Tournament Sparring vs. Street Fighting

Today, I’d like to talk about the difference between sport martial arts and street martial arts. Sport sparring and street fighting are not the same, and today’s martial artists must be aware of the difference.

There are all kinds of people with opinions about tournaments. They range from those who dedicate their lives to the competition to people I’ve heard say that padded gloves were the worst thing to ever happen to martial arts. Strong stuff.

Kicking high at a sparring tournament.
Kicking high at a sparring tournament.

My personal opinion is that tournaments are a great motivator.

They promote friendly competition, give us a chance to practice sportsmanship, and create a sense of a wider community. They also make us more well-rounded martial artists.

At NWSMA, we do focus largely on traditional martial arts (forms, basics), as well as street fighting and self-defense. We participate in sport martial arts at the occasional tournament, but we really want our students to know and show the difference.

Sport sparring and street fighting are completely different cups of tea; actually, they’re maybe more like coffee and tea.

Sensei often tells us about a guy she knew back in her tournament training days. He was a great tournament fighter and won lots of competitions. He ended up in a street fight, and was so used to pulling his techniques that he lost the fight. Ultimately, he quit martial arts entirely.

So, yes, knowing the difference is clearly important. What is the difference between sport sparring and street fighting?

It’s all about the mentality you take into the fight. At a tournament, you are trying NOT to hurt your opponent. It’s more like a game of tag which requires really good control.

Whereas in street fighting, a real-life self-defense situation, you want to END the fight as quickly as possible with efficient, focused techniques. You don’t bow to an attacker after a street fight; you run.

In tournament sparring, kicking is required to be above the belt, and extra points are awarded for kicks to the head–but you can’t make hard contact to the head. In modern tournament sparring, if you hit and move the head, it is considered excessive contact. Some of the best targets for effective self-defense are on the head and face. In a street fight, you would also be well advised to aim all kicks below the belt, to targets on the legs that disable attackers.

I’m not here to say one type of fighting is better than the other. They both have a time and place, as well as a value. As long as you know and can show the difference, you’re in good shape as a martial artist.

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