so right about making friends with guys at the gym and asking them to work with you. Most guys want to help. They all remember being new too.
    A group of us sparred at my gym recently, and a young man was sparring for the first time. He did fine, but I could see that he was hoping to be great his first time out. You do all those freaking drills and bag work but when you step in the ring there’s nothing like it. It can be frustrating!
    You are awesome, girl!

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe April 8, 2015 at 8:02 am #

      Thanks, June, for the “right on!” Isn’t it funny how utterly humiliating our first time in the ring can be? My coach (who is a 2 time heavyweight world champion with the belts to prove it) got in with me on my first time and she didn’t even throw a single punch. I hyperextended my elbow trying to lay leather on her. Couldn’t even get a shot to connect! Until she let me, of course. But I felt like a total idiot. Then I felt like a total idiot for some more rounds on a different night, then some more, and finally some more. 🙂 Eventually I wasn’t a newbie any more, but it took a long time. And you’re right, the biggest consolation is that everybody starts there… High five with a twist, badass.

  3. Niamh April 9, 2015 at 1:57 pm #

    Great read! People get very worked up about sparring, and it can be a lot of fun. But like you say it;s all about the partners. I find (well, found!) sparring in Ireland can be very full-on and tough, people v easily forget about the learning part. A great contrast to Thailand where you are not meant to get hurt when training – you’re supposed to save that for the actual fight as they can fight so much more often then here in the West.

    It takes forever as you say to get even a tiny bit of confidence, but as my favourite motivation sticker says – it’s a slow process, don’t make it slower by quitting 🙂

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe April 9, 2015 at 2:08 pm #

      Outstanding slogan, Niamh, my across-the-pond fight sister. “It’s a slow process, don’t make it any slower by quitting.” Hah.

      And I really found the differences between Thailand and Ireland sparring approaches interesting. Ireland does have that rep; sounds like it’s well deserved.

      And the “save it for the fight” mentality makes sense to me as I’ve watched Sylvie von Duuglas Ittu fight her way PAST 100 fights in Thailand (I think she’s at 107 as of right now). A very different mindset about fighting in Thailand, for certain…

  4. Beckii July 8, 2015 at 6:38 am #

    It’s ridiculous that these instances should happen given the day and age we are in and how far the boxing industry has come in recent years!!!
    Brilliant to see tips to overcome this kind of thing, and mixing in using our womaly charms….amazing!!! x

  5. Skip Grison July 31, 2015 at 2:29 pm #

    I read this post very carefully prior to my first spar, almost three months ago. It really did help with the mental preparation. The idea of getting hit is still disconcerting, but accepting that and acting in the moment is something you can definitely prepare for.

    I had no idea how I’d react. Some people freeze, some people cry. I used this article to help focus and neither of those things happened; I wouldn’t have stopped boxing if they had.

    My partner and my coach were both great. Immensely important, as Lisa writes.

    Lynette Kelly’s advice of writing down your experiences is a great point, and as of today, I’m going to start.

  6. Alesha January 25, 2016 at 6:53 pm #

    Hey there, I started boxing training from scratch about 10 months ago. About 2 months ago I started sparring but only with a girl who was training for a charity fight, and with guys who are very nice, patient and.non-aggressive. After a short break, my training partners have suddenly changed to more serious fighters. Last week I received my first blood nose, and really felt the power of the heavier girl. It is something I really want to stick at but I am sick with nerves and anticipation of sparring. It helps to know others feel the same!

  7. June January 31, 2016 at 4:25 pm #

    HMMMM, maybe train with a Thai fighter to aim like a gun, @ center mass. You head hunt a lot when you start, even when experienced at spirited sparring it’s a natural habit. It’s a game of tag that you must break. I also enjoyed the safety net of having a coach around who can do it all and watch everyone at the same time he is doing any style I’ve tried in 17 years. I have had great coaches who beat off the dangerous people. They may be new, inconsistent, or have an axe to grind. If you plan on fighting, accept the fact you will lose, or chip teeth, and head gear does nothing to prevent flash knock outs and concussions. In fact it can ruin vision. My cauliflower ear, and shins are like a strict boxing only head. Olay Regenerist does nothing for it :). Re: the helmet, I have been run off the road on my road bike and gotten concussions with a hard helmet. Emotions and most injuries heal just fine, a stiff jab will make you tear up and sinuses run even if you are used to them, just take care of yourself, by looking out for certain types of people. I suggest defining your daily conditioning and ring goals. Let other, especially people you who don’t know how hard you want to go. Finally, smile a lot. It confuses YOU. A lot of great content here Lisa.

  8. Heather February 14, 2016 at 3:51 pm #

    I just want to say THANK YOU Lisa for creating this website! I randomly came across your site as I was searching for more info related to boxing (especially from a female perspective). I’m 30 and have been training at a fitness boxing gym for a year and a half. I started sparring a year ago and had a few not so great experiences, so I’ve been hesitant to spar with anyone except my coach. This article in particular has basically described everything I’ve been experiencing thus far in my training. It is so nice to finally find a resource with useful info (and great discussion in the comments!) to help me take my training to the next level. I honestly feel a sense of relief after reading this article! Thanks again for sharing your advice!

  9. Lisa Creech Bledsoe February 14, 2016 at 3:59 pm #

    Hi, Heather!

    Thanks for the kind words; I’m glad you are finding some helpful stuff here. Because boxing can absolutely SUCK if you have no idea what’s normal or good or common. You can get hurt if you don’t take charge of your own learning. Which it sounds like you are doing! Way to go, badass.

    Check back in and let me know how things continue to go for you…!

  10. Fightgearguide.com April 23, 2016 at 4:45 am #

    When reading this post I got all the feeling back of when I had my first sparring session. You are right, no matter how I hard I train with drills and bag work but it turned out nothing like I thought when getting into the first sparring. It infrustrated me a lot after that session. I wished I could have read this post earlier.

  11. Wannabe Boxer Lady July 6, 2016 at 8:04 am #

    I think i love you.

  12. Amrita January 11, 2017 at 12:15 pm #

    Lisa, I have been sparring for about 4 years now but I still do go into meltdown about it. This happens very specifically when the coach gets me sparring right off the bat at the start of class (no warm-up drill or offence-defence drills to start off). He calls me into the ring and I feel a crazy sick jolt inside and then I focus and clamp shut my insides. Its not a good shut-down; more just a way not to succumb to the terror. I seem calm, my insides feel calm, but its more a shut-down shocked calm than a real mindful, strategically thinking calm. Its funny, this happened yesterday. Though he said to me that my boxing is way better in all respects, and that I was calm, I didnt feel effective or good or strong or tactical – indeed I cried and cried in the shower once the fake calm wore off a bit. Does it ever happen that a boxer does well but feels like crap and madly self-critical anyway? What to do about that shock when one enters the ring with no mental or physical warm-up time?

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe January 11, 2017 at 12:21 pm #

      Hi, Amrita, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. And of course lots of us still feel this way, even after a few years. But it seems to me like the trigger (getting into the ring without any warmup or drills) isn’t the smartest way to work a boxer. So perhaps you could arrive early to do some warmups on your own (this is what I did for years) so that you feel prepped and ready for whatever comes your way. The biggest piece of this is how YOU feel about it. And when you feel competent, ready, and prepped, that’s only going to help you. Have fun & work hard, badass. You got this!

      • Amrita January 11, 2017 at 1:25 pm #

        Grateful for your thoughts, Lisa. You are right about the mental prep – I was physically warm after my private 30 minutes on the double-end bag, but my head wasn’t ready to start class with sparring I guess. Another lesson learned for the future. Thanks again, I will keep your words in mind!

  13. Anja June 15, 2017 at 6:36 am #

    Hi there OMG love this article!! I had my very first boxing training session this week 2 days ago …so for the first time in my life I wore boxing gloves and the trainer explained me how to do jabs n crosses.. luckily there was another girl in the class who had the same level of non existing experience as I did so we were paired and done some pad work jab cross etc.

    Then the next day the trainer asked who is up for training so I went and as it turns out it was sparring!!!

    OMFG my second time ever boxing and I didn’t even know how to protect myself properly or how to move my legs – I was always thinking about my movements and while thinking I got obviously the shit beaten out of me…. I didn’t wanna seem like a pussy so I didn’t say anything but as soon as I got into the bathroom the tears started to stream out of my eyes …I felt so light headed like I just got beaten up by some bullies….

    I did have a chat with the boxing trainer after and did tell him I felt like going to a gunfight with a knife … or even less haha

    He said to me it will all make sense and that I learned more in these 45 min of sparring (HARDCORE!) than in 20 pad sessions …

    I went home .. feeling like a pussy failure lol to be quite honest with u I thought oh dear – what have I gotten myself into here.

    I talked to some friends and iced my bruises and took some painkillers for my headache…

    but to be honest I then woke up the next day and I felt proud! My trainer said I ve done very well and this was an advanced class- I was up against some very year long experienced boxers and I didn’t give in much and tried my best.

    I guess every trainer has different ways … and I’m sure if this would happen to some other person it might have ended differently in them just quitting… I just feel much more motivated now tbh. Today I’m getting my mouth guard and hand wraps and cant wait to be fighting these people soon again once I got more experience with the movements and techniques. My main issue is my punches are not quick at all and I do think a lot – but hey I only did 45 min of boxing EVER before I was thrown into the sparring session lol

    So in the end I am very proud and will definitely continue… hopefully no tears next time tho haha

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