What to Know Before Sparring

What You Should Know Before You Spar

I have written about what you can expect the first time you spar, but my friend Amy Scheer — also a boxer — recently asked me what I thought a new boxer should know before getting in the ring for the first time.

She also framed the question this way: Which Comes First, the Learning or the Doing? You should definitely click through and read about her experience. The post below is my response.

There are two schools of thought in boxing.

The first — and the one through which I came into boxing — says that you have to earn the right to get in the boxing ring.

The second says throw ’em in, knock ’em around, wait to see if they are “man” enough to come back for more.

I’m sitting here trying to think of a justification for the hard knocks school, and I can’t. I think it’s bullshit, to be honest. I think it’s usually a way for the guys who are already “in” to keep all the others out. It’s all about who’s king of the hill. A boy’s game, not even a man’s.

But the way I came in isn’t easy either. Anyone who has ever rolled under the ropes knows just how frightening it can be. You don’t know what will happen, how you will hold up; you may not even know who you’ll be in with and whether or not you can trust them. That’s why I say again and again that the single most important thing you can have going for you in boxing is an outstanding, trustworthy trainer.

A good trainer trumps everything else

From the outside, boxing looks like an individual sport, but that isn’t actually the case. Not only do you need a great trainer, you also need a crew of boxers around you to encourage, support, challenge, and work with you. But even if you don’t have a team, you must have that trainer.

My trainer made sure I had several things before I got in the ring for the first time. And since I had such an outstanding trainer and such a great experience coming in to the sport, I’ve naturally copied her in pretty much all of my basic approaches to boxing. (Any mistakes I make, however, are my own!)

A rant, before I move on

I need to get this out there. Putting two inexperienced boxers in the ring for the first time together is minimally useful at best (what can they possibly learn?), and dangerous at worst.

Would you ask someone who doesn’t know how to swim to get in the pool and help your child learn to swim? Of course not. That’s ridiculous.

Sure, they can both splash around in the shallow end and maybe they’ll be fine, but did they learn to swim? Did they gain skills? Have they moved forward?

About the only good thing you can say about that situation is that they both got to get in the water. How much better it would be if they both got to get in the water with someone who can teach them something and also keep them safe?

Okay. I feel a little better. Onward.

Have some basic conditioning

Before I began sparring, my trainer ensured I had a basic level of conditioning. I had come to her gym with what I thought was decent cardio (I’d been running regularly), but I didn’t realize that boxing is more like a series of hard, three-minute sprints rather than a lovely string of 10 minute miles.

She got my cardio up enough to make it through a single round my first time. Ever try to sprint for 3 minutes without stopping? Yep, that’s pretty much what it felt like.

She wanted to instill in me from the beginning a principle of boxing that sounds easy but is actually incredibly difficult: you fight until the bell rings. You don’t quit partway through. You come out working and you finish the round. Period.

Bonnie made sure I could go a round before she put me in for one.

Use your jab

Before I got in the ring for the first time I had a crappy but dogged jab.

I knew from repeated drills that a jab was the foundation for all of the punches in boxing. I didn’t yet know how to advance on the jab, but at least I had something to get out there in front of me so that I could force my opponent to stop an advance.

I know a jab can also be offensive, but most new boxers need some basic defense before they worry about offense; chances are that they’ll be in the ring for their first sparring experience with someone who is — hopefully — much better at boxing than they are. A solid jab will help protect you in this situation.

Keep your gloves up

It was the one piece of advice Amy got before she rolled into the ring for the first time, and it’s good advice. “Cover up,” her trainer said. “Protect yourself.”

This goes with a defensive jab; you need to bring that glove right back to your chin and keep it there, parallel to the other glove. It’s like having two big pillows in front of your face; they will deflect and dilute the power of a punch to your face.

It’s also good to keep your elbows in and your chin down, but that’s more advanced. Still, a tight guard is what you need for protection, because slips, ducks, and other evasive moves won’t come until later.

Never mind about footwork

I’d love to say that a first-time sparring student should have footwork, but it isn’t likely that they will. You might have practiced some footwork, and you should certainly understand the basics of stance, balance, and how to move without crossing your feet, but chances are that once you get in the ring for the first time all that will fly out the door and you will mostly forget about your feet because you just have too many other things screaming for your attention.

The four biggies, and knowing what’s coming

So there are basically four things I think a boxer should have before getting in the ring: a good, trustworthy trainer, some basic conditioning, a jab, and a tight guard (gloves up, chin down, elbows in).

The thing for a new boxer to know is that they are going to hit and be hit.

That is a crazy thing to get your head around for someone brand new to the sport; especially if they’ve never hit anyone in their entire lives up to that point.

Bonnie didn’t actually throw any punches at me the first time I was in the ring. She just let me throw them and feel what it was like to be in, moving hard, working my jab. The second time she threw easy punches, let me feel about half of her power. It was terrifying at first, but once I realized I could take it — and give it! — I was amazed. It was invigorating. I loved it!

Sticking with it

It got harder, of course, and I nearly always dreaded sparring nights, but I went.

Because I knew what every boxer knows after a while: you can work the drills and train for cardio all you want, but the real learning happens in the ring.

 Image by Steve Tolcher

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19 Responses to What You Should Know Before You Spar

  1. Amy Scheer September 15, 2011 at 10:52 am #

    Good points, Lisa. And last week, one of the trainers deflected my call for more help with this: You just need to get in the ring. I do think it’s time. I can tell because I’m excited, rather than overly fearful.

    The other thing I noticed is I get all nervous and worked up when I’m trying to learn something on the bag or whatnot, but the minute someone faces me to show me the combo in context of a real body, I’m all over it. Call me violent, but that’s why we’re there, right?

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe September 15, 2011 at 11:56 am #

      I think I do my best learning in the ring, especially when there’s a trainer there to slow things down, point things out, or make me work on one or another very particular skill while I’m in.

      I think it’s interesting that you get nervous while working on the bag. Is that about thinking too hard? I remember early on, feeling so much frustration at not being able to get certain things right while working drills or on the bag. Bonnie and Jay both used to get on me about that.

      It can be difficult to get one’s body *and* brain working smoothly together! Or maybe it’s just me 🙂

  2. Girlboxing September 16, 2011 at 5:49 am #

    Right on, sister! And absolutely right, throwing someone into the ring to get the crap beat out of them is not boxing, training or anything else. All that’s happening is the possibility of a beat down.

    As for progression in the sport, focus mitts, heavy bags, et al, can only bring a boxer so far, after that it’s an *applied* science that comes from the experience of doing plus a lot of magic. Those sorts of skills can only be learned in the ring. Sure, you can have the greatest left hook your trainer has ever seen on the double-ended bag, but if you don’t learn when and how to throw it as a practiced art, it won’t mean anything. And Lisa, you’re right about footwork it’s the first thing to go for the novice boxer in the ring ’cause It’s all you can do to throw more than one highly telegraphed punch at a time!

    If I can offer anything it is to day, relax, have fun, and go into the ring with someone you trust whonis also there to help you apply the things you know into the context of the ring.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe September 19, 2011 at 10:50 am #

      “…it’s all you can do to throw more than one highly telegraphed punch at a time!”

      That was funny. And so, so, so true!

      Also, I liked how you named boxing as an “applied” science. That gets at the whole notion of learning by sparring in a very succinct way.

  3. niamh September 19, 2011 at 7:02 am #

    Interesting. I think I have an approach somewhere in the middle of your way – but it would vary depending on whether the person learning is thinking about becoming a fighter or is someone looking to improve their technique by putting it to work. Footwork as you say is key and that’s something you need to practice before but won’t get together until someone is coming at you with a punch – soft or hard! I’ve seen guys who can work it all on the bags or the kick-pads but lose it when even the gentlest of pressure is put on them and the only way to know whether you are that person or not is to get in there. Lots of people box and rarely spar in their sessions cause they’re focused on the fitness, someone like that I wouldn’t push into sparring at all until they are ready. But others are ready, they just don’t know it 🙂 Suppose you could sum this up by saying it’s different for everyone, but supervision is the key.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe September 19, 2011 at 10:56 am #

      I’m with you, Niamh; I think boxing makes for great fitness and I wholeheartedly applaud anyone who does it, but you’re totally right in that not everyone who boxes for fitness wants to get in the ring. Learning to spar is really only for people who just love the sport so much that they want to try it out in the ring, or for those who really do want to compete.

      And I hadn’t even considered the fact that some people might be ready to spar, but just don’t know it! I bet you have a story around that…

  4. Els September 19, 2011 at 11:50 am #

    I’d like to point out a third school of boxing – the one we follow in my gym. In my gym, everybody spars. Not in the ring, that’s for the folks that want to compete, but on the floor (we have a big floor).The second time I walked into my gym I had to spar already, but I didn’t have to go in the ring and no one beat me up. Or well, the girl I sparred with, did beat me up but told me how to cover myself up at the same time. So the third round I was able to actually land some punches and block hers.
    Basically, this combines both schools you mentioned, Lisa. We’re thrown right in the water, but with someone who can swim already. And I am glad I learn to box this way, because 1. I loooooove sparring! To me, it’s the best part of training. 2. I understand combinations better 3. I know what I have to focus on in shadow boxing (right now, it’s body shots & head movement), so I feel this way enriches my training. Oh, and did I mention I love sparring?

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe September 19, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

      Hi again, Els!

      One of the gyms I periodically visit here does that, too. They have a huge warehouse with lots of space for fencing (they are primarily a fencing gym, but boxing and kickboxing are a secondary offering). They routinely have boxers pair up for drill and combo practice on the floor, and it works out really nicely.

      It doesn’t have the pressure of consecutive 3 minute rounds (unless you’re actually using consecutive 3 minute rounds :)) or the space you normally have to control in the ring, but it’s still good, solid work. I like doing that myself, and I wish my current gym used this training tactic more.

      I would agree with you — it definitely enriches training.

  5. Girlboxing September 19, 2011 at 6:01 pm #

    This all gets to the heart of a lot questions about old school trainers. My first trainer thought you could only teach boxing by sparring in the ring and eschewed things like focus mitts for precisely that reason. He used the slip rope, shadow boxing, heavy bag and sparring as his method for teaching boxing.

  6. Keeny September 26, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    Whoa! Never knew there was so much to learn, I wonder how much importance does the mental strength play during a game.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe September 26, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

      Boxing is more than half about mental fortitude, I think. Anybody can do the cardio and other training. But how you feel mentally will be the real key to doing well in the ring.

      Like Mike Tyson says, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” You gotta be ready for that, mentally.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Keeny.

  7. Brian September 27, 2011 at 1:56 am #

    Boxing is a great sport. I learned how it can improve breathing, focus and speed. It is great that you have an amazing coach that often gets you motivated and inspired. I like reading about you tips in boxing. It is really great that you are now able to take harder hits and enjoy the sport.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe September 27, 2011 at 9:40 am #

      Thanks for the kudos, Brian. Sounds like you do some boxing yourself.

      You’re also linking to a pretty spammy site…

  8. Travis Tilton September 27, 2011 at 11:19 am #

    Hi Lisa,

    Just a quick note that you have another blog fan. Well done, great writing, and some learning to boot!



    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe September 27, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

      Your note is much appreciated, Travis.

      I looked over at Critical Sourcing and saw a blog post with two scary-looking fighters illustrating your business post. Niiiice!

      Thanks for taking the time to let me know you’re getting something out of what you find over here.

  9. Charlie Seelig October 10, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    What keeps coming up, for newbies and the experienced hands, are those three-minute sprints (or equivalent). And those only prepare you, but can’t duplicate the experience of doing everything else you need to do in the ring, along with breathing. Sometimes, remembering to breathe is difficult and you’ll find yourself, by the end of the round, concentrating just on that, instead of everything else. So, somehow, learn to breathe, not just when fully exerting yourself, but when everything else is happening. Perhaps it is another “muscle memory” exercise, just as learning to throw the jab becomes.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 10, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

      Amen to 3 minute sprints, Charlie. There’s absolutely no better way to train for 3 minute rounds than 3 minute sprint training sessions.

      Sometimes I get frustrated with one of my coaches, who prefers to remove all round breaks and have us go for a solid half hour of rounds. We ease back on our pace in order to manage it, and that doesn’t help in the ring…

      • Amy Scheer October 10, 2011 at 2:47 pm #

        These are good reminders. (Thank you for initiating the discussion.)

        If it makes you feel any better, Lisa, my gym wears everyone out on sparring night–before the sparring begins. It’s purposeful! I was told, To train you what to do when you’re tired.

        Another approach, I guess? Valid or not?

        • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 10, 2011 at 8:11 pm #

          Certainly nothing wrong with that, Amy, but you should also get fresh sparring work. It’s more dangerous in some ways because if you’re in with a fresh kid who doesn’t know how to give you good work (read: they try to kill you), someone can get hurt. Gotta have a great, trustworthy trainer and be willing to use your words and punches to back up your needs.

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