What’s the secret to developing faster fighting reflexes?
Answer: SLOW SPARRING.
Time and time again, I am constantly asked to share what I think are THE MOST important drills for developing fighters and this is probably the one that I will stand by until I die.
Slow sparring does everything:
- Makes sparring fun for beginners
- Gives you faster faster reaction times
- Develops a higher variety of better counters
- Allows sparring partners to grow quickly
- Helps you develop and adapt different styles
- Allows you to spar intelligently for longer periods
- Makes you more a more creative fighter (“talent”)
WHAT?! Really? How? Are you serious? Do I really have to?
Does everyone need it? Perhaps. But from what I see…the ones arguing against it are the ones who need it most. And the ones who know what I’m talking about and respect its advantages are the ones who have evolved past the need for it.
Here’s why I love slow sparring so much…
WHAT is Slow Sparring?
How does Slow Sparring make you a better fighter?
It’s a legitimate question. I mean people wanna know WHY? Why spar in slow motion? Doesn’t that take aware from the realism? What are the benefits of sparring at a pace that doesn’t challenge you physically or mentally? What is the point of doing something so easy?
This here is one of the most common complaints I hear in beginners. That they can’t see the incoming punches. That they don’t feel fast enough or have fast enough reflexes to fight their more-skilled opponents. Or that their opponents move too much, slip too much, or throw too many punches. They feel like the fight is happening at a faster rate than their mind is capable of processing.
Look, reflexes are very much a matter of INPUT-OUTPUT. To have a reaction, you must first have an action. And to have an output, you must first have an input. The problem arises when you are not aware of the action because it is too fast for you to process (poor input). And then because you don’t notice the initial action, you fail to produce a reaction. Some people think poor reflexes are because of speed (not being fast enough) or memory drills (not knowing enough moves/counters—partly true) but all that really has very little to do with it. It’s really that you can’t react fast enough because you don’t see the cues, or that you don’t see the cues SOON enough.
Well guess what. Sparring at a slower rate allows you to get better at seeing movements. You can see all phases of every punch (not only the final moment when the arm is fully-extended…which is too late to evade by then). You get to see the load, the release, the extension, the impact. You can see it all…and comfortably so that later on at higher speeds, you will be more effective at evading them because you can pick up on the earlier cues of the punch.
REMEMBER: it’s not that you need to be faster,
it’s that you need a chance
to learn & see the right cues to react to.
What’s worse than not having reflexes?
Having panic reflexes.
This a serious problem that I see with many beginners. Because they never had the chance to develop FUNCTIONAL reflexes, such as proper evasive movements and counters, they start to make PANIC reflexes. This is where they instinctively make awkward evasive movements that may work in the meanwhile but later become long-term habits that leave them vulnerable to the more-skilled opponents. And it’s very important not to develop these panic reflexes early because it’s so much harder to train out later once they be come ingrained as habit.
Quite often, I’ll see a fighter (even non-beginners) react in a way that tells me, “Oh…he’s fighting blind. He can’t see the full movement.” And I know right away, he needs to be retrained to see the whole movement so that he has more options in choosing how to react rather than defaulting to the same maneuver every time.
Freestyle skill development
Another common complaint I hear with beginners is that it’s so hard to land jabs on an opponent. Or hard to land left hooks. Or hard to slip. Hard to do this and that. Or that when they try to work on something, they get punished for it and so they never try it again. And I totally get it. It’s hard to do anything when the sparring is way too fast for you. How are you ever going to get a chance to learn how to block punches, and throw counters, when you don’t have enough time to think things through?
Yes, there’s mittwork but that’s not realistic fighting. There’s also the option of just hastily throwing punches out faster. But that’s where you get the problem of developing panic reflexes or preset patterns without really thinking or seeing through the fight.
Again, the answer is simply to spar slower. This way you can choose what to work on. You can work on your right hands more. Or your left hands more. I remember beginners have such a hard time practicing left hooks to the body because their face was always open to the right hand counters when doing so. You could also work on your defensive movements, like more slipping, or whatever you want! Because the pace is slow and calm enough that you’re not punished for trying to learn.
Punishing a beginner for practicing a skill,
is the best way to ensure he never learns it.
This is another thing I have to address: to create a culture of allowing for mistakes. Too often, especially in a precision sport like fighting, we focus so much on the idea of ultimate perfection. We want perfection each and every time. And it comes at a cost. The moment you say that you want nothing less than perfection, you risk your fighters being no longer willing to take risks. They’ll only do the basic stuff, but they won’t try the harder stuff and the more special stuff any more. Some coaches may like the sound of this but I think this is how you destroy individual talent.
I think it’s important to strive for perfection…through the freedom of making mistakes. Fighters need to be given a chance to try things and make the mistakes (or as I like to say, the chance to develop an awareness). The moment a fighter gets punished every time he wants to work on a new move, the less and less he will attempt it and the less likely that skill will be developed any time soon. You’d think this is common sense but it isn’t. Many coaches think all punching and defensive techniques should be perfected on the bags and mitts and then and ONLY then are they allowed in sparring. But that is so unrealistic because everything falls apart under stress and when utilized against a live opponent. Besides…the most important aspects of any movement usually have more to do with the timing of the movement rather than the form of the movement (and it’s not possible to practice timing on a stationary or predictable target).
Slow sparring isn’t just for learning basic fighting skills. It’s the best time to develop live talent. Try and test new and innovative movements, really tricky stuff, to see and learn more intricate counters and evasion techniques.
Many of the best fighters I know, will also do not only a slower “thinking sparring” but they’ll also do like single-engagement spars. Where they keep things light, keep a distance, then come together to do a single exchange, then back up and come together again. It’s like point-sparring but one exchange at a time (rather than an all-out hit-&-run session). Simply testing tactics and counters against each other to see how the timing and everything syncs up. It’s beautiful.
Relaxed coordination — timing/rhythm development VS speed
I remember all the times my trainers told beginner fighters to “relax”. JUST RELAX! SLOW DOWN! BREATHE! Hahaha, it’s impossible. How can you relax when everything feels so fast? I never did relax until a long time after, I think I sparred hard for my entire first year of boxing.
Learning how to relax,
is not about using less energy,
it’s about being FUNCTIONAL while relaxed.
One of the most important things about learning how to relax is not so much about learning how to use less energy, but more so about learning how be FUNCTIONAL when relaxed. I think that last part is the key reason for slow sparring (relaxed sparring). At first, it feels silly sparring at 25% of your physical capacity. But then with more time and practice in that domain, you start to realize how fast, powerful, and evasive you can be even with only 25% effort. It’s because when you’re relaxed, you actually have more time to work on your coordination. Your whole body moves together all at once because you’re not in a rush to make a reaction. And you learn how to really move your body properly this way. You learn to breathe and settle into a nice rhythm. Later on when you spar at full speed, the rhythm only needs to be sped up. Whereas if you did it the opposite way, sparring at high speed first with no rhythm. Even when you slow down, you will see that you still have no rhythm.
Coordination has very much to do with timing and rhythm. Not only when and how to move your body, but also WHEN to throw a punch. WHEN to land a punch. WHEN to evade a punch. Too often when you fight at high speed, you never get to feel the rhythm of the fight. You think of fighting in terms of openings and closings. OH, THE FACE IS OPEN! OH, THE BODY IS OPEN! And the whole fight is nothing more than you constantly rushing to throw a punch before the opportunity goes away. It’s kind of like that whack-a-mole game where you bang on the animal heads with a hammer at random intervals.
But once you go slower, you start to notice the rhythm inside the ring. There’s an interval at which certain punches come out. You can FEEL the fighter in front of you breathing. You can feel when he’s going to move, when he’s going to punch, when he’s going to slip. You FEEL the rhythm of his left hooks. And once you can feel that, THEN you can really relax. You’re no longer in a panic rush to look for it, hide from it, counter it. It’s like your favorite song, you know when the beat is going to hit. And even if they speed up the song, still you will be able to sing along just fine because you know the song.
Mismatched Sparring Partners — increased sparring partner possibilities
Slow sparring also works as a practical cure for smaller gyms. What if you only have a heavyweight and a lightweight? A super long arm guy and a shorter guy? A big guy and a tiny guy? A skilled guy and a beginner? It doesn’t matter. With slow sparring, you can now fit together fighters with any disparity in size, weight, height, reach, skill, style, etc.
From a practical standpoint, it solves the problem of always having to find evenly match sparring partners. From a strategic standpoint, it allows fighters to spar with more different opponents. I think the latter point is extremely advantageous. Maybe your heavyweight really needs to work with a southpaw and the only southpaw in the gym is a lightweight——NO PROBLEM. Or maybe you want your heavyweight to be able to work with a faster guy who happens to be much smaller. Or maybe you have a beginner and want him to get in with a pro so he can pick up on more natural movements and a more natural fighting rhythm. There are so many more skill development or style development possibilities when you make it possible for fighters to have more possible opponents.
Longer Skill Training Periods
It’s a no-brainer that if you spar at slow speed, you will last longer. I think this is especially important for beginners. Beginners need to be immersed in realistic skill development as much as possible (exponential improvement after every spar) and at the same time they are the most susceptible to physical exhaustion (because they haven’t yet learned how to relax).
Instead of exhausting yourself within 3 wild messy brawling rounds, you can now easily go for 30 minutes straight or even much longer. Imagine how many more skills and things you can practice with that increase in sparring time. Imagine how many more little angles and nuances you can pick up in the game when you simply spend more time with a live opponent in front of you.
It got to a point where instead of mindlessly shadowboxing for 30 minutes as a warm up, I would slow spar for 30 minutes as a warm-up. I felt it to be much more effective use of my time. It forces me to really pay attention and really notice what’s in front of me. The ability to see reality, to see what is real. Rather than to fight a made-up opponent in my head. The more time you get to spar, the more time you get to spend with reality. SIDE NOTE: I remember one gym would always have their kids pair up when shadowboxing and to shadowbox while moving around each other. So it was kind of like a mock sparring warm-up except only they had distance between them so nobody actually got hit. It was a great idea.
I think it’s a crime that beginners spend so much time fabricating an unrealistic opponent in their head as they pound away on the bags and mitts, but then spend less than 10 minutes with a live human being in front of them. And for most of that 10 minutes, they are panicking, blinking, reacting instinctively, and losing because they are reacting with the habits they’ve built from fighting their imaginary opponent (on the bags) rather than reacting with the habits built from fighting real opponents (in the ring).
Won’t slow sparring HURT your skill development?
I’ve heard many arguments against slow sparring. To me, they sound like excuses from people who’ve never done it or have never seen it utilized properly. It’s easy to knock on a method when you’ve never done it before. Here are my replies below.
“Slow sparring is not sparring.”
- Correct. Slow sparring is not the same as high speed sparring. It’s not the same as a real fight, it’s not as mentally and physically exhausting like a real fight. But nonetheless, slow sparring still remains an incredibly useful training method for developing fighters EVEN THOUGH it is a step further away from a realistic fight simulation.
“You can’t get good if you never train yourself to fight at a realistic speed.”
- Slow sparring is not meant to replace full-speed high intensity sparring. It is meant to properly develop you to that point. It’s kind of the same as with any skill. You work your way up to things by practicing at a slower speed and lower intensity. For some reason, it’s common to have beginners practice punches slowly in front of a mirror but not as common for them to practice fighting at a slow speed.
- It’s also not as common for a higher level fighter to ever go back to slow speed once he is considered no longer a beginner. For some reason, it’s like once a fighter reaches a certain level, it’s assumed that he can no longer benefit from a slow sparring session.
“You can’t develop your toughness if you spar at a slow speed.”
- Just as slow sparring doesn’t make you tough, I would say fast sparring doesn’t make you tough either. Fast sparring just makes you prove it. Better yet, if you want to argue that slow sparring doesn’t make you tough, then I will say that fast sparring doesn’t make you competent. I don’t see how sparring at a faster rate than you can handle will help you to see or fix your mistakes. I don’t see how high intensity sparring will add skills to a developing fighter other than a few basic fight-or-flight reactions.
- Just because you’re tougher doesn’t mean you’re better or more skilled. In a sport that is already inherently tough, I think we can do better to focus on the skill development aspects and the toughness will come easily and naturally. Being tough is the fun part…it’s what we’re all here in boxing to be.
“Slow sparring is not challenging, too easy for me.”
- I find this comment funny because it shows how backwards we think. Typically when someone approaches a new skill, it’s common that you can execute a lower-level skill at high speed and a higher-level skill only at low speed. So if you’re telling me that practicing at slow speeds are not challenging, it tells me right away that you don’t have any high-level skills to work on. And I’m guessing the reason why you don’t have any or haven’t thought of any is because you’ve only predominantly been working in an environment that has only allowed you to be comfortable practicing lower-level skills.
- My suggestion? Stick with the slow sparring and see what more intricate maneuvers you can come up with. Find those new little tweaks and tiny angle adjustments that make all the difference. Really take the time and get creative, watch others, learn. And then try it. Little by little, you should notice a whole new world of possibilities and you will enjoy the chance to refine them in slow sparring so that you can one day unload them in full intensity sparring. It only makes sense that the toughest and hardest skills will need to be practiced at slower speeds at first.
- I can understand if you say slow sparring is not physically challenging, but mentally it doesn’t make sense. There are tons of available moves and maneuvers out there. Surely, you haven’t mastered all of them yet. Try mimicking your favorite pros at slow speed and see if you can even get away with that. And I don’t mean mimicking only the flashy stuff but also the non-flashy stuff.
“Slow sparring is annoying.”
- I have a feeling that the people who say this are the ones who actually lose in their slow sparring matches. And it’s actually common. You’ve got these aggressive brawlers that love to just go all out when the bell rings and beat up on their less aggressive, more defensive opponents. But force them both to slow down and it’s like somebody flipped the script. Now the shy thinking guy is the one landing all the shots and Mr. brawler has a harder time landing any punches, let alone defending himself.
- All I have to say to you is this: If you’re losing the slow sparring battle, there is a good chance you have some major technical or strategic deficiencies in your game that will eventually be exploited when run into somebody with your same aggression/confidence but superior skills.
How to practice Slow Sparring
Everybody has their take on how to do slow sparring correctly. These here are my own personal principles that I think produce the best results in the shortest time.
1. ZERO PAIN – establish “light” hitting
Right off the bat, I will have both fighters touch each other in the face. First they release a light touching punch directly to the other fighter’s forehead. And then on the nose. And then on the body/stomach/etc. It’s that simple, they stand there and very quickly establish to each other how light and pain-free a “touch” is. It establishes that both will agree to do nothing more than “touch” each other and that no harm will come. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT to relax beginners.
The moment one fighter feels that the other fighter has been touched even slightly harder than desired, he must become sensitive of that and lighten up. It’s important to verbally communicate with each other…”thanks, that’s light enough”. It’s also important for both to make it SLOW as well. A light punch thrown at medium speed can still be scary for newer fighters.
Ok, now that both fighters have established the “touching” force, we move on to sparring…
2. SLOW DOWN – both fighters must relax
How slow do you have to move? Slow enough that both fighters are totally relaxed. This might seem frustrating at first since one fighter is always likely to perform better than the other. It is always the job of the better-performing fighter to slow down rather than for the lesser fighter to speed up. THIS UNDERSTANDING IS KEY to maintaining a safe environment of slow sparring.
It is the BETTER fighter’s job to slow down,
rather than the LESSER fighter’s job to speed up.
No getting tired
An easy way to know if fighters are not relaxed is if they’re getting tired. In theory (and also in practice), slow sparring should allow both fighters to spar for hours, if not longer…even without rest. If any fighter is getting tired, they are not going slow and relaxed enough. Again, SLOW DOWN!
No sudden movements
NO flinching, no panicking, or other sudden movements done. If any fighter is closing his eyes or suddenly flailing his arms or pulling his head or body away to avoid punches, then we know the pace is too fast. Again…just slow down. Slow down to super slow-motion granny pace if you have to! SLOW IT DOWN!
If one fighter finds himself constantly ahead and winning in the sense that he’s landing far more punches or being far more successfully evasive than his opponent, it’s his job to keep slowing down until the fight evens up.
3. CONSTANT SMOOTH MOVEMENT – no sudden reactions
One of the best ways to build rhythm and timing, as well as also to prevent fighters from making sudden movements, is to enforce a rule of CONSTANT MOVEMENT. This means that both fighters must always be doing something. Always throwing punches, always moving, always engaging.
I prefer to have them stay in range with each other and to literally keep throwing punches every second of the whole slow-sparring match. (Later on when they are more comfortable with each other, they can have more lull periods to set things up mentally.) The problem with beginning fighters getting out of range or not throwing punches the whole time is that it very quickly becomes a game of fast touch. Because both fighters naturally do not want to be the guy to get hit first and so they will naturally start to react and punch a little faster, which in turn starts to speed up the sparring pace.
Much easier to maintain a slow sparring rhythm,
when both fighters are throwing non-stop punches.
So with the constant movement rule. Both fighters stay in range, keep throwing slow motion punches, and making slow motion defensive moves, and that slow rhythm is much easier to maintain when both fighters are constantly moving. It’s when they constantly stop-and-restart or break and re-engage that the pace starts to pick up.
Also when you have fighters that are constantly engaged with each other, they build their combination fighting skills much faster this way. The problem with beginners is that they typically fight one punch at a time. They’re afraid to get hurt and they don’t have the reflexes to handle staying in range comfortably for long periods of time. And so if you start beginners out sparring at a fast pace, they never evolve beyond the first one or two punches in an exchange.
But with slow sparring, they learn how to respond after the jab war, after the right hand, after the left hook. They’re used to staying engaged with opponents for 3, 4, 5 or more punches at a time. This is especially important for building confidence and comfort with fighting.
And if needed, any fighter or coach can just yell, “SLOW DOWN” when things get out of hand.
4. NO WINNING MENTALITY – working WITH rather than against
Establishing the goal of PRACTICING rather than winning will do much to alleviate all the pressure from both fighters. Fighters will naturally relax, slow down, and “practice” when they understand it’s no longer about winning. The “winning mentality” is the pressure that causes beginners to fight beyond their comfortable pace and lose control of themselves physically and mentally. Below are some ways to help fighters learn how to work WITH each other rather than AGAINST each other.
Fighters need to learn
how to work WITH each other
rather than AGAINST each other.
One of the biggest causes of a sparring match speeding up out of control is when one fighter has a problem hitting the other one. Naturally, he will start to throw punches faster and in return the other fighter will evade and counter at a faster pace. Before you know, it’s no longer “slow sparring” and both will claim it was the other one who sped up first.
I can think of no better way of keeping a sparring match slow than to encourage fighters to take punches. (These are supposed to be soft touching punches, remember?!)
The two most important times to take a punch is the “first punch of the exchange” and the “clean shots”. The first punch of the exchange is what I call the first punch a fighter throws when he comes into range. If you take that punch calmly and in a relaxed manner, it will establish an atmosphere of friendly exchange. But what if you did the reverse? Let’s say you made all this effort to AVOID the first punch, guess what now, we have no exchange and the other fighter will have to work harder to initiate and exchange with you. It’s really important that both fighters learn to walk into exchanges. (It also helps to teach them to put their ego down and not feel like a loser for taking shots.)
The “clean shots” are what I refer to when one fighter has thrown a clean scoring shot or tricky potshot. If the other fighter stays calm and takes it, it helps to maintain a friendly sparring attitude. But if the other fighter instead jerks or pulls himself quickly out of the way to avoid getting touched, this now forces the other fighter to pick up his speed. It’s really important that fighters be honest about giving shots away. If you know the other guy has “HIT” you, in a sense that he was able to surprise you or catch you off guard even if only for a moment, just let him score the point.
Practice different combinations and situations
One of the best ways to keep the sparring light and fun is to keep trying new things. Instead of always throwing a 1-2, how about leading with a right cross or even a hook. Or walk in and throw 3-4 uppercuts in a row. Or how about some fun head movement and then a punch. Or how about one fighter sits on the ropes or in the corner for an extended amount of time?
Encourage fighters to keep mixing things up and trying new angles to punch and move from. Keep playing around and use your creativity to play with whatever comes to mind. Likewise, fighters should also be encouraged to practice different responses. Instead of always defending a punch the same way, they should always be finding new ways to slip, or block, or pivot around it, explore new countering tactics, etc. Fighters will naturally move slower when they try new things. It’s when you force fighters to stick with the same jab and 1-2 over and over that they naturally speed up because they stop trying to feel the fight and instead only rely on automatic memorized patterns.
Repeat problem scenarios
You may notice that even when sparring at slow speed, one fighter can will clearly hold an advantage over the other in a certain fighting sequence or scenario. For example: one fighter keeps hitting the other one with a right cross counter to the head. I think the best thing to do in this case to have the “advantaged fighter” repeat that scoring movement over and over (perhaps even slower) to give his opponent a chance to develop a functional response to that movement.
It’s a great idea, really. Any time that I notice a chink in my opponent’s armor, I keep repeating that move over and over (like a broken record) until he finds an answer to it. And this really helps to evolve the fighting capacities of both fighters and builds confidence quickly. Both of you work to find each other’s mistakes and then FIX THEM together. It won’t be long before both of you develop a strong chemistry and learn how to rally 20-punch exchanges because both of you know how to react to each other’s movements.
5. VERBAL COMMUNICATION – from fighters
Fighters need to learn how to communicate their feelings and ask each other to slow down or lighten up. This right here is probably the hardest thing to teach a male in our overly competitive hyper-masculinized society. No dude is ever going to want to ask another guy to “please slow down” in fear of being weak. It’s a very unfortunate thing and the number one cause for why many fighters quit boxing.
Guys have no problem saying, “I’m tired today, don’t feel like going to the gym.” or “I’m sleepy, don’t feel like going to work early.” or “My arms are sore from working out, don’t want to move furniture today.” But put a guy in the ring against another guy and you can bet you’ll almost never hear, “Hey, can you please hit me softer. I’m not yet trained or strong enough to take even your lightest punches.”
Yes, it’s a straight-up machismo problem. And guys would rather quit than to admit that they need help. Combine this fact with the reality that boxing is one of the toughest sports in the world and it’s no surprise that our great art is no longer as popular as it once was.
Well, I’m hoping we can teach boys how to be like real men. Not the crap you see in movies or tough-guy memes on the internet or that false unhealthy image of men portrayed in the media and pop culture. Real men are not perfect all the time, are not above the benefits of needing support and assistance from others. Real men are not shy about communicating their true feelings to others. Real men are not afraid to put their egos in check, humble themselves, so they can ultimately better themselves in the end.
Having the courage to spar hard because you don’t have the courage to ask your opponent to slow down is not real courage. The unrealistic standards that others hold for you are nowhere near as toxic as the unrealistic standards you hold for yourself.
Slow sparring — “The Magic Cure”
Slow sparring, for me, really is the magic cure for many skill development problems that I see in many fighters. I feel that 99% of all the beginner complaints about the difficulties in learning how to box can be easily solved if they would just dedicate themselves to slow sparring for at least a month or however long it takes until they feel absolutely comfortable. In truth, I feel fighters should keep slow sparring as an important aspect of their training for their entire career.
Fighters should make slow sparring
an indispensable aspect of their boxing training
for their entire career.
There is nothing weak about taking the time to develop your skills. You have the rest of your life to prove how manly you are to everyone else. Why not take some time to develop yourself before going out there and battling it out with everyone else? How does it make you more manly to try and fight at a higher intensity with a guy who has years of experience over you? That’s like insisting that it’s more manly for you to jump off the highest ramp the first time you ride a motorcycle. It’s silly egotistical logic and really, just stupid. Real men are smart, mature, take care of themselves and know when to do things at the right time.
The beauty of slow sparring
The most beautiful thing I’ve ever witnessed when seeing fighters develop is how quickly their “slow sparring” evolves when they learn how to work with each other. I start to notice a NATURAL reflex increase in them. They both start to move faster not because they are getting faster (speed increase) but because they can both see the fight at a faster pace (reflex increase). It’s like when someone asks you a hard question and you can’t help but see the answer right away, and you no longer have to figure out the answer.
Before you know it, both fighters are actually sparring at FULL SPEED but to them, it’s slow and relaxed. That’s when you see two fighters where their “half-speed” is faster and more intelligently reactive than even other fighters at “full-speed”. And that’s when I know I’ve done my job in creating truly capable and reactive fighters with trained reflexes. And there’s no better feeling than seeing that I’ve created truly functional boxers who can fight intelligently at full speed.
Slow sparring truly does increase
your FIGHTING REFLEXES.