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First Time Sparring: Last Minute Advice

You’ve done your heavy bag work, your partner drills, pads, and roadwork. Now you’re getting your chance in the boxing ring. It’s going to be your first time sparring and when you’re not thinking about puking, you’re stoked.

And a thousand questions are running through your head. How hard should you hit? How many rounds can you go? Will you suck? Will you embarrass yourself? Will all your hard training pay off? Will you be able to take a hit and keep going?

Congrats on a huge milestone in your training. Sparring is the holy grail of boxing; it’s even better than a fight, since you get to do so much more of it. Here are a couple of articles I’ve already written that may be useful to you:

What You Should Know Before You Spar

What to Expect the First Time You Spar in Boxing

So. Last minute words of advice? You bet.

1. It’s not about how hard you punch.

Remember, if you hurt your sparring partner, you don’t have a sparring partner any more. First time boxers tend to let their fear power their shots; do what you can to calm yourself before ringtime so that you don’t drain your energy with nerves and so that you don’t throw hard and wild.

2. Gloves up, chin down, elbows in. Keep a jab going.

If you can do nothing else, do these four things. The first three keep you from getting hurt, and the jab should keep you working on some kind of offense. Jabs and straight rights are enough for your first time sparring. Don’t sweat it if that’s all you can remember to do.

If you can remember all this and still have room to think and work, then keep your head and feet moving so you don’t eat every punch that’s thrown. (But that’s advanced.)

3. Tell your partner it’s your first time sparring.

Your trainer should let you go in with someone much more experienced than you, so that your partner can evade your wild stuff and bring the game to your level so you can get good work.

Unfortunately, not all gyms are so careful. In that case, here’s what you do…

4. Set the bar — go in punching with about half your power.

That should elicit a response that is at about the same level.

If your partner ignores your “bar” — i.e., the level of power you’ve set — then you can either tell them to turn down their heat OR you simply return the power. Careful here, this is how inexperienced people get hurt.

5. Decide how many rounds you’ll go in advance.

If you regularly train on the heavy bag and have no problem making it through six rounds in a row, you can most likely make 3 decent rounds in the ring.

If you’ve been doing Tabata workouts (I like mine with 40 seconds of ultra-intense exercise — like a sprint — with 20 seconds of rest, 4 times in a row) three times a week, you’ll have the sprint capacity you’ll need for 3 rounds.

Some people say if you can run a 5k in less than 30 minutes you’ll be able to go 3 rounds — NOT the case at all!

What you need is anaerobic conditioning, not aerobic conditioning. This means your body has to perform without enough oxygen. So measure yourself with sprints or hard 3 minute rounds of any exercise where you go all out, then recover 30 seconds, then go all out again.

For your first time sparring, don’t go over your round limit because you’ll be boxing exhausted and you are more likely to get injured.

 6. Be willing to roll out after one or two rounds, if needed.

Be friendly, thank your opponent, but avoid injury! Injuries suck, because they keep you out of the ring. Ring time is the holy grail! And you can always wait out a few rounds and roll back in.

7. Pace yourself.

If you come out guns blazing, you aren’t going to make it to the end of your first round. If you throw several flurries in a row, you’re gonna get gassed.

Throw singles, doubles, flurries (if you can), and intersperse them with some defense and good footwork. This is really important because you don’t yet have a sense of how much energy sparring will suck out of you.

Later (not your first time sparring!) when you’re practicing, include 30 second sprints at the end of every round. My current sparring partner and I go toe-to-toe for inside fighting at the 30-second bell at the end of every round. This helps us build capacity for 30 seconds worth of flurry work. You can also do it in shadow boxing or bag work by using the last 30 seconds of every round for one-two punching as fast as you can until the bell rings. Killer.

 8. Fight till the bell rings.

This is crucial. You really do want to try and make it to the bell, no matter what. Train that way, think that way, fight that way. This is the sport we’re in, and finishing the round is a major indicator of your ability to make it in the sport. Unless you have an injury, fight till the bell rings.

9. Final word: It’s normal to be afraid. Fight anyway.

Everybody’s scared. I’ve been doing this for years and I still get gut churn when I’m sparring with someone new. It doesn’t take a hero to fight when you’re not scared; the real champion is somebody who will be terrified but roll under those ropes and get to work anyway.

 Congrats on your first time sparring! I hope you’ll report back here (or email me at Lisa [at] The Glowing Edge [dot] com) and let me know how it goes for you, whether any of this advice was useful, and what lessons and advice you have to share as well.

And a huge thanks goes out to Michael Smith, a new boxer who emailed me to let me know he was about to have his first sparring session and got me started thinking about this again. Be sure to check out his boxing blog over at The Road to Pugilism. Kick ass, Michael!

Creative Commons image by Fabio Macòr on Flickr

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17 Responses to First Time Sparring: Last Minute Advice

  1. Hillari September 15, 2012 at 2:49 am #

    I like the suggestion in number seven! I gas out too early in the second round of sparring. We do burn outs on the bags in the gym every so often, but I’m going to start doing the 30 second burn out each time I’m on them now.

  2. Lisa Creech Bledsoe September 17, 2012 at 8:29 am #

    Hi, Hillari — The only trick to it is that you have to have the kind of timer that sounds the final 30 seconds of the round. I love that about our gym’s timer.

    Did you get any good matches in the park this summer?

    • Hillari September 21, 2012 at 9:43 pm #

      Hi Lisa! I may have a match on September 28th at the annual boxing show at the field house. A coach at another field house has already asked if I would be interested in a bout with one of his female fighters. I believe that particular field house has the most female fighters out of all the boxing gyms run by the city’s park district.

      • Lisa Creech Bledsoe September 23, 2012 at 3:50 pm #

        Woah, that’s in just a few days. You ready? Well, I guess you ARE or you wouldn’t be interested! Yay for you — I’ll try to remember to check in and see how it goes. I know you’ll post on your site. BEST to you!!

  3. kimber September 18, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    hi lisa,
    i’ve been lurkily reading your blog for a couple months now (went all the way back to the first boxing entries) and just wanted to pop out of the shadows to say cheers! you’re a wonderful writer, and you capture the joys of the boxing addiction in such meticulous and vivid detail.
    thanks for the great reads!

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe September 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

      SOOO glad you decided to comment and let me know you were here, kimber! It makes my entire day — my week, my month! — to know you are reading and enjoying… What a gift, thanks so much. 🙂

  4. kimber September 21, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    You are so welcome, lady! It’s so wonderful to stumble across someone who is as crazy about boxing as I am, and you are so generous with your encouragement and advice for others. Thanks for the heart you put into this blog, it is very inspiring!

  5. Roy February 13, 2013 at 4:55 pm #

    I got my nose broken in first sparring session, when can I go back?

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe February 13, 2013 at 5:33 pm #

      Ouch! Sorry to hear it, Roy. Check with your doctor, of course, but if it were me, I’d wear a face cage in sparring until it heals. Either that or be on offense only. No fun, I know. 🙁

  6. Dean October 28, 2013 at 2:52 am #

    My first time sparring was a bit of a shock. The entire gym stopped to watch since I turned a few eyes when I hit the bag and pads etc. That certainitly made me even more nervouse and my sparring partner trying to take my head off didn’t make it any easier. So my advice is even though you might throw your punches very well outside the ring in training it takes a while before you can bring that into the ring. But it will come with time.

  7. Alex December 23, 2013 at 9:57 pm #

    Hi Lisa, Lovely article. My question is, is the headache/hangover you describe normal after sparring sessions especially when you ware out or gas. I have been sparring for quite a while and in the beginning as you would expect the headaches were a lot worse then they are currently as i got tagged a lot more. Thanks for your help

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe January 2, 2014 at 10:07 am #

      Hey, Alex— For me, the headaches are worst when I’m sparring in the ring longer and being hit harder. It happens the most if I’m working with heavier partners than me. And in order to be able to spar more, I’ve really restricted my sparring work to partners who can control their power. Not everybody has that luxury, I know.

      And it’s true that the newer you are to boxing, the more you get tagged. Just a fact of the sport. That will change as you improve.

      Btw, I also used to get headaches if I wasn’t hydrated enough (sweltering hot gym, dead of summertime), but that rarely happens anymore because I’m paying better attention to getting plenty of water.

      Stay strong, keep fighting!

  8. Rob September 23, 2015 at 11:32 pm #

    I didnt read this until after my sparring session, today. I am glad to know that feeling far below par aerobically is normal. I did eight 2 minute rounds, separated by 1 minute rest. I was pretty much running on force of will after the first two rounds. I managed to run a few combos here and there, and some of my partners took it too easy on me (I aporeciated the thought, but not sure it was the right thing to do. I guess its good for morale, giving me hope.)

    As far as post fight, I am now four and a half hours in. I didnt think I was knocked too hard anywhere, but I keep thinking my left side head, above the ear, is going to be a little sore. I’ve taken some ibuprofen prophylactically, hope its fine.

    As far as jitters, I really had none. I had no problem with walking away from people who are too hard, but I just never got that beaten up.

    On the other hand, being gassed made it VERY hard to keep pace with what was going on. When i went to hit, there were what seemed like 20 fists working back at me. Hope that subsides. Before being gassed though, I was a little proud dodging for a bit, and actually landed some good combos.

    Overall, a good experience (so far), looking forward to next week sparring.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe September 24, 2015 at 10:36 am #

      Sounds like you did really well, Rob. You clearly have a good gym and/or sparring partner. And eight rounds is a LOT, when you’re first getting started. Not really much you can learn after the first few, simply because you don’t have the gas. But that gets better as you get into boxing shape. Keep at it, and see if you can get sparring at least once or twice a week. I’ll look forward to hearing from you again!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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